My brother and I traveled to Germany in the summer of 2019 to retrace the steps of the 104th U.S. Infantry, which liberated Mittelbau-Dora and captured Mittelwerk. We visited old town Antwerp, had lunch at Quinten Matsys, which seemed much as it would have seventy-five years earlier for Jack and Jordan. We took a train to Cologne and visited the massive cathedral. We imagined what the area would have looked like when the Allies had leveled the city with their nightly bombing raids. We drove to Nordhausen, visiting the KZ memorial at Mittelbau-Dora. We saw the site of barracks, the parade grounds, the front gate, and the crematorium, a tiny two-room building that still stands.
Then we entered the tunnels of Mittelwerk, to walk where Jack Waters would have gone on April 11, 1945. It had fallen into disrepair after the Russians attempted to seal off the facilities by blowing up the entrances in 1948. The tunnels still contain the partial remains of rusted V-2 rocket engines, gyroscopes, and other detritus.
The summer of 2019 was also the fiftieth anniversary of the lunar landing, powered by Wernher von Braun’s famous Saturn V rocket. Von Braun emerged in the 1950s as a Disney-fied all-American hero and a major force at NASA.
No doubt, von Braun was a great American. But he was also a Sturmbannführer in the SS. He designed the V-2 rockets that bombed London and Antwerp. He visited Mittelwerk more than a dozen times during the war. When he found progress lacking, he went to Buchenwald and requisitioned thousands of slave laborers, an almost-certain death sentence. More than twenty thousand slave laborers died in the making of the V-2 rockets at Mittelwerk; more than five times the number that were killed as a result of V-2 bombings.
This book never answers the question as to whether the United States should have recruited Nazi scientists, but it is a parable of what can happen if, as Amy Hugo might have said, you open that door. The characters are fictional, but Mittelwerk, T-Force, the Osenberg list, Operation Paperclip, the Venona Project are all real. For more than thirty years, the CIA and FBI employed former Nazis as spies and informants in the fight against communism.
There are several good books on The Venona Project. The best is The FBI-KGB War by Robert J. Lamphere, a fourteen-year FBI agent who launched the project to decrypt top-secret Russian cables and shared the work with MI5. Lamphere helped break Klaus Fuchs, leading to the arrest of Harry Gold, David Greenglass, and the Rosenbergs in the summer of 1950. His book reads like a thriller. Sadly, it is out of print, though used copies abound on eBay.
For readers who would like to know more about the recruitment of Nazi scientists to the United States, I highly recommend Operation Paperclip by Annie Jacobsen. No Paperclip scientist were ever found guilty of war crimes in America or Germany, though a handful were forced to leave the country under dubious circumstances.
There is a lengthy section in the book about Major General Harry G. Armstrong, a pioneer in the field of aviation medicine and inventor of the pressurized air cabin. Dr. Armstrong recruited German aviation doctors to the United States, including his counterpart, the director of Aeromedical Research of the Luftwaffe, Dr. Hubertus Strughold, whom he had met at conferences in the 1930s. Armstrong and Strughold had similar careers and became lifelong friends. Armstrong was promoted to Surgeon General of the Air Force and Strughold became Chief Scientist of NASA’s Aerospace Medical Division. Strughold was the subject of three separate investigations into his suspected involvement in war crimes committed under the Nazis. He remained a controversial figure even after his death in 1986.
By the most unlikely of coincidences, Harry G. Armstrong was my wife’s grandfather.
Traverse City, Michigan