Critics doubt latest US version of rocket scientist's wartime role
About 150 miles south of Hannover, West Germany, is the site of an old mine. During World War II the Germans used civilian and military prisoners there as slave labor to build rockets and other war material. These activities have become a central issue in an expanding federal investigation of German rocket scientists brought to the United States just after the war to help the US military develop its missile program. In addition, these scientists developed a series of rockets for space research, including the Saturn V, which put the first human on the moon.
The Justice Department's Office of Special Investigations (OSI), reopening files closed for nearly 40 years, contends that at least one of the key members of the German rocket team in the US, Arthur Rudolph, committed war crimes in that mine using slave labor. Two other members of the team are also under investigation.
A Justice Department official cites ``witnesses all over the world'' who could testify against Dr. Rudolph if the issue comes to trial -- which it may not. Rudolph now lives in West Germany. In a deal with the Justice Department, he gave up his US citizenship last year and returned to West Germany, where he has not been granted citizenship. The West German government has formally protested to the US the circumstances of his arrival in that country, according to a State Department spokesperson.
The government's case against Rudolph is coming under increasing criticism from several sources: a former high-ranking US military officer who worked with the German rocket team; a German-American professor contacting wartime witnesses in the US and Germany; a survivor of the slave labor mine where Rudolph worked; and from some of Rudolph's former colleagues from his days in Huntsville, where the German scientists did much of their rocket building.
Critics charge that the OSI is trying to expand the definition of war crimes beyond the one used just after World War II. They contend that people like Rudolph, a civilian engineer, were under Nazi SS orders to use slave labor but did not recruit the laborers. The former was never judged a war crime, while recruitment was, the critics say.
One version of events has Rudolph being kind to prisoners; the other has him being cruel, working them to death.
``Requisition and conscription [of slave labor] are war crimes,'' says Robert Wolfe, chief of the National Archives branch that holds war-crime and other World War II records. And, he says, ``it is against the criminal laws of all civilized nations to force someone to work.''
But did Rudolph's actions in the tunnel factory include ``requisition and conscription'' of slave labor? The OSI says yes; his defenders say no.
With the Allies bombing German factories, the Germans chose the mine as a safer place to build V-2 rockets and other war supplies. It became known as Mittelwerk, or Central Work. The tunnels were dusty and humid. Slave labor -- prisoners from several countries kept in nearby concentration camps -- were used to expand the tunnels and build the war items, including the rockets. Many prisoners died from the harsh conditions and long hours of forced work.
``As director of operations, he [Rudolph] was responsible for utilization, recruitment, and exploitation of slave labor. It's a war crime and a crime against humanity . . . to enslave them,'' says OSI director Neal Sher. ``For him to requisition slave labor is clearly a war crime.''
Regarding earlier postwar US checks into Rudolph's records, ``clearly his role regarding slave labor wasn't pursued vigorously,'' Mr. Sher says. He adds that one witness has testified that Rudolph ``knew about and may have signed off'' on reports about suspected sabotage in his area. Sher concedes, however: ``I don't know who signed them [sabotage reports] and who they went to.''
Sabotage reports were important: Suspected saboteurs were hanged, says Sher. When there was a hanging, ``Rudolf made people watch,'' Sher contends. Rudolph's defenders say the SS made everyone watch, including civilians like Rudolph.
Allan Kiron, of Washington, D.C., says he was a Polish slave laborer in Mittelwerk whose work took him to all parts of the tunnels, including the V-2 area. Speaking of Mittelwerk in general, he said: ``You were starved and beaten to death.'' He called it ``a living hell.''
He said he once saw Rudolf gesturing to a group of prisoners and heard him say the word ``rush.'' As soon as Rudolph left the scene, Mr. Kiron recalls, the SS made the prisoners do the work there in ``double time.'' Kiron adds: ``Rudolf was responsible for running the prisoners to death. I'd say he was responsible for the death of hundreds of people.''
But Rudolph's defenders paint a very different picture. In a May 20, 1985, letter to President Reagan, Mittelwerk survivor Frank Barwacz, of Bensenville, Ill., wrote: ``I never heard or saw that any German civilian, from the top to the bottom, any German civilian hurt us prisoners, that is the reason why my heart is crying out loudly to you, Mr. President, to help me that I could prove that Mr. [sic] Dr. Arthur Rudolph is innocent.''
A copy of his letter was supplied by Walter Haeussermann, a member of the German rocket team in Huntsville who is not under OSI investigation.
The OSI case against Rudolph includes a statement by a German civilian worker linking Rudloph to sabotage reports provided to the SS. The name of the witness has not been released. But the witness is Hanne-Lore Bannasch Ranft, according to researcher Friedwardt Winterberg. He has researched US and German files and says found a duplicate of the document the OSI has, but with the name not blanked out.
Dr. Winterberg has obtained from the witness a recent statement that her post-World War II testimony was changed in translation at that time. She only recently saw the transcript and now says a mistake was made, according to Winterberg. The witness, who worked as a civilian in a Mittelwerk office, claimed in her sworn statement in Weilheim, West Germany, Feb. 25, 1985, that the OSI investigation was ``very sloppy and erroneous. . . . Based on all this, I cannot help but believe they were not after the t ruth but only wanted to find someone guilty and after 40 years.''
A copy of her statement was provided by Frederick I. Ordway III, co-author of ``The Rocket Team,'' a book about the German scientists, based in part on extensive research in the National Archives. Mr. Ordway was a consultant to the Army Ballistic Missile Agency in Huntsville and later an employee of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration.
Winterberg, reached in Germany, is on leave from the University of Nevada, where he specializes in theoretical physics. He says he has located 20 witnesses, including some Mittelwerk survivors, who could testify on Rudolph's behalf. Winterberg calls the OSI charges against Rudolph ``completely false and untrue.''
On the key OSI charge that Rudolph directed slave labor, OSI director Sher says Rudolph's ``complete and ultimate responsibility for the production'' of the V-2 rockets in the tunnel factory meant he was in charge of the slave labor. He says Rudolph sat in on SS meetings ``where constantly procuring slave labor'' was a topic.
Winterberg says, ``Rudolph never employed slave labor. He was an employee, too.''
Ordway points out that the Rudolph's boss at Mittelwerk, Georg Rickhey, was tried by the US military and found not guilty on all charges.
Ordway says Rudolph ``used'' slave laborers in his work in charge of the V-2 production. ``He admitted that all along,'' he says of Rudolph. But the laborers were ``rounded up and run by the SS,'' he says. Rudolph was ``ordered'' to work at Mittelwerk, he adds.
``We had to work with slave labor, too,'' says Karl Heimburg, a member of the German rocket team here. ``What could I do about it?'' Mr. Heimburg worked on the testing of rockets and says he was only at Mittelwerk one day toward the end of the war. ``All the prisoners were under supervision of the SS,'' he says of the widespread use of slave labor in Germany during the war.
``We were first engineers; we did our job and we did it well,'' says Bernhard Tessmann, another German scientist here. He headed a test facility during the war.
``You could not say anything constructively,'' says Heimburg. ``Someone was behind you, listening,'' says Mr. Tessmann, adding that Rudolph was ordered to go to Mittelwerk and might have been killed if he refused.
They said up to 12 other members of the German rocket team here worked at Mittelwerk at one point or another, and that one team member was in the SS because he wanted to learn to fly. The German rocket team's leader, the late Werhner von Braun, ``was a member of the SS,'' says Heimburg, adding that von Braun joined because he was offered money for his scientific work.
Regarding alleged mistreatment of prisoners by the civilian scientists, Ordway says: ``I have not seen any evidence that Rudolph or any German civilian had anything to do with any punishment of slave laborers.''
OSI director Sher says, ``The SS -- they were doing a lot of the heavy-handed stuff.'' But he also contends that ``civilians were mistreating slave labor.''
Sher did not name any witnesses or specific examples. He said part of the ``deal'' the OSI made with Rudolph was to not go public in exchange for Rudolph leaving the US and giving up his citizenship.
The OSI may soon get a chance to defend its probe of the German rocket team. A House Judiciary subcommittee is planning hearings in October to examine the issue of prosecution of alleged former Nazis in the US, a subcommittee staff member says. And the staff of the Senate Judiciary Committee plans to ``look at a full range of issues'' involving the OSI, including their methods of investigation, says a committee spokesman.
Last of two articles. The first one ran Sept. 3.