The Life Magazine Reporter and the Nazi-Hunting Spy

“Flight Risks,” an essay by Bonnie Johnson

The Life Magazine Reporter and the Nazi-Hunting Spy

In June of 1956, Life magazine published a themed issue proclaiming the “Air Age.” It featured stunt pilots, military maneuvers and new world records; reporters rode along in the latest chrome aircraft. Terry Turner was a fresh face at the weekly’s Manhattan headquarters, straight out of Northwestern’s School of Journalism and just starting a family with new wife Leanne. She came from Green Bay, where her father managed a department store and belonged to the Packers’ front office. Terry came from the family farm in Powell, Wyoming. His father later decamped to San Diego, but Powell today looks much as it did in the ’50s. Its most prominent institutions are the county fair office, a meat processing plant and a dealer of exclusively American cars. There’s an RV garage, and of course a cemetery. The shops do brisk business in cowlick, coal, and gluten-free oats. Its churches host a couple of the more zealous sects, and the same proprietress has run the same drive-in since 1949. Her name is Pokey, and against her husband’s wishes, she’s gone digital.

When Terry began at Life, the magazine was enjoying some of its greatest success. Capitalizing on the potential of photojournalism, its glossy pages had already held work by Dorothea Lange and Henri Cartier-Bresson, illustrations by Norman Rockwell and prose from Dorothy Parker. Now it ran photo-essays by Gordon Parks and stories from Ernest Hemingway. In 1955, it published the serialized memoirs of Harry Truman and Douglas MacArthur. But if it weren’t for the era’s ads and selection of celebrity portraits, the magazine’s subjects then might blend in with today’s news: lethal violence against young Black men; debates about security versus civil liberties; refugees, pipelines, robots, the Oscars. Still, there are Peron and Nasser, Brando and Garbo — and some of my favorites: Anna Magnani in her ever-rumpled slip, the Dodgers’ move to Los Angeles and soon, revolution in Cuba.

One thing is conspicuously missing from the 1950s coverage: post-Holocaust justice. After the Nuremberg trials of 1946, the magazine’s last article on German reconstruction had appeared the following year. The vanguard of the master race weren’t as photogenic as Sugar Ray Robinson or even Sputnik, but with many war criminals still at large, their absence from a decade’s worth of news is unnerving. Pressure built over that time, and June of 1956 became a tipping point in the pursuit of Nazi war criminals.

One thing is conspicuously missing from Life’s 1950s coverage: post-Holocaust justice.

That month, a letter of special commendation arrived at the U.S. Counter Intelligence Corps headquarters in Stuttgart, Germany. Dale Johnson was serving his two-year deployment with the Army’s 66th Military Intelligence Brigade; he’d arrived at Wallace Barracks the previous year after training at Fort Holabird in Baltimore. Dale had enlisted straight out of college in Nebraska, where he majored in education. He’d grown up in Lincoln, where his father was a mail carrier and his mother developed film at a camera store in town. In Stuttgart, Dale’s small investigative unit conducted a classified research mission “which led to successful resolution in the capture of highly valued individuals,” according to headquarters’ letter. At the time, the investigators themselves couldn’t know exactly whom the authorities had arrested from among their queries. With the operation ongoing, the press and the public could know even less.

For Germans, the needs for justice on one hand and reconstruction on the other were at odds for some years following the war. Many war criminals remained in West Germany undetected; some even entered the civil service under altered identities. Others with strategic skills joined the U.S. Cold War effort under Operation Paperclip. At the time, German authorities also lacked a satisfactory way to prosecute the offenders they managed to locate. The Allies had run the Nuremberg trials, the U.S. the Dachau trials, Poland the Auschwitz set of 1947. But Germany tried perpetrators in its domestic court system, where murder was narrowly defined and in this context, difficult to prove. The prosecution had to demonstrate that the killer had acted on personal initiative, and the defense almost always won with a claim of befehlnotstand (“following orders”). Hannah Arendt’s later conceptualization of evil’s banality had little traction in Germany then, where the public held to an image of war criminals as virulently racist sadists and not the rank and file.

From Bieber to Embalming and Back Again

Spring of 1956 saw the investigation of a former SS officer who’d been involved in mass executions on Germany’s border with Lithuania. He was, of course, “following orders,” but through an alignment of factors his case had begun to attract notice from Jewish groups, occupying forces and fellow West Germans. In June, the region’s lead prosecutor sent a memo known as the Stuttgart Directive to other area officials, essentially stating that the buck would stop there. Finally, the German legal system began to examine war crimes as acts of methodical genocide (the warrant for Adolf Eichmann’s arrest dates to this juncture). A collaborative investigation was in order: the U.S. held millions of captured Nazi documents. The project revealed the Lithuania-area officer as part of an SS team that had killed 5000 people within a small border region in the summer of 1941. German prosecutors tried the group’s ten most horrific offenders, and got an unprecedented ten convictions, albeit with lighter sentences than hoped. Struck by the case, journalists called for increased accountability. The West German government responded by creating a central war crimes office in 1958, and soon lifted the statute of limitations. The Frankfurt-Auschwitz trials would follow.

Nazi war crimes returned to the pages of Life, with articles on Hitler’s last hours and The Diary of Anne Frank. In June of 1960, Israeli agents arrested Adolf Eichmann in Argentina. By the time the magazine printed Eichmann’s confession later that year, young Terry Turner had moved to Denver to head Life’s regional bureau. His family, now with two little boys, joined a Baptist church, where Terry became a deacon. He was close in age to the new associate pastor, Dale Johnson, who had attended seminary in California after his time in the military. Dale described his Army stint as transformative, but kept tight lips about the work he’d done in Stuttgart, even as the two became friends.

The international hunt for war criminals could hardly have seemed further away from Terry’s post that fall. He may have been ascending the ranks, but even the magazine’s contemporaneous cover stories on Jimmy Hoffa and Kim Novak were remote from the regional fare: school football in Kansas, an especially long cattle drive in Nebraska, the vagaries of mining town life in Montana.

Occasionally though, there was opportunity for adventure. The “Air Age” issue had been indicative of a cultural obsession: from the 1940s to the 1960s, the magazine contained a feature on aviation in almost every issue. Few of these inspire confidence; the vast majority of the stories from the ’50s are about all manner of spectacular accidents. “Crash,” “ordeal” and “tragedy” are the words that crop up most (with “disaster,” “peril” and “horror” close behind). Yet the unquenchable optimism around all things aerodynamic appears to have equaled only Cold War paranoia for reliable journalistic themes in those days. Commerce, engineering, defense and recreation, all rolled into winged vessels, proved irresistible for politicians, advertisers and the collective imagination. Seaplanes! Ramjets! Astrochimps! The potential seemed endless, even as beloved rock stars and entire sports teams joined the toll along with occupants of crash sites: a Brooklyn neighborhood, a convent full of nuns, a small town that got hit three times within as many years.

Commerce, engineering, defense and recreation, all rolled into winged vessels, proved irresistible for politicians, advertisers and the collective imagination.

On the job that winter, Terry gamely rode along to Mexico with a group of Wyoming flyers. But his particular pilot didn’t quite make it back. Instead, their two-seater went down in the Wyoming wilderness, killing both men on impact. The week before, the magazine had carried two pieces on the need for improving air safety. The week after, it ran his obituary. He was 29. Celebrated U.N. chief Dag Hammarskjold was on the cover — soon to die in a plane crash as well — and Eichmann’s trial began a month later. By then, gentle Dale was busy bringing aid to the young widow and her children. The following summer Dale Johnson and Leanne Turner married, and when the church moved Dale to Wyoming, the four made the transition together.

After more children, foster-children and their reassignment to California, the Johnsons’ eldest son would move back to Denver and return with a child of his own. She’d grow accustomed to hearing “Home on the Range” and “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot” as lullabies, and when interviewing the retired Reverend for a family history project in grade school, would be more concerned with the dramaturgy of the video than the details of his time in Germany. Wasn’t every grandpa a Nazi-hunting spy? He made award-winning cookies.

Bonnie Johnson contributes to the Los Angeles Review of Books and The Rumpus. She recently discussed her work on NPR’s Press Play.

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