REDSTONE ARSENAL, Ala. -- Every even-numbered year since 2000, Heidi Weber Collier has organized a family reunion in Huntsville.
But the reunion hasn't been for her ancestral family. Rather, it's been for the families of the German rocket scientists and engineers who adopted each other during the moves, first, from Germany to the U.S., and, second, from Fort Bliss, Texas, and White Sands Proving Ground, N.M., to Redstone Arsenal and Huntsville.
Their move to the Arsenal happened 60 years ago. And given that this is an even year, another reunion has been set for Saturday at the U.S. Space & Rocket Center's Educator Facility. The reunion also coincides with the 50th anniversary of the exchange of that same German rocket team, and their growing team of U.S. scientists and engineers from the Army at Redstone Arsenal, to NASA's Marshall Space Flight Center.
"I didn't want this anniversary to pass without being noticed," Collier said. "It's rewarding for me that they like to come together. It's a family reunion for them."
On July 3, the public is invited to join the German rocket team and its families for the unveiling of the Wernher von Braun Team Bricks at the Apollo Courtyard at 5 p.m. Other events of the day, including videos focusing on the 60-year anniversary of the German rocket team and a panel discussion led by moderator Ed Buckbee on "Wernher von Braun the Rocket Man," are by invitation only.
"There were about 120 team members and their families who moved to Huntsville and Redstone Arsenal, starting in March and April and going through the fall of 1950. My family arrived in August. I was born in El Paso, Texas, before we moved," said Collier, who today works for the Civilian Human Resources Agency, South Central Region.
Collier, the daughter of German engineer Fritz Weber, said the German families, many of whom eventually settled in the Monte Sano, Five Points or Blossomwood areas of Huntsville, have remained close knit since those initial years at Fort Bliss and White Sands.
"All the kids grew up together. We were pretty much family for each other," she said. "There were no grandparents here, no extended family here.
"Our fathers were working most of the time. All their work was top secret and we were all kids so we didn't pay much attention anyway. We knew they were working on rockets and things that were related to space. But they shared nothing with their wives or their families."
The children grew up and went their separate ways. About 12 years ago, Collier returned to Huntsville and rediscovered the community of German families that still claimed her as one of their own.
"I realized I had a connection to this group. We started visiting and sending e-mails to each other. I reconnected with them on behalf of my parents, who I represent," Collier said. "Being part of this group is a joy to me. They are all such dear people."
Collier's connection to the group grew stronger. So, too, did her realization that the original German rocket team and their families, who were growing smaller in numbers as members died, needed to have an occasion to come together and reminisce about their early years in Huntsville. She coordinated the first reunion of the German rocket team, held in 2000.
"Now, we do these reunions every two years, and we get a different bunch of engineers every time," she said. "Some of our biggest supporters are the American engineers who worked with our parents."
Today, of the original group, only seven are still alive - Hans Fichtner, Dieter Grau, Dr. Walter Haeussermann, Oscar Holderer, Rudi Schlidt, Fred Speer and Dr. Georg von Tiesenhausen. Six live in Huntsville. Twenty-five widows remain. In addition, Heinz Hilten, a German architect who designed rocket launch pads for the rocket team, is still living at 101 years old.
In the late 1940s, Operation Paperclip brought 300 to 500 German scientists and engineers to the U.S. Of those, 125 were members of von Braun's German rocket team.
"The Russians got all the managers. We got all the workers. They called themselves specialists. That's what von Braun wanted. He was looking for specialists in metals and propulsion," Collier said.
One of those engineers was Dieter Grau, now 97, who worked in quality control at White Sands. He arrived in 1946 and his wife in 1947. His son was born in Texas in 1949 before the family moved to Huntsville in 1950.
"We were brought over by the Army," Grau said, adding that von Braun worked closely with then Col. Holger Toftoy to develop the kind of team he wanted in the U.S.
It was at Fort Bliss that the ties among the German families began to solidify. Collier has a picture showing her as a baby among several other German babies following their baptism at Fort Bliss. The Germans also worked together to create their own health insurance program and to take care of each other's families.
But Texas wasn't all that the Germans dreamed about. They were kept much like prisoners, watched closely by the military, living in barracks and isolated from the world behind fences. The worst part was a lack of activity due to a general lack of direction by the nation in regards to the mission of the German rocket team.
"Some chose to go to industry at the time," Collier said. "They were bored. Even von Braun considered going to industry. Lt. Col. (William) Winterstein convinced him to wait. He told von Braun that there was something coming."
Grau added: "von Braun thought about going back to Germany. He was completely frustrated. He submitted one project after another to Washington (D.C.) and got no answer. No one dealt with the stuff he was working with. He was ready to dismiss the group to find jobs. But Col. Winterstein persuaded him to stay and said his time would come."
While von Braun and his team waited at Fort Bliss, Grau and other German engineers stayed relatively busy at White Sands, where they assembled V-2 rockets from parts shipped with them from Germany, and then launched them in demonstrations for U.S. scientists. A total of 67 V-2s were launched at White Sands.
"One of my main jobs at that time was to get information to the scientists and see what kind of projects they would like to have and then, of course, we had to accommodate them," Grau recalled. "Even though we were busy, we were more used to much overtime. But that was not the case (at White Sands). There we had a normal workday."
Things changed with their arrival in Huntsville. In many ways the Germans felt like they were coming home. Gone were the dry, desert conditions of Fort Bliss and White Sands, replaced with a green, mountainous agricultural area reminiscent of Germany.
"Coming to Huntsville was our coming back to the green country," Grau said. "We were used to green country and out there at Fort Bliss and White Sands there was just desert. We liked this so much better. This was more the landscape we were used to. For us, it was kind of a relief to come to the green country."
Their arrival was welcomed by local residents, who saw the Germans as an opportunity to once again fill the buildings on Redstone Arsenal with activity that provided good paying jobs.
"Huntsville was an area which was hungry for the military efforts here," Grau said. "There were munitions plants here that were empty and lots of workers."
Gone were the fences and the military surveillance. The German families were free to choose where they wanted to live and to become U.S. citizens in every respect.
Bringing the German rocket team to Huntsville "was a turning point, taking Huntsville from more of an agrarian culture to being the Rocket City. That was the starting point," Collier said.
It was indeed a turning point for the team as they were given a mandate to develop U.S. rockets for military use and space exploration. In Huntsville, they were busy taking the best of the V-2 and building America's Redstone Rocket.
"The new rocket had to go somewhat further. It had to be bigger and it had to be made with American parts," Grau said. "Industry came in and worked with us to build and develop new stuff. The engine had to be redesigned. It had to be bigger. At that time, industry came really onboard."
And they began hiring American scientists and engineers, many young men straight out of college who "were excited to work with rockets," he said.
"One fellow from Chattanooga said someone told him Huntsville had jobs. He came here. He was interviewed at 9 in the morning. By 12 he had a job. At 3, he made a down payment on a house. And, at 5, he told his girlfriend 'Now we can get married.'"
Things were good for the German rocket team as they focused on the mission and grew U.S. rocket technology. But soon it was evident that the U.S. rocket program was becoming a political pawn.
"There was competition between the Army and the Air Force. The Army was limited in the range of its rockets. But von Braun wanted to go to space and the stars. That was his dream," Grau said. "In the late '50s, NASA was established with no limitation. It wouldn't be influenced by the Army. It wouldn't be influenced by the Air Force. It was established for long distance space. It was a good solution for us."
But, at first, von Braun turned down the idea of transferring the German rocket team to NASA. There was a sense of loyalty that he felt to the Army and to people like Maj. Gen. Toftoy, deputy commander of the Army Ordnance Missile Command; Maj. Gen. John Medaris, commander of the Army Ballistic Missile Agency; and Maj. James Hamill, Toftoy's aide; that delayed the move to NASA's Marshall Space Flight Center.
"General Medaris put in a lot of effort to accommodate us. In my opinion, von Braun wanted to be nice to General Medaris and not take the first opportunity to jump on board with NASA," Grau said.
"But, in a few months, he agreed that NASA would give the freedom to develop ideas about space. He saw the future with NASA. The Army would always be limited somehow. Men like General Medaris helped us a lot, but he was a general. At NASA, what we wanted to do was more understood and supported, and provided a completely different atmosphere for us to work in."
And the rest is space history.
"We had wonderful experiences going into space. We had wonderful cooperation to accomplish something never done before," Grau said. "See how well it all worked out' We had no idea how things would work out. We took a tremendous risk to come here. We never thought we would be able to stay so long. I have real good fortune that I have had a fulfilled life and I remember so much. The bad thing is getting old."
Added Collier: "They were so grateful for the opportunities they were given."