He set up shop in a former Roman Catholic boys school in Inglewood, a suburb of Los Angeles out near the city’s international airport. An Air Force lieutenant colonel, the West Coast representative of the Air Research and Development Command, had run across the place while searching for a house that Bennie could rent or buy for his family. Bennie had asked him to look for a house in Santa Monica, farther north, but had specified that it had to be close to a parochial school. While Bennie remained a nominal Lutheran, he had agreed when he married Dora, a devout Roman Catholic, that the children would be raised in her faith. The lieutenant colonel had decided that the logical way to proceed was first to locate a good parochial school, since it was an absolute requirement, and then to find a house. In the course of exploring, he had learned that Saint John’s Catholic School for boys had outgrown its space on East Manchester Boulevard in Inglewood and moved elsewhere. A quick reconnaissance had convinced him that the vacated buildings would make excellent start-up quarters for the new missile organization, to be called, for purposes of anonymity, the Western Development Division (WDD).
The Los Angeles Archdiocese had wanted to sell the buildings rather than rent them, but in the spirit of patriotism agreed to let the Air Force have a lease. The address of the main two-story classroom and administration building was 401 East Manchester, just at the intersection with Locust Street. Space was not at such a premium in the Los Angeles area in the mid-1950s and the school was laid out leisurely. Next to the main building back down the boulevard was a modest chapel, then a singlestory classroom structure, and beyond it a large, fenced-in parking lot. In July, Schriever and the initial members of his missile band, to be known ever afterward as the Schoolhouse Gang, began moving into the buildings.
Again in the hope of preventing Soviet spies from discovering what was to go on in this decidedly unmilitary-appearing, onetime educational complex, Bennie and everyone else wore civilian clothes, or mufti, the military term for civilian garb. The desire for clandestinity was unrequited. A couple of weeks after the Schoolhouse went into operation, a member of Schriever’s crew walked to the bank a short way down Manchester Boulevard to cash his government paycheck. The teller, a tall and quite attractive brunette, smiled at him, compared the signature on his government ID card with that on the check, and then counted out the $20 bills he requested. As he turned to go, she said in a quiet voice, still smiling, “Don’t blow us up over there, will you?”
They decided to make the chapel their briefing room. The priests had desanctified the chapel, but had otherwise left the interior intact. When it was put to its first important use, a two-day meeting on July 20–21, 1954, of the enlarged and now permanent ICBM Scientific Advisory Committee (soon to be commonly referred to as the Von Neumann Committee), there had been no time for remodeling. Bennie had not yet even officially taken charge of the fledgling Western Development Division, something he would not do for nearly another two weeks, until August 2, when he issued General Orders No. 1, formally assuming command.
And so on this opening morning of the meeting he stood on the step before the altar rail, where the students had knelt to receive the Communion wafer, and updated his prestigious audience on what had transpired since the formation of the new committee by Gardner and its initial meeting in Washington in April. Johnny von Neumann, Kistiakowsky, Wiesner, Norris Bradbury, and Charles Lindbergh sat on the pews in front of him with the other members new and old. Running down the walls on both sides of the chapel were windows of stained glass with portraits of saints and depictions of religious scenes. These were subsequently covered with plasterboard when the pews were ripped out and replaced by seats. The altar was also removed and a small briefing stage erected in its place. Technically, the plasterboard was nailed over the windows for security reasons, but some of Bennie’s subordinates also found themselves uncomfortable devising a weapon of such terrible proportions amidst the stained-glass reminders that this had once been a holy place.
Obstinately attempting to hang on to the entire project, a Convair team sent up from San Diego to brief the committee now proposed that the firm continue development of its five-rocket-engine, 440,000-pound behemoth missile while it studied the feasibility of a 250,000-pound ICBM. Von Neumann and the other members of the new committee rejected this, as had the original Tea Pot group, and focused where the Tea Pot report had led—on the precise nature of the managerial and technical organization required to put ICBMs on launching pads. By this time it was assumed, as Gardner had schemed to arrange, that the new Ramo-Wooldridge firm would provide the engineering and scientific expertise required. The question now was how they would relate to Schriever’s Air Force organization.
Donald Quarles, the assistant secretary of defense for research and development, was attending the meeting as an observer to contribute whatever he could. An electrical engineer and physicist, Quarles had run the Sandia Laboratory in Albuquerque, New Mexico, before entering the Pentagon. The laboratory devised the techniques required to transform nuclear devices produced by Los Alamos, and later by Livermore, the second nuclear weapons laboratory established at Liver-more, California, in 1952, into useful weapons for the Air Force. In the lingo of the service, it weaponized the devices. Quarles suggested that instead of setting up the Ramo-Wooldridge team as a separate staff of advisers, it would be more effective to integrate them with Schriever’s Western Development Division by placing them in a “line position” right under it. General Power, who was also attending, ordered Bennie to study the matter and come up with a recommendation. As WDD was a field office of Power’s Air Research and Development Command, Power was Bennie’s immediate superior in the Air Force chain. Schriever had a report ready by the latter half of August. He proposed that the Air Force act as its own prime contractor through his WDD organization and employ the Ramo-Wooldridge firm as a “deputy” responsible for systems engineering and technical direction of the project. (In practice, although the Air Force was to retain final authority, the men of the two groups were to work side by side and Schriever and Ramo to form a close partnership.)
The radical approach that the Tea Pot Committee had first propounded and Schriever was now advocating would amount to a revolution in the Air Force’s relationship with the aviation industry. The prime contractor system, under which one firm was given responsibility for the entire development, testing, and production of a new aircraft, including any elements it might decide to subcontract out to other companies—engines, for example, were always subcontracted—was time-honored and immensely profitable. And the method had succeeded reasonably well in the evolution of aircraft. It was not that great a bound in technology from the Air Force’s first swept-back-wing, jet-powered bomber, the Boeing B-47 Stratojet, to Boeing’s next and far more formidable swept-back-wing, eight-jet-engine offspring—the B-52 Stratofortress. Guided missiles were quite another matter due to the much more intractable technological challenges. The Tea Pot Committee had seen this in the multitude of modifications, delays, and failures in the histories of the other two strategic missiles it had examined, Snark and Navaho. Schriever planned to give Convair a contract only to manufacture the fuel tank and other sections of the body of the Atlas, what was referred to as the airframe. The contract would also include assembling the entire missile once all the components were ready and participation in the subsequent test firings.
Simon Ramo would, in effect, become chief engineer and chief scientist of the enterprise. Except for the hydrogen bomb itself, which Los Alamos would build and test, the Ramo-Wooldridge task force under him would oversee the design of virtually everything else, such as the guidance and control mechanism, and the warhead, or reentry vehicle as it was called, which would house the bomb. The actual manufacture of these subsystems would then be done by organizations the Ramo-Wooldridge and WDD teams would have worked with in the design and prototype phases. These would often be subsidiaries of larger firms, but they would have already established a reputation in a specialized field and would be selected for their expertise. Convair was not among the candidates. (To avoid conflict of interest, Ramo-Wooldridge would be forbidden under its contract with the Air Force to manufacture any ICBM components. Dean Wooldridge was in the process of exiting the scene in order to seek and manage separately other non-ICBM business for the firm.) If Schriever’s newfangled approach prevailed, Convair stood to lose a great deal of money, hundreds of millions and possibly even billions of dollars in business, on a program with the potential of the ICBM. Bennie had no alternative if he was to succeed, but he had been warned that the course he was taking would ensnare him in a nasty power struggle right at the outset of his venture.