Editor’s note: On September 2, 1945, documents were signed finalizing the surrender of the Empire of Japan to the United States and Allied Forces, ending World War II. Within days, with victory assured, scientists at leading research centers such as Camp Evans turned their attention to new scientific challenges, such as making radio contact with the moon. Once thought impossible, a group of brilliant people collaborated to achieve this significant breakthrough.
The following is the first installment of a new Timeline story about Dr. Walter McAfee, one of the most important figures involved in bringing about the dawn of the Space Age, yet one whose story remains largely unknown. Melissa Ziobro, currently the specialist professor of public history at Monmouth University, is a leading authority on Dr. McAfee, having served as official historian for Fort Monmouth. In addition to authoring this story, Professor Ziobro is currently lecturing on the subject of Dr. McAfee and other African Americans who were instrumental in major scientific breakthroughs at Fort Monmouth. Her next presentation is on February 24, at 1:00 p.m., via Zoom, entitled “Fort Monmouth’s ‘Black Brain’ Center.” Click here for more information or to register.
By Melissa Ziobro ©2022
Renowned physicist Dr. Walter McAfee (pictured above in his lab) was born in Texas on September 2, 1914. He earned a Bachelor of Science degree in mathematics from Wiley College, a Master’s degree in Physics from Ohio State University, and a doctoral degree in nuclear physics from Cornell University. He taught math and science in Ohio for a period before being hired by the Army Signal Corps at Fort Monmouth.
McAfee held numerous supervisory positions during his four decades at Fort Monmouth. He is perhaps most famous for his participation in the Diana Project, the 1946 radar experiment at the satellite of Fort Monmouth known as Camp Evans (or the Evans Area) in Wall Township. This Project resulted in man’s first “contact” with the moon.
As the National WWII Museum ably tells it, “The Pentagon ordered …Camp Evans staff to investigate if such a weapon was launched against the United States whether it would be possible to detect and track it using radar…the team modified radar equipment already on hand at Camp Evans for their experiment, using a heavily modified SCR-271 radar set as their transmitter.” Because there were no incoming missiles to track, the team decided that they would try to bounce a radar signal off the moon. Early calculations on how exactly to do this were not working, until McAfee was brought in to puzzle them out. As he recalled it, “When they came to speak to me initially, they knew that I had done radar coverage diagrams. I had done radar sighting. I had done radar echoing areas or radar cross sections and I had done refraction studies in the atmosphere. I had a paper on it…Colonel John Dewitt was head of Evans and he had previously tried bouncing radar signals off the moon and failed. E.K. Stodola was head of the civilian branch section that we in theoretical studies were under at that time. I computed a radar cross section of the moon, a radar coverage pattern, and distance to the moon, so they could tell how big the signal would be when it returned.”
On Thursday, January 10, 1946 at 11:58 a.m., using McAfee’s calculations, the team detected the first signals reflected back from the Moon. The radio waves took 2.5 seconds to travel to the Moon and back. As the WWII Museum notes, “the experiment was repeated over the coming days and months and demonstrated for Pentagon officials, who were also interested in the ‘Moonbounce’ technique’s potential to eavesdrop on the Soviet Union; experiments which ultimately proved unsuccessful…Despite its limited military potential, Project Diana witnessed the birth of radar astronomy, or the ability to observe and measure the distance of nearby astronomical objects by analyzing their reflections. Project Diana also demonstrated that radio communication could be conducted through the ionosphere, paving the way for the development of satellites and ultimately manned space-flight. Perhaps more familiar, the ‘Moonbounce’ technique—known today as EME or Earth-Moon-Earth communication—is still used by amateur and HAM radio operators to this day.”
The January 25, 1946, Asbury Park Press newspaper read, “Engineers and astronomers saw in the first direct contact with the moon, the opening of a vast field of speculation, which did not preclude the possibility that man might some day journey to the moon…The radar contact also opened up an entirely new field of study of the universe. The success of the engineers was seen as opening the door to direct communications with other planets in our system.”
Many still regard Project Diana as the beginning of the Space Age.
In 1956, President Dwight D. Eisenhower presented McAfee with one of the first Secretary of the Army Research and Study Fellowships. McAfee was also the first African-American in the Army to achieve the civil service “super grade” rank.
The racism so prevalent in many areas of the government and the military during the 1940s nearly impeded McAfee’s success. He recalled in a 1994 oral history interview that several government agencies initially rebuffed his attempts to gain employment, based on his race – something he couldn’t hide during the application process, as most applications required a photograph. Fort Monmouth’s application, however, did not. McAfee received instructions to report to the base almost immediately after submitting his paperwork. He resigned from a steady teaching job in order to do so, despite fears that he would be fired when Fort officials discovered his race. Those fears dissipated when McAfee arrived on post and found a number of African Americans already at work.
McAfee, who also lectured at Monmouth College and served as a trustee of Brookdale Community College, died in 1995, aged 80.
Stay tuned for a lengthy feature on Dr. McAfee in the Summer 2022 issue of NJ Studies: An Interdisciplinary Journal.
About the Author
Melissa Ziobro, M.A., is the Specialist Professor of Public History at Monmouth University in West Long Branch, NJ, and the primary point of contact for the public history minor. Her service to the University includes administration of the Monmouth Memories Oral History Program and the Department’s social media and newsletter. She serves as the campus coordinator for the National History Day program, and the faculty advisor for the History and Anthropology Club.
Melissa currently serves as the President of Oral History in the Mid-Atlantic Region and as the editor for New Jersey Studies: An Interdisciplinary Journal, a joint venture of the NJ Historical Commission, Rutgers University Libraries, and Monmouth University. She is currently a trustee of the NJ Vietnam Veterans Memorial Foundation, InfoAge Science and History Learning Center, and Ocean County Historical Society. She serves on the Board of Directors of Preservation NJ, and works regularly with other public history organizations such as the Monmouth County Park System, Monmouth County Historical Association, Monmouth County Historical Commission, Monmouth County Archives, Asbury Park Historical Society, Asbury Park Museum, Middlesex County Office of Culture and Heritage, National Guard Militia Museum of NJ, Princeton Preservation Group, and more.
She worked as a command historian at the U.S. Army Communications-Electronics Command, Fort Monmouth, NJ from 2004-2011.
Gould, Jack. (1946). Contact With Moon Achieved By Radar In Test By The Army: An Echo from the Moon is Recorded. The New York Times, January 25, 1946, P. 1.
Camp Evans Scientists Open Vast New Field with Radar Moon Contact. (1946). Asbury Park Press, January 25, 1946.
Rosenwald Scholarships Announced For Fifty. (1946). Detroit Tribune, Detroit, Mich., May 25, 1946, P. 18.
Monmouth Physicist Fellowship Winner. (1956). Asbury Park Evening Press, Asbury Park, N.J., November 2, 1956.
Area Scientist Wins Fellowship. (1956). Red Bank Register, Red Bank, N.J., November 8, 1956.
The First Moon Contact. (1971). Asbury Park Press, Asbury Park, N.J., August 29, 1971.
Wall, County Officials Praise Diana Workers. (1971). Red Bank Register, Red Bank, N.J., January 12, 1971.
McAfee named to GS-16 Post. (1971). Red Bank Register, Red Bank, N.J., January 18, 1971.
Dr. McAfee Gets High ECOM Post. (1971). Asbury Park Press, January 19, 1971.
Johnson, Jr., Robert. (1994). Dr. Walter S. McAfee oral history interview conducted by Professor Robert Johnson, Jr. U.S. Army Communications-Electronics Command Archive, Aberdeen Proving Ground, Md., February 6, 1994.
Stravelli, Gloria. (2003). Army research facility once known as the ‘Black Brain Center.’ Examiner, CentralJersey.com, March 27, 2003.
Johnson, Jr., Robert. (2007). No Short Climb: “Race Workers” & America’s Defense Technology. A Documentary by Robert Johnson, Jr., July, 2007.
Ziobro, Melissa. (2019). Fort Monmouth: The US Black Brain Center. Garden State Legacy, Newark, N.J., Issue 43, Summer 2019.
Ziobro, Melissa. (2021). Monmouth University’s Own Hidden Figure: Dr. Walter McAfee. Julian Abele “Out of the Shadows” Public History Symposium, Monmouth University, West Long Branch, N.J., December 15, 2021.