Creative Program Moves Proving Ground Forward In 1950's

Author: Chuck Wullenjohn/Friday, February 02, 2007/Categories: News At YPG

To more fully use the skills and education of people drafted into the Army, the Scientific and Professional (S and P) program was established in the mid-1950's to assign Soldiers with advanced educational degrees and skills to specific programs. Dozens of these enlisted Soldiers were assigned as engineers to Yuma Proving Ground, then called the Yuma Test Station, working on a wide variety of weapon system test programs and eventually forming much of the proving ground's management team during the next several decades. Workers in the S and P program included mathematicians, electrical, mechanical and civil engineers, architects, scientists, and much more.

Coming from localities around the nation, S and P personnel assigned to Yuma had completed advanced college degree programs prior to being drafted. All had completed basic training. Some were drafted after completing college, some worked in civilian industry for a year or two.

The S and P program lasted only about ten years, with Soldiers assigned to a variety of installations within the United States, including White Sands Missile Range, N.M., and Aberdeen Proving Ground, Md. During a reunion recently held in Arizona, former S and P soldiers who had served at Yuma Test Station gathered to swap stories, share photos and reminisce.

Mack White worked in Yuma between 1957 and 1959 at the rank of private, living in a two story barracks in the proving ground's main administrative area. Assigned as a structural engineer, he designed a variety of test facilities, such as the 60 percent slope still used to measure the horsepower of tanks and other vehicles, designed roads and built structures on the ranges.

"The Yuma winters were like springtime to us and we got used to the heat of the summer," said White. "The Army got good use of us while we were in Yuma and we never expected our duty to be this good. We enjoyed every minute of it for we had expected to be assigned to the infantry."

White believes he never worked with a more talented group of engineers than during his time at the test station. "These people could make anything work," he said. "They weren't the conservative number crunchers I saw in graduate school, but were truly amazing guys who could really get things done. We knew we were performing important work."

One of the highlights of the reunion was visiting U.S. Army Yuma Proving Ground and the barracks they used to live in. "I'm thrilled," said White, "for I haven't been back since. We all complained about our duty then, like all Soldiers, but those were two of the best years of my entire life."

Also attending the reunion was Bill Lee of Portland, Or., a project engineer on the Little John and Honest John rocket program for two years beginning in 1959. A mechanical engineer by training, Lee remembers the mess hall where they ate and what he typically considered to be "bad food". Lots of times he would go to the mess hall, look at the food, then visit the post exchange for a hamburger. "It wasn't necessarily that the food was bad, it was that the cooks couldn't cook," he said with a laugh. "I still won't eat off metal trays."

The S and P Soldiers shared a two story wood barracks and spent a great deal of leisure time together. They spent hours on nearby Colorado River beaches and traveled into Mexico or up to Flagstaff. Some hunted, some fished, some enjoyed exploring the desert. In Yuma, they were frequent visitors to longtime popular restaurants such as Chretin's and Jack & Rosie's.

Lee said one of the Soldiers was an avid bridge player and taught several others how to play so they could have regular card games, some of which lasted most of the night. He says they even played in several bridge tournaments in Yuma, which they didn't win, but which were lots of fun.

Lee spent a great deal of time in recent years with Jack Austin tracking down former S and P Soldiers who had served in Yuma, locating over 65 people. Much of this searching took place over the Internet. Their first reunion, held in Las Vegas in 2003, attracted 50 attendees. Over 20, mostly from the West Coast, were able to attend in 2006.

"We really bonded," said Lee. "All of us S and P's hung out together."

Jack Austin served in the flight determination branch measuring muzzle and firing chamber velocities, among other things, in 1959 and 1960. A data reduction specialist, he took data from film and measurement instruments and crunched it into useable numbers.

One winter he traveled to Fort Churchill, Canada, to conduct tests in extreme cold. His mechanical calculator broke during that time. Since a repair technician was not available at that isolated site which was hundreds of miles from a large city, he took the calculator apart himself, found the problem and repaired it.

In some ways, the S and P Soldiers were half civilian and half military. "We worked with civilians from 8: 00 a.m. to 4:00 p.m. each day, performing as professional civilian engineers," explained Austin. "When we returned to the barracks in the evening, we returned to the military lifestyle." This led to some humorous situations, for as Bill Lee explained, the S and P soldiers often considered themselves "better than the Army."

One prank perpetrated by the engineers was played on military policemen working at a nearby stockade. Many of them parked their vehicles outside the stockade at night, playing their radios loud. This disturbed the S and P Soldiers, who retaliated by designing and constructing an electronic jammer to disrupt radio signals.

Another time the Soldiers figured out how to tap into the line that broadcast recorded bugle calls on post, substituting Dixieland music instead.

Despite playing occasional pranks, the S and P Soldiers performed a great deal of detailed, valuable work for the U.S. military that helped protect the nation and the entire Western World from communist aggression during the days of the Cold War.

"But remember, we did it all for $67.00 per month," said Rich Sholtis, who proposed during the meeting that the next reunion take place in Williamsburg, Va.

The work the Soldiers performed and the bonding that occurred made quite an impact that was explained by Dick Anderson. "We operated as brothers," he said, "and I don't forget one minute of it. We were one unit filled with a lot of wonderful guys."

Many of the Soldiers were offered full time employment at the test station at the completion of their service obligation. Some returned to the private world while others decided to remain in Yuma. Numerous proving ground stalwarts who performed critical management functions for many years resulted. These included Wahner Brooks, Dave Twomey, Ken Geitzen, and Jim Wymer. Mr. Wymer is currently Yuma Proving Ground's technical director and senior civilian.

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