Nike missile was fired over the Washington area in the spring' of 1955

By PATRICIA SULLIVAN Washington Post Staff Writer

   Chester Joswick, 79, an Army warrant officer who was on duty when a Nike missile was accidental­ly fired over the Washington area in the spring'of1955, died Feb. 7 at Laurel Regional Hospital. He lived in Laurel. The cause of death is pending an investigation by the Maryland medical examiner's office.

     The launch of a fully armed, su­personic Nike-guided missile in the early years of the Cold War caused a sen­sation. Front-page stories in Wash­ington, Baltimore and New York papers dubbed it a "rogue" and "runaway" missile. Soldiers clad in hazardous-material moon suits de­scended on the new Baltimore­ Washington Parkway to cart off fragments of the rocket housing. .

A Barbersville housewife reported seeing the missile go past her kitchen window, making a "whis­tling noise" and looking "like a f1ash of lightning." The Army, which originally said the Nike Ajax missile exploded in the air, let sev­eral days pass before clarifying that the warhead did not detonate.

     Mr. Joswick, then the assistant launcher platoon leader for Battery C of the 36th antiaircraft battalion, was stationed at Fort Meade that rainy April 14, 1955. His unit was raising the rocket launcher at mid­day, part of a routine training exer­cise. The launcher was not fully up­right when the booster rocket fired, sending the missile zooming into the sky. The booster separated and fell on a trailer park. Fuel tank frag­ments tumbled onto the parkway. The missile's nose section was found 500 yards from the launcher with the guidance assembly still at­tached.

     Mr. Joswick and most of the launch crew were in an under­ground room when the missile took off. Sgt. Stanley C. Kozak of Allen­town, Pa., was standing seven feet away and sustained minor burns when he was caught in the rocket's flareback. "Because no launch was intend­ed, the pin of the launcher's for­ward yoke support had not been re­moved," wrote military historian Merle T. Cole in a 2001 article in the Anne Arundel County History News. "As the pin had not been re­moved, the yoke remained in place when the Ajax took off, tearing out .the No. 3 Tunnel or fairing strip covering essential wiring on the I M. missile's side. This damage ren­dered the missile warheads inoper­ative and prevented an explosion."

     The cause of the launch was found to be a short circuit caused by rain getting into an electrical junction box. Mr. Joswick told Cole that al­though the board of inquiry ab­solved his unit, the battalion com­mander was relieved of his duties.