The Grasshopper Lies Heavy

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Last year for Veterans Day I wrote about my Russian-born grandfather, Boris Krass, a US Army intelligence officer during WWII. In 1944 he interviewed hundreds of Russian slave-laborers whom the Allies had recently liberated from Nazi labor camps. He found hate for the Nazis, hangings, black markets, sabotage, murders, Russian prisoners all but abandoned by the USSR, and calculating Germans hedging their bets by passing information to their captives. You can read his secret report to the Army and OSS here.

I recently learned that he also interrogated Soviet soldiers who, under the command of Red Army General Andrey Vlassov, defected, donned Wehrmacht uniforms, and fought alongside the Nazis before, as POWs, offering to fight Nazis again for the Americans.

 

Now I’m sharing the Philip K. Dick-worthy wartime story of my Italian-American great-grandfather, Mario Boet, a naturalized US citizen who lived in Manhattan. According to this 1942 New York Times report, he apparently spent his war years inventing—and possibly trying to realize—alternate post-war realities.

Highlights from the Times:

SALESMAN IS HELD FOR WAR LETTERS

Son of an Italian Admiral Is Accused of Attempting to Damage Army Morale

BELITTLED U.S. POWER

A seditious attempt to damage the morale of the armed forces through letters cursing the United States and belittling its power, while floridly praising the Axis, was charged yesterday to Mario Albert Boet…

Boet’s letters … were addressed to General George C. Marshall, Army Chief of Staff; to Lieut. Gen. Ben Lear, to the superintendent of West Point Military Academy and to various newspapers and radio stations…

In one letter … Boet described himself as having been landed by an Axis submarine at Huntington, L.I. The letter directed its recipient, who was not identified, to go at once to Detroit and obtain a list of war plants, with data on their production. Written before this country entered the war, the letter contained the assertion that its writer, if he found the United States unready to fight, would try to get it into the world conflict.

 

Excerpts from the Plattsburg Press-Republican:

FBI ARRESTS ADMIRAL’S SON

The letters, according to the FBI, contained the following statements:

  1. If American soldiers dare to land on French or Italian soil, they will meet a Dunkirk worse than the British Dunkirk.
  2. If an AEF [American Expeditionary Force] landed in Europe, the Japanese would land on the Pacific Coast.
  3. General[s] and admiral[s] who preach an invasion of Europe should listen to Rome and Berlin broadcasts and thereby learn such an attempt would result in calamity for the invaders.
  4. America under Axis control would create more jobs, distribute riches more evenly, promote opportunity, improve living conditions.
  5. The American fleet is impotent, the resources of the country disorganized, the people divided, the soldiers without training.

 

From the Tasmania Examiner:

In one letter Boet wrote: “I have landed safely from a submarine and have reached Huntington harbor by motor boat. I am working for the beloved Fuehrer here among our worst enemies.”

 

More from the Times:

Some of his letters were signed Roberto, a contraction of Rome, Berlin, Tokyo.

 

The purported submarine landing on Long Island, while certainly not true, is an interesting detail. The Italian navy did have a sophisticated submarine program, and later in the war developed plans with Germany to use them to attack New York Harbor. Boet had close ties to Italy, and his then-recently deceased father had in fact been an admiral in the Italian navy. He traveled to Italy frequently, and, the Times reports, had been briefly employed in some capacity by the Italian consulate. He also lived in Manhattan’s Yorkville neighborhood, where the pro-Nazi German-American Bund was an active and very visible presence.

He was arrested by the FBI and charged with sedition. Boet was one of the relatively few Italian-Americans to be imprisoned in US wartime internment camps. According to Justice Department records, he was held at Ellis Island, then Fort Meade, Fort McAlester, and finally Fort Missoula, Montana.

While he was imprisoned, his US-born son, a radio operator in the US Army Air Forces, flew bombing missions over Italy, and his 19-year-old daughter eloped with a Russian-born US Army intelligence officer (my grandmother and grandfather).

Boet was likely released sometime after Italy’s September 8, 1943 surrender to the Allies. After the war he told his family he was astounded at how well he was treated as a prisoner. This appeared to have played a large part in his newfound affection for the US, as did, no doubt, his need to resolve his own family’s conflicting and rapidly evolving national identities and allegiances.

My mother knew her grandfather Boet to be a very kind, gentle man. Growing up, she was told only that he had been arrested and interned during the war for writing letters threatening the life of FDR, motivated by his great distress over his adoptive country gearing up to go to war with his homeland and close relatives still in Italy. The details of his letters—the submarine, the espionage, the “Roberto” pseudonym, the plot to induce the US to enter the war—are new to her, and she doesn’t quite know what to make of them, other than to feel sorry for him.

I imagine that my great-grandfather’s wartime missives were in fact bluster—at most an ill-conceived freelance disinformation campaign to dissuade the US from war—and that had there been any substance to his plots, he would have faced a much harsher fate than internment. But I have no way of knowing who, if anyone, Boet might have been communicating with, and what was merely his invention and what was reality.

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