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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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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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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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.

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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When Nash did not appear by the appointed date, a military police squad paid an early morning visit to her sister’s home on June 2. Nash eluded them and made her way to Chicago, where she met up with Durant. The couple checked into the posh La Salle Hotel and, thinking they had outsmarted their pursuers, ordered champagne from room service. Just as they were popping the cork, however, a CID arrest team appeared at the door. Within minutes Nash was in handcuffs; her husband was taken into custody the following day.

Over the following weeks, CID agents searched the homes of Nash’s sisters, Durant’s brother James, and Roy Carlton in Texas, recovering a significant amount of the purloined Hesse treasure. While Carlton avoided arrest by agreeing to testify for the prosecution, Watson wasn’t so lucky—he was picked up in Frankfurt on June 7. In Illinois, Durant and Nash underwent polygraph examinations and separate but equally intense interrogations. Both ultimately admitted their complicity in the theft, and also implicated Watson and Carlton.

In an attempt to “cooperate” with investigators, Durant contacted the Chicago underworld figure to whom he had fenced more than half of the jewels mailed from Germany, though only a few small items were ultimately recovered. Asked by one interrogator how he’d gotten involved in “this mess,” Durant replied, “We thought it was simple looting—at the time it happened, everybody was carrying anything they could out of Germany and nothing was being done about it.”

While Durant’s brother and other civilians involved in the case—including Nash’s sisters and Martha Orwig Evans—escaped prosecution because they weren’t subject to military justice, the other three conspirators were not so fortunate. Over the following year Nash, Durant, and Watson were court-martialed separately in Germany on charges including larceny, dereliction of duty, and conduct unbecoming U.S. military officers. Each presented a variation of the same defense—in “liberating” the jewels they had only done what hundreds of thousands of other U.S. service members had done.

“The charges of my stealing the…Hesse…jewels are baseless,” Nash said. “If the court says I committed any of the criminal acts alleged, then thousands of people in this theater of war and in the United States are as guilty as I and have unclean hands.”

Watson, during his testimony, took a more legalistic tack: “We all felt [the jewels] were legitimate loot. The background of the possible owners was thoroughly discussed and [we] determined that they were either dead, SS members, or ardent Nazi sympathizers, and, as such, the properties would never be returned to them, no matter where or how they turned up.”

In the end, the conspirators’ attempt to defend the theft as no more than a legal and essentially routine confiscation of enemy property was to no avail. The prosecutor in Durant’s trial, Maj. Joseph S. Robinson, summed up the army’s position by saying, “It is our obligation to see to it that private property in enemy territory we occupy be respected, and that any interference with such private property for personal gains be justly punished.”

And punished they were: each of the “Hesse Three” was found guilty, cashiered from the service, and sent to federal prison. Watson was sentenced to 3 years, Nash got 5, and Durant 15.

While the imprisonment of the trio allowed the army to effectively close the case and publicly demonstrate the American government’s determination to prosecute military looters, the verdicts did little to help the aggrieved German clan. The jewels the army had managed to recover were not returned to the Hesses until 1951, and even then the removal of virtually all the gems from their original mountings had sharply reduced the collection’s aggregate value. Adding insult to injury, the army continued its occupation and use of Kronberg Castle until 1953, after which it was returned to the family, who converted it into an exclusive boutique hotel.

As for the conspirators, Watson was paroled in 1947 and died—still petitioning for a presidential pardon—in 1984. Nash and Durant were both released in 1952 and spent the remainder of their lives together; she died in 1983 and he in 1984, both apparently of alcohol-related illnesses. More than half of the jewels the trio pried from their settings—a trove worth some $16 million today—were never recovered.

Whether the gems remain buried along some rural Virginia road or have long since been recut and resold we will never know. It is interesting to note, however, that while Watson, Nash, and Durant lived relatively modest lives after leaving prison, upon his death in 1991, Durant’s brother James—who had spent most of his working life as a low-level city tax assessor in Falls Church and lived his final years in what his son called “near destitution”—left an estate valued at more than $1 million.