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Looking Out: Nazis On The Harbor

Just after World War II ended, U.S. soldiers smuggled the Third Reich’s top scientists and engineers to a Harbor Island fort — just a few miles from downtown Boston — to find out what they knew and what they could do for America in the Cold War. In this ninth installment of “Looking Out: A New View Of Boston Harbor,” WBUR looks at one of the last veterans who ran the secret camp.

Henry Kolm (Courtesy of the Kolm family)

The Kid And The Star

Henry Kolm had an interesting job as a 21-year-old.

He smuggled Nazi scientists into Boston Harbor.

He’d meet most of them off Nixes Mate, the smallest of the Harbor Islands — no more than gravel shoals — where a beacon warns ships coming into the harbor. Then, he and a Boston whaler captain named Corky would scoot them out to Long Island and a secret hotel fashioned from the barracks of the old Civil War derelict known as Fort Strong.

The prize get, the leader of the pack and the star of the show at Fort Strong was Wernher von Braun, Germany’s uber-engineer of rockets — most notoriously the V-2. Long after WWII ended, when the terror of those missiles was well back in history, satirist Tom Lehrer could sing:

“Gather round while I sing you of Wernher von Braun,
A man whose allegiance is ruled by expedience.
Call him a Nazi he won’t even frown,
Nazi, Schmazi says Wernher von Braun.”

But the ridicule would only come later — only after Walt Disney made him famous, Time Magazine put him on the cover and one of his rockets put America’s first satellite in space.

And to think von Braun began his American career right here in Boston Harbor. And secretly at that.

“They all had to be smuggled into the country,” Henry Kolm said the last time we spoke.

Kolm was a newly minted American, working as a U.S. Army intelligence officer at the end of WWII. At a secret installation near Washington, D.C., (an operation code-named “P.O. Box 1142″) he’d had the job of interrogating Nazi prisoners, when he and a dozen others were assigned to Boston to set up “Project Paperclip.”

Fort Strong may be only a few miles from downtown as the crow flies, but Kolm and the Project Paperclip team covered its tracks so well that practically no one knew then and no one knows now that von Braun and the technology stars of the Third Reich were ever here.

A WWII-era postcard showing Long Island Head, Long Island Light, the lighthouse keeper's house and Fort Strong.

Rocket Man And The Americanization Of Hitler’s ‘Professor’

“We had a mess hall and the Germans gave each other lectures,” Kolm remembered. “They called this place where they stayed ‘the Haus der Deutschen Wissenschaft,’ the House of German Science.”

If it weren’t such a secret, they could have put up a marquee and called it “Wernher von Braun’s House of German Science.”

Kolm’s assignment was to repackage von Braun and his fellow engineers and scientists as Americans.

If von Braun’s second act as an American was spectacular, his first act as a native German had been outrageous and spectacular. An early enthusiast of rocketry and a dreamer of space travel, von Braun led the team (from the age of 25) that designed and manufactured the V-2 rockets that slammed into London and Antwerp at four times the speed of sound.

Toward the end of the war, von Braun and his team were knighted by the Third Reich. Hitler fondly dubbed him “the professor.” His V-2s were the world’s first ballistic missiles.

“It was a breakthrough in liquid fuel rocket technology, which meant that it was also essentially the way to space,” said Michael Neufeld, curator at the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum and the author of “Von Braun: Dreamer of Space, Engineer of War.”

“And especially after the atomic bomb became known, the implication was that we could possibly build an ICBM with a nuclear warhead,” Neufeld said.

No wonder that von Braun was the U.S.’s top draft choice in the first frost of the Cold War as the United States and the Soviet Union competed to capture and recruit German scientists and engineers.

And when he came to Boston Harbor, he brought his team from the missile program at Pennemunde, a site on the Baltic coast of Eastern Germany where his facility — but not his team — had been captured by the Russian Army.

It must have been heady stuff for the 21-year-old Kolm at “The House of German Science.” Academic as they might be, these were also the Bombs ‘R Us — inventors of missiles, jet engines, Mercedes Benz diesels for navy ships and death machines. It was a Strangelove world of science and theory, classical music and two seemingly apolitical mathematicians named Axter and Riedel.

“They were the brains behind the rocket program, basically,” Kolm said. “They developed the mathematics for orbital calculations.”

Wernher Von Braun, center, with Nazi officials in 1941.

(As apolitical as it might seem, Axter would be sent back to Germany after it came to light that he and his wife, a prominent member of the Nazi women’s association, had abused slave laborers on their German farm.)

They’d made a good team if you were rooting for Germany to win the war, but these Germans weren’t prisoners of war. They were free agents. Literally. They had all signed one-year contracts with the Army. So they were working for us. Their families back home were being cared for by the Americans. And they were safe from the Soviet Army and the Russians, who they feared and disdained as barbarians.

But technically they were illegal aliens … and many of them, like von Braun, were Nazis to boot. So Project Paperclip had to smuggle them out to Long Island to keep Immigration, Customs and, more importantly, the State Department from finding out they were here, according to Kolm.

Nazis On Water: The Get At Nixes Mate

There were two ways to get the Germans into the States. There was only one way to get them onto Long Island, because there wasn’t a bridge yet to connect it to the island. Kolm and Co. needed a boat. So the intelligence officers found an old Boston sea captain from a long line of whalers named Corkum and they hired him and his fishing boat, “a smelly old boat, but tough as can be.”

They moved the Germans, who were flown into nearby Naval Air Station Squantum, to a dock, then ferried them over to Fort Strong under cover. But most of the German scientists were transported to Boston hidden aboard the troop ships returning American soldiers home from Europe. Kolm’s team had the job of getting to the ships before the pilot boats did.

They retrieved the Germans in the worst weather and roughest seas, like a five-day storm in autumn of 1945. From the giant troop ship to the deck of the Boston whaler far below, each German had to be lowered by a bosun’s chair, a little harness hanging by a rope from the davits and lowered like a lifeboat, swinging in the storm.

Dr. Wernher von Braun, center, explains the Saturn Launch System to President John F. Kennedy in 1963 as NASA Deputy Administrator Robert Seamans looks on. (NASA)

“We put them in the hold because the waves were washing over the bow, and they were all seasick as can be, as you can imagine,” Kolm said.

As the lurching Boston whaler left Nixes Mate, Kolm recalls, one of the Germans in the hold started playing a piano accordion. That was Magnus von Braun, the younger brother of Wernher. Drenched and seasick as they were — which was too good for them, the people of London and Antwerp might think — the Germans were buoyed by a sense of value to the Americans. They knew they had something to trade: “our baby,” as one on the rocket team called it.

‘Haus Der Deutschen Wissenschaft:’ The Hotel Paradise For Nazi Scientists

Fort Strong had been built for the Civil War and used in World War I, but it had been a long time since anyone had cut the grass when Project Paperclip showed up. They renovated the barracks and turned it into a hotel. But once you have a hotel, you have to equip it. And more difficult yet, you have to order a couple hundred beds without drawing attention. And how do you staff and keep it secret?

Kolm said they made a decision to staff it with German prisoners of war. That way, Project Paperclip didn’t have to worry about private employees or American servicemen going on shore leave and spilling the secrets. Then, it was a matter of pulling talent from a German prisoner of war camp. Kolm described it as an operation for Noah’s Ark: “We picked two cooks, two bakers, two tailors…”

Soon enough, the German scientists and engineers dubbed the hotel “the House of German Science.”

As an intelligence officer working as an Army talent scout, Kolm and his associates evaluated every German, then directed each one to the right U.S. military program, laboratory or defense contractor. The secret orders from the U.S. High Command in Europe had stated that, “upon completion of this duty the (Germans) named below will be returned to this theater.” But it was evident early on, the Germans weren’t going back.

Military orders for the German scientists to report to Boston Harbor's Fort Strong. (Click to enlarge)

‘A Man Whose Allegiance Is Ruled By Expedience’

“Project Paperclip was really important,” concluded Smithsonian curator and von Braun biographer Neufeld. “I think there was a really major transfer of knowledge that took place in 1945 and the years immediately after.

“And the real question is really not whether we should have done it. It’s really a question of whether we had a good enough filter to figure out the people who shouldn’t have come here or not.”

Half the Germans who were smuggled over belonged to the Nazi party and about half of them were enthusiastic Nazis, Neufeld says.

Wernher von Braun had not only joined the Nazis; he’d also joined the Waffen-SS, which was the elite armed wing of the party. (A damning photo, in which he’s partly obscured, apparently showed him in Nazi uniform alongside the notorious Heinrich Himmler, the head of the Gestapo and the overseer of the concentration camps.)

The rocket program von Braun presided over in Germany had used slave labor from the nearby concentration camp. But the Americans were inclined to assume that men of science weren’t to blame. “A convenient assumption if you want to use these people: you don’t want to think of them as war criminals,” Neufeld said.

The American high command was less interested in crimes than in the tools of technology the Germans could transfer.

No one knew this better than von Braun, who reacted in surprise when an interviewer from The New Yorker asked him in 1951 whether he ever thought he might be arrested and punished as a war criminal.

“Why, no,” he answered. “I wasn’t afraid. It all made sense. The V-2 was something we had and you didn’t have. Naturally, you wanted to know all about it.”

(Even having written a biography of von Braun, Neufeld still found himself undecided about the extent of von Braun’s moral culpability. He and his fellow German scientists had shown expediency, careerism and tone-deaf indifference to be sure, Neufeld concludes, but he is undecided about the depth of von Braun’s moral responsibility.)

‘Of Course I Was Angry’

Kolm had reason to hate the Nazis. He was an Austrian Jew who’d seen the Germans march into both Vienna and Prague. His family had lost everything. And believing early on that their family would be killed, his father tried to get them out. Their first attempt failed when they were turned back by the Belgians. But finally the family managed to escape the Holocaust on the last ship to leave Europe, in 1939. Uncles, aunts and cousins who didn’t or couldn’t get out were murdered.

“Of course I was angry,” Kolm said. “But I found it more satisfying to appeal to their conscience. ‘How could you be part of this?’ ”

Kolm was clearly drawn to von Braun’s jovial, beer-drinking academic enthusiasm and space dreaming. He said von Braun was merely expedient in belonging to the Nazi Party.

What motivated von Braun’s actions during the war, Kolm believed, was his dream of using rockets to travel in space, even if he had to put bombs on them first to pay his dues.

Henry Kolm, in July (David Boeri/WBUR)

“He would have (gone along with the Nazis) to be able to work on his rockets,” Kolm said. “Yes, his beloved rockets. He said, ‘Wars come and wars go and they’ll be gone tomorrow and so forth but what really counts is what we’ve done toward the future.’ ”

And the future, to von Braun, meant going into space. He’d subverted everything else to that. In America, when he started to understand the need to be guarded, he portrayed himself as apolitical and at worst naive.

As a movie based upon von Braun’s life would later pronounce, “I Aim At The Stars.” To which the satirist Mort Sahl noted, “But sometimes he hit London.”

Von Braun’s expediency, his easy, almost genial indifference to the fate of the Jews or the victims of his V-2 rockets and his denials of responsibility would later lead to public ridicule from satirist Lehrer. In a putdown that has never died, he sang:

“Once the rockets are up,
Who cares where they come down.
That’s not my department
Says Wernher von Braun.”

The idea that Nazi scientists could have hidden out in Boston Harbor while the city slept seems wildly implausible now. Yet the times themselves were implausible. Go figure that during the arc of his career, von Braun would have his picture taken at different times with Hitler, Himmler, JFK, Lyndon Johnson, Walt Disney and the first Apollo astronauts who went to the moon on one of the updated descendants of his V-2 rockets that slammed into London.

Kolm had had a dockside seat for the launch of von Braun’s American career — and the careers of some 600 others. Project Paperclip was over and Fort Strong closed after nine months. And Kolm went on to his own brilliant career as a physicist and MIT professor.

But he never said a word in public until the Army chief of counterintelligence freed him three years ago from the oath he took in WWII.

“So you’d never talked to anyone about this?” I asked him.

“Well I talked to my wife about it, of course,” he replied with a laugh.

Correction: An earlier version of this report labeled the V-2 rockets the so-called “buzz bombs.” It was the V-1 that was known as the “buzz bomb.” This post has been updated.

Postscript: This report represents David’s last interview with Henry Kolm, who has since passed away. Click here to read a commentary on Henry’s last story.

This story originally aired on Aug. 19. It re-aired Dec. 30.

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