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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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Haupt never did show his true colors. By the time Dasch surrendered to the FBI, Haupt’s group had landed and dispersed. On the submarine, Haupt had persuaded Kerling to allow him to return to Chicago. But Haupt was worried about shocking his parents, so when he did get back to Chicago on Friday, June 19th, he went first to the home of his aunt and uncle, Lucille and Walter Froehling, at 3643 North Whipple Street. The Froehlings thought their nephew looked different—he was wearing a light brown gabardine suit, white and brown two-tone shoes, and a brown felt hat. He had a short beard and appeared tanner than usual. When his mother rushed in, she asked where he had been. He was vague.

“Aren’t you glad to see me?” Herbert said. “I’m back.”

Erna asked Herbert how he had got back, and he said, “Well, I’m back.”

Over dinner, Herbert told his parents and the Froehlings that he had returned to America on a German submarine. At first they didn’t believe him, but he gave details about the relatives he had seen in Stettin. How much he told of his mission is unclear—and it became an issue when his parents and others were charged with treason. What is certain, though, is that he left a zipper bag filled with $15,000 at the Froehlings’ for safekeeping. It was money from Germany to support the sabotage work. He took another envelope containing $3,600 to his parents’ third-floor apartment at 2234 North Fremont Street. The money was later used as evidence at the treason hearings.

The next night, Haupt visited Wolfgang Wergin’s parents, Kate and Otto Wergin, at their South Side home. At first, he told them he had left Wolfgang in Mexico, but later blurted out most of the story. Haupt told the Wergins that if something happened to him, their son would be picked up by the Gestapo. At one point, Otto Wergin guessed that Haupt was in German intelligence. Haupt did not deny it. “If you need me,” said Otto, “I am willing to go along. Just let me know. I am not dumb; I know how to help you out.” That statement was used against Wergin at his trial.

By Sunday, Haupt’s colleague Hermann Neubauer had arrived in Chicago as planned, and he called Haupt at the Froehlings’ house. The two met at the Chicago Theater and discussed their progress while watching the movie The Invaders. “[Afterwards] we took a walk through the park at the lake shore and we discussed how nervous it was just being here, and Neubauer said to me he could never go through with it,” Haupt said at his trial.

Haupt’s mother had told him that the FBI had stopped by in December asking about his whereabouts, so on Monday Herbert went to the draft board to register and then took his newly issued draft card to the FBI’s Chicago office. Haupt thought the meeting went well—he said he had spent the year prospecting for gold in Mexico. But by then the FBI had been alerted by Dasch, and agents started tailing Haupt when he left the office, hoping he would lead them to other German agents.

On Tuesday, Haupt met with his girlfriend, Gerda (who had either suffered a miscarriage or put their baby up for adoption). Haupt talked to her for more than two hours, but never explained why he had not contacted her. He asked her if she wanted to get married the next week and gave her $10 to get the blood test. Gerda later said that Haupt seemed nervous and evasive. “When I accepted [his proposal], he told me he wanted to right the ‘wrong he had done his country,’ but I didn’t understand the meaning of ‘wrong to his country’ until I heard of his arrest,” she later told reporters.

On Wednesday, Haupt met again with Neubauer and also met with a friend— a Nazi sympathizer named Bill Wernecke—who advised Haupt how to falsify medical exams to get a draft deferment (Haupt’s motives are unclear, though it is likely he didn’t want to fight against Germany, even if—as he later claimed—he didn’t want to commit sabotage for her). That night, Haupt’s father bought him a black 1941 Pontiac from a dealership at Diversey and Sheffield Avenues.

Haupt had arranged to get his job back at Simpson Optical, and he was supposed to start on Thursday, but he complained to his mother about pains in his chest and back—the start of his plan to beat the draft. On Friday, he visited a doctor for tests and spent much of the day driving around the city seeing his friends. That night, the FBI followed Haupt to the Blue Danube Tavern and to the Tip Top Tap at the Allerton Hotel.

The FBI finally decided to pick him up a few minutes after he left home on Saturday morning. He was taken to the FBI office downtown, stripped, searched, and given other clothes. Haupt signed forms authorizing the FBI to search his home and keep him in custody and a form waiving his right to be arraigned. During the next several days, as he was being transported to the FBI offices in New York, he signed two long statements that detailed his involvement in the sabotage mission. Haupt and Neubauer—who was apprehended at a Chicago hotel—were the last of the eight saboteurs to be arrested.

That night, J. Edgar Hoover told reporters of the plot and of the arrests, making it sound as if the FBI had cracked the conspiracy, not that the sabotage leader had turned the group in. Hoover’s dissembling was only partly to boost the image of the FBI—the government also wanted the Germans to think the United States had a mole in the Abwehr.

The arrests came at a particularly welcome moment for the United States. The Allies had made little impact slowing the Axis during the six months since Pearl Harbor. Days before Hoover’s announcement, German troops under Field Marshal Erwin Rommel had captured Tobruk, in Libya. It seemed as if the Axis was advancing on every continent.

On June 29, 1942, the Chicago Sun wrote that the accused saboteurs might escape execution if tried in a regular court. “Informed sources doubted they would walk ‘the last mile’ because they were nabbed before they did any damage,” the paper said. The U.S. government had the same doubts. Francis C. Biddle was the Attorney General at the time. In his 1962 memoir, In Brief Authority, Biddle wrote, “Probably an indictment for attempted sabotage would not have been sustained in a civil court on the ground that the preparations and landings were not close enough to the planned act of sabotage to constitute attempt. If a man buys a pistol, intending murder, that is not an attempt at murder.”

President Roosevelt and his team took fast action. On June 30th, Biddle declared that the military had jurisdiction. In his memoir, he detailed the reasons for preferring a military trial over the court system: The military trial would be quicker, it could be held in secret, and it used more lenient rules for admitting evidence.

Two days later, on July 2nd, Roosevelt announced that the suspects would be tried by a military commission in Washington, D.C., and signed an executive order. He placed himself in charge of reviewing the verdict and stated that a vote of only two-thirds of the judges was needed to convict or sentence the suspects.

Washington attorney Lloyd Cutler, who helped prosecute the accused saboteurs, says he does not recall anyone protesting the tribunal. “We all thought of this as the first great U.S. victory after Pearl Harbor, and we needed it,” he says.

In an editorial, the Chicago Daily News wrote, “This is no time to be squeamish. The case is one for martial law and military tribunals, no matter who made the arrests. The people expect stern action, fully publicized by radio to the entire world. Americans are not softies, and they certainly do not want to invite more spies here by ill-timed leniency.”

The trial opened on July 6th in a blackout-curtained conference room in the Department of Justice building in Washington, D.C. Seven military generals, none of them trained in the law, served as judges. They sat at one end of the room on a raised platform. To their right were the eight defendants, arranged alphabetically, each separated from the others by army guards. Attorney General Biddle headed the prosecution. Colonel Kenneth C. Royall led the defense for the accused saboteurs, and observers said he did a spirited job. Still, he notified his boss, the Secretary of War, before taking major steps. Years later, Dasch wrote, “I don’t like to refer to the procedure that we had been put through as a trial. It was not a fair trial; it was not my idea of an honest American trial.”

The proceedings were carried out under strict military guard. Armored vans, accompanied by a phalanx of soldiers, drove the defendants to court. Fifty soldiers stood guard outside. Absolute secrecy was the order. “Now and then—very rarely—the reporters put two and two together,” wrote Biddle, “and did some clever guessing: Haupt, when arraigned, had a bandage on his left wrist and was handcuffed by the right wrist to a deputy marshal. He was reported to have torn his wrist artery with his teeth in a vain attempt at suicide.” (Today, it is not known if the report was true.)

Haupt pleaded not guilty to all charges. He told the judges that he had never intended to follow through on the sabotage plot; he was going to turn in the saboteurs when they gathered as planned in Chicago on July 6th. Haupt testified for hours, over a period of several days, repeating essentially the same story he had told the FBI. At one point, he was asked by Major General Frank R. McCoy, president of the tribunal, what he believed would happen if he told Kappe he would not come to America.

“In the position that I was, not being a German citizen and having trouble with German officials—well, I can’t definitely state what would happen to me. I would have probably went to a concentration camp or—that is about all they could have done to me.”

Three people were called to testify in Haupt’s defense. His mother, his girlfriend Gerda, and the mother of his best friend talked briefly about his week in Chicago following his return. Gerda said she agreed to take the blood test, but was not convinced she would marry him. “I wanted to bide for time,” she said.

On July 28th, the proceedings were halted after defense attorneys persuaded the Supreme Court to consider the constitutionality of the military court. “We have to win in the Supreme Court,” Biddle had warned FDR, “or there will be a hell of a mess.” For nine hours over two days, attorneys and justices argued over the defense claim that the trial was illegal. The defense raised a number of issues, among them that the military commission denied the accused saboteurs their constitutional rights and that the President had improperly placed himself in a position to review the case. Defense attorneys also argued that, as a U.S. citizen, Haupt, at least, was entitled to be tried in civil court.

On July 31st, the court issued a brief, unanimous order allowing the trial to continue. On August 3rd, the military commission found all eight saboteurs guilty of war crimes, a collection of offenses that ranged from spying to appearing behind the lines in civilian dress. On August 8th, six of the eight convicted saboteurs were electrocuted in the District of Columbia jail. It took a little more than an hour to execute all six men. Haupt was the first to die. Roosevelt commuted the death sentences of Dasch and Burger, who had cooperated with the government, to long prison terms—Dasch got 30 years; Burger, life—partly to hide their cooperation.

Three months after hearing the arguments, the Supreme Court issued a written opinion explaining the reasoning behind the earlier order. Basically, the court said that the Constitution gave the President, as commander in chief, the right to appoint a military commission to try the accused saboteurs, and nothing in the Constitution or the law gave them the right to a civil trial, with all the safeguards usually accorded defendants.

“It is the most Delphic, inscrutable decision you have ever seen,” Lloyd Cutler says. “But I don’t think there is any doubt that it was the proper decision. These guys were spies, caught with explosives, disappearing ink, out of uniform, behind the lines.”

Some scholars disagree. “The grounds given by the court for its decision are questionable,” says David J. Danelski, an emeritus Stanford University professor who wrote about the saboteur case in a 1996 article in the Journal of Supreme Court History. Danelski says that Chief Justice Harlan Fiske Stone and Justices William O. Douglas and Felix Frankfurter all voted in favor of the tribunal, but later came to think that the law did not support their decision (Frankfurter called it “not a happy precedent”). “It was bad law, and they knew it,” Danelski says. “That’s what is so frightening about the decision—it is being used as authority today.” 

* * *

Within hours of Herbert Haupt’s arrest, the FBI started building a case of treason against his parents, the Froehlings, and the Wergins. The three husbands were detained and jailed. Soon all six defendants had signed a series of “voluntary statements” that described how much Herbert had revealed during his eight days at home.

The six were charged with treason, the only crime defined in the Constitution: “levying war against [the United States], or in adhering to their enemies, giving them aid and comfort.” For the government, treason is a hard case to make since the Constitution requires it be proven by “a confession in open court” or “the testimony of two witnesses to the same overt act.”

The trial began on October 26, 1942, in the old domed Federal Courthouse in the Loop. Presiding judge William Campbell was one of the youngest district court judges in the nation and a hard-line former U.S. attorney who ruled against just about every motion made by the defense. The FBI spared no expense in bringing people to Chicago—from hotel clerks in Florida to the Wergins’ acquaintances in Connecticut—to reconstruct Herbert Haupt’s movements in America and the couples’ role in helping him. The star witness was saboteur Ernest Peter Burger, who established Haupt’s place in the failed mission. (Dasch says he refused to testify for the prosecution because he was sympathetic to Haupt’s parents. “Haupt had completely violated orders by going home to his family in Chicago,” Dasch wrote.)

The key to the government’s case against the six defendants was the series of statements, which became more detailed as the defendants admitted more knowledge about Herbert and his mission. Erna Haupt, for instance, said in her two-page June 28th statement that Herbert had told them only that he had been to Mexico. On June 30th, she produced a four-page statement denying that she had overheard Herbert talking about Japan and Germany. On July 1st, she signed a five-page statement in which she admitted that Herbert had told her he had been in Germany and returned on a submarine. She wrote, “I do not know why I was afraid to tell the truth, except perhaps that I was confused and so shocked by it all that I did not know what I was doing.” Finally, on July 3rd, she signed a 13-page statement in which she detailed her conversations with Herbert about his trip to Germany, but still asserted her innocence. “I also wish to state that I did not actually realize the purpose of Herbert’s return to this country and that even if I had realized it I would not have thought him capable of going through with it. Furthermore, after he had visited the FBI office and had been released without further question I thought everything must be all right.”

Defense attorneys tried hard to get these statements suppressed, arguing that they had been given under duress and were untrue. In a hearing, Walter Froehling testified that the incriminating statements had been signed after days of interviews. On one occasion, Froehling said, “I read the statement but I was so nervous and homesick that I didn’t know what I read.” At the time, Froehling testified, he had not slept for three nights. He admitted that the signature was his, but he told the court he did not remember signing the document. The government also called witnesses to testify about the defendants’ pro-German, anti-Semitic attitudes. Mary Fishman, who had employed the Haupts in the thirties and early forties, told the court, “They said that Hitler was a godsend to the people over there.” Another woman testified that Hans Haupt had told her that his American citizenship was meaningless to him.

The defense called no witnesses. Instead, defense attorneys argued that the government had not proved treason. They told the jury that the Haupts and Froehlings had acted out of love and that the Wergins simply wanted a link to their son.
On November 14th, after less than six hours of deliberation, the jury found all six defendants guilty of treason. Judge Campbell sentenced Hans Haupt, Walter Froehling, and Otto Wergin to death in the electric chair. Erna Haupt, Lucille Froehling, and Kate Wergin were sentenced to 25 years in prison and fined $10,000. The stiff sentences made Campbell something of a national hero. Newsweek wrote: “Seldom has a judge so young given a more complete and eloquent summary of a case in passing sentence than that delivered by Federal Judge William J. Campbell.” The judge received dozens of letters and telegrams, almost all congratulating him.

But the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals did not agree. On June 29, 1943, the court unanimously reversed Campbell’s decision and remanded the case for a new trial. The appellate panel criticized Campbell for admitting the defendants’ statements into evidence, for trying all six at once, and for giving confusing instructions to the jury.

Without the statements, the treason case was much more difficult to prove. Meanwhile, all six defendants remained in custody. In 1944, the government made deals with five of them. Lucille Froehling and Kate Wergin were unconditionally released. Walter Froehling and Otto Wergin pleaded guilty to “misprision of treason” and got five-year terms, part of which had already been served. Erna Haupt was interned and denaturalized. She was deported to Germany after the war.

But government prosecutors retried Hans Haupt, probably because they had the strongest case against him. He had bought the car for his son—an overt act in furtherance of the sabotage mission, the government said—and he had made the most damning pro-German remarks. The second trial featured many of the same witnesses, including Burger. This time, the jury deliberated for 28 hours before convicting Haupt of treason.

At the sentencing on June 14, 1944, district court judge John Peter Barnes called Hans a “fanatical Nazi”; at one point, the judge said his instinct was to sentence Haupt to death. But something at the trial had apparently touched the jury. Though they had convicted Haupt, the jurors sent Barnes an unusual note, asking him to deal mercifully with the defendant. “In deference to the request of these men and women, whose judgment may be better than mine, the sentence will be life imprisonment . . . ,” Judge Barnes announced.

* * * 

Today, the fates of many of the people involved in the saboteur cases are hard to determine. After being imprisoned in the federal facility at Danbury, Connecticut, Hans Haupt was deported to Germany after the war. The Wergins returned to their lives in Chicago. Otto Wergin managed the bar at a North Side club before they retired and moved to California.

The surviving saboteurs, George Dasch and Ernest Peter Burger, were imprisoned until 1948 and then deported to Germany. Dasch, who had expected to be honored by the U.S. government, later found himself hounded by Germans as a traitor. He died in 1991. Burger has disappeared into obscurity.

Wolfgang Wergin, Haupt’s companion on the trip to Mexico, had his own disastrous experience in Germany. Though he was a U.S. citizen and spoke only a few words of German, he was drafted into the German army. Wergin served in the infantry on the Russian front, rising to a rank similar to that of lance corporal. By his second year, Wergin was a hardened veteran and had won several medals, including the Iron Cross. In late 1944, while being treated for back wounds at a hospital, he managed to switch outfits and got sent to France. “From the moment I got to the front lines there, my intention was to get over to the other side, somehow, without getting shot,” he says.

Eventually, Wergin got a chance. When he saw a wounded GI in a ditch between the two lines of fire, he dove into the ditch and covered the soldier. Wergin stayed there until GIs overran the area, and he was taken prisoner. In the spring of 1945, while still in camp, Wergin found a copy of Coronet magazine and read about the fate of Haupt and of his own parents. The article said they had been sentenced to death. Only later did he learn, through a family friend, that his parents were alive.

After the war, Wergin tried to get back to the United States, but was denied a visa because of his service in the German army. He married, had two daughters, moved to Colombia, and eventually returned to the United States in 1956. His parents went to the airport in Chicago to greet him. He was home, 15 years late. Wergin never discussed the case with his parents. “I didn’t know how to bring it up,” he said. Otto Wergin lived to age 75, Kate Wergin to 84.

Wolfgang Wergin became a U.S. citizen again in 1962. He worked as a professional photographer for nearly 40 years in Las Vegas. Now he is trying to understand Herbert Haupt and the grand adventure that changed everything. He thinks sometimes about visiting Haupt’s grave. It is in Washington, D.C., marked only by a number—278—in a potter’s field at the former Home for the Aged and Infirm.

Shortly after Herbert Haupt was electrocuted, his mother asked officials in Washington if his remains could be cremated and given to her. The request, sent to President Roosevelt, was denied.

The record of Haupt’s trial was kept secret for about 15 years after World War II. The transcript, now at the National Archives in College Park, Maryland, is on thin stationery as fragile as the issues that decided the case.

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