Hitler in Los Angeles

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New book details how DAV founding members foiled Nazi plans to launch attacks on American soil

German American Bund parade, New York City, Oct. 30, 1939. (Courtesy of Library of Congress)

Newly resurfaced evidence reveals some of DAV’s earliest members infiltrated and foiled Nazi and other fascist groups in Southern California determined to sabotage military bases, steal arms from National Guard armories, kill Jewish Americans and sway other citizens to their cause.

“Hitler in Los Angeles,” by University of Southern California history professor Steven J. Ross, details the contributions of five DAV members and, in some cases, their wives, and other patriotic citizens to thwart the Nazi operations in the United States prior to the U.S. entering World War II. Among the historical accounts is that of DAV life member Leon Lewis, who started a spy ring in 1933.

According to Ross, from 1933 to the bombing of Pearl Harbor, the American Nazi and fascist movement posed a very credible threat.

“Plans existed for hanging 20 Hollywood actors and prominent figures,” Ross said. “These included Al Jolson, Eddie Cantor, Charlie Chaplin, Louis B. Mayer, and Jack Warner. There were also plans to drive through Boyle Heights and shoot as many Jewish residents as possible with machine guns; for fumigating Jewish homes with cyanide; and for blowing up military installations and seizing munitions from National Guard armories on the day Nazis planned to launch their American putsch.”

Ross said Lewis, a prominent Hollywood lawyer and World War I veteran, knew American veterans, especially those who had reason to feel frustrated and disenfranchised by the government, would be targeted by the Nazi movement. So, he looked to fellow DAV members to counter the threat.

“The Nazis wanted military veterans because recruiting veterans worked for them in Germany,” Ross said. “DAV’s people were some of the most powerful people Lewis could’ve recruited.”

One scenario in the book illustrates just how keen the Nazi movement was to recruit American combat veterans, and how Lewis moved to stop them.

Dietrich Gefken, born in Germany, was an early Nazi supporter. He participated in the failed 1923 Munich coup that ultimately gained Hitler attention on an international scale. Living in the U.S. for 10 years, Gefken had been actively promoting the Nazi cause throughout the nation and was a first sergeant in the Friends of the New Germany’s secret storm trooper unit.

To learn more about Gefken’s threat to the homeland, Lewis recruited DAV Past National Commander William Conley. Lewis asked Conley to denounce sitting President Franklin D. Roosevelt and his chief economic adviser during a public speech Conley was scheduled to deliver. To maintain the ruse, Conley blasted the president and his treatment of disabled veterans.

The speech caught the ear of Gefken, who soon after invited Conley, Conley’s wife Emma, and others to a popular Nazi after-hours spot. The German praised Conley for attacking the “Jew-loving president” and told him the president’s policies were why veterans were getting “such a rotten deal.” He also told Conley the Nazis were prepared to “take over the government just as the veterans did in Germany” and were ready to fight “shoulder to shoulder with American veterans.”

Gefken told Conley and other DAV members about his very detailed plans, which involved stealing arms and munitions from National Guard armories and launching attacks up and down the West Coast. The attackers would consist of 400 storm troopers already training with weapons and explosives, storm troopers who were arriving daily to California by boat from Germany, and “disgruntled American veterans.”

Conley and Lewis secretly alerted the authorities and naval intelligence, who subsequently arrested two Marine corporals for illegally selling munitions to the Nazis and dismantled storm trooper units already training to launch the attacks.

Lewis, needing to maintain operational security, never took credit for the operation.

Unbeknownst to Gefken, Conley, like DAV’s founder Judge Robert Marx, who traveled with Roosevelt during his 1920 campaign for president, also happened to be Jewish.

Ross said that, while American veterans were frustrated with having their benefits dramatically cut when Roosevelt’s administration took office, the fact that they were Americans first dwarfed everything else.

“The patriotism of DAV veterans far outweighed any anger at their country,” Ross said. “Yes, they were angry; but, even angrier at Nazis who wanted to kill Americans.”

“This illustrates that veterans love our nation deeply and want and need a purpose,” said DAV National Headquarters Executive Director Barry Jesinoski. “By helping them get their benefits and ensuring they have access to the care they’ve earned, we keep a promise our country made. Dr. Ross’ book is a testament to this while detailing a unique piece of DAV’s history.”

Ross said he doubts all of the planned attacks on American soil would have worked, but he is convinced some might have.

“If Leon Lewis and his spies had not infiltrated the Nazi movement, some plans would’ve succeeded,” he said. “Recent tragedies in this country show it only takes one crazy person bent on murder to carry it out.

“Every American needs to hear this story,” Ross continued. “This is something veterans actually did.”

Ross said he hopes fellow Americans will take to heart the lesson in vigilance against hate groups targeting people because they have a “hyphenated identity.”

“It’s a story of the past and a lesson for the present,” he said. “What Leon Lewis understood is that everything before the hyphen in ‘-American’ is an adjective. African-American, Jewish-American and so forth are all adjectives. ‘American’ is the noun.”