A 1994 Presidential Commission under the direction of Department of Energy Secretary Hazel O'Leary concluded that the Central Intelligence Agency secretly funded the construction of an entire wing of Georgetown University Hospital back in the 1950s in order to study chemical, biological, and radiological warfare. This was the backbone of America's efforts in Medical Intelligence, and we may trace its beginnings in turn to William J. (Wild Bill) Donovan and the formation of the Office of Strategic Services (OSS) early in the Second World War.

Immediately following Germany's defeat, the American government commissioned Donovan and the OSS to import top Nazi scientists and technicians into the United States in an effort to claim their work as America's own, one might say as the spoils of war.

This relocation of strategically valuable Germans began as Operation Overcast, and it was personally approved by President Franklin Roosevelt. Congress, as well, was convinced that the continuing fight against Japan necessitated the rapid assimilation of men who were essentially war criminals into America's war effort.

When the inevitable question of moral implications began to be raised, the Joint Chiefs of Staff rationalized the on-going effort as "a form of exploitation of chosen rare minds whose continuing intellectual productivity we wish to use." This is tantamount to a declaration of criminal conspiracy out of concern for national security. It's typical spy-territory, par-for-the-course ends-justify-the-means bottom-line thinking. It should come as no surprise to anyone. We really, really wanted those rockets that handsome Wernher Von Braun was building. And we certainly didn't want them to go the Russians, our putative allies on the European front, but also our potential enemies in what was beginning to evolve into the so-called Cold War.

Communism was the newest threat to national security, and the government that had already unleashed the most devastating extension of failed diplomacy known to man—the Atomic Bomb—was in no position to rest upon its smoky laurels.

Project Paperclip segued nicely out of Operation Overcast, just in time to dovetail with the transitional OSS-to-CIA infatuation with unconventional methods of espionage and interrogation. The new-born CIA even went so far in 1947 as to create its own airline, cleverly christened Capital International Airways, presumably so that Very Important Passengers didn't have to be subjected to such petty annoyances as customs inspections and background checks.

Over 600 of these passengers did not specialize in rocket science, munitions, or weapons design. They were doctors. Psychiatrists. Psychological experts. You might call them people people. We were building the new CIA out of some very interesting back-stage fragments of the German war machine. Here are some of the players:

  • Hermann Becker-Freyseng, Siegfried Ruff and Konrad Schaefer were an enterprising trio of physicians who were among the twenty-three defendants in the Nuremberg War Trials "Medical Case." They had obtained from Heinrich Himmler "forty healthy test subjects" who were living in Dachau concentration camp at the time. Their study was called Thirst and Thirst Quenching in Emergency Situations at Sea, and the object, obviously, was to keep Luftwaffe pilots who'd had to ditch over water alive long enough to be rescued.

    Salt water was forced down the throats of their primarily Jewish test subjects. Some had salt water injected directly into their veins. Half the group was given a drug that was supposed to mitigate the effects of salt water on the human body. All of the subjects had liver samples extracted using long needles without anesthetic. All of the subjects died.

    Ruff was narrowly acquited of the murder of 80 inmates. Becker-Freyseng published German Aviation Medicine: World War II for the United States Air Force from his jail cell at Nuremburg, one of the few Nazi-Americans to meet justice. His book touts the intrepid team as dedicated scientists of "a free and academic character" whose lives just happened to cross paths with the Third Reich at the wrong time. His 20-year prison sentence was eventually reduced to ten. Schaeffer lived happily ever after in Texas.

    Parenthetically, an associate of these men, Sigmund Rascher, specialized in the effects of altitude on the human body. Though Rascher was executed by the Nazis before he had the opportunity to relocate to America, his "research" was no doubt something more than a footnote in the Paperclip affair.

    Eighty of Rascher's Jews, Russian POWs, and members of the Polish underground—all conveniently at hand at Dachau, thanks to Himmler—died after being kept at a simulated 68,000 feet for half an hour in Rascher's specially-constructed high-altitude test chamber. The dozens of "test subjects" who survived the cold and lack of oxygen were then drowned in icy water, simulating, once again, an aircraft's ditching at sea and instantly stopping any further metabolic processes. Rascher performed immediate dissections on the victim's brains to see how many blood vessels had ruptured because of embolism.

    Rascher made sure to film his experiments, as well as his autopsies, and he sent the movies back to Himmler with meticulous notations. "Some experiments," testimony at Nuremberg declared, "gave men such pressure in their heads that they would go mad and pull out their hair in an effort to relieve such pressure. They would tear at their heads and faces with their hands and scream in an effort to relieve pressure on their eardrums."

    My research does not mention whether the films had sound or not.


  • Theodore Benzinger was a Nazi expert on battlefield wounds. He would replicate grave war injuries by filling the wounds of women interned at Ravensbrueck concentration camp with gangrene, sawdust, mustard gas and glass. He would then proceed to treat some of the wounds with sulfa drugs, being very careful to time how long it took the untreated subjects to die. Benzinger won an American government contract at Bethesda Naval Hospital in Maryland.


  • Kurt Blome, Deputy of the Reich Health Leader (Reichsgesundheitsfuehrer) and Plenipotentiary for Cancer Research in the Reich Research Council, was in charge of the Nazi Biological Weapons division. He too was arrested and tried at Nuremberg, but the US Army and the OSS managed an acquittal by withholding evidence of his experiments on prisoners from the Polish Underground. Among other things, he deliberately infected hundreds of Poles with tuberculosis and bubonic plague. He signed a CIA contract for six thousand dollars a year and went to work at Camp King, outside Washington, D.C. where he continued to do research in chemical warfare.


  • Eugene von Haagen had been a professor at the University of Strasburg, home to many Nazi scientists. Von Haagen was co-chairman of the Biological Weapons unit with Blome, and his specialty was infecting Jews at the Natzweiler concentration camp with diseases which included spotted fever. He worked for the CIA for five years, and was in fact the man responsible for recruiting his old colleague, Blome, into Project Paperclip. Von Haagen was eventually arrested by French war crimes investigators and sentenced to twenty years in prison, something of an embarrassment to his American champions.


  • Walter Schreiber was a Major General in the Nazi Army who "had assigned doctors to experiment on concentration camp prisoners and had made funds available for such experimentation," according to the US military tribunal at Nuremberg. The prosecution believed that Schrieber would have been convicted if he had not been held by the Soviets from 1945 to 1948. Schreiber's Project Paperclip file neglected to mention this, however, and he went to work at the Air Force School of Medicine at Randolph Field in Texas. Negative publicity, instigated by columnist Drew Pearson in 1952 (who followed all of this very carefully incidentally), led to a visa and a job for Schreiber in Argentina. He flew to Buneos Aires on May 22, 1952, presumably via Capital International Airways.


  • Shiro Ishii came along a bit later, after the dust had settled uneasily in Japan. Dr. Shiro was in charge of the Japanese Imperial Army's Biological Warfare Unit. He conducted experiments on Chinese, Russian and American POWs, infecting them with tetanus, typhoid, and the plague. He exploded bombs laden with germs over prisoners who were tied to stakes, and he infected female subjects with syphilis.

    In order to avoid prosecution for war crimes, Shiro turned over ten thousand pages of "research" to the US Army in a deal brokered by General Douglas MacArthur. Subsequently, Shiro lectured at Ft. Detrick, Maryland, the Army's biological weapons research center.

They were doctors. Men of science. Inquisitive fellows with a purpose in life. Their historic involvement with the dark side of human nature may or may not have been politically motivated, perhaps they were only following orders, but it is quite enough to say that America called them her own, out of steely-eyed necessity, back in the chilly beginnings of the War that never quite boiled over into global catastrophe.



Wild Bill Donovan
Operation Overcast
burning crosses in the Fatherland
doing drugs for fun and profit
the CIA wants YOU!
When is a monkey's orgasm more than just fun and games?
The Johnny Appleseed of LSD
Sidney Gottlieb, the real-life "Q"
The Nuremberg Code

George Washington, Spymaster
the first American Intelligence failure in New York
Thomas Knowlton

Hamid Karzai
The Bureau and the Mole


Chemical and Biological Warfare: America's Hidden Arsenal, Seymour M. Hersh (Garden City, New York: Anchor Books, 1969)
The Paperclip Conspiracy: The Hunt for the Nazi Scientists, Tom Bower (Boston: Little, Brown, 1987)
Secret Agenda: The United States Government, Nazi Scientists, and Project Paperclip 1945 to 1990, Linda Hunt (New York: St. Martin's Press, 1991)
Human Experimentation: An Overview on Cold War Era Programs, Government Printing Office, 1994
Old Nazis, the New Right, and the Republican Party, Russ Bellant (Boston, MA: South End Press, 1991)

Thanks to Avalyn for comments and corrections.

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