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A Terrorist’s Tale

FROM FEBRUARY 2002: Sixty years ago this June, a German submarine dropped four Nazi agents on a darkened Florida beach.Among them was 22-year-old Herbert Haupt, the son of a German American family living on Chicago’s North Side. Haupt was part of a terrorist team a band of saboteurs with plans to blow up American bridges and factories. When apprehended, Haupt claimed he was just a homesick young man caught up in the maelstrom of war. But a secret military tribunal convicted Haupt and sent him to the electric chair. This startling story from Chicago’s past offers an eerie foreshadowing of today’s issues.

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Far from Chicago: Nazi sympathizer Herbert Haupt (center) and his friend Wolfgang Wergin (left) travel by freighter from Japan to France in 1941.
 

Under a clear night sky on June 17, 1942, the German submarine U-584 surfaced just off a sandy Florida beach 30 or so miles south of Jacksonville. Four young Nazi agents scrambled into an inflatable raft and paddled ashore. Among them was Herbert Haupt, the 22-year-old son of a German American family on Chicago’s North Side and a former student at Lane Technical High School. Along with his three colleagues on the raft and four other Germans who had already been dropped by another sub on Long Island, Haupt was part of a terrorist team—a band of saboteurs armed with explosives who planned to blow up U.S. bridges, factories, and even department stores.

Haupt and his companions watched the sub’s conning tower slip back into the Atlantic, then buried their cache of weapons in the white sand. After lying low until morning, they caught a bus to Jacksonville. From there, they scattered to predetermined destinations, with orders to blend into American life before gathering again a few weeks later to start their violent campaign.
Haupt headed home. He rode a train to Chicago’s Union Station and grabbed a cab. For eight days, he resumed the Chicago life he had left a year before—living with his parents on Fremont Street, seeing relatives and friends, reconnoitering with his girlfriend. His dad bought him a car, and he prepared to return to his old job at an optical factory. But on June 27th, Haupt’s Pontiac coupe was surrounded by FBI agents near a North Side el stop. He was arrested and charged with sabotage. By the end of the day, all eight of the Nazi terrorists were in jail.

Their arrest opened the way to a startling episode in the history of American justice—one that is directly relevant today. Haupt was sent to Washington, D.C., where he was tried in secret by a military tribunal, one of the last held on U.S. soil. Convicted with the others of war crimes, he was sentenced to death. He was not allowed an appeal. The only review of the case was by President Franklin Delano Roosevelt. The President didn’t even announce the verdict publicly until after Haupt and five others had been executed.

The case didn’t stop there. Haupt’s parents, his aunt and uncle, and the parents of a friend—all German Americans living in Chicago—were also arrested and charged with treason, based largely on the fact that they had not turned Haupt in when he reappeared. With the national mood intensely hostile to Germany, the six were convicted after a high-profile trial in federal court in Chicago. The three men were sentenced to death, the three women to 25 years in prison. Eventually, an appeals court overturned the convictions, and only Haupt’s father stood trial and was convicted again. He and his wife were both deported to Germany after World War II.

Though Herbert Haupt was portrayed at the time as a fanatic Nazi and dangerous saboteur, today it’s not clear whether he really intended to carry out his mission. One companion, who has never before spoken out about the case, says that Haupt simply wanted to escape Germany and return to his prewar life in Chicago. Most evidence suggests he ended up in Germany only as a result of a youthful adventure that went awry. It is even less clear whether his parents and others charged with treason were guilty of anything more serious than harboring the young man.

Years later, even some of the U.S. Supreme Court justices who upheld the constitutionality of the secret trial of Haupt and his coconspirators came to regret the way the decision was made. Still, the case has been cited as a precedent by President George W. Bush, who announced last November that suspected terrorists linked to Osama bin Laden might be tried by secret military tribunals. Bush and U.S. Attorney General John Ashcroft have said that foreign terrorists who commit war crimes against the United States do not deserve the usual protections of the U.S. Constitution.

There are countless differences between the circumstances of Haupt’s arrest and trial 60 years ago and the aftermath of the September 11th terrorist attacks on New York and Washington. Among other things, the Nazi saboteurs never blew anything up. But in both instances, the original missions involved well-planned terrorist attacks by foreigners. The 2001 terrorists went after symbols—of commerce and the government. The Nazi saboteurs were more practical—they wanted to strike at targets that would hurt the U.S. war effort and demoralize Americans.

Legal scholars point to the saboteur case as an example of the sort of swift justice that President Bush has in mind. That World War II prosecution pushed the American legal system into territory that the country has dared not re-enter—until today. If nothing else, the case shows how established principles of justice can, under certain circumstances, be easily transformed.

As it turns out, Herbert Haupt bears a number of superficial similarities to some of the men linked to the September 11th terrorist attacks. He was young, he came from a stable family, and for a time, apparently, he was an ardent believer—in his case, in the glory of Germany. He may or may not have been a devoted Nazi at the end. What is almost certain, though, is that when he started on the journey that would turn him into an accused saboteur, he never imagined where it would end.

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Wolfgang Wegrin
Wolfgang Wegrin

Wolfgang Wergin is 79. Age and injuries have whittled at the hulking six-foot frame he enjoyed when he first met Herbert Haupt around 1940, while the two of them were working at the Simpson Optical Company on Chicago’s North Side. Haupt was three years older, but they hit it off—among other things, they both had been born in Germany and raised in Chicago, though Wergin says he never paid much attention to the German chauvinism that flourished among some German Americans. And he says he never heard Haupt go on about the fatherland.

Rather, the two were mostly interested in fun. “Herbie was a sharp dresser and attracted women,” recalls Wergin over lunch at a casual restaurant in San Pedro, California, where he had retired. “One thing he could never get off his mind was women.”
Haupt also had a wanderlust. In the spring of 1941—six months or so before the United States entered World War II—he persuaded Wergin and another friend to go with him to Mexico. A year later, the U.S. government argued in its case against Haupt that he had traveled to Mexico with plans to go on to Germany. (Haupt gave other reasons in his testimony.)

Wergin, who has never spoken publicly before, has another explanation for the trip’s inspiration. “We went together one evening to a fiesta on the North Side,” he says. “Music. It was real nice. We got to talking. We both had vacations coming. I guess Herbie said, ‘Why don’t we go to Mexico?’”

They set off in Wergin’s 1934 Chevrolet with about $80 each. “Here were two kids from strait-laced families, off on the adventure of their lives,” recalls Wergin, whose side of the excursion would land him more than two years on the Russian front as a German soldier. “The hairier it got, the better it got.”

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Photograph: Courtesy of Wolfgang Wergin

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