Operation Paperclip Part Five: “Science At Any Price”



On August 30, 1946, an official memorandum was issued by Secretary of State Dean Acheson that changed the process of investigating and auditing potential Paperclip scientists. The scientists would now be brought to America first and then investigated, if deemed necessary, rather than being investigated before arriving in the United States. As Annie Jacobsen describes in her book, “Operation Paperclip was now officially a ‘denial program,’ meaning that any German scientist of potential interest to the Russians needed to be denied to the Russians, at any cost.”

Less than a month later, both the New York Times and Newsweek reported on German scientists living in the United States. The War Department, rather than deny the whole thing and get caught, released a sugar-coated version of the story. They asserted that the only Germans in the States were simply academic and scientific researchers with no affiliation to the Nazi Party. This, of course, was very far from the truth.

Despite the “Open House” at Wright Field attempting to showcase the “clean Nazis” as simple German families, the general public and various organizations did not take the bait. Some of the immediate dissenters included:

  • Joachim Joesten, foreign affairs correspondent, in Nation: “If you enjoy mass murder, but also treasure your skin, be a scientist, son. It’s the only way, nowadays, of getting away with murder.
  • Rabbi Steven S. Wise, President of the American Jewish Congress: “As long as we reward former servants of Hitler, while leaving his victims in the displaced persons camps, we cannot even pretend that we are making any real effort to achieve the aims we fought for.
  • Eleanor Roosevelt & Albert Einstein held a conference demanding that the US Government suspend all visas for Germans for twelve years before even considering allowing them into the country.
  • Syracuse University Professors, who were strongly opposed to a former Nazi Party member working alongside them on the government payroll: “We object not because they are citizens of an enemy nation, but because they were and probably still are Nazis.
  • Society for the Prevention of World War III: “These German ‘experts’ performed wonders for the German war effort. Can one forget their gas chambers, their skill in cremation, their meticulous methods used to extract gold from the teeth of their victims, their wizardry in looting and thieving?

Despite these and many more objections, the State Department pressed forward with importing as many Nazis as possible as quickly as possible.


The United States was very interested in the concept of “DUMBs,” or “Deep Underground Military Bases.” Luckily for them, one of the foremost Nazi experts in underground complex construction was now living at Wright Air Force Base. Georg Rickhey oversaw the construction of the Führerbunker, Hitler’s underground complex that had more than 30 rooms, corridors, emergency exits, and staircases. It was located more than thirty feet below the streets of Berlin and successfully withstood years of Allied bombings of the city.

Photo from Warfare History Network

Rickhey’s expertise in underground facilities did not stop there. He was also part of the team that built an underground factory for the Demag Motorcar Company, which assisted with German tank manufacturing during the war. He also worked as a general manager of the Mittelwerk rocket assembly factory near Nordhausen, where the V2 Rockets were assembled with brutal slave labor. In total, it is estimated he was responsible for overseeing more than 1,500,000 square feet of underground facility space.

The United States wanted underground facilities of their own. The Cold War was on the horizon and they wanted a jump start on underground facilities that could withstand chemical, biological, and potentially even nuclear weapon attacks. Thus, the acquisition and retention of Rickhey was considered crucial to their goals. By 1951, the US was already working on Deep Underground Military Bases in the Catoctin Mountains (Raven Rock Mountain Complex – Site R), the Blue Ridge Mountains (Mount Weather), and a bomb shelter at Camp David.

To make this possible, the US military needed to take steps to ensure they would be able to use Rickhey to his fullest potential. This led to some problems and disputes along the way. Some scientists that Rickhey did not get along with at Wright Air Force Base passed along information that he was selling black market liquor and tobacco on grounds – the investigation of which led to much darker information about Rickhey. Several of the Nazis interviewed regarding Rickhey admitted that he was the one in charge of hanging workers to death from a crane in the Mittelwerk complex to dissuade others from having any rebellious thoughts or actions. Some also reported that Rickhey would steal the food rations from the slave laborers and make them “buy” them back with additional work.

While the investigation was taking place, Rickhey signed a new five year contract with the US Military. However, the story about the hung workers made its way to the desks of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, who immediately canceled his contract and arrested him pending trial in the Dora-Nordhausen War Crimes Trial back in Germany. Even so, the Joint Chiefs knew that they had to tread lightly. If the general public learned that one of the first scientists brought from Germany was a serious war criminal, the whole program would fall under much greater scrutiny. The Joint Chiefs alerted FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover and the top leadership of the FBI about the situation and requested that they assist in keeping everything regarding Rickhey – and his trial – top secret.

Georg Rickhey stood trial as one out of nineteen defendents in the Dora-Nordhausen trial on August 7, 1947. The nineteen Nazis were being charged with the intentional deaths of more than 20,000 slave laborers who were also beaten, tortured, starved, hanged, and/or worked to death during the construction of the V2 Rockets.

Rickhey and four others were acquitted. The U.S. Army immediately classified the trial record. It remained top secret for another forty years. In addition to Rickhey and the defendants, 115 scientists already residing at Fort Bliss in Texas were named in the trial. The US did not want this information to get out; beating the Soviets was more important than integrity.

One man who was not present – despite being requested by both sides to provide testimony – was Wernher von Bruan. The Army stated that it was too much of security risk to transport von Braun back and forth between the US and Germany. The Russians could kidnap him, they said. Of course they conveniently did not mention that they had recently allowed him to travel to Germany to marry his cousin and bring her back to the States.


Wright Air Force Base had a few more notable arrivals around the same time that the Dora-Nordhausen trial was taking place.

Siegfried Knemeyer arrived in August 1947. He had been considered one of the Reich’s top ten pilots. He was also very trusted by Nazi High Command: Albert Speer had tried to persuade him to fly him to Greenland in an escape attempt and Hermann Göring had called “my boy.” Back in Germany, he had a large estate and servants to assist his wife in raising their seven children. In America, he had a small living space and an unhappy wife. The Army took pity on the situation and moved him to a new position and provided a larger living space. One of his supervisors described him as “a genius in the creation of new concepts in flight control.”

General Walter Dornberger arrived around the same time as Knemeyer. He had been held in England’s Special Camp XI in South Wales and much hated by the English. Dornberger was one of the heads of the Nazi rocket programs, was one of the men cracking the whips at the Mittelwerk facility alongside Georg Rickhey and Werner von Braun, and was the one who turned over several crates of V2 Rocket documents to use as leverage in ensuring preferential treatment from the Allies. He was tasked with writing classified intelligence briefs regarding the US rocketry programs. An excerpt from one of his reports from 1948:

“The United States must decide upon a research and development program that will guarantee satisfactory results within the shortest possible time and the least expense. Such a program must be set up even if its organization appears to violate American economic ideals and American traditions in arms development.”

In other words: Science at Any Price.


As more Paperclip scientists arrived in the United States, more and more of the scientific community began voicing their opposition.

For example, the Federation of American Scientists held an event to demand that President Truman end the program. One speaker asserted that the entire ordeal was “not in keeping with the best objectives of American domestic and foreign policy.” Another declared that “any person who can transfer loyalties from one ideology to another upon the shifting of a meal ticket is not better than Judas!

Albert Einstein a;lso continued his campaign against the Paperclip scientists:

“We hold these individuals to be potentially dangerous… Their former eminence as Nazi Party members and supporters raises the issue of their fitness to become American citizens and hold key positions in American industrial, scientific, and educational institutions.”

Nuclear Physicist and Manhattan Project alumni Hans Bethe had fled Germany in 1933 as soon as the Nazis took over, knowing that their decrees meant danger for him. He and his colleagues posed a series of questions in the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists:

  • “Was it wise, or even compatible with our moral standards to make this bargain, in light of the fact that many of the Germans, probably the majority, were die-hard Nazis?”
  • “Did the fact that the Germans might save the nations millions of dollars imply that permanent resident and citizenship could be bought?”
  • “Could the United States count on [the German scientists] to work for peace when their indoctrinated hatred against the Russians might contribute to increase the divergence between the great powers?”
  • “Had the war been fought to allow Nazi ideology to creep into our educational and scientific institutions by the back door?”
  • Do we want science at any price?

The general public picked up on these condemnations and began a more active opposition to the program as well. Journalists were frustrated by the lack of information they were able to dig up about individual scientists. Due to their attempts, the War Department shut down the release of any new information about the program or its members. While this worked in most cases, information about a husband and wife pairing of Nazis at Fort Bliss leaked to the press.

Herbert Axster and Ilse Axster were described as “particularly sadistic Nazis” by some of the neighbors to their estate back in Germany. Herbert Axster was General Dornberger’s Chief of Staff and was another individual involved with the Mittelwerk complex. Ilse Axster was a leading member of the NS-Frauenschaft, a Nazi Party organization for women to network and support the cause. The neighbors told investigators that the Axsters held at least forty “political prisoners” – Russians and Poles they used as slave labor on their property. Mrs. Axster was known to horse whip the slaves on a daily basis.

This information was leaked by an investigator to Rabbi Stephen Wise of the American Jewish Congress, who then provided the details to journalists. Wise also wrote a public letter to the War Department, including the statement, “these scientists and their families are supposed to have been ‘screened.’ The Axsters prove that the ‘screening’ is a farce and the War Department ‘screeners’ are entirely incapable of performing this task.

The Department of Justice rescinded the Axsters’ offer of citizenship, but allowed them to stay in the United States. They left Fort Bliss and Herbert Axster opened his own law firm in Milwaukee.

The War Department demanded an explanation from the investigators how the Axsters got through the screening process. Their response, in a classified cable, was that a few “ardent Nazis” could have slipped through based on “unavailability of records” in the immediate aftermath of the war. The real answer seems more likely to be that they screeners valued the minds of the scientists more than the safety and integrity of the United States.


There were twelve trials at Nuremberg in which the US government indicted specific professionals and contractors who had performed work for the Nazis. The first was called “The Trial of the Major War Criminals” and was overseen by all four Allied Powers. Soon thereafter, tensions escalated between the US and USSR, the latter of which no longer took part in the trials.

At the beginning of the Doctors Trial, US General Telford Taylor made the following remarks (excerpt of opening statement):

“Mere punishment of the defendants can never redress the terrible injuries which the Nazis visited on this unfortunate peoples. But one of the central purposes of this trial is to establish a record of proof of the crimes so that no one can ever doubt that they were fact and not fable; and that this court, as an agent of the United States and as the voice of humanity, stamps these acts, and the ideas which engendered them, as barbarous and criminal.”

One of the most influential Americans involved in the trial was Dr. Leopold Alexander, the psychiatrist who discovered the Luftwaffe freezing experiments. His extensive research and interviews prior to and during the trial, along with presentations of evidence in multiple languages, provided the basis for Alexander being credited as the primary author of the Nuremberg Code.

There were twenty-three German defendants. Four of them had already worked for the United States through Paperclip contracts: Siegfried Ruff, Konrad Schäfer, Hermann Becker-Freyseng, and Oskar Schröder. This fact remained secret throughout the entirety of the trial, and was not known until 40 years later.

Siegfried Ruff readily admitted to assisting in overseeing the medical murders at Dachau, but denied having a physical hand in any of the deadly experiments. He did not back down when asked if he thought what took place was wrong: “It was understood that concentration camp inmates who had been condemned to death would be used in the experiments, and as compensation they were to have their sentences commuted to life in prison. Personally, I would not consider these experiments as immoral especially in war time.

Oskar Schröder, Konrad Schäfer, and Hermann Becker-Freyseng admitted to partaking in meetings and discussions regarding the acquisition of humans for experimentation. Schröder testified to the fact that they had requested additional human subjects from Heinrich Himmler himself. Some of these subjects were involved in the “salt water experiments” at Dachau that resulted in the deaths of all but one of the test subjects: Karl Höllenrainer.

When Karl Höllenrainer was put on the stand, he testified to the cruel conditions and torture he and the other victims were subjected to during the experiments at Dachau. He was originally arrested for the “crime” of being a “Gypsy” and having relations with a German woman. He then suffered through three separate camps: Auschwitz, Buchenwald, and Dachau, the last of which the site of the experimental torture conducted. When asked if he could identify the individual who directly performed the experiments, his eyes landed on Dr. Wilhelm Beiglböck, the doctor at the head of the “salt water experiments.”

Höllenrainer then lost all composure – understandably so – and jumped over the German defense tables, dagger in hand, attempting to enact his own justice on Beiglböck.

The presiding judge, Walter Beals, was outraged and reacted as though Höllenrainer was the criminal. Beals immediately began lecturing about Höllenrainer being in contempt of court and accusing him of undermining the entire legal process, part of the mission of which was to “education the German people in the ways of American democracy and due process.” Beals sentenced Höllenrainer on the spot: 90 days in Nuremberg prison; he then had security immediately remove him from the courtroom.

Höllenrainer was still undergoing medical treatment from the experiments conducted on him, especially for the after-effects of having a piece of his liver removed without sedation or painkillers. He also had a wife and a young son. Now Judge Beals was sending him to be imprisoned alongside many of the same doctors and scientists who were involved in orchestrating his torture as well as the torture and murder of many of his fellow prisoners.

Dr. Alexander was sickened by this turn of events against one of his key witnesses; not to mention the purely cold manor in which Judge Beals had sent Höllenrainer away with little regard for the circumstances of his anger. Dr. Alexander managed to negotiate the release of Höllenrainer into his custody on bail.

Four days later, Dr. Alexander convinced Judge Beals to allow Höllenrainer a second attempt at testimony. While Höllenrainer described the horrific experiments he endured – and that killed everyone else involved – the Nazi defense team stood on the stand yelling at him about being a lying gypsy. While this would be contempt of court in most settings, Judge Beals did not seem to mind the Nazi attacks on Höllenrainer.

Dr. Alexander wrote in a letter to General Telford Taylor, regarding the Nazi doctors they were dealing with in the trial: “All of these men on the docket slaughtered for gain of scientific renown and personal advancement. They were like Tantalus, a mythical, ambitious ruler who slew his own child for reward.

Jacobsen notes in her book that the attitude of Judge Beals that permeated the entire trial was that the victims and witnesses needed to be on their absolute best behavior, while the Nazis could get away with saying and doing almost anything they wanted. The primary court stenographer, Vivien Spitz, said her heart broke on many occasions throughout the trial and she was stunned by the extreme lack of empathy or compassion from Judge Beals.


The trial of Dr. Kurt Blome illuminated more of the inherent hypocrisy from the American side. Dr. Blome was the director of biological weapons research for the Nazis, and was said to be the leading expert on the bubonic plague in the entire world. Despite mounds of evidence that Dr. Blome was planning to experiment with viruses and bacteria on prisoners, including several pieces of correspondence with Heinrich Himmler, the prosecution was unable to produce any irrefutable evidence that he actually did perform or oversee any of the experiments. His position on the matter was that the war ended before he had the chance to fulfill his plans.

The only individual whose testimony may have been damning against Dr. Blome was Major General Walter Schreiber, who had provided the most influential evidence against Hermann Goering in the primary Nuremberg Trials. At that time, however, Schreiber was still in custody of the Soviet Union, who refused to allow him to testify. Schreiber would later escape Soviet custody, defect to the United States, and enter America with a Paperclip contract.

Two individuals then gave testimony that made the American defense tuck its tail between its legs a little bit.

The first was Dr. Blome’s wife, Frau Bettina Blome, a physician and bestselling author. She brought up some experiments the Americans had performed: syphilis and gonorrhea tests performed on prisoners at the Terre Haute Federal Prison in Indiana and POWs in Guatemala (NY Times: “Lapses by American Leaders Seen in Syphilis Tests“) as well as Dr. Walter Reed’s experiments with yellow fever during the Spanish-American War that resulted in a number of deaths (AMA Journal of Ethics: “Politics of Participation: Walter Reed’s Yellow Fever Experiments“).

The second was Defense Counsel Robert Servatius. He brought the June 04, 1945 issue of Life magazine and displayed the following article and photos about the OSRD conducting experiments on more than 800 U.S. prisoners during the war:

The experimenters, who are directed by the [United States] Office of Scientific Research and Development, have found prison life is ideal for controlled laboratory work with humans. Their subjects all eat the same food, sleep the same hours, and are never far away.”

Life Magazine, June 4, 1945. Page 43

The verdicts were issued on August 6, 1947. Seven were given death sentences. Nine were given prison sentences ranging from ten years to life in prison, including the aforementioned Beiglböck (fifteen years), Becker-Freyseng (twenty years), and Schröder (life).

Seven of the Nazi doctors were acquitted entirely, including Dr. Kurt Blome. The judge’s statement showed the line they had chosen to walk in the name of “fairness” and “justice” – “It may well be that the defendant Blome was preparing to experiment on human beings in connection with bacteriological warfare, but the record fails to disclose that fact, or that he ever actually conducted the experiments.” In other words, everyone knew he had evil in his heart, but they couldn’t prove it on paper. He was not immediately brought to the United States, as justification of someone in Hitler’s inner-circle who wore the Golden Party Badge of the Nazis with pride would be difficult in the aftermath of the war. Once things settled down, however, he would eventually become eligible.

Konrad Schäfer, another of the previously mentioned scientists who had taken part in planning and acquisition of human experimental subjects, was also cleared and went to work at the Army Air Forces Aero Medical Center in Heidelberg, Germany, taking Dr. Hubertus Strughold’s place as Chief of Staff.

Dr. Strughold was the former Chief of Aeromedical Research for the Luftwaffe. He was transferred to Texas, serving as a “professional advisor” to Colonel Armstrong, the Commandant of the School of Aviation Medicine at Randolph Field. Strughold’s job description included, “overall supervision of the professional activities of the German and Austrian scientists to be employed by the school.” This loosely translated to hand-picking which Nazi scientists and doctors he wanted to import into the United States to work on the programs and research at Randolph Field.

In the coming months and years, many more Nazis were brought to the United States through Operation Paperclip. In the next segments, we will track some of their activities and the lofty positions they were granted within the US government and military.



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