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June 01, 2016

Legal Lore: The Hesse Crown Jewels Courts-Martial

Fred L. Borch

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In February 1946, less than one year after World War II had ended, Princess Sophie of Greece was preparing to marry Prince George Wilhelm of Hanover. The bride was to wear the Hesse family jewels during the ceremony, but when a servant was sent to retrieve the jewels from their hiding place in the Hesse family castle, they were gone—and presumed stolen. In fact, the jewels had been taken by three U.S. Army officers, and what follows is the story of their high-profile courts-martial for larceny and related offenses.

Countess Margaretha, the reigning matriarch of the Hesse family, knew that the jewels that had been hidden in the castle were personal family property. They could not be seized like the assets of defeated Nazi Germany. Consequently, she complained to the American military police in Frankfurt, Germany.

The intensive investigation that followed soon discovered that the previous year, when General George S. Patton’s Third Army had been in that area of Germany, a Women’s Army Corps officer, Captain Kathleen Burke “Katie” Nash, had been assigned to manage the castle as an officers’ club.

In November 1945, while exploring the massive building, Nash saw a fresh patch of concrete on the floor of the wine cellar. Nash also had heard a rumor that treasure had been buried in a secret place in the castle. Nash and two members of her staff chipped through the concrete and discovered a metal box filled with small, neatly wrapped packets containing gold, silver, and jewels. It was literally buried treasure—worth more than $2.5 million.

Nash retrieved some of the loot. She also shared her secret with Colonel J.S. “Jack” Durant and Major David Watson. The three Army officers then agreed to steal the remainder of the tiaras, bracelets, and other valuables. Realizing that they would likely be caught if they tried to smuggle the treasure back to the United States, the three conspirators removed the precious stones from their settings and set them aside. In November and December 1945, Watson traveled to Northern Ireland, where he pawned a large quantity of gold. Durant and Nash did their part in January 1946 by traveling to Switzerland, where they likewise sold gold and jewels.

As for what they had decided to keep for themselves, the trio used the Army post office system. Watson mailed a sterling silver pitcher home to his parents in California. Nash sent a 36-piece solid-gold table service—as well as a large number of jewels—to her sister in Wisconsin. Durant sent jewels and other valuables using envelopes stamped “Official” and by diplomatic pouch; most went to his brother in Virginia. All in all, some 30 boxes of treasure were sent to the United States.

By May 1946, the Army’s investigators had caught up with the three culprits. Watson was apprehended in Germany. Durant and Nash, who had recently married, were arrested at a luxury hotel in Chicago. The timing of their marriage was not a coincidence: Both understood that a husband and wife could refuse to testify against each other in court-martial proceedings. But Nash also hoped to escape trial because she was expecting to be honorably discharged. Unbeknownst to Nash, however, the Army had canceled her separation orders, and so she remained on active duty and subject to court-martial jurisdiction.

A few days later, nearly a million dollars in recovered Hesse family treasure—which the Army insisted was “a mere pittance” compared with the total value of the missing property—was displayed at the Pentagon. Shortly thereafter, the Durants were flown to Frankfurt, Germany, where they both faced trial by general court-martial.

Katie Nash Durant was the first to stand trial. Charged with being absent without leave, larceny, fraud against the government, conduct unbecoming an officer and gentleman, and bringing discredit upon the military service, she appeared before the court panel in a uniform without any insignia and refused to enter a plea. Her defense counsel insisted that Nash was not guilty of any offenses involving the Hesse crown jewels because the Hesse family had abandoned the treasures or, alternatively, that the jewels were legitimate spoils of war.

The court disagreed. It found Nash guilty and sentenced her to be imprisoned for five years.

Watson was next. His defense was that looting was common in Germany and that because the treasure belonged either to dead Nazis or S.S. members, the property could not be returned to them. In any event, argued Watson, he lacked the criminal intent to steal anything. The court of 10 colonels agreed with Watson, at least in part. But, while finding him not guilty of larceny, the panel convicted him of the remaining offenses, including receiving stolen property. He was sentenced to three years in jail.

Jack Durant was the last to go to trial. Colonel Durant was found guilty of all charges. He was sentenced to 15 years confinement at hard labor.

In August 1951, the Army announced that it had “returned to their owners the Hesse jewels, which have been in the custody of the United States since 1946,” including “jewels filling 22 cubic foot Army safes and consisting of more than 270 items.” Among the returned treasures were “a platinum bracelet encrusted with 405 diamonds; a platinum watch and bracelet with 606 diamonds; a sapphire weighing 116.20 carats; a group of diamonds weighing 282.77 carats; and a gold bracelet with 27 diamonds, 54 rubies and 67 emeralds.”

Despite the return of these items, more than half of the Hesse crown jewels, and most of the gold and silver that had been hidden in the wine cellar, were never recovered. To this day, no one knows what happened to this missing treasure.

As for Nash, Watson, and Durant, they served their sentences at the U.S. Disciplinary Barracks, Fort Leavenworth, Kansas, and were then released. Watson was the first to be freed; he was paroled in 1947. When he died in 1984, he was still petitioning for a presidential pardon. Nash and Durant were both released in 1952; apparently, they spent their remaining days together before dying in the mid-1980s.

Fred L. Borch

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