Transcript

189:

Hitler's Yacht
Transcript

Originally aired 07.13.2001

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Full audio: http://tal.fm/189

Prologue.

Ira Glass

The elite end of the German Navy was the submarine corps. Those who served on subs during World War II were the best paid, the best fed, the smartest, the toughest. 1,100 submarines, they sunk 2,800 Allied ships. And of the German subs, the deadliest were the Type IX subs.

Tour Guide

You have the sound room and the radio room. To the right of that, we're going to go into our officers' quarters and into the kitchen where these two have already opted to cook for us today. Come on in. Watch your head.

Ira Glass

One of these subs, the U-505 there we has been on permanent display at Chicago's Museum of Science and Industry since the 1950s. It's stuffy, it's hot, and it's unbelievably cramped.

Tour Guide

Now check this out. This is the kitchen for 59 guys.

Ira Glass

From the point of view of the Nazi government that built this sub, this right here is pretty much a worst-case scenario-- little black and brown-skinned children climbing through one of the most powerful machines of destruction pointing and laughing being interviewed, being interviewed by a Jewish reporter who has not entirely lost that pestering, nasal Jewish-y quality that was ever-so-annoying back in the fatherland. That is pretty much not the way they wanted the war to come out. Little American kids thinking that they could have served on this boat.

Tourist Girl

If I was on board, I would like to be the captain for all that ship.

Tourist Boy 1

I want to be the captain.

Tourist Boy 2

I want to be the person that walks around and checks around the whole boat.

Tourist Boy 3

I want to be the person that carries the torpedoes and puts them in the thing and shoots them off.

Tour Guide

Now, believe it or not, we've just walked from our back part of our boat all the way up to the front. Are there any questions yet?

Tourist Boy 4

Yeah, how come if this was a German U-boat, how come most of this stuff is in English not German?

Tour Guide

Do you speak German?

Tourist Boy 4

No.

Tour Guide

See, they're making it easy to help you.

Ira Glass

In fact, this kid is on to something. There are not many German words. There are no swastikas onboard, no reminders of Nazis at all, in fact. The thought that these were bunk beds where slept men who wanted to kill us, who sunk seven Allied ships themselves, who fought for the notion of an Aryan homeland and a master race, these unpleasant thoughts, they are not encouraged. And you know, maybe that is for the best.

Because I think if the museum would play up the evil, Nazi angle-- these are the dishes that the evil men ate from, this is their evil silverware. I think what they would lose in dignity, you can be sure they would gain dozens of times over in attendance. And how do I know this is true? Because, my friend, I have heard the story of Hitler's yacht, a fable if you will, a modern fable of what happens when the free market, the media, the World War II buffs, the neo-Nazis, and the Jews all collide over a huge Nazi tourist trap.

We have devoted our entire program today to this story. It's kind of an amazing story. Alix Spiegel has spent months investigating Hitler's yacht, a craft whose original name was the Ostwind. For this hour she will be our guide. Here's Alix.

Act One.

Alix Spiegel

There are things that we know and there are things that we don't know. We know that Hitler ordered it built in 1936 and that is cost a small fortune, close to $250,000. We know that it was completed in 1939, that each cabin was finished in a different fine wood, and that its sail, over 40 feet long, was made of a rare Egyptian linen.

We know that its designer was Heinrich Gruber, the most lauded naval architect at the time. And we know that its purpose was to demonstrate the superiority of the master race. But we don't know, we'll never be able to say with absolute certainty whether or not Hitler ever actually set foot on the Ostwind, or if this idea was just some twisted collective fantasy perpetuated for over half a century by celebrity-crazed Americans.

Of course there were always rumors about the yacht. And some of those rumors were repeated so often that it's difficult now to distinguish them from fact. One of the rumors was that Hitler and his mistress, Eva Braun, used the Ostwind for pleasure cruises. Another is that Hitler had an extraordinary affection for the boat, that it was very important to him, and that when he talked about it, he always referred to it as his special lady.

But there's no real evidence for any of this, just as there's no real evidence that Hitler's ghost continues to haunt the decks, or that the boat was used as a brothel by high-ranking Nazi officials, or that the yacht itself is cursed, that it will kill, maim, or financially decimate anyone unfortunate enough to own it. Although, on this last point at least, there does seem to be a series of suspiciously consistent anecdotes.

This is the story of the last days of the Ostwind, one of two yachts built by the Nazi government after a poor German showing in the 1936 Olympic races. Even though its original purpose was to demonstrate the superiority of the German people in Olympic competition, the Ostwind actually spent most of its life in America, war booty transported here by the US Navy in 1947.

I should tell you that when it arrived in this country, it wasn't known as Hitler's yacht. It became Hitler's yacht. More precisely, we made it Hitler's yacht. The Ostwind's sister ship, the Nordwind, a boat, mind you, with an identical pedigree, built at the same time by the same people for the same purpose, has never been known as Hitler's yacht. To this day, it sails in Britain under the name The White Rose, a charter boat which inspires no controversy, attracts no attention at all.

But here in America, sometime in the 1950s, we made the Ostwind into Hitler's yacht. We made it into Hitler's yacht and then we sailed it, cursed it, set it on fire, restored it, tried to put it in a museum, stripped it to a skeleton, and finally sailed it into the Miami Harbor, and as a group of Holocaust survivors stood witness on the deck of a boat nearby, sank it to the bottom of the sea.

J.j. Nelson

That road is a back road to the airport. Pecan Park there. Biscayne there, which runs into Dunn.

Alix Spiegel

J.J. Nelson has lived in Jacksonville, Florida, all his life on the Southside of town in a neighborhood called Panama Park. It's a modest neighborhood which borders the Trout River, a series of small ranch houses with water views and long docks stretching out behind them.

J.J. owned one of those docks. He made his living renting boat space to wealthy weekenders who understood the pleasures of a fishing line and a cold beer. J.J., himself, was a fan of fishing lines and cold beer, particularly cold beer. He was a famous Jacksonville drunk.

Now this is not a past that J.J. is ashamed of, not at all. More than once he's told me, without a note of regret in his voice, that as a young man he had, and I quote, "the worst reputation from Miami to Virginia."

So I went down to Jacksonville to visit J.J. I spent two days in his truck listening to his extravagantly entertaining, occasionally appalling, and seemingly endless stories. J.J. is an excellent storyteller and a genius at Jacksonville history. He specializes in two particular kinds of narratives-- tails about crooked politicians thieving the public, and yarns about his own rather intimate experience with debauchery. Like the time J.J. tricked a man who had crossed him into marrying the woman that J.J. had tired of living with.

J.j. Nelson

She's really a nasty drunk, pretty but nasty. So I said, Johnny, you could come visit, but I said, my wife is a millionaire, she's a nymphomaniac. And she's an alcoholic. And it's all I can do to handle her. I can't put up with you. It don't seem like I hung the phone up, he was there.

So he came in. And he had been on a ship three years saving his money. So I went down in my office on the side of the house and I'd left her estate book out, which is about this thick of all the properties she owned, and land, and her money. And he had smoked a carton of cigarettes and put the ashtray, reading all of what she was worth. The next night she didn't come upstairs to bed. And I went down and they were both passed out together on the floor nude. I won't tell you what position. But he was about to choke. I said, he has bit the hook.

Alix Spiegel

There was a story about the time J.J. shot a man for dunking his dog underwater, a couple of stories, which involved J.J. falling off a bridge. And then there was the time that J.J. spent two drunk days on Danish shipper with an entire crew of female sailors.

He had met two or three of the women crew members at a bar downtown, and after a night of drinking, accepted their invitation to continue the party back at the ship. The story from here follows a plot line familiar to any occasional viewer of hotel Pay-per-view. For two days J.J. stumbled from cabin to cabin to cabin having so much fun that he actually refused to leave the boat even after it left port.

J.j. Nelson

We got out just about the sea buoy, which is about a mile off the jetties in the ocean. And I had a new suit on, new shoes. I'd been to a big party. They got me dressed, got my clothes all on, my shoes, and they opened the door hatch. I figure, well hell-- you know how drunk is-- they're taking me to better quarters if it's possible. [BLEEP] they just opened the side hatch and threw me overboard, bam, in the ocean.

Alix Spiegel

And then there's the story of Hitler's yacht, the most eye-popping, jaw-dropping story of all. The yacht arrived at J.J.'s dock in 1982.

J.j. Nelson

I didn't realize it was anything special. It was an old half-rotted sailboat. It was worm-eaten and sunk down in the mud. And the decks were all right. But it was junk as far as I was concerned.

Alix Spiegel

By the time the yacht made it to J.J.'s dock in Panama Park, it had had a number of American owners, I think around six or seven. Two had dropped dead of heart attacks shortly after buying the Ostwind. One had lost his left and part of his skull when he was hit in the face by the boat's mainsheet winch handle. There was a lawyer dude who supposedly used it for orgies, or prostitution, or something like that. And then there was Horace Glass.

Horace Glass was a restoration enthusiast obsessed with a single purpose, to restore the Ostwind to its original glory and turn it into a floating museum of its own history. To reach this end, Glass sacrificed 14 years, $178,000, three homes, two businesses, and an antique camera collection. In other words, he bankrupted his family, lost almost everything they had ever owned.

So after the whole floating museum idea didn't really work out, Horace needed a place to store the boat while he searched for a buyer. And this is how the Ostwind ended up at J.J.'s dock.

J.j. Nelson

So he asked me, could he store the boat at my dock. And I said, yeah. And he brought it around on drums. There was hardly no bottom in it.

Well after it had been there a couple of months, people started calling me and saying, do you know what kind of boat you've got there, whose boat that is? And I said, yeah. It's Horace Glass. And they said, no, that's Hitler's boat. And I said, my god.

Alix Spiegel

Horace, meanwhile, was busy trying to get his family out of hock. He placed a series of advertisements in papers all over the country. And those advertisements attracted a lot of attention. In particular, they attracted the attention of a man from Massachusetts.

J.j. Nelson

Charles T. Sanderson of Kingston, Mass. He'd seen something about it. And he called and he arranged to buy the boat and get it off my property.

Alix Spiegel

Now Charles Sanderson of Kingston, Mass. was a man who'd been involved in a variety of questionable business dealings over the years. I have four solid interview tapes full of colorful examples, all of them highly libelous, half most likely exaggerated. A typical story involves a faux English businessman with fake accent, a historical landmark, Latin American smugglers, and a boat full of frozen flounder.

But there are other flounder-free claims against Charlie, several of which actually made it into the legal system. In 1991, Charlie was found guilty of defrauding the First National Bank of Boston for close to $1 million and was sentenced to a year in prison. It's fair to say that Charles Sanderson was a controversial character. He was also a memorabilia collector.

J.j. Nelson

Airplanes, tanks, bazookas, handguns, medals, he's got a three-story house and I guarantee there's not a place in it you can't walk that there's that the Nazis made or had.

Alix Spiegel

It wasn't just Nazi memorabilia, not at all. Charlie loved history and owned a huge number of historical artifacts. He specialized in materials from Admiral Richard E. Byrd's arctic exploration. So naturally when he read about the Ostwind in the paper, he immediately contacted Horace and made a deal.

Then Charlie went down to visit the boat at J.J.'s dock. When he arrived, he found it under 15 feet of water.

J.j. Nelson

After he'd spent about two weeks trying to get the boat up, he'd come to me in my office. He'd never spoke to me up until then. He was eating down in the restaurant and had his crew and he was staying in motels. So finally when he couldn't get the boat up because it was jammed between barges and a dock, he'd come to me and said, look here, what do you charge me to get that boat up? And I said, what are you going to do when you get it up? It's just going to sink again. He said, I'm going to take it to Boston.

Alix Spiegel

Like Horace, Charlie wanted to restore the boat and turn it into a museum. Specifically, Charlie proposed to display Hitler's yacht in the town of Plymouth, Massachusetts, at a location 15 minutes from the site where the Pilgrims first landed the Mayflower in 1620. It was an idea which didn't meet with much enthusiasm from the local population.

J.j. Nelson

City Council in Massachusetts or Plymouth had a meeting and wouldn't allow the boat in the state. That's a public record.

Alix Spiegel

The Boston Herald, Wednesday, March 20, 1985-- "Town fathers said yesterday that they would fight tooth and nail plans by a local developer to turn Adolf Hitler's yacht into a museum in the town where the Pilgrims landed the Mayflower. Local officials described the vessel as an affront to the Jewish community." "There are two chances we'll let that yacht in here," Plymouth Selectman, William Nolan, was quoted as saying, "slim and none".

Charlie gave up on his plan to station Hitler's yacht at the landing place of the Pilgrims. But he didn't give up on his idea of returning the Ostwind to its former nautical majesty. He hired a famous yacht builder and undertook, what looked to J.J., like an extensive and very expensive restoration project.

There were men working on the boat at all hours. Each plank was carefully removed, sandblasted, and stored. Screws, bolts, rust, everything was saved.

J.j. Nelson

What I didn't know until about two months later, one of the guys that worked for me said, you know what he's doing with those boards he's taking off , the planks? And I said, no. He's cutting them up, and marking them, selling them for souvenirs. I said, my god, who would buy them? He said, some of those little old boards are the size of a box of matches. He's getting $500 for them. And I had no idea that some damn fool would pay $500 for a little piece of teak.

Charlie would sit sometime for hours at the foot of the boat and talk to the Fuhrer, himself. In his mind he'd sit there and talk. And then he'd chatter about well, Hitler walked here. Hitler did this. The Fuhrer did this. The Fuhrer did that.

Alix Spiegel

Did you ever kind of confront him and say, you're crazy?

J.j. Nelson

Well I'm a cracker. I kind of thought it was funny. It's kind of like a circus your kid goes to. First time you see somebody walking around in a cage with lions, you kind of think it's funny and stupid at the same time. And it was kind of a circus really.

Alix Spiegel

I tried to talk to Charlie about the Ostwind. I called four or five times and asked for an interview. But Charlie wasn't interested. He told me he'd only owned the yacht for a brief period, five or six months at the most, which I knew wasn't true. But when I called him on it, he just denied it. He also denied that he had ever intended to station the yacht near Plymouth Rock no matter what the paper said. And he even denied that he owned an extensive antique collection.

Then he told me that he could barely remember a thing about the boat. It was such a brief period so long ago. And that in any case, he had nothing of import to say about it. That was the phrase that he used, nothing of import.

Charlie, I'm told, is a very pleasing person, a man with charisma you just can't resist. Lots of people told me this, even the ones he had ripped off. They described some terrible con Charlie pulled on them, then scratched their heads and tell me how much they still liked the guy, all the while staring off into space with a dazed expression like they'd just hit their head on something really hard and they were trying to figure out who they were and how they got here.

Charlie's magic certainly worked on J.J. After a couple of months they became friends and then business partners of sorts, which helps explain J.J.'s tolerance of some of Charlie's more unusual attitudes. You see, Charlie convinced J.J. that he was in a position to provide him with $50 million to develop the Trout River Waterfront into a high-end marine village, a dream which J.J. had harbored since he was a boy.

In return for this promise, J.J. drove Charlie around and introduced him to Jacksonville's rich, powerful, and political-- men Charlie viewed as potential business investors. There's actually a long and sordid story to tell about Charles Sanderson and his con of the city of Jacksonville, a story which begins when Charlie convinces the city to sell him a valuable downtown property at a vastly reduced price, claiming he would bring jobs and economic opportunity by installing a world-class military museum.

It ends, naturally, with a huge expose of Charlie and certain civic leaders in Jacksonville's newspaper, the Florida Times-Union. It turns out Charlie had neither the funds to pay for the property nor the objects he had promised to exhibit in the museum.

So Charlie was run out of town. And J.J., through grit, and cunning, and a certain amount of river rat guile, ended up inheriting Hitler's yacht. Unlike Charlie or Horace, J.J. had no great plan for the boat. And so it sat, a rotting ghost of a promise made long ago on a piece of land near J.J.'s dock for close to two years until some neighborhood boys came by and decided that Hitler's yacht was an ideal place to start a fire.

J.j. Nelson

When these kids set it afire, the deck afire, at one corner, then people were scared to tie their boats to the dock. Because if one boat catches afire at a dock with all that gasoline, then they all burn. So then people wouldn't tie their boat there because they were afraid their boat would catch afire. Because they were afraid people would come set that boat afire and catch their boat afire.

We had a very popular restaurant right nearby the dock, Jackie's, the original. Not where it is now. And then people started walking out and saying, oh, is this the boat, a lot of big shots, the higher class of people. And they started telling my sister, you ought to get that boat off this dock. It's just a terrible thing to have that boat here. And you know how things stockpile and keep blowing and getting bigger.

Alix Spiegel

After the fire, a whole cast of odd and blighted characters began to visit the boat. There was the Holocaust survivor whose wife had died in a concentration camp and who claimed that when he stood near the yacht, he could hear the voice of his long dead love. And then there was the old woman with a portable plastic lawn chair.

J.j. Nelson

German lady, and she spoke mostly German. And she would set there by the boat in a chair. She'd bring her chair and hold on to the boat and pray that she could feel the presence of the Fuhrer. So she would scrape little pieces of paint off the boat for souvenirs.

One person had come down to the dock and pulled a piece of plank, and off and run up the dock and fell and broke his leg. He could have had the wood as far as I was concerned. But he thought he was stealing it. So we had to put a guard on the dock to keep people from vandalizing it or tearing up other people's boats.

Alix Spiegel

Even with the guard there were problems, fights, and thieves, and all kinds of strange people who appeared out of the woodwork, drawn for very personal, private reasons to what Hitler represented.

Shoah Foundation Interviewer

Where were you born?

Abe Resnick

I was born in a small city in Lithuania, Rokiskis.

Shoah Foundation Interviewer

And what was your date of birth?

Abe Resnick

My date of birth was 2/27/1924.

Alix Spiegel

The very personal, private reasons which drew Abe Resnick to Hitler's yacht can be found in a mass grave near Rokiskis, Lithuania, his father, his mother, his two sisters.

In this interview with the Shoah Foundation, Abe describes the death of his family. He also talks about watching his neighbors dig their own graves, and saving his grandmother from some prison guards, and wandering for days in the woods cold, afraid, and half mad with hunger after escaping from his German captors in 1941.

After his escape, Abe joined the Russian Army looking, he says, for revenge. And in a way, he found it. He was in one of the first army units to come across Hitler's bunker, the site of Hitler's last days and death by suicide immediately after the fall of Berlin.

Abe Resnick

You should have seen the inside of the bunker. I mean, it was amazing. I didn't have a camera to shoot pictures. But it was a little city was in the city. And I want to mention to you that we have seen the corpses, the burning corpses of Eva Braun and of Adolf Hitler. It was an incredible experience for us, especially for those, the Jews who were in the camps.

Alix Spiegel

In 1985, 40 years after Abe stood over what he believed was the burned corpse of Adolf Hitler, he got a call from a rabbi in Mandarin, Florida. At the time, Abe was a real estate developer and the Vice-Mayor of Miami Beach. He was also very active in the movement to keep the memory of the Holocaust alive. So active that the street next to the Holocaust Memorial in Miami is called the Abe Resnick Boulevard.

So it was only natural for the rabbi to call Abe, only natural for the rabbi to ask Abe what he thought should be done about the problems presented by Hitler's yacht-- the constant traffic, the freak show atmosphere. It turned out Abe did have an idea for the boat. And after talking to the rabbi, he flew to Jacksonville to discuss his idea with J.J.

J.j. Nelson

Well he came up and asked me what I wanted to do with it, what did I think about doing with it. I said, well I had some offers. And we had dinner at my sister's restaurant, Jackie's, the original one on Trout River, and spent the afternoon talking and walking.

And he was telling me, what did your daddy do? And I told him he was a seaman. And he said, well what do you think he would want this thing-- you know, he's good salesman-- he said, he's dead. Don't you think it'd be kind of a disgrace to give this something that represents this much tyranny and horror to the world and make a shrine out of it? I said, well, you're absolutely right. He said, let me tell you what I'd like to do with it. And he told me.

Alix Spiegel

Abe wanted to sink Hitler's yacht in the Miami Harbor, to blow it up while a group of Holocaust survivors watched from a boat nearby. He thought this act would provide the survivors with some kind of closure, with a sense that we now lived in a very different world.

Abe told J.J. he wanted to plan the sinking to coincide with the 50th anniversary of the Voyage of the Damned, when 900 Jewish refugees on board a ship called the St. Louis were denied entrance to the United States and forced to return to Europe. About 700 of the 900 Jewish passengers were slaughtered in concentration camps. And the idea was to collect whatever survivors there were and maybe some other dignitaries, perhaps even some Nobel Prize winners, and sail them all out to the point in the Miami Harbor where the St. Louis had been turned away. At that point, at that point exactly, they would demonstrate to themselves and to anyone else who'd cared to notice that the tide had certainly changed. In the words of Abe Resnick, words which were quoted extensively after his meeting with J.J. became public, "We intend to apply the final solution. We intend to apply the final solution to Hitler's yacht."

J.j. Nelson

It was certainly better to sink that boat off in Miami where it would do some good for some fish to breed and reproduce than to put it somewhere and make a shrine for a bunch of skinhead Nazis. In America we don't believe in that kind of stuff. So I said, all right. It sounds like a good idea to me. He said, well, what do you want to do with it? I said, well, I guess I'll give to you then. He said, you know people are going to offer you more money now that I want it. I said, do we need a contract? And he said, you shook my hand. I said, yeah. He said, then that's all the contract we need, ain't it? And I said, absolutely with me if it's all right with you.

Jackie Judd

This is what is left of Adolf Hitler's once glorious yacht-- rotting wood, rusted steel, broken glass. It's enough, though, to remind a concentration camp survivor of Hitler's evils and to want the boat destroyed.

Alix Spiegel

That handshake got a lot of press. Jackie Judd from ABC News did a whole story about it. She explained how Hitler would stroll the decks of the Ostwind with his mistress, Eva Braun, and talked to a couple hollow-eyed Holocaust survivors who seemed to think that this sinking was a good idea.

Then J.J. got up and shook Abe's hand again, only this time they did it in front of the cameras. They promised that within the year, Hitler's yacht would be at the bottom of the Miami Harbor, nothing more than a playground for interested marine life. And this is when the trouble really began.

Ira Glass

Coming up, lawyers, guns, and money, lots and lots of money, neo-Nazi money, in a minute from Public Radio International when our program continues.

Act Two.

Ira Glass

Its This American Life, I'm Ira Glass. Today we are devoting our entire program to the story of the boat known as Hitler's yacht. Alix Spiegel continues the story.

Alix Spiegel

The market for Hitler and Nazi memorabilia, as far as anyone can tell, is relatively modest, in the millions each year. And what dealers of these materials will tell you is that while a small percentage of their business is Nazi sympathizers, the vast bulk of the market is history buffs, the kind of people who can recite every battle in the Civil War.

Hitler's yacht seemed to capture the imagination of these collectors and a lot of other people too, particularly after the boat appeared on television alongside Abe, J.J., and Jackie Judd.

J.j. Nelson

After that people really started sending letters, telegrams-- I've got boxes of them here-- of some wanting to buy it to preserve it, some thinking it was a good idea to destroy it, some thought they ought to burn it right there. And there were threats made in every direction.

Alix Spiegel

There were angry letters from historical preservationists and angrier letters from neo-Nazis.

J.j. Nelson

They're not going to kill you. But they just say that. Nazis are spineless anyway. They probably could beat up some old woman or something. But it's not an easy thing to go kill somebody that's prepared.

Alix Spiegel

And so J.J. got prepared. He stopped going out at night and refused to meet strangers unless they agreed to meet at his house.

J.j. Nelson

I just changed a few of my habits. I didn't eat at the same restaurants. I didn't, like I said, go out in the evenings or meet strangers. Of course I had fences, dogs, and security, and proper firearms myself.

Alix Spiegel

Despite these precautions, there were incidents. One of the windows in J.J.'s house was shot out during a midnight drive-by. And there was a similar attack on his office. Because J.J. is J.J., these late night shootings didn't really make much of an impression. In fact, I first learned about the shootings not from J.J. himself-- he forgot to tell me-- but from his companion, a woman named Linda he's known since he was a teenager. Of course, Linda didn't seem particularly impressed either.

Linda

I recall one particular night, someone drove by his office and shot a gun. And I said, small caliber.

J.j. Nelson

It was just a small caliber. It was a .22. It wasn't a big gun. Hell, it might have even been one of my neighbors. But they called up and took credit for it.

When somebody shoots one of my windows out, I just move my chair over to another spot in the house and board that window up.

Alix Spiegel

At this point in our story as events begin to spiral, I'd like to take a moment to point out just how unlikely it is that the Ostwind was actually used by Adolf Hitler. Horace Glass, the man who first brought the boat to J.J.'s dock, not only went broke trying to restore the yacht, he also spent over 20 years collecting information about the Ostwind's history. He hunted down newspaper articles, blueprints. He even initiated a correspondence with Nazi architect Albert Speer.

But the closest he came to proof that the yacht ever felt the weight of Hitler's foot is this: the German shipbuilders who constructed the Ostwind, people who had never met Adolf Hitler themselves, told him that they were told that the boat was very important to the Fuhrer. That's it.

And although the Ostwind was built for Olympic yacht racing, almost immediately after its completion it was painted gray and used in the war effort, mostly hauling stuff back and forth for the German Navy. So it's hard to imagine that it got much use as a pleasure craft.

After going through 50 years of newspaper clippings about the Ostwind, I can tell you this. When the boat arrived in America in the 1940s, it was advertised as the yacht of Admiral Karl Donitz, Commander-in-Chief of the German Navy, a claim which was probably also untrue.

Later in the decade, an enterprising Baltimorean dubbed the Ostwind the Nazi yacht and sold tours to visitors in the Baltimore Harbor. So it wasn't until the 1950s that the Ostwind became known as Hitler's yacht, probably for simple commercial reasons.

In light of this evidence that the Ostwind was probably not Hitler's yacht, the events which follow are all the more incredible.

Linda

We started getting inquiries from all over the world. I recall seeing an inquiry fro-- China.

J.j. Nelson

Maine, New York, Tallahassee, Alabama, Mexico, New Mexico, Texas-- we got stacks of cards.

Linda

And it was people who normally I don't think had an interest particularly in ships and sailing.

Alix Spiegel

"Dear Mr. Nelson, I talked with you two weeks ago about the abandoned Ostwind. I'm with a nonprofit group called the Keike Enrichment Foundation. We put on special programs and events for Hawaii's handicapped children. We just had a Christmas event for the Shriners Hospital down the way. There was tons of snow, crushed ice, and a snowman building contest that was really fun. Anyway, we're a new organization and thought the Ostwind might make an interesting exhibit for the kids. Any idea what you're going to do with the boat? Please advise."

"Dear Mr. Nelson, I realize that my interest in the Ostwind yacht is probably not unique. I'm sure you have plenty of people calling with offers, et cetera. But please allow me to make a case for myself. My wish to restore the craft is driven by my need for a project to occupy myself during the long illness I have. I am young, 32, and on social security for the rest of my life. So I thought it would be fun to restore a part of history that could otherwise be lost forever. My funds are low but regular as clockwork. And I promise I will work very, very hard."

There were other letters, boxes upon boxes of them stored in the mobile home parked behind J.J.'s house. They were from people who couldn't understand what all the fuss was about or people who thought that the boat should be burned where it stood. Every state, every race, every position and policy was represented, usually it was represented emphatically. And the violence at the emotions puzzled J.J.

J.j. Nelson

I mean, I couldn't see how a resting relic of a piece of junk boat could mean so many different things to different people. In other words, the Jewish people hated it because it belonged to Adolf Hitler. And they wanted it destroyed and gotten rid of because of some psychological connection of Hitler. And the Nazis and the skinheads looked at it as a shrine like a holy place. And it was just a boat.

Alix Spiegel

Then J.J. got another letter. Or actually J.J.'s lawyer got another letter. It was from a neo-Nazi group in the Midwest. They wanted to buy the Ostwind.

J.j. Nelson

After I had handshook and gave it to Commissioner Resnick on the deck of the boat in front of ABC News, Jackie Judd, they contacted the lawyer and offered a half a million dollars for the boat.

Alix Spiegel

And what did you think when you heard that?

J.j. Nelson

Well, half a million dollars is nice to have. But it wasn't that important. First of all, I already gave the boat to the Jewish people, Resnick. So I couldn't go back on my word. And their idea was you didn't sign any papers. I said, no. But I shook hands with the man. And I gave him my word.

Alix Spiegel

But the offer created its own problems. J.J.'s sister Jackie, owner of the original Jackie's restaurant on Trout River, had died a couple of summers before when the cigarette she was smoking set fire to her bed. Her death left the family in debt, a towering mountain of debt, including a sizable bill to the corporate lawyer in charge of her estate. Here's Linda.

Linda

The attorney for her estate actually sued him to try to keep him from giving the boat away.

J.j. Nelson

He was indignant and mad because I gave away a corporate asset for a half a million dollars for nothing, he said, which was bad business. I said, well it's a matter of principle, not so much the money. Of course I could have used the money. But like I said, I already gave it to the man. So I couldn't very well change my mind if I wanted to.

Alix Spiegel

Florida Times-Union May 31, 1989. "Hitler's yacht was moved by barge from the Trout River to the Intracoastal Waterway during the weekend and is scheduled to begin its final voyage today. 'Finally', said Rabbi Gary Perez of Beth Shalom Congregation in Mandarin. 'Hitler's yacht is getting what it deserves."

J.j. Nelson

When the boat was being transported to Miami by barge, they had threats-- like at St. Augustine, there's a narrow bridge at 210. And some people called and said they were going to blow it up. People on the boat were watching. It never stopped. It just went day and night straight through in the waterway.

My lawyer was calling every 15 minutes when the boat was going down the river telling me I was making a terrible mistake. And I wouldn't have a pot or a window when he got through.

Alix Spiegel

On June 4, 1989, over 100 people, including 27 survivors of the Voyage of the Damned, boarded a Princess Line cruiser to witness the sinking of the Ostwind yacht. As an airplane passed overhead towing a sign branded with the words "never again", the cruiser set sail.

Rabbi Barry Konovitch of the Aventura Turnberry Jewish Center in Miami was at the sinking of the yacht. Was, in fact, one of the event's organizers. He says that the cruiser trolled back and forth in the harbor for about an hour before the sinking. They wanted to give the survivors time to absorb the meaning of the day.

Rabbi Barry Konovitch

Then we came to the point where the yacht hove into view. And there was an announcement on the loudspeaker by the captain, what was about to happen, that everybody should go out on deck. And all of a sudden, there was a tremendous quiet that settled over the boat. Nobody said a word. And I must tell you that when the moment came for the yacht to be observed and then sunk, one person turned around, and then another person turned around. And the entire deck just turned their backs on the ship. They didn't even want to look at it as a symbolic gesture.

Alix Spiegel

Before the ship went down?

Rabbi Barry Konovitch

As it was about to go down. And I don't remember any cheering. I just remember the silence.

Alix Spiegel

And why do you think that they did that?

Rabbi Barry Konovitch

They wanted to demonstrate rather graphically their revulsion at the Nazis and at Nazism. And this was the symbol that represented Nazism to them at that moment.

Alix Spiegel

And it wasn't choreographed or anything?

Rabbi Barry Konovitch

Not at all. It was just an amazing thing. Spontaneous.

Alix Spiegel

Spontaneous disgust.

Rabbi Barry Konovitch

Yes.

Alix Spiegel

Abe Resnick died in 1998. But I talked to his son, Jimmy Resnick, who attended the ceremony with his mother.

Jimmy Resnick

It sank. Everybody threw flowers or lilies or whatever into the ocean. And everybody started screaming. I believe, then, we went into a rendition of-- I believe if I'm not mistaken-- the Hatikva and then the National Anthem. And people started to sing and started to hug each other. And it was very touching, very very touching.

Alix Spiegel

J.J., whose travel arrangements and suite at the Fontainebleau Hotel in Miami were provided free of charge, says he enjoyed his afternoon with the survivors. He was the hero, the man who had made the right choice.

J.j. Nelson

They were thanking me and telling me I did the right thing, and there should be more people like me that had put principle before money. Of course I was crying out of one eye and laughing out of the other.

Alix Spiegel

What do you mean by that?

J.j. Nelson

Well, you know, there's $500,000 going down the pipe there. And you always have second thoughts even though I wouldn't have taken the money. But it's something to think of when somebody is reminding you every hour.

Alix Spiegel

Abe Resnick also apparently enjoyed the day. His son, Jimmy, says he was elated.

Jimmy Resnick

I remember vividly what my father had said and what everybody had said was this will finally be the end of it. After this, that's it. Nothing will come back to haunt us.

Alix Spiegel

As I said, I went down to Jacksonville to visit J.J. and we spent two days in his truck driving around. There was no particular plan to our driving. I had mentioned that I wanted a tour of the city. And so J.J. gave me one. He showed me the Northside of town, where rich people lived in Spanish mansions with water views.

Then he drove me down to the neighborhood where the Ostwind had spent its last days, to the dock he didn't own anymore. Over the 12 years since the sinking a lot had changed. J.J.'s house had burned down. And the popular seafood restaurant his sister had owned was closed and just beginning to crumble.

J.J. pulled into the lot next to his old place, a small junky yard filled with rusted cars and boats of all shapes and sizes. There was a little girl playing in the yard, dragging a long jumprope back and forth in the dust. There was also a man who looked like her father, 30, maybe 35, with his jeans hanging low on his body and his hands covered in boat grease. J.J. pulled alongside this man and rolled down his window.

J.j. Nelson

I want to pull over on the other side where the fire station is going to be built, show the little lady some of this stuff if you don't mind.

Alix Spiegel

Soon J.J. and the man fell to talking-- about the weather, about nothing in particular. Then J.J. mentioned that he used to own the next lot. And the man nodded his head. He said he remembered J.J. and mentioned the boat that used to sit in the yard.

Alix Spiegel

You remember that boat, Hitler's yacht?

Jacksonville Neighbor

Yeah, I got a piece of wood off of it.

J.j. Nelson

Oh, you were one of those thieves.

Jacksonville Neighbor

No, you gave it to me.

Alix Spiegel

The man said he took the wood in the Ostwind's last days when its death was all but certain. He said by the time he got to it most of the interesting stuff, the portholes, for example, had already been stripped away by more enterprising souvenir hunters and he had grabbed what he could.

Jacksonville Neighbor

It was just Hitler's boat over there. And everybody wanted a piece of it. So I went over and got me my piece of it. It was a piece of teak off the deck.

Alix Spiegel

Where do you keep the little piece of teak now? Do you know?

Jacksonville Neighbor

I think it's in the trunk of that car right there.

Alix Spiegel

Really?

Jacksonville Neighbor

Yes, I think so.

Alix Spiegel

Can we see it?

Jacksonville Neighbor

If I can get my trunk open, you can see.

J.j. Nelson

Which one are you in?

Jacksonville Neighbor

I'm in that little Mustang. The lock is broken on it. It might be lying in the back. You want me to look around?

Alix Spiegel

The teak wasn't in the backseat. It was in the trunk. And there was no way to get it out. But I didn't mind much. At the time, I thought this was just a pretty piece of coincidence, some dumb luck without any real significance, kind of funny actually. I didn't realize it was the beginning of a pattern, that at almost every stop in Jacksonville, we would find some remnant or echo of Hitler's yacht stored away in car trunks or kitchen cabinets, wrapped in cloth, and laid carefully alongside family silver.

After the man in the boatyard, there was Howard, a wrinkled old man who showed me the wood from the deck of the Ostwind he'd stored in one of his outbuildings. He told me he didn't believe that Hitler was ever on the boat but had decided to keep the wood anyway.

After Howard, there was Walter.

J.j. Nelson

Hey, Hey. How you doing?

Alix Spiegel

J.J. and Walter had known each other for a long time, ever since Walter was a kid and worked on J.J.'s dock. When we drove up he was out front draining the oil from a car parked in his driveway. But as soon as he spied us, he marched out to the street and asked me what I was doing with a tape recorder in my lap.

When I told him I was talking to people about Hitler's yacht, he smiled and said he had a funny story about that.

Walter

Yeah, I went to a garage sale I guess about maybe a month ago. And the strangest thing happened at the garage sale. I noticed this dish sitting up there. And the guy said, I cannot tell you who owned the dish. But it came off the Ostwind.

The lady that donated to the church the particular item, her dad worked on the Ostwind as one of Hitler's servants.

J.j. Nelson

Did you get the dish?

Walter

I've got the dish. I'm hanging on to it.

J.j. Nelson

I forgot he told me about that.

Alix Spiegel

Walter disappeared into the house and returned carrying a small bowl. It had a top with a decorated handle and a trim of braided metal a dirty yellowish color.

Walter

That's gold and that's gold. To check it I went ahead and put acid. Because gold will not deteriorate under acid. If it's fake gold, the acid will eat it up. But this right here, I put acid on that and that, sulfuric acid, and nothing happened.

Alix Spiegel

Walter held the bowl up with both hands so we could get a good look at it. It twinkled and shimmered a little in the late afternoon light. And it was clear from the proud way he held it high in the air that Walter believed the dish was authentic. I, on the other hand, wasn't so sure, especially after he told me he'd only paid $3 for it.

Walter

But I was going to have it checked out to see if it was authentic. But I have ideas it's authentic. See the thing on the back? I was going to take it to an antique dealer and see what he said about it.

Alix Spiegel

After four months of research, I called Rabbi Konovitch, the man who helped Abe Resnick organize the sinking of the Ostwind, and told him I believed that Hitler's yacht was a fraud. I explained the boat's history and made clear I thought that the Ostwind had gotten the name Hitler's yacht because one of its owners realized the name would add to its mystique and value.

Rabbi Barry Konovitch

I see, interesting.

Alix Spiegel

So my question for you is does that change your feelings about whether or not the yacht should've been sunk?

Rabbi Barry Konovitch

Not at all, because it was merely a symbol to begin with.

Alix Spiegel

Can you expand on that a little bit?

Rabbi Barry Konovitch

Well, a symbol is very powerful. It doesn't make any difference whether it's historically valid as long as it's a symbol. So for the setting, for the moment, that symbolized Hitler's regime and its destruction.

Alix Spiegel

I had expected a different reaction-- anger, disbelief, or outrage that the survivors had been duped, perhaps even some kind of remorse. I certainly didn't expect amusement and indifference, didn't expect the rabbi wouldn't care. But he was unequivocal. It didn't make any difference to him that the yacht wasn't real. The point, after all, was that the yacht had become a gathering ground for Hitler lovers and misdirected neo-Nazis. Once these people embraced the fantasy of Hitler's yacht, there was no turning back. The Ostwind would be sunk, and its sinking as meaningful as if it were the real thing.

Rabbi Barry Konovitch

There's a biblical injunction about destroying entirely evil because if you don't it comes back to haunt you.

Alix Spiegel

The rabbi told me that he thought all Nazi materials, real or fake, should meet the same end as Hitler's yacht. Then he suggested that I read the biblical story of the Amalekites. He thought it might give me some perspective.

Like the Nazis, the Amalekites sought the eradication and enslavement of the Jewish people. They met often in the open desert for battle. And when the Israelites won one of these fights, there was an absolute rule governing their behavior. They were instructed to obliterate any and all items which might have been captured in the heat of battle. Everything-- trinkets, jewelry, gold, silver-- anything that the Amalekites revered was to be destroyed, even if its acquisition might profit the Jewish victors or help them in their future battles.

Rabbi Barry Konovitch

I think it's like touching poison. It has to rub off on you either consciously or unconsciously. That's dangerous.

Alix Spiegel

So after I talked to the rabbi, I called Walter back. I wanted to see if he was being poisoned by evil, corrupted by the presence of the $3 bowl he stored on the shelf in his bedroom. I asked Walter why he wanted the dish, if it was simply the drama of celebrity which excited him, any celebrity, or if his interest was more specific, if there was something about Hitler in particular.

Alix Spiegel

Do you think you'd rather have a dish from Hitler or from John F. Kennedy?

Walter

Oh boy. Well, I think you'd get more value out of the one that Hitler had, as far as the monetary value.

Alix Spiegel

How about, would you rather have a dish from Hitler or from FDR?

Walter

Oh boy. I think I'd rather have it from Hitler to be honest with you. FDR wasn't all that wise. Hitler was a pretty smart guy. You know, Einstein and him were side by side with intelligence, I believe.

Alix Spiegel

I've got one more of these questions. Would you rather have a dish from Churchill or from Hitler?

Walter

Oh boy. I'll stick with Hitler.

Alix Spiegel

Do you think that Hitler is cooler than FDR?

Walter

He was kind of an outlaw. Maybe that's what I like about him. I don't know. But I think Hitler was cooler.

Alix Spiegel

And do you think that Hitler was cooler than Kennedy?

Walter

Well, Kennedy was born with what they call a silver spoon in his mouth. Adolf Hitler wasn't.

Alix Spiegel

So you identify with him in that way?

Walter

It could be, yeah. Kennedy never had to work an honest day in his life. Whereas Hitler had to work every day of his life. Kennedy did some stuff that I didn't necessarily approve of, like his being an infidel. He was not very true to his wife. He just philandered around. Adolf Hitler didn't philander. He was just a true guy, you know, my kind of guy.

Alix Spiegel

But he killed six million people.

Walter

Well, I didn't agree with that part of him. He didn't have to do that. He didn't have to kill them. He could have put them in slave camps and just let them be. But to actually exterminate people, that is wrong.

Alix Spiegel

Do you think that people are more attracted to evil or more attracted to good?

Walter

Depends on the person.

Alix Spiegel

Do you think that evil is more exciting than good?

Walter

Oh boy. You would have to drag that up. Well, the majority of people are good. Let's put it that way. I think the majority of people want to do good. I try to do good. I go out of my way to be good. But I do have, I guess you could say, a bad part about me.

Alix Spiegel

Walter works full-time as a lineman for the electric company. On weekends he goes fishing. He also enjoys fixing cars and long visits with his family. Now Walter is not a neo-Nazi nor is he a fascist. If you ask Walter to explain his fascination with Hitler, he won't talk about Hitler's politics, he'll talk about Hitler's power, that Hitler could quote, "do whatever he wanted."

Alix Spiegel

What do you think it is that's so--

Walter

Fascinating about Hitler?

Alix Spiegel

Yes.

Walter

Well, when you think about what he did, look at the people that he organized just on a whim. He had a million soldiers just like that come up that believed in his views. And how one man can dictate someone's life like that and just get all these people to believe in him and actually go fight a war.

Alix Spiegel

Walter keeps the bowl locked in his bedroom, hidden from thieves, but positioned so that each night when he goes to bed he has a view of it from his pillow. He doesn't show it to people because, he says, he doesn't want to cause trouble between the races. Walter doesn't want to upset anyone. He just likes being close to the dish he believes is a little piece of history.

Walter

To me it's kind of intriguing that I own something that he actually had in his possession. He might have eaten soup out of this stupid bowl. I don't know. It's just something that not everybody has. I mean, do you have a bowl form Hitler?

Alix Spiegel

I suggested to Walter that the Ostwind wasn't actually Hitler's yacht. I told him I believed that Hitler had never actually set foot on the boat.

Walter

Well, now I heard he was on it. And when I was in history class, I remember seeing pictures of him on the Ostwind.

Alix Spiegel

Oh really?

Walter

Yeah, I remember seeing a vessel. I wonder what Hitler would think now if he knew I had his bowl.

Alix Spiegel

Do you ever think about that?

Walter

Yeah.

Alix Spiegel

And what do you think?

Walter

How does this grab you, man? You were on the ship. Your boat is out in the ocean sunk in like 250 feet of water. And I've got the bowl off of it from a guy that you gave it to on the boat. I got it from his daughter. I mean, when you think about it, it's really fascinating.

Alix Spiegel

What's fascinating is at the end of the day, it didn't really matter to anyone involved with the Ostwind whether or not the boat or any of the material that came off the boat was real. Both those who reviled Hitler and those who worshipped him had agreed to play out their passions on this half-rotted sailboat. And in doing that, they made the question of its authenticity obsolete. They didn't bother, didn't want really, to think about the possibility that the boat in question was a fraud. The battle they felt they were fighting was too important. And when confronted with evidence that it was a hoax, one side resolutely denied its reality. The other simply didn't seem to care.

And that's where this story ends, this biography of an extended collective fantasy with one postscript. J.J. told me that months after the yacht was scuttled, people continued to write. Many wrote wondering where precisely the boat had been sunk. It seems they wanted to fish it out and stage a resurrection.

J.J., of course, wouldn't say. He told all comers that the yacht was nothing but, and here I quote, "a pain in the ass that made an excellent fishing reef."

J.j. Nelson

It made an excellent fishing reef. It's probably just one big barnacle now.

Ira Glass

Alix Spiegel, she's a mental health reporter for National Public Radio. Her story was part of a series called the America Project. She got funding from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.

Our program was produced today by Alex Blumberg and me with Wendy Dorr, Jonathan Goldstein, and Starlee Kine, senior producer Julie Snyder, production help form Todd Bachmann, Laura Bellows and Paul McCarthy.

[ACKNOWLEDGEMENTS]

You can download today's program at our archives at audible.com/thisamericanlife. This American Life is distributed by Public Radio International. WBEZ management oversight for our program by Mr. Torey Malatia, who explains why he can't meet with you.

J.j. Nelson

My wife is a millionaire. She's a nymphomaniac. And she's an alcoholic. And it's all I can do to handle her. I can't put up with you.

Ira Glass

I'm Ira Glass. Back next week with more stories of This American Life.

Announcer

PRI Public Radio International.