Sunday, October 30, 2022

Operation Paperclip

What a strange name, Operation Paperclip. I had heard the name but could not remember it until I listened to a book called, “The German Wife” by Kelly Rimmer. It is the story of a German family heading toward and through World War II Juxtaposed to an American family that lost so much in the Dust Bowl. This is one I suggest you listen to rather than read since the accent changes from German to the American South helps to distinguish where the reader is in the world.

Operation Paperclip was a secret United States intelligence program, given its name for the paperclips that U.S. officers attached to the folders of German experts they wished to employ. German scientists, engineers and technicians were spirited out of Germany as the war was ending, and for many years afterward, to be conscripted for a certain amount of time in the interest of the American Government.

The concept originated with the U.S. military effort to take the advanced weapons from the Germans, including biological and chemical agents. Soon government officials realized they should also bring the Nazi scientists, doctors, physicists, and chemists. The Germans were so far ahead of the Americans that it is believed that if they had had time to finish the programs, that were nearing completion, the war might not have ended for quite a while.

You can imagine that Nazi scientists were not going to be warmly received by the American public who became aware of the gas chambers found at the end of the war, so the American military did its best to wipe clean the records of these individuals.

The book is, of course, historic fiction but serendipitously I discovered that an old friend, a former curator and director at a university museum, was closely connected to a real-life story. Though I have known her for decades I only recently learned that she was born in Germany at the end of WWII and her father had been part of this program. He was an engineer and, in 1948, when he had the chance to come to the United States, he leaped at the opportunity. No, not because he had always hoped to come over, but it was known that the Russians, actually kidnapped scientists to bring them to work on their rocket programs and other scientific projects. The Americans, of course, wanted the scientists for the same reason. It was part of the Cold War arms race. Here is a photo of Werhner von Braun, who had a very dark past, but then was “heralded as the preeminent rocket engineer of the 20th century” with John F. Kennedy.

My friend told me that her father had joined the Nazi Party with the hopeful thought that if they heard some more reasonable voices, it could stop the extremists. [Sound familiar]? He wanted nothing to do with them after attending one party meeting. She also told me how close her parents came to being annihilated by an allied bomb and only survived because it turned out to be a dud and they could escape before the second one actually went off.

Her family came to the United States on a cargo ship and did not live in luxury. Building their own house they, “became the first doomsday preppers (food and shelter – basic security) was all that mattered”. Her father, by my interpretation, became an indentured servant to the U.S. military for a time. He worked at the predecessor to what is today the Wright-Patterson Air Force Base near Dayton Ohio. As an engineer his specialty in simple terms was as a “plasma physicist” i.e. an expert in the ionosphere. If I repeated what I read in his obituary only another scientist would understand it. Half the words I had never seen before! His work became highly valued after Sputnik went up in 1957 and he won several civilian honors.



The book I referred to at the beginning recounted how the families of German scientists were shunned by the Americans and children would not play with the Germans. My friend did not refer to this specifically but said that for her family it had been a very lonely experience.

I often check first with Wikipedia before delving deeper. In this case, after a short article I found 158 footnotes, a whole bunch of references as well as further reading. If you are curious there is plenty more out there.

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