There is an honest-to-God “Honest John” missile on South East Street. The red, white and blue missile sits on the front lawn of Ernie Pyle VFW Post 1120 on Indy’s south side.
John Baker, a former Marine and the second-in-command at the post, knows plenty about the missile. According to Baker, founding member and World War II veteran Curtis Rainbolt was in charge of Fort Harrison’s electricity back in 1971.
One day while working, Rainbolt saw a decommissioned MGR-1 “Honest John” sitting forgotten behind an old warehouse. He thought it would make a great addition to his VFW.
After he was turned down many times by his bosses, he went to their bosses. Rainbolt wanted the missile so badly; he was prepared to play hardball with the big wigs.
“The story I heard was he went to the commanding general’s office,” Baker said. “From what I hear, he sat down and said, ‘Well, General, it’s extremely hot today.’ The general agreed, and Curtis, more or less, said ‘Well I would hate like heck for the powerhouse to shut down all of a sudden, and all these buildings out here not have air conditioning!’”
Baker calls it “a little bit of blackmail,” but it worked. The general agreed to let him take it, and a group of volunteers from the post loaded it onto a flatbed truck and brought it back to the post. The army was even nice enough to build the pedestals on which the missile still sits.
According to Baker, the story of the “Honest John” itself is the stuff of legend. According to Redstone Arsenal, the Alabama army post that developed the missile, the projectile was designed to carry either a payload of 1,500 pounds or a single, small atomic warhead. The rocket’s projected range was no farther than 20,000 yards. Even nine years after development had begun, range accuracy was still a problem.
Army brass was rapidly losing faith in the project. They were not too thrilled about an unguided projectile, capable of carrying an atomic weapon, being used so close to their own soldiers. Even with conventional explosives, the missile was still finicky.
When Brigadier General Holger N. Toftoy visited White Sands Proving Ground, N.M. to view some tests of the rocket, he met a Texan who was talking loudly and reportedly telling tall tales.
“The Texan says, ‘Well tell them I think it’ll work, and they call me Honest John,’” Baker said. “So that’s how it got its name.”
Eventually, the missile passed testing, but according to Redstone Arsenal it never saw any combat.
Despite never being used as a weapon, the story of what the missile was doing at Fort Benjamin Harrison now seems to be lost to history.
Jeff Cummings is the park’s naturalist. According to him, what the army did forty years ago is their business.
“This is a state park, and we have no position on it,” he said.