Soldiers of Fortune – The Hesse Jewel Heist

By Stephen Harding
3/25/2009 • World War II

Hartley soon began stocking the castle with the comestibles necessary for any decent officers’ club—namely alcohol, cigarettes, and foods Germans had not seen in years. Quickly realizing it was a bigger job than he could handle given his other commitments, Hartley made what in retrospect was probably the biggest blunder of his life: he turned the operation of the club and the keys to the castle over to Capt. Kathleen B. Nash.

Short, plump, and unassuming, “Katie” Nash had joined the army in July 1942. On her enlistment papers she’d given her age as 30; she was, in fact, nine years older. She was also less than forthcoming about her personal history, neglecting to note that she had two grown children from a marriage that had ended in divorce two years earlier.

Despite these lapses of truthfulness, Nash initially seemed to deserve the responsibility with which Hartley had entrusted her. The castle quickly became popular with officers based in and around Frankfurt, and on several occasions Nash contacted the military police to report the theft of small items by occupants of some of the castle’s 25 guestrooms. Both her job performance and her zeal for honesty quickly evaporated, however, when she met Col. Jack W. Durant.

Known to his friends as “J. W.,” Durant was a handsome, hard-drinking 38-year-old Army Air Forces staff officer who had spent the war in Washington, D.C. Assigned to Germany in August 1945 as executive officer to the deputy chief of staff of U.S. Forces, European Theater (USFET), Durant met Nash soon after she was put in charge of Kronberg—and swept her swiftly and irrevocably off her feet. Within days of first meeting, the two were inseparable. Durant often stayed overnight in Nash’s castle apartment, and their drinking bouts became the stuff of local legend. Each, it seemed, had found a soul mate in the other.

Nash and Durant were soon joined in their alcoholic revelries by Maj. David F. Watson, a 33-year-old quartermaster officer who had spent time in Northern Ireland and France before being assigned to work for Durant.

The three officers all had clean military records before becoming part of each others’ lives, and despite their drinking binges, their collective behavior was not initially too far from the norm in those first heady months following the end of the war in Europe. That changed dramatically, however, one crisp autumn morning.

On November 5, 1945, Tech. Fifth Grade Roy C. Carlton, a member of Nash’s staff working in Kronberg Castle’s basement, found two electrical wires running directly into what appeared to be a solid foundation wall. Curious, Carlton attacked the wall with a sledgehammer. The resulting hole offered a glimpse of a tantalizing sight: a secret room.

The next day Carlton sought out Ludwig Weiss, a longtime Hesse family employee, and Weiss, evidently hoping to curry favor with his new employers, agreed to help search the room. That afternoon the two entered the chamber through the now-enlarged hole and almost immediately Carlton noticed a concrete patch on the floor. Leaving Weiss to chisel away at it, the American hurried to find Nash, who rushed to the cellar.

We can only speculate about the atmosphere in the room as the Americans watched the two Germans pound away at the concrete patch. It wasn’t easy to remove, and once it was out of the way the diggers still couldn’t get the treasure box out of the hole. Impatient, Nash ordered Carlton and the two Germans to take a crowbar to the top of the box. They made quick work of it, punching through the zinc lining to reveal the scores of small, neatly wrapped packets inside.

“It was quite a sight,” Carlton later said. “We all sort of gaped, and we started pulling out the little packages and laying them right on the floor. Captain Nash got real excited. She told me to have the Germans take everything upstairs [to her apartment] and make sure none of the stuff ‘wandered off.’”

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