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Aide says von Braun wasn't able to stop slave horrors

Objection would have gotten rocket pioneer shot, Dannenberg says


Times Staff Writer

Could Wernher von Braun have stood up against the brutal treatment of the slave laborers building Germany's V-2 rockets in World War II?

''If he had done it, in my opinion, he would have been shot on the spot (by German troops),'' von Braun team member Konrad Dannenberg said here Thursday night.

''The best thing that could have happened,'' Dannenberg said, ''he would have put on the same uniform'' as the slave la- borers.

Dannenberg, 90, is a rocket fuel combustion expert who was with von Braun from 1940 in Germany through the Apollo program in Huntsville that landed men on the moon. He spoke to the local chapter of the National Space Society Thursday on the 60th anniversary of the first flight of a rocket into space.

Recent attacks on the reputation of von Braun and other leaders of his team clearly still rankle. Dannenberg defended von Braun and recommended the audience read ''Gestapo USA,'' an account of the Arthur Rudolph case written by retired Army officer William E. Winterstein Sr.

Rudolph, who ran rocket production for von Braun from World War II through Apollo, was pressured into surrendering his U.S. citizenship and exiled to Germany in 1984. The pressure came after a U.S. Jus tice Department investigation into Rudolph's role in the persecution of slave labor during the war.

''Rudolph,'' Dannenberg said, ''suffered the most.

''The treatment Rudolph got was the same the Gestapo gave in Germany to people who were not in good respect,'' Dannenberg said. The Justice Department, he said, ''had no evidence. Of the eight witnesses, most did not know Rudolph.''

Speaking without notes for nearly an hour, Dannenberg traced the history of German rocket science using a laser pointer and a slide carousel loaded with black-and-white slides.

''To develop a rocket is much more difficult than an airplane,'' he said. It carries both fuel and an oxygen source, which is twice as heavy as fuel alone, and it must go straight into space, which requires much greater thrust.

Rocketry became popular in Germany after Charles Lindbergh crossed the Atlantic in his airplane, Dannenberg said. ''We went into rocketry because we thought all had been done with airplanes,'' he said smiling.

Early rocket clubs invited the public to launches and ''passed the hat,'' Dannenberg said. That didn't raise enough money, so von Braun exploited the interest of the German army, which liked rockets because, unlike artillery, rockets weren't banned by the Treaty of Versailles that ended World War I.

The early years saw a series of design refinements until ''Hitler decided we had to go into mass production, so we had a design freeze.''

Sixty years ago Thursday, he said, ''for the very first time, a means of transportation left one place and entered another place, the Baltic Sea, and used space as part of the path.''

''Unfortunately, the next several launches were flops,'' he added.

Dannenberg's talk drew a crowd of more than 100 to the main auditorium of the Huntsville-Madison County Public Library downtown. Parents brought children, and Space Society members peppered the rocket pioneer with questions.

Asked where America's space program will be 60 years from now, he said, ''Hopefully, people on Mars.''

He said he is sorry to see the slowdown in the space program, adding, ''We spend all the money getting ready for war with Iraq.''

Asked to look back at America's treatment of the von Braun team, Dannenberg said their experience went from a feeling of ''being put on ice'' in the early days to excitement during the Apollo years.

Pressed to say whether that treatment was ultimately ''fair,'' Dannenberg answered, ''Most of (us) stayed.''

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