German POWs Find an Unlikely Ally in the United States
|This is an original color photograph of three unidentified Tenth Mountain Division soldiers at Camp Hale, Colorado, 1943 or 1944. All have M1943 mountain rucksack and are carrying Garand rifles.|
Dale MapleDale Maple was born in San Diego in 1920 to a working-class family. His father worked with his hands for such employers as a railroad and a sheet metal foundry, while his mother was a nurse. He was very bright, became an accomplished pianist, and graduated first in his class of 585. That got him a scholarship to Harvard University in 1937, which was quite a feat in those days. He drifted amongst various subjects there before settling on comparative philology. He studied over a dozen languages but specialized in German.
Maple's affection for Germany, which apparently grew out of his piano studies and pen-pal correspondence with a German girl (quite common in those days), grew exponentially at Harvard. Maples became fascinated with Hitler and fascism: he dressed up as Hitler at a costume party, he kept a bust of Hitler in his dorm room, and he took to singing German political songs such as the Horst Wessel song in public (that got him kicked out of the glee club). Basically, he admired the Third Reich. While a bit odd and creepy, especially for an ordinary American suburban kid, an obsession with Hitler was not quite as outlandish in the 1930s as it would become after the war. Regardless of his sympathies, Dale worked hard and graduated with honors.
The 620th Engineer General Service CompanyAfter Pearl Harbor, Maple enlisted in the US Army in February 1942 like any other patriotic American boy. The Army sent him to Fort Bragg. Trained as a radio operator, Maple requested combat duty, but the Army maintained a file on Maple, knew his sympathies, and had a special place set aside for soldiers like him: South Dakota. Maple was assigned to the 620th Engineer General Service Company there. While the Army did not publicize the fact, the 620th was a unit for known fascist sympathizers, kept in isolated locations where the men could do something productive but also be watched. Many of the men in the unit were bright and capable, some even brilliant; they just had the wrong sympathies.
The 620th was transferred to Camp Hale on 5 December 1943. Named after a Denver native, former Brigadier General Irving Hale, Camp Hale was a brand new camp set high in the Rocky Mountains. It was located north of Leadville, Colorado in the Pando Valley, which is remote even for that general area. It occupies a large plateau at about 9,200 feet, and there are 12,000-foot elevations nearby for people who like to climb. I've been there; nothing is left of the camp now beyond a few scattered stone foundations on a huge open, grassy plateau. However, when completed in November 1942 at a cost of $31 million, Camp Hale was a cutting-edge site for training mountain soldiers. Apparently, Warner Brothers even produced a film, "The Fighting Mountaineers," with scenes shot there (I've been unable to find out anything about the film). Camp Hale also was so remote that it was ideal for isolating US Army soldiers who were known as being fascist sympathizers.
|The 10th Mountain Division training at Camp Hale.|
Dale the DoerNow, most fascist sympathizers in the 620th were just watchers and fans of the "cause." They were onlookers, just as many people today will follow a political party but don't actually go out and knock on doors for their candidate. This is where the Dale Maple story, already strange, gets positively weird. It was not unusual for the fascist-sympathizer men of the 620th to become friendly with the POWs, and even on occasion to smuggle a POW from the base now and then for a tourist trip around Colorado. Dale, however, was so fascinated by the Afrika Corps troopers that he smuggled himself into their POW stockade (hiding under a truck) to spend some time chatting with the German soldiers. His college fascination with the culture grew even more intense, and he spent days with the POWs drinking schnapps and practicing his German. It was all very Gemütlichkeit.
|Ski practice at Camp Hale.|
The EscapeA few days later, on 15 February 1944, Dale made his move. He retrieved his car and met two of his POW friends, Sergeants Heinrich Kikillus and Erhard Schwichtenberg, at a prearranged spot near the camp. It was February in the Rocky Mountains, with snow everywhere, and everybody knew that only a fool would try to escape on foot. Accordingly, the POWs weren't guarded while out on a work detail - where would they go, how could they get a car? Dale had the answer to that: he just drove up in his sedan, the two POWs got in, and off they went.
The CaptureThe trio went across the border and several miles into Mexico, with a nebulous destination of Argentina before anyone spotted them. A Mexican customs agent saw them on a restricted road on 18 February and asked what they were doing. When Maple couldn't explain why he was in a US Army uniform with two men wearing matching prison attire, the agent took them into town and handed them over to immigration officials. A check of the records uncovered the fact that the guards at Camp Hale had noticed the escape and sent an alert to the border. The Mexicans handed them over to US authorities. In the United States, they went first to jail in Albuquerque. There, the two prisoners were taken and sent to another POW camp, this one in Worland, Wyoming. Maple, on the other hand, was charged with treason and shipped off to Leavenworth.
|Leavenworth Prison around the time of World War I (William Kantor Collected Papers, Swarthmore College Peace Collection).|
“justice will better be served by sparing his life so that he may live to see the destruction of tyranny, the triumph of the ideals against which he sought to align himself, and the final victory of the freedom he so grossly abused.”Roosevelt was a forgiving sort - unlike General Eisenhower in Europe, who let deserter Private Slovik face a firing squad around the same time - and commuted Maple's death sentence to life in prison. In 1946, the sentence was reduced further to ten years, and, like many convicted of war crimes in Germany at the time (some also with the death sentence, such as Joachim Peiper), Maple was out by 1951.
ConclusionThere were only five cases of men charged with aiding the enemy in the US Army during the war, and four of them resulted from the Dale Maple incident (the Army did a thorough investigation of the camp after his capture and threw the book at people, including some nurses who were fraternizing a bit too much). Dale, who apparently could fit in anywhere, had a grand old time at Leavenworth, even joining the church choir. After his release, he returned to San Diego, went into insurance (his knowledge of languages probably helped), move to El Cajon, and lived in obscurity for fifty more years. Dale Maple passed away peacefully and uneventfully in 2001, a pillar of the community.
The 620th continued in existence long after the war, though it probably wasn't used then to house fascist sympathizers - most likely. However, appropriately, the unit did get transferred to Karlsruhe, Germany. Camp Hale, meanwhile, was used sporadically in the post-war years until dismantled. There currently is a plan to use $30 million of Forest Service money to restore the entire area to a rough approximation of its natural habitat (aside, apparently, from the roads built through the area during the camp's construction that are still in use). That proposal is in public comment and review period scheduled to end during the summer of 2016, a couple of months from when I am writing this. Once again, as in so many other small ways, World War II really isn't as far away from us today as you might think from the mere passage of years.
|Camp Hale as it has looked in recent years.|
For information on Colorado POW camps, see Allen W. Paschal, "The Enemy in Colorado: German Prisoners of War, 1943-46," The Colorado Magazine p. 119 (1979). For information on Camp Hale, see "Camp Hale," Colorado Encyclopedia.