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Soldiers of Fortune - The Hesse Jewel Heist

By Stephen Harding 
Originally published by World War II magazine. Published Online: March 25, 2009 
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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.

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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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17 Responses to “Soldiers of Fortune - The Hesse Jewel Heist”


  1. 1
    Vonie Wilcox says:

    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.

    • 1.1
      Phil Hanson says:

      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?

      • 1.1.1
        Hobie says:

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

  2. 2
    michael reagan says:

    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

  3. 3
    Phil Hanson says:

    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.

  4. 4
    Frank Harris says:

    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.

    • 4.1
      Ron Kassel says:

      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

  5. 5
    Todd says:

    They call these type of people "white trash"……..

  6. 6
    R M Merrill says:

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

  7. 7
    Eric L Lucas says:

    I am reading the transcripts of the Court-Martial on Fold3.com. http://www.fold3.com/image/#28966441 for example. It seems that every document the Government had regarding this incident is available there.

  8. 8
    Phil Hanson says:

    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.

  9. 9

    [...] Sophia Hesse (4L) wiith family, 1946. Photo Life 29 March 2009, Stephen Harding, HistoryNet Over the next weeks, CID agents searched the homes of Nash's sisters, Durant's brother [...]

  10. 10
    bette page says:

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

  11. 11
    VIC says:

    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!

  12. 12
    Bill says:

    Yup. Not the best movie, but worth watching.
    http://www.imdb.com/title/tt1153106/

  13. 13
    j snyder says:

    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.



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