Departures: NM99: Part 1

What I was Looking For... Hidden History... Space and Time...

Historical Alamogordo

1999.03.17 WED

I wandered to the center of town, breakfasted at Andrea's Café, got some information at the local Greyhound office, and went in search of Alamogordo's history, specifically for traces of the Manhattan Project.

That's really why I'd come all this way. I'd come to New Mexico on a sort of pilgrimage, a journey to see sacred sites associated with the Manhattan project. Were "sacred" and "pilgrimage" really the right words? I thought they were. I was an atheist yet there were some things which inspired awe within my heart.

Big Science was certainly one of those. Like JHVH of the old testament, it combines great power with greater crankiness. Its purpose seems unfathomable, its wrath swift and scorching. Its ministers move among the population, preserving their mysteries, wearing their white lab coats with pride. They show their audiences the magic of Jacob's Ladder; they allow us to touch the altar of the Van De Graaff generator and feel its power.

The Manhattan Project was some of the Biggest Science ever. Some of the world's best physicists gathered for a couple of years in Los Alamos; they designed and built the world's first atomic bombs. There were big names--Oppenheimer, Fermi, Bohr; Feynmann was there; Johnny von Neumann put in an appearance. Their creation brought the end of all human life within human grasp. They yoked tremendous forces; they paved the way towards the creation of new suns; they brought about a new world order.

So I didn't really linger at the historical mural at the old Federal Building, the murals depicting early settlers, depicting farmers. This mural might be historical; it might depict something historical; but it was the wrong history. I hadn't come here for art. I hadn't come here to see people in touch with the land.

I went on to the Historical museum. As I signed in, one of the curators noted that I was from San Francisco. She said she'd recently gone to an elder hostel at the San Francisco maritime museum. I asked her how she'd liked the display on hay barges and she looked confused. It emerged that she'd gone to the San Francisco Maritime National Historical Park, had helped a team haul line on the Balclutha. I'd been on the Balclutha just a couple of weeks before, laying down for a bit in the hole where lumber had been loaded into the hold.

But now I was in Alamogordo. I wasn't seeking peaceful rest amongst gently rocking timbers. I wandered through the museum, looking at ancient bottles, old quilts, the usual historical sewing machine. Most of it was the sort of thing I expected from a historical museum. There were some old telephone switchboards that were interesting, and I chuckled over them for a while. An old phone services catalog enticed me with something called the IDP Superhighway, perhaps a precursor to the Information Superhighway.

Photo: Old Telephone Switchboard. Not at the Alamogordo Historical Museum
[Photo: switchboard]

There was a display about the Trinity atomic bomb test. The display was being renovated. There wasn't much to see.

It was a fun museum. I'd enjoyed myself, but I emerged no wiser, no closer to what I was looking for.

The Space Center At Alamogordo

Just a few miles of walking and I'd come to the line where Alamogordo's foothills started turning into the mountains East of town: I'd arrived at the parking lot Space Center, home of a space museum and the International Space Hall of Fame. I entered the main museum building, a gold-colored glass cube. Inspired by the worsening rain, I made a beeline for the men's restroom. I walked in in a hurry. A young man, white with a crew cut was inside, walking towards the door as I was walking in. He hadn't seen me; his head was down; he was talking as he walked: "I wouldn't mind getting blasted into space, leave all this behind." I stepped aside. Was I in the presence of insanity? He exited.

I noticed feet in one of the stalls. Okay, the crew-cut guy perhaps wasn't talking to himself. I took a litle rest in the restroom, washed my hands. I noticed that those feet in the stall hadn't moved. In fact, during my whole transaction, I hadn't detected any activity in that stall. I worried: was this guy still alive? Had the crew-cut guy in fact killed the guy in the stall? Is that what he'd wanted to get away from? At this point, a groan escaped from the stall. He wasn't dead; perhaps he he wished he were. Whatever. I wasn't going to help him. I emerged into the museum proper.

There were displays about space vehicles and space stations. There were plaques for Hall of Fame inductees listing accomplishments. Maybe this would be interesting for someone who was more interested in space. There were precious few stories. Or perhaps the stories were hiding.

For instance, I noticed the plaque for Hubertus Strughold, "The Father of Space Medicine" mentioned that this medical pioneer had done research at the Physiological Institute of Wurzburg during the years 1923-1947. That set off some bells in my head; I wrote that down. Sure enough, doing a web search on him turns up things like this press release from the [Jewish] Anti-Defamation League:


...As a result of a protest by the Anti-Defamation League (ADL), an Air Force base library will no longer be named for a Nazi scientist who became a recognized pioneer in American space medicine. Based on a letter from ADL and a review of Nazi-era documents, the Secretary of the Air Force decided to remove Dr. Hubertus Strughold's name from the Aeromedical Library at Brooks Air Force Base near San Antonio, Texas.

General Ronald R. Fogleman, Chief of Staff of the Department of the Air Force, wrote ADL National Chairman David H. Strassler that a review of the doctor's available wartime records supports allegations "Dr. Strughold was aware of and in some way aided" cold water experiments and other acts of torture. Saying "the evidence of Dr. Strughold's wartime activities is sufficient to cause concern about retaining his name in an honored place on the library," the General said he was taking the steps necessary to remove it.

He explained the original decision to name the library for Dr. Strughold had been based on his post-war record. "Dr. Strughold's accomplishments while an employee of the United States Air Force, and his contributions to aerospace medicine were extraordinary," the General wrote.

ADL had sent a letter to the Air Force maintaining that "Dr. Strughold headed the Third Reich's Institute of Aviation Medicine during the war, which subjected concentration camp inmates to abuse and torture, thinly disguised as 'experiments.'" The League also submitted documentation of Dr. Strughold's participation in a conference discussing the "experiments."

"Paying tribute to Dr. Strughold was an obscene mockery of the pain and death suffered by his victims," said Strassler. "ADL is pleased the Air Force reviewed this matter, and determined it was inappropriate to honor someone who committed atrocities."

[update added later: A couple of people who knew Dr. Strughold in the USA wrote to me about what a great guy he was. You can read what they have to say (mixed with comments about this whole trip report) on this report's comments page.]

There's a story there, all tied up with Big Science and human morality and Project Paperclip (which brought many German scientists to what is now the White Sands Missile Range right after World War II, forming the germ of the USA's space program). I don't know what the story is.

The plaque certainly wasn't telling any stories. It just said that in 1947, Strughold accepted an invitation to join the USAF School of Aviation Medicine, that in 1949 he was head of the new Department of Space Medicine.

[Update 2006-05-18: Strughold's was removed from the Hall of Fame when some folks pointed out evidence of his actions at Dachau.]

The building had an "observation deck" a room on the top floor with windows from which you could look out at the surrounding countryside. I looked South, and wondered what was wrong with the horizon--it was gleaming. It was, of course, the white sands of the White Sands National Monument, the White Sands Missile Range.


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