Old Nazis, New Jersey: Operation Paperclip Hits Close to Home

Moss Robeson
I grew up in New Jersey near Fort Monmouth, the now-closed military base and former “Home of the Signal Corps,” the branch of the army responsible for communications and information systems. This 2,000 acre installation served as “the Signal Corps’ principal research, development and training center.” Some know Fort Monmouth for the McCarthyite hysteria about it supposedly being infested by communist spies at the outset of the Cold War, but little has been written about the Nazi scientists and engineers who started working there years before this manufactured crisis unfolded.

Whatever socialist espionage may have occurred in the 1940s, the United States government executed Julius and Ethel Rosenberg in 1953 as the ultimate scapegoats. Sentencing them to death, the judge presiding over their case said, “I believe your conduct in putting into the hands of the Russians the A-bomb years before our best scientists predicted Russia would perfect the bomb has already caused, in my opinion, the Communist aggression in Korea, with the resultant casualties exceeding 50,000 and who knows but that millions more of innocent people may pay the price of your treason.” The Rosenbergs maintained their innocence and refused to make a deal with the government to save themselves.

Julius and Ethel Rosenberg

Julius Rosenberg worked at the Army Signal Corps Engineering Laboratories at Fort Monmouth during World War II, when the U.S. and Soviet Union were allies, and the latter “maintained official representatives at Fort Monmouth, who were given access to classified materials.” Soon after the Rosenbergs were executed, the Republican chairman of the Senate Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations “sat as a one-man committee” in the New York court house that sentenced them to death and began to fear-monger about an ongoing communist spy network at Fort Monmouth that he dubbed the “Shore Club.” This is the fight that Joseph McCarthy picked with the army which led to his downfall.

Roy Cohn, the infamous right-wing lawyer who later in life represented Donald Trump, first rose to prominence because of his integral role in prosecuting the Rosenbergs and McCarthy’s final crusade. Bowing to pressure from the red-baiting Senator, Fort Monmouth suspended, dismissed, and demoted increasing numbers of alleged “security risks,” almost all of them Jewish, mostly for associating “with relatives and other persons” suspected of being communist sympathizers. General Telford Taylor, a former chief prosecutor at the Nuremberg war crime trials, denounced McCarthy’s “shameful abuse of Congressional investigating power,” “unscrupulous grab for publicity,” and “indefensible fabrications.” The New York Times subsequently reported,

Fort Monmouth, with headquarters at Eatontown, N.J., is the Signal Corps’ principal research, development and training center… Still a rural area behind the resort towns along the Atlantic beaches, Monmouth County was the scene of Ku Klux Klan activity in the 1920’s and German-American Bund rallies in the 1930’s. As late as 1948, a twelve-foot cross was burned on the newly purchased Wall Township home of a Negro employee at Evans [Signal Laboratory]. Wartime recruitment — which ballooned the [Fort Monmouth] laboratories from 150 employees to 14,000 — brought in many Jewish and Negro technicians.

Then came along Operation Paperclip. According to the Information Age Learning Center based in Wall Township, the “radar and communications engineers went to Fort Monmouth.” According to Clarence G. Lasby, the author of a 1971 book on Operation Paperclip, the “Signal Corp specialists… were of the more exceptional caliber than any single group imported under Paperclip.” In 1968, the director of research at Fort Monmouth recalled, “the superb talent available through ‘Paperclip’ suggested once-in-a-lifetime opportunities…”

The problem of asking for this type of talent, or rather the decision as to whether we should, was put squarely up to me as director of research. I recommended “Yes, let’s try it with 25 people,” and we were in business. This was probably one of the most important decisions I have ever made. The men and their families then started coming over, most of them with all their worldly possessions and hardly any money. The title of “Doctor” soon grew common place at Monmouth… I have in my office a photo of the first 16 which came over, hands up, swearing allegiance to the United States… Of these 16, now twenty years later, 11 still remain at the Monmouth laboratory, all in very high positions, and one in the very highest. It was a wonderful experience to see the old “Melting Pot” in action.

The photo of “the first 16 which came over, hands up, swearing allegiance to the United States.”

In 1958, about a decade after the above photo was taken and another decade before the Fort Monmouth research director proudly recollected on this moment, a federal judge ordered the last of the dismissed “security risks” to be reinstated. Apparently all of them were Jews. Two years earlier, they sued the government. According to the New York Times, their successful lawsuits alleged,

— That the Army relied on undisclosed information from secret informants without giving the accused the right to cross-examine them. — That the Army Security Review Board that gave them dismissal verdicts was, in fact, a “secret court,” in that its membership was not known to the employees involved… — That dismissals from Army service were effected without the Army providing those discharged with a statement of findings, that is, a listing of charges found proved or rejected… — That, generally, the charges were vague and indefinite and dealt largely with religious beliefs as well as political philosophy.

Dr. Karl Leistner, a Nazi physicist brought to the United States in 1947–48 via Operation Paperclip, is standing in the second row in the above photo; the bottom half of his face is obscured by an abrasion. In 1965, Leistner apparently began to work at Fort Monmouth Headquarters as a “Team Leader” for the three-year old “Electronics Command,” which was “charged with managing Signal research, development, and logistics support.”

Karl and Irene Leistner

The Leistners bought a house in the woods of Monmouth County. Irena Leistner resembled a witch and allegedly shrieked at passersby who stepped on their overgrown property. The Rosenbergs didn’t get to grow old together, and left behind two children, but the Leistners happily did, and died a few years apart at the end of the Cold War without any heirs.

They were serious hoarders, so the bank hired workers to clear out their filthy home. They spared a box labeled “Ashes of Dr. L,” some of his papers, and several photographs. It turned out these things came with the house when my parents bought it. My father unceremoniously dumped the ashes on the property, and stashed the rest of “Dr. L’s” things in a storage unit where they remained for years.

To Be Continued…

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