Germans and Border Radio in WWI

Mar 16, 2020

According to Mike Strong and his research if German subs were in the Pacific in WWI, it would have to have been in the Sea of Cortez which seems unlikely
Credit NASA / Wikimedia Commons

For the most part Border Radio can be read for sheer entertainment. But one wee bit struck me as odd. I had to run it down and that left me with a few questions about the author’s sources. 

My search to verify the wee bit was, like Border Radio itself, populated with colorful characters, improbable events and hidden or largely forgotten histories.

Despite using a plethora of sources for the goat-gland story, author Gene Fowler seems to have used a single source for a puzzling story about an FBI Mexican border incursion during World War I. Fowler writes that a German radio transmitter was blown up and the two operators killed by “commandos” sent by the FBI. As described the “commandos” seem pretty rag-tag. In any case, they immediately fled back across the border after the deed.

The transmitter was, he writes, responsible for sending information about US ship movements to German submarines operating in the Pacific Ocean. Fowler gives the location of the transmitter in the far Northwest of Mexico but east of the Gulf of Cortez and probably 200 miles from the Pacific.

The person leading the operation against the radio transmitter was one Al Scharff, later with the Border Patrol. How Al Scharff came to be a part of the FBI is unexplained.  Further, the FBI started in 1908 as the Bureau of Investigation (BOI or just BI) and wasn’t named FBI until 1935.

The only source for this section of “Border Radio” is a book about Al Scharff titled “The Coin of Contraband” (1964) by Garland Roark. I am guessing that Scharff was Roark’s primary source.

What caught me first was the claim of German subs in the Pacific (not Atlantic) during WWI, then the lack of a specific date, not even a year, and that the transmitter location would overlook, at best, the Sea of Cortez (not the Pacific). If this were WWII then we might be talking about the little remembered Monsun Gruppe in the Indian Ocean and later in parts of the Pacific, patrolling the same waters as Japanese subs. Hard as I tried, I could not find any U-boat operations in the Pacific in WWI.

Germany did have people operating out of Mexico City, such as saboteurs Lothar Witzke and Kurt Jahnke. Witzke was connected to the March 1917 munitions explosion at Mare Island Naval Shipyard in San Francisco. Witzke much later indicated he had also been responsible for the July 30,1916 Black Tom Explosion in New York Harbor. Sentenced to death in 1918, Witzke was pardoned after the war, getting the Iron Cross when he returned to Germany. After WWII, Witzke was a member of the German parliament from 1949 to 1952.

But aside from the sabotage in San Francisco, there was no indication of German war operations in the Pacific and certainly nothing which would indicate the Germans were keeping count of shipping information. That would have required constant observation at major west-coast ports. Sabotage would have risked that kind of operation and couldn’t have made much of a dent anyway.

Mexico had a festering revolution going during this period. At the same time Germany was hoping to motivate Mexico to take actions to tie down US troops from being sent to Europe. Mexico had enough on its hands and was officially neutral at the time. Mexico and the USA were in dispute as it was. The US sent forces to invade and occupy Veracruz, at the far southeast of Mexico. Because of that, despite her neutrality, Mexico offered Germans refuge as needed.

As for the book about Al Scharff, the only copies I could find on the web were used; a hardback at Amazon for $60 and a paperback on eBay for $8 plus $3.50 for shipping and handling. The Amazon offering showed a staid cover with the blurb on front of, “The true story of United States Customs Investigator Al Scharff.”

The eBay offering carried a racier blurb on the front, “The incredible true story of the rogue and seducer who became a fantastic crime buster.” The eBay offering also had a racy cover illustration showing a rakish man, we assume Al Scharff himself, in a passionate embrace with a beautiful woman, filling the cover, and to each side of the embracing pair a smaller pair of vignettes showing our same handsome hero in swashbuckling poses.

Who could resist?

The author of the book about Scharff was Garland Roark (1904-1985), a prolific author of South Seas adventure books, Western adventure books and a few others. Garland Roark’s titles included Wake of the Red Witch, The Witch of Manga  Reva, Fair Wind To Java, Star in the Rigging, The Outlawed Banner, The Wake of the Running Gale, Angels in Exile, Rainbow in the Royals and Slant of the Wild Wind, among others. Several were translated. Two were made into movies.

You may remember the “Wake of the Red Witch” as a 1949 movie with John Wayne and Gail Russell. “Fair Wind to Java” was a 1953 movie with Fred MacMurray and Vera Ralston.

Almost all of Roark’s adventure books had lurid covers with some heroic, handsome, rugged (of course), male hero, and, usually, in the close company of a very suggestive, tempting, alluring, exotic, beautiful - woman.

The FBI website has no information about Al Scharff. Customs and Border Patrol (CBP) does have a page on Scharff, but starts its account in 1931, and no mention of prior FBI association but it does mention other past items.  Quoting from the CBP page:

“Al Scharff was an unlikely choice for a Customs agent. He had been a so-called contrabandista along the U.S. southern border, with roots as a smuggler, cattle rustler, and peddler of counterfeit pesos.”

 

Had the FBI sent Scharff across the border at that time it would have either been covert, as claimed in the book, or been at odds with any official actions, both diplomatic and gunboat. Not that that has ever stopped covert actions. (personal knowledge, search for LS-85 and Laos – not me but people I worked with in my squadron). But, as with the rest of the book, a good story. I have my doubts about that story, but, as with the book overall, don’t let that stop you from having fun with “Border Radio.” The stories are just too good.

This is Mike Strong, in Hays, for HPPR Radio Readers Book Club.

German saboteur: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lothar_Witzke
Zimmerman Telegram: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Zimmermann_Telegram
CBP page on Scharff: https://www.cbp.gov/about/history/did-you-know/contrabandista
WWII Germans in South Seas: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Monsun_Gruppe
Garland Roark: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Garland_Roark
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Unrestricted_submarine_warfare
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/U-boat_Campaign#American_waters
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/United_States_occupation_of_Veracruz

Reference: Quote from the CBP page:

“It took Alvin "Al" Freidheim Scharff (1892-1968), San Antonio’s Customs agent-in-charge, to actually make the notion of using seized airplanes to create an unofficial air brigade a reality.

“Al Scharff was an unlikely choice for a Customs agent. He had been a so-called contrabandista along the U.S. southern border, with roots as a smuggler, cattle rustler, and peddler of counterfeit pesos. Yet the reformed Scharff worked his way through the ranks. From 1919 to 1961, Scharff served with the Customs Service as inspector, mounted inspector, special agent, special agent-in-charge, and supervising special agent-in-charge.”