Section Ten of Ten
Gone to America
When I stepped onto the gangway to board the SS Olympia, I felt the
enormity of my action. It felt a little like my first ride on the East-West
train without a ticket and pass. Here I had a ticket, here I had a pass,
and still the feeling was strange. What was in front of me? It was a deliberate act, my leaving Germany.
If I had at least a reasonable knowledge of the English language, it
would equalize what was missing in this equation. Writing to Aunt Marie
in Brooklyn was always in German. Therefore, why did I need to know English? I knew some basic words, but that was all. Besides, when you live in a foreign country, learning the language is a breeze. What is there to worry about?
The ocean crossing was uneventful except when the ship pulled into Liverpool Harbor for pickup of more passengers. We ran aground on a sandbank causing some minor damage to the ship. A few days in dry-dock for repairs put us ship-shape again, and we set off for North America.
On the evening of December 30, 1953, I saw land. We docked in Halifax,
Canada, for a few hours. We departed with the tide, and by daylight, we
saw the Statue of Liberty. By 11 a.m., we had docked at Pier 19 in New
York City. Immigration stamped my visa before disembarking. With my suitcase in hand, I walked down the ramp and stepped onto U.S. soil.
Immigration instructed us to proceed to a hall with large letters hanging
from the rafters. Anyone expecting someone should wait under the letter
of his or her last name. I waited under "S." Aunt Marie had indicated
that someone would pick me up. They would wait to hear that the Olympia
had docked, and then meet me. I waited until 12:30 p.m. Then I thought
I better do something. I saw a telephone booth. I opened one phone book
but could not find the auntís name. I looked at the other phone books and
then I saw the titles of the books. I opened the Brooklyn book and found
her number. What I saw for her number was, "Popular xxx-xxxx."
So I dialed, P,O,P,U,L,A,R and the number. I had deposited a dime and when
I did not get a connection, I hung up. But the dime did not return. What's
wrong with America? I studied the numbers again. Only the first two letters
were in upper case. So I deposited a dime again and dialed PO and the number.
I got an answer. They were surprised that I had arrived five hours early.
I offered to take the subway and find them. They went ballistic. No, they
shouted, do not move. We will pick you up. When I hung up, my dime dropped
into the coin return. I forgave the machine.
A young lady named Gerda, a niece of Aunt Marie, picked me up at the
port. I was the last one sitting under the letter "S." She hailed
a taxi and we went to Halsey Street in Brooklyn.
I met Aunt Marie. She asked me to call her "Aunt Marie." She
introduced me to some friends and relatives of hers. They all spoke German.
Since it was New Year's Eve, a celebration followed.
Aunt Marie had arranged for me to stay with a German-speaking family,
owners of a mom-and-pop grocery store. They provided room and board for
$20 per week. That sounded familiar. Remember Aunt Netta in West Germany
after my release from the POW camp? She too had found me a place to live
and found me a job. Here it differed, in that Aunt Marie was my sponsor
and responsible for me to the extent that I would not become a burden on
Aunt Marie also had work lined up for me. The company's name was Rotiss-o-mat
and made rotisseries. They wanted to develop the little electric motors
used to turn the rod that held the meat. They needed some engineering help.
So they hired me as a draftsman. My pay was $2 per hour for a 44-hour workweek.
I also had to join a union.
The foreman of the shop spoke German and all communication went through
him. The foreman, a Russian immigrant, had lived many years in Germany.
He took me under his wings. I noticed how he answered the telephone: "Mr.
I commuted to and from work by subway. The subway in Berlin belonged
only to one system. I found out the New York subway system consisted of
several different lines. It took me a while to decipher the map, showing
the different lines in various colors. Although I had seen N.Y. subways
in American movies, using turnstiles activated by dropping a coin into
a slot was new to me. It required one dime.
Aunt Marie introduced me to one of her friends, Frank. He was a member
of a German men's choir and invited me to one of their sessions. I always
loved to sing and I enjoyed the fraternal atmosphere. The choir leader
designated me as first tenor. At our second meeting, Frank asked me over
to meet his family. He had a lovely wife and an 8-year-old son. At home,
they spoke in German, and outside their son spoke English.
Frank suggested that I buy a car. "A car?" "You are kidding,
aren't you?" But he made it clear that I really needed one. He promised
he would look around for a car for me. The following weekend, he called,
then showed me a dark green 1940 Dodge. He said, "For $40 the car
is yours." I had saved $100 and I could afford it. Then he put a little
damper on it by telling me that the car needed a new engine. He had found
a 1941 engine and claimed it would fit the car. The engine had a price
tag of $40, installed. By installed he meant that he would do the installing
with my help.
The engine was available at the junkyard. We made a date, and drove
both cars, his and mine, to the junkyard. We pulled my car under the junk
dealer's crane. Frank then disconnected everything from the engine and
the crane pulled it out. The crane then lowered the used engine into the
car. Before Frank connected the engine, the junk dealer asked if we could
move the car forward, just enough to allow someone else to pull under the
crane. Frank agreed and asked me to sit behind the wheel while he pushed
my car forward with his car. Once we cleared the crane, he stopped. But
my car did not stop. It continued down the slight grade. Soon the grade
became steeper and changed into a real downhill slope. I frantically stepped
on the brake peddle. But the peddle would not budge. I did not dare look
down to see what prevented it from moving. All I could shout was, "No
While the car was moving relatively slowly, I considered steering it into a telephone pole. But by the time I really thought about it,
I had passed the pole. Then I considered jumping out and letting the car
go. I abandoned this idea quickly. I had to steer and hope for the best.
By now I was traveling about 40 mph and increasing speed. About 100 yards
down the hill was a traffic light, and it was red. I saw a car crossing
the intersection. Then I saw a bus enter the intersection. I was heading
straight for it. I don't know if the bus driver saw me and accelerated,
or if he had just pulled away from a stop. Regardless, the bus moved and
gave me just enough room to zip behind it. Luckily, there was no other
traffic. Then I saw a railroad crossing ahead. And, as if on cue, the gate
lowered. The street leveled off a bit and the car slowed. It was still
doing at least at 35 mph. Frank, in the meantime, was following me in his
car. I saw him pass me, pull in front, and somehow ingeniously adjust his
speed so our bumpers hit gently. We stopped about 40 feet from the railroad-crossing.
Frank inspected my car. He found that a disconnected accelerator linkage
had wedged itself under the brake pedal. Frank continued the engine installation
on the side of the road. He finished it all within an hour. The following
week, I passed my driving test and received my New York driverís license.
Homesick for Germany
My work as draftsman got increasingly complicated. One of the vice-presidents
wanted me to design a small electric motor with high power. He suggested
that I gear it down to increase the torque. I could not make it clear to
him that if the speed increases the torque will reduce and the gears would
only result in power loss. Since he could not speak German and I could
not speak English, and the German-speaking foreman was not available, our
conversation must have been very comical. I found out the next day that
he did understand what I said in my broken English and had given up on
After three months with the company, I decided to ask for a raise, since
I was now working as a design engineer and not as a draftsman. The foreman
helped me with the English words to ask the boss. Entering his office,
I asked him for a raise. He looked at me as if he was thinking. Then he
grinned and said, "Let me think about it." I then received a
15-cent per hour raise.
I am not sure how I can describe my feelings as a new immigrant. Five
months had passed since I stepped off the boat. A question in my head began
to move about. What am I doing in the US of A? What is my future here?
I wanted to find a job with a larger company, like Otis Elevator Company.
However, who was I kidding? I still could not communicate in English. I
had a girlfriend but she spoke only German. The family I lived with and
my friends all spoke German. At my workplace, I did not have to speak in
English. I was in a rut and only I could do something about it.
I was getting homesick. If I had the money, I would have packed up and
returned to Germany. I clearly was down and depressed. But I did not have
someone I felt I could talk to about it. Frank might have been a good listener
but it really was my problem and I had to handle it.
Then an incident at a store gave me the push for action. I needed a
small mirror and went into a Woolworth's store. After looking around for
a while, I asked a sales lady. When I said the words, "I need a small
mirror." The lady looked perplexed. "A small what?" I repeated
"mirror" and there was still no recognition. Then I said, "looking
glass." "Oh, a mirror," she responded. I thought that is
what I said all along. That was it. I made the decision to get away from
German-speaking people and at the same time end Aunt Marie's responsibility
I knew that I would feel comfortable in a military surrounding, since
I had lifelong experiences back in Germany. I walked into a nearby U.S.
Air Force recruiting station and simply said, "I would like to enlist."
Enlistment in the U.S. Air Force
When I walked into the recruiting office and told a sergeant that I
wanted to enlist, his first question was, "How old are you?"
When I said 26, he was satisfied and the process began.
A sergeant behind a typewriter asked my name, address, and the normal
bureaucratic questions. Other questions were about education and whether
I had any Communist affiliations. When I said I had a college degree in
mechanical engineering from Germany, the sergeant looked at me with questioning
eyes. He asked if I had served in a foreign war. I answered that I
served in World War II on the German side and asked if that counts as a
Now, he could not keep the information about this new recruit to himself
any longer. He went to the lieutenant and a few others joined them. I am
sure the conversation was about my background. After a while, he returned
and said, "No, that is not what is meant about a foreign war."
Having an engineering degree impressed them, and together with my military
experience, I became an instant 'talk-of-the-town' in the recruiting center.
It was June 1954. I had enlisted for a four-year term in the United States
They almost bypassed my qualification test. I had a bit of a hard time
with a few sections, like history, constitution, presidents, etc. However,
the multiple choice test made it easy, since some parts contained pictures.
With the math questions, I just observed the multi-choice answers and looked
at the numbers in the question. The rest was plain elimination. With the
history questions, even my former teacher could not have helped me.
After I completed the test, they hedged a little about whether I had
passed. However, one sergeant sat next to me with a book. He opened it
and asked me to read aloud. I am sure it was highly accented, but I knew
enough English to pronounce most of the text correctly. He said, "You
know English well enough." I tried to tell him that I did not understand
one word I read. But he ignored me, or did not understand me. He turned
around and said, "Congratulations, you are now in the U.S. Air Force."
I sprung the news on Aunt Marie and at my workplace. A great surprise.
My friend Frank was very surprised. I asked him if he would look after
my car while I was in training. Surely, he answered. He told me that he
had a friend out in the country and we could store the car there. We drove
out the next weekend and the car ended up in a barn.
Then I reported for training in New York City. A whole flight of recruits
assembled and we had a swearing-in ceremony. Next, a bus transported us
to Sampson Air Force Base for basic training. The base was located in the
northern New York State.
The typical military stuff started; standing in line, running here,
running there, and standing in line again. By evening, we had received
uniforms, bedding, underwear, socks, shoes, and all kind of soldier items.
So far, all I had to say was, "Yes Sir, No Sir." You would have
thought I would be sick and tired of military life. To the contrary, the
service is one place where you do not have to make to many decisions.
However, I had my plans. I hoped I could get close to jet engines, maybe
as a mechanic at an air base. During my college years, our curriculum had
excluded any aircraft, rocket or jet engine study. Such studies were prohibited
in postwar Germnany. I also planned to take a correspondence course in
mechanical engineering to familiarize myself with the English system and
the technical terms.
I wrote to my parents in Germany to let them know what I was up to.
In addition, they could now expect some money from the U.S. military. Apparently,
it was dependents' pay, although I did not remember listing my parents
Air Force basic training was not very different from any other basic
training I had known. Once I saw how they wanted us to make the bed, or
stow your clothing, I had no problem. My communication with others was
quite limited in the beginning. First; I was the oldest enlistee. Secondly;
everybody knew that I had been in the German Army during World War II.
But it seemed that my age and past military experience brought me respect.
I had worried that my language limits would be cause to be hassled. To
the contrary, even the most boisterous fellow in our unit left me alone.
What I did not like was that the sergeant would hold me as example on
how to make a bed and how to fold and pack the footlocker. I wished he
would not do that. Even when we marched, he put me in the front to give
the cadence or size and speed of steps.
After one week of basic, including gun and gas mask familiarization,
it seemed the installation squadron needed engineers, and they requisitioned
me. That was the end of my basic training. I had to fire my weapon at the
range but that was only a formality.
The time had come for assignment. Here is where I would get my assignment
to work on jet engines. What I found out, however, was that assignments
were made not on what I wanted, but on what they needed. They needed a
draftsman. They gave me a test to see if I qualified for the draftsman's
position. The test included little math questions or picture comparisons.
I needed 70% to pass. Just to make sure I would pass, I multi-marked many
answers. When the sergeant laid a hole-template over the answer sheet,
he counted, and I had 80%. I am sure he saw the multi-marked answers. But
he knew I was qualified for this position.
I received my transfer papers. They expected me to travel by bus to
Omaha, Nebraska, my assigned base. When I told them that I would get my
car, my '40 Dodge and that I would drive out to Offutt Air Force Base,
they had to change my travel papers. Some of my fellow soldiers did not
think I could handle such a long trip and they set up a pool. They gave
me pre-addressed and pre-stamped postcards. I was to mail them at intermediate
stops with the last one mailed from Omaha.
I hoped that my car would be functional. I contacted Frank in New York
and asked him to notify his friend in the country that I was coming to
pick up my car. Frank made all the arrangements and even showed up at the
appointed time. Frank gave the car a clean bill of health. I had enough
money. I had a map and I had my '40 Dodge. I had three days to report to
Offutt Air Force Base in Nebraska. Frank gave me a few pointers about traveling
by car then wished me good luck.
After studying the map, I realized my route would pass close to Niagara
Falls. I remembered seeing a movie in Berlin with Niagara Falls as a background.
I believe Marilyn Monroe and Joseph Cotten played the leading roles.
A young fellow at a Niagara Falls gas station recommended that I see
the falls from the Canadian side. I wore my Air Force uniform when I crossed
the border into Canada. I was not even asked if I was a U.S. citizen. I
was awed by the enormity of the Niagara Falls.
On my second day of travel, dusk was setting in when my fan belt failed.
I had two more miles to the next little town. The highway had very little
traffic, so little traffic, that I did not see anyone for a half-hour.
Darkness set in. I lifted the hood to give the engine as much cooling as
possible. I turned on the parking lights and slowly drove toward the town.
I made it to a gas station. I was lucky the engine did not burn-up. The
next day, I continued on with a new fan belt, plus a spare belt, and reported
to Offutt Air Force Base as ordered. I had mailed the first postcard from
Niagara Falls and the other two from Omaha.
My job assignment at the base was in the Installation Squadron's civil
engineering office. A civilian civil engineer ran the drafting office and
he directed my work. An airman with the same rank as mine worked there
already. His name was Hank Hanson. Hank was born in Denmark and was a bit
younger then I. We had no problem working together and became friends quickly.
I had barely settled down, when a newspaper reporter from the base paper,
"The Air Pulse," interviewed me and published half a page about
my past, including a picture. The headline read, "Used to shoot at
AF; now serving it."
Soon my job included being an aid to a lieutenant, a civil engineer.
We inspected buildings for code violations. On one of the inspections we
checked the electrical wiring of a newly installed signal light. The light
was on top of an eighty-foot-high steel tower. We climbed toward the top
using the steel ladder attached to the tower. We were about halfway to
the top when the lieutenant started to slow up and then froze. I helped
him down and I did the inspection after he told me what to look for. I
was glad that Siegfried and I had explored the rooftops in Berlin, thereby
overcoming potential acrophobia.
One day my first sergeant called me into his office and informed me
that someone at headquarters had requested a top-secret clearance for me.
I guess they had some plans for me. He supplied me with a number of forms
I had to complete. He also told me to apply for citizenship, giving me
another set of forms. I was busy for a while, trying to remember all the
addresses and dates I had to fill in. Luckily, I had my little black book
to assist me.
My lieutenant in the next office, the one who showed me the ropes, volunteered
to be a sponsor for the citizenship ceremony. It took only four months
from the date I applied to the day of my swearing-in ceremony. The ceremony
was in front of a judge. The lieutenant and I sat in front of the judge.
He asked me if I knew why the U.S. flag had 13 red/white stripes. I mentioned
something about the original 13 colonies. He was satisfied with that answer.
He then asked the lieutenant if he thought I would make a good citizen.
He answered in the affirmative. "Congratulations," said the judge.
I was a citizen of the United States of America. It was March 30, 1955.
I had not heard or spoken one German word in the last nine months, except
while picking up my car. When I talked to the reporters, they had mentioned
in their article, "He spoke accurately, but with a heavy accent."
I could not complain about my social life. Omaha had a very nice ballroom,
called the Music Box. A large dance floor and an outstanding band attracted
me. I met a fellow at the ballroom, he too was an airman and he enjoyed
dancing. His name was Stacy and we had no problem finding dance partners.
We got together quite often at the Music Box. Soon he had a steady girl,
while I had not found the lady of my dreams.
One Tuesday in early October 1954, I decided to go dancing at the Music
Box. After I was inside, I found out that Tuesday night was teenage night.
That was just ducky. There I stood, looking and hoping to find a little
more matured dancing companion. Just then I noticed a bleach blond from
behind, sitting at a table with three other girls. I had the feeling that
this lady was not a teenager. I asked her to dance, and sure enough, it
was my dream lady. Ilma was her name, a little older than me, about my
height in high heels, and beautiful.
From our first dance step, I knew she would be my dance partner for
the rest of the night. After the second dance, I suggested we go upstairs
to the balcony, were we could buy some alcoholic beverages. The evening
passed by too fast, but she promised we would meet again. We made a date
for the following Saturday. I found out that her maiden name was Pillsbury.
We both knew that a small age difference existed. I did not know how much
older Ilma was, but I really did not care. I could only hope that she felt
the same about me, and would not worry about our age difference.
I worried the rest of the week, hoping that she would not get cold feet.
I visited the Music Box, where we met and again danced all night. Happiness
would not describe my feeling adequately. I was in heaven, and for the
first time in my life, I was really in love. Not only had I become a citizen
of the United States, but I also had found my dream girl.
days after I had become a citizen, we got married in the Offutt Air Base
chapel. A friend of Ilma's, and a friend of mine, were our witnesses. Ilma
had prepared a wonderful party. It was Easter Sunday, April 10, 1955. The
little base chapel burned down a few days after our wedding. But it must
have been a good omen, burning down our past.
Ilma worked as the bookkeeper at a Pontiac car dealership. She drove
a 1939 Chevrolet and I still had my 1940 Dodge. Her Chevy was in great
shape, but we thought it would be appropriate if we traded both cars for
a new Pontiac.
For the happy just-married couple, dancing was practically our only
entertainment. Latin music became quite popular and we wanted to become
more proficient in Latin dances. We joined an Arthur Murray dance studio
to learn some new steps. We impressed the teachers at the studio so much
that they encouraged us to participate in a televised dance contest. We
practiced the Samba, and the night of the contest we had to compete against
another husband and wife couple, and a mother and son couple. We thought
we had no chance against the mother and son, but to our surprise, we ended
up winning the contest. The prize was a nice stereo set. Our friends had
watched it on television and said we looked terrific.
About six months later, I received a transfer notice. I would have to
go to Guam for one year. We definitely did not like that idea. I asked
my first sergeant if I would have a choice of places when I returned from
Guam. He assured me, "Yes, you name the base, and you'll return there."
In talking to Ilma, we thought that when my hitch was completed, I would
try to find a job in California. Since Ilma had lived in California many
years, longer than in any other state, I suggested that she should go to
California when I left for Guam. She told her boss the situation. He did
not want to lose her. Apparently, he was on a first name basis with Gen.
Curtis LeMay, the head of Strategic Air Command. Ilma's boss talked to
the General. Two days later, my sergeant received the cancellation of my
transfer to Guam. My first sergeant said, "You must have some good
connections." We did not ask for the cancellation, but we did not
shed a tear over it.
Our married life was very enjoyable. Occasionally, we noticed stares
from some ladies who probably wondered how much younger I was. I was 13
years younger and we had no problem with our age difference. Different
customs and my limited knowledge of English caused some small misunderstandings.
Ilma was very understanding and helped me wherever she could to overcome
my handicap, or as we called it, I was vernacularly challenged.
In November 1956, I had just received my top-secret clearance when they
handed me new orders. I had to serve for 12 months in Morocco, North Africa.
Again, I asked if I could designate California to return to after completing
my tour in Morocco. I received an affirmative. But how much can you trust
the promises made by the government?
A few days later, I arrived in Morocco, at Sidi Slimane Air Force Base.
I reported to the Fifth Air Division Headquarters. Here they played war
games. I had to produce charts for a full Colonel. He used them during
his presentations to the General. Now I knew why they wanted me to have
a top-secret clearance. War games were all classified.
Here too, a reporter interviewed me. He wrote his article in the Sidi
Slimane STAR under the headline, "German Who Downed Yanks; Now U.S.
Air Force Member."
My spare time I used on my mechanical engineering correspondence course.
Evenings I spent at the NCO club as a waiter. It was a fun job and I received
very good tips. One time I waited on our top sergeant, and naturally, he
noticed my accent. He said to me, "See me tomorrow in the office after
work." I was curious about what he wanted.
He had read the article about me in the Sidi Slimane STAR. He asked
me where I was during my anti-aircraft days. The conversation moved into
more detail. We determined that I probably operated the optics when our
anti-aircraft battery shot down his plane during World War II. He spent
close to six months in a German POW camp. At first, I felt uncomfortable,
but he took any doubt away about not having any hard feelings. Better yet,
he told me that he had requested my promotion to staff sergeant. We exchanged
war stories quite often.
During my stay in Sidi Slimane, I was twice able to get a ride on an
Air Force plane to Frankfurt, Germany. I visited my sister and my parents.
My parents did not quite understand my reasons for joining the U.S.
Air Force, but accepted it. They told me that some U.S. government agents
had visited them and asked them about me. They wanted to know where I spent
my time between my release from the POW camp until I arrived in Berlin.
That time is the only undocumented time in my life's history. I found out
about the contact by secret service agents when, during their interview
with me, they said, "That was what your mother told us."
I now knew more about mechanical engineering terms, had become a staff
sergeant, and even saved some money from my waiter's job. I had to call
it a productive eleven months, although I missed Ilma very much. In October
1957, I received my transfer back to the states. I expected that California
would be my destination as I had requested. I only had eight months to
go on my enlistment. When I looked at my papers, I saw my destination.
Pope Air Force Base, in Fayetteville, North Carolina.
I went back to California to see Ilma and we drove to Pope Air Force
Base. On our way to North Carolina, we needed a new tire. When I approached
a gas station, I saw four men sitting on a porch and conversing. They appeared
to ignore me. I finally asked for the owner. I received no response. Then
I asked again if someone could help me because I needed a new tire. Finally,
one guy looked up and said, "Whatís that accent you have?" "German,"
I said. "Hell, why didnít you say so, I thought you were a damn Yankee."
I got my new tire.
Ilma and I got ready to mail resumes to a number of companies. I was
looking for a job as a mechanical design engineer. We now prepared for
My Civilian Career
Naturally, I hoped for a good paying job. I was not afraid to take on
any design-engineering job, although I never learned one thing about jet
engines while in the Air Force. The closest I ever came to a jet engine
was when I boarded a plane to fly on it.
From the great number of resumes sent out, we received some positive
answers. When G.E. in Cincinnati, Ohio, offered me a good job, we accepted.
I selected G.E. because I felt comfortable with a well-established company.
They expected me to help in designing combustion systems for jet engines.
Now, I finally would learn about jet engines, the one subject not on my
college curriculum. Strange, how things turn out.
My job was interesting and challenging. They gave me an assignment and
I had to research it on my own. My first challenge was to increase the
life expectancy of the bolt holding a jet engine combustion chamber. Here,
I really saw the difference between German and American companies in dealing
with their employees.
Ilma had worked all her life. Now she decided to work on making a home
for us. She bought a cookbook featuring German dishes and made a great
number of German meals. Her expertise in cooking, I am sure, had been refined
when she had her own restaurant and did most of the cooking. The greatest
chefs could not make meals any better. However, German dishes are often
high in calories, and before we knew it, we gained weight, not just a little,
but enough to notice. Ilma studied vitamins and all about calories. She
started us on a regiment of lower calorie meals and plenty of vitamins.
My employment with G.E. ended after about two years. A cutback in employment
caused my departure. They offered to transfer me to a Philadelphia G.E.
plant. However, by now we wanted to settle in California or at least on
the West Coast. We mailed only three resumes. Boeing and Lockheed responded.
Boeing offered me a job in writing without any questions or interview.
Lockheed was a little faster on the trigger; they called. We had a choice,
go to California, or go to Seattle, Washington. It did not take long for
us to make up our mind. Lockheed called back and asked if it would be OK
for me to work on a launch pad? "Sure" I said, then turned to
Ilma and asked, "What is a launch pad?"
They mailed me the offer and arranged for movers. Before long, we arrived
in Lompoc, California, a small town near the coast, adjacent to Vandenberg
Air Force Base. My top-secret clearance got me this job. I would work at
the launch pad, preparing and testing the ground equipment for missile
launchings carrying spy satellites. We had the responsibility of loading
the Lockheed Agena missile with volatile propellants, which when joined,
ignite upon contact. The payload would sit on top of the Agena. In addition
to the propellant, nitrogen gas had to be loaded into spherical tanks inside
the Agena. We had the responsibility of assuring that we loaded the proper
amount of fuel and nitrogen.
We found a very nice house in Vandenberg Village. At work, I found out
that we had about a year to get the launch pad ready for our first launch.
Testing and design modifications kept us busy. Eight months later we had
our first test run. We placed a test Agena on top of an Atlas missile.
When they checked out the pressurization system for the Atlas, a check
valve in the Atlas stuck open. All efforts to close the valve failed. As
soon as the gas supply ran out, the Atlas crumbled and the payload came
crashing down. Air Force personnel quickly covered the payload to avoid
any loss of secrets. This payload was recycled about six months later.
day finally came when we had to launch our first missile. Our missile configuration
had the Atlas on the pad, our Lockheed Agena on top of the Atlas, and the
payload on top of the Agena. Our job consisted of filling the Agena propellant
tanks with volatile fuel, and pressurizing some nitrogen tanks on board
the Agena. By now I was the lead engineer and sat at the console in the
I knew what all the gauges at the console should read, and when asked,
I said, "Go." Everything appeared to work correctly and finally
we were at the final 10 second countdown. Once the countdown started, everybody
stopped breathing. At zero, all lights went out. All instruments went blank
and only two emergency lights hanging on the wall gave off some eerie light
in the control room. The blast of the Atlas tore up the concrete plume
under the missile. Large pieces of concrete hurled down the plume and severed
high-tension power lines. The power lines provided our electricity. But
the missile was not affected. It flew on. Our Agena fired on time and placed
the spy satellite into proper orbit. We celebrated.
From now on, about every 3 to 4 weeks, we launched a new satellite.
We worked longer and longer hours and the pressure on increased. At times,
we worked 12-hour shifts for weeks, 7 days a week. Within the next four
years we launched 32 missiles, all but one successfully.
Then one day I had a heart attack. My attack was a relatively light
event. I stayed in the hospital for six days and recouperated at home for
My parents came over from Germany and visited our home. They stayed
for a couple of weeks. For the first time, I realized I could now speak
English more fluently than I could speak German. However, I was not very
good at translating.
Shortly after my parents went back home, I asked the company for a transfer
to Sunnyvale, California. I wanted to get back to designing and away from
the pressure cooker of launches. The company approved my transfer and paid
all our moving expenses. We sold our house and bought a doublewide mobile
home in Santa Maria. They delivered it to a mobile home space in Sunnyvale,
only a couple miles from the Lockheed plant.
Moving to Sunnyvale and settling down in a mobile home was the best
move we ever made. We finally had the feeling this would be our permanent
living area. Commuting between work and home was a breeze. At times, I
could go home for lunch. My work hours became very regular. This allowed
us to meet people, have friends, and get together on weekends for a friendly
card game. When someone introduced us to fishing, we thought it might be
something we could do together. We had figured out by now that our marriage
would stay healthy if we had similar hobbies.
We bought a 16-foot boat and assorted fishing equipment. On weekends,
we would go on lakes or on sloughs in the San Francisco bay and delta.
During one of the bay fishing trips, Ilma hooked a 6-foot-long sturgeon
and played it well until it was at the end of the boat. Nothing prepared
me for catching such a big fish. I tried the gaff, but all the fish did
was straighten the gaff. The sturgeon slipped off the gaff. When it fell
back into the water, the hook of Ilmaís line unraveled, and the fish said
When we had a drought and launching our boat became a problem, we sold
the boat and took up golf. Again, playing golf would be an activity we
could do together. From the first game on we were hooked and we could not
get enough of it. Ilma used a book to learn the fundamentals. I thought
I would not need a book, and one can see that in my golf swing. Not many
people have a swing as I have. However, I am satisfied with my game.
During the first few years of our golf mania, we traveled to many golf
resorts, crossing the country several times, and went up and down the West
Coast. We traveled a few times to Myrtle Beach in South Carolina. Myrtle
Beach has about 50 golf courses within 20 minutes driving distance. Callaway
Gardens in Jimmy Carterís Georgia is a beautiful golf and tennis resort.
We stayed there three times. These are only two of the many golf resorts
we tried out. Phoenix in Arizona and Palm Springs in southern California
were other areas for us to visit. One thing about golf, one meets many
At work, the Hubble Space Telescope project was activated in 1979. I
became involved in the early stages of the detail designs. I had to design
hardware and mechanisms that would work in space. All of the mechanism
had to be triple redundant. That means, if one moving part of the mechanism
did not work, another must do it, and when that fails, the astronaut must
be able to do the task of overriding the failed mechanism. The last time
I watched the astronauts repair the Hubble Space Telescope, all my latches
and hinges apparently still worked. I am sure it would have made the news
if any one of them had failed.
In January 1987, I decided that my time had come to retire. Ilma said
to me, "If you do not retire soon, I will not be able to enjoy our
retirement." The next day, I gave my retirement notice to the Lockheed
Missile and Space Company. The boys gave me a nice retirement party. About
60 employees attended the luncheon. What have we been doing since? We play
golf. What else can you expect? Weather permitting we play three times
a week, walking behind our motorized hand golf caddies.
We also came to an understanding about housework. Ilma takes care of
our clothing. I take care of our cooking. We are a team. We gave up ballroom
dancing and found that golf is better for us; exercise coupled with a challenge.
The challenge is to try to play better the next time.
We celebrated our 46th Anniversary on April 10, 2001.
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