The son of one of AEDC’s pioneering scientists, Winfried Goethert, spoke Wednesday at The University of Tennessee Space Institute about his family’s wartime experiences and the secret program that brought his father, an influential aerospace pioneer and founding dean of the school, the late Dr. Bernhard H. Goethert to America.
The elder Goethert was a German aeronautics scientist during World War II. He was recruited by the United States military following the war as part of the then secret Operation Paperclip that sought to recruit the best German minds in military research.
Winfried’s discussion began with his memories as 5 year old on Christmas Eve, 1943 when British bombers released their payload near his neighborhood in Berlin.
“The smell. And the smoke was quite a bit. This is something that a 5-year-old remembers,” Winfried said. “After walking out (of the bomb shelter) we saw shrapnel everywhere. We also saw these white sticks, about a foot long and three inches in diameter. We were kicking them around.”
Winifred, later in life, searched history books for information on that Christmas bombing run. He finally found a mention of the 290 British bombers that dropped 700 tons of high explosives and 600 of incendiaries, the very same white “sticks” that the Goethert boys were kicking around Christmas morning.
Goethert describes soon after leaving Berlin for the relative safety of a farming village Diemarden, while the father stayed in Berlin.
Winfried recalls the formations of B-17s and B-24 and the way the ground shook from the roar of their radial engines.
“The sound of the radial engines, you can feel that kinda through the ground. We kids did know what (those formations) were all about,” he said.
He distinctly remembers seeing a twin fuselage P-38 flying over, but also of hearing of a village girl killed by strafing fire from allied fighters and warnings of young pilots ready to shoot anything that moved out in the open.
Later as the war turn even more against Germany and the US army moved further into Germany the areas near his village became the scene of the fight.
Villagers would shelter in their basements, sure to keep their doors open to prevent G.I.s machine gunning the doors.
“We could see the action. The Americans and Germans were exchanging their greetings. Ordinance was flying over us,” Winfried said. It was quite interesting, from a kid’s point of view,” Goethert said.
“There were tanks sitting around, guns lying around, unspent bullets everywhere.”
The children would find live “potato masher” hand grenades and play with them not knowing what they were.
When the US army captured the region, the village children learned quickly that they could fetch firewood for sentries in exchange for 1-inch squares of Hersey’s Chocolate bars.
With a taste for American chocolates, after the war and their father had made it from the Russian sector in Berlin to the British sector, when a jeep with G.I.s came looking for B.H. Goethert, the young brothers helped themselves into the distracted officer’s rucksack and more America chocolate.
According to an agreement by the Soviet Union, the US and Britain, Germany was divided into three occupation zones. Each country had access to what was in their sector, but sometimes countries were interested in technologies in other sections. Unofficial “raids” would secure things and people from those sectors.
B.H. Goethert did not want to be taken to Moscow to work for the Russians, rather to get to his family, so he worked out several different attempts to their village, with one almost getting him shot by Russian soldiers, and the others resulting in being detained by the American army and then the British.
Winfried’s father was eventually recruited to work in America for two years under Operation Overcast, later redubbed Operation Paperclip.
One way the Soviets got scientist they wanted was to grab their families and hold them as leverage. Not long after Goethert was recruited by the US, his family was given protection and food and covertly transported to the American sector. In 1947, the family traveled across Europe literally under the cover of night to begin the voyage to America.
The family was transported to the states on a Liberty Ship. Goethert recalled the trip being a terrifying 14-day crossing on high seas with 20 foot swells. Years later, he discovered that these hastily built ships were considered successful if they survived three Atlantic crossings.
Goethert’s memories of arriving in New York Harbor are of a foggy morning with the Statue of Liberty emerging from the mist.
At Wright-Patterson, Paperclip scientists and their families were housed in a secret camp in Wright Field. Reportedly there were 40,000 pounds of explosives somewhere on the site used for storing scrapped aircraft.
The Goethert boys never found the explosives.
The families were relocated to Wood City, also a secret location, at neighboring Patterson Field. The boy learned English first from the G.I.s, then were sent to school for less colorful language instructions.
As B.H. Goethert’s time under Paperclip came to an end, he was offered a more permanent deal. But first the family had to officially enter the US. A plan was made for the Goethert family to drive to Niagara Falls, cross into Canada, then return to the states and meet with State Department handlers.
The family moved to Manchester in 1953.
His senior year, Goethert was in history class at Manchester High School when he was called to the office to checkout so that he could take his oath of allegiance and become an American citizen in 1957.
Years later, as a budding engineer with degrees from University of Tennessee at Knoxville and UTSI in hand, Goethert’s security clearance application was hampered by his “missing years” while part of Operation Paperclip. Only later were the locations of the Wright-Patterson Camps officially disclosed in the base records.
B.H. Goethert was the first dean of the University of Tennessee Space Institute. In 1964, he was named chief scientist of Air Force Systems Command at Andrews Air Force Base. He first came to AEDC in 1952 as chief of the Propulsion Wind Tunnel. In 1963 he was research vice president and chief scientist for ARO, Inc.