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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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Before the CID could begin unraveling the case, however, Nash left Germany, and Durant and Watson moved the remaining few pieces of the trove out of the country. Days after Nash's departure, Durant traveled to England to meet his former Pentagon secretary, Martha Orwig Evans. A United Nations employee at the time, she agreed to carry several pieces of jewelry to the States. In early March, Durant himself left for a week's temporary duty in Washington and 30 days of home leave, traveling on courier orders that prevented customs inspection of his baggage. Following Durant's departure, Watson made another trip to Belfast, where he sold the remaining scrap gold and several other items.

The Frankfurt CID office opened its official inquiry into the Hesse jewel case during the third week of April 1946, and the investigation quickly took on a life of its own. Agents interviewed virtually every member of the Hesse clan and all of Kronberg Castle's German employees, as well as scores of American military and civilian personnel who had worked or stayed at the facility. Investigators poured over mailroom records pertaining to shipments to the States made by Nash, Durant, Watson, and Carlton, and traveled to Switzerland and Northern Ireland to track down and recover those items the conspirators had sold. While they ultimately retrieved all of the items Watson had sold or given away in Belfast, Switzerland's notoriously secretive financial laws prevented the recovery of all but a few minor pieces there.

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CID agents also began tracking Watson's movements, an easy task given that he remained in Frankfurt. His fellow conspirators were another matter, however: Nash was in California awaiting release from active duty, Carlton was out of the army and living in Texas, and Durant had completed his temporary duty in Washington and was on leave somewhere on the East Coast. The obvious answer was to take the investigation across the Atlantic; accordingly, the CID authorities in Germany contacted their compatriots in Washington. Though the conspirators didn't realize it, the noose was beginning to tighten.

lmost immediately after arriving in the United States on March 12, Durant set about hiding or trying to sell all the jewels he had managed to send from Europe.

On at least two occasions he and his brother James—the recipient of most of the packages Durant had mailed—buried large glass jars filled with jewels and cash along Route 7 near James's home in Falls Church, Virginia. Durant sold gems to several private individuals, pawned other items, and, using a false name, sold several stones to a large Washington jewelry store. He even managed to use one particularly nice diamond as partial payment for a new Hudson convertible.

The car soon got a major road test, for during the last week of March Durant drove to Chicago, where Nash joined him a few days later. Through a friend of Durant's, the couple met a jeweler who agreed to buy 70 loose diamonds Durant said he'd bought "on the cheap" in Europe. But the jeweler nixed the deal when Durant couldn't produce customs documents for the gems, and later called the Chicago Police to report the incident. The police, in turn, notified the U.S. Customs Service.

Things quickly went downhill for the conspirators. In response to a call from a customs agent Durant surrendered 102 loose diamonds he said he had obtained legally in Germany but had "forgotten" to declare. The errant colonel then forged a set of orders authorizing his separation from active duty in the apparent belief that he could avoid military punishment if and when the jewel theft came to light. During a meeting with Evans, his former secretary, to pick up the booty she had carried back from England, she asked him if the jewels might get him into trouble. "Get into trouble?" he tersely responded. "I'm already up to my neck in it now."

Nonetheless, Durant and Nash announced their intention to marry during a dinner in Chicago on May 26, 1946, and did so two days later in a Chicago courthouse. They left that afternoon for Nash's sister's house in Hudson, Wisconsin. But the CID had by then canceled Nash's separation orders. A telegram awaited her at her sister's, directing her to report to Fort Sheridan, Illinois, on May 29 or face charges of being absent without leave. Several days later, similar orders were issued canceling Durant's leave and ordering him to Fort Sheridan.

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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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