Secret History: How a Father-Daughter Pair Spied for Hitler in America

January 24, 2021 Topic: History Region: Americas Blog Brand: The Reboot Tags: World War IISpiesEspionageNazi GermanyUnited States

Secret History: How a Father-Daughter Pair Spied for Hitler in America

Simon and Marie Koedel conducted espionage operations for the Third Reich in the United States.

Here's What You Need to Know:  Buried in the October 24, 1944, edition of the New York times was the headline: “German Ex-Officer Held as Nazi Spy: Captain in Kaiser’s Army, 62 and Foster Daughter Accused of Sending Ship Data Before U.S. Entered War.” The article sketched a portion of the espionage careers of Simon Emil Koedel, a U.S. Army veteran, and his native-born foster daughter Marie Hedwig Koedel.

A Spy in the First World War

Born in Wurzburg, Germany, Simon Koedel immigrated to America in 1904 and traveled across the country before volunteering for the U.S. Army in October 1908. Soon after his 1911 discharge Koedel found work as a projectionist in movie houses. In November 1912, he became a U.S. citizen, taking the final oath in New York City. He met and married a fellow immigrant from Germany named Anna.

Koedel had been secretly sending shipping information to Germany when he decided he could contribute more by spying in England. He booked passage to Holland in April 1915, obtained an emergency passport, and sailed for England.

After snooping in Scotland and England he was arrested on suspicion of espionage in Liverpool and detained. British authorities deported him to the United States. Koedel sailed for Holland again in 1916 and made his way to Germany where he was commissioned as a captain in the German Army. Back in the States he bolstered his credentials as a loyal citizen by volunteering as a “Four Minute Man” to give talks to encourage patrons to buy Liberty Bonds.

Agent A2011 of the Abwehr

In the 1920s, Koedel and his wife took two orphaned siblings into their home, a five-year-old boy named Philip and a three-year-old girl, Marie. Koedel and his wife separated but did not divorce until 1933, when Koedel married Hulde Nelson.

Although Koedel’s mother had died, he and Hulde traveled to Germany in 1934, ostensibly to attend the Oberammergau Passion Play. Shortly after returning home, Koedel sent documentation of the services he had performed for Germany to Ernst Hanfstaengl. Known as “Putzi,” Hanfstaengl was a German-American and Hitler confidant who became Germany’s foreign press chief. Koedel followed this with a letter to Propaganda Minister Josef Goebbels proclaiming that he and his family would remain loyal to Germany.

In 1935 Philip was sentenced to 71/2 to 15 years in prison for robbery. Koedel turned to Marie, an attractive 18-year-old, to further his espionage efforts. She sailed to Germany in July 1936 for Abwehr training.

After six months in Nazi Germany, Marie returned to New York. The Abwehr enrolled Simon Koedel as Agent A2011, the “A” indicating Koedel was a foreign agent. The “2” identified him with the Bremen sub branch soon to be headed by Johannes Bischoff, and the number “11” meant he was one of the first agents recruited for that network.

After Hitler’s 1936 occupation of the Rhineland, the head of Abwehr’s Section I, Major Hans Piekenbrock, reorganized his agents and designated the United States as a target of secondary importance. At the time America was a decidedly soft target. Koedel made good use of his time and his $200 monthly stipend. He recognized his lack of formal education in American English, written English in particular. Here is where Marie could help. She completed two years of high school and was a native speaker.

Koedel Infiltrates the Army Ordnance Association

Koedel applied for membership in the Army Ordnance Association (AOA), a trade organization for contractors for the U.S. military. AOA members had access to so much sensitive information that the FBI screened its candidates, but Koedel had not yet appeared on the agency’s radar screen. In August 1939 the AOA accepted Koedel.

A few weeks later, Koedel received the cablegram he eagerly awaited. The message from “Hartmann” contained the word “alloy,” the coded combination that activated the Koedels as spies. As a projectionist, Koedel rarely worked a shift of more than five hours, and his work hours alternated, enabling him to vary his routine. Each day he brought to work a pair of pearl-handled binoculars, used to help sharpen the focus of films. They also came in handy during ferry boat rides if he wanted to read the names of ships.

Another factor that made Koedel an effective spy was his ability to glean valuable intelligence from mundane sources. One of Nazi Germany’s greatest intelligence coups had its origin in an article Koedel clipped from the New York Times. The story explained that a “scrambler” phone had been set up in a soundproof room in the White House basement to protect President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s transatlantic conversations. Roosevelt had used the phone since September 1. The enterprising Nikolaus Bensmann, one of Koedel’s Abwehr handlers, passed this information on. By March 1942 the Germans had a system that produced transcripts of transatlantic calls hours after an intercept.

The most crucial use of this technology took place on July 29, 1943, when British Prime Minister Winston Churchill phoned Roosevelt to discuss developments in Italy. The bloody Allied advance up the Italian boot can in part be traced Koedel’s work.

Koedel aggressively exercised his privileges as a member of the AOA. Members had to right to visit any U.S. munitions plants simply by showing their cards. However, when Koedel was turned away twice at the Army Chemical Warfare Center at Edgewood Arsenal near Baltimore, he called AOA headquarters, which protested to the War Department. On December 7, 1939, Koedel received a guided tour of the Edgewood Arsenal.

Attending AOA meetings allowed Koedel to meet administration officials and members of Congress. Senator Robert Rice Reynolds, a populist Democrat from North Carolina, had a seat on the Military Affairs Committee. Koedel convinced Rice to send him weekly reports from the State Department Munitions Board listing permits issued for exports of war materials to Britain.

Over 600 of Koedel’s reports got through to Bremen. Often Koedel walked into the German Consulate in New York and handed a white envelope to Robert Raehmel, an official who joined the consulate in 1939. Either Koedel sensed danger or Bremen warned him to discontinue this practice. His visits to the consulate ceased in early 1941. The Koedels mailed the bulk of their finds to overseas drops in Italy, Spain, and Portugal.

Simon Koedel: An Uncommon Kind of Spy

To a great extent Koedel’s success as a spy was due to the fact that he did not act like one. He did not employ aliases or false addresses; he often acted with boldness, and above all, he made no attempt to hide his love for Germany.

In the fall of 1939, Marie Koedel met John R. Walters. Likely, she was more attracted by Walters’s job at Republic Aviation than by his personal charms. In January 1940 Walters proposed. Shortly afterward, Marie broke off the engagement saying she and her father were German agents gathering information and that she could not interrupt their work.

Walters went to the FBI and was interviewed three times between February 14 and May 28, 1940. The FBI did not believe that his fiancée was a waterfront Mata Hari. In desperation, Walters telephoned the German Consulate in New York declaring he had told the FBI the Koedels were spies.

Koedel himself contacted the FBI in May 1940, when he strode into the New York field office to complain that a stranger told him that the FBI had a file on him. If this bluster was intended to show he had nothing to hide, Koedel overplayed that impression, penning several pro-German letters that were forwarded to the FBI by recipients.

Between June 1940 and May 1942, concerned citizens sent 14 of Koedel’s letters to the FBI. Unlike the typed, sober-minded letters in Koedel’s correspondence with the AOA, members of Congress, and defense contractors, these handwritten missives were riddled with errors in syntax and spelling.

Under Surveillance

In October 1941 the FBI put Koedel under surveillance, assigning Special Agent C. Lester Trotter to tail him. Koedel proved a slippery customer, changing transportation and loitering for long stretches of time.

On Saturday the 25th, Trotter followed Koedel from the Lyric Theater with a rolled up newspaper tucked under an arm. He took the subway to Brooklyn and walked past dockyard warehouses before he stopped at a vacant store on Van Brunt Street and began fumbling with the latch. When Koedel turned back to the street the newspaper was gone. Trotter found the door locked. When Trotter returned to the abandoned storefront he found the door open with a man inside and two more outside dusting off an old automobile seat.

Despite Koedel’s manner, his inordinate interest in shipping, and his use of a mail drop, the FBI did not pursue him aggressively until after Pearl Harbor. The FBI put Koedel under surveillance again because an interview of a former German Consulate employee had triggered renewed interest. The employee recalled a “Simon Coettel” who had visited the consulate and always left an envelope for Robert Raehmel. A 30-day cover of Koedel’s mail turned up nothing of interest. During eight days of surveillance, he never set foot near the waterfront. Abwehr records retrieved in Bremen after the war prove that Agent A2011 continued to submit reports through 1943.