With Hitler having just seized power in Germany, and tensions rising across Europe, Mangaia residents were understandably suspicious of the sandy-haired, Luger-carrying Nazi sympathiser who turned up on their island.
In early 1933, the green San Francisco mail-liner stood off Avarua wharf, en route to Auckland. Among those disembarking was 30-year-old Walther Friedrich Bergmann..
Officially here to explore the geology and archaeology of the Cook Islands, Bergmann was sandy-haired, blue-eyed, with a prominent duelling scar and offered the Hitler salute to locals.
He looked every bit the Nazi from central casting – so much so, that observers began to wonder if Bergmann was truly a scientist or actually a Nazi spy?
Walther Friedrich Bergmann was born in Walda, Saxony on 6 March 1893. When he was 18 he emigrated to Canada to avoid compulsory military service, living in Alberta until his departure for the US in July 1922.
Taking up residence in Long Beach, California in 1923, he spent 1930, 1931 and part of 1932 on two “archaeological” expeditions to Hawaii. From 1932 - 1934 he spent time exploring French Polynesia and the Cook Islands.
Arriving in Rarotonga, Bergmann planned to sail to Mangaia where he rented a house in Tava’enga. Here, he was visited by Edwin Gold, Cook Islands correspondent for the Honolulu Star Bulletin.
Gold lived in Mangaia from 1926 until his death in 1974 and was married to Teremoana Mate. He was part Polish and part Jewish and found the Nazi “most friendly to me, visiting me several nights a week to hear my gramophone – Wagner and Liszt by request.
“At times he would talk quite casually about a second War and the ‘triumphant vindication of the new Germany’. There would be, said my guest, a New Order…We should all be equal; and Germany would be boss.”
During his stay on Mangaia, Bergmann undertook a survey of the island, visiting at least one new cave each day. On these travels, ‘Te Tiāmani’ was shadowed by locals who reported “certain mysterious tools in a valise. He was heard drilling rocks and humming some German song as the drill whirred.”
This led to a rumour that Bergmann was talking by radio to a German submarine at sea.
The young German travelled everywhere on the island alone, “always armed with a Luger automatic pistol. He claimed that, as a Nazi officer, he had a right to carry the weapon.”
This made his local shadowers wary of approaching him too closely. They did however establish one thing beyond doubt. Bergmann was “made of money”, for he’d been seen frying his fish in butter. He was given the nickname “Maita’i Puakatoro”.
The results of his geological surveys led Bergmann to announce his “intention to find a German market for a particular form of lime carbonate (cave marble) found in local caves.” This was the local ke’o from which poi pounders or penu are made.
Eddie Gold fancied lime carbonate was actually a hardener for steel and that Bergmann’s plan was to supply Mangaian carbonate to the German steelmaker Krupps – Hitler’s arms manufacturer.
(Actually, Bergmann was using the rock to produce machine-made penu for Spitz’s Curio Store in Papeete).
At some stage Bergmann fell foul of the local police. Taken before the Magistrate, John McGruther, the Herr Doktor “lost the poise he had previously shown, creating a disturbance in the Administrator’s court.”
He had been picked up, riding his bike at night without a light, and, being found guilty, had rushed forward to attack the magistrate. Refusing to pay his fine, he was returned to Rarotonga, arrested and deported to San Francisco on the Maunganui, on September 10, 1933.
“We later heard he had been murdered in a gunfight [‘shot in a Frisco brawl’]” wrote Eddie Gold.
“It is now assumed he was a Nazi spy surveying Pacific territory – for what other reason would a ‘tourist’ spend thousands of dollars to visit the most remote portions of the Central Pacific.”
When the anthropologist Don Marshall visited Mangaia, 20 years later, he reported that “These chaps still remembered Walter Bergmann. They say that that the radio operator on board the Maunganui had heard someone transmitting.
“The officers peeked through a keyhole and saw Bergmann operating a radio apparatus with his feet [pedal radio]. They had a naval vessel meet them at the dock in San Francisco and took Bergmann into custody. Later, he was put on the electric chair.”
So was Walther Bergmann really a spy? The FBI certainly thought so. Eleven days after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbour, FBI Director J Edgar Hoover, sent his Los Angeles office a teletype announcing that Bergmann, together with oil tycoon Jean Paul Getty, had been placed on the FBI’s custodial detention list.
This meant the FBI believed Bergmann was either a Nazi sympathiser or engaged in subversion, espionage, or activities detrimental to the internal security of the United States.
Getty had earned his inclusion through strong personal and financial links to the Führer.
With insufficient evidence to intern Bergmann, the US Attorney’s office moved instead to revoke his American citizenship, claiming Bergmann was a member of the German American Bund, and had been trained for espionage and sabotage by Berlin agents (Minneapolis Star, 3 September, 1942). Bergmann denied the charges.
In the court case that followed, the judge ruled to revoke Bergmann’s citizenship, arguing: “To refer to one's self as a Nazi when being introduced to a stranger, to give Hitler's salute, ‘Heil Hitler’ … to approve and advocate world dominion by Germany and Japan, to express a desire to return to Germany to fight on her side, and to live there ‘like a white man’, to condone the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbour (‘They had to do it’) … evince a disloyalty, which must have been clearly present at the time of naturalisation.”
Bergmann was classified as a “dangerous enemy alien” and “his property and bank deposits, estimated at $1,000,000 (almost $17 million in today’s money) were impounded (Hanford Sentinel, 5 December, 1942).
Observations made at his trial indicate that his fortune had been accumulated through business activities in Long Beach and elsewhere. His impounded possessions included an “archaeological collection of South Sea materials.”
Bergmann appealed the decision arguing in court that it was a citizen’s right to criticize his country (Long Beach Independent, 23 August, 1943).
The appeal judge agreed, and found affirmative proof that, although a Nazi supporter, Bergmann had been, all along, a law-abiding citizen.
And so, as it turned out, J. Edgar Hoover, his G Men and their wiretaps had been just as inefficient at spy-catching as J Edwin Gold, his Mangaian detectives and the coconut wireless. Both had their wires well and truly crossed.
With his US citizenship and his fortune restored, Friedrich Walther Bergmann, went back to buying and selling property in Long Beach, California. He died in Los Angeles, on 14 December 1975 at the age of 82.