Soldiers of Fortune – The Hesse Jewel Heist

Nash then hurried off to call Durant. Watson was standing next to his supervisor’s desk when the call came in, though a few seconds into the conversation Durant asked the young major to leave the room. As soon as he hung up, Durant announced he was taking the rest of the afternoon off, then sped away in a jeep. Less than an hour later Durant called Watson, asking him to investigate the regulations pertaining to abandoned German property.

Watson later recalled that he immediately contacted the USFET legal office and asked Lt. Col. James R. Boyd what should be done if American military personnel were to “find some valuables that might have belonged to some Nazi bigwig.” Boyd’s reply, according to Watson, was, “I don’t know of any hard-and-fast rules, but it’s pretty common practice for officers to appropriate some trophies as souvenirs.”

Though initially kept in the dark about the discovery of the jewels, Watson was brought in on the secret on November 8. That afternoon he, Durant, and Nash met in the latter’s castle apartment and spread the box’s contents across the floor. Though they at first discussed keeping only a few of the larger pieces, greed soon reared its ugly head and they decided to keep it all. Knowing they would never be able to get the jewels out of Germany legally, the trio hatched what must have seemed like a simple plan: they would remove all the precious stones from their settings, and then separate out the gold and silver mountings as scrap. They would sell whatever they could to pawnshops and small dealers in Switzerland and the United Kingdom, and then mail the rest back to the States to be disposed of at leisure.

Over the next two months Nash, Durant, and Watson—as well as Carlton, to whom the trio had given a few items to keep him quiet—mailed some 30 boxes of booty back to the States. Several went to Nash’s sisters in California and Wisconsin, others to Durant’s brother in Virginia, and at least one to Watson’s parents in California. In addition, on visits to Northern Ireland in November and December Watson pawned a large quantity of gold; he also gave a few baubles to a former girlfriend in Belfast. In January 1946, Nash and Durant went to Switzerland to sell gold to pawnshops and small jewelry stores in Bern, Basel, and Zurich.

The first two months of 1946 must have been heady ones for Nash, Durant, and Watson. They had managed to turn a significant amount of the Hesse jewels into ready cash, which financed a lifestyle far more luxurious than their military pay would have afforded. More important, they had found ways to get most of the remaining loot out of Germany. Indeed, by the time Nash received orders in mid-February to return to the United States for separation from the army, she and her accomplices might well have felt that they had set themselves up for a very comfortable return to civilian life.

That sense of success was premature, however, for their crime had already been discovered. The day after the treasure was unearthed, Ludwig Weiss reported the find to Heinrich Lange, longtime manager of the Kronberg estate and a loyal Hesse family retainer. Lange, in turn, told Princess Margarete about the Americans’ removal of the trove. On November 10 she had directed Lange to ask Nash for a statement detailing the box’s discovery, a receipt for its contents, and a definitive declaration of when the family could expect the valuables’ return. Nash declined to provide any information, but told Lange that “when the family returns to the castle, they’ll find the jewels as they left them.”

That was highly unlikely, since the conspirators had already decided to keep the jewels. Nash did not document the family’s request in any official files, and whenever Lange raised the issue she claimed the matter was being handled at some unspecified “higher level” of army bureaucracy. In early January 1946 Princess Sophia, the widow of Margarete’s son Prince Cristoph (who had been killed in Italy in 1943), asked Lange to request that Nash return certain jewels so the princess could wear them for her remarriage. Nash declined to meet with the princess and ignored all her subsequent requests for information about the jewels’ disposition.

Nash’s continued stonewalling soon led the Hesses to contact the army office in charge of protecting Germany’s cultural and historical artifacts, asking that investigators look into the case. When that office proved slow to respond, Princess Sophia went to the army’s Criminal Investigation Division (CID) in mid-April 1946 and asked for an investigation of what she believed to be the theft of the jewels.

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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.

    • 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?

      • 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.


  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.

  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.

    • 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

  5. Todd

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

  6. R M Merrill

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

  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.

  8. bette page

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

    • Sandra Wilson

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

  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!

  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.


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