Serious Inquiries Only
Here is a brief synopsis of the research I am doing on the two men who were arrested on Staten Island in 1943 for being German spies. Most of the information I have gathered is from recently declassified by the F.B.I., War Department, Office of Strategic Service (now the CIA), and British Intelligence case files. I think this is a very interesting story, and I hope you do as well. As I mentioned, this is a very brief synopsis of the story. I’m looking forward to hearing back from you.
In late June 1943, two Staten Island residents, Ernest Frederick Lehmitz, from Tompkinsville, and Erwin Harry de Spretter, from Dongan Hills, both German-born, were arrested by the F.B.I. for conspiring to commit espionage for the Third Reich.
In early 1942, British Imperial Censors in Bermuda came across what seemed like very innocuous type-written letters when they realized there was sensitive information about the military ships and troop movement hidden in invisible ink – exactly what the Censors were trained to look for – any kind of secret messages or codes. This was a common way of filtering information to the Nazi war machine. Noticing the letters were sent from New York would mean the F.B.I. would have to be notified. This would lead to an F.B.I. investigation that would last for over twelve months before the culprit of the letters would be identified.
During the F.B.I.s investigation, they literally looked into the background of hundreds of potential suspects. From doing background checks on people who purchased the same Underwood 3-bank portable typewriter with which the letters were typed, to people of German descent who expressed any kind of animosity toward the United States, to look into people who had the same name as one of the many aliases used in the intercepted letters – the most common one being that of ‘Fred Lewis’ giving the case its name. Every single one of the hundreds of potential suspects was cleared by the F.B.I.
In the spring of 1943, the F.B.I. was about to get a big break. In one of the letters intercepted from early 1942 en route to one of the German Abwehr contacts in Portugal, it was noticed in the typewritten part of the letter the author wrote “it is almost a year since I have seen you last”, which would mean early 1941. On that hunch, F.B.I. Special Agents Meadows and Combs went to the U.S. Customs office in New York to begin the painstaking task of viewing hundreds and hundreds of baggage declaration slips filled out by passengers who arrived in New York from Portugal in early 1941. On one of the baggage declaration slips, Agent Meadows noticed similar characteristics in the handwriting of passenger Ernest Frederick Lehmitz, who resided at 123 Oxford Place on Staten Island, to that of the ‘Fred Lewis’ intercepted letters. Agent Meadows then brought the baggage declaration slip back to the F.B.I. laboratory where a handwriting expert verified its match.
The F.B.I. then started surveillance on Lehmitz to see if he would lead them to any cohorts. The agency was also able to connect other information in the letters to Lehmitz. He mentioned having a victory garden in his yard, having a dog with a distemper, having money for his espionage wired from a bank in Argentina to being an Air Raid Warden – all things they could easily connect to Lehmitz through paper trails. For years Lehmitz and his wife had been renting rooms to boarders in their all-brick home on Oxford Place. Unbeknownst to Lehmitz and his wife, their rooming boarder who they believed worked for the International Projector Company was actually an undercover F.B.I. agent. The agency had begun following Lehmitz’s every step.
It would turn out that Lehmitz was gathering information by barhopping on Richmond Terrace on Staten Island. At the time of World War II, Richmond Terrace was a bustling area with dozens of shipyards and thousands of dockworkers and Navy men. One of the shipbuilding companies, Bethlehem Steel alone employed over 10,000 people during this time building destroyers for the U.S. Navy. Almost every shipyard on The Terrace was dedicated to the War effort, making this an ideal place for Lehmitz to perform espionage. He would frequent bars and eavesdrop on conversations to relay to his contacts in Europe. During this time, he was introduced to Erwin Harry de Spretter who resided in Dongan Hills with his wife and four children. Erwin de Spretter would also gather information by taking the Staten Island Ferry to watch ship movement in the New York Harbor and then pass it on to Lehmitz.
Three months after their arrest, both Lehmitz and de Spretter plead guilty to espionage and were sentenced to 30 years in prison avoiding the alternative which was death. Both men were released in 1955. Ernest Lehmitz eventually passed away in 1967 while living on Staten Island and is buried with his wife in an unmarked grave at St. Peters Cemetery on Clove Road. Erwin de Spretter was deported to Germany where he died in the 1980s.
A story that was considered at the time to be the biggest espionage case in America since the outbreak of World War II has become virtually forgotten.
I think this is a very intriguing story that would make a great documentary film. If there are any filmmakers who feel the same and might be interested in working together on this I can be reached at:
Cell # 718 838-8674
Hello Rob, I am Vicki de Spretter, oldest daughter of Rudolph de Spretter. I have just read the above synopsis and was truly fascinated by what I have read. Sadly, my father died in 2019. Dad did not talk about his father although I was aware that his childhood had been sad. My grandmother Gesine was the sweetest, kindest lady who we adored and she lived with Dad’s twin sisters, Eny and Ursy in Connecticut. My father too was an amazing kind and wonderful father whom I miss daily. My mother is still with me and she and Dad had been married for 68 years. I live in Norwich, Norfolk, England where my mother was born and she met Dad when he came over with US forces. Although my mother had met Erwin he didn’t care for her. My mother is jewish as, of course, am I. Mum is now 88 and still as beautiful now both inside and out since the day she married Dad when she was just 19. I look forward to reading more although I find it all very emotional knowing how difficult and traumatic it was for Dad and his brother and sister and my darling grandmother whom I know had no idea of what her husband was involved with. Thankyou for sharing.