"Postwar America’s aerospace industry combined captured German personnel with manufacturing excellence to accomplish the most incredible engineering feats in history. But process knowledge can be easily lost."

Long before the fall of Berlin at the end of World War II, American military intelligence had begun planning to steal advanced Nazi technology. The German state was renowned for its technological prowess, and its propaganda extolled the country’s development of “wonder weapons” like the V-2 missile and ME-262 jet fighter. The Americans intended to obtain this technology with the goal of developing a military advantage over Japan, which could speed along a victory in the Pacific.

There were two major components to the Americans’ efforts: the Field Information Agency Technical (FIAT), which centered around agents capturing technical data from research sites across Germany, and Operation Overcast, which involved hunting down and capturing the most important members of the Nazi scientific establishment.

Operation Overcast’s targeting was guided by the so-called Osenberg List, a Gestapo document which, on Hitler’s orders, cataloged the most important scientists and engineers to the Nazi war effort. A copy of the document had been insufficiently flushed down a toilet at Bonn University and was captured by Allied intelligence.

A 28-year-old Stanford-educated mechanical engineer, Major Robert Staver, was placed in charge of Special Mission V-2 to capture intelligence about the rocket’s design. When he had been working in London before the assignment, a V-2 missile had nearly killed him when it exploded above the building he worked at. Staver led searches through underground weapons factories built into mountains and interviewed prisoners, including Walther Riedel, the Nazis’ top scientist in its rocket design bureau. Riedel talked to Staver for hours, detailing his obsession with outer space vehicles he dubbed “passenger rockets,” as well as “space mirrors which could be used for good and possibly evil.” Riedel told Staver he could provide the names of at least 40 other scientists who should be brought to America to complete this important work, noting that if the U.S. did not act the Soviets certainly would.

Staver’s superiors became convinced through both his and others’ works that the true prize for the U.S. wasn’t technical drawings or even intact planes and rockets—it was the people who conceived of them. Operation Overcast became Operation Paperclip, which brought over 1,600 German scientists and engineers to work for the United States.

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