ter from the Admiral at Caltech supporting my assignment to the Navy so that I
wouldn’t be assigned to the Army.
Soon thereafter—and on my birthday,
November 25, 1944—I found myself at
boot camp in San Diego. My group, 44-
576, was scheduled to be assigned to the
U.S.S. Indianapolis, a beautiful new ship
that we could see anchored across the bay.
We were elated. Now we’d have bunks
and showers; we would not live like the
GIs, in rain, snow and mud.
But the ship I wished for wasn’t to be
my fate—or my life likely would have
been very short. After delivering the
bombs to Tinian, the Indianapolis was
torpedoed by a Japanese submarine on
its way to Manila, unescorted. Only a
few survived; most died from exposure,
dehydration and shark attacks as they
waited for assistance while floating at sea
for four days.
Before the Indianapolis embarked,
and after only a month at boot camp,
I received orders to report to the Navy
O ce back at Caltech. I couldn’t believe
it; I was now back at my same old desk.
Marjorie said that all the secretaries
loved that “rocket engineer wearing a
white Navy cap” and the garb of an
Ordinary Seaman, First Class. Now
Marjorie and I could ride the shuttle bus
together out to China Lake where the
Navy had established a test range and
research o ces.
After a month back at Caltech, I
received orders to report to China Lake
to be commissioned as an o cer, Ensign
SO4 (rocket ordnance). e admiral
heading the Caltech Rocket Project and
Willy Fowler had recommended me for
In February, three months after I was
drafted, I was at Ammunition Handling
School in Hingham, Mass., for o cers
who would be assigned to Rocket LSTs
for Pacific action. But after having
been there only two weeks, the school
Commandant called me into his o ce at
5 p.m. and said that I must report immediately to Navy HQ in Washington,
D.C. I said, “Yes, sir,” and told him I’d
be ready first thing in the morning—to
which he replied, “ ey mean NOW!”
Barely an hour later, I was on my
way to the airport. At Navy HQ, I was
informed that in two days I’d be flown
to Paris to become the rocket and optics
expert on the Naval Technical Mission
in Europe. e o cer who was to do
that had been killed when his plane went
down just short of Paris. I was assigned
to Patton’s 3rd Army for the crossing of
the Rhine. My principal optics “
targets” (of scientific interest) were Wetzlar
(where the firm Leica was located) and
Jena (the location of Zeiss and Schott).
And my principal rocket target was the
underground V- 2 factory at Nordhausen.
( at’s where Tom Gehrels’ captured
brother was executed just weeks before
When I left Jena, I was in charge of
leading a convoy of six trucks bearing
key items of advanced optical technology—including two captured Soviet
periscopes—all the way to Dover. My
secondary task was to help key people at
Zeiss and Schott to escape to the West.
In two weeks, that region was to be
turned over to the Soviets. I heard about
the sinking of the Indianapolis from
the Navy radio operator at the Castle
at was my German home base.
e castle was taken by the Navy team
before Patton’s troops got to it. I was
sitting at breakfast in that fabulous
baroque dining room when the radio
man said that the atomic bomb had
been dropped on Hiroshima. We all
cheered because the news meant we
wouldn’t be sent to invade Japan.
Only one team member—Harvard
astronomer Lt. Cmdr. Dimitro —
was actually sent to Japan.
Twenty years later, Marjorie and I
were in that same dining room in the
Castle with some engineers and physicists whom I had helped to escape from
Jena. We reminisced about those hectic
days. And believe it or not, Marjorie and
I later discovered that a woman in our
church here in Henderson, Nev.—who
was at that time only 13 years old—had
trudged along a road near Nordhausen
with scores of other refugees heading
West, at the same time I was in my Jeep
10 km from where she walked. Talk
about a small world.
Aden B. Meinel ( email@example.com) retired in
1993 as the distinguished scientist at the Jet
Propulsion Laboratory. He is also professor
emeritus at the University of Arizona Optical