John Graham Zierdt, A Vintage Vignette
John Graham Zierdt
A Vintage Vignette by John P. Rankin
August 25, 2011
My usual practice is to write about pioneers of the area. However, sometimes an unusual circumstance leads me to address more recent residents. Such is the case of John Graham Zierdt. Recently, while I was sitting with my dad for a week in a respite care facility in Mobile, Alabama, Missy Davis with the AseraCare Hospice service came to check his status. As we talked, she mentioned that she was from Gadsden and that one of her best childhood friends was a Zierdt. Since that is a fairly rare name in this area, I asked if there was a connection to Zierdt Road in Huntsville and Madison. She didn't know about the road name, but she said that her friend's father was in the Army, so I decided to research the namesake of the road that is along the western edge of Redstone Arsenal.
Initially, all I knew was that the road was named for an Army officer from years past on the arsenal. However, in a short time of checking on-line and then requesting information from the Army's history office here, I am in awe of the “overachiever” lifetime accomplishments of not only the General for whom the road is named, but also of his family. It was in 1967 that the road was named by James Record, Chairman of the Madison County Board of Commissioners. That was the year that Zierdt retired as the Commanding General of the Army's Missile Command at Redstone Arsenal. Major General Zierdt had such a distinguished career that the Army sent me 65 pages of biographical material from their history files as a summary. I learned a few more things on-line that were not included in those files. One item that influenced my life in later times was the fact that when Dr. Wernher von Braun went to Washington D.C. to appeal for creation of what became the Mercury-Redstone Project (a precursor of the Apollo Program to put man in space), he took then-Colonel Zierdt with him. The fact of the accompaniment was not the salient point. Rather, it was that Col. Zierdt was the one who got the project funding approved. The story is told in a letter to Dr. von Braun recounting the experience, as written by Zierdt after he became a Major General. It was published in the book “Dr. Space: the Life of Wernher von Braun” by Bob Ward: “Your presentation was lucid and to the point. You answered all the technical questions perfectly, and then Dr. York (the President's Science Advisor) said, 'Now let's talk about the money.' At this point you threw up your hands and said, 'That is for somebody else to worry about,' and walked out. So I was left holding the bag and trying to explain some dollar figures I had never seen before. I muddled through somehow, but I have always remembered how neatly you dumped the problem in my lap.”
Wernher von Braun got his Redstone program approved and funded. Apparently, we owe General Zierdt some thanks for helping get the Apollo Program successfully initiated in Huntsville with a Redstone launch vehicle for the manned Mercury test flights just after the Russians launched Sputnik. Modestly, Zierdt must not have included that fact in his Army experience summaries.
John G. Zierdt was born in 1913 in Pennsylvania, where he attended West Philadelphia High School and was Senior class president, football player, and honor student. His father was William Henry Zierdt, another military career man and son of a German immigrant. John Zierdt attended a military school upon his 1931 graduation from high school and entered West Point Military Academy in 1933. The 1937 West Point yearbook summarizes his outstanding accomplishments before graduation there. His World War II service included time in Germany, his grandfather's homeland. He died in 2000 and is buried in Maple Hill Cemetery. One of his four children, John Graham Zierdt Jr., followed in the footsteps of his father and his grandfather. He also attended West Point and had a superlative Army career. He has worked with Orbital Sciences Corporation and served on the Huntsville Committee of 100 since retiring from the Army.