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The Nazi Smoke and Mirrors Escape That Launched America Into the Space Age

Von Braun escaped Germany with guts and some clever deception.

We all know that Werner von Braun and his team of ex-Nazi rocket engineers built the massive Saturn V that sent Apollo astronauts to the Moon. But designing and building the mammoth rocket might not be von Braun's greatest achievement. Before he could get to the US and build rockets for NASA, he had to find US troops in Germany that would bring him into the country. He managed it, with some clever ploys and a seeming sense of invincibility. And right under the SS' nose.

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In the closing days of the Second World War, von Braun and his staff of rocket-savvy builders and engineers were at

Peenemunde

, the site on the northern German island of Usedom where they designed and launched test rockets into the Baltic. It was here that they'd dreamed up the V1 and V2 missiles Germany launched on London, and it was where all the relevant information was stored.

That Germany had rocket power was no secret, and the allied forces were all eager to get their hands on this particular bit of knowledge. So as the war came to a close, von Braun and his team became a sought after commodity. He wasn't entirely sure what to do, and it turned out that Germany wasn't entirely sure either. On his desk, von Braun had 10 formal orders from the state. Five said to stay put and fight to the death if any allied troops tried to seize him, his men, or his rocket documents. Five said to run and hide his team and their valuable knowledge; this latter set included one from Hans Kammler who oversaw SS construction projects, including the V2. Von Braun was wary of both orders. His men weren't armed soldiers and choosing to stay meant they were as good as dead. But the order to run might be a trap, a ploy by Kammler to use them as hostages. Von Braun's own preference was to run and seek freedom, but he wanted his men to have their say. He put it up to a vote.

Von Braun gathered his men and presented them with their options: stay or run. They unanimously voted to run, agreeing that finding US troops to whom they could surrender was ideal. They weren't too keen on the Russians' reputation for brutality and they were doubtful the British could (or would) support them. If nothing else, America was the nation most likely to let them continue their research after the war. And so it was settled. Somehow, they had to get all their papers and equipment to the US. Not one of them wanted a decade's worth of work to be destroyed or fall into the wrong hands.

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So they set to work coordinating the massive cross country move through von Braun's close inner staff. They color-coded boxes and organized a convoy for the thousands of workers, engineers, and support personnel in a fleet of trains, trucks, and cars.

Von Braun knew they couldn't carry off something of this scale without drawing attention to themselves, so he used his status (his work had garnered him a fairly high rank in the Nazi system) to pull off a brilliant bit of deception. He was allowed to use the official SS stationary, and he used it to write himself fake orders to move his team.

There's some variations on the next part of the story. Some sources have it that the SS stationery von Braun had had a typo on it, identifying the Peenemunde personnel as a branch of the SS labeled "VABV;" others say von Braun came up with the acronym himself. Either way, it was a nonsense bunch of letters that could stand for Vorhaben zur Besonderen Verwendung, which roughly translates to "Project for Special Dispositions." Von Braun figured that no SS officer in his right mind would question his special project or his orders, and they didn't. As the convoy headed south, SS agents stopped the caravan frequently but the VABV deception worked. The rocketeers were left alone.

They ended up in the village of Oberammergau, almost clear across the country, where Kammler did seize and hold them hostage. They were put them in an internment camp that was quite plush, with excellent food and nothing but leisure time, but did feature a barbed wire fense surrounded the compound. That and SS guards. Again, von Braun pulled a fast one, pointing out that with the whole Peenemunde team under lock and key one well placed air strike would wipe them all out. If they could leave, go for walks in town, their secrets would be safer. The SS guards agreed, giving von Braun a clear path the find Americans.

When he heard that Americans troops were near Oberammergau, von Braun sent his younger brother Magnus, the only one in the group with a working knowledge of English, out to find them. And he did. Magnus found and surrendered to the 324th Infantry Regiment, 44th Infantry Division, PFC Frederick Schneikert. After explaining who he was and offering to deliver the whole German rocketry team as proof, the group's Lieutenant Stewart gave Magnus passes for the Germans. When they piled into cars that afternoon they had no trouble getting safely into the American encampment.

In retellings of the early space age, there's no shortage of controversy surrounding von Braun and whether he should be treated as a hero or an opportunistic Nazi. But you've got to hand it to the guy. He may be opportunistic, but you'd sort of have to be to get out of Nazi Germany with your rockets intact.