April 01, 2012

Legal Lore: Tried for Treason: The Amazing Case of Private Dale Maple

Fred L. Borch

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On April 24, 1944, at a court-martial convened deep inside the U.S. Disciplinary Barracks at Fort Leavenworth, Kansas, Army Private Dale Maple was found guilty of desertion and aiding the enemy. His sentence: to be hanged by the neck until dead. But Maple did not know that he had been sentenced to death, because the court-martial jury, which had conducted its proceedings in secret, had been ordered by the Army to keep its verdict secret as well—even from the defendant. What follows is the true story of the trial of Dale Maple, the first American-born soldier in the history of the Army ever to be found guilty of a crime that fits the constitutional definition of treason.

Born in San Diego, California, in September 1920, Maple was 15 years old when he graduated from high school—first in his class. He continued his education at Harvard and graduated Phi Beta Kappa with a B.A., magna cum laude, at age 19. His strength was languages. Dale Maple spoke Russian, Polish, Hungarian, Italian, French, Spanish, Portuguese, Danish, Swedish, Icelandic, and Dutch. But his first love was German, and while studying it at Harvard, Maple soon gained the reputation of being a German cultural sympathizer. And after he sang Nazi Party songs at the Harvard German Club in the fall of 1940 and loudly declared that National Socialism was “infinitely preferable to democracy,” the local newspapers proclaimed Maple the “Nazi leader of Boston.”

A few months after Hitler declared war on the United States, Maple enlisted in the U.S. Army, and for more than a year, he was an instructor in radio at Fort Meade, Maryland. Then, without any explanation, Maple was reassigned to Camp Hale, Colorado. He joined about 200 other soldiers whom the Army believed were unsympathetic, if not opposed, to the war aims of the Allies. Maple fell into this category because of the pro-Nazi statements he had made at Harvard.

Maple soon learned that he and his fellow Americans were not alone at Camp Hale. Residing nearby were several hundred German prisoners of war. These were men from Rommel’s vaunted Afrika Korps who, after being captured in North Africa, were now sitting out the war in Colorado.

Maple was soon fraternizing with these German prisoners, and his fluency in their language and knowledge of their culture made him a popular figure. Within a short time, Maple was talking about helping some of these Afrika Korpsmen to escape to Mexico.

Maple purchased an automobile and a pistol, borrowed money from his parents, and, on February 15, 1944, drove away from Camp Hale with two German prisoners. After covering more than 600 miles, the three men were but 17 miles from the border with Mexico when their car ran out of gas. Maple and the two Germans then walked the rest of the way. On February 18, 1944, they were three miles inside Mexico when they were arrested by a suspicious Mexican customs officer.

Maple and the two Germans were returned to the United States within days. The Germans were not punished because, under the law of war, they had a right to escape. For Private Maple, however, it was a different story. He was charged with desertion and aiding the enemy. The Army could not try Maple for treason because, under the Articles of War enacted by Congress, treason was not listed as a crime. Consequently, Maple was charged under the 81st Article of War, which made it a crime to relieve, correspond with, or aid the enemy. That article was the military statute that most nearly approximates the civil treason law.

On April 17, 1944, a court-martial convened at Fort Leavenworth heard Maple’s case. The proceedings were closed to the public, and the secret nature of the trial meant that Maple’s father and mother were not permitted to attend. Testimony from the two German prisoners left little doubt as to the defendant’s guilt. In addition, after an Army psychiatrist testified that Maple had an I.Q. of 152 and, in his expert opinion, understood without question that his actions were treasonous, the likelihood of a guilty verdict must have seemed strong to all in the courtroom.

On April 24, 1944, the jury unanimously concluded that Maple was guilty and that he should die by hanging. But the War Department had instructed the jury that it was not to announce its findings and sentence in open court; as a result, Maple did not know that he had been sentenced to death. Not until seven months later did Maple learn that he had escaped the hangman’s noose when he was informed that President Roosevelt had commuted his sentence to life imprisonment.

It seems that the Judge Advocate General of the Army, Major General Myron C. Cramer, was responsible for saving Maple’s life. In advising the White House on whether Roosevelt should approve the death sentence, Cramer wrote:

On the face of the record there appears to be little or nothing to suggest mitigation. But the accused is only 24 years of age, and is inexperienced. While he is undoubtedly legally sane and responsible for his despicable acts, under all the circumstances I am unable to escape the impression that justice does not require this young man’s life. I feel that the ends of justice will better be served by sparing his life so that he may live to see the destruction of tyranny, the triumph of the ideals against which he sought to align himself, and the final victory of the freedom he so grossly abused.

After Roosevelt spared his life, Maple was transferred to the U.S. penitentiary in the town of Leavenworth, Kansas. He was paroled in early 1951. While Maple’s case is almost forgotten today, his place in history is ensured by the fact that he was the first native-born American soldier to be court-martialed for the military equivalent of treason.


Fred L. Borch

The author is the regimental historian and archivist for the Judge Advocate General’s Corps, U.S. Army.