Werner W. Hohenner, 93, scientist who helped develop Polaris missile


Werner Wilhelm Hohenner, a mechanical engineer and physicist who worked on the development of Germany's V-1 rocket during World War II and later played a major role in the design of the Polaris missile program for the Navy, died Friday at his Ellicott City home. He was 93.

Family members said that Mr. Hohenner, who had suffered a stroke the previous day, took his life.

His career spanned the pioneering days of rocketry in his native Germany to the development of the modern intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) for his adopted country.

Mr. Hohenner - like his noted colleague Werner von Braun and thousands of other German scientists - decided in the immediate postwar period to work for the United States rather than the Soviet Union.

He was born in 1907 in Braunschweig, Germany, and raised in Darmstadt, where his father was a professor at the Technical University of Darmstadt. He received his bachelor's degree in engineering and physics from the Technical University of Munich in 1929 and his master's degree in 1931.

During the 1930s, he was a staff member of the German Research Institute for Gliding in Darmstadt and received his doctorate while directing a design program that turned a drone - a pilotless airplane directed by remote control - into a weapon that was used against the British. He later headed the instrument department and was conducting infrared and aerodynamic research when the institute was relocated to Ainring near Salzburg, Austria, in 1940.

In 1943, he was assigned to upgrade the Argus-Schmidt-Rohr pulse jet engine that was used with the Fiesler F103 anti-aircraft target drone, which had been selected by Adolf Hitler to become the deadly V-1. The rocket was the predecessor of today's cruise missile.

Known as "buzz bombs" for their eerie whistling sound while in flight, the V-1s were launched from occupied France across the English Channel to targets in London. They reached speeds of 350 mph and delivered a warhead of 1,800 pounds of explosives.

"He always remained mentally a scientist rather than a member of the military," said Paul Frederickson, of Los Alamos, N.M., a son-in-law and scientist. "He was a high-level civilian who knew very little [of] what was happening politically."

"He was never involved with the production or deployment of the V-1s," said Hans J. Schmitz of Catonsville, a friend and retired Westinghouse Electric Corp. senior quality engineer. "He was taken before a German tribunal and charged with treason after criticizing the V-2 rocket program as being costly in materials and production time. He was exonerated after a fellow scientist explained that he was simply an engineer stating material fact."

After the war, Mr. Hohenner spent a brief time in England as a prisoner of war before returning to Germany and working as a woodcutter in the forest near Bad Reichenhall.

In 1947, he was visited by Soviet officials who wanted him to travel to Russia and work in the country's developing rocket programs. Two days later, after U.S. Navy officials learned of the visit, he was aboard an airplane headed to the United States.

"The Allies were not about to let him go to the Russians," said Mr. Schmitz.

From 1947 until 1954, Mr. Hohenner was at the Point Mugu Naval Air Weapon Station in California, working in the Naval Ballistic Program that led to the development of the Polaris missile, the first U.S. submarine-launched ballistic missile.

During the rocket's development, Mr. Hohenner prevailed over Mr. von Braun, who insisted that the rocket be fueled by liquid rather than solid fuel.

"He brought a great knowledge ... in fuel handling, and convinced the Navy that if they followed von Braun's plan to use liquid fuel, which is dangerous, they could plan on losing a sub a year in accidents," said Robert L. Frohmuth, a retired Navy electrical engineer. "It was a breakthrough, and he was the one who got solid fuel missiles started, which are still being used today."

"His greatest achievement was the development of the Polaris," said Mr. Schmitz.

From 1957 until retiring in 1973, Mr. Hohenner was chief scientist at the air arm division at the Westinghouse plant in Linthicum, where he continued his work on weapon systems and ballistic missiles.

Mr. Hohenner, called "a highly civilized and gentle human being" by his son-in-law, enjoyed reading scientific journals and literature in English and German, playing the guitar and singing German songs.

He was a familiar figure in Columbia, walking daily around Wilde Lake, accompanied by his German shepherd.

In 1934, Mr. Hohenner married Paula Heiss, who died in 1958. He wed Felizia Schoenemann in 1964; she died in 1997.

Services were held yesterday.

He is survived by two sons, Harro Hohenner of Cupertino, Calif., and Wolfgang Hohenner of Columbia; two daughters, Rosmarie Frederickson of Los Alamos and Erika Ridgway of Annandale, Va.; nine grandchildren; and 17 great-grandchildren.

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