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American Who Infiltrated the Manhattan Project for the Soviets Honored in Russia

 It could have been a heart- warming American success story. Born and raised in Iowa, George Koval graduated from Sioux City’s Central High School in 1929. Next to his yearbook photo were the words, “A mighty man is he,” and the precocious Midwesterner seemed destined for a life less ordinary. In the early 1930s, his parents, Russian Jewish immigrants, moved back to Siberia, where he discovered a talent for science at a technology institute. He returned to the United States around 1940 and was drafted into the army, which sent him to City College in Manhattan for a wartime engineering program.

From there, Koval’s career took off. In 1943, he was recruited into the Manhattan Project, the massive effort to produce the first atomic bomb. He was tasked with monitoring radiation levels at the Oak Ridge, Tennessee, facility where enriched uranium was being turned into bomb fuel; then at Dayton, Ohio, where factories were refining polonium, a radioactive element that would serve as the initiator for the “Fat Man” plutonium bomb dropped on Nagasaki. From humble beginnings, Koval had joined an elite group of scientists who created the weapon that ended World War II. He might have been considered the very model of the American archetype— a rags-to-riches immigrant who helped win the war— except for one thing.

Koval was also a Soviet spy.

In November, Russian president Vladimir Putin stunned American government officials and historians when he announced that George Koval had been named Hero of the Russian Federation, the highest honor that can be bestowed on a Russian citizen, for his contribution to “Russia’s defense capability.” In his remarks, Putin said Koval, who died in 2006 at age ninety-four, was the only Soviet intelligence officer to penetrate the American atomic facilities producing plutonium, enriched uranium, and polonium.

American historians, most of whom had never suspected Koval’s existence, hadn’t seen that announcement coming. “I was as surprised as anyone else,” says Gregg Herken, a professor of history at the University of California, Merced, and author of Brotherhood of the Bomb: The Tangled Lives and Loyalties of Robert Oppenheimer, Ernest Lawrence, and Edward Teller.

It is still not clear how Koval came to be a spy, or why the Russians chose to reveal his existence now. (Historians suspect Putin was trying to stick his finger in the eye of the Americans, although some speculate it may also be the result of an internecine battle for status between Russia’s largest intelligence agency, the GRU, and the former KGB. Since the fall of Communism, the two spy agencies have been squabbling over who deserves more credit for the Soviets’ development of the bomb.) One thing that is certain is that if Koval really was providing information to the Soviets about production levels inside the American atomic program, the Russians likely had more insight into American nuclear ambitions than historians ever imagined.

“He was an enormous asset,” says David Holloway, a professor of history at Stanford University and author of Stalin and the Bomb: The Soviet Union and Atomic Energy, 1939-1956. “He not only speaks English, he’s an American.” Working at the facilities producing uranium, plutonium, and polonium for the bomb, he was perfectly placed to provide intelligence that eluded Russian spies at Los Alamos. Most importantly, Koval seems to have told the Russians the factories at Dayton were producing polonium, which would have given them an idea of exactly what element was needed to initiate the bomb.

Koval’s efforts certainly seem to have given Russian scientists a head start on their own bomb, which they tested successfully in 1949. “We know now that their first design was a carbon-copy of the ‘Fat-Man,’” says Robert Norris, author of Racing for the Bomb: General Leslie Groves, the Manhattan Project’s Indispensable Man.

Koval’s reports have yet to be located, however. Holloway says he’s found no evidence of the estimated one hundred pages the spy filed for the GRU in the seven volumes of documents it has on the Soviet nuclear project.

According to several of Koval’s colleagues at Oak Ridge, the FBI began investigating Koval in the 1950s, swearing those who had known him to secrecy. But for naught: Koval had already returned to the Soviet Union, where he spent the rest of his career teaching at the same technology institute where he’d been a student. The young Iowan who might have been an American hero lived out the rest of his life as another type of hero instead: the Soviet kind.

Albums Documenting Nazi Art Thefts Donated to the National Archives

Two leather-bound photo- graph albums, which the chief archivist of the National Archives calls “one of the most significant finds related to Hitler’s premeditated theft of art and other cultural treasures to be found since the Nuremberg trials,” were donated to the National Archives this fall. The albums, which document art looted by the Nazis during World War II, were found by an American soldier near Berchtesgaden at the end of the war. They are part of a collection of almost one hundred such books the Nazis assembled in an effort to catalogue desirable artwork in occupied countries and bring it back to Germany. Thirty-nine of the books are already in the National Archives. “It is exciting to know that original documents shedding light on this important aspect of World War II are still being located, especially so because of the hundreds of thousands of cultural items stolen from victims of Hitler and the Nazis that are still missing,” said Allen Weinstein, the archivist of the United States.

The two albums, which are filled with photos of mostly eighteenth-century French art, may not only help victims of the thefts recover their property, they also provide a window into the German effort to loot much of occupied Europe. The books served a dual purpose: they allowed Nazi officials to stay apprised of the collection and they served as catalogs from which bigwigs could choose their favorite pieces.

The albums were recently acquired by Robert Edsel, founder of the Monuments Men Foundation, an organization named for the group of men and women charged with recovering cultural treasures lost during World War II. Edsel, in turn, gave them to the archives.

Blithe Spy: New Details Emerge About a Secret Life

Playwright, actor, com- poser, and bon vivant Noël Coward was known to be many things—including a British intelligence operative during World War II. But the details of how he became one and the specifics of his work for His Majesty’s Secret Service have long eluded historians. Coward skimmed over his wartime experiences in his 1954 autobiography and rarely spoke about his secret life.

Except in his correspondence. In The Letters of Noël Coward, published this winter, Barry Day, a British historian, has discovered more than five hundred letters written by and to Coward which shed new light on his wartime life. They reveal not only that Coward volunteered for national service long before anyone expected, but that the genteel intelligence operative was deeply critical of fellow actors who chose to spend the war in Hollywood.

Coward was approached about being a spy as early as 1938, when Sir Robert Vansittart, an undersecretary in the foreign office, asked him to join a network of businessmen and celebrities who reported to him about their travels across the Continent. Coward was no admirer of the pacifist Chamberlain government— he called the prime minister “that bloody conceited old sod”—and he was eager to make up for his lack of service in World War I, so his decision to comply seems to have been an easy one. His first missions in 1938 and 1939 took him through Switzerland, Warsaw, Danzig, Moscow, Helsinki, and Copenhagen, where he offered Vansittart his impressions of foreign politics. “I snooped around a good deal and flapped my ears,” Coward wrote from Switzerland in November 1938. “The Nazi propaganda…is very strong but is falling on the stoniest of stony ground.”

When Vansittart resigned the next summer, Coward sent a letter to Churchill himself, asking to continue working for the intelligence services. In early 1940, he began working directly under William Stephenson, the spymaster known as “Intrepid,” who, once France had fallen, sent the well-known entertainer across the globe. “My disguise [was] my own reputation as a bit of an idiot…a merry playboy,” Coward said in a 1973 interview. “I was the perfect silly ass. Nobody… considered I had a sensible thought in my head and they would say all kinds of things that I’d pass along to Bill.”

One thing Coward couldn’t help but mention, it seems, was his opinion of his fellow actors who fled to Hollywood during the Blitz. “I am a trifle saddened by the behaviour of many of my actor countrymen of military age who scuttled off with such inelegant haste,” he wrote. Because of his frequent travels abroad, Coward himself had been accused by the British press of doing just that. “I don’t mind scurrilous attacks when I am working in the theatre…but this filth that has been heaped upon me is really beginning to get under my skin,” he wrote a friend in September 1940.

To preserve the secrecy of his work, Coward never defended himself. Instead, he seems to have taken the advice of Stephenson. “He told me to go off and do my stuff anyway. So I did,” Coward recalled.

Convictions in War’s Largest Court-Martial Overturned

The convictions of twenty-eight African American soldiers at Seattle’s Fort Lawton, who were dishonorably discharged after a 1944 riot with Italian POWs there that left one dead, were overturned this fall by an army review board. Responding to calls from local congressmen to reinvestigate the case, the army’s Board of Corrections of Military Records found the wartime ruling in the case— the largest court-martial of World War II—had been “fundamentally unfair.” Some of the soldiers had been sentenced to as many as twenty-five years in prison, and all were drummed out of the service. Only two of the convicted men are known to be still living. The ruling will allow them to receive back pay, and it will give the families of the deceased soldiers the option of putting marble headstones on their graves.

During the war, Fort Lawton served as a staging area for units being shipped out to the Pacific, as well as a POW camp for German and Italian prisoners. In the summer of 1944, tensions flared between the Italian prisoners, who were given passes to town and were invited into some American homes, and soldiers in all-black units, who were largely restricted to their base. One night in August 1944, push came to shove, and a riot ensued between a group of black soldiers and Italian POWs. The next morning an Italian prisoner, Guglielmo Olivotto, was found hanging in the nearby woods.

Government prosecutors, led by Leon Jaworski, the same attorney who would prosecute Watergate thirty years later, descended on the scene. The two defense attorneys were given only ten days to organize their cases, not long enough even to interview all of the defendants. An initial report by the army inspector general had raised important points about the guilt of the defendants, citing evidence that white MPs may have goaded the black soldiers into fighting and might have even lynched Olivotto themselves, but Jaworksi succeeding in suppressing it, and the defense attorneys never saw it. An army court, under pressure to show how strongly Americans would respond to violations of the Geneva Conventions, ruled quickly, and harsh sentences were handed down.

In 2005, a television journalist, Jack Hamann, wrote a book about the case called On American Soil, which pointed out the many inconsistencies in the army’s decision, and prompted two Washington congressmen to demand an inquiry.

Many Japanese War Criminals Escaped Punishment, New Research Reveals

The Japanese navy was responsible for the coldblooded murder of twenty thousand captured Allied seamen during World War II, according to a book published this winter by Mark Felton, a British naval historian. In Slaughter at Sea: The Story of Japan’s Naval War Crimes, Felton reveals damning evidence of a litany of previously unknown Japanese war crimes— including the widespread practice of beheading captured Allied crewmen—in unpublished interrogation and war crimes tribunal records. Most of these crimes, Felton says, went unpunished, and many of the perpetrators are still alive.

According to Felton’s research, some 12,500 British and 7,500 Australian sailors, many of them merchant seamen or aircrews, were machine-gunned in the water or tortured on the decks of Japanese ships before being killed. (While the perpetrators of similar crimes against American sailors were prosecuted after the war, the British government, Felton says, didn’t have the same resources to pursue war criminals, and many deaths were never investigated.) In one incident in March 1944, Felton describes the murders of eighty-five British sailors whose merchant ship, Behar, was sunk by the heavy cruiser Tone. After being held for ten days below deck, the men were brought to the ship’s stern, where, their hands tied, they were kicked, beheaded, and dumped overboard. One of the Japanese officers, Comdr. Junsuke Mii, who said he tried to stop the executions, described the massacre at a war crimes trial after the war. Most of his fellow officers were never charged.

This kind of behavior wasn’t just tolerated, it was encouraged by the Japanese navy, Felton argues, pointing to a March 20, 1943, order which read: “Do not stop at the sinking of enemy ships and cargoes. At the same time carry out the complete destruction of the crews.”


Originally published in the March 2008 issue of World War II Magazine. To subscribe, click here