FORT MEADE, S.D. — By most accounts, Dale Maple was an intelligent, talented individual.
Born in 1920, the California native was a young piano prodigy in his early years, and newspaper accounts of the day predicted a bright future in music ahead for him. He received a scholarship to Harvard, where he graduated magna cum laude after studying government.
But he also had a pronounced sympathy for the Third Reich, strongly supported Adolph Hitler’s fascist regime in the lead-up to World War II, and was dubbed a “native U.S. Nazi” by Time magazine.
When the United States finally entered the war, he decided it was time to choose a side. He chose Germany.
“When the war started, he tried to go to Germany with the staff of the German embassy,” Paul Higbee, a writer based in the Black Hills who wrote an
for South Dakota Magazine in 2000, told the Mitchell Republic in a recent interview. “He said it looked like they were going to get expelled and he wanted to travel with him. They actually replied to him and said they had no interest.”
With no route to Germany through the German consulate, he joined the U.S. Army with hopes of heading overseas, where he could desert and cross into enemy territory. He spoke German fluently and figured he would be welcomed in the fight for Nazi superiority.
But after joining up and going through training to serve as a radio operator, U.S. Army officials dubbed him a security risk and sent him, along with soldiers of German and Italian descent they suspected of holding similar political leanings, to a camp as far away from the European front lines as they could find: Fort Meade, South Dakota.
“It felt OK to send him there, as that’s as far from the battlefront as you can be. There were between 200 and 400 men who were sent out here,” said Higbee, who lives in Spearfish, South Dakota.
Now a member of the 620th Engineer General Service Company, Maple and his fellow soldiers were given blue uniforms and relegated to busywork far away from where he could assist the German effort. He and his fellow sequestered soldiers painted buildings, made camouflage netting for the Allies, and maintained the grounds at Fort Meade near Sturgis, South Dakota, an installation with a history dating back to the 1870s.
Though essentially a prison camp, those interred there were given a good amount of freedom thanks to its remote nature. They were allowed a stipend to live outside the camp when off duty, with many taking up residence in Sturgis or Deadwood, South Dakota. Maple and company would occasionally rent a cabin, where they would drink beer and sing German beer hall songs. He was also known to play piano in local bars, where he impressed local residents with his talents.
For soldiers held under suspicion of being a threat to national security, those at Fort Meade lived a relatively cushy life.
“It’s all the more amazing when you think that other people were around the world in combat at the same time that they’re enjoying this extended Black Hills vacation,” Higbee said.
But Maple was resentful of his situation, and still wanted to defect to Germany. If the German ambassador and his staff wouldn’t help him and the U.S. Army wouldn’t allow him close to service on the front lines, he had to come up with another idea. That idea was helping German POWs to escape custody and accompanying them back to Germany.
The Fort Meade group was made up of American soldiers with suspicious political opinions, but there were no German POWs on site. Maple would not encounter foreign prisoners until the 620th was transferred to Camp Hale in Colorado a short while later.
Though the new location housed actual enemy combatants, security appeared to have been only slightly more strict than it was at Fort Meade.
“There they had to live on the campgrounds, but the thing that was exciting for Dale and some of the others is that there were German POWs there. And things were so lax, they could go back and forth between the two parts of the camp, between the POWs and the soldiers,” Higbee said.
Maple took advantage of that. He once spent 48 hours fraternizing with the Germans in their part of the camp. He proved popular with the prisoners, who even allowed Maple to wear an authentic German uniform and drink with them.
Authorities didn’t even notice Maple was absent from his part of the camp.
“It was just a big party. Nobody missed him,” Higbee said.
It was at this time that Maple formed a friendship with two of the German POWs, Heinrich Kikillus and Erhard Schwichtenberg, and together with three other co-conspirators, they hatched a plan. If Maple could help the two Germans escape out of the country, he could escape with them and make his way overseas via Mexico to Argentina and then proceed through to Spain and Germany.
So one afternoon, making use of the lax security, Maple secured an old automobile, took up a position just outside the camp, and waited for his partners to simply walk away and hop in the car. It was a brazen plan, put in motion in broad daylight, but it worked. Soon, the threesome was speeding south toward the Mexican border.
As smoothly as the escape appeared to go, the three did not make it far in the larger scheme of things. They had frequent car trouble, and even though they managed to make it to the border and successfully cross, they were soon apprehended by Mexican authorities, who turned them over to representatives from the U.S. Army.
A trial at Fort Leavenworth in Kansas soon followed, and after conviction of charges of desertion and aiding the enemy, Maple was sentenced to death. As the war began to wind down, however, the United States military complex seemed to have little appetite for the death of another American soldier, even a traitorous one, and his sentence was commuted to 10 years. His fellow American conspirators were also sentenced to prison terms.
Maple’s fate after that faded from memory, but his story lived on in newspaper clippings and the stories remembered by a handful of Black Hills residents.
Years later, Higbee came across the tale while researching another story, and decided it could make for an interesting feature. He contacted the alumni association at Harvard and dug up an old article on Maple in The New Yorker magazine from the 1950s. His sources also included writing by Bob Lee and his book “Fort Meade and the Black Hills.”
“I was so fascinated, I wrote to the magazine and they sent me a copy of the (New Yorker) article. I started reading and I thought, ‘I wonder where Dale Maple is,’ ” Higbee said.
Higbee was looking into the story prior to the massive internet boom that made researching history magnitudes easier, so chasing down an individual who hadn’t been heard from in over 50 years was a challenge. On a whim, he turned to a now-outdated method for contacting someone.
The phone directory.
“It was one chance in a hundred that I’d find him. I knew he went back to San Diego, so I looked in the phone directory,” Higbee said. “The first Dale Maple I found was him.”
Higbee and Maple talked over the phone, and Higbee found Maple to be everything early accounts about him had stated. He was intelligent, well-spoken and a good conversationalist, and he held fond memories of the Black Hills, stating he had hoped he would be able to visit there again someday.
They spoke for about an hour, with Maple expressing that he was still resentful for his treatment, having been put in a situation that he should never have been in in the first place.
“The thing that surprised me was that he denied nothing, and you could tell there was some anger there,” Higbee said, noting that Maple maintained he hadn’t done anything illegal prior to his escape attempt.
It was through this conversation that Higbee learned what Maple had been up to since his release.
In addition to music and politics, Maple had long held an interest in boat building, so he got into the boat-building business, constructing vessels for commercial fishing. Business was difficult, so he ended up switching his focus to solving a problem in the commercial fishing industry. He formed a company that would allow fishing boats to retain their insurance coverage even when they crossed international boundaries on the water.
“He said he could fix that, and started a company where if you bought a policy, it would be honored no matter where you went. He was immensely successful,” Higbee said. “When you think about the interviews over your career, this was one of the best. He was so articulate, so frank. And it was capped by learning about the international insurance industry that he helped build.”
Maple had gone from an American traitor to an example of the American dream, picking himself up from a troubled past and making a name for himself for admirable reasons.
Reflecting on his own story, Maple apparently did hold some regrets. Higbee asked him if he had wished he had done anything differently, and Maple told him he wished he had majored in music instead of government at Harvard.
Higbee agreed it would be interesting to see where the musically gifted young man, who died in 2001 at the age of 80, could have ended up had he focused on music instead of politics. It’s likely that those who heard him play piano in and around Fort Meade during his time there would agree, judging by anecdotal evidence.
Though he redeemed himself to an extent after his fall from grace during the war, there will likely always be questions about what could have been had he made better choices.
“He was a big deal on the West Coast as a young man, just an incredibly gifted musician. A lot of things he could do didn’t require that much effort. He could just do it. He was very confident that whatever he touched would turn to gold,” Higbee said. “That was true at the end of his life, but it was not true during World War II.”