May 05, 2022 I Nick Redfern

Operation Paperclip: Dealing With Devils

Immediately after the Second World War came to an end in July 1945, certain elements of the American military and intelligence community clandestinely sought to bring German medical and scientific communities into the United States to continue research – and, at times, highly controversial research – they had undertaken at the height of the war. It was research that included studies of human anatomy and physiology in relation to aerospace medicine, high-altitude exposure, and what was then termed “space biology.” The startling fact that some of these scientists were ardent Nazi scum, and even members of the notorious and feared SS, proved not a problem at all to the government of the time. Thus was born the beyond-notorious Operation Paperclip, so named because the recruit’s papers were paper-clipped to regular American immigration forms. In January 1994, President Bill Clinton appointed an Advisory Committee on Human Radiation Experiments (ACHRE) that was tasked with investigating unethical medical experimentation undertaken on human beings from the mid-1940s onwards. The ACHRE was quick to realize that Paperclip personnel played a considerable role in post-war human experimentation on American soil. According to an April 5, 1995 memorandum, from the Advisory Committee Staff (ACS) to the Members of the ACHRE:

“The Air Force’s School of Aviation Medicine (SAM) at Brooks Air Force Base in Texas conducted dozens of human radiation experiments during the Cold War, among them flash-blindness studies in connection with atomic weapons tests, and data gathering for total-body irradiation studies conducted in Houston. Because of the extensive postwar recruiting of German scientists for the SAM and other US defense installations, and in light of the central importance of the Nuremberg prosecutions to the Advisory Committee’s work, members of the staff have collected documentary evidence about Project Paperclip from the National Archives and Department of Defense records. “The experiments for which Nazi investigators were tried included many related to aviation research. These were mainly high-altitude exposure studies, oxygen deprivation experiments, and cold studies related to air-sea rescue operations. This information about aircrew hazards was important to both sides, and, of course, continued to be important to military organizations in the Cold War.” 

The ACHRE memorandum then detailed the background and scope of the project: “Project Paperclip was a postwar and Cold War operation carried out by the Joint Objectives Agency (JOIA) [Author’s Note: the JOIA was a special intelligence office that reported to the Director of Intelligence in the War Department, comparable to the intelligence chief of today’s Joint Chiefs of Staff.] Paperclip had two aims: to exploit German scientists for American research, and to deny these intellectual resources to the Soviet Union. At least 1,600 scientists and their dependents were recruited and brought to the United States by Paperclip and its additional projects through the early 1970s.” ACHRE continued: “In recent years, it has been alleged that many of these individuals were brought to the United States in violation of American government policy not to permit the entrance of ‘ardent Nazis’ into the country, that many were security risks, and that at least some were implicated in Holocaust-related activities.”

Wernher von Braun: An outrageous history. As this photo was taken by an employee of NASA (an arm of the U.S. Government), it is in the public domain.

“At the time of its inception,” said ACHRE, “Paperclip was a matter of controversy in the War Department, as demonstrated by a November 27, 1946 memorandum from General Groves, director of the Manhattan Project, relating to the bringing to the United States of the eminent physicist Otto Hahn. Groves wrote that the Manhattan Project: ‘…does not desire to utilize the services of foreign scientists in the United States, either directly with the Project or with any affiliated organization. This has consistently been my views [sic]. I should like to make it clear, however, that I see no objection to bringing to the United States such carefully screened physicists as would contribute materially to the welfare of the United States and would remain permanently in the United States as naturalized citizens. I strongly recommend against foreign physicists coming in contact with our atomic energy program in any way. If they are allowed to see or discuss the work of the Project the security of our information would get out of control.’”

The Advisory Committee Staff also revealed: “A number of military research sites recruited Paperclip scientists with backgrounds in aero-medicine, radiobiology and ophthalmology. These institutions included the SAM, where radiation experiments were conducted, and other military sites, particularly the Edgewood Arsenal of the Army’s Chemical Corps. “The portfolio of experiments at the SAM was one that would particularly benefit from the Paperclip recruits. Experiments there included total-body irradiation, space medicine and biology studies, and flash-blindness studies. Herbert Gerstner, a principal investigator in TBI experiments at the SAM, was acting director of the Institute of Physiology at the University of Leipzig: he became a radiobiologist at the SAM. “The Air Force Surgeon General and SAM officials welcomed the Paperclip scientists. In March 1951, the school’s Commandant, O.O. Benson Jr., wrote to the Surgeon General to seek more…‘…first class scientists and highly qualified technologists from Germany. The first group of Paperclip personnel contained a number of scientists that have proved to be of real value to the Air Force. The weaker and less gifted ones have been culled to a considerable extent. The second group reporting here in 1949 were, in general, less competent than the original Paperclip personnel, and culling process will again be in order.’

“General Benson’s adjutant solicited resumes from a Paperclip list, including a number of radiation biology and physics specialists. The qualifications of a few scientists were said to be known, so curricula vitae were waived. The adjutant wrote, also in March 1951: ‘In order to systematically benefit from this program this headquarters believes that the employment of competent personnel who fit into our research program is a most important consideration.’” ACHRE then addressed the issues of (a) the way in which a race began between the United States and the Soviet Union to acquire the services of the German scientific and medical communities, post-1945; and (b) the extent to which some of the Paperclip scientists had been supporters of the Nazi regime: "Official U.S. government policy was to avoid recruitment of “ardent Nazis,” it was stated. However, this was qualified by the following:  “Many of the Paperclip scientists were members of Nazi organizations of one sort of another. The documentary record indicates, however, that many claimed inactive status or membership that was a formality, according to files in the National Archives.” Research undertaken by the ACS uncovered the fact that much pressure was exerted in an attempt to ensure that Paperclip succeeded. For example, an April 27, 1948 memorandum from the director of the Joint Intelligence Objectives Agency, Navy Captain Bosquet N. Wev, to the Pentagon’s Director of Intelligence states: “Security investigations conducted by the military have disclosed the fact that the majority of German scientists were members of either the Nazi Party or one or more of its affiliates. These investigations disclose further that with a very few exceptions, such membership was due to exigencies which influenced the lives of every citizen of Germany at that time.” 

Wev was critical of over-scrupulous investigations by the Department of Justice and other agencies as reflecting security concerns no longer relevant with the defeat of Germany, and “biased considerations” about the nature of his recruits’ fascist allegiances. The possibility of scientists being won to the Soviet side in the Cold War was, according to Captain Wev, the highest consideration. In a March 1948 letter to the State Department, Wev assessed the prevailing view in the government: “Responsible officials…have expressed opinions to the effect that, in so far as German scientists are concerned, Nazism no longer should be a serious consideration from a viewpoint of national security when the far greater threat of Communism is now jeopardizing the entire world. I strongly concur in this opinion and consider it a most sound and practical view, which must certainly be taken if we are to face the situation confronting us with even an iota of realism. To continue to treat Nazi affiliations as significant considerations has been phrased as ‘beating a dead Nazi horse.’”

The Committee then turned its attention to two controversial figures in this particularly notorious saga. The first was Hubertus Strughold. Born in Germany in 1898, Strughold obtained a Ph.D. in Biochemistry in 1922, an M.D. in Sensory Physiology in 1923 and between 1929 and 1935 served as Director of the Aeromedical Research Institute, Berlin. In 1947, as a result of Project Paperclip’s actions, Strughold joined the staff of the Air Force’s School of Aviation Medicine at Randolph Field, Texas; and in 1949 he was named head of the then-newly-formed Department of Space Medicine at the School – where, according to documentation uncovered by the ACHRE, he conducted research into “effects of high speed;” “lack of oxygen;” “decompression;” “effects of ultra-violet rays;” “space cabin simulator for testing humans;” “weightlessness;” and “visual disturbances.” Strughold was naturalized as an American citizen in 1956 and, four years later, became Chair of the Advanced Studies Group, Aerospace Medical Center at Brooks Air Force Base. Strughold - whose awards and honors included the USAF Exceptional Civilian Service Award and the Theodore C. Lyster Award of the Aerospace Medical Association - retired in 1968. And, as the Advisory Committee Staff stated:

“Perhaps the most prominent of the Paperclip physicians was Hubertus Strughold, called ‘the father of space medicine’ and for whom the Aeromedical Library at the USAF School of Aerospace Medicine was named in 1977. During the War, he was director of the Luftwaffe’s aeromedical institute; a Strughold staff member was acquitted at Nuremberg on the grounds that the physician’s Dachau laboratory was not the site of nefarious experiments. “Strughold had a long career at the SAM, including the recruitment of other Paperclip scientists in Germany. His background was the subject of public controversy in the United States. He denied involvements with Nazi experiments and told reporters in this country that his life had been in danger from the Nazis. A citizen for 30 years before his death in 1986, his many honors included an American Award from the Daughters of the American Revolution. “An April 1947 intelligence report on Strughold states: ‘[H]is successful career under Hitler would seem to indicate that he must be in full accord with Nazism.’ However, Strughold’s colleagues in Germany and those with whom he had worked briefly in the United States on fellowships described him as politically indifferent or anti-Nazi.

“In his application to reside in this country, he declared: ‘Further, the United States is the only country of liberty which is able to maintain this liberty and the thousand-year-old culture and western civilization, and it is my intention to support the United States in this task, which is in danger now, with all my scientific abilities and experience.'  “In a 1952 civil service form, Strughold was asked if he had ever been a member of a fascist organization. His answer: ‘Not in my opinion.’ His references therein included the Surgeon General of the Air Force, the director of research at the Lovelace Foundation in New Mexico, and a colleague from the Mayo Clinic. In September 1948, Strughold was granted a security clearance from the Joint Intelligence Objectives Agency director, Captain Wev, who in the previous March had written to the Department of State protesting the difficulty of completing immigration procedures for Paperclip recruits.” The second character of controversy was one who, incredibly, rose to a position of major significance within NASA. Werner von Braun was born in Wirsitz, Germany, on March 23, 1912 and earned his bachelor’s degree at the age of twenty from the University of Berlin, where he also received his doctorate in physics in 1934. Between 1932 and 1937, von Braun was employed by the German Ordnance Department and became technical director of the Peenemuende Rocket Center in 1937, where the V-2 rocket was developed.

(Nick Redfern) It was at White Sands where some of the Operation Paperclip experiments went ahead

Von Braun came to the United States in September 1945 under contract with the Army Ordnance Corps as part of Paperclip and worked on high altitude firings of captured V-2 rockets at the White Sands Proving Ground, until he became project director of the Ordnance Research and Development Division Sub-Office at Fort Bliss, Texas. On October 28, 1949, the Secretary of the Army approved the transfer of the Fort Bliss group to Redstone Arsenal; and after his arrival in Huntsville in April 1950, von Braun was appointed Director of Development Operations. Major development projects under von Braun’s technical direction included the Redstone rocket, the Jupiter Intermediate Range Ballistic Missile, and the Pershing missile. He and his team of German scientists and engineers were also responsible for developing the Jupiter C Reentry Test Missile and launching the Free World’s first scientific earth satellite, Explorer 1.

On July 1, 1960, von Braun and his team were transferred to the National Aeronautics and Space Administration and became the nucleus of the George C. Marshall Space Flight Center at Redstone Arsenal. He served as Director of the Marshall Center until February 1970 when he moved to NASA Headquarters to serve as Deputy Associate Administrator. On 1 July 1972, von Braun left NASA to become Vice President of Engineering and Development for Fairchild Industries in Germantown, Maryland and was inducted into the Ordnance Corps Hall of Fame in 1973. Von Braun retired in January 1977 due to ill health and died on June 16, 1977. It was not a bad life for the “former” Nazi. And it was a life that never would have existed had it not been for the creation of Paperclip, the ultimate Faustian pact. The final word on this matter goes to the ACS, who noted in its final report on Paperclip and its investigations of it activities: “The staff believes that this trail should be followed with more research before conclusions can be drawn about the Paperclip scientists and human radiation experiments. That the standard for immigration was ‘not an ardent Nazi’ is troubling; in Strughold’s case, investigators had specifically questioned his credentials for ‘denazification.’ It is possible that still-classified intelligence documents could shed further light on these connections [italics mine].” In light of that final sentence from the committee, it seems the story is not yet over.

Nick Redfern

Nick Redfern works full time as a writer, lecturer, and journalist. He writes about a wide range of unsolved mysteries, including Bigfoot, UFOs, the Loch Ness Monster, alien encounters, and government conspiracies. Nick has written 41 books, writes for Mysterious Universe and has appeared on numerous television shows on the The History Channel, National Geographic Channel and SyFy Channel.

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