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.