In late 1941 Joe Schmidt, just recently an esteemed resident of Cold Lake, Alberta, was hand picked by the Nazi’s to be a saboteur as part of Operation Pastorius, the Nazi attack on America. He was considered a promising student, and because of his looks, and the fact that he could affect a Swedish accent when he spoke English, he took the alias Jerry Swenson. He was assigned to the first team which was led by George Dasch. Dasch had also been hand picked by Walter Kappe, the recruiter and manager of the project.
Training was conducted under the guidance and watchful eye of the German military at a property outside of Berlin, known as Quenz Lake. The sprawling manor had been appropriated for use by the Abwehr, German military intelligence, from a wealthy shoe manufacturer who was Jewish. The men would live and train together for about six weeks, on a course designed with the intent of “taking the haphazard out of sabotage.”
As well as training in explosives and incendiaries, their manufacture and use[ they learnt techniques for creating false identities. It was imperative that they “fit in” if their mission was to succeed. Pastorius consisted of a targeted campaign of sabotage against a series of strategic targets, it was no “one and done” op. Important to this end they learnt the US national anthem and, at Dasch’s suggestion, Stephen Foster songs (perhaps Oh Suzanna, or Camptown Races).
Schmidt is described in They Came to Kill as a “lone wolf” and a “freebooter by conviction.” Phrases which appear in the articles about him in the March 23, 1984 edition of the Edmonton Journal, either directly or in such sentences as, “a confirmed freebooter from northeast Alberta, he wasn’t one to take orders.” Less florid, Eugene Rachlis in his well researched book describes Schmidt as someone who “considered himself to be a leader of men,”and who never formed connections with his Pastorius team. Such singalongs for a man like Schmidt must have seemed absurd.
Significantly, he actively undermined Dasch as team leader every chance he could get. At one point he told fellow team member Peter Burger (the “most guarded and disciplined member of the team,”) how “Dasch would have to be killed in the United States if he did not show that he was more than just a favorite of Kappe’s.” More threats of violence from Joe, like the one in Cold Lake a couple of short years previous. Dasch would have to watch his back with Joe around.
And Dasch would prove to be more than the boss’s pet. Just not in the way anyone expected. Fortunately Joe would not be there to do anything about it. He was sidelined when the teams arrived in Lorient, France, to board the u-boats. He was sick, and announced that he didn’t think he should be on a u-boat in his condition. Instead, he was hospitalised for gonorrhoea. He’d contracted it while on leave before the mission, and it had advanced to the point where he had become noticeably ill. The other members openly supposed amongst themselves that he had contracted the disease purposefully. Possibly, they assumed, Schmidt may have thought he could gain a leadership position on the next wave of Pastorius Operatives to be sent to North America. Such was their estimation of him. In retrospect, it was a change in plans that may have determined the course of the war.
The folks back in Cold Lake Alberta, seemingly light years away from the action, had been shocked by Joe’s outburst and eventual disappearance. Possibly even more so by the news of the manhunt for Joe, “Everybody thought he was an ideal citizen.” Surprised by the two faces of Joe Schmidt at the time, it must have all begun to make sense in the flickering light of the newsreel. Other things factored into it, aside from the outburst, in retrospect. Maybe there wasn’t as much surprise as there was embarrassment in the theatre that summer afternoon in 1942.
Given the realization that their “ideal citizen” had turned out to be the enemy other things that may once have been little more than noteworthy became sinister. That private room in the back of the cabin he had built after getting married. The one in which he kept a wireless transmitter. He would never say much about it, except that it was expensive.
Before the war it might have been little more than a curiosity. Joe was enterprising, and young men with disposable income have been known to spend on hobbies and toys of an expensive character. Plus he and his wife both were born in Germany, such a device would be handy for keeping in touch with his wifes relatives in Saskatchewan and other Germans on western Canada’s spartan northern frontier. Considering all this made the German he spoke over the wireless unremarkable. Before the war that is.
Also, pro Nazi organizations had been active since the early 1930’s in North America. The German American Bund was the best known, and it was at the height of its power in the last half of the 193o’s, when Joe was actively trucking fish around western Canada and into the US. The schoolteacher in Cold Lake, Alberta remembered the existence of a “Nazi cell west of town” when interviewed for the Edmonton Journal in 1984, that he supposed Joe must have organized. Others remembered constant late night trips across the lake. Joe the ideal was being turned into Joe the legend.
Had Joe been transmitting information that would make its way back to Berlin before he fled? Had he been training in Germany to return to the area in order to conduct a clandestine war of sabotage and terror? As regards the latter, history shows that he did indeed train to be a saboteur, and that he was very skilled at it. As for the former, while doubtful that he transmitted strategic information to Berlin , it is not in doubt that Joe Schmidt was very well acquainted with a part of North America that was becoming vital to the Allied war effort.
Within a few hundred kilometres of where Joe was transmitting from lay the city of Edmonton. With a population of around 90,000 at the time, the young city was finding itself at the centre of the war effort. It was key to the British Empire’s air forces ability to fight, and under the British Commonwealth Air Training Plan thousands of pilots and air crew from around the Commonwealth passed through Edmonton enroute to the fight. The United States Air Force also maintained a significant presence in the region starting in 1942. The city was a launch pad for the defence of Alaska, and had become a critical hub for the US,
“Edmonton became the staging area for three giant projects: the Alaska Highway or Alcan all-weather supply route, the Canol Pipeline to fuel the war effort from Norman Wells to Alaska, and the Northwest Staging Route plan of ten all-weather airports. In all, over 10,000 U.S. soldiers and 38,000 American civilians travelled to the Northwest or resided in Edmonton from early 1942 to the end of the war.”
The Year of the Alaska Highway
As the war progressed Edmonton also became a key transportation hub for war material headed to the Soviet Union, under the American Lend Lease program.
By the time Pastorius was set to kick off Joe’s old stomping ground had become a perfect spot to interfere with and spy on the Allied war effort.
In fact, while training in Germany Schmidt had not only been an apt pupil, but he had shown initiative in suggesting tactics and targets. Schmidt put forward a plan to return to Alberta alone and begin a campaign of wild fires. His intent could only have been sabotage in a region that was strategically important to both the US and the British. If German Military Intelligence was ignorant of the value of potential targets in frontier reaches of the northern part of the continent, Schmidt certainly would not have been. As it turned out, however, Kappe rejected Joe’s plan as impractical, it did not reach senior levels of the Abwehr, let alone the high command, for consideration. Given the devastation and disruption such wildfires can cause, as evidenced by the north Alberta wildfires of 2016, the lack of imagination on the part of Walter Kappe is something to be thankful of.
The first wave of Pastorious teams were a disaster for the Nazis. As it turns out, Neither Dasch nor Burger had ever intended to follow through with the mission. Dasch betrayed the whole thing himself (though with the collusion of Schmidt’s confidant Peter Burger) by showing up at FBI headquarters with a briefcase full of the cash meant to fund the sabotage campaign. All of both teams members were arrested, examined and executed by electric chair in Washington DC. All except Dasch and Burger, that is. Back in Europe, Schmidt would never get the chance to test Dasch, nor would he be set loose on his former home. The first Pastorius teams were the last. The discovery of the Nazi operatives served to justify a massive expansion of state surveillance and powers of arrest across North America, Hitler cancelled Operation Pastorius. The manhunt was on for Schmidt and two others, but no credible sightings were ever made. His Canadian citizenship was cancelled in 1943.
The jarring difference in the image of Joe Schmidt between the articles in the Edmonton Journal and the book by Eugene Rachlis is made more disturbing by the apparent use of the book as source material for the articles. While I have to admit that I have made my own assumptions, and wouldn’t claim to be anything but an interested bystander with an opinion, the picture of Joe Schmidt offered in the articles is a sanitized version of a terrible story.
One passage from They Came to Kill, briefly repeated in the articles, portrays (perhaps unfairly, but probably not given what we know from the rest of the text), of a Joe Schmidt absent from the newspaper articles. When in Germany Joe pled poverty. His recruiters took him to a building in northwest Berlin,
“After Kappe identified himself to an officer in charge, he and Schmidt were shown into a vast warehouse with rack after rack of overcoats, raincoats, suits, shirts, shoes, hats and underwear. Every size was available, and though the clothes showed signs of use they had been cleaned and pressed. Schmidt’s choice was from clothing bearing the labels of Czech, Polish, Norwegian, Dutch and French manufacturers. He was not likely to have been concerned about the of the labels or to have given thought to the thousands of dead … in conquered nations who had once these clothes; he merely selected what he needed,lingering over color and size, and left the warehouse pleased at his new attire.”
The veneer of mythology which transforms Joe into a mysterious adventurer and herculean man of action gives way to a more honest picture in the light of context. The fact that he was m0re than willing to sell poison in order to make a buck tells us as much about Joe as does any first hand account from those who considered him a friend. By today’s standards, if not those of 1984 when the articles were written, or those of the 1930’s when the people of Cold Lake first saw Joe as their ideal, Joe Schmidt is a dark episode in the history 0f Alberta.
Untold numbers of stories demanding a second look lurk within the Clipping File. After taking a longer look at Joe’s story, and finding out more than just what the newspaper told me, Joe’s story still makes great material for an active imagination. Perhaps even more so now. Who knows what would have happened if things had happened slightly differently. What if Schmidt hadn’t contracted gonorrhea, and had launched with Dasch’s team? Or if there had been a second wave? An alternate history might have unfolded. Would Joe have let Dasch and Burger betray their Nazi masters in Germany? Perhaps he would have killed Dasch and taken control himself. Probably the “lone wolf” would have abandoned the rest of the team to its fate, in order to to go it alone, wreaking havoc for Hitler in the Canadian North- West. Who knows, it appears he was a man capable of anything.
The last that Joe was heard of by Cold Lake residents was from government sources. It was reported in the beginning of December 1945 that Joe Schmidt was in a Soviet prisoner of war camp. Presumably upon recovering from his bout of gonorrhea he was sent to fight on the eastern front, another terrible adventure for Joe Schmidt.
The transcript of the US Military tribunal (linked below) contains additional 1st hand reports about Schmidt from George Dasch. Dasch, the object of Schmidt’s death threat to Peter Burger, and the man that Schmidt constantly sought to undermine, testified that he and Schmidt, “…[sat] on a park bench right opposite station. We spoke about international politics which led up to the war, etc., and there he made the further statement it is his since belief that if the Germans are unable to line up with the rest of the world, they will be destroyed.” and that the Schmidt felt his surroundings to be “too Nazi.” Perhaps giving a reason to think that Joe Schmidt, in regards to his political allegiances, was more sympathetic than I have portrayed. The context of the comment is, however, missing from Dasch’s testimony. Dasch does volunteer that, “I was practically tempted to help him with that way of reasoning.” I find Dasch is, at best, unreliable.
There are other resources on Pastorius I haven’t bothered to look at. I’m not sure how much of Joe Schmidt has made it into them. More information about the life and times of Joe Schmidt would obviously paint a fuller picture of him.
“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
Transcript of Proceedings before the Military Commission to Try Persons Charged with Offenses against the Law of War and the Articles of War, Washington D.C., July 8 to July 31, 1942 at University of Minnesota