A 1934 Naval Academy graduate, future-Captain Grayson Merrill earned his wings in 1937 and flew with both Torpedo Squadron 3 from the USS Saratoga (CV-3) and Utility Squadron 1. In mid-1941, he was ordered to a year of electrical engineering studies, followed by service as deputy and then head of the Special Design Branch of the Bureau of Aeronautics, where the Navy’s first guided missiles were being developed.
He relates his experience in these edited excerpts from his Naval Institute oral history:
The need for a post–World War II naval guided-missile range evolved from wartime testing headaches. A committee was established to survey possible sites and recommend the best. Emphasizing technical requirements, we first chose a site at the northern apex of the Gulf of California, firing down the Gulf. Sensing the political impracticability of this, we nominated Point Mugu as a strong alternate. This was the Chief of Naval Operations’ final choice.
Shortly after this, I was detailed to witness some V-2 firings at Cuxhaven staged by the British and executed by Germans from Peenemünde. After the firings, we gathered in a rathskeller to quaff beer and discuss what we had seen. A rumpled fake Army colonel named Theodor von Kármán summed up our feelings: “You young fellows now go home and arrange to put these Germans to work. In the meantime, build a test range for the missiles to come.”
Merrill, Point Mugu’s first technical director, was soon overseeing operations of the Lark, Gorgon, and Gargoyle missiles and the KD2R, KD-1, and KD3H-1 target drones. He brought 12 German scientists to Point Mugu to contribute to the missile test and development work. In 1949, Merrill completed his tour at Point Mugu and moved through various forward-looking, high-tech assignments, culminating in his final active-duty tour in 1956–57 as the first technical director for the Polaris submarine-launched ballistic-missile program.
The Special Projects Office (SPO) for Polaris had been organized with Rear Admiral William Raborn as its director. Prior to SPO, the general consensus was to use the Army’s Jupiter missile as the future submarine weapon. Merrill recalled:
I soon perceived a consensus within the technical staff and Raborn that Jupiter had features that virtually prohibited its use in submarines. It used liquid oxygen as part of its propellant. In his 1972 oral history interview, Vice Admiral Raborn stated, “The thought of putting these missiles in the confined spaces of a submarine under the water would make an internal combustion engine of the whole submarine.”
Captain Levering Smith, a recognized expert in solid propellants, arrived shortly after me and was asked to head up the propulsion section. Two events triggered the shift from Jupiter to Polaris. First, Atlantic Research Corporation, a contractor with ONR, was encouraged by Levering Smith to try a solid propellant mix with a greatly increased portion of powdered aluminum. It worked, yielding a specific impulse about equal to the liquid propellant in Jupiter, with no apparent ill effects. Second, Dr. Edward Teller, speaking for the Atomic Energy Commission [AEC], said essentially, “The Atomic Energy Commission can get you a warhead with a one-megaton yield for 600 pounds.”
When I heard of this, I felt he had found the key we needed to justify going ahead with Polaris. The next step was, of course, a letter to the AEC asking confirmation of the statement made by Dr. Teller. Meanwhile, we arranged for the preliminary design of a missile using these gorgeous new parameters. Both were in hand within a week. We envisioned Polaris, using the 600-pound warhead, having a height of 28 feet with a diameter of about 4 feet.
I retired in 1957 after 28 years of naval service. Frankly, I was “burned out.” I so informed the boss. He was aghast that I would not honor the Polaris top priority by staying put. After two or three sessions, Raborn finally accepted my decision. We had worked well together for almost two years. At least I helped free him from the Jupiter yoke, organized and jump-started the technical division, and helped select the contractors who are the real heroes for Polaris going to sea.