The Duquesne Spy Ring is the largest espionage case in United States history that ended in convictions.
The day after Hitler declared war on the United States on Dec. 11, 1941, a Brooklyn jury returned convictions on a viperous nest of Nazi spies brought to justice by a humble but courageous Manhattan man.
William Sebold was the FBI’s first double agent and the country’s first hero of World War II.
The Duquesne Spy Ring, as it was known, was brought down by Sebold in what still stands as the largest espionage case in American history. A femme fatale, a soldier of fortune and a gun-toting Sperry engineer were among the 33 spies, but most were naturalized citizens . Of those indicted, 19 pleaded guilty. The remaining 14 were brought to jury trial in Federal District Court, Brooklyn, New York, all were found guilty on December 13, 1941. On January 2, 1942, the group was sentenced to serve a total of over 300 years in prison.
William G. Sebold, who had been blackmailed into becoming a spy for Germany, became a double agent and helped the FBI gather evidence. For nearly two years, the FBI ran a shortwave radio station in New York for the ring. They learned what information Germany was sending its spies in the United States and controlled what was sent to Germany. Sebold’s success as a counterespionage agent was demonstrated by the successful prosecution of the German agents.
William Sebold (double-agent)
One German spymaster later commented the ring’s roundup delivered “the death blow” to their espionage efforts in the United States. FBI director J. Edgar Hoover called his concerted FBI swoop on Duquesne’s ring the greatest spy roundup in U.S. history.
William Sebold (double-agent)
A native of Germany, William Sebold served in the Imperial German Army during World War I. After leaving Germany in 1921, he worked in industrial and aircraft plants throughout the United States and South America. On February 10, 1936, he became a naturalized citizen of the United States.
Sebold returned to Germany in February 1939 to visit his mother in Mülheim. On arrival in Hamburg, he was approached by a member of the Gestapo who said that Sebold would be contacted in the near future. Sebold proceeded to Mülheim where he obtained employment.
In September 1939, a Dr Gassner visited Sebold in Mülheim and interrogated him about military planes and equipment in the United States. He also asked Sebold to return to the United States as an agent for Germany. Subsequent visits by Dr. Gassner and a Dr. Renken, later identified as Major Nickolaus Ritter of the German Secret Service, persuaded Sebold to cooperate with the Reich because he feared reprisals against family members still living there. Ritter was the Abwehr officer in charge of espionage against the United States and Britain.
Since Sebold’s passport had been stolen shortly after his first visit from Gassner, Sebold went to the US consulate in Cologne, to obtain a new one. While there, Sebold secretly told consulate personnel about his future role as a German agent and expressed his wish to cooperate with the FBI when he got back to America.
Sebold reported to Hamburg, where he was instructed in such areas as preparing coded messages and microphotographs. On completion of training, he was given five microphotographs containing instructions for preparing a code and detailing the type of information he was to transmit to Germany from the United States. Sebold was told to retain two of the microphotographs and to deliver the other three to German operatives in the United States: Fritz Joubert Duquesne, Hermann Lang, and one other. After receiving final instructions, including using the assumed name Harry Sawyer, he sailed from Genoa, Italy, and arrived in New York City on February 8, 1940.
In May 1940, a shortwave radio-transmitting station operated by FBI agents on Long Island established contact with the German shortwave station abroad. For 16 months it served as a main channel of communications between German spies in New York City and their superiors in Germany. During this time, the FBI’s station transmitted over 300 messages to and received 200 messages from Germany.
After the Duquesne Spy Ring convictions, Sebold was provided with a new identity and started a chicken farm in California.
Impoverished and delusional, he was committed to Napa State Hospital in 1965. Diagnosed with manic-depression, he died there of a heart attack five years later at 70. His life story as a double agent was first told in the 1943 book Passport to Treason: The Inside Story of Spies in America by Alan Hynd.
James EllsworthSpecial Agent Jim Ellsworth was assigned as Sebold’s handler or body man, responsible for shadowing his every move during the sixteen-month investigation.
In early February 1940, FBI agent James Ellsworth left his home in Huntington Park, California, prepared for a normal day of work. Instead, he was met by a man with a message from John Edgar Hoover, director of the FBI in Washington, D.C., instructing him to take the next possible plane to New York City.
“I asked Dick what the case was and he said Mr. Hoover would not say,” Ellsworth’s personal diary read. “I asked him how long I should prepare to be gone and he said he had no idea.”
Ellsworth immediately returned home, packed a suitcase for a two-week trip, picked up his plane ticket and went to New York.
“When I arrived at the airport at New York City, I was met by two agents whom I knew,” Ellsworth’s diary continued. “They put me into an automobile and drove me into New York City. On the way they took away my gun, my identification badge and credentials and all identifications cards. They gave me a new set of identification cards and a fictitious name and gave me a little background of the case I was to work on.”
It was that day that Ellsworth met German-born William G. Sebold, the first double agent in FBI history, as Ellsworth took part in the war against Nazi Germany. Ellsworth, who had served a mission for LDS in Germany, including serving in the city where Sebold was born, would spend 16 months with Sebold as his handler on a case that would eventually lead to the arrest of 33 spies in what is still the largest espionage case in American history.
This was the way James Ellsworth’s son, Tom, remembers his father beginning his telling of the Sebold case — a story about a case and a double agent that are not much remembered today.
“We knew his experience, but we didn’t have the background,” Tom Ellsworth said in a phone interview. “The whole part of the way the nation felt about war, the situation with the FBI at the time. … So we had his view of it, but we didn’t have the complete picture.
The case was extremely hard to write a coherent narrative of, Duffy said, because it was so long and complex. Duffy said he had to learn everything about the 33 who were convicted in order to really get down to the important things.
“Jim Ellsworth was loyal and honorable and dedicated to the case, and we can see that in looking at the fact that he didn’t begin writing the diary until the arrests had been made,” Duffy said. “To write it during the case … it could have gotten into the wrong hands or jepordized the case in various ways. And then he returned to his diary. It was probably the longest he had not kept a diary in his life. Ellsworth was a unique figure.”
For the Ellsworth family, the journals and letters between their parents surrounding the case, kept for family history, were something they thought about but never got around to publishing — part of the reason being the amount of research and information needed to do the story justice.
“Dad was in the FBI for 20 years. He was in some very scary situations where he was in danger and never had to draw his gun,” Tom Ellsworth said. “He always felt like he was protected. Now, my mother didn’t feel that way, but those were the times when she taught me how to pray.”
Tom Ellsworth said that there were many times when his father didn’t come home when he was supposed to or when his mother would call him at the office and discover he was out on assignment.
“She had incredible faith,” Tom said of his mother. “She would tell me to go to my closet and pray for father’s safety. And so I would. And of course, he always came home fine.”
Although the spiritual experiences didn’t fit into the book, Duffy includes James Ellsworth’s dedication to his faith many times.
“(Ellsworth) kept a diary all his life. His diaries are an important historical artifact, for particularly the Mormon experience,” Duffy said of Ellsworth, who would later be called by President Harold B. Lee as a mission president in Germany. “He was deeply connected to his Mormon faith and wrote about it in his diaries, which encompasses a large part of the 20th century.”
William Gustav Friedemann
William Gustav Friedemann was a principal witness in the Duquesne case. He began working for the FBI as a fingerprint analyst in 1935 and later became an agent after identifying a crucial fingerprint in a kidnapping case.
After World War II, he was assigned to Puerto Rico, where he pinpointed the group behind the assassination attempt on President Harry Truman. Friedemann died of cancer on August 23, 1989 in Stillwater, Oklahoma.
Liaisons to the Duquesne Spy Ring
Lieut Commander Takeo Ezima of the Imperial Japanese Navy operated in New York as an engineer inspector using the name: E. Satoz; code name: KATO.
He arrived on the Heian Maur in Seattle in 1938. On October 19, 1940, Sebold received a radio message from Germany that CARR (Abwehr Agent Roeder) was to meet E. Satoz at a Japanese club in New York.
Ezima was filmed by the FBI while meeting with agent Sebold in New York, conclusive evidence of German-Japanese cooperation in espionage, in addition to meeting with Kanegoro Koike, Paymaster Commander of the Japanese Imperial Navy assigned to the Office of the Japanese Naval Inspector in New York. Ezima obtained a number of military materials from Duquesne, including ammunition, a drawing of a hydraulic unit with pressure switch A-5 of the Sperry Gyroscope, and an original drawing from the Lawrence Engineering and Research Corporation of a soundproofing installation, and he agreed to deliver materials to Germany via Japan. The British had made the Abwehr courier route from New York through Lisbon, Portugal difficult, so Ezima arranged an alternate route to the West Coast with deliveries every two weeks on freighters destined for Japan.
As the FBI arrested Duquesne and his agents in New York in 1941, Ezima escaped to the West Coast, boarded the Japanese freighter Kamakura Maru, and left for Tokyo. One historian states that Ezima was arrested for espionage in 1942 and sentenced to 15 years;however, U.S Naval Intelligence documents state that “at the request or the State Department, Ezima was not prosecuted.”
Nikolaus Adolph Fritz Ritter
Oberstleutnant (Lieutenant colonel) Nikolaus Ritter led spy rings in the United States, Great Britain, and North Africa from 1936 to 1941. Ritter was born in Germany and had served as an officer in the First World War on the Western Front in France where he was twice wounded. He emigrated to New York in 1924, married an American, and returned to Germany in 1936 to join the Abwehr as Chief of Air Intelligence based in Hamburg operating under the code name: DR. RANTZAU.
He first met Fritz Duquesne in 1931, and the two spies reconnected in New York on December 3, 1937. Ritter also met Herman Lang while in New York, and he arranged for Lang to later go to Germany help the Nazis finish their version of the topsecret Norden bombsight. Ritter achieved several major successes with the Abwehr, most notably the Norden bombsight, in addition to an advanced aircraft auto-pilot from the Sperry Gyroscope Company, and also intelligence operations in North Africa in support of Field Marshal Erwin Rommel. But some of Ritter’s recruits became double-agents who catastrophically exposed his spy rings.
Ritter recruited William Sebold who later joined to FBI and resulted in the arrest of the 33 Abwehr agents of the Duquesne Spy Ring. In Great Britain, he recruited Arthur Owens, code named JOHNNY, who became an agent for MI5 (British Intelligence) operating under the code name SNOW. Owens exposed so many Abwehr covert agents operating in Britain that by the end of the war MI5 had enlisted some 120 double agents. Although Ritter was never captured, it was the arrest of the Duquesne Spy Ring that ultimately resulted in Ritter’s fall from the Abwehr and his re-assignment in 1942 to air defenses in Germany for the remainder of the Second World War.