How the U.S. Got Nazi Germany’s Best Scientists

By Agostino Von Hassell
11/15/2018 • Military History Magazine

Nazi Germany held some of the greatest scientific minds. And many of them were in the U.S.

World War II was as good as over in Europe and the rubble of Berlin and Dresden was still smoking as American, Soviet and British armies ransacked war-ravaged Germany. The Allied race was on for the Reich’s “assets.” The Soviets were scooping up machinery, hardware, hospital equipment, optical works and much more, to be shipped east, with each country in a frenzied grab for the booty in their sector. A popular joke at the time was that the British sector got German industry, the Russians got German agriculture, and the Americans got the scenery. But tucked away in that scenery, inside American operated internment camps with names such as Dustbin and Ashcan, U.S. scientific intelligence teams sorted out the real treasure— Germany’s scientific minds. It was these German scientists who, according to many estimates, had put German weaponry so far ahead of the Allies. And it was obvious that the Third Reich’s expertise in poison gas, aircraft design, submarines and ultrafast torpedoes would go to the Allied victor who grabbed them first.

In truth the Allied race to snap up German scientists and engineers was organized and well underway long before surrender papers were signed in the schoolroom at Rheims. By the time it was up and running, Operation Plunder, as it was called, employed more than 3,000 experts to find any and all remnants of the Reich’s armament riches and put them into Allied hands. And so, in the last chaotic weeks before the Reich’s collapse, American, British, Russian and French investigatory teams combed the countryside, looking for anything scientific or technical that could be shaken loose: scientists first and foremost, and then blueprints, aircraft designs, uranium, hydraulic presses and industrial designs. But the ultimate prize was the expertise that could produce the ghastly arsenal which might well determine the outcome of the next war.

British reserve, combined with a “We won the war, didn’t we?” attitude, caused the British to lag behind in the wholesale Allied search and plunder. English aircraft designer Roy Fedden lamented that Britain had “lost a remarkable opportunity…in not accumulating as much information on aeronautical, and in fact on all engineering matters, as she might have done,” and as the Americans had in fact done. There was so much to be had—advanced designs for torpedoes and submarines, super-speed cameras, wind tunnels, groundbreaking aircraft armament designs. It was becoming clear to Americans that East-West tensions would define the foreseeable future, and if Americans did not grab Walter Dornberger, the chief architect of German rocketry, or the team of doctors who worked on aviation medicine at the Göring Aeronautical Research Institute at Volkenrode, the Russians would.

In early April, Major Robert Staver, young and apparently unstoppable, was following the footsteps of the U.S. First Army into Nordhausen, in the Harz Mountains. His unit had survived a serious set-to with the SS, but was now entering a postcard-pretty valley, touched by spring. In the forefront of Project Hermes, his brief was to locate leading German scientists who might be able to teach the Americans a thing or two about rocketry, an area where the Germans were thought to be years ahead of the Americans. There was the hope that Adolf Hitler’s fabled wonder weapons might be used in the ongoing war with Japan, and Staver was determined to succeed as he pushed into Nordhausen.

Nordhausen’s rocket assembly operations were located inside slave-labor-dug tunnels deep in the belly of a mountain, immune to even the most massive bombing. Stumbling through the dank tunnels, Staver was amazed. The immense, lofty tunnels bristled with V-2 rockets in every conceivable stage of completion. He was no newcomer to rocketry, but he had never seen anything like this. He knew that time was of the utmost importance: Nordhausen would soon lie in the Russian occupation sector. The rockets and the experts were a precious resource, and whatever the cost, they must be kept out of Russian hands. Thus Staver’s push on Nordhausen was one of the opening moves in a new and colder war, made even before the old hot one was over.

Major Staver’s research also unearthed a huge cache of technical documents that had been hidden in a mine in Goslar, soon to become part of the British sector. The original U.S. plan, organized in late 1944, called for the orderly location and interrogation of “target” scientists, but it had quickly descended into a chaotic, cutthroat competition. The competition was not only between the Americans and the Soviets. As one observer commented, even between the Americans and the British, “the competition is fierce.”

Staver worked frantically to load crates of yet unassembled V-2 rockets and documents onto a convoy of trucks bound for the American sector. Nordhausen’s remaining scientists also had to be kept from the British and the Soviets, but they, at least, were easier to transport. A fleet of Liberty ships loaded with almost 10,000 tons of materiel—the disassembled V-2s and documents, a wind tunnel, submarines, even an entire I.G. Farben synthetic fuel plant— was soon steaming toward the United States.

The liberators of the slave concentration camp at Nordhausen, Camp Dora, were the first from the outside world to see the pitiful survivors of those who had tunneled into the mountain and supplied the labor for rocket assembly, who tottered like feeble stick figures or lay dying on the ground. Unspeakable conditions at the camp had led to the deaths of an estimated 20,000 inmates, at the rate of about 100 a day. Emaciated corpses were stacked like cordwood. The suffocating stench of death enveloped the camp.

The war-crimes investigators arriving just after Dora was liberated found the name of Arthur Rudolph near the top of the list of Nordhausen’s management. He had been among the first engineers to come to Nordhausen in 1943 to brutally supervise the slaves’ tunneling. Later he had been part of a decision intended to solve a tricky labor production bottleneck by “importing” skilled workers from France, then putting them to slave labor. The war crimes investigators were rushed, their investigations cursory. They were not aware of all these details at the time, but they did append Rudolph’s name to their report on the brutalities and appalling conditions at the camp.

By now all the top specialists of Germany’s rocket program—General Walter Dornberger, Wernher von Braun, Arthur Rudolph and about 450 others—had decamped to Bavaria, knowing it was scheduled to become the American sector and not wanting to surrender to the Russians. Von Braun and his fellow rocketeers surrendered on a rainy day in early May 1945. American counterintelligence began interrogating the rocket crew and others. Rudolph, they learned, had joined the Party in 1931, and was a staunch supporter of both Hitler’s anticommunism and anti-Semitism. His interrogator’s assessment read: “One hundred percent Nazi, dangerous type, security threat….Suggest internment.” But if the rocket scientists were interned, who would decipher the complex technical documents and put the weapons together for the Americans?

Project Overcast, established by July 1945, was intended as a temporary program to exploit at most 350 scientific minds that would help America defeat Japan. As tensions between the United States and the Soviet Union escalated, the Pentagon’s Joint Intelligence Objectives Agency (JIOA) prepared a press release explaining that the government had highly trained technicians and scientists sifting through postwar Germany, “examining manufacturing plans and equipment, records and documents [and] interrogating German personnel.” According to the plan, the Commerce Department would make available any information of industrial value, and the exploitation would include bringing the best scientists to work in the United States. In the spring of 1946, President Harry S. Truman approved a stepped-up program, dubbed Paperclip, and a few months later the Joint Chiefs of Staff announced a project to “exploit… chosen, rare minds whose continuing intellectual productivity we wish to use.” This program included a thousand scientists and their families, for whom it implied a pot of gold at the end of the rainbow, American citizenship.

The moral rhetoric in the wake of the American public’s discovery of the concentration camps had all but disappeared behind a new pragmatism. The focus now was on the future, not the past. With the Soviets looming large as the new bugbear, national interest and national security became the new priorities—and the German scientists could be useful to both. On the other hand, some of those same scientists with particularly vivid Nazi pasts might also represent a danger. With this in mind, Truman approved a program that denied any known or suspected war criminals or active supporters of Nazism entry into the United States and access to government contracts.

The terms “war criminal” and “active supporter” were, of course, open to interpretation, and soon enough became contentious. The JIOA, charged with shepherding the scientists’ dossiers past a panel made up of members of the State and Justice departments, hoped to import the maximum number of rare minds. And so, even as Nazis were being pursued for ideological delousing and de-Nazification, they were being recruited by U.S. intelligence and scientific headhunters. In instances of claimed political passivity and ignorance of any atrocities, there was no difficulty in bringing the scientists to the United States. But where there was too much evidence to the contrary, tensions developed between the JIOA and panel members, who objected to whitewashing Nazis who might be a threat to the United States.

A committee of the National Academy of Sciences concluded that during Nazi rule, much of the research of these scientists had actually represented a form of resistance. Science had become a handmaiden of weaponry, and the dollar value of the expertise far outweighed any moral qualms. It was time to find a suitable compromise. But not everyone was willing.

The State Department’s Sam Klaus had been a thorn in the JIOA’s side from the beginning. For some time already, he had been at work designing a postwar interagency program, Project Safehaven, intended to locate and block German assets and plunder that had been transferred to neutral and nonbelligerent countries. Safehaven, Overcast and Paperclip all dealt with Nazi assets, whether plundered gold or plundered scientists. The original military JIOA plan was to import only outstanding scientists at the top of their field, and none with a record of ardent Nazism. But it had undergone a shift.

Aside from his Safehaven activities, Klaus was also on the panel overseeing JIOA’s scientific “imports.” Now, along with the truly top-notch minds, a lot of second- and third-raters, scarcely Einsteins, were also being plucked from the postwar detritus. They too were to be kept out of the hands of the Soviets—and everyone else—and held at Dustbin, Ashcan and other internment camps, to be eventually transported to the United States. In the early days of Overcast, Klaus had lain low, but gradually he began to make his objections known. If a batch of JIOA dossiers for Klaus’ approval revealed that the candidates’ records did not meet the standards set by Truman, he refused to turn a blind eye to unsavory pasts. He rejected them. These decisions quickly earned him enemies.

The JIOA was furious. Klaus’ “obstructionism” was sabotaging its efforts and delaying the speedy entry of scientists. It countered his challenges with simple and efficient revisionism. The offending dossiers were returned to Germany and rewritten. The unacceptable past was simply sanitized, filtered or deleted. JIOA then presented the panel with a carefully scrubbed file.

Harry Rositzke, at one time the head of CIA covert operations in the Soviet Union, put it this way: “We knew what we were doing…using any bastard as long as he was anti-Communist.” It was a strictly utilitarian approach that “meant you didn’t look at their credentials too closely.”

And there were other alternatives. In cases of targeted scientists with an obviously fervent or brutal Nazi past, the name of the “asset” was simply deleted from lists of internees in U.S. custody kept in Germany. The name of the targeted scientist could then appear on a new, clean visa application for employment in the States. Or if his past was too egregious, he could be given a new identity and smuggled into the United States along what the spy trade called “ratlines,” an underground network designed to funnel agents into or fugitives out of hot spots. Naturally enough, the pressure to keep these operations secret was considerable. Some American scientists had already protested, and the citizenry too might be alarmed at the thought of flagrant Nazis in their midst.

Meanwhile, the tug-of-war between JIOA and Klaus and the visa organization at the State Department continued. The JIOA argued that more scientists, geneticists and others who might be useful to American industry should be brought in, lest they “be irrevocably lost to American science.” Klaus remained adamant. The Pentagon summed up his attitude as “stubborn, arrogant, and unreasonable.” By 1948, in the eerie, early days of McCarthyism, Klaus’ loyalties were being questioned, and he was later investigated as a possible Communist sympathizer.

Under the auspices of the JIOA, von Braun and a small team of leading rocket scientists arrived in the United States with cleaned-up files in September 1945. They were followed over the next few months by a hundred or more rocketeers, all of whom were soon working 48-hour weeks at $6 per day plus accommodations, cheaper labor than the military could have found anywhere. In 1947 Rudolph joined the group tinkering busily in the arid south Texas desert, piecing together disassembled rockets brought over on the Liberty ships.

Another recruit for America’s future in space was Dr. Hubertus Strughold, a pioneer in aviation medicine. His groundbreaking experiments on pilot endurance, the effects of acceleration, pressure, lack of oxygen, violent temperature changes and other aviation hazards had been carried out on Dachau inmates. He had been recruited by the United States’ own top man in this medical specialty, an Air Force surgeon, Colonel Harry Armstrong. Armstrong idolized Strughold, had searched for him in Germany, and brought him over in 1947 under Project Paperclip. Strughold is now enshrined at the New Mexico Museum of Space History as the Father of American Space Medicine and as an inductee into the International Space Hall of Fame (he was removed in May 2006). He smiles out of his portrait, looking benign and avuncular, a worthy recipient of the DAR’s Americanism Medal. The library of the School of Aerospace Medicine at Brooks Air Force Base in Texas also bore his name— until documents from the Nuremberg trials linked him to medical experiments that had had fatal results at Dachau.

For the most part, the space engineers led quiet lives centered on work and family. They were said to have embraced American values and were absorbed into their new surroundings. Gradually, their presence was accepted. The rocket team worked mostly in remote and isolated places, and receded in the American consciousness until that epic day when the Saturn V rocket lifted off. America cheered as Neil Armstrong was carried toward the moon, cradled in all the comforts Hubertus Strughold could devise.

 

From Alliance of Enemies, by Agostino von Hassell and Sigrid MacRae. Copyright (c) 2006 by Agostino von Hassell and reprinted by permission of Thomas Dunne Books, an imprint of St. Martin’s Press. Von Hassell’s father was the first German ambassador to the United Nations; his grandfather was executed after leading a failed attempt to kill Hitler. He is president of The Repton Group, a consulting firm dealing with national security issues. Sigrid MacRae is an editor and translator who writes about history. For further reading, the authors recommend: Project Paperclip: German Scientists and the Cold War, by Clarence G. Lasby; and Piercing the Reich: The Penetration of Nazi Germany by American Secret Agents During World War II, by Joseph E. Persico.

Originally published in the February 2007 issue of Military History. To subscribe, click here

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