Meet nine audacious military impersonators who demonstrated everything from monumental buffoonery to medal-worthy bravery.
Out on a Limb
Douglas Stringfellow, an infantryman in the U.S. Army Air Forces who enlisted in 1942, took shrapnel to the spine during his first two weeks of overseas deployment in December 1945 and, in January, was on his way home to Utah—an abbreviated battlefield career that gave the private a Purple Heart medal and a cane to help him walk. But by 1952, when Stringfellow announced his candidacy for a seat in the U.S. House of Representatives, he had recast his fortnight of mine-clearing detail in France to include an impressive list of battlefield heroics, including the top-secret capture of a fabled Nazi nuclear physicist from behind enemy lines and his subsequent escape from the Bergen–Belsen concentration camp, where the torture he endured left him a paraplegic. Utah voters were so enamored of Stringfellow’s story—he sometimes gave his stem-winding campaign speeches from a wheelchair—that he was elected to Congress in a landslide. He was exposed by Army Times the following election cycle, however, and bowed out just weeks before the vote. In a never-published autobiography, he partly attributed his fabrications to an imagination run amok while recuperating in bed from the explosion that felled him. “I roamed the battlefields of the world,” he wrote, “conquering the enemy and restoring peace.”
New York City resident Walter Wolfrath hoped that enlisting in the armed forces would help straighten out his foundering life, but in the spring of 1953 U.S. Army recruiters sabotaged his coveted tour of duty after seeing his rap sheet: attempted burglary, grand larceny, parole violations. Undaunted, the ex-con hatched a novel end run: After a chance meeting with Private Richard Werner, who’d been AWOL for a year from his infantry regiment at Fort Dix, in nearby New Jersey, Wolfrath suggested that the two men exchange identities—he’d get his desired hitch in Korea, and Werner, posing as Wolfrath, could return to civilian life. After two weeks of studying Werner’s mannerisms, 23-year-old Wolfrath “borrowed” the deserter’s dog tags and turned himself in to military police. But the scheme unraveled when a Fort Dix prison guard, familiar with the real Werner, reported the impostor to superiors. After just four hours of military service, Wolfrath was charged with impersonating a soldier and, unable to make bail, was headed back to jail. Lacking the military discipline he so badly craved, Wolfrath later committed a series of crimes that earned him lifelong accommodations in New York’s Attica Prison. Werner’s fate remains a mystery.
The gargantuan U.S. Navy-Marine maneuvers carried out at Oceanside, California, in early October 1948 were designed to give visiting army officers some up-close insight into the U.S. military’s amphibious firepower—from underwater demolition tactics to how an aircraft carrier softens up a beach for incoming landing vessels. The public was invited to witness the impressive five-day show of force, but one visitor in particular stood out in the crowd: a young man in the uniform of a Russian army officer, who upon being questioned by an MP identified himself as “Colonel Petrim Nadski of the Red Army field artillery.” In truth, the 30-year-old with the purple pants and hokey Russian accent was San Diego Journal reporter John D’Alfonso, who’d rented his costume in hopes of covertly testing the operation’s security. Unamused officials at Camp Pendleton, the host of the exercises, escorted D’Alfonso to the FBI office in San Diego for questioning, but no charges were filed, and the following spring, no Pulitzer Prize was awarded.
Aye, Aye, Cyr
Among the jobs on Ferdinand Waldo Demara Jr.’s mind-boggling résumé—many of them secured by appropriating the names and credentials of others—were lawyer, cancer researcher, prison warden, hospital orderly, deputy sheriff, zoologist, and dean of philosophy at a small Pennsylvania college. But Demara’s most impressive feat of impersonation came in March 1951, when the peripatetic Massachusetts native, who’d twice gone AWOL as an American GI in World War II, was commissioned as a surgeon–lieutenant in the Royal Canadian Navy after assuming the identity of Dr. Joseph Cyr, a New Brunswick physician. Following a stint in the Halifax area, the burly Demara headed for the Korean theater of war aboard the Tribal-class destroyer HMCS Cayuga, where he earned his pay by pulling the captain’s infected tooth, amputating a foot, and even performing major chest surgery. His improbable medical career finally hit the skids when the wife of the real Dr. Cyr read about the charlatan’s exploits in a Canadian periodical, although the story spurred such interest that, in 1960, Demara’s story was immortalized by Tony Curtis in The Great Impostor.
Friedrich Wilhelm Voigt, who was born in Tilsit, Prussia, on February 13, 1849, was freed from prison on the eve of his 57th birthday after serving a quarter-century for burglary, forgery, and the like. Eight months later, after having briefly worked as a shoemaker in Berlin, Voigt launched a true tour-de-force caper: After donning an army captain’s uniform he’d methodically assembled from items purchased in shops and flea markets, he rounded up a small detachment of soldiers near their barracks and ordered them to accompany him to the nearby suburb of Köpenick. Upon Voigt’s orders, the soldiers dutifully stormed the town hall and arrested the mayor and treasurer for supposed financial misdeeds. As these events were unfolding, Voigt confiscated more than 4,000 marks from the town treasury, and then fled with the stolen loot. He was arrested 10 days later and sentenced to four years for impersonating an officer, but “the Captain of Köpenick” became such a beloved folk hero that Kaiser Wilhelm II pardoned him after he’d served 20 months.
There is a long and distinguished list of women—Joan of Arc, among them—who disguised themselves as men to fight in military campaigns, while American Civil War brigadier general Nathaniel Lyon is part of the elite fraternity whose members successfully practiced their wartime spycraft in drag. And then there was Sarah Emma Edmonds (née Edmondson), a Canadian-born runaway who assumed the name Franklin Thompson, emigrated to the United States, and on May 25, 1861, at age 19, enlisted in the 2nd Michigan Infantry. Edmonds served primarily as a courier and battlefield nurse, and by all accounts she was a capable soldier. In her autobiography, published in 1864, Edmonds claimed to have also conducted a number of dangerous espionage missions in Confederate territory outfitted in elaborate disguises. Perhaps the most intricate of these was her impersonation of an Irish peddler dubbed Bridget O’Shea—a ruse that required the woman masquerading as a man to then convincingly cross-dress as a female.
It’s an incredible tale; indeed, historians maintain there isn’t any credible evidence to validate that Edmonds ever played that shifty double-crosser.
A September to Remember
On May 9, 1945—the day after Germany surrendered to the Allies in World War II—a man identifying himself as William Walker appeared before American military officers at Templehof Airport in Berlin. Walker announced that after he had landed with U.S. forces in Normandy a year earlier, he had been held as a German POW and had subsequently fought alongside the Russian troops who had liberated him. Private Walker could identify New York City as his place of residence but claimed to otherwise have amnesia about his former life—a condition that U.S. Army doctors treating him in Paris attributed to “shell shock.” Upon his return to the States, however, the FBI discovered that the 20-year-old Walker was in fact Karl Horst Max Wacker, who along with his parents had been detained as enemy aliens in a U.S. internment camp before being repatriated to their native Germany in February 1944. As it turned out, Wacker had been recruited by the Nazis for espionage school, but the would-be mole, nicknamed “Dumbo,” evidently couldn’t make the grade. He was arrested and pleaded guilty to impersonating a soldier, his exact motives uncertain. On September 20, 1945, he was sentenced to two years in prison.
The Girl Who Rocked the Boat
In November 1958, 17-year-old Susan Johnson clandestinely outfitted herself in the familiar white uniform of a U.S. Naval Academy midshipman, then stood in pre–evening meal formation before marching into the Bancroft Hall dining room to chow down with the brigade. Although the high school senior intended her masquerade to be a harmless prank—her mother insisted there was no “moral issue” involved with the shenanigans inside the storied men’s dormitory—the unprecedented breach of protocol and tradition so unmoored academy brass that they disciplined two cadets involved in the hoax and demoted three midshipmen officers with knowledge of it who didn’t rat out their brethren. Among that trio was company commander Douglas Volgenau, who—lesson learned—would go on to serve as an admiral on four submarines and a destroyer. For her part, Johnson earned both prominent global newspaper coverage and stern orders from her bemused father (her “parental commander,” as he joked to a reporter) to forever steer clear of the service academy blocks from their home.
No list of military impersonators would be complete without Stephen Jacob Weinberg, a.k.a. Dr. Sterling Wyman, Commander Stanley Wigman, and untold other aliases. Born in Brooklyn in 1890, Weinberg was known to impersonate the likes of medical doctors and psychiatrists, a diplomat for a fictional country and military officers of varying ranks, his uniforms inevitably pieced together with incorrectly placed chevrons or festooned with showy accouterments. In 1915 the ever-scheming “Ethan Allen” Weinberg toured the USS Wyoming—earning a 21-gun salute in the process—after convincing the U.S. Navy that he was a consul general of Romania acting on behalf of the queen. But Weinberg’s most memorable ruse was pulled off in July 1921, when Stanley Clifford Weyman—his most-favored name—posed as the State Department’s naval liaison officer and escorted Princess Fatima of Afghanistan to the White House to meet President Warren G. Harding. The following March Weinberg was convicted of impersonating a naval officer. His lawyer argued that the verdict should be set aside because a doctor at Bellevue Hospital had deemed Weinberg insane. MHQ
ALAN GREEN is not a retired four-star general in the U.S. Army.
This article appears in the Summer 2018 issue (Vol. 30, No. 4) of MHQ—The Quarterly Journal of Military History with the headline: Great Pretenders