When Sebold, a 40-year-old married engineer working for the Consolidated Aircraft Corporation in San Diego, paid a visit to his family in his native Germany in 1940, his first in 15 years. There he had succumbed to an implied threat from officials purporting to be from the Gestapo and, for the sake of his mother, two brothers, and sister in Mülheim, Sebold reluctantly had agreed to be signed on by the Abwehr’s Hamburg branch in June 1939 with the code name TRAMP. However, dismayed by this episode, Sebold had alerted the American Consulate in Cologne of his predicament and had been advised by the vice consul to pretend to cooperate with the Nazis. Thereafter the Germans put Sebold through an intensive training course with the intention of placing him in charge of a transmitter so a clandestine radio channel could be opened between the East Coast and the Abwehr’s radio station at Hamburg-Wohldorf.
Once safely back in the United States in February 1941, aboard the SS Washington from Genoa and traveling on a new passport identifying him as Harry Sawyer, Sebold was contacted by the Federal Bureau of Investigation and made a detailed statement, explaining that he had fought for the kaiser during the Great War and had been wounded in the Battle of the Somme. After the war he had moved to America, changed his name from Wilhelm G. Debowski and become a naturalized citizen and loyal American. He agreed to follow the Abwehr’s instructions and contact four other Abwehr agents for whom he was carrying a microdot questionnaire. Those agents, all living in the New York City area, were Lily Stein, an Austrian model of Jew-
ish descent; Everett Roeder; Fritz Duquesne; and an engineer, Herman Lang. To aid communications, Sebold had been told how to contact a courier, Irwin Siegler, a butcher on the United States Lines’ SS Manhattan, and was given postal addresses in Shanghai, São Paolo, and Portugal.
The FBI proceeded to exploit Sebold’s leads and placed his contacts under surveillance. Using money provided by the Abwehr, a cottage was purchased on Long Island, and a powerful shortwave transmitter was installed. Sebold also rented an office in Manhattan, under the name of the Diesel Research Company, and the FBI wired the room for sound and installed a two-way mirror behind which a movie camera filmed every visitor.
When the entire network, including a group of couriers working for the Hamburg-Amerika line led by Hans Kleiss, was rounded up, some of them had been under surveillance for two years. Kleiss, employed as a chef on the SS America was arrested on 28 June 1941.
The FBI decided to break up the spy ring after Duquesne announced that the organization was to move from relatively passive intelligence collection to active sabotage; the General Electric plant at Schenectady, New York, had been selected as a target. In addition, and even more alarming, was his assertion that he was working on a plan to assassinate President Franklin D. Roosevelt when he came up to his estate at Hyde Park for the weekend.
The leads from the Sebold case covered the entire country and hemisphere and resulted in follow-up visits to Cuba, Chile and Argentina, 19 pleas of guilty and a total of 32 convictions, including a sentence of eight years’ imprisonment for Kleiss. The case ended with prison sentences totaling 300 years and fines of $18,000.
Duquesne received the longest sentence, of 18 years, while his mistress, Evelyn Lewis, received a year and a day.