More than 40 years ago, a Swift Current, Sask. man who dreamed of opening a Nazi memorabilia museum thought he had pulled off the ultimate coup in buying the gold-plated pistol that Adolf Hitler used to commit suicide.
In 1968, Andrew Wright told the local newspaper that the gun — purchased from a dealer in Cleveland — would “put Swift Current on the map. There are hundreds of collectors in the United States who have never seen it and they will come up.”
Not only did Wright misjudge the attention he expected (the horde of curiosity seekers never materialized), but he was very wrong about the provenance of the gun — a gold-plated, 7.65 Walther semi-automatic pistol with Hitler’s initials inlaid in gold on the ivory grips.
In fact, the truth is far more dramatic.
As John Woodbridge and I recount in our newly released book, Hitler in the Crosshairs: A GI’s Story of Courage and Faith, the pistol was taken by an American soldier during a dramatic attempt to capture or kill the dictator in Munich in the waning days of the war.
This new saga is the story of the soldier, Ira “Teen” Palm, a native of Mount Vernon, N.Y., and how he came to cross paths with Rupprecht Gerngross, a German soldier who not only bravely engineered a brief revolt of German soldiers and citizens in Munich, but at one point attempted to assassinate Hitler himself.
A first lieutenant in the U.S. Army who earned numerous medals for valour under fire, Palm had landed on the shore of France in 1944 and fought his way into the heart of Germany, reaching the outskirts of Munich in late April 1945. As Soviet forces encircled Berlin and the Allied armies approached Munich, what was then called “the greatest manhunt in history” was on — the search for Hitler.
In a striking parallel to the search for Osama bin Laden, American leaders believed that even if the entirety of Germany was conquered, the war might never end as long as Hitler remained alive. Intelligence at the time suggested that Hitler was amassing troops and weapons in the Bavarian Alps — the Great Redoubt — where he would regroup and continue to wage war.
Gerngross, a German soldier who headed an interpreter unit in Munich, had been gathering weapons and recruiting soldiers and citizens to stage an uprising against the Nazis in Munich in an attempt to prevent the total destruction of the city, a fate suffered by so many great German centres.
Gerngross had been inspired to oppose the Nazis years earlier when he happened to see a group of Jews being executed by German soldiers. He realized that this was not the Germany he loved and resolved to oppose the Nazi regime.
In 1944, Gerngross learned that Hitler planned to travel through Munich by car and would be accompanied by an aide who lived across the street from Gerngross. He speculated the aide would stop to see his family, and so Gerngross decided to try to kill Hitler.
On the day Hitler was to arrive, Gerngross sat in the attic of his home with a rifle and waited until Hitler’s car arrived. Anxiously, he watched as the aide went inside briefly and then came back out. His young daughter skipped down the sidewalk and Hitler’s car door opened and a man — it had to be Hitler — stepped out and knelt down to embrace the girl.
Gerngross trained the crosshairs on the back of the girl’s head, waiting for the moment when she would step back and he could pull the trigger. Suddenly, the aide came out of the house and Hitler pulled away and vanished into the car.
The failed attempt only propelled Gerngross more forcefully. In 1945, an American flyer who had survived when his plane was shot down and who later escaped a Germany POW camp was being smuggled back to the Allies through the opposition underground in Munich. Gerngross recruited the flyer to ask the Allies to stop bombing Munich, so that the uprising could begin.
At the same time, Palm volunteered to lead a group of soldiers — with the help of Gerngross’s men — undercover into Munich to capture or kill Hitler.
Palm and his men did break into Hitler’s apartment, but the dictator was not there. Before they left, Palm took the gold-plated pistol from Hitler’s desk.
Gerngross’s uprising was short-lived, but he achieved his goal — Munich, though badly damaged, did not suffer total annihilation.
After the war, Palm, who was wounded slightly as he fought his way out of Munich, gave the pistol to Charles Woodbridge, his close friend and pastor of First Presbyterian Church in Savannah, Ga. The gun was later stolen and disappeared until it made national news in 1966 when a Cleveland gun dealer announced it was for sale.
Wright learned of the gun when a photograph of it appeared on the cover of Argosy magazine. He and his wife drove to Cleveland, where they purchased numerous pieces of Nazi memorabilia, including the pistol, which had been a gift to Hitler on his 50th birthday in 1939 from the Walther family, manufacturers of hundreds of thousands of weapons.
At the time, Wright was sure that the gun would be the centrepiece of his museum. He said the pistol was the most sought-after prize in gun-collecting circles.
But by 1987, his dream that Swift Current would be a magnet for admirers of Nazi memorabilia was still just that — a dream. And so the gun was sold at auction for what was then the highest price ever paid for an item of military memorabilia — $114,000 — to a purchaser whose identity was not revealed.
The gun has since changed hands several times. An Australian, Warren Anderson, owned it for a time. It was later sold to someone on the West Coast of the United States who has asked to remain unnamed.
When Wright purchased the gun, he believed it was Hitler’s suicide weapon because of reports that there was blood under the grips. The actual weapon that Hitler used to kill himself in his bunker in Berlin has been proven to be a much different pistol.
Which leads one to wonder — just whose blood is under the grips of this pistol? Could it in fact be the blood of Ira Palm — the man who volunteered to take out Hitler?
The mystery continues.
Maurice Possley, a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist formerly with the Chicago Tribune, is an investigator and researcher for the Northern California Innocence Project at Santa Clara University School of Law.