Wednesday, March 19, 2008

Kurt Ludwig: Nazi Spy

[Courtesy of the Federal Bureau of Investigation]

Although he did not know it at the time, the life of Kurt Ludwig and his secret plans first began to unravel in one of America’s most public places – New York City’s Times Square. It was on March 18, 1941, near 7th Avenue, that Ludwig was to meet the man ordered to take control of the German spy ring he had organized for the Third Reich. But a freak traffic accident had left his counterpart dead and Ludwig fleeing the scene with documents intended for the Nazis.

Born in Fremont, Ohio, in 1903, Ludwig was taken to Germany by his parents as a small child. He visited the U. S. on several occasions in the 1920s and 1930s, but by 1938, Ludwig was in Austria spying for the Nazis. Discovered and detained, Ludwig remained in Austria until Hitler's takeover a month later. Returning to Germany, Ludwig was ordered to the U.S. to establish a spy network.

Ludwig recruited agents from New York’s German American Bund groups, many of whom were sympathetic to the Third Reich. Traveling the East Coast, Ludwig and his ring gathered data on U. S. shipping, aircraft production, troop strength, and munitions. Ludwig used couriers, short wave radio, invisible ink, code, and the alias "Joe K" to transmit his information to Berlin. High priority materials went directly to Heinrich Himmler.

Through British intelligence and the investigation of the Times Square accident, the FBI determined that Ludwig was indeed the Nazi spy known as "Joe K." Hoping to learn the identities of his agents, the FBI placed Ludwig under surveillance. It wasn’t until some months later that Ludwig realized that agents were watching his every move. In an attempt to escape, Ludwig led agents on a cross-country chase, finally stopping in Missoula, Montana to destroy evidence, store his car, and ship his luggage to East Coast relatives. Fearing that Ludwig would escape to Germany via Japan, FBI agents arrested him not far from Seattle.

Prosecutors indicted agents of the "Joe K" spy ring in Federal Court in New York City on charges of espionage and treasonable conspiracy. Eighteen-year-old Lucy Boehmler, who had joined the ring for "excitement," testified against her co-defendants. In January 1943, a jury deliberating just over two hours, found the entire "Joe K" spy ring guilty as charged.

Ludwig was sentenced to 20 years. He escaped the death penalty because his espionage activities were conducted before the U.S. declared war. Ludwig was imprisoned on Alcatraz Island until 1953 when he was released and then deported from the U.S.

You can read more about Kurt Ludwig and the "Joe K" spy ring on the FBI website.

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