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September 01, 2017

A Deserter and Confessed Traitor: The Amazing but True Story of Army Lieutenant Martin J. Monti Jr.

The amazing but true story of Lieutenant Monti’s desertion, treason, and confession.

Fred L. Borch

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On October 2, 1944, Second Lieutenant Martin J. Monti Jr. deserted from his unit in Karachi, India. He was apprehended thousands of miles away, in Bari, Italy, on May 14, 1945, and was court-martialed for desertion and larceny three months later. A jury of officers sentenced Monti to 15 years confinement at hard labor. A little more than three years later, Monti was indicted by a federal grand jury for treason. In January 1949, he confessed and pleaded guilty in U.S. district court in New York City and was sentenced to 25 years’ imprisonment.

What follows is the amazing but true story of Monti’s desertion, treason, and confession.

Born near St. Louis, Missouri, in October 1921, Martin James Monti Jr. was one of seven children. As he got older, Monti’s views about people and politics were shaped by Father Charles Coughlin. Known as the “Radio Priest” to his millions of listeners, Coughlin broadcast weekly radio sermons in which he praised the leaders of Nazi Germany and Fascist Italy while blaming President Franklin D. Roosevelt, Jews, communists, and capitalists for what ailed the United States. While there is no way to know whether Monti’s subsequent treason was the direct result of his devotion to Coughlin, whom he visited in the summer of 1942, this may be the best explanation for what happened.

In November 1942, Monti enlisted as an aviation cadet in the U.S. Army Air Forces and eventually qualified as a fighter pilot. In August 1944, Lieutenant Monti reported for duty in Karachi, India.

Sometime after arriving in India, Monti decided to defect to the Germans. On October 1, 1944, despite lacking any paperwork authorizing travel, 22-year-old Monti talked his way onto a transport plane. He flew from Karachi to Cairo and then took another flight from Egypt to Naples, Italy. Naples had been captured by the Allies only 10 days earlier.

Lieutenant Monti went to an airfield near Naples and convinced the Americans there to let him take a P-38 Lightning airplane up for a “test flight.” Once in the air, Monti flew north to German-occupied Milan, Italy. He landed, surrendered to the Germans, and professed his unwavering allegiance to the Third Reich. The Germans were more than happy to have a brand-new American airplane, and the Luftwaffe removed the U.S. insignia, affixed German swastikas to the fuselage, and sent the plane to Germany.

At first, the Germans were suspicious of Monti. They soon decided, however, that he was the “real deal.” In November 1944, they enrolled him as an SS-Untersturmführer (second lieutenant) in SS-Standarte Kurt Eggers, a Waffen-SS propaganda unit.

Monti began broadcasting English-language propaganda on the radio. He tried to persuade GIs listening to his broadcasts “all over the European theater” that Americans should be fighting with Germany against the Soviet Union, as Communist Russia was the “true enemy of world peace.”

In April 1945, with defeat imminent and Germany needing all its assets on the front lines, SS-Untersturmführer Monti was ordered to join a combat unit in northern Italy. A month later, Monti surrendered to the U.S. Fifth Army in Milan.

In the weeks that followed, Monti was interrogated by a series of Army intelligence agents. He freely admitted that he had left his unit in Karachi but claimed that “he had done so in order to wage a one-man war against the Germans.” Monti also admitted that he had wrongfully appropriated the airplane in Naples, but only to take the fight to the Luftwaffe. As for the Waffen-SS uniform that he was wearing when he surrendered, Monti explained that he had been shot down and taken prisoner by the Germans. He claimed to have been in German prisoner-of-war camps until he managed to escape. He then received help from Italian partisans, who dressed him in a German uniform so that he could more easily travel through Axis-held territory and return to Allied lines.

The Army did not buy his imaginative cover story and, in May 1945, charged him with desertion and with “wrongfully, knowingly and willfully” misappropriating “one P-38 aircraft.” A few months later, he was tried and convicted by a general court-martial in Naples. Monti returned to American soil and was serving time in an Army prison in New York when the Army offered him the chance to get out of jail if he would reenlist as a private. No doubt realizing that rejoining the Army was preferable to finishing his long jail sentence, Monti returned to the ranks in February 1946. Two years later, Monti was wearing sergeant’s stripes.

Meanwhile, Army intelligence operatives were going through thousands and thousands of pages of captured German documents. Soon, these men discovered references to SS-Untersturmführer Monti and his activities while in the Waffen-SS. With this evidence in hand, the Department of Justice moved quickly, and in October 1948, Sergeant Monti was indicted by a federal grand jury in the Eastern District of New York for the crime of treason; the indictment alleged 21 overt acts.

In January 1949, Monti appeared in the U.S. district court in Brooklyn, New York. He had previously entered a not-guilty plea to the crime. Now, standing before Chief Judge Robert A. Inch, Monti withdrew this plea and informed the judge that he desired to plead guilty.

The U.S. Constitution states that “No Person shall be convicted of Treason unless on the Testimony of two Witnesses to the same overt Act, or on Confession in open Court.” Mindful of this requirement, Monti was advised of his rights, was sworn, took the stand, and confessed in open court that he had voluntarily performed acts constituting the crime of treason, including the various overt acts alleged in the indictment. Chief Judge Inch found Monti guilty and sentenced him to 25 years in jail and a $10,000 fine.

Why did Monti withdraw his not-guilty plea? Why did he not demand trial on the merits? It seems that Monti’s attorneys believed that if they went to trial, their client would likely be sentenced to death, or at least life imprisonment, given the facts and circumstances of the treason and the aggravating factor that Monti had been an Army officer. As a result, Monti’s two defense counsel told him that he should plead guilty and throw himself on the mercy of the court. This would avoid death or life imprisonment, and while Monti could expect a “severe” sentence, it would not be more than 30 years. When Chief Judge Inch sentenced Monti to 25 years in jail, Monti should have understood that he had received good legal advice.

Monti served his sentence at the U.S. Penitentiary in Leavenworth, Kansas. He was paroled from Leavenworth in 1960, after serving 11 years of his sentence. He resettled in his home state of Missouri and died there in 2000. He was 78 years old.

The court-martial of Lieutenant Monti, his restoration to active duty, and his subsequent treason trial in U.S. district court are a unique set of events in legal history. Certainly, his trial in federal court stands out as probably the only American treason case involving a confession—the single exception to the two-witness rule in treason cases.

Fred L. Borch

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