Granville asked the waiter to bring us more coffee. Then said , “I have two questions, no three questions, to ask you about that. First, why did you want to delay your entry into the army just to finish your sophomore year? Why not swing for the fences and get a complete educational deferment? Second, what made you think that telling your draft board, a bunch of small-town USA yokels, about an obscure Hungarian relic would get you are the deferment you were looking for? Finally, what the hell did you tell them? I not only want the details because they are important for what we are going to be doing but how. You must have told a helluva story to get these guys to “pass it up the line.”
I paused before answering him. Obviously, I knew the answers, but I had never met Granville before. I did not know how much I could trust him with the total honesty he requested. At the same time, he was my commanding officer and someone who would have to learn to trust me. If he caught me in a half truth, an omission or a lie any trust we would have developed would be replaced by suspicion and distrust. I decided to come clean.
“Sir, do I have your permission to speak freely.”
Granville eyed me with the same look he must have used in countless interrogations. The type of look that let the person being glared at know that they could see through any crap that might be thrown their way and said “Sure…and call me George…when we are alone.”
I took a deep breath. “George, I wanted to serve my country. After the Anschluss, and even before, I was beaten, harassed and even stabbed. One Hitler Youth kid even through a spear at me that hit me in the head. I still have that scar. My father was arrested on Kristallnacht, tortured and would probably be dead now except for his service in the first world war. I watched my mother being humiliated on the streets. Do you have any idea how difficult it is for a boy to see his mother forced to clean a sidewalk with a toothbrush while people spit on her and laugh? They arrested and most likely killed my best friend.” I took a breath.
“From the time I was 11 years old all I ever thought about was getting back at Hitler and the Nazi’s.”
“The United States gave me everything. When I saw the Statue of Liberty for the first time it was the first time I had felt safe in my life. It gave me shelter. It allowed me to become something other than a locksmith. I could live my dreams.”
“ I wanted to serve….the country had given me my dream and I wanted to live as much of it as I could before heading off to war…”
“There was a bit of calculation on my part. The Vienna street kid coming out in me where you learn pretty fast that surviving today allows you to fight tomorrow. When I went before the draft board I knew, hell everyone knew, that the next step in defeating the Nazis was an invasion of Europe. The papers talked about it constantly. It was going to take a lot of troops and it was going to be hard fighting. Fighting like we had never seen. It would be a meat grinder. And fresh troops were going to be the meat. I thought if I could delay my entry into the Army for a few months then perhaps there would be less of a chance me getting caught up in the meat grinder.” I paused. “I am not proud of my….my…analysis…but it meant that by the time I finished Basic in January of ’45 the big battles had been fought and won.”
“But I also felt guilty. I figured out a way to delay my service. A lot of people were not so lucky…But this is all mixed in with I really did want to finish my sophomore year. I had worked so hard to get to college. 3.5 years before I started at Syracuse, I spoke virtually no English. I had to scrimp every penny, working every awful job imaginable, including shoveling snow off train tracks in the middle of an upstate New York winter, and survive my father’s stream of abuse about going to school to get there. I didn’t want that to be for nothing.”
“In other words, I had a lot of motivation to convince my Draft Board to give me the deferment. But I did not think I had any reason to give them other than I wanted to finish my sophomore year. And I did not think that was going to fly with them. I had a high draft number and they were not giving deferments for no reason. I felt like if I really wanted to have my deferment granted I needed something to grease the skids. I had to give them something that would not only get their attention but also that of the Army.”
“Which is when you decided to talk to them about the Crown of St. Stephen?”
“Right! But I had two things I needed to overcome. The first, was my own conscience. When I was told about the Crown, the person who gave me the information, swore me to secrecy. I took the promise seriously when I told him I would keep the secret. But I eventually concluded that promise did not cover this situation. I mean he told a 13-year-old Jewish boy at a time when the Nazi’s had conquered most of Europe. Who was he really going to tell? More importantly, the nature of the promise had implied in it the safety of the Crown. I was not going to be putting the Crown in danger by telling my draft board and there was a strong possibility that I would be doing something to save it.”
The second problem was how do I explain why what I was telling them was important. I had learned in the short time I was living in America that their knowledge of Europe and its history was minimal and mostly had to do with England. I mean the average American could not tell you the difference between a Magyar and a Romani let alone anything about the Hapsburgs. How do you convince of local businesspeople, many of them without college education, the significance of a crown of minor central European kingdom?”
I paused to see if Granville had any questions and perhaps a little bit for effect. Instead of responding, he just nodded, which I took as an invitation to continue my story.
“My birthday was drawn high when the held the draft lottery. . I knew that if I wanted that deferment, I would need to appeal to my draft board. So, I wrote them a letter asking them for a deferment. In it, I tried to explain the history of the Crown, its importance to the people of Hungary, and as a consequence to the region. I knew it was a little bit like explaining color to a blind person. American’s, as a whole don’t understand kingdoms, as a consequence what crowns means. Most American’s don’t really understand European History, let alone the history of Hungry, Austria, The Hapsburgs.”
“ I tried to keep it simple. In my letter to them, I explained that the Holy Crown of Hungary was like the Declaration of Independence, The Constitution, The Flag, The Presidency and the Ark of the Covenant all rolled into the one. That for more than 1000 years, since the Pope had given to King Stephen (later St. Stephen) that it has crowned every Hungarian King. That the crown can only be possessed by someone who is worthy of it. Not the other way around. That whoever controls the Crown controls the Hungarian people.”
“I explained that while I was a boy living in Vienna, I had been told of plans to smuggle the Crown out of Hungary should the Nazi’s try to seize it as a means to controlling Hungary. That, I was sure that the same plan was in effect should the Soviets do the same.”
“Then I explained the plan, as I remembered it. And told them, that I was providing the information to them not because I was seeking deferment of my draft because I felt it was my obligation to give it to them as I was about to enter the service for the United States. But I hoped that they would consider my deferment.”
“When I appeared before the board, there were a few questions about the Crown but really nothing more than acknowledging my letter. Then they granted me my deferment until September 1944.”
“I went back to Syracuse and forgot completely about the Crown. I was too busy trying to pass Organic Chemistry and Physics and earn enough money to live on to think about many other things”
“Then one afternoon in February, as I was leaving my ROTC class, I was approached by two men in dark suits. They identified themselves as Sergeants from Army Counterintelligence. I think their names were Magrath and English. They asked if they could speak with me about what I had written to my draft board. I was a bit nervous and asked if I was in trouble of some kind? I could not imagine what that would be, but we were at war and land mines were everywhere. They assured me I was not in trouble. That they were here for routine follow up. The Chairman of the Danbury Draft board had, as a matter of routine, forwarded my letter to the Army. The Army not knowing what to do with it sent to CIC, etc etc. Not a big deal . We should talk. They would file a report that would sit in a file. So we went down to the Rathskeller and I spent the next couple of hours going through what I had been told by Colonel Skoda and The Holy Crown. At the end, they shook my hand and wished me well.
“And” Granville asked.
“Completely, forgot about it. Finished my sophomore year in August. Got inducted into the Army. Did basic training at Ft. Wolters, Texas. Became a US Citizen. Applied for and got Officer Candidate School at Ft Sill and I was two weeks away from graduation when the CIC chief on the base called me to his office. I thought they were going to wash me out for something. Instead, he hands me a set of orders from Ft. Devins, Maryland breveting me to Lieutenant and telling me to report to Major Kubala at 5th Army Intelligence in Augsburg, Germany. Two hours later I was on a plane. 6 hours after that I was on a B17-E flying the southern route to Europe. I got to Major Kubala 36 hours later. And he sent me to you and frankly George I am confused as hell. Why the hell do you need me here? Everything I knew about the Crown was in that report.
Granville, pulled out a pack of Chesterfields and tapped out a smoke. Blowing out a billow of smoke he said “What you meant to ask. Why did the Army fly a pissant almost Lt. halfway around the world when reading a report would have sufficed?”
“That is exactly what I mean.”
“Then I guess I need to bring you up to date.”
“If you asked a Hungarian official today how they would want to write history they would probably tell you that they were a reluctant member of the Axis powers. Due to their geographic location, dead center in Europe, German troops would have to move through them to get to the Balkans and the Romanian oil fields, to the Ukraine Russia and beyond. That for them, it was either choose to be a part of the party and retain control of your government or being conquered and loose all control of your destiny. And remember, back then, late 1940, Germany had run the table. Poland, Belgium, Czechoslovakia, Denmark, Norway, Holland and France all conquered or overrun. The British asses had been kicked at Dunkirk. The Nazi’s looked invincible. Admiral Horthy and his advisors decided to join the Axis out of self-preservation. Kill or be killed.”
Granville looked over at me and no doubt saw a look of skepticism on my face. “Yeah. I know. It is quite easy now to say they were forced into it. They had no choice. But you and I both know, no matter how they had no choice, they were more than willing participants. They joined the Axis happily. From an economic point of view Italy and Germany were their two largest trading partners and with the Reich expanding looking like they were going to conquer the world it meant that Hungary would thrive. More importantly, Hungary’s leadership own views on race and politics were not dissimilar. The Magyars have always believed in their own ethnic superiority. That other ethnic groups like the Romani, Swabians, Bulgars and Jews were a tolerated necessity. From a political point of view, they were on point with each other. While not fascist, per se, they were adamantly anticommunist and gave absolute power to the Regent. So while they may not been singing out of the same hymnal it was close enough that they could sing together during the chorus.”
“But as the war progressed, the calculus of staying in power changed. We joined the war. Hitler was defeated in North Africa. Italy was invaded. The Russians held and eventually defeated Hitler at Stalingrad. When the Allies issued the Moscow Declaration in late November of 1943, essentially describing how the post war world was going to work, the Hungarians could see which way the wind was blowing and they decided that needed to negotiate their own future. A separate peace.
Granville paused and gave me a dead eyed look and said “They cover the Espionage Act of 1917 and classifications of secrets while you were at Fort Sill?”
I nodded and said “yes.”
“Good because up until now what I have told you is a matter of public knowledge, history. But this next part, is classified what I am going to share with you know is classified as Top Secret. In simple terms, you can tell no one except a person you know is cleared for Top Secret material and then only on a need to know basis. Not a girlfriend. Not a wife. No one until it is cleared. Understood?”
“Okay. After the Moscow declaration. The Hungarian Government under the Regent, Admiral Horthy…you understand who he is?”
“Isn’t he, in essence the King, except he is not. Something about refusing the crown. But he runs the government, sort of constitutional dictator but with a dash of regality thrown in.”
“You’re on track. The Hungarian Government began to realize that its alliance with the Axis was not going to end well. Not only, was there increasing pressure to give more power to the Broken Arrow Party…the Nazi’s of Hungary…and also implement the Nuremberg Laws and begin deporting the Jews to concentration camps and dispose of them. The Hungarians had no great love for Jews but they also realized that they played a vital part of the economy, so they were a bit reluctant to do this. But the real problem was they knew that if the Germans began to withdraw from the Soviet Union Hungary would become a battleground and the Russians would lay waste to anything in their path. Worse, it was clear from the Moscow Declaration that Hungary was likely come under Soviet influence if not control in a post war world.”
“Horthy and his government could not abide by a Communist state in Hungary. It shook them to the Magyar core. They needed a separate peace.”
“Admiral Horthy wrote in secret via his embassy in Portugal to Nicholas Roosevelt who had been the US Minister to Hungary in the early ‘30’s. Horthy knew that Roosevelt was not only the first cousin of Teddy but had access to Franklin. He wanted to negotiate an armistice with the Allied Power where he had a personal relationship and would likely be the ones running the show after the war. Roosevelt did what he was supposed to do and a back channel was set up between the government. A deal was struck. Hungary declares an armistice. They step out of the war, like the Italians, and the government remains the same. The hope was that Hitler and The German General Staff would be so busy fighting what was in essence a three front war that they would have little or no resources to deal with the Hungarians. From the allies point of view it meant, that instead of fighting their way across Hungary they would have a direct path to the Reich. Plans were made. Contingency plans were devised. Contingency plans to the contingency plans were conceived. Then things went FUBAR. “
“Somehow the Germans found out about the secret negotiations. Horthy was forced to show his hands and declared an armistice in October 1944 months before the allies were in position to back him. The Nazi’s then kidnapped his son and using that as leverage forced him to resign. Then they arrested him and sent him off to Bavaria and prison while they installed a Broken Arrow fascist regime under Ferenc Szalasi.
“Are you following me so far.”
“Sure George but I am not sure what this all has to do with me?”
“Didn’t they teach you patience in basic…Hold on. I am getting there. We had planned for this contingency. For the Hungarians, the resignation of Horthy meant that two groups, the Nazi’s and the Commies, would soon or could soon gain possession of the Crown. To them it would be like Jews letting the ark of the covenant fall into the hands of the Philistines. Or us giving over the constitution to the British. As a consequence, one of the contingency plans we had worked out before hand was moving the Crown west so that it could be protected by the US Army.”
“In November of 1944, the Crown Guard secreted the Holy Crown of Hungary, The Holy Scepter and Orb, and the Holy Right Hand of St. Stephen were placed in special chests and driven out of Budapest to a monastery in Vezspem about 100km away. They did not feel safe there, so they moved it to moved it to Kozeg. And so it went. The Russians would advance west and so would the Crown and its retinue.
We were kept up to date with the Crowns progress west by the Crown Guard as we had promised to protect it as part of our agreement with Horthy. We promised him that should things go south we would protect the Crown and return to the Hungarian people when a permanent government was established. That is, as long as it was not communist. Whenever they settled in some place, they would contact the Hungarian underground. They, in turn would inform us.
The crown finally entered Austria in mid-March. That is when the big brains back at SHAPE (Supreme Headquarters Allied Powers Europe) decided that this would be my baby. Part of it was my background being Hungarian and speaking it and German fluently. And partly because I straddle another line. Technically, I am an officer in Army CIC, but I am also a part of OSS. Having me in charge of the mission meant less interagency fighting. It was good office politics. My orders were to report to the 5th Army Interrogation Center in Augsburg, Germany and Major Kubala and wait until we heard from the Crown Guard.
And then they went dark. Whether it was because they were in Austria and trying to fly even farther below the radar or because they could not find a member of the underground now that they were in Austria I don’t know. But we didn’t hear from them all through April and we feared the worst. Either they had been captured by the Germans or even the Russians. We even played around with the idea that they were playing a fast one on us. The Hungarians trust no one who is not Magyar. Why should they trust us?
Finally, on May 4. we got word from a Catholic priest in Seeham, a small town near Salzburg that a Hungarian Crown Guard Officer named Pajtas was looking to surrender. It was what we were waiting for. I grabbed Cookie, a squad of men, and a “deuce and we made all haste to get Seeham. It was not easy. The war was all but done but the road were shit and there were checkpoints everywhere. It took us better part of the day.
When I got to the town, I found them outside a small Catholic Mission. They had placed the covered truck in the center of the courtyard and it was guarded by 6 armed members of the Crown Guard. When I asked for their commanding officer I was directed inside to the kitchen where I found Pajtas and six more members of the guard eating dinner. They did not seem impressed with me or the fact that I represented the conquering Army. Pajtas said to his men in Hungarian “Look at the little rooster strutting. He must think we are all his chickens.” His men thought it was hilarious.
Not wanting to get into a pissing match with Pajtas in front of his men I asked him outside for a smoke. After I lit his cigarette, I asked him “Do they raise capons on the farm where your father fucked cows. Because you are about to become one if you don’t start cooperating right now.”
He blanched. Then apologized. He explained that it was just army humor and not to take it personally. I said I didn’t give a flying fuck about him or his insults. That I had a job to do “Where’s the Crown?”
He pointed to the truck and said there. I began to walk to the trucks and his sentries pointed their weapons at me. Pajtas told them to be at ease and they relaxed but having armed enemy soldiers in this situation was not a good idea. Cookie, who had seen what had happened took half his squad and outflanked Pajtas’s guards. By the time we opened the flap on the back of the truck the other half of the squad had casually entered the kitchen.
In the back of the truck there were two large ornate iron trunks that resembled small caskets that were emblazoned with the Hungarian Coat of Arms. Each of the them was also fitted with three integral locks and were secured to truck bed with chains that also had locks on them. Before I could inspect the trunks further there was a disturbance outside. Cookie had taken advantage of Pajtas’s distraction and had his men forcibly disarm the Crown Guard who lined the perimeter of the truck and those inside having dinner. The Hungarians had not been pleased.
I turned to Pajtas and I said “Major, my orders are to take possession of The Crown and take it to Augsburg Germany where there is a special facility that will allow us to keep it safe until such time it can be returned to a legitimate Hungarian Government. You and your men are considered enemy combatants and will be taken into custody and escorted to a prisoner of war facility where you will be held until such time as there is a disposition of the prisoner of war.”
Pajtas looked very pained. He knew he had no choice in the matter. That he was now a prisoner but still he pleaded with me. He told me that he and his men had sworn an oath and that they had a “sacred” duty to protect the crown from all others. He requested that he and his men be allowed to escort the Crown to Augsburg. I consented for no other reasons than that had been my plan all along. I had no way of disposing his men.
We drove through the night and finally reached the 5th Army Interrogation Center a little past dawn. I had sent word a head that our mission was accomplished, and we were heading back so the minute we entered the compound we were greeted by Major Kubala and a squad of MP’s. Pajtas and his men were taken to on base holding facility while the trunks were off loaded and taken to a small conference room in HQ. Kubala after admiring the trunks said “Great. Lets see what is inside. Give me the keys.”
To my defense I had been on the go for nearly 24 hours and been under extremely stressful conditions. I had never thought to ask Pajtas for the keys. We had him hauled back from the holding facility and demanded the keys. He gave us a self-satisfied defiant smirk and said he did not have them. After a bit of coercion administered by Kubala he admitted that hree days earlier he had met with a group of Hungarian ministers who had fled Hungary in front of the advancing Soviets. It had been decided, for the safety and protection of the Crown that the keys would be sent to trusted people who would protect the keys with their life. He said he had no idea who these people were.
It was a cluster fuck. And it got worse. Apparently, Kubala had jumped the gun and sent word to Eisenhower that the Crown was now in our possession. Eisenhower in turn had sent word to Truman. They were looking for photographs of our success and we had nothing to show them except a couple of old iron trunks. Kubala was embarrassed and angry and blamed me for his embarrassment. He ordered me to interrogate Admiral Horthy who after being liberated from the Nazi’s was being held at Augsburg. He claimed to know nothing. He imperiously claimed since he had been held in German and American prisons since September, how could he know anything. He also warned me that breaking open the trunks would be a desecration of the crown.
By this point Kubala is beyond angry not the least of which is because SHAPE had blasted him a new one. He told me that they had authorized him to “pull out all the stops” to find the keys.
At this point, Kubala took a moment lit another Chesterfield and said, “That was 10 days ago.”
“One of the first things I did was sent a message to Ft. Devens and see if we had any intelligence on the Crown of St. Stephen. The report your draft board filed along with the follow up by the two agents came up. It made it clear your pal Skoda was someone we needed to speak with, but we had a couple of problems” he said releasing a cloud of smoke.
“First, things here in Vienna as you have seen are a fucking mess. Not only is half the city rubble but the Russian’s did not play nice when they got here. They raped and looted until they got tired of it and then they did it some more. As a consequence, there is little good will towards us and our Russian allies and no cooperation.””
“Second, we have no idea what Skoda looks like. We could be talking directly to him and he could lie about who he is and we would none the wiser.”
“Which is where I come in” I said with sudden understanding.
“Yes, well actually we think you can help with both of those problems. In addition to being able to identify Skoda you are native. You speak German with a Viennese accent. We know that will help with the locals as well as your knowledge of the city. We hope that you will be able to figure out who is full of horseshit and who is steering us in the right direction.”
I wanted to tell Captain Granville that the chances of us finding Major Skoda were almost nil without Tad. He was, after all Tad’s Uncle, and after the letters from Eduard I was under no illusion that he was still alive. But I was here. There was no sense telling him the search was hopeless. It would only give Granville the wrong impression. As a consequence I said “Will find him, George.”