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Murder and Martial Justice

Spying and Retribution in World War II America

Meredith Lentz Adams

Publication Year: 2011

A remarkable story of how the U.S. military tortured German POWs into confessing their guilt

“An expert dissection of the crime, its witnesses, and Washington’s shifting goals. Murder and Martial Justice is a good murder mystery, based on a solid examination of the various contradictions and irritating bureaucratic villains.” —Arnold Krammer, author of Nazi Prisoners of War in America and Undue Process: The Untold Story of America’s German Alien Internees

During World War II, the United States maintained two secret interrogation camps in violation of the Geneva Convention—one just south of Washington, D.C., and the other near San Francisco. German POWs who passed through these camps briefed their fellow prisoners, warning them of turncoats who were helping the enemy—the United States—pry secrets from them. One of these turncoats, Werner Drechsler, was betrayed and murdered by those he spied on.

U.S. military authorities reacted harshly to Drechsler’s death, even though he was not the first captive to be assassinated by his fellow POWs. How had military intelligence been compromised? Were fanatical Nazis terrorizing their countrymen on American soil? Would Hitler take reprisals against the GIs he held if the United States did not protect the German POWs from violence and death while confined at the interrogation camps? At one of the secret camps, U.S. officials forced Drechsler’s seven murderers to confess. The next problem faced by authorities was how to court-martial them when their confessions were legally invalid. Their secret trial was stage-managed to deliver death sentences while apparently complying with U.S. and international law.

This presented U.S. authorities with further problems. The Geneva Convention entitled the prisoners’ governments to the full facts about their crimes, trials, and sentencing. Despite escalating German complaints, the War Department adopted a policy of giving as little information as possible about any of the several POW murder trials in order to avoid releasing inconvenient facts about the Drechsler case. Unsurprisingly, the Reich began sentencing GIs to death. Gambling with American lives, the War Department stalled every German attempt to trade these men for the convicted German murderers until the war ended. Every American was saved; every German but one was hanged.

The Drechsler case foreshadows current controversies: creative circumvention of the Geneva Convention, secret interrogation centers, torture, and the consequent problem of how to provide a fair trial to prisoners coerced into self-incrimination. Author Meredith Lentz Adams sees a familiar pattern of cover-ups, leading to difficulties with public and international relations. In contrast to recent policies, she points out how leaders during World War II felt constrained by their respect for Geneva and by fear of retribution against their own soldiers.

Murder and Martial Justice is a fascinating and provocative book that will appeal to those with an interest in World War II, POWs, international law, foreign policy, and true crime history.

Published by: The Kent State University Press

Series: True Crime History Series


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p. vi


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pp. vii-viii


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pp. ix-x

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pp. xi-xxi

This book deals with four murder cases during World War II, for which fifteen German war prisoners held in camps on American soil were sentenced to death, and fourteen hanged. It emphasizes one case that best illustrates how the War Department interpreted, observed, and violated the Geneva Convention of 1929. It also deals with the War Department’s consequent diplomatic and public relations problems and with its attempts to control...

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1. Spying and Terrorism

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pp. 1-15

The Geneva Convention required a war prisoner to give his name, rank, and number, nothing more. Any belligerent needs more information than that. American authorities had to extract information from their unwilling “guests” while maintaining the strictest secrecy for fear of reprisals against its own soldiers. Those “guests,” of course, resisted when they could, driven by motives of natural patriotism...

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2. Six Stool Pigeons

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pp. 16-31

One agent, summarizing Fort Hunt’s wartime intelligence work, said this about the POW informer (stool pigeon, Special Prisoner, or SP): He must be chosen with “utmost care.” He must be “thoroughly reliable, a quality normally not to be expected of men who are willing to perform...

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3. “Hang Him One Head Higher”

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pp. 32-43

Papago Park, where Werner Drechsler died, is now the Phoenix zoo and botanical garden. But during the war, “at least for the 3,500 sailors and 120 officers surrounded on all sides by barbed wire” and desert,1 it was a hell of brownish-pink lava. One ensign marveled, “There was nothing, absolutely; not a house, nor tree, nor plant for dozens of kilometers all around. Not a drop of rain, 120 degrees in the shade...

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4. Unsch

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pp. 44-50

The action began when night fell and the American guards left the compound. The following account is pieced together from the testimony of bystanders and from the (involuntary) statements of the actors. It contains the differences one expects from men acting in darkness, intent upon Unsch

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5. “Thorough Investigation Is Requested”

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pp. 51-59

Early on March 13, a guard telephoned the camp’s new provost marshal “that he believed there was a dead man in Compound 4.” First Lt. Cecil S. Parshall, an ex-policeman, inspected the shower room before calling the post surgeon and the commandant. In Drechsler’s barracks, he found “a large bloodstain about two and a half feet in diameter” in front of a cot. The neighboring bed held “a bloody comforter and a piece of ragged hemp rope...

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6. “Are You a Member of the Volksgemeinschaft?”

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pp. 60-69

Although the Service Commands were not authorized to use their Security and Intelligence Divisions to investigate crimes, Ninth Service Command’s Gen. McCoach ordered Lt. Col. Gerald L. Church, Chief of Intelligence, to find Drechsler’s killers. Three weeks later the rule was changed for the sake of fighting Nazi terrorist...

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7. “I Can’t Control My Blood”

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pp. 70-80

On April 10, 1944, the board finally found someone in Drechsler’s barracks who would talk. Otto Engler, a thirty-four-year-old marine “engineer on land,” said he had been awakened by shrieks from the opposite end of the building. He and his neighbors had asked questions, but had not intervened. No one knew “that they were going to hang the man.”...

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8. Ploys and Complaints

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pp. 81-90

Prisoners who were released from the Papago Park stockade after the investigating board departed for California soon used their Geneva right to complain to the International Red Cross (IRC) and the Swiss Legation. Their letters went via their spokesmen to the camp’s commandant and from him to the Provost Marshal General’s Office. Normally POW letters were delivered to the addressees...

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9. “Dachou” Treatment

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pp. 91-110

The island that Conquistadors named for Mary, Queen of Angels, is a state park now, “a naturalist’s delight” six miles from San Francisco.1 From 1910 until 1940 Angel Island’s Fort McDowell held Asian immigrants. During World War II, this grim installation became a transit camp for POWs and also camouflaged and fed the illegal interrogation camp at Byron Hot Springs...

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10. Thorough and Impartial Investigation

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pp. 111-121

Although the prisoners from Byron Hot Springs remained, on paper, “permanently interned” at the Angel Island processing station, special guards scattered them about and remained to watch them. Two NCOs connected with the “fatal disturbance” at Papago Park were sent all the way to Ninth Service Command headquarters at Fort Douglas, Utah...

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11. Judgment

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pp. 122-139

The first POW murder trial, that of the Beyer Five, had been held at Camp Gruber, Oklahoma, in January 1944. This was where the crime had occurred. The seven-day-long court-martial had been attended by a prominent diplomat from the Swiss Legation, a “high-ranking officer of the Provost Marshal General’s office,” and several other Washington...

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12. Fair and Intelligent Review

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pp. 140-155

In 1946 Congress had to revise the Laws of War. According to the Vanderbilt Committee report, “the command frequently dominated the courts.” Defenders “were often ineffective” for lack of knowledge and “a vigorous defense attitude.” Sentences were often “excessively severe and sometimes fantastically so.” Pretrial investigations “were frequently inefficient or inadequate.”...

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13. Coddling and Confirmation

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pp. 156-168

A number of things made mercy for “Nazi terrorists” unlikely. A third of the prisoners taken in the six months since D-Day had been brought over at the request of labor-hungry government agencies. By December 1944 there were 305,648 Germans in American camps, up from 150,000...

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14. Obnoxious Material

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pp. 169-182

Presidential confirmation of the “Beyer Five” death sentences caused a diplomatic crisis that lasted until V-E Day. According to Geneva Article 66, the Detaining Power had to give the Protecting Power, as soon as possible, “details of the prisoner’s offense and the decisive reasons for the verdict against him.” The War Department issued tardy...

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15. War versus State

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pp. 183-198

Secretary of War Stimson continued his campaign to force Switzerland to force Germany to obey the Geneva Convention. He wrote Secretary of State Stettinius on January 19, 1945, that his informant Col. Drake, a “thoroughly reliable” American officer with “first-hand experience,” could prove that Switzerland was “more interested in retaining German goodwill than in properly protecting American prisoners”...

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16. Playing Chicken

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pp. 199-212

In early 1945, the War Department made it harder for the Swiss Legation to obtain answers to its inquiries about the American interpretation of the Geneva Convention, including trials and “sentences imposed by courtsmartial.” 1 It refused the legation’s request for a copy of its POW regulations, forcing the Swiss to ask the State Department to ask the Pentagon...

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17. Honor and Execution

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pp. 213-221

Drechsler’s killers were suddenly removed from Camp Florence on January 27, 1945, and taken to a location where Swiss camp inspectors could no longer have access to them. After a two-day train ride to Kansas City in handcuffs (a common violation of the Geneva Convention), and twentyfive miles...

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18. Afterwards

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pp. 222-229

Before the War Department abandoned its project of bringing Nazi terrorists to justice, it reopened a cold case. A German prisoner unexpectedly confessed to helping beat Hugo Krauss to death in December 1943 at Camp Hearne, Texas. Krauss was the prisoner whose unhappy American relatives had embarrassed the War Department...


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pp. 230-291


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pp. 292-296


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pp. 297-310

E-ISBN-13: 9781612775197
E-ISBN-10: 1612775195
Print-ISBN-13: 9781606350751

Page Count: 288
Publication Year: 2011

Series Title: True Crime History Series
Series Editor Byline: Harold Schechter See more Books in this Series

OCLC Number: 864844085
MUSE Marc Record: Download for Murder and Martial Justice

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Subject Headings

  • Spies -- United States -- History -- 20th century.
  • Murder -- United States -- History -- 20th century.
  • Prisoners of war -- Abuse of -- United States -- History -- 20th century.
  • World War, 1939-1945 -- Prisoners and prisons, American
  • Prisoners of war -- United States -- History -- 20th century.
  • Prisoners of war -- Germany -- History -- 20th century.
  • Germans -- United States -- History -- 20th century.
  • Executions and executioners -- United States -- History -- 20th century.
  • Torture -- Government policy -- United States -- History -- 20th century.
  • Retribution -- History -- 20th century.
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