The Birth and Boyhood of Point Mugu

The Birth and Boyhood of Point Mugu By Captain Grayson Merrill, USN (Ret)


Regrettably I am unable to attend the NAWCWD’s Max White Memoriam Ceremony on April 28, 2003. My age (91), vision impairment and wobbly gait stand in the way. However I hope to contribute by arranging for the newspaper “Weaponeer” to publish a speech Max And I concocted in 1984. I delivered it to the Missile Technology Historical Association on April 26, 1984 only two days and 19 years before the day he will be honored. It would be wonderful if copies could be handed out to the audience after the Ceremony. But editors have schedules to keep!

The Birth

The most valued relationship in my naval career was with Admiral Del Fahrney, the “father of naval guided missiles” (if anyone can be so named) and probably well known to all of you. At the end of World War II he relieved me as Director of BuAer’s Pilot less Aircraft Division. In the turnover process he asked if I had kept a history of the Division’s work and was obviously disappointed when I replied “no”, followed by the usual excuses. Then he said, with understanding, “You fellows have been so busy making history that you’ve not had time to record it.” I’ve never forgotten those words and their meaning has become more and more clear down through the years.

Probably most of us here tonight gave lip service, as students, to the notion that history is a valuable teacher. We memorized enough dates and causes of wars to get a passing grade and then rushed into the professional world to gain fame and fortune and reinvent the wheel. Most of us were also compartmentalized in bureaus, test stations, or companies involved in guided missile development. We must have done well, all-in-all, or our country today would not be in the forefront of missile technology. But now we have the time and maturity to look back and ask, “What the hell happened?”

If our Association can help answer this earthy question we can then turn to our youth and say, “Here’s the real story of guided missiles in our Navy. You can learn very valuable lessons from it; how they were conceived, designed, tested, produced and used in the Fleet. These are the province of technology and operations. But of equal importance is how they were sometimes oversold, mismanaged and victimized by political in-fighting. These are the province of politics and bureaucracy.

It is only in recent years that historians have been able to crack the security barrier, with help from the Freedom of Information Act, and cull from government documents enough facts to give us a broad-based and accurate statement of what really happened.

Recently I had the privilege of reviewing the manuscript of a scholar-ly work by Dr. Derek Bruins on naval bombardment missile development through 1958. It is thoroughly researched and lucidly written with uncommon insight on both the scientific and political decisions of those years. For me, it refreshed many dormant memories and made me realize what a broad scenario governed such programs as the rise and fall of REGULUS and the build-up of Point Mugu. I read it avidly, like a gripping novel, and I would guess that most of you will do likewise when it is published.

Tonight, however, I want to tread lightly and relate some of the events I remember about the birth and boyhood of Point Mugu. Please bear with occasional embellishment of a sea story and lack of accuracy due to a fading memory. There are many in the audience whose experiences overlap my own. Therefore I plan to take some of our allotted time for a floor discussion. So please line up some comments as I go along.

The need for a post-World War II naval guided missile range evolved from the wartime testing headaches of the Bureaus of Aeronautics and Ordnance. BAT was flight tested by a small unit based at Philadelphia against targets in New Jersey. NOTS Inyokern tested the ballistic rockets of those days and graduated to limited range guided missiles. The Assault Drone Program involved tests in Michigan, the Chesapeake and the South Pacific and finally vested in a Special Weapons Test and Evaluation Unit which became the nucleus for staffing Point Mugu.

In October of 1944 I drafted a letter which the Chief of Buaer signed out to CNO. It made a case for a naval missile test range and asked that a committee be established to survey possible sites and recommend the best. In January, 1945 it was approved and I found myself on tour with Chairman Bowser Vieweg and ten or so other members from other services. We visited and turned down such sites as Wallops Island, Roosevelt Roads and NAS Banana River (which later became the Atlantic Missile Range). Emphasizing technical requirements, we first chose a site at the northern apex of the Gulf of California–firing down the Gulf. Sensing the political impracticability of this we nominated Point Mugu as a strong alternate. This, of course, was CNO’s final choice.

Shortly after this I was detailed to witness some V-2 firings at Cuxhaven staged by the British and executed by Germans from Peenemunde. It reinforced, in my mind, the correctness of choosing Point Mugu. After the firings a small group of American observers gathered in a Bremen rathskeller to quaff beer and discuss what we had seen. A rumpled fake Army Colonel named Theodor von Karman summed up our feelings, “You young fellows must now go home and arrange to put these Germans to work. In the meantime build a test range for the missiles to come.”

Almost 20 years later it can be said that Point Mugu has borne out the committee’s judgments. The test range uses the beach or a nearby ship for launching; the trajectory is monitored by instrumentation on Laguna Peak and the Channel Islands. San Nicholas is useful for recovery. Port Hueneme has become a harbor for participating ships and the proximity of California industry has proven to be a great boon.

What we did not foresee was the advent of Vandenberg Air Force Base and the escalation of Point Mugu to be the Pacific Missile Range. We vaguely envisioned a long range trajectory southerly to such islands as Guadalupe and Clipperton, but it took the ICBMs to set up Kwajalein as a target and space flight to demand polar orbits.

Perhaps the first cruise missile to fly from the sea range over California terrain was a LOON which transited the Santa Barbara Peninsula about 1947. (This discounts an earlier LARK which circled the airstrip and plowed up some mud on base.) The LOON lost radio control soon after launch and turned slowly north over Santa Cruz Island where the escort fighter exhausted its ammunition in a futile effort to shoot it down. The horrified pilot reported the bird over the peninsula and entering a fog bank at about 2000 feet. Captain Hatcher called to remind me that the plan to acquire land for the permanent test center was then under attack in Washington by local citizens. We agreed that our best option was to prepare a well thought out press release. When last seen on radar the LOON had miraculously straightened out and was headed out to sea but we wondered how many farmers had heard the pulse jet engine and were calling the local newspapers. We were ready. The key phrase in the press release was, “The missile was, at all times, under surveillance by a fast jet fighter.” The dreaded call never came.

If CNO’s go-ahead decision marked Point Mugu’s conception, its gesta-tion began with the establishment of the Pilotless Aircraft Unit in 1945 at the nearly deserted and somewhat decrepit NAS Mojave with a rocket and LOON detachment at Point Mugu. Around 250 naval and civilian personnel were involved, mostly from units in Traverse City, Michigan and Annapolis. The key people and their organization are well covered in NAMTC’s 1956 book “Ten Years of Progress” and, I’m told, in an updated history now in progress. So I’ll stick to some personal experiences subsequent to my reporting aboard as Technical Director in early 1946.

Our test projects, in those days, involved the missiles left over from World War II. One example was a GLOMB or glider bomb that was towed to the target, released and guided by TV and radio control to impact on the target. One Gene Harris was charged with instrumenting the tests. He spray-painted a sand dune for a target and dug out a bunker some 100 yards away. From there he used a movie camera to film the incoming missile and a tape measure to get miss distance. I was somewhat shook up by this technique but he showed me calculations proving that he had a probability of less than 1 in 1000 of being hit so I let him continue. On the assault drones, however, I asked him to move his bunker farther away since each impact featured a large gasoline fireball.

Telemetry was not available to us, except for TV scanning of a missile’s instrument panel, so we scrounged hungrily for ballistic camer-as to correlate trajectories with radio commands. BuAer got us a few Askania Phototheodolites from a batch captured from the Germans. They arrived badly in need of overhaul. Having no optical facilities we turned to our colleagues at Inyokern for help. We should have realized that they were as hungry for Askanias as we were. Several months later we got them back in time to install them at Point Mugu. Meanwhile, at Point Mugu, Ali Baba (Bob Truax) and his forty thieves were liberating cement and steel from Seabees too busy mustering out to notice. Their liquid rockets appeared later in Gorgon missiles. Jack Schoenhair’s gang was emplacing LOON launchers on the beach, together with a very tempera-mental powder catapult.

Another scrounging operation, which later paid big dividends, was the location and liberation of several SCR-584 radars. I’m vague on some of the details but I recollect they came one-by-one by truck from an Army depot near Sacramento driven by a heroic civilian engineer who masterminded the caper. He deserves a citation from the Historical Association. Maybe someone here tonight can furnish his name.

Scrounging World War II material was a vital factor in Point Mugu’s boyhood. Shipboard search radars sprouted on Laguna Peak and on the islands and boilers from the Bikini-survivor carrier INDEPENDENCE powered a wind tunnel. Whatever became of the predecessor tunnel powered by some 16 Allison engines?

In retrospect, the work done by the people at Mojave and Point Mugu in the gestation period, that is the 9 months prior to commissioning NAMTC, was more in learning-by-doing and the emergence of a skilled technical and operating team than in the test results themselves. On October 1, 1946 the Center was commissioned and the hegira of parboiled workers and their families from Mojave to Point Mugu commenced. The boyhood era had arrived.

The Boyhood

It was about this time that serious planning got underway on the facilities needed to expand the range for testing post World War II missiles, especially those in BuAer’s program. A backward look at this program is timely. Del Fahrney and I shared some convictions about what BuAer should do after the war:

  1. Neither Allied nor Axis guided missiles had a decisive impact on the war’s outcome.
  2. There was a strong consensus, however, that guided missiles could greatly augment the Fleet’s fighting capabilities.
  3. The defense industry serving the Navy and our own personnel needed education on missile technology, especially the more advanced German concepts.
  4. The advent of nuclear warheads gave missiles a destructive power which offset their complexity and expense; a marriage was inevitable.
  5. Prospective tight budgets and a world-wide yearning for peace suggested that we had time to pause and think about missile specifications prior to their development.

We agreed that a broadly-based industrial study of missiles having potential to augment ship or aircraft firepower was the way to go. He nominated me to chair a BuAer committee to draft preliminary requirements for such missiles. In December of 1945 we submitted our “Study of the Requirements for Pilotless Aircraft for Fleet Use in 1950″; as I recall, it described some 16 missiles. After its approval by CNO and SECNAV three months later, Del launched a vigorous program involving many industrial contracts which, over the years, evolved into development of such missiles as REGULUS, RIGEL, BULLPUP and the SPARROW family.

The concurrency of the study contracts was a great help to us here at Point Mugu in formulating the test requirements of missiles to come and guiding Parsons-Aerojet in laying out the instrumentation sites and facilities of NAMTC. In retrospect, I believe the post-war study program was highly successful but boy were we wrong on the phrase “for Fleet Use in 1950″!

The year 1946 featured bitter inter-service cognizance battles in Washington. We were largely unaware of these and certainly did not realize that the very existence of Point Mugu was at stake. To quote from Dr. Bruins’ manuscript, ” . . . it seemed evident that the AAF was delaying action on JCS 1620 in an attempt to obtain primary and overall cognizance regarding guided missiles. At this very same time, General LeMay was leading the opposition to the GMC-JCS (Guided Missile Committee of the Joint Chief of Staff) recommendation that the Navy be permitted to build a missile test facility at Point Mugu, California.”

Unaware of this hassle, I was detailed one day to brief Dr. Vannevar Bush on our operations and forward planning. As wartime Chief of the Joint Research and Development Board his voice was neutral but powerful in Washington but, to this day, I don’t know whether he was evaluating us or just intellectually curious. Certainly he was close-mouthed, except for some penetrating questions. At the end of the briefing he remarked, “You people are doing lots of useful things with very little. After all these planned facilities are built, rigor mortis will set in. I’ve seen it happen before.”

I concede his reference to one of the “Peter Principles” but I don’t think it has happened at Point Mugu. In any case, Navy plans were not thwarted. The facilities came into being and obviously have contributed to the successes achieved here. Let me synopsize some of these.

As soon as the Air force was able to recover enough V-1 debris from the rubble of London, it hired Republic Aircraft to make some 1500 copies. A long war against Japan seemed inevitable and the V-1s were to be an Air Force contribution. Meantime our submariners were thinking about their role in the next war–with you know who.

One answer seemed to be submarine-launched SSMs for use against “Shore targets of naval interest.” BuAer and CNO hatched up the LOON project as a learn-by-doing program, designed to bring submarines and missiles together. This it did, with the help of NAMTC. Over 100 missiles were fired from the beach or from CUSK, CARBONERO or NORTON SOUND at sea. The original unguided V-1s supplied by the AAF were equipped with aircraft beacons for radar tracking and radio control. Later refinements included control through radar signals and an automatic command computer. These evolved into the TROUNCE guidance system as applied to REGULUS.

Despite its inherent lack of reliability, LOON achieved some spectac-ular operational successes which reinforced the submariners’ determina-tion to get into the missile business. It also alarmed Fleet gunnery officers about their ability to defend against penetrations by cruise missiles and, finally, fended off Washington cost-cutters who wanted to emasculate REGULUS in the name of balancing the budget oy substituting MATADOR as a cheaper missile. Examples were a 400 yard miss on Begg Rock by a CUSK to CARBONERO hand-off in September, 1948 and a LOON penetration of the First Fleet’s air defense in November, 1948.

Many of the LOON technical successes are traceable to the “German Scientists” who migrated to Point Mugu. These included Willy Fiedler, Robert Lusser and Otto Schwede. But Dr. Herbert A. Wagner, now deceased, deserves special mention.

One day a young Marine pilot, well known as “Dirty” Dalby, came into my office and complained mildly about the lack of projects of potential benefit to the Marines. I knew he was flying F6Fs as a LOON simulator for Herbert Wagner who was then developing the command control “computer”. The next day I sat down with both of them and asked if the LOON system could be modified to yield an all-weather fighter close-air support system. In his methodical way Herbert ticked off the technical problems while Dirty chafed with eagerness to get started. Finally Herbert reached a can-do point and we worked up an in-house project to get it started.

In a few weeks they were getting 30 yard CEPs on a buoy off shore. As I recall, the system used an SCR-584 radar for tracking the F6F, a Reeves Plotting Board and command computer and the aircraft’s regular voice radio and ordnance payload. The Marines got justifiably excited about this and soon arranged a contract out of Washington to General Electric for a militarized system named APQ-42 (?). Meantime the Korean War came along and Dirty Dalby’s team, with the prototype system, went overseas and acquitted themselves nobly. Today, all-weather close-air support systems are a vital element in front-line combat.

This seems to be a good time to examine the notion that test facilities should be denied the opportunity to develop weapon hardware on the grounds that it interferes with their primary mission and competes with the defense industry. I have always felt that innovation will rise up in the ranks of engineers wherever they are found and that it is too valuable a commodity to be prohibited. The innovations which evolved from the LOON program and the development of SIDEWINDER at NOTS Inyokern bear this out. Dr. Royal Weller, longtime Chief Scientist at NAMTC, and Ralph Peterson are to be commended for their championing of innova-tion over the years.

So much for the boyhood of Point Mugu. I left in 1949 but nevertheless watched with pride as the range expanded in support of such missiles as LARK, SPARROW, REGULUS, RIGEL, POLARIS and TOMAHAWK. Looking forward, the range will surely be an essential facility in the current revital-ization of the Navy and I’m sure this audience joins me in the hope that it will not be too busy making history to take the time to record it.


As I write this on April 5, 2003 Baghdad is ready to fall to coalition troops within its city limits. I believe the ‘Iraqi Freedom” war has been won. The progeny of missiles that have been tested and developed at Point Mugu and China Lake played a part. The TDR , Loon, Glomb, Sidewinder, Bat, Regulus and Polaris come to mind with progeny like Tomahawk, Sparrow, Poseidon and Trident. This is the legacy of Max White, his civilian colleagues and naval personnel who worked side by side with him. Well done!

/S/ Grayson Merrill
Verified, 10/6/01 and 04/05/03
Word count: 3193 (large font)

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