WWI counterintelligence agents get their man

| February 14, 2018 | 0 Comments

Damage to a pier at Black Tom Island caused by German sabotage to prevent American munitions from reaching Germany’s enemies. (Library of Congress Photo) (Photo Credit: U.S. Army)

Lori Tagg
Army News Service

Note: 2018 is the centennial of World War I. The Hawaii Army Weekly is marking this historic occasion by publishing articles about that period.

Courtesy graphic from World War I Centennial

In August 1917 the U.S. Army Corps of Intelligence Police (CIP) was created to protect American forces in France from sabotage and subversion. CIP agents also investigated suspected German espionage activities throughout the United States. Enemy agents in America proved elusive, often fleeing to Mexico, so CIP agents were stationed along the U.S.-Mexico border to investigate and apprehend them.

Two CIP agents in Arizona recruited Dr. Paul B. Altendorf to infiltrate German spy rings in Mexico. Altendorf, an Austrian immigrant to Mexico, served as a colonel in the Mexican army. Working as a double spy, Altendorf managed to join the German Secret Service and was linked with several German spies living in Mexico.

In January 1918, Altendorf accompanied Lothar Witzke from Mexico City to the U.S. border. Witzke was a 22-year-old former lieutenant in the Germany navy and a suspected German spy and saboteur. During this trip, Witzke had no suspicion that his companion – Altendorf – was an American double agent. At one point, a drunk Witzke told told Altendorf that he’d been sent him back to the United States to incite mutiny within the U.S. Army and various labor unions, conduct sabotage and assassinate American officials.

On or about Feb. 1, 1918, CIP agents apprehended Witzke once he crossed the U.S. border and a search of his luggage revealed a coded letter and Russian passport. The letter was deciphered by the Military Intelligence Cryptographic Bureau in Washington, D.C., revealing Witzke’s German connections. The letter stated: “Strictly Secret! The bearer of this is a subject of the Empire who travels as a Russian under the name of Pablo Waberski. He is a German secret agent.”

While awaiting trial at Fort Sam Houston, Texas, Witzke was interrogated by CIP agents but refused to provide any details about his contacts, co-conspirators or alleged espionage. His trial began in August 1918, and he was found guilty of espionage and sentenced him to death, the only German spy thus sentenced in the United States during World War I. After the war, President Woodrow Wilson commuted his sentence to life in prison, and he was transferred to Fort Leavenworth, Kansas. In 1923, however, Witzke was later pardoned and released to the German government.

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