It’s been about a month now since my action/adventure World War II spy story, The Armored Satchel, has been running on JukePop Serials. It’s now up to Chapter 7 and is slowly climbing in the rankings. (Remember, I’m giving away a copy of Zombies of Byzantium based on how many votes The Armored Satchel gets). Many of you out there have already become hooked on the adventures of Max Volcker, the cunning, clever gay 20-year-old German who decides, after inheriting a very special briefcase, to become a spy for the Allies. But did you know that The Armored Satchel is inspired by a true story?
Don’t get me wrong—I am not going to claim that The Armored Satchel is “based on a true story.” (Everyone knows that doesn’t mean it’s not fiction). Max Volcker is a fictional character. However, there really was a young spy whose real-life story resembles Max’s fictional one in many ways. It’s a pretty amazing story, and I think fans of The Armored Satchel might find it interesting.
The real person whose story inspired the serial was named Karl Horst Max Wacker. A picture of him is posted on the top of this article. You’ll notice the photo is an FBI mug shot. Karl Wacker was a spy, but he wasn’t a spy for the Allies—he was working for the Nazis.
A Spy Called “Dumbo”?
Here is what happened. On May 9, 1945, the day after Germany surrendered to the allies, one “Private William Walker” surrendered himself to American military authorities in occupied Berlin, which had been captured by the Soviets—without direct American military involvement—about a week earlier. Walker claimed he was a U.S. soldier and that he had landed with American forces in Normandy in June 1944. However, he said that he had amnesia and couldn’t remember anything of his life before that event except that he had lived in New York.
Walker claimed he had been captured by the Germans and imprisoned in a P.O.W. camp. Then, somehow, he ended up in Berlin during the advance of the Soviets on the city. Supposedly he was liberated from the camp by the Russians and then joined with them to fight in the Battle of Berlin. “I shot three Krauts in a cemetery,” Walker insisted. He told the Americans that the Soviets had made him an “honorary lieutenant” in the Red Army, then gave him a horse.
It was obvious that “Private Walker” wasn’t playing with a full deck. Walker was taken to a U.S. Army hospital in Paris, and then another in Cherbourg, France. The diagnosis was “shell shock,” which was what the medical profession then called what we now call PTSD (Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder). Eventually he was returned to the States, first landing in Boston—where he gave very colorful accounts of his adventures to the media—and eventually wound up at a U.S. Army facility in Camp Upton, New York.
By this time, the FBI was sniffing about. Amnesia, after all, is a pretty rare condition, and it seldom resembles the way it’s portrayed in movies and stories. The FBI already had a tip that there was a German spy—whose code name they believed was “Dumbo” or somehow associated with someone who went by that name—and that the spy had once lived in New York.
While at Camp Upton, Walker made a mistake. He telephoned a friend in Brooklyn, and identified himself as “Dumbo.” Authorities pounced. Walker was arrested, interrogated and charged. It’s not clear whether “Dumbo” really was a code name, but it may have been a nickname—you can see from the above photo that Karl Wacker had very large, prominent ears which may have inspired the moniker.
Who Was Karl Wacker?
Karl Horst Max Wacker was the unlikeliest of spies. He was born in Berlin on March 14, 1925, and his parents—August Max Wacker and Meta Wacker—brought him to the United States three years later. They do not seem to have ever become American citizens. At some point during his childhood the Wackers sent Karl back to Germany for elementary school. He returned to the States in 1934, age nine, and lived there for the next ten years.
The two New York City addresses associated with Karl Wacker, both in Manhattan, are 312 75th Street and 544 West 50th Street. Here (from Google Earth) is what the latter address looks like today.
In New York, Wacker worked as a stable hand, a waiter and a circus hand. Whatever the family’s reason for coming to the United States, they evidently resisted becoming Americanized. Those who knew Karl said he was a Nazi sympathizer. After the United States entered World War II, Karl is said to have remarked that he would do anything in his power to help Germany win the war.
These sentiments caught up with the Wackers. As German citizens, they were detained by the authorities as enemy aliens, probably just after Adolf Hitler declared war on the United States on December 11, 1941. Eventually they were deported to Germany, traveling aboard the SS Gripsholm, an ocean liner, in February 1944. These were several of these “mercy ships” that exchanged citizens of the warring nations.
After returning to Germany, Wacker eventually wound up enrolled at an intelligence school in Saarbrucken. The news reports from 1945 state that Nazi intelligence agents approached him to join. Doubtless they were interested in him because he had lived in the United States. Wacker was questioned about shipping and harbor facilities in New York, and any aircraft manufacturing plants he might know about.
Wacker, however, was evidently a dim bulb. Shortly after joining the intelligence school Wacker was dismissed for “inefficiency.” There is also mention of him being arrested in Germany—for what reason is unknown—but he was able to escape custody by repeating a code that Nazi intelligence agents used for immunity against prosecution. Given the ham-handed ostentation of his silly amnesia story, my sense is that Wacker was probably more lucky than he was skilled or smart. I can’t imagine an ex-waiter or circus hand making a very good Axis spy.
Why did Wacker want to return to the United States, once the war was over? We can only speculate. Germany was in pretty bad shape in 1945. Despite his obvious antipathy toward America, Wacker might have thought that returning to New York was better than eking out a precarious living among the bomb craters and rubble of postwar Germany. Considering he had lived there before and could probably pass for an American, it’s not a far stretch to conclude that he thought he could get away with it.
The amnesia story, though—you have to admit—was a bit thick.
How Karl Wacker Influenced The Armored Satchel
What happened to the real Karl Wacker? Despite my attempts to research his fate, I’ve been unable to determine what became of him. He was charged with various crimes under American law, such as fraudulently wearing the uniform of the U.S. military, and other charges stemming from his fraud. I would be surprised if a prosecutor could have made charges of espionage stick. Wacker seems to have ceased being a Nazi spy even before the end of the war, so it’s doubtful that he was still working for the bad guys when he entered the U.S. in June 1945. By that time the Nazi state had disintegrated anyway, and with it all of its intelligence apparatus.
My best guess is that, instead of serving jail time in America, Wacker was probably deported a second time to Germany and there lived out the rest of his life. It’s possible, I suppose, that he is still alive, though if he is he would be 88 years old.
I came across Karl Wacker’s story while looking at microfilm of the New York Times for some historical research I was doing. (Most of the facts I cite in this article were reported in the New York Times article on Wacker, which ran July 19, 1945). I’ve wanted to write a World War II spy thriller for many years, but I’d never really gotten an idea that I thought was workable—until I saw Wacker’s drowsy eyes staring up at me from the microfilm screen.
Wacker was obviously a liar and most likely a Nazi sympathizer—clearly, at the time, an enemy of the United States. Certainly he stood up to be counted with an evil and insane regime, one which millions of people, including over 200,000 Americans, gave their lives to defeat. However, that aside, his story is pretty fascinating. How do you go from waiting tables and working in a circus in New York to being accused of high-level wartime espionage—and all before the age of 21? There seemed here the seed of an interesting story. After thinking about the basic narrative—a kid from New York is deported to Germany and then somehow winds up as a spy—the idea that eventually became The Armored Satchel took shape. JukePop Serials, which launched in late 2012, offered the ideal format to tell the story.
Let me stress again, The Armored Satchel is not intended to be a true story, nor is the character of Max Volcker intended to resemble a real person. The most basic difference is that Max, of course, is working for the Allies, where Karl Wacker tried (unsuccessfully) to work for the Nazis. Despite his inexperience, particularly at the beginning of the story, Max is cunning and brilliant, where Karl Wacker seems to have been something less than an intellectual giant. And, of course, Max Volcker is gay, motivated in part to do what he does so he can return to his boyfriend back home in Brooklyn. The real Karl Wacker thought of himself as a ladies’ man.
“I hope this amnesia is temporary,” Wacker is reported to have told a newspaper. “Suppose some good-looking babe dashes up to me and says, ‘Darling, you’re back!’ and I don’t even recognize her!”
Thanks for reading. If this story interests you, check out The Armored Satchel on JukePop Serials!