John Bruce Medaris
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John Bruce Medaris (12 May 1902 – 11 July 1990) was an officer in the United States Army. During World War II he became a highly decorated colonel in the ordnance corps of the First Army, serving in every campaign from North Africa to Sicily, Normandy, the Battle of the Bulge, and invasion of Germany. In 1955 he assumed command of the Army Ballistic Missile Agency at the Redstone Arsenal in Huntsville, Alabama. Under his supervision Wernher von Braun and the German Rocket Team developed the Jupiter missile which launched the first U.S. earth satellite into orbit in 1958. Medaris went on to play a role in the post-Sputnik debates over how the U.S. government ought to respond to the Soviet challenge. When the Eisenhower administration decided to create a civilian space agency, assigned long-range ballistic missiles to the Air Force and Navy, then transferred the Huntsville Rocket Team to the NASA, Medaris retired from the army and wrote a critical memoir. Several years later he found an entirely different calling as an Anglican priest.
John Bruce Medaris was born in Milford, Ohio on 12 May 1902 to William Roudebush Medaris, a lawyer, and Jessie LeSourd Medaris, a school teacher and accountant. His ancestry, which dated back to colonial times, was mixed but the name was of Basque origin. His parents divorced when he was four, leaving mother and son in impoverished circumstances. Bruce was partly raised by his maternal grandmother, who encouraged him to be ambitious and independent from an early age. As a result, he began working at the age of 9, first as a paper boy, then lamplighter, mail handler for the railroad, trolley conductor, and taxi driver, all the while attending school full-time. Medaris joined a junior military organization and practiced daily on the rifle range. In his memoir he described his lifelong fascination with weapons.
First military career
In 1918 the United States was at war with Germany and Medaris was determined to enlist. His mother could have stopped him by revealing his true age was only 16, but reluctantly gave her consent. He became a rifleman in the U.S. Marine Corps and was shipped over to France, but did not see combat. He mustered out in August 1919 and returned home to study mechanical and electrical engineering at the Ohio State University, during which time he met his first wife. Drawn again to the military, Medaris joined the National Guard and won an army commission in a nationwide contest. He was sworn in as a Second Lieutenant in September 1921 and served with the 29th Infantry regiment at Fort Benning, Georgia, until 1924 when he was transferred to the 33rd regiment based in Panama. It was there that Medaris achieved a lifelong fluency in Spanish and became an excellent equestrian. In 1927 he won approval for a transfer to the Ordnance corps only to be lured out of the Army by an offer from the General Motors Export Corporation dealership in Colombia . He later confessed that he came to regret that decision since he missed Army life. NOTE #2
Medaris and his first wife spent a year and a half in Colombia during which time he also learned to fly airplanes. He returned to the United States in 1929 whereupon the Wall Street Crash ruined his finances and spoiled his marriage. Within a year he remarried and doggedly pursued a business career. He climbed the corporate ladder in the Kroger Corporation, but grew bored with the grocery business. So he jumped at the chance to own an automobile dealership only to have it fail miserably in 1938. Luckily, Medaris had kept up his duties as a Reserve Officer and sensing that another war was coming, applied for a return to active duty. NOTE #3
Second military career
Medaris won appointment as Captain in the Ordnance Corps on 11 July 1939, and worked for three years with regional industries to facilitate U.S. rearmament. Following Pearl Harbor he yearned to be sent overseas and succeeded "by making myself thoroughly obnoxious." He sailed for North Africa in December 1942 to support the II Army Corps from a base in Algiers. When news came of the disastrous Battle of Kasserine Pass in February, Colonel Medaris led the effort to secure emergency resupply while his ordnance teams worked frantically to repair tanks and guns. General Omar Bradley personally commended him and came to rely on his expert advice and good judgment. Following the invasion of Sicily during which Medaris also served under General George S. Patton, he was summoned to England. Bradley was preparing First Army for the Normandy invasion and wanted Medaris as his Chief of Ordnance. He landed on Omaha Beach on 7 June, the morning after D-Day. During the furious battle of Normandy he overcame a series of emergencies including an exploding ammunition dump, severe shortages after a storm destroyed the "Mulberry" pier constructed off Omaha Beach, and the vulnerability of American tanks to German fire while attempting to scale the ubiquitous hedgerows in Normandy. A sergeant suggested welding sharp "tusks" to the tanks that could cut through hedges. Medaris estimated his crews would need 500 tons of welding rod to outfit Bradley's armored divisions and persuaded the general and skeptical Pentagon to supply them. His unit was also the first to be on the receiving end of a wayward V-2 rocket, which was ironic given his later association with the German Rocket Team. Finally, Medaris was responsible for selecting the location for the main ordnance dump that would supply the Allied assault across the Rhine River. He fortunately chose a site ten miles from Remagen, the very town where American soldiers captured the last undestroyed bridge over the Rhine. His outstanding service in the European Theater of Operations earned him a Distinguished Service Medal.
After the war Medaris considered retirement again, but decided to soldier on despite a decline in budgets and morale in the postwar Army. Due to his fluency in Spanish he served from 1949 to 1952 as military attaché in Argentina, a delicate post given the pro-German Juan Perón regime was still in power. He returned to the Pentagon just in time to address the shortfall in the provision of ammunition to the U.S. forces bogged down in the Korean War. His service during that emergency earned him promotion to Brigadier General. After the Korean armistice in July 1953 Medaris turned his attention to the newest category of ordnance – guided missiles – only to be frustrated that the Army seemed to be losing out to the other services. He was contemplating retirement a third time when the Army gave him a second star and asked him to take command of the 1,600 scientists and engineers at the Redstone Arsenal effective 1 February 1956. NOTE #4
Army ballistic missile command
Medaris proved to be an excellent choice. Throughout his military and civilian careers he had displayed an irascible, feisty streak that often earned him the enmity of rivals. During World War II, for instance, he had been rejected for promotion to general three times. He also had an imperious streak. He sported a dashing mustache, wore impeccably pressed uniforms and spit shined boots, and carried a quirt – a short horse whip – which he would slap for emphasis while speaking his mind. He did not suffer fools gladly, but he never broke discipline, and by all accounts was an extraordinary manager who knew how to get the most out of people. He and Wernher von Braun became close friends during their years at Huntsville. NOTE #5
The scientists and engineers of the German Rocket Team had been drafted by the Nazi regime to develop large rockets as "vengeance weapons." Their crowning achievement, the V-2, was the world's first medium range ballistic missile. But the real motivation for von Braun and the others was spaceflight. At the end of the war most of the Germans fled westward to surrender to the Americans rather than the Soviets. The U.S. Army's Operation Paperclip was established for precisely this purpose. By 1946 the Army had reassembled the team at Fort Bliss, Texas, to test V-2s at White Sands Missile Range, New Mexico. They were relocated to Huntsville in 1950 and put to work on a surface-to-surface missile called the Redstone. But missiles as weapons, let alone spaceflight, were not a priority for the U.S. military because American bombers could readily threaten the U.S.S.R. with nuclear destruction from bases in Europe and Asia. The Soviets, by contrast, could threaten the United States only by developing intercontinental ballistic missiles. Hence they placed a high priority on rocketry and made rapid progress. By the mid-1950s the Pentagon approved programs to develop two intermediate range ballistic missiles, the Air Force's Thor and the Army's Jupiter, a 58 foot tall variant of the Redstone missile. Meanwhile, an entirely different but intimately related train of events had begun to play out in the sphere of international scientific cooperation. The nations declared July 1957 to December 1958 an International Geophysical Year and one of the projects proposed was the launch of artificial satellites into earth orbit. The Eisenhower administration insisted that the project be exclusively scientific and assigned it to a small civilian program called Vanguard. Indeed, the Pentagon gave Medaris explicit orders not to launch a satellite, whether accidentally or on purpose, with his military rockets. Finally, the Eisenhower administration had a top-secret ulterior motive for not using military missiles in a space program or even launching a satellite prior to the Soviets. The Air Force and CIA were hard at work on the Corona Program, also known as Discoverer and WS-117L, the goal of which was to develop reconnaissance satellites able to spy on the Soviet Union and verify hoped-for arms control treaties. The White House feared that if the United States launched first, the Soviets would protest the violation of their air space (as they would the notorious U-2 spy planes), whereas the best way to establish "freedom of space" was to let the Soviets launch first. NOTE #6
In 1956 Medaris and von Braun had formally proposed launching seven satellites during 1957-58 only to be expressly forbidden. That became especially vexing after the first successful test of the Jupiter covered 3,350 miles on 17 September 1956. Tests continued the following year until 8 August 1957, when a Jupiter C missile launched a nose cone which could easily have been propelled into orbit by a small upper-stage rocket had the Army received a green light. Nevertheless, a big milestone was reached that day because the nose cone re-entered the atmosphere and was recovered intact, thereby demonstrating that the Army team's ablative heat shield was effective. Meanwhile, the Soviets had tested an ICBM in August and promised to launch a satellite very soon.
A distinguished delegation including Secretary of Defense Neil McElroy was visiting Redstone Arsenal on 4 October when news flashed that the Russians had launched a satellite called Sputnik 1. As Medaris recalled, von Braun's frustration poured forth in a torrent of words: "We knew they were going to do it! Vanguard will never make it. We have the hardware on the shelf. For God’s sake turn us loose and let us do something. We can put up a satellite in sixty days, Mr. McElroy." Medaris cautiously interjected, "No, Wernher, ninety days." Sputnik proved to be a sensational Soviet propaganda feat, while a riot of recrimination, self-doubt, and fear spread throughout the United States and NATO during the weeks and months that followed. On 3 November the Soviets launched Sputnik 2 with a payload of 1,100 pounds, proving they now had the capability to visit nuclear destruction on North America. Senator Lyndon Johnson presided over sensational hearings to inquire how it was the United States was losing the "space race" to the clod-hopping Russians. The Pentagon, under intense pressure, at last gave Medaris authorization to prepare, but still not execute, a satellite launch.
The Vanguard's rocket blew up on the pad on 6 December and Americans were humiliated anew. But for the Eisenhower administration there was a silver lining: the fact that the Soviets had launched satellites first meant the legality of satellite overflight was established. So the Pentagon finally gave Medaris a green light to launch with a military rocket. The Huntsville team assembled the Juno launch system, which was a Redstone with small upper stages, at Cape Canaveral only to be thwarted by high winds until the evening of 31 January 1958, when the countdown was completed and the rocket arced perfectly into the night. But the terrible tension felt by Medaris, von Braun, launch director Kurt Debus, and the rest of their team dragged on for ninety more minutes until confirmation came from the Jet Propulsion Laboratory's radar station in California that Explorer 1, America's first satellite, was transmitting from orbit. NOTE #7
The national panic sparked by the Sputniks should have been the best thing that could have happened for the Rocket Team. Medaris himself became head of the Army Ordnance Missile Command on 31 March 1958, with full authority over the ABMA, White Sands Missile Range, Jet Propulsion Laboratory, and Cape Canaveral Firing Range, and responsibility for all Army programs in missiles and space. During 1958 and 1959 the latter including more Explorer satellites and a series of Pioneer lunar probes. The Army's space launches enabled scientists to make significant discoveries beginning with the Van Allen radiation belts surrounding the earth. Looking ahead to human spaceflight the Rocket Team launched and recovered two primates. In May 1961 a Mercury Redstone rocket launched the first astronaut Alan B. Shepherd on his suborbital flight. As early as December 1957 von Braun had drafted – and Medaris promoted – a visionary space program that called for a soft lunar landing by 1960, a two-man satellite by 1962, Saturn rockets capable of boosting ten tons into orbit by 1963, an orbiting space station by 1965, a three-man expedition to the moon by 1967, and a permanent manned lunar base by 1971. That inspired an even more elaborate Army plan called Project Horizon in June 1959.
Sputnik sparked a free-for-all among all the military branches, civilian bureaucracies, corporations, and universities about how to organize a gigantic effort to promote missiles and space technology swiftly and in ways that served several national interests. Medaris testified before Congress, in public appearances, and through the military chain of command. He advocated tirelessly in favor of keeping the ABMA team intact within a single, unified military and civilian space program so as to minimize redundancy, bureaucracy, and waste. But he and the Army lost out. The Eisenhower administration took counsel from the President's Science Advisory Committee, the National Science Foundation, the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics, the Pentagon, and influential Senators led by Lyndon Johnson, and chose instead to divide the space program between military and civilian agencies and among the armed services. Its decisions on roles and missions restricted the Army to short-range rockets and gave the incipient ICBM programs such as Atlas, Titan, and Polaris to the Air Force and Navy. In July 1958 Congress created a news agency, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, and gave it responsibility for all scientific programs and non-military launch vehicles. The Jet Propulsion Laboratory was transferred to the NASA in December 1958, the German Rocket Team in 1959, and Redstone Arsenal in 1960, which became the NASA's George C. Marshall Space Flight Center. Medaris's consolation prize was to be a third star and a desk job in the Pentagon. Instead, he retired from the Army on 31 January 1960, two years to the day after the launch of Explorer 1, and wrote a plaintive, piercing memoir called Countdown for Decision. NOTE #8
Personal life and calling to the priesthood
He married Gwendolyn Hunter in 1920, who gave birth to a daughter they named Marilyn the marriage ended in 1930. He remarried a year later to Virginia Rose Smith by whom he eventually had two children, Marta Virginia and John Bruce Jr. After retirement from the Army, Medaris worked briefly in Washington and New York before moving to Maitland, Florida, where he became an active parishioner in the Church of the Good Shepherd. He studied theology, and was ordained a deacon in 1969 and priest in 1970. NOTE #9
Legion of Merit (1943) for conduct after Kasserine Pass
Bronze Star (1944) for meritorious service in preparation for D-Day
Soldier's Medal (1944) for Battle of the Bulge
Distinguished Service Medal (1945) for meritorious service in the European theater
Decorations from the governments of France and Luxemburg
Legion of Merit with Oak Leaf Cluster (1958) for command of the ABMA
Navy Commendation (1958) for service to the Fleet Ballistic Missile Weapons System
Air Force Legion of Merit (1960) for leadership of the Jupiter Missile Program
Honorary Doctorate of Science, Rollins College, 1958
Honorary Doctorate of Science, New Mexico State University, 1958
Honorary Doctorate of Laws, University of Chattanooga, 1960
Ordnance Corps Hall of Fame, inducted May 1961.
Honored by National Space Club and the Smithsonian Institution for lifetime achievement and promotion of public awareness in the U.S. space program
Honorary Doctorate of Space Science, Florida Institute of Technology, 1963
- NOTE 1: Gordon Harris, A New Command: The Story of a General Who Became a Priest (Logos, 1976), pp. 10–22; John Bruce Medaris, Countdown for Decision (New York: G. P. Putnam's Sons, 1960), pp. 10–13.
- NOTE #2: Harris, New Command (1976), pp. 23–36; Medaris, Countdown (1960), pp. 13–17.
- NOTE #3: Harris, New Command (1976), pp. 37–56; Medaris, Countdown (1960), pp. 17–18
- NOTE #4: Harris, New Command (1976), pp. 57–108; Arlington Cemetery, John Bruce Medaris, accessed 23 July 2018.
- NOTE #5: Erenow Military History, "John Bruce Medaris and Wernher von Braun," accessed 7/25/18: https://erenow.com/ww/a-fiery-peace-in-a-cold-war/52.php. On the relationship between Medaris and von Braun see also Michael J. Neufeld, Von Braun: Dreamer of Space, Engineer of War (New York: A. A. Knopf, 2007), pp 303–36, 340-42; Frederick I. Ordway III and Mitchell R. Sharpe, The Rocket Team (New York: Crowell, 1979), pp. 377–90; and Medaris, New Command, pp. 98–112.
- NOTE #6: On this complex of issues see Walter A. McDougall, ... the Heavens and the Earth: A Political History of the Space Age. (New York: Basic Books, 1985), pp. 97–134; Roger D. Launius, John R. Logsdon, and Robert W. Smith, eds. Reconsidering Sputnik: Forty Years Since the Soviet Satellite (Amsteldijk, Netherlands: Harwood Academic, 2000), pp. 161–257; Dwayne A. Day; John M. Logsdon, and Brian Latell, eds. Eye in the Sky: The Story of the Corona Spy Satellites (Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian Institution, 1998); Phil Taubman, Secret Empire: Eisenhower, the CIA, and the Hidden Story of America’s Space Espionage (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2003); Asif A. Siddiqi, Sputnik and the Soviet Space Challenge (Gainesville: University Press of Florida, 2003).
- NOTE #7: Harris, New Command (1976), pp. 179–94; Medaris, Countdown (1960), pp. 192–226.
- NOTE #8: Harris, New Command (1976), pp. 195–210; Medaris, Countdown (1960), pp. 257–69. The memoirs of the first NASA Administrator T. Keith Glennan, The Birth of NASA (Washington, D.C.: NASA History Office, 1993), tells the story from the civilian side; Medaris pithily summed up these fierce bureaucratic battles: "I was poison," he recalled: Washington Post, "Touchdown for America’s Pioneer Rocket Man" (10 March 1989), accessed 7/23/2018: https://www.washingtonpost.com/archive/lifestyle/1989/03/10/touchdown-for-americas-pioneer-rocket-man/a648f010-ade2-4ecb-9588-d6b1107142c0/
- NOTE #9: Harris, New Command (1976), pp. 93–94 (Bristol Cathedral), 151-55 (first bout with cancer); 222-39 (second bout with cancer); 240-46 (third bout with cancer); 247-83 (ordination and ministry).
- NOTE #10: Washington Post, "Touchdown for America’s Pioneer Rocket Man" (1989).
- Rip Bulkeley. The Sputniks Crisis and Early United States Space Policy. Bloomington: Indiana University, 1991.
- Day, Dwayen A.; Logsdon, John M.; and Latell, Brian, eds. Eye in the Sky: The Story of the Corona Spy Satellites. Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian Institution, 1998
- Divine, Robert A. The Sputnik Challenge. New York: Oxford University, 1993.
- Erenow Military History, "John Bruce Medaris and Wernher von Braun," accessed 7/25/18
- Harris, Gordon. A New Command: The Story of a General Who Became a Priest. Plainfield, N. J.: Logos Press, 1976.
- Launius, Roger D., Logsdon, John R., and Smith, Robert W., eds. Reconsidering Sputnik: Forty Years Since the Soviet Satellite. Amsteldijk, Netherlands: Harwood
- Academic Publishers, 2000.
- McDougall, Walter A. ... the Heavens and the Earth: A Political History of the Space Age. New York: Basic Books, 1985.
- Medaris, John Bruce. Countdown for Decision. New York: G. P. Putnam's Sons, 1960.
- Neufeld, Michael J. Von Braun: Dreamer of Space, Engineer of War. New York: A. A. Knopf, 2007.
- Ordway, Frederick I. III, Sharpe, Mitchell R. The Rocket Team. New York: Crowell, 1979.
- Siddiqi, Asif A., Sputnik and the Soviet Space Challenge (Gainesville: University Press of Florida, 2003.
- Taubman, Phil. Secret Empire: Eisenhower, the CIA, and the Hidden Story of America’s Space Espionage. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2003.
- Washington Post, "Touchdown for America’s Pioneer Rocket Man" (10 March 1989), accessed 7/23/2018:
|Wikimedia Commons has media related to John B. Medaris.|
- Patterson, Michael Robert. "John Bruce Medaris, Major General, United States Army". www.arlingtoncemetery.net. Retrieved 27 July 2018.
- Harris, Gordon (1976). A New Command: The Story of a General Who Became a Priest. Logos. pp. 10–22.
- Medaris, John (1960). Countdown for Decision. G. P. Putnam’s Sons. pp. 10–13.
- "JOHN BRUCE MEDARIS AND WERNHER VON BRAUN - A Fiery Peace in a Cold War: Bernard Schriever and the Ultimate Weapon". erenow.net. Retrieved 4 March 2019.
- Harris, Art (10 March 1989). "Touchdown for America's pioneer rocket man". The Washington Post. Retrieved 3 May 2019.