a black and white photograph of a journalist sitting for a portrait, wearing a U.S. military uniform

Associated Press war correspondent Joseph Morton is one of the subjects in a forthcoming book, "Newshawks in Berlin: The Associated Press and Nazi Germany."

“Newshawks in Berlin: The Associated Press and Nazi Germany (Columbia University Press, March 2024) tells the story of how the largest news wire serving American newspapers covered the Nazis after they came to power in 1933. The book details how AP’s journalists endured onerous censorship, making both journalistic and moral compromises, while still managing to provide more than a thousand U.S. newspapers with extensive coverage of the Nazi campaign to conquer Europe and annihilate the continent’s Jews. This excerpt tells the story one AP war correspondent, Joe Morton, the only American journalist known to have been executed by the Nazis.

The history of AP’s entanglements with Nazi Germany includes one more important but long-forgotten story: the death of AP war correspondent Joseph Morton, the only American reporter known to have been executed by the Nazis. The details of Morton’s death at the Mauthausen concentration camp in Austria were reported in July 1945 by Lynn Heinzerling, who was assigned to investigate after Morton disappeared while covering a secret OSS operation in Slovakia, a client state of Nazi Germany. 

Like Heinzerling and other AP foreign correspondents in that era, Morton was a product of the Midwest. Born in St. Joseph, Missouri, he attended state universities in Nebraska and Iowa before launching his newspaper career at Midwestern newspapers. In 1937 he joined AP in Lincoln, Nebraska, and by 1940 he was promoted to work in New York as an editor in AP news features. When the first opportunity to go abroad came two years later, he seized it.

“Morton was fired with determination,” AP wrote after his death,”to go where no other correspondent had gone, and get the story that no one else could get.”

 A series of wartime assignments took him to West Africa, then flying with American bombers during a US air assault on Rome, and on to Algiers to cover the war in North Africa. From there, he wrote proudly to AP General Manager Kent Cooper that he and his wife Letty would soon be parents. In his February 1944 response Cooper urged the father-to-be to use more caution as a correspondent. “Don’t risk your neck in stunts,” he warned. 

Morton continued his reporting, covering the war’s impact across eastern Europe and often picking up scoops. In August 1944 he arrived in Bucharest, Romania, with a top official from the Office of Strategic Services (OSS), forerunner of the Central Intelligence Agency; he was the only Allied correspondent on hand to file the story of the Soviet liberation of Romania. The following month, Morton returned to Romania, catching a ride on a US Air Force bomber. He raced off to the castle of Romanian King Michael, where he spent the day playing table tennis with the royal family and getting the young king’s exclusive account of how he had engineered the arrest of Romania’s pro-Nazi dictator, paving the way for surrender to the Allies. Morton’s story, the New York Times editorialized, had all the elements “of glamour, romance, comedy, dramatic suspense and rapid action.” Added the Times: “Only the Balkans could produce it. The movies will not overlook it.”

Soon after, Morton filed exclusive stories on clandestine operations to rescue American pilots downed in Nazi territory. His reporting clearly came from OSS sources, and perhaps from accompanying secret missions that he may or may not have revealed to his superiors at AP.

In the last week of September 1944, Morton phoned his bureau chief in Rome, Noland “Boots” Norgaard, to request authorization to go on a mission. He couldn’t give details, he told Norgaard, because of censorship and unsecured phone lines. But in a letter to his boss, written just before the mission departed, Morton told Norgaard it would be “the biggest story of my life.” He would be flying with the OSS deep into the heart of Adolf Hitler’s occupied Europe. Morton promised Norgaard he would go in with the undercover operatives and then return to Allied territory on the next available flight.

The ostensible mission was an OSS rescue effort to pick up Allied pilots, downed behind enemy lines but protected by partisans in Slovakia. But the OSS was also delivering guns and ammunition to the partisans, who were using their precarious base in the Slovak city of Banska Bystrica to launch an uprising that they hoped would overthrow Nazi rule throughout their country. Each man on the mission was aware of Hitler’s order to ignore the Geneva Convention on Prisoners of War and execute any allied forces captured behind German lines. 

Morton and the OSS unit flew into Banska Bystrica on October 7, 1944, in six “Flying Fortress” bombers loaded with machine guns, ammunition, medical supplies, and gasoline for the partisans. Morton brought his portable typewriter. Guided by smoke signals from bonfires, the planes landed at a makeshift airfield, greeted by scores of cheering Slovak partisans.

When the planes returned to Italy, the same day or shortly thereafter, Morton reneged on his promise to Norgaard. He gave a typewritten story to an OSS officer making the return flight but said he would stay on with the OSS men to cover the Slovak uprising. His last story was never delivered to AP; military censors may have blocked it when the OSS officer returned to Italy.

Banska Bystrica was slowly being encircled by the German army, seeking to snuff out the Slovakian rebellion, and on October 20, German Stukas heavily bombed it. A week later, with only hours to escape, Morton and the OSS men abandoned the town and joined long columns of soldiers, partisans, and civilians fleeing in panic into the Tatra Mountains. German planes strafed and bombed the roads, and German units with dogs followed in pursuit.

For the next six weeks, Morton, members of the OSS team, partisans, and British special operations agents fled through woods, dodging Nazis as they sought to reach the safety of the front lines of the advancing Soviet Army. Howling winds, a blizzard, crippling icy streams that froze boot leather to skin – all took their toll. Scores froze to death, including eighty-three of the partisans who led Morton and the OSS men through forests during the first two weeks of November. 

As Christmas approached, Morton and some members of the OSS unit reached a hunter’s lodge on a mountain above the Slovak village of Polomka. They stopped to rest, celebrating Christmas Day with carols. The day after Christmas, while several of the men and their partisan guide were away from the lodge hunting for food, a force of German soldiers, Ukrainian troops, and Slovakian Hlinka Guardists fired on the shelter from all sides. Morton’s group had been betrayed by a local villager. 

Four men who were not in the lodge at the time survived with partisan help and eventually were able to escape to Allied territory and tell the group’s story. But Morton, nine OSS men, and four of the British special forces were captured and sent to the Nazi concentration camp at Mauthausen near Linz, Austria. They were put in the camp jail, whose basement housed execution rooms, including a gas chamber and a crematorium. Inmates at Mauthausen told investigators later that during the last three weeks of the war, more than five hundred bodies were burned daily.

Morton and the others were interrogated, and some were tortured. Throughout his questioning, Morton repeatedly identified himself as an AP reporter, according to the camp’s German interpreter, who was later interrogated by Allied forces.  

On January 24, 1945, less than three weeks after their arrival, a telegram from Berlin, signed by Ernst Kaltenbrunner, chief of Reich police forces, ordered the execution of all members of the Slovak mission. That same day, the men were led to a room where a fake camera was set up. The prisoners, told they would be photographed, were taken in one at a time. After facing the camera, they were told to turn around. An SS guard then stepped up and shot each in the back of the neck. 

Morton’s colleagues in Europe, alarmed by his long absence and unaware of his fate, were prevented by trans-Atlantic censorship from notifying AP in New York about the missing correspondent. That job fell to Heinzerling, who returned to the United States on home leave from covering the war in Europe in December 1944. In New York, Heinzerling shared with editors what little was known about Morton and the OSS mission.

On January 24, 1945, the day the men were shot, the Germans announced on their Transocean propaganda channel that a group of Americans and British had been captured, sentenced to death for espionage, and executed. But there was no confirmation of their identities, and rumors continued to swirl – including one that reached Morton’s wife, Letty, that Morton had been spotted, alive, in a prisoner of war camp in Bruck, Austria.

Then months of silence, until May 1945, when Allied investigators in Paris questioned a German prisoner who revealed he had served as interpreter at the interrogation of the captured men at Mauthausen. Heinzerling, who upon his return to Europe was assigned by AP to investigate Morton’s fate, went to Paris to question the German prisoner. From there, he and a US Army investigator went to Mauthausen, where they learned more from Wilhelm Ornstein, a Polish Jew and former camp prisoner who was assigned to work at the execution room. Ornstein said his job was to remove the bodies of Morton and the others after their executions. He presented a dog tag from one of the OSS men as proof of his account, telling Heinzerling that he watched each execution through a door peephole. After a prisoner was shot, he said, he hurried into the room, removed the body, and swabbed the floor. 

Heinzerling’s story for AP, delayed several days by US censors, detailed the ill-fated mission and confirmed the death of Morton at age thirty-four. Later, Heinzerling said that, after his years of covering the Nazi terror and World War II battlefields, uncovering Morton’s death at war’s end was “the crowning sadness.” The two had worked together in Cleveland years earlier and in Europe during the war.

In a condolence letter to Letty Morton, Kent Cooper wrote that her husband’s three years of war correspondence “comprise one of the most brilliant chapters of the entire news coverage of the conflict.” “Joe was absolutely fearless, and evidently nothing that I or anyone else could say would deter him on grounds of personal safety when he was on the trail of a great news story,” Cooper continued.

At the Nürnberg trials, Kaltenbrunner, who had signed the execution order, was found guilty of war crimes and crimes against humanity. He was executed by hanging on October 16, 1946. Earlier, an American military court at Dachau had sentenced fifty-eight of the sixty-one operators of Mauthausen to die on the gallows. Prosecutors told the court the defendants were responsible for seventy thousand deaths at Mauthausen and “the clock would be turned back 1000 years if the court condones these atrocities.”

In 1994, paralleling the fiftieth anniversary of the Slovak uprising, a plaque in Morton’s honor was placed on a memorial replica of the hut in which he and the OSS men were captured. A small ceremony at the hut honoring the OSS men and Morton was attended by local Slovak officials; Stephen Miller, then AP bureau chief in Germany; and US Secretary of State Madeleine Albright.

“Joe Morton came to this mountain in 1944 still trying to report a story no other correspondent could tell, and trying in his way … to bring freedom from oppression, light into darkness, and tell others of the brave deeds of courageous men and women,” Miller told the gathering, which was covered on the front page of his hometown newspaper, Missouri’s St. Joseph News-Press. Added Albright: Morton died “in pursuit of his calling and in quest for the truth.” 

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