- By Thomas E. RicksThomas E. Ricks covered the U.S. military for the Washington Post from 2000 through 2008. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Yep. Gather round, little grasshoppers, and I will tell the strange tale.
I know it sounds like the reverse of a Quentin Taratino movie, but it is true: During World War II, the Army intentionally formed a unit chockablock with fascisti and their suspected sympathizers. What a sensible idea — much better than kicking them out into society and losing track of them.
This is all discussed in the new issue of Army Lawyer , where Fred “Three Sticks” Borch has a fascinating article about PFC Dale Maple, a brilliant young man who was born in San Diego in 1920 and who graduated from Harvard with honors but then, because he was bad, was found guilty of treason and sentenced to be hanged by the neck until dead.
Young Maple spoke many languages. But his favorite, alas, was German. At Harvard he got kicked out of ROTC for being vocally pro-German when that just wasn’t cool, according to a separate article on him that I just read. Stymied in his hopes to do post-graduate work in Berlin, which was busy with other things at the time, he enlisted in the Army in 1942. The Army had just the place for him: the 620th Engineer General Service Company, which despite its innocuous name was actually a holding unit for about 200 GIs of suspect loyalty, many of them German-born. The unit, which was not given weapons, was located in Camp Hale, Colorado, which is far from any port, but happened to next to an detachment of German PoWs on a work party.
And thereby hangs this tale. In February 1944 Private Maple decided it would be a good idea to help some hard-boiled eggs from the Afrika Korps escape to Mexico. Southward he drove them though New Mexico-a lovely drive, I’ve done much of it. Just across the international border, Mexican authorities caught them all and tossed them back. (Is there a derogatory term for people who illegally cross from the U.S. into Mexico, besides “stupid gringos”?) Maple was tried and found guilty and secretly sentenced to death. President Roosevelt clemently commuted his sentence to life, and he was released in 1951. Maple’s claim to notoriety is that he was the first American-born GI ever found to have committed treason.
As best as I can tell from an internet search, Maple then moved back to San Diego and, like a Tom Waits song, went into the insurance business. He apparently died 10 years ago.