Editor’s note: This passage from “Something Like Treason” tells the true story of a U.S. Army company, based in the Colorado mountains, designed as a landing spot for misfits, including men who were alienated, brilliant, suspected of harboring anti-American sentiment — or gay. Led by the only American soldier convicted of treason in the U.S. during World War II, they plotted sabotage to disrupt the war effort. Despite sentences ranging from death to long terms in Leavenworth, their fates ultimately took a surprising turn.
Part One: Escape
Where Is He?
They last saw Dale Maple—listed at 5’10” tall, 168 lbs., with brown hair and fair complexion—early on February 15, 1944, at a place called Camp Hale high in the mountains of Colorado. He’d played piano for a few friends at a rental house a mile from camp the night before, which was hardly unusual. They drank beer and sang and, weaving a little, made it back to the barracks in time for curfew.
In the morning, he stopped at the bunk of his buddy Theo Leonhard holding something in his hand. It was his Army ID bracelet. He asked Leonhard to keep it for him.
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Leonhard, who knew Maple to be strangely theatrical at times, took it and added he had to get to work, which for him that day was at the dump at the edge of camp. But Maple, talkative, followed him to the dump. “Well,” he volunteered, “I don’t think I’m going to be around for a while.” Leonhard had “a pretty fair idea” Maple was headed to Denver to keep a promise to defend another mate awaiting court-martial. It was as peculiar to Leonhard as the ID bracelet, to be sure. Maple, he knew, had neither a furlough to travel to Denver nor a shred of legal training.
Trucks, full of garbage and ash, were arriving at the dump, and Leonhard, who directed the truck traffic there, had to go. Maple walked away.
No one noticed at first. The 15,000 other soldiers in the vicinity were busy with the tense, miserable business of preparing to join the war’s stupendous planetary carnage in China, Southeast Asia, Russia, Africa, and, not least, Italy. They belonged to the legendary 10th Mountain Division and soon would find themselves north of the once-lovely Monte Cassino. The hilltop abbey, built in 529, was by then a heavily fortified German observation post blocking the way to Rome and would take three months to overrun. Twenty thousand Germans would be wounded or killed in the process. There would be 55,000 Allied casualties. The men would then throw themselves against the Germans’ massive Gothic Line, built by slaves and mostly hidden within the 7,000-foot Apennine Mountain range that stretches across the width of northern Italy. They’d inch toward a rock-hard 10-mile belt of concrete gun pits and trenches nearly immune to aerial attack and crawl beneath interlocking fire from 2,376 machine-gun nests and 479 anti-tank, mortar, and assault gun positions. While under fire, they’d have to cut through parts of 120,000 yards of barbed wire. If they made it over the Apennines, the men from Camp Hale were supposed to secure the Po River Valley and draw some German troops away from their defensive positions in western Europe. The mission: increase the odds of success for what the men believed to be an imminent and probably even bloodier Allied invasion of France.
Sgt. Alexander V. Altman, the man formally entrusted to keep an eye on Maple, was distracted. Ordered to spend his morning at the camp dentist and finally freed around midday, Altman, a 34-year-old Russian immigrant, quickly grabbed lunch to hustle back to camp. The place was less than ideal. Called “Camp Hell” and “Camp Hole” by many, his posting was a hastily assembled, frigid training camp set 9,300 feet above sea level. Its 1,000-some wooden buildings were heated by small coal stoves that incessantly pumped ash into what had recently been a pristine alpine valley. Two loud, soot-belching locomotives pulled trains past the camp up over 10,424-foot Tennessee Pass several times a day, thickening the smog. On days like February 15 Hale was often under a winter temperature inversion, which kept a heavy shroud of coal haze low over the camp, sometimes at head height. Not far from the small town of Pando, Colorado, many of Hale’s soldiers dubbed the resulting persistent cough “the Pando hack.” Some called it the camp song.
The air was marginally cleaner about five miles from camp, where most of Altman’s men were doing sawmill duty that day. They cut trees and sawed wood in a cold winter forest shade. Dirty and dangerous even on nicer days, sawmill duty was “the least desirable detail in camp,” a War Department Board of Inquiry would later note.
Altman’s job wasn’t easy, even in better conditions. Maple and the 200-some men he helped monitor were pariahs among the U.S. Army’s 7.9 million soldiers. Maple, Leonhard, and their mates shared Camp Hale with the illustrious 10th but were separately part of a secretly organized, much-shunned misfit unit called the 620th Engineer General Service Company. In the 16 months since the unit was formed, the men had become increasingly difficult for Altman and the other officers to control. By now, it operated in a constant hum of administrative chaos and seething hostility.
Altman had nervously left Corporal Paul Kissman, “the First Aid man,” in charge at the sawmill for the morning. Much to the disappointment of the officers who liked him, Kissman lately had become a friend of some of the unit’s most vocal complainers.
At slightly after 1 p.m., Altman got to his men laboring in the forest and asked the once-trusted Kissman if all the men had reported for duty earlier in the day.
“Flitsch,” Kissman replied.
Altman wasn’t surprised. Pvt. Flitsch was a notably nervous man who, the previous month, had abruptly run amuck, knocked out windows in one of the unit’s barracks with a fire extinguisher, raced outside, and then flung himself into the shallow stream that ran through the camp. His absence on February 15 was not all that unusual.
But Altman, who no longer had faith in anything his men told him, took Kissman’s duty roster to check for himself. Kissman’s math was wrong. The headcount was still off by one. Who?
“Maple,” Kissman said. Maple was on sick call.
Maple’s absence was worrisome. Everything about Private First-Class Dale Maple was worrisome. Harvard ’41, magna cum laude, he was a hyperactive complainer known to deliver impromptu lectures in the barracks about German Oswald Spengler’s brooding Decline of the West, a favorite of Nazi philosophers. He was perhaps the brightest, most capable, and most truculent of the often-insufferable misfits in Altman’s 620th.
Maple was hardly the only smart — or resentful or alienated or elaborately educated or astringent—man in Altman’s unit. A secret Military Intelligence effort had thrown him into a misfit group with a Columbia dropout and black sheep son of an internationally known statistician, an Oxford-trained mechanical engineer, a political science doctoral candidate from the University of Texas, and still others who had once “said or [done] something subversive prior to their induction.”
The men, however, need not have done anything wrong. An allegation—of some manner of retrospectively dubious speech, behavior, assembly, travel, of being born in a foreign land, communicating or singing in a foreign language—frequently was enough for them to be tagged for a “special organization” like the 620th.. There were at least five of them; two in Colorado, one each in Missouri, Texas, and Tennessee. “Mere suspicion,” the War Department wrote in its October 1942 order creating the unit, “was sufficient” for transfer into one of the forsaken units. Most of the suspects in the 620th were German- or Italian-born, although there was a complement of American-born U.S. soldiers like Maple and Kissman. Many of the foreign-born were not yet U.S. citizens.
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Someone at some point before the war had written or guessed that each of them was untrustworthy, “deviant” (meaning gay to those in authority), communist, an isolationist, an America-Firster, born in the “wrong” country, a German sympathizer, or some other kind of undesirable that the War Department, having mistakenly inducted them in its rush to build an army in 1941 and ’42, didn’t otherwise know what to do with. Some of the 620ers, it was true, were simply cowardly, stoking suspicion to stay put and avoid combat. “A subversive word a day keeps the foxhole away,” one mantra had it.
Nevertheless, most had joined the Army as loyal soldiers and were shocked and humiliated to find themselves in a unit like the 620th. The Army never acknowledged that the company was, in essence, a holding pen for undesirables. But the men of the 620th caught on quickly. By now—not least since Maple had arrived to lead them—even the men who had entered the military anxious to fight for the U.S. were behaving the way the Army perceived them.
So Altman was not about to take Kissman’s or anyone’s word about where the notorious Dale Maple was. He turned his Jeep back to camp to find him. He’d look in the barracks first and then, perhaps, among battle-hardened German POWs interned a couple of buildings away at Camp Hale’s stockade.
Altman, Maple and their comrades had arrived at Hale one night about two months before, in December 1943. Reality bent the first morning. They awoke to two Army of the Reich soldiers walking between their bunks. As the enemies calmly passed by, word quickly spread among the 620th’s sympathizers that two real flesh-and-blood German soldiers were among them in Colorado U.S.A. and settling down, it seemed, to work on a boiler. The rest of the soldiers of the 620th rushed to the scene. All disarmed by order of the Army, they gawked. In German, they asked the strangers who they were, how they got there, what was going on.
And in German, the enemy soldiers explained they were part of a detachment of thousands of robust, disciplined members of Germany’s elite, unprecedentedly mobile Afrika Korps that earlier in the war had conquered most of northern Africa at lightning speed.
At Camp Hale, the Germans were already famous for their smart, chest-out marching and bravado singing to and from their POW work duties. They remained a sharply military, defiant, inventive lot. They engineered small stills in their barracks that produced schnapps brewed from fruit secreted from the stockade mess. The prisoners sold the schnapps they didn’t drink to Hale’s civilian workers. At Camp Bullis, Texas, where still another detachment of captured Afrika Korps troops was held, the Germans built what one U.S. serviceman stationed there later called “an awesome swimming pool out of rocks that was still used when we went there.” The Germans at Camp Hale were also widely noted for playing soccer shirtless in the winter mountain cold.
Some at Hale, including at least five of the 200 Women’s Army Corps soldiers stationed there, were smitten. The women sent the prisoners romantic notes, and there were rumors of what one WAC soldier reported was “an interesting arrangement worked out in the mattress warehouses.” It was, she added drily, “an experiment in international goodwill.” The peace initiative had other adherents. A major’s wife purportedly was having an affair with one of the prisoners. Another POW shared a love letter a WAC had sent him. “She loves a German, and she would like to ask him to stay here,” the POW’s GI friend reported to his barracks mates, “but she don’t think he would.” The prisoner also revealed that “several WACs were in contact with the prisoners and would bring them anything they wanted.”
Bill Sonn is an author and longtime writer whose work has appeared in Outside and Chicago magazines, The Progressive, Columbia Journalism Review, The Boston Globe, Bild, Westword and more. A former news and communications executive and editor of several healthcare and general periodicals, he lives in Denver with his wife, Edie.