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The Chrysler Corporation Missile Division and the Redstone missiles

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The Chrysler Corporation Missile Division and the Redstone missiles

© 2008 Curtis Redgap, Orlando, Florida

Chrysler Corporation had developed a formidable reputation during World War II as a "can-do" engineering team, able to tackle any situation. U. S. Army Major General Leslie Groves, whose aggressive determination brought forth the Atom Bomb, could not praise Chrysler Corporation or President K. T. Keller highly enough. Nor could the Chief of Ordnance during the war, or the Military Chief of Staff, George Marshall. Without Chrysler's engineering prowess, and the Chrysler Airtemp Division's knowledge of large or special areas to cool, there would have been many more years needed to produce the materials needed for atomic explosions.

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World War II ended in total on September 2, 1945. The Japanese signed instruments of surrender aboard the battleship USS Missouri. Five-star General Douglas MacArthur presided. American war planes, ships, and fighting men were shipping everywhere across Japan as soon as the pen strokes were complete.

Germany had completely capitulated on May 8, 1945. Five-star General Dwight David Eisenhower had been in charge, but refused to meet with the Germans. After personally inspecting the prison camps where untold atrocities had occurred, General Eisenhower showed nothing but disgust and contempt towards the Nazi tyranny and those that participated in it.

Teams of US Army Intelligence Branch officers set out across Germany to acquire Germany's war booty. They were keen to get German rockets and rocket scientists, as was Great Britain, which had suffered with the terror of such machines. They were in a race with the Soviet Union to get those scientists; and among the 135 (counts vary because some files are still classified) German missile experts grabbed by the United States was the head of the German programs, and world's leading rocket expert at the time, Dr. Werner Van Braun.

The German missile experts were quietly brought to Huntsville, Alabama, then supporting a population of 18,000. It was quiet and nondescript, under the radar, so to speak. Helped by the United States military, German experts were "encouraged" to work for the United States in missile development. They were told that they didn't have to work for the U.S. government at all. Most did stay on.

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Meanwhile, Walter Chrysler had retired, rich beyond any expectation, in 1935, taking a $200,000 a year salary, after personally choosing K. T. Keller to replace him as President. In 1935, the 1938 and 1939 model cars were on the drawing boards; new engineering items were nonexistent. After the poor sales performance of the revolutionary Airflow, Keller was satisfied in building nondescript, solid cars, that were not trendy, but exuded solid transportation reliability. It began a slow slide into Chrysler being viewed as producers of "dowdy, dumpy, schoolmarm cars," with all the charm and desirability of a high backed wooden rocking chair.

Keller was at his most comfortable and competent during World War II. One of the first things he developed, aside from a great friendship with FDR and the Roosevelt administration, was the Tank Arsenal for the US Army. Often, a direct phone call, followed by a meeting with some military functionary, was all that was needed for Chrysler to secure millions of dollars in defense contracts. Keller was good as gold, and solid as any mountain anywhere. So much so, that when a Senator Harry Truman from Missouri came, looking into military price gouging, overruns, and cost runups, Chrysler was always given a clean bill of health.

Harry Truman was not a man to forget. Nor did Keller go unnoticed by the Defense Department. He received medals, honors and awards for his war work, part of which was building the equipment for enriching uranium at Oak Ridge. That job commenced with a handshake from Keller to General Leslie Groves. At that second, $55 million was committed, with no one really aware of what they were seeking! Keller was given the highest award through his war work, the Civilian Medal of Merit. He was also honored by Hollywood through a movie from M-G-M entitled The Beginning Of The End which starred John Litel as Keller.

After the war, car sales were forsaken as Keller ended up more interested in remaking the conference room than new designs. He loved to micromanage, wouldn't take advice, didn't like styling, and insisted on cars that were boxy so people could wear hats inside them. At the same time, defense income for Chrysler fell with the end of World War II.

Keller did allow for a new automatic transmission study, which eventually (1953) resulted in the Powerflite two speed automatic. With sales dropping, he relented on styling, and hired Virgil Exner to remake the designs on the entire line of cars, starting in 1949. That was also the year that Keller ordered that 1.5 inches be added to the entire spectrum of Chrysler cars.

Keller also made the final decision on a new engine for Chrysler, the FirePower Hemispherical Head V-8. He kept Chrysler in the defense loop with a V-12 and a V-16 engine nominally designed to power tanks. Chrysler designed, developed and built both the M-48 tank and the tank engine.

Keller often described himself as "a machinist by trade." That is exactly what he was. He had no real inside knowledge of how a big corporation worked and never developed the skills that his boss had in engineering, styling, sales, and human resources.

Meanwhile, President Harry Truman was working on a number of domestic issues, among which was a national health insurance plan, like the ones being developed by Britain, Canada, France, and Germany. A potential hot spot was virtually ignored until the 25th of June 1950. North Korean soldiers burst across the 38th parallel, putting the South Koreans and the American military on the run. At that point, military income amounted to about 3% of the total of all income for Chrysler.

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Chrysler Corporation had a hand in the electronics development of the new missile program that the US Army was cobbling together in late 1945 going in to 1946. This was based upon Chrysler's engineering acumen and early use of computing, which had been applied in development of radar, as well as components for the atom bomb circuits during the wars years of 1942 through 1944.

America's first military missiles were made out of parts and bits from the German V-2 rocket program in early 1944, through General Electric. America's rocket program wobbled along, sometimes getting what it asked for, and other times left dangling. At the conclusion of WW II, GE just ran ahead of the apex of missile development.

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With Korea suddenly on the forefront of everyone's mind, President Truman committed American military forces to assist the South Koreans. Pragmatic President Truman recognized that the military state of the United States had to be changed. He sought a centralized military, changing the Cabinet level Secretary duties in his administration, since the President is the Commander in Chief. K. T. Keller made contributions to this vital piece of legislation by accepting President Truman's invitation to join the Coast Guard Advisory Panel in 1947.

President Truman highly recommended to his Defense Secretary, General George C. Marshall, that K. T. Keller be put in charge of the newly formed U.S. Guided Missile Program. Keller answered the call on October 25, 1950, to coordinate missile research, implement development, and accelerate production. Chrysler Corporation released Keller from the Presidency; Keller had been scheduled for retirement on November 3, 1950 due to his age of 65.

The position of Chairman of the Board of Chrysler Corporation had been resurrected, just for Keller; the job had been open since Walter Chrysler had died, in 1940.

As the Korean war escalated, President Truman began procedures to implement the War Production Board so as to insure that the tools, weapons, and components needed by the military would be available through the taking over of civilian production facilities. A great debate arose about shutting down plants and transitioning to war production, just as it had prior to the declaration of war in 1940/41. Chrysler turned down the contract for the Merlin Rolls Royce Engine, saying it was too "costly to convert from metric to SAE!"

Most major auto facilities did not want to have to shut down to make war goods, especially for a "police action" where huge amounts of materials would not be needed.

K. T. Keller assured the Truman administration that the American industrial might was so great that not only could they continue to produce civilian products, they could also build and maintain any materials called upon for the military. (To hedge his bets, Keller ordered a total study done for every car and truck built by Chrysler to find a means to save materials in building them!)

That was good enough for General Marshall, and a great political move for Truman. The President could continue the war, and still keep the economy humming. President Truman was practical, and never rescinded his intention to implement the War Production Board, dangling an implied use of it over America's industrial base.

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K. T. Keller was what the missile program needed. His traits as a manager had hurt Chrysler Corporation, but helped him centralize guided missile work being carried out by both the Army and the Navy. Keller fixed shortfalls in central information sharing, record keeping, and budgetary controls. Funding was increased, since Keller held much esteem with the military command and the President. He was an astute, highly capable engineer, well able to discern what would work, and what needed to be set aside.

In July 1951, the Chief of Ordnance formerly transferred all development work on the US Army missile over to the Redstone Arsenal, on Keller's advice. It officially became the Redstone missile on 8 April 1952. Included in the project were some spectacular changes that K. T. Keller had initiated, based upon his production experience; the Redstone missile then operated under the Keller Accelerated Program, or Redstone KAP. This did not mean that any of the other programs were curtailed or stopped. They went right on, as did the Air Force and Navy missile programs. Keller made changes and recommendations to other programs for all the services. The official change only meant that the Redstone, at that stage of its development, could meet the target requirements as outlined by the Chief of Ordnance in the shortest possible time.

Personnel at the arsenal assumed that the arsenal would keep doing the development, assembly, designs, production, and launch control; but the Chief of Ordnance stated that the capabilities of the arsenal were inadequate for all the fabrication to be performed there. As a result, work was contracted by outside vendors to stay within the time and budget of the Keller Accelerated Program. The Chief of Ordnance also wrote, "Any manufacture and assembly of the Redstone missiles beyond that required to get a prime contractor successfully operating, will be accomplished by contract outside of the Redstone Arsenal."

One week later, on 17 April 1952, the Redstone Arsenal submitted its scope of proposed research and development to the Chief of Ordnance. At the same time, it requested the funds necessary to award a cost plus fixed fee type contract. It also needed to have the authority to award a 100% letter order contract because of the shortness of time in contract negotiations.

As it turned out, the arsenal had been searching around for contractors that might be capable of handling this sort of work. One day after it sent in its proposals, on the 18 of April 1952, it forwarded a list of six potential contractors, considered capable of being prime. They looked at only automotive and locomotive manufacturers. They purposefully avoided aircraft manufacturers because it was indicated that they would only be interested in items for the Air Force. On the prime list, out of the six, happened to be Chrysler Corporation. No one had contacted Chrysler or Mr. Keller about them being under consideration.

The criteria examined to determine the prime contractor list was based upon whether the management and administrative capability was strong enough to handle and coordinate all the factors involved in design, development, procurement, manufacture, assembly, and of course delivery of the complete missile systems. The Procurement board, acted quickly and added 3 more potential contractors to the list. Contact was initiated with all 9 potential prime contractors.

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The first three, Chrysler included, all turned the bid down. L. L. Colbert told the board that Chrysler was at its capacity, and there was just no where they could possibly place the program for production, within the companies facilities anywhere.

Three of the others also turned down the work. The three that did convey interest were further evaluated, and the board found them inadequate to do the whole job.

Suddenly, the United States Navy handed a cancellation notice in a deal for a new jet engine. The Navy had built and owned the Naval Industrial Reserve Aircraft Plant that was located in Warren, Michigan, near Sterling Heights, and of course, Chrysler's Tank Arsenal.

Learning of this, Chrysler indicated it would be interested in bidding on the Redstone contract providing they could obtain the jet engine plant. The word was passed, and the Navy offered the facility to Chrysler.

It wasn't until Chrysler started to move into the facility that certain parts of the Naval contract came forth that unnecessarily delayed the factory from opening. Initially it was thought that 200,000 square feet would be enough space. The Navy said at that point that it was all right, however, they wanted to be kept apprised of any and all programs going on inside the plant, and required that if they needed the plant to initiate jet engine production there, Chrysler had to completely vacate within 120 days.

By December 1953, it became obvious that to meet the contract requirement of 5 missiles a month, the production area would need to be enlarged to 400,000 square feet. The Navy balked. They insisted that the best use of the facility was for production of jet engines. In that instance, having Chrysler use one quarter of the available floor space was not in the best interest of the Navy, especially if a national emergency arose where the immediate production of jet engines would become a high priority. Ordnance also learned that the Navy, in lieu of letting Chrysler expand inside the plant, intended to mothball the facility or lease it out for some other military application, not a private contractor. It was a difficult situation, particularly for Chrysler as they were caught in the middle of a military political cat fight.

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At first, the Ordnance Department tried to get a firm commitment from the Navy to allow Chrysler the use of the facility in part. The Navy again firmly said "no." They reasoned that the highest best use of "their" wholly owned plant was for jet engine production. Essentially, if a national emergency arose, it would be competing for space with another high priority item in the Redstone.

Ordnance then made a request in February 1954 for $6.5 million to build a new facility where the Redstone could be built. The Detroit District began a diligent search for an area to develop. 45 different potential spots were looked at. Either the land cost too much, or there wasn't enough space. With the exception of Chrysler's San Laendro plant in California, the jet engine plant remained the best place to put the Redstone production without letting out a large amount of money. Chrysler had already spent just over $2.5 million when the installation and rehab of the Warren facility was held up by the Navy.

The boondoggle slowly worked its way up through the chain of command. Eventually, it ended up in the Secretary of Defense office. It was assigned as a priority to Assistant Secretary of Defense, Mr. Frank Higgins. Working his way through the various bureaus, Mr. Higgins visited the plant personally in September 1954, nine months after the issue had been raised.

On 27 September 1954, Mr. Higgins issued his report that the plant was capable of joint production of jet engines and the Redstone. At that time, he had obtained a firm commitment from the Navy that Chrysler would have use of the facility for two full years in order to run the Redstone "Pilot" program out of the plant. It was all a blind. Once that memo had been issued, everyone in the echelon fully grasped that the so called pilot program was going to be permanent. Subsequently, Ordnance issued Chrysler another contract, whereby immediate work was resumed in the plant. It had been a 10 month unnecessary delay.

As a result of the Naval blockade at the Warren Michigan facility, the first 12 missiles had to be built at the Redstone Arsenal. However, it was under the supervision of the prime contractor. The rest of the run of Redstone missiles were all built by Chrysler in Michigan. While total numbers of missiles built varies by source, at least 137 Redstone Missiles were built, and perhaps as many as 146.

Chrysler was the last contractor actually that came on board. Chrysler had to accept the other contractors that had already been bid and accepted. Reynolds Aluminum had been selected to build the fuselage. The engine contract had been won by North American (P-51 Mustang - F-86 Sabre Jet) Rocketdyne Division of the aviation company. Ford Instrument Company, which was a division of the Sperry Rand Corporation, was also included; Sperry and Chrysler Corporation were old acquaintances, having built the Sperry Gyro Compass which revolutionized ship navigation during Word War II.

The first Redstone was launched on 20 August 1953. It had been hand assembled, since at the time, the production line at Chrysler plant in Michigan was under construction. The test was a complete and total success making it a tribute to the Redstone Arsenal and to the Prime Contractor, Chrysler Corporation.

The full contract lasted 12 years. Every time a certain goal was reached, the contract was increased. The last Redstone left Chrysler's production line in 1961. The Redstone remained in Army service through 1964. Some were sent to Australia for their missile testing programs.

During that time, the Redstone gained a reputation as "The Army Work Horse." Civilian applications called it "Old Reliable."

Our next installment will cover the Redstone itself. Chrysler's work on missiles did not end with the Redstone program. They were also one of the first to receive contracts from the newly formed NASA programs.

Next: the Redstone and Saturn missiles - Chrysler lifts NASA

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