Building rockets for Hitler, US. Justice officials take second look at war record of some missile scientists

Dwarfing the other rockets here at the Alabama Space and Rocket Center is a full-scale replica of the Saturn V rocket that blasted the crew of Apollo 11 to man's first landing on the moon. It was developed here as part of the work of 118 German scientists brought to the United States just after World War II, led by the late Wernher von Braun. The scientists, who had been making rockets for Adolph Hitler, were brought to the US to help the military build its own missile program.

Some 40 years after the German rocket scientists began arriving in the US, the Justice Department has been reexamining their wartime activities and ties to Hitler's Nazi regime.

Some of the German scientists were Nazi party members; a smaller number worked with slave labor to build rockets. The scientists' admission of these facts to US interrogators after the war is a matter of record. But they were cleared for admission to the US, worked here, and were allowed to become US citizens.

Some Justice Department officials claim the earlier investigations were not thorough enough. Some of the scientists may have committed war crimes and may be subject to deportation, these officials say. Many of the slave laborers used to build the German missiles died as a result of the harsh conditions under which they worked.

Critics of the investigation say it is too late to be second-guessing earlier records and investigations. The scientists have served this country well; it is not fair to deport them now, the critics say.

Two German scientists are under investigation, according to another German scientist here. A third, Arthur Rudolph, returned to West Germany last year and renounced his US citizenship in a deal made with the Justice Department, says Neal Sher, director of the department's Office of Special Investigations (OSI). Congress established the OSI in 1979 following complaints by some members of Congress that the government was not vigorously pursuing former ardent German Nazis living in the US. OSI funding h as remained at about $2.5 million a year and staffing at around 50. The probe into the background of the German scientists is just one small part of the OSI investigations.

``It's far more than unfair,'' says retired Army Maj. Gen. John Bruce Medaris, of the investigation into the rocket scientists. ``It's a travesty of American justice.''

``They made it possible for us to stay ahead'' of the Soviets in rocketry, says Major General Medaris, who supervised the Germans here at Huntsville.

``If somebody didn't like it [their wartime activities in Germany], they should have spoken up 40 years ago,'' says Konrad Dannenberg, one of the German scientists at Huntsville not under investigation.

In Atlanta, West German consul Wolfgang Drautz offered his personal opinion that he is ``convinced if they [the OSI] had enough information they would have [gone to trial against Rudolph]. ``Why didn't they follow up this case in 1948 when it was easier [to get information],'' he asks?

Rabbi Marvin Hier, dean of the Simon Wiesenthal Center, which investigates cases of alleged former ardent Nazis in the US, welcomes the current OSI probe. ``It's been much too long in coming,'' he says.

As for reevaluating records of former Nazis in the US, ``I would like them all to be reevaluated,'' he says. ``In too many cases,'' he says, earlier evaluations ``were motivated by politics.''

Regarding the German scientists, Rabbi Hier says: ``It's true, the US made use of their creative knowledge.'' But, he adds, ``it is absolutely fair'' to go back now to reexamine their records.

Some researchers point to a change in security-risk evaluations by US officials on Werhner von Braun and other German scientists. The first evaluations labeled them security risks; the second did not, allowing them to come, stay, and work in the US. They received top-level military clearances to work on US missiles.

The change in evaluations was a ``whitewash,'' says one congressional staff member familiar with the OSI's work. But he adds, ``I don't think it seems fair'' to force some of them out of the country after their contributions to the rocket program.

National archivist Robert Wolfe, who is chief of the branch holding war-crimes and other World War II records, offers his personal view on why some of the evaluations were softened.

``What we called a dangerous Nazi was far different than six months later [after the war] when things began to settle down.'' The US realized it was Communists, not Nazis who were becoming the No. 1 enemy to this country, he says. And it was realized that ``these people [the German scientists] would be of use to us.'' Also, says Mr. Wolfe, more details became available that enabled US officials to differentiate between ardent Nazis guilty of war crimes and those Nazis not guilty of such crimes.

Frederick I. Ordway III, co-author of ``The Rocket Team,'' a book about the German scientists, says the current investigators in the OSI are revisionists: ``This is always the problem when you're doing historical work. You try to impress a 1985 set of values on past events.'' The US first welcomed them; now some officials are having second thoughts, he says, adding, ``I don't think it's fair'' to pursue them now. If errors were made in letting them into the US, the problem is ``our problem as a nation,' ' not the problem of the individuals, he says.

The German scientists interviewed here contend they would have been made prisoners themselves if they refused to use slave labor in their work, one of the key charges made against Rudolph. But such excuses are not acceptable, says Rabbi Hier: ``Free moral people are not permitted that luxury.'' Regarding his center's own extensive files on Nazis in the US he said: ``I do not have information for it [the OSI case against the German rocket scientists] or against it.'' Next: Details of the Rudolph case.

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