Chapter Seven – Gerd Wilhelm de Beek – Graphic Rocket Artist

Research and story by Clarence Simonsen

All rights reserved

Gerd de Beek was born at Bremen, Germany, on 13 July 1904. After graduation from high school he first studied industrial art at Bremen and later attended art courses at Frankfurt, where he met his future wife Irma. He began a career as a self-employed oil-on-canvas artist but his dreams never materialized, and he was forced to become an industrial designer working for a silverware company in Luckenwalde, receiving meager wages. He was ‘recruited’ by Dr. von Braun [with an attractive job offer, along with a huge pay raise] arriving at Peenemunde in the fall of 1937. Daughter Magda remembers her father recounting that his rocket drafting job was “a job he needed to take or else”, referring to the German government. The new secret rocket testing base was still under construction as Gerd became totally involved in this early technical design of the A/5 and new A/4 test rockets. He was probably employed in the Drawing Administration Division, [Zeichnungsverwaltung] of the technical office under Walter “Papa” Riedel. This was an important part of the early rocket design and all material was rated top “State Secret.” He developed a camaraderie with von Braun, the expert in new guided missile design, and survived the 17/18 August 43 RAF bombing attack, continuing his job was a Department Manager of Graphic Engineering Design. De Beek was also a talented mural artist, who created images in oils on the military quarters at Peenemunde, thus adding a level of culture, otherwise missing from the day-to-day work; and later at Fort Bliss [1945] while serving von Braun as senior technical illustrator, with rocket cutaway drawings.

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Possible Gerd de Beek drawing of A4 in 1942
[NASA image 9801811]

Mike Wright, NASA Historian at Marshall Space Flight Center, authored a booklet in the celebration of the 50-year culture and technological legacy of Dr. von Braun. Title – ‘Wernher von Braun’s Support of the Imaginary Arts’. ‘Gerd de Beek, a member of von Braun’s rocket team at their Peenemunde development center, found at least one way to employ art to help von Braun keep his imagination focused on exploring outer space and still satisfy the demand for the V-2 rocket. De Beek served von Braun as a technical illustrator and he painted the rocket scientist’s “heroine”, a figure entitled “The Girl in the Moon”, on the side of a V-2 rocket.’
[Marsha Freeman –We got to the Moon, 1993, page 140]

The [nude] Women in Moon art appeared on A/4 V-4 launch 3 October 1942, the first manmade object to reach into space. The “Girl in the Moon” image was in fact painted twice by de Beek, possibly for approval by von Braun.

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This image from the private collection of Fred Ordway III is believed to be the very first A/4 rocket art completed, and was possibly created for the first A/4 static test on 23 March 1942? This was copied from an original Peenemunde photo black and white image, which came to the United States in 1945.

I believe this is where the “Frau Luna” creation all began and that is covered in another chapter. To Wernher von Braun this tail art was a good choice and his ‘heroine’ would appear from the beginning. In this German secret world, Frau Luna became the hidden symbol. This same idea was painted for the A/4 V-4 launch and von Braun possibly picked the full nude, [over the one with the dress] or at the very least had the art work approved.

I am positive de Beek painted all the A4 rocket tail art that appeared before launch at Peenemunde in the period June 1942 to 17 August 1943. This would total at least 38 known images [possibly 40] of A/4 rocket tail art for 33 launches.

Six early tail art images [June 1942 to January 1943] all share one thing in common, travel in space. Walter “Papa” Riedel was head of the Drawing Administration Division of the Technical Office in Peenemunde, and this operated under a number of very strict “Top Secret” guide lines. All original rough sketches had to be destroyed as soon as the original draft drawing was completed and de Beek worked under this enforced security each and every day. For the simple use of one A/4 tail art, permission had to be obtained from the highest level, Wernher von Braun himself. After the 17 August 43 attack by the RAF, von Braun ordered no rocket painting of tail art, and de Beek resigned himself, strictly to his designated job of rocket mechanical drafting. Following is a conclusion by the author and I am positive we will never know the whole complete truth.

I feel the art was allowed for two reasons, von Braun understood the need for a strong scientific design team, which required a sense of belonging, self-pride, and achieving a goal as a group. The tail art provided all points, plus it did not pose a risk to any top state secret classification. The A/4 rocket burn time was 65-70 seconds and then it returned to crash on earth or into the Baltic. The tail art was gone forever, but I am positive one or two of the original de Beek art works remain painted on the tail of an A/4 rocket in the Baltic seabed.

A very good illustration that I know of is that he believed, and I recall him having stated in similar words…

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A well-created image will live-on in one’s mind.

The question can be asked, “Why paint the A/4 tail art in the first place?” I believe Gerd de Beek was an oil-on-canvas artist first and a draft artist [job] second. He fully understood that one well painted image will last in the human brain for years after the main event is gone. Many of the early A/4 rocket launches lasted only 7 to 10 seconds, and then the rocket fell over, exploded or failed to achieve height and fell back to earth and exploded. The rocket and tail art were gone forever, however the tail art image [plus launch V-number] remained in the minds of the German scientific launch team for a lifetime, and de Beek fully understood that artistic power.

I cannot find any published material on de Beek painting his rocket tail art and his family have no knowledge, as he would not speak about his days in Peenemunde and the subject of tail art was never brought up in any family conversation. The following is what I believe took place at Peenemunde and the thinking of how one rocket artist painted his tail art, from the mind of another artist who repainted all of his A/4 replica tail art in color.

The very first A/4 rockets constructed at Peenemunde carried tail art illustrations painted by de Beek directly onto the tail section using oil based paints. These early rockets were handmade and also hand painted using a large brush, which left a crude appearance to the finish. These prototype rockets were finished with a gloss black and white paint scheme which was designed to aid the observers to film and track the movements after lift-off. The black and white colors were important to determine the rocket rotation as it climbed into space.

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This is the free domain German Federal Archives image of A/4 pre-launch V5 which took place on 21 October 1942. This shows the black brush marks left on the rocket tail and the 30” by 20” oil based painting by artist de Beek. This nude male art has been explained in Chapter Five.

I believe Gerd de Beek created his early tail art in the rocket assembly building while the rockets were in fact being constructed. This would require special security clearance from von Braun himself. It is possible he also worked on two or three tail art paintings at the same time, during his evening off duty hours. He could paint on the tail section of one rocket and even finish another rocket which had been fully assembled. The assembly of one rocket took hundreds of man hours and this allowed de Beek many hours of free painting time. Even during the later mass production of A/4 rockets the tail assembly took almost 400 hours and two to six technicians. [See chart]

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On 3 October 1942, von Braun’s German rocket scientists make world history, when the first man-made ballistic missile [V4] leaves the Earth’s atmosphere. De Beek creates a new tail art design to honor Wernher von Braun and all of the Peenemunde scientists. The little German pig [20” by 20”] with two red roses, is smiling in reference to the figure of speech to describe impossibility – “When Pigs Fly.” Reichsfuhrer S. S. Himmler will witness this launch on 9 December 1942. De Beek will create two more “Pigs in Space” tail art images and they will fly on V10 [7 January 1942] and V17 [3 April 1943].

After the full rocket assembly has been completed it is placed on a Meilerwagen and transported to the test launch site. I believe all of de Beek’s tail art was painted in the assembly building and seen by a limited few persons. The art is then only witnessed by the A/4 Launching Troop that erects the rocket to the vertical position and prepare for the test launch.

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This is confirmed in a photo taken of V12 on 17 February 1943. The rocket is in the vertical position and the Meilerwagen has pulled away from the A/4. De Beek’s nude Frau Luna image is recorded on 35 mm film and you can see the shadow outline of the launching platform. It appears that V12 was painted on art paper and then glued to the rocket just before launch time. This gluing began with V6, V7, V11, and now V12. This rocket in fact had two different tail art images, but it is unknown if both flew on the launch. The launch was successful with a burn of 61 seconds and range of 196 k/m.

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X – Showing the shadow outline left by the sun hitting the Meilerwagen vertical platform.

As the A/4 production was increased at Peenemunde, de Beek could no longer paint directly onto the tail in the assembly building and his art was painted on paper-mounted panels, which were glued to the rocket just before launch. The first paper tail art image appeared with V6 on 9 November 1942.

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This is the first tail art image painted on paper and taped to the A/4 rocket. Free domain image from German Federal Archives.

Shortly after the German rocket experts surrendered to the American Army, [officially on 7 May 45] they were held at Garmisch-Partenkirchen, near the Austrian border. The American authorities gave full power to von Braun to select and persuade many of his fellow scientists to follow him to the new American space team in White Sands, New Mexico. During the early years at Peenemunde, [1937-40] von Braun handpicked many of the 60 top German rocket team members, which soon became the world’s best, honest, trusting, rocket testing group. Many of these same dependable Germans were again selected by von Braun for his new American team. Gerd Wilhelm de Beek became head of the graphic artists selected and agreed to come with his family to the United States. Before they could leave for U.S., the American authorities loaned the German group to the British who had built an A/4 launch site at Cuxhaven on the coast of the North Sea. The British located enough parts to reconstructed eight German A/4 rockets but lacked the knowledge to assemble, launch, or document the test results. In October 1945, five launch attempts were conducted by the Germans under British control, and three A/4 rockets roared into space. Four A/4 tail art images were painted on paper and placed [glued] on the rockets just before firing, the same procedure as de Beek used in Peenemunde beginning with V6 in November 1942.

The early 1942-43 Peenemunde A/4 rocket tail art was reborn on the North German coast and I believe all four were painted by Gerd de Beek. This little nude “Frau Luna” was launched on 2 October 1945, at 14:41 hours becoming the first successful flight under British control. These tail art paintings had a special meaning to the German scientists and I believe it was all connected to Frau Luna going to the Moon.

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De Beek was part of the first 55 German rocket team experts to arrive in the United States aboard the S.S. Argentina on 16 November 1945. He was officially classified by the U.S. Army as – MSFC MS-G [Graphics Engineer], and housed with the U.S. Army at Fort Bliss, Texas. In this official group photo he is #90, public domain NASA. This original group of German scientists called themselves “the men.”

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Mike Wright –

“De Beek was among those who moved to Fort Bliss and decorated a portion of the military post set aside for the Germans with his own paintings.”

A few of his mural paintings could survive in photo images.

In late August 1945, the first of 300 railway cars began to arrive at Las Cruces, New Mexico, carrying components of the 100 captured German V-2 rockets. While these components were being assorted, work had already begun on the new launch site at nearby White Sands Proving Grounds. The World War Two Alamogordo Army Air Base had been selected as the new test and development site for the captured German unmanned missiles and other research programs. The new A/4 [V-2] launch complex LC-33 was completed in October 1945, and now the complex assembly work had to wait until the new German scientists arrived in America from Cuxhaven, Northern Germany.

The U.S. Army set aside three large groups of soldier barracks in Fort Bliss, Texas, for the use of the new German scientists. These buildings became the living quarters, future school, and chapel for the new arrivals, who took possession in late December 1945. The first American priority was to make sure the German rocket experts were settled first and then the families would be later transported to Fort Bliss. The first S.S. Argentina groups of 55 Peenemunde scientists were selected for their technical background and this included Gerd de Beek who not only designed the A/4 rocket but knew how each part was assembled and functioned. Beginning in mid-January 1946, six German scientists were transported each day to Alamogordo Air Base, to complete the rocket assembly and prepare for the first static testing. They are recorded as – Dr. Ernst Steinhoff, [in charge] Kurt Linder, Hans Gruene, Werner Kuers, Heins Millinger and [graphic artist] Gerd Wilhelm de Beek. These six German scientists were the VIPs of the new American Space scientists and their families would become the very first moved to the United States.

Magda de Beek was the oldest daughter of Gerd, born in 1933; she arrived in Peenemunde at age four and remained for the next nine years. After the RAF attack on 17/18 August 1943, the de Beek family remained at Peenemunde, moving from one location to another fifteen times in the next twenty months of the war. Magda recalls her mother and younger sister, age three, arrived at New York City on an ex-WWII hospital ship and then departed for Mexico by train. They arrived in Mexico during the fall of 1946, possibly late November, and were housed very close to the state line of Texas. These first families had to bypass the standard American immigration process and she believes they became citizens of Mexico for a few weeks. This nontraditional immigration entry had been arranged by the U.S. Army and the U.S. State department in advance, and after two weeks they were driven across the border into Texas and arrived at Fort Bliss. Gerd de Beek was again reunited with his family; however he made daily trips to the test site in White Sands, an area the families were never allowed to see.

In 1944, the American War Department chose White Sands as a missile research and nuclear bomb test site. The Los Alamos Laboratory was approximately 200 miles north of White Sands, where the world’s first atomic bomb would be detonated at Trinity Test Site on 16 July 1945.

The U. S. Army corps of Engineers initiated construction of the main White Sands Headquarters in January 1945, and this would later include buildings for the assembly and testing of the over 300 railway car loads of Peenemunde vehicles, rockets, and related German launch material. In Peenemunde the Germans had experienced a large increase in A/4 launch failures when the rockets had been stored for extended periods of time. It was decided that all of the American captured missiles would be assembled at the White Sands Proving Grounds missile range site under German supervision, which also provided onsite training for new American specialists. A large Quonset hut was constructed for the assembly of the German A/4 rockets, and supervised work was initiated after Christmas 1945.

By early March 1946, German personnel at White Sands reached a peak of 39 Peenemunde A/4 rocket scientists, headed by Wernher von Braun, second in command Dr. Ernst A. Steinhoff. The first A/4 static rocket test firing took place on 15 March 1946, lasting only 57 seconds. It preformed perfectly.

On 16 April 1946, the first A/4 test flight took place, which the Germans called V1, just like Peenemunde, Germany. The Americans called it V-2, launch #1. This flight reached a height of 18,000 feet and was a success to this point. Then a steering vane broke off at 6 seconds, followed by the loss of a tail fin at 11 seconds after launch. At 19 seconds the engine cutoff and the rocket fell back to earth and exploded.

On 10 May 1946, a captured German V-2 rocket becomes the first successful launch at White Sands, New Mexico. This rocket carried a nude German female image, which I believe was Frau Luna, again headed for the moon. Al Reisz was a young American born jet propulsion engineer, who was involved in the development, testing, and moon flights during the “Apollo Program”, powered by the Saturn V rocket. He recalls the fact graphic artist Gerd de Beek painted two American rockets for his friend Wernher von Braun? The first was the captured German A/4 test flown on 10 May 1946. I believe this first American captured A/4 [V2] launch art had a special [hidden] message to the German [American] team. I also believe the nude German lady is “Frau Luna” and she is again on her way to the Moon thanks to the American Space Program. The rocket is painted in the American yellow and black test colors with red number “2” for the second launch. The nude lady and rocket form the letter “V” which stood for Versuchsmuster [test model]. In March 1947, all German scientists and rocket engineers were replaced by American contractor personnel, and no further A/4 rockets could be painted with German tail art.

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The next and last known painting by de Beek occurred on a Redstone rocket RS-2 launch 27 January 1954. This painting displayed a full nude blonde haired lady “Sweetheart of the Month” from the pages of a new adult magazine called “Playboy.” This tail art was in fact based on the nude image of a soon to be famous 1949 pin-up of Marilyn Monroe. This tail art became the 44th [or possibly 45th] image and last known American flown test rocket painting created by de Beek, the only tail art image I have not been able to locate. [Details and color painting in Chapter Eight]

Grandson Kevin Duckworth reports his grandfather [Gerd de Beek] never spoke about Peenemunde and his tail art was a taboo subject. He was a very humble man and had a feeling of remorse for the evil that transpired from the A/4 rockets. Kevin recalls at some point in Peenemunde his grandfather was told not to paint, and I believe this came after the RAF raid on 17/18 August 1943.

De Beek spent his entire life working on rocket graphic design beginning in 1937 at Peenemunde, Germany, Fort Bliss, USA, [1945-46] White Sands, [Alamogordo Air Base] USA, [1946-49] and then Huntsville, Alabama, [1949-70]. Today his total rocket tail art creations are still unknown [hidden] and his artistic space history is missing in regards to this short lived 1942-43, test-launched tail paintings. In 1960, he became Head of Management Services, Graphic Engineering and Model Studies Branch, NASA Marshall Space Flight Center. This German A4 [rocket] artist died in Winter Haven, Florida, on 2 December 1989, after a two year battle with cancer. For reasons known mainly to the artist and his fellow rocket scientists, [he called – “The Men”] his rocket art and history remains a secret he took to his grave. His body’s ashes, were returned by the family, to the town of his birth, Bremen, Germany… The cemetery, located adjacent to the row-house where the family once resided, still stands… Ironically the family’s grave-plot is immediately behind his “old house”, separated only by a masonry wall.

I believe part of the reason for his lost tail art rejection came from a bureaucratic controversy which took place in the National Air and Space Museum, Smithsonian Institution at Washington, D.C. in November 1976. The full story is found in an excellent article by David H. DeVorkin and Michael J. Neufeld, tilted “Space Artifact or Nazi Weapon? – Displaying the Smithsonian’s V-2 missile, 1976-2011.

During the repainting of the NASM A/4 [V-2] rocket it was given the colors of the 3 October 1942 missile which made space history, however the nude women tail art was omitted due to the family audience. The original artist Gerd de Beek had presented the Smithsonian with photos of his original tail art, but this was totally rejected due to any Nazi controversy.

***

This 78th birthday photo was recorded at Treasure Island, Florida, on 13 July 1982.

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The image was sent by grandson Kevin Duckworth [left, age five years at the time] and used with permission. In the background hangs one of de Beek’s original oil paintings; painted in his leisure, during the 1970s and into the 1980s.

Gerd de Beek was a German artist who painted on the world’s first revolutionary technological designed space missiles, which he also drafted and designed. His 44 or possibly 45 tail art paintings were all historical artifacts which were destroyed during or soon after the duration of the flight time. The original images are contained in 35 mm black and white images, all of which have been hidden from the public eye for the past 73 years. He was one of the original postwar German scientists in the U.S. intelligence program who was brought to American under “Operation Paperclip.” His rocket tail art images have been hidden from the general public due to the circumstances and nation security surrounding the German scientists work in the postwar United States. It is time to expose his paintings as a WWII military artifact, to be judged and interpreted by all historians and artists.

In Memoriam

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3 thoughts on “Chapter Seven – Gerd Wilhelm de Beek – Graphic Rocket Artist

  1. Pierre Lagacé Post author

    Reblogged this on Lest We Forget and commented:

    Gerd de Beek was a German artist who painted on the world’s first revolutionary technological designed space missiles, which he also drafted and designed. His 44 or possibly 45 tail art paintings were all historical artifacts which were destroyed during or soon after the duration of the flight time. The original images are contained in 35 mm black and white images, all of which have been hidden from the public eye for the past 73 years. He was one of the original postwar German scientists in the U.S. intelligence program who was brought to American under “Operation Paperclip.” His rocket tail art images have been hidden from the general public due to the circumstances and nation security surrounding the German scientists work in the postwar United States. It is time to expose his paintings as a WWII military artifact, to be judged and interpreted by all historians and artists.

    Like

    Reply
  2. GP Cox

    [Pierre, which blog did you have the small aircraft carriers on? I neglected to get that ‘Wings” article and would like to reblog it in the future.]

    Like

    Reply

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