Soldiers of Fortune – The Hesse Jewel Heist

A glittering array of evidence appears before the court-martial board in Frankfurt, Germany, where the three officers were tried in 1946. (National Archives)
A glittering array of evidence appears before the court-martial board in Frankfurt, Germany, where the three officers were tried in 1946. (National Archives)

‘Get into trouble?’ Colonel Durant tersely replied when asked about the jewels. ‘I’m already up to my neck in it now.’

Throughout history soldiers have helped themselves to the riches of their foes. Indeed, the promise of booty was long the primary reason men went to war, their desire to acquire by theft what they’d never attain by rank or merit driving them to risk their lives in conflicts whose moral or political goals held little interest.

While the greatest looters of World War II were undoubtedly Germany, Japan, and Russia—each stole untold billions of dollars in art, industrial equipment, and individual wealth—soldiers of all the combatant nations helped themselves to the possessions of others. And while the U.S. military attempted to curtail looting, American soldiers were certainly not above “liberating” items that caught their fancy, especially in the European theater. Most of these thefts were smalltime and spur of the moment. But as the war in Europe wound down, a trio of drunken, brazen, and almost comically inept thieves—all of them, regrettably, U.S. Army officers—managed to pull off one of the most lucrative wartime thefts in history.

Late on the last day of October 1944 princes Wolfgang and Richard of Germany’s illustrious House of Hesse gingerly lowered a large wooden box into a hole in the basement floor of Kronberg Castle outside Frankfurt. Roughly two feet square and lined with zinc, the box held the bulk of the Hesse fortune—packets of rings, tiaras, necklaces, loose diamonds, and other jewels—which the princes hoped would form the basis of the extended family’s postwar prosperity.

It wasn’t an idle expectation: the treasure was worth some $2.5 million (roughly $31 million today). It included items belonging to several members of the Hesse clan, including the reigning matriarch, 74-year-old Princess Margarete of Prussia, and Margarete’s four sons and their wives. The princes and their mother were the scions of a German principality dating back to the 17th century.

Burying the valuables was intended to protect them from the increasingly frequent air raids pounding the Frankfurt area. Once the Allied armies arrived, the box could be retrieved from its hiding place and its contents used to ensure—through bribery of Allied officials, if necessary—that the surviving members of the House of Hesse did not suffer the indignities of occupation sure to be visited on their less well-heeled countrymen.

It was a reasonable plan, but unfortunately for the Hesses it didn’t take into account the U.S. Army’s admirable penchant for establishing rest-and-recreation facilities for its war-weary troops. Within weeks of Frankfurt’s fall to U.S. forces in early April, Maj. Joseph M. Hartley, a staff officer who had been given the task of setting up 14 officers’ clubs in the Frankfurt area, requisitioned Kronberg Castle. The Hesse family members still living in the building were unceremoniously moved to several cottages on the property, and on April 22 the facility was officially renamed the Kronberg Castle Country Club.

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17 Responses

  1. Vonie Wilcox

    Where did Stephen Harding get his infomation. I can tell you one part that was in error. When Kathleen Nash died. I am her grandaughter.

    Reply
    • Phil Hanson

      Vonie – I tried once before to get an answer from you, without success, so I’ll try again. Kathleen “Vone” Burke Nash Durant was a good friend of my parents when she and her husband, Kenneth Nash, were managers of the Phoenix County Club. My Dad, Phil Hanson Sr, was the long time greenskeeper of the Phoenix Club. I remember, as a child, spending time in their apartment while Dad was busy on the gold course.

      I have had no success in finding out what happened to Vonie after her release from prison in 1952. Who were your parents? To the best of my knowledge Vonie had no children. Can you help me?

      Reply
      • Hobie

        According to the 1940 census there was a natural son, Richard age 16, and an adopted daughter, Elizabeth age 17.

  2. michael reagan

    Dear Ms. Wilcox,

    I am the great-nephew of Ralph Pierce. I would be interested in getting more information about your grandmother’s story. I’ve always been interested in the case but haven’t been able to find much reliable information on the principal characters. Please reply if you would like to contact me.

    Michael

    Reply
  3. Phil Hanson

    As a child I knew Kathleen “Vonie” Nash, married to Kenneth Nash, Manager of the Phoenix Country Club. I lost track of her after her release from prison. As far as I know Kathleen had no children.

    Reply
  4. Frank Harris

    I served as a member of the military guard from Fort Myer, Va. responsible for the stolen property (Hesse jewels) during the portion of Col. Durant’s trial conducted in the Pentagon Building in 1947. The Col, was a regular army officer and a AUS one star general. I have an inventory of the Hesse property which was displayed each day before the court reflecting the appraised value of each item.

    Reply
    • Ron Kassel

      My father was a member of the guard detail of U.S. Army Military Police that escorted the jewels back to Germany. He was also stationed at Ft. Myer, VA

      Reply
  5. Todd

    They call these type of people “white trash”……..

    Reply
  6. R M Merrill

    My grandfather col.Raymond Marsh was one of the 10 colonels on the panel.

    Reply
  7. Phil Hanson

    Is there any way to get in touch with article author, Stephen Harding? I’d like some information on getting closure on the Durants, following their release from prison. Kathleen “Vonie” Nash Durant was a good friend of my parents, both decease, before and during her ordeal. I’d like to know where she settled and where she died.

    Reply
  8. bette page

    Just read a great book that references this: \the Royals and the Reich\.

    Reply
    • Sandra Wilson

      Yes, Royals and the Reich is possibly my most treasured book!

      Reply
  9. VIC

    Has this incident ever been approached to make a movie out of it? I think that with the right screenplay and director, it would be one heck of a film!

    Reply
  10. j snyder

    There was a movie made: “The Hessen Affair.” It just finished airing on tv, and it wasn’t a great film. I wasn’t aware of this particular case, and after reading more about it, I guarantee the movie is full of inaccuracies.

    Reply

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