The pro-Nazi American soldier who aided an escape

Article by Allen Best

History – February 2004 – Colorado Central Magazine

SIXTY YEARS AGO, on Feb. 12, 1944, a bus rolled into Salida carrying two soldiers stationed at Camp Hale, located 75 miles to the north. The soldiers were on a shopping trip, purchasing a man’s black hat, and a woman’s scarf, sweater, and handbag. They also bought a fishing line, hooks and sinkers, and, finally, some .22-caliber cartridges.

On the next day, a Sunday, one of the two soldiers, Dale Maple, went to a garage and paid $255 for a 1934 Reo sedan. The owner had recently died, and so the car still had license plates registered to him. That would be no problem, said Maple, a brilliant Harvard-trained student of languages. He promised to return in several days to get license plates and a gas-ration book.

Thus the two men completed essential preparations for what would cause Maple to become the first U.S. soldier ever to be convicted by a court-martial of a crime equivalent to treason. Returning through Salida two days later, Maple was accompanied by two German prisoners-of-war secreted out of Camp Hale. Their goal was Mexico, and then with the aid of Nazi sympathizers there, to Argentina, Spain, and finally to Berlin and the fatherland itself.

What made Maple different was that his connection to Germany was only in study. Most U.S. citizens who sided with the Third Reich had been born in Germany or were at least of German-American descent. Maple was almost entirely of English and Irish stock. In this, as in so many other ways, Maple was an odd duck.

Born in San Diego in 1920, he was an only child in a working-class family. His father had worked for a railroad, then for an iron works, and by the time World War II arrived was supervisor of a sheet metal foundry. His mother had trained as a nurse. Both were Baptists.

From childhood, Maple was frail, shy and nervous, traits which flourished in a household of increasing marital tension. The piano became his refuge from his parents’ bickering. Maple began lessons at age five, and at age 13 delivered a solo concert of Bach, Beethoven, and Rachmaninoff among the other masters. For his piano playing he earned the broad praise that seemed to invigorate him, even press recognition, but his talents were not exceptional enough to make him the concert pianist that his mother had hoped.

At San Diego High School, he was unpopular but gifted. His only B came in the Reserve Officer Training Corps, a class in the pacifist ’30s that was quaintly out of fashion. Graduating first in a class of 585, he earned a scholarship to Harvard University in 1937. There, he further demonstrated both brilliance and aloofness. As his mother somehow envisioned him a diplomat, he first studied history. To please his father, he briefly turned to chemical engineering. Finally, he settled on comparative philology, the science of linguists. Maples, a professor said later, was “a born philologist, one of the most brilliant Harvard students I have ever known.” In short order he studied 14 languages, from Old Dutch to Old Church Slavonic, along with Babylonian cuneiform texts, and Maltese, a rarely studied mixture of Arabic and Italian. He specialized in German.

THE BEGINNING OF Maple’s sympathies for Germany can probably be traced to his youthful piano playing. In correspondence with a German girl he expressed his ardent admiration of German culture and arts. Then, while still new to Harvard, he had costumed himself as Hitler for a party. This costume, however, raised no eyebrows. Hitler was not yet seen as diabolical, only weird.

Maple saw Hitler as something else, keeping a plaster-of-Paris head of the fuehrer in his dormitory room. Glossing over Hitler’s propaganda techniques and virulent anti-Semitism, Maple openly admired the orderliness of the Third Reich. It was, he told a classmate, the perfect political state, a pyramid, a dictator surrounded by intellectuals. It can be presumed that Maple, instead of being snickered at for his strangeness, envisioned being respected and powerful.

In October 1940, Maple chose an unlikely forum for announcing his deepening sympathies. The Harvard German Club’s 60 members gathered to discuss German culture and arts as well as drink beer, eat pretzels, and sing old German drinking songs. However, as storm clouds gathered over Europe, members carefully steered clear of contemporary politics. Not Maples. Concluding one such evening of songs, he led several other members into the singing of an overtly political song. When they were silenced by the faculty advisor, Maple continued alone, this time singing the Horst Wessel song, the anthem of Nazis. That he wore the cavalry boots and uniform of his R.O.T.C. class — something rarely done outside of class — further suggested a Storm Trooper feel to his outburst. Or so contemporaries later remembered.

QUITTING THE EMBARRASSED CLUB, Maple described it as too narrow-minded. His own mind was open to the virtues of totalitarianism. “Even a bad dictatorship is better than a good democracy,” he told the Harvard Crimson, the campus daily. The next semester he graduated, his string of A’s and a scattering of B’s earning him a magna cum laude citation and a Phi Beta Kappa key.

Had German diplomats shown interest, he might have fled to Berlin or Hamburg. He tried twice, both before and after Pearl Harbor. Instead, he did post-graduate work in Russian, Polish, and Hungarian before enlisting in the U.S. Army in 1942. At Fort Bragg, in North Carolina he trained to become a radio operator, predictably doing well. But when he requested combat, he was instead dispatched to Fort Meade, in the Black Hills of South Dakota, to join similar misfits. Both the Army and F.B.I. were well aware of his sympathies for the Nazis. He wasn’t alone.

The U.S. had 12,000 to 15,000 such soldiers during World War II. Most had been born in or were descendants of those who had been born in Germany, Italy, or Japan. Most had nationalistic ties to these countries and hence their governments, while others were disciples of fascism and, occasionally, of communism. To these soldiers the Army gave nothing more combative than flashlights and clubs, and only then on night duty.

In South Dakota, the misfits of the 620th Engineer General Service Company plotted ambitiously. One Texan, a brilliant mathematician and chemist of German descent, proposed a guerrilla force that would sabotage American military efforts from hiding places in the Rocky Mountains. Another talked idly of delivering a hijacked long-range Army bomber into German hands. Few seemed grounded in practicality.

In December 1943, Maple’s company was transferred to Camp Hale. Then in full swing, Camp Hale was temporarily home to 10,000 soldiers training in cold and high-elevation warfare. On the edges of this frantic activity were 200 captured members of Rommel’s Afrika Korps, imprisoned in a stockade but defiant still. Even in sub-freezing temperatures, some played soccer shirtless to display their manliness.

The 10th Mountain Division also had a great many Nazi-foes from Austria. They were ski instructors for the most part, and it disturbed the Germans to see these traitors — some of them were even Jews — be able to go about freely in the detested uniforms of the American military.

Maple’s company of Nazi-sympathizers was inexplicably billeted in buildings only 300 yards from the POW stockade. Whether they were so located purposefully or out of carelessness is not known, although the latter can be surmised. Administration of Camp Hale was known to be lax.

[Dale Maple in 8 Dec 1944 Rocky Mountain News article.]

This proximity predictably had consequences. Some member of Maple’s company were so moved at the spectacle of the German troops freshly removed from North Africa parading in their crisp uniforms that they were moved to tears. Many sympathizers defied bans on fraternization to slip the POWs gifts of candy, cigarettes, and wine.

BY WHATEVER MEANS, the POWs did well, sequestering a pistol, skis, snowshoes, and American Army uniforms. They even procured a still, secreting sugar as well as apricots and peaches from the mess hall to make passably good schnapps.

Amid all the brave talk of sabotaging the American cause, there were few doers. However, within a month, one of the German-American soldiers had smuggled a POW off the base for a three-day trip across Northwestern Colorado, where they stayed in a grubby hotel, and visiting taverns and hamburger stands in Steamboat Springs and other towns.

Maple had more ambitious plans. Instead of using a three-day pass to visit Denver, as most soldiers did, he clung to the bottom of a truck entering the POW compound. Borrowing an Afrika Korps uniform, he spent the weekend sipping schnapps, chatting about the excellence of German art, literature and culture — and recruiting four or five prisoners for an escape to Mexico. Maple could converse in impeccable German or, as the situation might suggest, German with an American accent.

Getting $250 from his parents, supposedly to repay a college loan, he went to Salida to buy a car. Another Nazi sympathizer, a native of Germany who had lived since boyhood in Texas, supplied Maple with a description of the geography, climate, and other features of Mexico, as well as the items that would be needed for a trip to Mexico — compass, hunting knife, rifle, sun helmet, mosquito netting, and so forth. Meanwhile, Maple had thought that one of the POWs should travel as a male civilian, another as a female civilian, and hence the scarf and other items purchased in Salida.

THEY EXPECTED THE ESCAPE itself to be easy enough. POWs were not closely guarded. Most POW camps in the United States were located well inland and away from big cities. Colorado had dozens. The theory was that it would cost less to capture POWs than to guard them. After all, there was really no place to go. Indeed, of the 390,000 German POWs, only 2,109 escaped. Of those, only 13 were absent more than a few hours. Most headed toward Mexico, then Argentina, which was deemed nearly as good as Berlin itself.

On February 15, 1944, after breakfast, Maple retrieved his contraband car from Red Cliff, where it had been parked, and then met two POWs in a pre- arranged area at Camp Hale. Maple had had no trouble getting away, as the commanding officers had gone to the dentist that morning, leaving one of Maple’s co-conspirators in charge. As for the POWs, they had apparently just walked away from a work detail. One was an agreeable 24-year-old former milk factory lab worker from West Prussia, the other a scowling, heavy-set 33-year-old farmer from East Prussia.

The trio all had bundles. The POWS had small Italian and German flags, while Maple’s bundle contained a ham, an electric razor, and underwear. They drove south through Alamosa, Santa Fe, and Albuquerque, stopping to shop without raising suspicion. At Deming, N.M., a second tire flattened. The spare had already been used, so Maple continued in the darkness toward Columbus on only three tires and a rim. Finally, just short of the border, the engine quit. The trio set out on foot.

Several miles into Mexico, a customs agent spotted the odd trio of uniformed men, curiously inquiring of their intentions. Unconvinced of Maple’s feeble story, he turned them over to immigration officials, who soon elicited the real story. The POWs probably gave it away. After all, they had done nothing wrong. The worst that could happen to them would be that they would be returned to camp. (And they were, this time to a camp in Worland, Wyoming.)

At Camp Hale, the Army found other evidence of sympathies for German soldiers. Five WACs, at least one of whom was married, were found guilty of having exchanged fond glances, words, letters, and whatnot with the prisoners. For these niceties they were sentenced to the guardhouse for terms of up to six months. In addition, four of Maple’s fellow soldiers who had been accomplices in some way were charged with aiding the enemy. Although 15,000 were charged with desertion during World War II, four of the five men charged with aiding the enemy — the closest approximation to treason — occurred at Camp Hale.

Several months later at Fort Leavenworth, Kansas, Maple was tried on charges of desertion and two counts of aiding the enemy. In his defense, Maple’s father allowed that despite his “invincible mind,” the 23-year-old boy had always been deficient in judgment.

IN SECRET, the court ordered Maple hanged, but the Army’s judge advocate general recommended to President Franklin D. Roosevelt that “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.”

After the war, his sentence further reduced to ten years, Maple taught classes in trigonometry, public speaking, and other subjects at Fort Leavenworth, worked in the prison bakery, trained a prizefighter, and led the church choir. After all, he had been in the Glee Club at Harvard. On the side, he researched Old Bulgarian before being released in February 1951 at age 30.

Maple lived until 2001, his last known address being the San Diego suburb of El Cajon. Just what he did in the next 50 years can only be guessed. Whatever his activities, they didn’t rise to the level that San Diego newspapers saw fit to eulogize, and a Freedom of Information Act request for Maple’s FBI file produced nothing. Maple’s most notable legacy was in being the first American soldier ever to be convicted by a court-martial of a crime equivalent to treason.

Allen Best writes from spots between Glenwood Springs and Denver.