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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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Herbert Haupt was born in Stettin, Germany, the son of a bricklayer, Hans, a veteran of the German army in World War I. Soon after his discharge, Hans had married Erna Froehling, and on December 21, 1919, their first and only child, Herbert, was born. Searching for a better life, Hans sailed to the United States in 1923 and made his way to Chicago. Erna and Herbert joined him two years later. Hans worked on and off as a contractor and painter during the 1920s and 1930s. He applied for citizenship in 1928 and was naturalized in 1930, which made young Herbert an American citizen, too.

Herbert attended Waters Elementary School and Amundsen and Lane Technical High Schools, all on the North Side. “In grammar school he had an excellent record but in high school he preferred earning money to studying and took over six years to graduate,” Erna later told the FBI (though actually, Herbert never did graduate). After high school, he worked at Simpson Optical, earning $25 a week and turning the money over to his father.

Despite having become an American citizen, Herbert’s father, Hans, stayed connected to Germany—a simple matter, given the large number of German Americans in Chicago. He was a member of the German World War Veterans and the Schubert Liedertafel Singing Society, among other German groups. Herbert apparently adopted his father’s passion and became a supporter of the German-American Bund, a U.S. organization that backed Hitler and Germany during the 1930s and 1940s.
Because of hostility to German Americans during World War I—when, among other things, the frankfurter became the hot dog, and, in Chicago, German Hospital was renamed Grant Hospital—many Americans of German extraction had learned to temper their displays of enthusiasm for the old country. But the Bund, with 20,000 members in the United States, broadcast its support for the Nazis in public demonstrations. Herbert Haupt joined in.

“I can picture him now, goose-stepping down Western Avenue in front of the Queen of Angels Guild Hall in his brown-shirt uniform,” recalls Herbert’s boyhood friend John Giannaris, 79, who now lives in Mount Prospect. “It was unusual for kids, even in our German neighborhood, to be so in love with Germany. I would call him fanatical.”

As the war approached, several friends recall, Haupt declared that Germany was superior to the United States. One acquaintance, Lawrence J. Jordan, punched Haupt in the nose at a dance party after Herbert preached Nazi propaganda. Haupt later got back at him, using Jordan’s name on a forged draft registration card when he returned to Chicago.

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Around the time that Hitler was launching his attack on Russia, Haupt and Wolfgang Wergin finalized their plans for the trip to Mexico. At a farewell party, Haupt spread out a map on the floor and traced his possible route. He had not revealed to his family another reason for leaving town. At his trial, Haupt testified that he had wanted to end a relationship. “I was associating with a girl named Gerda Stuckmann and my folks objected to my going with her, and her folks objected to her going with me, because I was younger,” Haupt said. “She became pregnant and I didn’t know what to do, so I talked to two friends of mine and left for Mexico.”

Haupt was 21, Wergin 18. The friends stopped every night along country roads to make a campfire and eat beans, then crossed the border at Laredo, Texas. (The third young man turned back before Mexico.) A few days later, Haupt and Wergin arrived in Mexico City and, according to Wergin, met up with two Mexican sisters. It didn’t take long for the Americans to spend their money. Wergin recalls that the sisters brought their entire family along on a date, which obliged the young men to buy rounds of drinks for everyone. “We lost a lot of money there,” Wergin says. “We kind of snuck out.”

Broke, Wergin sold his car, and the two bought train tickets back to Nuevo Laredo for their return to Chicago. However, Mexican border authorities refused to let them cross until they paid tax on the car—money the two did not have. “Just to show you how dumb we were, we could have gone down the river and crossed over,” Wergin says. “Nobody would have known the difference. [But] we were law abiding kids.”

Back in Mexico City, acquaintances steered them to the Pacific Ocean port town of Manzanillo, where they might find a freighter that would take them to California. On his own, Haupt apparently started formulating a new plan. At his trial, he said he met a man from the German Consulate, who suggested that the two Americans head to Japan, where they could find work.

On July 26th, Haupt and Wergin boarded a Japanese freighter, ultimately bound for Yokohama. Wergin thought the ship would stop first in California to pick up scrap metal, and he planned to get off there. But two days into the journey, Wergin says, he and Haupt got word that the boat was heading directly to Japan. In a letter to his mother sent before the ship embarked, Haupt seems to suggest that he knew the ship wouldn’t stop in California. “He must have kept it a secret from me because he knew I would have never gone along with it,” says Wergin, who was shaken to learn after 60 years that his friend may have tricked him.

But why Japan? One explanation is that Haupt had plans to return to Germany. Before Pearl Harbor, Japan was one of the few entry points into Nazi Germany open to Americans. Nonetheless, after arriving in Yokohama about August 24th, Wergin says, he and Haupt traveled to the U.S. Consulate in Tokyo in search of a way back to the States. Officials there said they couldn’t help the hapless adventurers. At his trial, Haupt said he made contact with the German Consulate, which helped them find work on a German freighter in Kobe. Haupt and Wergin spent three weeks in training before sailing eastward—toward an unknown destination on an unmarked German freighter. The journey, around South America’s Cape Horn, took months. Four days before the ship docked in Bordeaux, in German-occupied southwestern France, the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor. On the day the freighter docked, Germany declared war on America.

For three days, Haupt and Wergin were kept on board ship as German officials tried to determine what to do with the Americans. Finally, when officials realized the two had been born in Germany, they were sent to internment camps and then to the homes of their German relatives—Haupt to his grandmother’s place in Stettin (now known as Szczecin, Poland), Wergin to his grandmother’s in Königsberg (now Kaliningrad, Russia).

Today, Wergin says he was too naïve to be upset by the turn of events. “This is what I was living for,” he says. “I had been so cooped up all my life, wanting to do all these things I saw in the movies. This is what I wanted, and now, finally, I was having it.”
A few weeks after Haupt arrived in Stettin, a German army lieutenant named Walter Kappe contacted him. Kappe had spent 12 years in the United States, including several years as a journalist on Chicago’s German-language paper the Abendpost, but he had been forced to leave the country in 1937 because of his ardent Nazi sympathies. In Germany, he rose quickly through the army by positioning himself as an expert on the United States. “It was an ego thing,” said his son years later. “He was misguided and looking for a chance to be somebody.”

Lieutenant Kappe was masterminding a grand scheme for the Abwehr, Nazi counterintelligence—a sabotage mission against the United States staffed by young men who knew their way around Americans. Apparently, the lieutenant had been notified about Haupt’s long journey to Germany. They met twice, and Kappe signed him up. Haupt later testified that he had had no choice but to join—he had understood that his life and the life of Wergin would be in danger if he didn’t.

“When I saw [Kappe the second] time, he asked me if I knew that my mother’s brother was in a concentration camp and my father’s brother had been, and I answered in the affirmative,” Haupt stated at his trial. “He asked me if I hadn’t noticed that I couldn’t get a job and whether or not the Gestapo and police had been bothering me, which they had. He pointed out that the only thing left for me to do was to return to the United States.”

The mission’s goal was to blow up key installations—huge manufacturing plants, particularly Alcoa factories that produced aluminum for U.S. warplanes; bridges, such as the Hell Gate Bridge connecting Queens and the Bronx; locks on the Ohio River; the hydroelectric plant at Niagara Falls; and railroad tunnels. Kappe also wanted to plant bombs in major department stores owned by Jews.

The idea was to impede the war effort and cause public panic, but the ultimate strategy was more subtle and far-reaching. In a 1959 book about the case, George J. Dasch, the leader of the saboteurs, said the bombings were “designed to inflame the American public against people having any possible connection with Germany and the Axis countries.” The public anger, the Nazis hoped, would “produce a bond among those cast out and vitalize a real Fifth Column movement in the United States.” (Similarly, some analysts have argued that Osama bin Laden’s aim in the September 11th attacks was to provoke the United States into a harsh response that would in turn rouse Muslims throughout the world.)

In April 1942, Haupt began training at the High Command’s Sabotage School near Brandenburg. He was taught how to use detonators and explosives. He and his colleagues were taken on trips to German factories to learn their most vulnerable spots, and they were taught how to communicate back to the Reich.

During his training, Haupt managed to contact Wolfgang Wergin, and they met one last time. “He told me about this thing he was going through, the saboteur school,” Wergin recalls. “He said that he was going to land on the beach and disappear. I told him, ‘You can’t get away from the FBI. They’re going to catch you and stick you in jail.’ I didn’t even think about execution. He said, ‘I’m just going to go and disappear.’ After a couple of hours—it’s toward the evening and we were talking a lot—he started to cry. For all our time together, he always acted as the older one and I acted as the younger one. But on that night, our roles changed. I remember how much he cried.

“Herbie just wanted to get back to America,” Wergin says.

Haupt apparently had trouble gaining the respect of his seven fellow saboteurs. He was by far the youngest, and he was gregarious, wore showy jewelry, and talked in American slang. “The others thought him too frivolous for a project as serious as this, and it was hoped, even suggested, that Kappe not send him to the States,” wrote Eugene Rachlis in his 1961 book about the mission, They Came to Kill. “Kappe invariably replied that Haupt’s physical capacities—he was a muscular hundred and ninety pounds and nearly six feet tall, and had had boxing lessons—made him an asset.”

Kappe’s eight saboteurs were split into two groups of four each. Haupt was placed on Edward Kerling’s team, which included Hermann Neubauer, who had lived in Chicago during the 1930s. That team boarded the sub in France on May 26th. Dasch led the second team, and it included Ernest Peter Burger. Both had lived in Chicago. That group left on another German submarine two days later, but arrived at their Long Island destination earlier, on the morning of June 13th. All the saboteurs were equipped with special James Bond–like devices: a fountain pen–and–pencil set that doubled as explosive fuses, a pocket watch that could be used as a timing device, and small bombs disguised as coal bricks. They were also issued a handkerchief with the names of their U.S. contacts etched in invisible ink.

Dasch never intended to carry out the mission, however. In his book Eight Spies Against America, he said he turned against the Nazis because he loved America. “From the very moment I set foot on shore my intentions were clear and consistent,” he wrote. Once in New York, he and Burger made plans to reveal the plot—after they had given other saboteurs a chance to come forward, too. “In particular I thought of Herbert Haupt,” Dasch wrote. “I felt his return to Germany had been something of a boyish lark and he had ended up trapped, just as I had. . . . I felt he wanted more than anything else to come back to his country and his family and would never go through with a plot to harm the United States.”

Dasch recalled an incident in Berlin: “Haupt and I had been sitting in a restaurant together when a group of SS men came in and gave their stiff Hitler salute. To my surprise and pleasure, Haupt remarked, ‘George, take a look at those dirty bastards.’ . . . [N]o good Nazi would have expressed such feelings and I felt Haupt had shown himself to feel pretty much as I did. Before I would put the finger on him now, I wanted him to have a chance to show his own true colors.”

Several days after arriving in New York, Dasch took a train to Washington to see J. Edgar Hoover, head of the FBI. At first Dasch was dismissed as a kook, but after he opened his suitcase and displayed $84,000 (the two sabotage teams had arrived with more than $170,000 in U.S. currency), the FBI listened.

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