An American Hero to be thankful for.


One of the most amazing Americans you don’t know:  my cousin Sherman Seltzer who was a hero in the Korean War, worked with Van Braun to get us into space, and has designed systems for satellites, Hubble, space station and more, and was just an Alabama cowboy.  And he was awarded the US’s most prestigious aeronautical prizes, the Wright award.
Since this was written he has passed away……he was an absolutely humble and amazing human being and one who made our country safer.

REACHING FOR HEAVEN: From Pershing To Apollo, Sherman Seltzer Prefers Ranch To Rockets

December 28, 2009

By Darryal Ray

He doesn’t remember the day Apollo 11 landed on the moon, but he helped it get there.

“When I turned 80, things started slipping away from me,” Dr. Sherman Seltzer is saying. “You just sort of grab the memories as they go by.”

Dr. Sherman Seltzer, a retired aerospace engineer with NASA, oversaw the guidance and control systems of the Saturn rockets that carried man to the moon. Shown here at the U.S. Space & Rocket Center, today he prefers the tranquil life of cattle ranching.

Now 83, he catches many of those memories from the porch of his brick ranch house that sits atop a knoll near New Market in Madison County. Down below, he can see his Hereford-Red Angus cattle grazing, and in the distance, Tater Nob rising from the floor of Hurricane Valley.

It’s the kind of view that can swallow up a man, much like seeing Earth from the moon. “Every morning when I come out here, I say a prayer,” he says as he grabs his seat on the porch. “I thank God that He’s allowed me to use it for a while.”

Seltzer is an aerospace engineer who spent a lifetime reaching for the heavens, but there’s no place on earth he’d rather be than here. Here, he can watch his cattle graze and his horses run and kick up their heels. Here, the childhood days on his grandfather’s Montana ranch — and his beloved late wife Lou — somehow don’t seem so far away.

If some of his old engineering buddies from NASA (National Aeronautical Space Administration) were to stop by, they may talk about the days spent preparing the Saturn V rocket that launched Neil Armstrong up to his “giant leap” on the moon. Mostly, though, those memories stare back at him from the photographs that adorn the walls of the office inside his home.

Photos of Saturn rockets, Skylab, the Hubble Space Telescope, Pershing missiles and Polaris missiles testify to Seltzer’s many contributions to aerospace and defense. A specialist in guidance and control systems, he left his thumbprint in the heavens on more than one occasion.

The celebrated rocket scientist Wernher von Braun said as much in a photo he addressed: “To Sherman Seltzer, in appreciation of your fine contributions to the work assigned to the Marshall Space Flight Center — Wernher von Braun.” Next to it hangs a certificate for “Exceptional Scientific Achievement” signed by NASA Administrator James Fields.

There’s a photo, too, of Seltzer sitting proudly in the cockpit of the YO-3A, one of two silent airplanes he designed for Lockheed to fly reconnaissance during the Vietnam War. “I designed the YO-3A while I was working for Kelly Johnson at Lockheed,” Seltzer says. “I designed it so it could be flown over the enemy and see how they were resupplying the troops invading South Vietnam. I was real proud of that because it was never detected, never shot at.”

Above them all hangs a photo of Seltzer as a young soldier with Army buddies during the Korean War — and the two Purple Hearts and Silver Star he was awarded during that conflict.

Still, there’s an odd dichotomy to this cluttered little office, a strange mixture of rocketry and ranching. A pair of worn leather chaps are flung across the back of his chair, and paintings by popular cowboy artist Charles Russell compete with NASA certificates and photos for wall space. Aviation magazines share the desktop with beef cattle publications.

“In his heart, he’s really and truly always wanted to be a cowboy. That’s his heart’s desire,” says Tally Fanning, a longtime friend who helps Seltzer tend more than 130 head of cattle and keep track of doctor’s appointments. “I’ve asked Sherm (that’s what he wants his friends to call him), ‘Do you not realize all the things you’ve done?’ To me, the engineering work that he’s done far surpasses anything else he’s done in life. But to him, that is the least of his accomplishments. He wants to be a cowboy.’”

When Fanning first began tending Seltzer’s cattle, he says Sherm insisted on nothing but purebred Hereford, the same white-faced red cattle his granddaddy had raised back in Montana. In fact, Fanning says, he and long-time Hereford producer Glynn Debter of Horton frequently went to Montana and purchased bulls and cows together.

Fanning says he eventually convinced Seltzer to try some Hereford-Red Angus crosses. “That way, we’d still get some of those white faces every once in a while and that seemed to make Sherm happy,” Fanning says. “But Sherm has always tried to have good, quality cattle. When we started buying cattle at the R.A. Brown Ranch sales in Texas, he’d always want the best. Sometimes, you’d have to tell Sherm to quit bidding because he wanted to buy the best at whatever it was, and you can’t do that when you’re running just a commercial operation.”

P.D. Nicaise, who first worked with Seltzer on the Pershing missile system, remembers how Seltzer’s farm got its start on lands leased around Redstone Arsenal where he kept a couple of horses and some cattle. Later, he says, NASA engineers would show up at the farm to help round up and brand cattle.

“We all laughed and joked with Sherm about being a cowboy, but Sherm’s a technical man. He knows the engineering and the science,” Nicaise said just before relating an incident where Seltzer, decked out in cowboy hats, jeans and boots, wowed the audience at an aerospace industry event with his technical presentation on guidance control systems.

But Seltzer, a short man who casts a 10-foot shadow, is far more than a rocket scientist. He’s packed a lot of living into his years, a fact not lost on Nicaise who was so taken by Seltzer’s fascinating life story that he urged him to write his autobiography. He agreed, and sat down with Nicaise for hours to record the recollections in Sherm’s Story, self-published by Seltzer in 2004.

The son of an entrepreneurial attorney whose brother is often credited with having created roller derby, Seltzer attended high school in Hollywood where comedian Red Skelton was a frequent visitor at the family’s home.

He graduated UCLA with a bachelor’s degree in engineering and an Army ROTC commission as a second lieutenant in 1950, right about the time he met Lou on a blind date. “It was the hardest campaign I ever fought,” he says with a broad grin. “I fought hard to get her to marry me. I loved her the first time I saw her.”

But the Korean War interrupted their honeymoon, and Seltzer soon found himself in an M-24 tank in northern Korea where he “welcomed the Chinese” into the conflict. He received one Purple Heart when a Chinese soldier bayoneted him, and another when a landmine exploded beneath his tank. With broken bones in his legs and his scalp blown off, Seltzer crawled from the wreckage under heavy fire as a fellow soldier held on to his pistol belt. He awoke to a chaplain saying last rites over him.

“I wrote to Lou and I said, ‘Things don’t look good, but we’ll figure something out,’” he says in his autobiography. “I said, ‘Why don’t you send me a book about agriculture so I can learn another trade.’”

It wasn’t to be. Despite a permanent limp, Seltzer’s Army career continued. After Korea, the Army sent him to the University of Michigan where he earned two master’s degrees in aeronautical engineering and guidance control. Later, he would earn a doctorate from Auburn University.

In 1959, he was assigned to oversee the Army Ballistic Missile Agency’s Pershing missile project at Redstone Arsenal. Soon after, von Braun coaxed him into NASA to oversee the guidance and control systems of the Saturn rocket that carried the Apollo capsule to the moon. “I never wanted to be an astronaut,” he says. “I just wanted to make sure they got there safely.”

Still, he became fast friends with astronaut Owen Garriott as the two worked side-by-side on the Skylab, the United States’ first space station. Garriott would later visit the station in 1973 — and make several space walks — on the Skylab 3 mission, which lasted almost 60 days.

Although Skylab’s orbit ended in 1979, another project that bears Seltzer’s fingerprints — the Hubble Space Telescope — continues to explore the universe two decades after its launch.

Between retirements and lecturing, he and his engineering buddies launched —and sold — multi-million dollar businesses in the defense industry, including SVS (Shirley, Van Allen & Seltzer) which today is a subsidiary of Boeing.

Dates and names may escape him now, but Dr. Sherman Seltzer, the rocket scientist who guided men to the moon, knows the closest thing to heaven is right here in Hurricane Valley. It’s home.

It’s riding his Quarter horses and checking the cattle. It’s sitting on the porch of the home Lou designed, and watching the moon rise over Tater Nob.

“He has a brilliant mind that has been everywhere,” Fanning says. “But his heart is right there on that farm he calls his ranch.”

Seltzer wouldn’t argue with that.

“I love it here,” he says, pushing back his Stetson to reveal a wide smile. “I’m the luckiest man on earth.”

In Defense of My Country or why I can celebrate Memorial and Vet’s day


Image from VroomBroom at stock.xchng.com.

Image from VroomBroom at stock.xchng.com.

In my last year at Northwestern I really screwed up…….I was partying, failed a course, got mononucleosis (no sleep, etc) and had to drop out a quarter.  I was three hours short of graduation so instead of having a Toga party ala Belushi, I decided to volunteer for the draft, since I would have to go in eventually.

Photo by Stephen Davies from stock.xchng.com

So I went to the army recruiting office in Evanston and someone had told me that you want to try for military intelligence – of course that was a typical army misnomer; it meant you are at the front lines, you phone back to the gunners and say “the enemy is 100 yards in front of me, start sending those shells”.  Well luckily, I couldn’t qualify.  It was the McCarthy era.  The sergeant asked me where I was born – Portland, Oregon.  my father, Helena, Montana. my mother, somewhere on the Russian-Polish border (actually Stepan, Poland) and was three when she came to the US.  Oh Oh, that made me a security risk.

So, I just volunteered for the draft and took my chances.  I took my physical.  Height 5 foot 8, weight 110 pounds (!), eyesight, 20/500 (I could see at 20 feet what most people saw at 500 feet), jaundiced from the mononucleosis.  Passed, classified 1-A.   I still don’t believe it.

So on 4 March 1954 I packed a small bag, got on a train from LA to Salinas CA, and we all bused over to Fort Ord, by Monterey, CA.  Now this is one of the most beautiful areas in the Golden State.  However, the foggy and cold mornings and the warm days made for rampant sickness and I was stricken with acute Pharyngitis during the very difficult basic training.  They gave me a shot of penicillin, told me to report to the hospital which I didn’t because if you stayed away for more than a few days, you had to start basic all over again, a fate worse than Pharyngitis.

After basic we received our next assignment:  mine was 8 weeks of clerk typist school at Fort Ord.  That was a snap.  You could leave the base on the weekend and I generally drove down to LA with three people (that’s how I made more than the very few dollars I was getting from Uncle Sam every month).  We would leave at Saturday noon, come back Sunday to check in by 6 PM.

I was third in my clerk typist class and was surprised because the two ahead of me didn’t seem to pay much attention to anything.  It turned out, they were given the test results from someone and someone else turned them in, so I was the valedictorian of  my class.  what an honor.  So I was assigned to court reporter training (16 weeks) at Fort Benjamin Harrison in Indiana.  I did well there, and as a result got to choose whether I went to Korea, Germany or Austria.  Salzburg, here I come.

After 13 days on a flat-bottomed Army ship from Brooklyn to Livorno, Italy, sleeping on hammocks 4 high, I met with my assignment sergeant.  I had been told that my MOS was critical, and to insist on being a court reporter.  I was asked where I was born, my father, my mother and asked one additional question:  did I have any other relatives in Eastern Europe.  I answered honestly that they had all been killed in the Holocaust.  Then because Sen. McCarthy didn’t have as much influence in Italy, I was assigned to administration in the counter intelligence corps in Salzburg and given a top-secret clearance.  Strange are the ways of the military.

It is early 1955 and I am on a train to Salzburg along with the others assigned there.  When we arrived, we were taken to our lodgings, not an army barrack, but a former sanitarium that had been taken over by the Nazi officers in an area called Parsch.  All single private rooms, and we received a food allowance to eat in our dining room (order from the menu!) because of the super secret nature of the work at the 430th CIC unit.  Our cover name was Headquarters, USFA (US Forces Austria), and I bought a used Opel convertible (no top down until May), and lived the glorious life in Salzburg:  The Mozarteum, the castle, the bakery (founded 1329).

Our physical training consisted of weekly skiing at Berchtesgaden, Hitler’s Eagle nest home.  Our work, mainly screening prostitutes that soldiers were marrying and intending to take home to the US, and making certain they were not Russian spies.  However, I was not involved in the very secret work of spies going into Eastern Europe and the listening posts in Salzburg and Vienna.  I worked in a great office environment with good people (actually the officer I worked for was Major Major).

Austria at the time was a four-power country, with control each month passing from Russia to the US to France to Britain.  We drove to Vienna one month to see the passing of power from the Soviets to our government.  A very impressive ceremony with the Russian soldiers, bayonets on the end of the rifles goose stepping in perfect step and the US soldiers, chrome helmets glistening in the sun marching to “The St. Louis Blues”.

I did get to go to Munich and drink beer in the Hofbrau beer hall with my buddies.  I took a trip through Europe and visited my cousin Sherman and his family in Bamberg, Germany, where he was stationed prior to going back to school and designing much of our guidance systems for our space program (see blog on Sherman, an American hero.

All good things come to an end.  The four powers signed a treaty to turn the government over to Austria and the command was closed.  A small group of us stayed behind until the very last day to clean things up, and left after a short 10 months in this military paradise to be given my discharge at the Presidio, San Francisco, three months early to I could go back to school and get my degree.

Photo by foxumon from stock.xchng.com

It was two years out of my life, but it sure could have been worse.  I still hated the non-coms who controlled my life while in (don’t obey, go to jail) and I always cheer for Navy in the Army-Navy game, and the VFW won’t let me join because I was not in during a war and even though I sent in my money, I don’t get the cap and can’t go to the VFW lodge, but what the hell.

And when my children and grandchildren asked me what I did in the war, I tell them a fought the battle of the Vienna Woods.

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The Second Front


I am just learning how to do this……like most things I do, I refuse to read any instructions so I am just letting wordpress guide me.

By the way, my name is Jerry Seltzer;  I don’t think I mentioned it before and I don’t want to be rude.  I was born in Portland Oregon and remember clearly the day I heard a newsboy yelling “Pearl Harbor attacked”.   Of course no television in 1941, no iphones etc and the radio was not on all the time, so the newspaper was how we found out about things

My life really changed shortly afterwards:  my mother died of breast cancer in March of 1942 (I had never heard the disease mentioned), and my sister and I had to leave Portland to move to Chicago where my father (yes, he invented Roller Derby) spent most of his time.  We only saw him 3 or 4 times a year in Portland.

The country was united against the axis (Japan, Germany and Italy for those who don’t know who our enemies were in WW2) and we were all asked to sacrifice and contribute to the war effort.  Rationing of food and clothing followed shortly and families had to learn to live with limited amounts of meat and other foodstuffs and women became very creative in feeding their families.  Strange new meat products appeared that were made from parts of animals that were previously thrown away as unsuitable for the marketplace (can you say Spam). Most families had an A Sticker to put on their cars which entitled them to 6 gallons of gas per week.

Very few people complained as our soldiers were doing the fighting and we were to help in any way we could.  There were savings bond drives and stars and other personalities would show up and everyone would buy;  of course the main purpose was to take money out of circulation and avoid inflation.  Price controls were established, as well as limits in salaries (90% tax brackets!  And what are you complaining about?).  Since the country had been in such a severe depression it didn’t seem such a hardship and now war jobs were helping families.

I divert, as I often will, and wonder that in all the wars or “police actions” we have been in since then, if the government had asked us to sacrifice we might be in better shape now to really get off of oil dependence and really move to a “clean” economy.  But Johnson and the others decided we could have butter and guns and America could just go on.  (I understand in Iraq in one barrack there is a sign on the wall “We go to war, Americans go to the mall”) And this would have been a killer today:  no cars were produced for civilians from 1942 until 1946.

So now in 1944 I was 12 years old and living in Glenview, a suburb of Chicago.  It sounds terrible but the war was very exciting:  we never heard about our terrible losses in the Pacific or elsewhere until much later, but just how well our boys were doing…there was constant talk of when the real “Second Front” was going to happen.  The Russians, who were now our great friends and allies were pressuring the British and the Americans to attack Europe to take the pressure off of the Eastern Front, but of course we were arguing with each other.  The Brits convinced us to invade Italy in 1943 but we all knew that was not the real invasion.

On June 6th,  just 3 days after my 12th birthday I was at home and suddenly a bulletin came on the radio (I was probably listening to a daily serial:  Superman, etc) that our forces had landed at Normandy in France.   I am certain now that it was hours after it happened as our news was really screened.  My dad was not home, he was at the Coliseum as there was a Roller Derby game that night.   I immediately called the night number of the switchboard (“for emergencies only” he had told me), and they brought him to the phone.”We have invaded Europe at Normandy”…..he was happy for the information and when he came home I asked him how the crowd had responded when the announcer told them what had happened.  “They clapped and cheered”

I was happy…..that was my first successful promotion.