A Nazi in Ogdensburg
by Jeff Macharyas
“There was a big building up there, a short distance away. Lots of windows and lots of lights. I could see iron bars on the windows. It looked like, perhaps, it was a prison.”
—Luftwaffe Oberleutnant Baron Franz Xaver von Werra describing the St. Lawrence State Hospital after his arrest.
Franz Xaver von Werra was born on July 13, 1914, in Leuk, canton of Valais, Switzerland. Franz was born to modest means. His father, Leo Freiherr von Werra, went bankrupt and Franz, along with his sister, went to live with family friend, Louise Carl von Haber, who brought the children up with wealth and education. They were not told of their true lineage.
In 1936, Franz joined the Luftwaffe, commissioned a Leutnant. He served in the French campaign and was often photographed with his pet lion, Simba, who became the unit’s mascot. He scored several victories in England and France, but on September 5, 1940, Franz was shot down over Kent, England. After his capture by an Army cook, Franz was to become a prisoner of war and make his first escape attempt. His second attempt occurred on October 7, 1940 while imprisoned in the London area. He remained free for five days before being recaputred. He was then sent to Derbyshire, where he would make another attempt on December 20, 1940. He made it to the cockpit of a plane at an RAF base near Nottingham, before a suspicious squadron leader arrested him a gunpoint at the controls of the plane.
On January 10, 1941, von Werra was sent to Canada on the Duchess of York, along with 1,010 other captured German flyers and submariners. The ship docked at Halifax, Nova Scotia on January 23, 1941 and von Werra was loaded onto a prison train destined for Neys Camp 100, Thunder Bay, Ontario. Near Smiths Falls, Ontario, fifty miles from the U.S. border near Ogdensburg, where von Werra made his final escape.
The Escaped Nazi
“The window is frozen shut. I’ll need some help thawing it to get it opened,” von Werra said to fellow prisoner Walter Manhardt.
As the prison train made its way from Montreal to Thunder Bay, von Werra knew his best chance would be somewhere near Ottawa—and near the U.S. border at Ogdensburg. He had been to North America years earlier as a merchant seaman and his photographic memory for geography proved invaluable.
The train slowed for its approach into the station. von Werra lowered the only ice-free window and dove head first out the window as Manhardt held a blanket up to shield him. He landed in waist-deep snow, uninjured, and watched the train move off into the distance.
He walked towards the lights of a town and got his bearings.
That night, the escaped Nazi prisoner stayed in a fine hotel. Speaking in French, he asked a policeman for directions to Ottawa. von Werra made his way over the bridge, walking right past Parliament and the capital of an enemy state. Later, von Werra would be asked if he saw any soldiers or policemen. “Lots of the them! Fine looking men at that!” the Nazi aviator would exclaim.
“Bonjour,” von Werra said to the service station attendant in impeccable French. “I’d like to purchase a map of the area.” von Werra handed the attendant a few coins and studied the map. Just as he thought, he was only 90 kilometers from Johnstown, Ontario and just across the St. Lawrence River was Ogdensburg, in the United States.
Germany had been at war with Canada since September 1939. But, in January 1941, the United States was still another eleven months from joining in the hostilities. He knew the Americans would not hold him as a prisoner of war and he’d be able to return to the fight back home.
von Werra began walking the dark road east. “Bonjour,” von Werra called to a man with a sled.
“Uh, hello,” the man replied.
von Werra now had to speak in English, which was just as good as his French. “I’m new in the area and looking for employment in Prescott, could you assist me in getting there?” von Werra asked.
“I can pull you on my sled for a few miles, but that is all,” the man replied.
von Werra was getting closer to his destination and when he neared the road that led back to Montreal just on the western side of the St. Lawrence River, he knew he was close. It was getting light and he decided to take refuge in a boathouse near the river until nightfall to avoid detection.
He could see that the river was frozen and just over on the other side he could see the lights of what must be Ogdensburg.
As evening fell, he began walking towards freedom. The ice was thick and he was able to make it quite a distance, but then open, free-flowing water appeared. von Werra backtracked to the boathouse. There were several rowboats, but no oars. He would have to paddle the boat with his hands if he was to escape. von Werra pulled the boat into the frigid St. Lawrence and plunged his hands into the icy water and began to paddle.
With his hands and ears stinging form frostbite, von Werra pulled himself onto shore near a large building. There was a car nearby and he studied the license plate. 7P55-02. “Hmm.” At the bottom of the orange plate in black letters: NY 41. “Ah, this must be New York!”
von Werra began walking in the direction of the lights of the city. Ogdensburg, then New York City and then back to Germany. He only walked a short distance, when a car approached him. The driver lowered the window and looked at the half-frozen man wandering around the grounds of the State Hospital in sub-zero weather.
“Are you lost, sir? May I offer you a ride?” Allan Crites, owner of Crites Service Station on Isabella Street asked von Werra.
“Yes,” he replied in his perfect English, but with just a slight inflection. “I am new in Ogdensburg and would like to find a hotel.”
“Get in and I’ll take you into town,” Crites suggested.
“Uhhh, I shall just ride along on your running boards,” von Werra replied.
Crites could not quite make out what was with this man. He had some kind of accent, but not Canadian. After driving around town, offering von Werra suggestions, von Werra thanked Crites and jumped off the car at the corner of Paterson and Ford Streets. “Thank you, sir, I shall go from here,” von Werra said crisply to Crites.
“Sergeant O’Leary?” Crites addressed the desk sergeant at Ogdensburg Police Station.
“Mr. Crites? Trouble at the service station?”
“Uh, no, but sometng odd. I was returning to town and as I passed the State Hospital, I noticed a strange man, half frozen wandering the grounds. He had an odd accent—not Canadian. I offered him a ride to find a hotel, but we just drove around Ogdensburg with him riding on the running boards until he suddenly decided to leave me at Ford and Paterson. I think he could be a mental patient or even an escaped convict.”
“Thank you, Mr. Crites; I’ll check it out.” Sergeant O’Leary replied.
Ogdensburg Police Officers Joseph Richer and James Delduchetto approached the stranger on Ford Street.
“Where are you from, buddy,?” Officer Richer asked von Werra.
“Canada!” von Werra replied.
“Okay, come along with me,” Richer commanded.
“I shall gladly accompany you, gentlemen,” von Werra said gleefully, knowing that his arrest in America would mean a swift return to Germany.
Once inside the police car, von Werra addressed the officers: “I might as well tell you, because you will find out anyway and it does not matter now—I am a German aviator and escaped from a Canadian prison train. I am Luftwaffe Oberleutnant Baron Franz Xaver von Werra!”
“Another loony,” Delduchetto mumbled to Richer.
Saturday morning, von Werra was taken to Ogdensburg City Hall on Washington Street, not far from where he was arrested. The charges of vagrancy were quickly dropped. von Werra asked Police Chief Herbert Meyers and Immigration Chief David Benjamin to get word to the German Consul in New York City.
“We will contact them as requested,” Chief Meyers replied.
von Werra enjoyed a warm meal cooked to perfection by City Hall custodian Roy Bell and was attended to by Dr. Donald Tulloch.
“Your hands are swollen and your ears are frost-bitten. I’ll wrap them in bandages for you, but I think you will recover in short order,” Dr. Tulloch informed von Werra.
Charles Cantwell, managing editor of the Ogdensburg Journal asked von Werra for a photo.
“Certainly, sir. Officer Richer, would you join me in the photograph, please?”
Cantwell aimed his camera and the flash exploded in a bright light. A smiling von Werra, ears bandaged, and a surprised Officer Richer, would appear on page eight of the January 25, 1941 edition of the Ogdensburg Journal into perpetuity.
“I would like to have an attorney if it seems necessary,” von Werra addressed Immigration Commissioner John Barr.
“I have one in mind who would be good—but he is a Jew,” Barr replied eyes downcast.
“That is impossible!” von Werra exploded.
James Davies, a local attorney was present and was retained as counsel for von Werra, instead.
“Bond is set at $5,000 and we have contacted the German Consul in New York City, who has promised to post it for you.”
Cantwell asked the young aviator to tell his story for the Journal.
von Werra was happy to regale Cantwell with tales of his exploits in Europe and predictions for Germany’s conquest of France, England, and more.
“England is our main objective. All other campaigns are just preparatory,” von Werra explained. The destruction of England will come soon, probably by March of this year, but certainly by September the latest.”
von Werra’s confidence was so overwhelming that Cantwell felt that he may just be right. America is not part of this fight, but if England falls as France has, would not America be next?
Extradition hearings between Canada and the United States continued for months. During that time, von Werra was transferred to the care of the German Vice Consul in New York City, where he was treated like a celebrity by American Nazi sympathizers and had an opportunity take in the sights of the city. Discussions dragged on, but von Werra had already been secreted away back to Berlin by way of Mexico and South America by the German Vice Consul.
He would rejoin the fight, having won high praise from Adolph Hitler himself. But, his fame would not last long. In October 1941, he would marry his sweetheart and take off for a mission over Holland. His Messerschmidt Bf 109 E-4 would encounter engine trouble and von Werra would be lost to the sea forever, hailed as “lost in action.”
January 25, 2018—Claxton-Hepburn Hospital, Ogdensburg, New York.
The old man was surrounded by friends and family as he lie drawing his last breath in the hospital bed.
“103 years old. Quite a life.”
“Great-grandfather was an aviator for the Allies during Word War Two. He was captured and escaped several times, once—mistaken for a Nazi—from a prison camp right in Canada!”
“They say he shot down five Nazi planes in one battle, before going down himself.”
“He was certainly a war hero and then came to America, a country that welcomed him with open arms.”
“Don’t believe everything you read in the newspapers,” the reporter’s grandson muttered from the corner of the room.