Joe Schmidt, Part I.

March 23, 1984. Three articles in the Friday edition of the Edmonton Journal. ‘Cold Lake’s lone-wolf served on Hitlers terror squad;’ ‘Cold Lake’s ‘Nazi Spy’ was just plain Joe;’ and  ‘Schmidt a star pupil in Hitlers school for saboteurs. 

jsarticle

Just who is the man behind the mask?

Fast forward 33 years, I’m in the process of surveying a file of clipped newspaper articles to do with Cold Lake, Alberta,  dating back near a century, for another project.  These ones stand out in the file and with a keen interest for local and military history I’m immediately caught by the story.

In June of 1942, when the outcome of the Second World War was still years away, and Nazi Germany was still at the height of its power, Hitler’s war machine touched every quadrant of the globe.

Two teams of Nazi saboteurs had been apprehended in America. They had been inserted via u-boat off the eastern seaboard of the continent, one team of four was spotted by a lone US Coast Guard foot patrol, after landing on a Long Island beach in the foggy dark. A FBI manhunt ensued after the nervous young coast guardsman reported to his superiors how he was threatened and bribed by suspected Nazi’s infiltrators whom he had prudently decided to let slip off into the night.  Another team landed off the coast of Florida with more success. The teams official missions were to sow terror, cripple morale, and sabotage the Allied war machine in the heartland of its newest member, the United States of America.

Despite the eventual betrayal, capture and ongoing trial of the saboteurs in a US military court, a continent wide manhunt was on for three others. The articles described a newsreel announcement in a small town theatre, one of the three was Joe Schmidt, a well known, long time resident of Cold Lake, Alberta, Canada. The local connection to the Nazi plot was irresistible, so I decided to dig a bit.

Wanting to see what popped up, I googled Operation Pastorius. Perhaps I could find some confirmation of what the newspaper articles asserted. After all, a “probe” had been conducted and extensive background information was combined with first hand accounts of Schmidt from those who knew him during his time as a homesteader, businessman, and resident of Alberta’s hard northern country.

I could not find a mention of Joe Schmidt at first. It seemed that most of what had to be said about Pastorius concerned only the botched insertion and ultimate betrayal of the entire mission to the FBI by its leading member, George Dasch. Also given attention is the subsequent arrest, trial, and execution of all the Pastorius operatives, except for George Dasch and Peter Burger.

I decided to enquire a little deeper and added a bit about Nazi saboteurs and manhunts into my search. The first hit was to a stock copy of the newsreel footage mentioned in the articles .And now Joe Schmidt had a face. The story in the article became more real.

From there I went to the references section on the Wikipedia page and by investigating those sources I finally found an account of Pastorius which included Joe Schmidt.md21085336639 The book They Came Here to Kill was written in 1961, by Eugene Rachlis.  Its available online and is linked below.  It’s an account of Operation Pastorius which includes the planning and organization of the mission, something of its internal dynamics and interpersonal relationships, as well as its ultimate failure.

Reading through Rachlis’ book, picking out references to Joe Schmidt, a similrity with the newspaper articles became impossible to ignore. The way Schmidts training was described, the details, even turns of phrase, are eerily similar. Without actually confirming it, I’d feel confident in saying that the “Journal probe” that was conducted for the articles amounted to a reading of this book.

Interesting for what it conveyed to readers of the Edmonton Journal in 1984 about a local connection to Operation Pastorius, a thrilling historical footnote; the Journal articles are also interesting in and of themselves. Those first hand accounts of Schmidt are fascinating for what they tell us about him, and attitudes towards him by his contemporaries in the 1930’s and ’40’s,  and also by the standards of 1984. The account of Schmidt in They Came to Kill, paints a very different picture to the one rendered in the Journal, despite the book having been written some twenty years earlier.  Reading both a picture emerges which fires the imagination, at the same time that it leaves a sense of discomfort.

Excerpt from Part II of Joe Schmidt.

…He was well liked and socialized regularly at the local “beer parlour.” In colourful early twentieth century language, the local schoolteacher remembered Joe as a “hail and well met fellow.” Joe went to the community dances where he would act as a bouncer if anyone ever got rowdy. It was there that he met a woman, also from Germany, and married her. In 1935 he had “[taken] out Canadian citizenship papers.” To all appearances he seemed to be putting down roots. Few people knew yet of his political convictions, or how deeply he held them…

read part II.

Reference material

“Cold Lake’s ‘Nazi Spy’ was just plain Joe,” etc, by Bob Gilmour.
Edmonton Journal March 23, 1984
from the Clipping File at City of Edmonton Archives

Operation Pastorius at Wikipedia

Link to Manhunt Video at GettyImages.ca

They Came to Kill, by Eugene Rachlis

Operation Pastorius at Damn Interesting

The Year of the Alaska Highway

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About Kevin D. Bell

Painter, writer, amateur historian.
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