It had classic elements of an espionage tale — enemy agents landed from submarines, explosives hidden in the sand of an East Coast beach, orders written in invisible ink — and Herbert Haupt, a young man from the North Side who participated in the first invasion of the U.S. mainland since the War of 1812.
- Espionage and Intelligence
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Lane Technical High School, 2501 W Addison St, Chicago, IL 60618, USA
2234 N Fremont St, Chicago, IL 60614, USA
2025 W Roscoe St, Chicago, IL 60618, USA
3200 W Carroll Ave, Chicago, IL 60624, USA
4540 N Campbell Ave, Chicago, IL 60625, USA
Still, Haupt's adolescence was in some ways not much different from that of his schoolmates. He was in the ROTC before dropping out of Lane Tech High School and getting a job at a Chicago factory in West Garfield Park that made parts for the famed Norden bombsight, which gave U.S. aircraft unprecedented accuracy. He met a young woman, Gerda Melind, and the two planned to get married. She recalled Haupt to a Trib reporter as a voracious reader, interested in philosophy and a great talker.
But he disappeared on her in 1941, shortly before the U.S. entered the war. "Her first knowledge that he had gone was a postcard he sent her from St. Louis, telling her he was en route to California," the Trib reported.
In fact, Haupt went to Mexico City, got money from the German consul, sailed to Japan and eventually reached Germany.
The Nazis had an audacious plan to steal military secrets and sabotage American defense industries. For which, they saw a valuable resource in Haupt, who spoke the colloquial English of Chicago's streets. He and seven other saboteurs with similar linguistic skills were dispatched to America on a pair of U-boats. Haupt's party landed in Florida, the other conspirators on Long Island. Reappearing in Chicago on June 22, 1942, Haupt met with a surprised Melind.
At one of the trials that followed, Melind was asked if Haupt said what his plans were. "Yes, he said he probably would get his old job back at the optical company," Melind testified. Haupt's assignment was to steal plans for the Norden bombsight, one of the nation's top military secrets. Others of the saboteurs were to blow up a New York bridge, aluminum plants and key railroad facilities across the Eastern states.
In fact, as soon as the conspirators landed, the plan began to unravel. A Coast Guard sentry spotted the Long Island landing party, which gave him $270 to keep quiet. Instead, he reported what he'd seen, and the FBI trailed the Nazi group. A few days later, the leader of that group surrendered to the feds.
He turned over a large sum of American money and a seemingly insignificant handkerchief — except that it contained the spies' American contacts, written in invisible ink. Treated with ammonia fumes by FBI technicians, it revealed, among others, the name of an uncle of Haupt. By the time Haupt reached Chicago from Florida, the feds were waiting.
"The vicinity of the Haupt home at 2234 Fremont st. literally swarmed with FBI men, testimony indicated," the Trib reported of one the ensuing trials.
Five days after arriving in Chicago, Herbert Haupt, 22, was arrested here along with another conspirator. All eight spies were tried and convicted by military tribunal inWashington, D.C.Two were given life in prison in return for testifying against their comrades. On Aug. 8, just six weeks later, Haupt and five others went to the electric chair in a District of Columbia jail.
"Six times ... watchers in a dismal downpour outside saw the prison lights dim as the dynamos sent the fatal charges into the bodies of the condemned men," a reporter with the Tribune's Washington bureau reported of the executions on Aug. 8, 1942.
For security reasons, the military tribunal met behind closed doors, but details of the case shortly emerged in a Chicago courtroom, where Haupt's parents, Hans and Erma, an aunt and uncle, and two family friends were charged with treason.
On the witness stand, Carl Eggert, who worked for Hans Haupt, explained what happened to the money Herbert Haupt had brought from Germany to finance the plot. "He testified that on June 28, in a tavern at 2025 Roscoe st., Hans Haupt told him he had an envelope he wanted Eggert to take for fear the FBI might find it," the Tribune reported.
A particularly dramatic moment came during the testimony of Ernest Burger, one of the two spies spared the death penalty. On cross-examination, Burger was asked why he was appearing for the prosecution. According to the Trib's coverage, Burger replied, "Because it is my only method of communicating to my homeland the fate of our mission."
Though the defendants' convictions were reversed on appeal, they accepted a plea-bargain in 1944: Haupt's father got life; his uncle and a family friend got five years; their wives were freed.
And what of Herbert Haupt, the boy who played at a North Side schoolyard like so many others? He remained an enigma.
"He can talk you blue in the face and you think he's telling you something," said Melind, the fiancee, "but at the end he's told you nothing."