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 of 1955, 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 14 miles from Washington 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 flash 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 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.
Mr. Joswick was born in Butler, Pa., and grew up in Chicago. He joined the Army in 1948 and spent much of his career overseeing the maintenance and readiness of the Nike Ajax and Hercules missiles systems in the United States and Germany. He retired in 1971 and became an instructor for the Maryland Correctional Training Academy in Woodstock until 1985. He suffered serious illnesses in later life.
He was a member of St. Mary of the Mills Catholic Church in Laurel. He enjoyed vacationing in Germany and gardening.
Survivors include his wife, Katharina Ascherl Joswick of Laurel; a son, John Joswick of Laurel; and a sister.