Private First Class Dale H. Maple (1920–2001) was stationed at Camp Hale near Leadville during World War II when he assisted in the escape of three German prisoners-of-war prisoners of war in February 1944. Following Maple’s arrest along with the escapees in Mexico, he underwent one of the most publicized court-martial trials in American history.
Born in San Diego, California, on September 10, 1920, Dale H. Maple became a shy, frail, and nervous boy who walked with an awkward slouch. He was an only child, asocial and humorless. Maple seemed to care especially for his piano, memorizing long and difficult passages of Bach, Beethoven, Chopin, Schubert, Grieg, Schumann, Tchaikovsky, Bartok, Debussy, and Rachmaninoff. He graduated first out of a class of nearly 600 students at San Diego High School. Scholarly and unpopular, Maple spent some of his time fantasizing that he traveled extensively in Germany, and, those who knew him said it was difficult to determine when he was telling the truth. Because of his academic record, he won a scholarship to Harvard, where he breezed through his courses. He did not mix well, but eventually took up with a group of boys who played bridge five nights a week. He occasionally dated a young woman from Wellesley and attended one costume party dressed as Adolf Hitler.
Although his mother wanted him to be a diplomat, Maple changed his major from history to chemistry in his sophomore year, then switched again, this time to comparative philology with an emphasis on German. He was always attracted to languages, even though he was a poor speller. A professor later described Maple as a brilliant language student who favored obscure languages such as Old Danish, Akkadian, and Maltese (a mixture of Arabic and Italian), in addition to Latin, French, Italian, Spanish, Portuguese, Russian, Polish, Babylonian, Sanskrit, Assyrian, German, and many others. For enjoyment, he read Babylonian cuneiform.
National Socialism and Military Service
In 1938 Maple became partial toward the teachings of Hitler, at one point saying that the worst dictatorship is better than the best democracy. That led to his dismissal from Harvard’s Reserve Officer Training Corps curriculum. Upon entering his senior year in 1940, he intensified his studies of the German language, culture, and literature, and, as he had done in high school, continued to lie about traveling through Germany. Following graduation in 1941, Maple wanted to visit Germany, but he was refused a passport because the State Department knew of his political sympathies. He visited his father in California, where he applied for work in an aircraft plant but was rejected. On December 7, 1941, Maple called the German Embassy in Washington. He wanted to let the embassy know that if the United States and Germany went to war, and if the German diplomatic staff returned to the Reich, he wanted to go along. He was informed that his timing was inauspicious, as the Japanese had attacked Pearl Harbor that day, and the conversation ended. Instead, Maple entered Harvard’s graduate program in comparative philology.
Upon learning that a college friend had died at Pearl Harbor, Maple applied for a naval commission but was rejected due to a long-standing ear problem. On February 27, 1942, he enlisted in the army and was placed in cryptography and radio operators’ school, even though military intelligence was aware of his political leanings. He was an excellent soldier and became an instructor, but his superiors notified him that they were aware of his contact with the German Embassy. Maple was assigned to the 620th Engineer General Service Company, which was composed of soldiers, some of them recent German immigrants who were unsympathetic with America’s involvement in the war. The 620th busied itself with tasks of a nonsensitive nature, including making camouflage nets, digging ditches, and sawing wood. After several stops at other military installations, the 620th was stationed high in the Colorado Rockies at Camp Hale near Leadville. The camp’s mission was to train 10,000 mountain and ski troops as well as their support personnel. Also at Camp Hale was a group of some 200 German prisoners of war, sent there from Trinidad, Colorado, for a work program. They were billeted behind a barbed-wire fence, and although fraternization between soldiers and prisoners was forbidden at Camp Hale as it was elsewhere, men of the 620th quickly formed a bond with the German prisoners.
The Camp Hale commanders reacted to displays of friendship between the prisoners and the 620th by ordering the engineers to speak in English instead of German and made other efforts to subdue their political leanings. Men of the 620th, in turn, began discussing espionage, desertion, mutiny, sabotage, and guerrilla warfare. The Camp Hale administration was apparently not very strict at this time; the prisoners had a number of items they were not supposed to have, including a pistol, skis, snowshoes, American Army uniforms, radio tubes, two tents, and a still that made several barrels of schnapps. Soon after the 620th’s arrival, the prisoners snuck Maple into their compound during his three-day pass, wearing a borrowed Afrika Korps uniform.
Escape and Arrest
Friendship between the 620th and the German prisoners intensified, and finally the engineers decided that their best method of undermining the American war effort was to help Germans escape. Maple took charge of the plans, acquiring a Reo sedan and supplies for the journey. On February 15, 1944, Maple rendezvoused with two German prisoners who had slipped away from their work detail, and the trio began traveling south.
At 4:30 on the afternoon of February 18, 1944, Mexican customs inspector Medardo Martínez, accompanied by a friend, guided his horse and wagon across the desert near Las Palomas, Chihuahua, Mexico, three miles south of the international border from Columbus, New Mexico. He noticed three men, all carrying knapsacks, trudging southward across the desert—no ordinary circumstance. Martinez halted his wagon and hailed the three men to approach. None of the trio spoke Spanish, and Martinez did not speak English. His friend spoke some English, and through him Martinez inquired of the trio’s destination. One man replied haltingly that the three intended to look for work in Mexico. After discovering that none of the trio had passports with them, Martinez ushered them into his wagon at gunpoint.
At Las Palomas, the strangers identified themselves as Eduard Muller, Edhard Schwichtenberg, and Heinrich Kikillus. They said that they were trying to reach the seaport of Tuxtla, over 1,000 miles distant, and from there travel to Germany. The man identifying himself as Muller spoke belabored English with a thick German accent. José Magnana, the chief immigration inspector in Las Palomas, was certain that the three men were German prisoners of war who had walked away from one of the many camps in the southwest United States.
Magnana decided to turn the trio over to William F. Bates, his counterpart in Columbus, New Mexico. Having done so, Bates took the men to Columbus and telephoned the FBI in El Paso, Texas, sixty miles east. At two o’clock the following morning, four FBI agents arrived in Columbus and transported the three to the county jail in Las Cruces, New Mexico, ninety miles to the northeast. There, the FBI agents determined that Schwichtenberg was a corporal and Kikillus a master sergeant in the German Army’s Afrika Korps. Their questioning of the German-speaking man, Muller, took longer, but he finally confessed in flawless English that his name was Dale Maple, that he was a private first class in the United States Army, that he helped Schwichtenberg and Kikillus escape from Camp Hale, and that the three were fleeing America to join the German Army.
Trial and Later Life
Because the constitutional provision for treason only applied to civilians, Maple was charged with aiding the enemy and with desertion, both capital offenses. Many members of the 620th believed that President Franklin Roosevelt had dragged the United States into a war that was none of its business, and that Roosevelt was therefore a traitor. Maple told authorities that his flight was motivated by a selfless desire to call public attention to outfits such as the 620th, whose existence he considered un-American and unmilitary. Hours after his arrest, troops armed with submachine guns entered the barracks of the 620th and removed a dozen soldiers for questioning about their pro-Nazi activities. Also arrested were five Women’s Army Corps (WAC) members accused of exchanging fond glances, words, and letters with the prisoners.
Kikillus and Schwichtenberg escaped punishment because prisoners of war were obligated to escape if possible. They were taken to a prisoner-of-war camp in Worland, Wyoming, from which Schwichtenberg and two other Germans escaped one night in June 1945 (Schwichtenberg was later caught).
On April 17, 1944, a general court-martial to hear Maple’s case convened at Fort Leavenworth, Kansas. Writer E. J. Kahn, Jr., who chronicled the entire Maple episode, suggested that the court-martial panel may be the highest-ranking group to ever sit in judgment of an enlisted man—three lieutenant colonels, seven colonels, a brigadier general, and, presiding, a major general so senior that he received his first star eight months before Dwight D. Eisenhower received his. After three weeks of testimony, the court found Maple guilty on all counts and sentenced him to hang. Wartime constraints required that the verdict not be announced, and it was not even announced to Maple himself. He and his attorneys suspected that he had been convicted, but they did not know for certain for seven months, when Maple was simultaneously informed that he was sentenced to death and that his life had been spared by President Roosevelt. In a statement about his decision, Roosevelt stated, “I feel that the ends of justice will better be served by sparing his life so that he may live to see the destruction of tyranny, the triumph of the ideals against which he sought to align himself, and the final victory of the freedom he so grossly abused.”
After seventeen months in Leavenworth, the army reduced his sentence to ten years. He was released in February 1951 and returned to California, where he maintained a low profile for the rest of his life. Dale Maple died on May 28, 2001.
Adapted from Clark Secrest, “Private First Class Dale H. Maple: The Philologist,” Colorado Heritage Magazine, 15 no. 1 (1995).