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War reporter remembered for strength in final days

Accused WWII war criminal Niznansky implicated in death

A driven journalist, Joseph Morton spent his last days holed up in a mountain cabin in Slovakia during WWII.
By Katerina Zachovalova
For The Prague Post
October 28, 2004


On St. Stephen's Day, Dec. 26, 1944, a Nazi counter-partisan unit named Edelweiss stormed a log cabin high on Homolka Mountain in Slovakia.

The cabin served as a partisan hideout, housing 15 Allied intelligence officers, a Slovak officer, a Slovak-American interpreter, two Slovak civilian resistance fighters -- and one American journalist.

Joseph Morton, a driven Associated Press war correspondent, was covering what should have been the story of his lifetime, yet he never had a chance to write it.

On that cold day almost 60 years ago, Morton, 33, crossed paths with Ladislav Niznansky, an alleged Nazi criminal currently on trial in Munich (See related story).

Niznansky went on to lead a low-profile life on the U.S.-government payroll for more than three decades. Morton became the only U.S. journalist known to be executed in WWII.

Based in Bari, Italy, Morton covered the headquarters of the 15th Air Force and the U.S. Office of Strategic Services (OSS). He persuaded officers there to let him join an Oct. 7 intelligence mission to insurgent-controlled areas in Slovakia. According to Jim Downs, author of a book about the mission, World War II: OSS Tragedy in Slovakia, Morton had planned to return to Italy on a flight that never left due to bad weather.

After the 1944 Slovak Uprising failed in September, Germans began overtaking the area. Morton's group and a band of partisans retreated to the mountains, marching in fog, rain and snow.

Despite marching with frostbitten feet, Morton never complained, according to the diary of his late translator, Josef Piontek, Downs said. Maria Gulovich Liu, now 83, was then a translator for Russian officers and endured the grueling hike into hiding with Morton. She said he shared his sulfur powder with her and his photographer.

"Many times others could walk much better than we did, so we kind of stayed together," Liu said. "That powder helped ... our wounds started healing after application."

On Dec. 14, the group reached the Homolka cabin above the village of Polomka, where one of the American officers was born and where his cousin still lived.

Eleven days on, the officers celebrated Christmas by singing carols and enjoying a ham that young Slovak partisan Rudolf Hruska had carried up from the village.

The following morning, as two men were washing outside, bullets showered the hut, Hruska, now 81, recalls. A 300-strong Nazi unit overran the hideout, stripped the captives of their possessions and set fire to the dwelling. Hruska who was captured, remembers watching as flames swallowed a thick stack of notes belonging to his new friend Morton, who "fed on the news more than on food."

Those who were captured that day were escorted to Polomka. At that point, Hruska said, Captain Jan Stanek, a Slovak officer who fought in the uprising against the Germans, recognized one of the captors as Niznansky, an acquaintance of Stanek's from the army.

Hruska described the exchange: "Stanek walked by Niznansky -- I was near him -- and said: 'Do something for us.' And [Niznansky] goes nicht verstehen -- I don't understand. Stanek only cursed him: 'Go to hell!'"

Niznansky, an officer in a Slovak army artillery unit, had joined the uprising against the Nazis but German soldiers captured him after suppressing the rebellion.

His next stint was as commander of Slovak soldiers in the Edelweiss Nazi counter-partisan unit. Over the years, Niznansky has maintained that Nazis forced him to join, a claim both disputed and confirmed by historians.

A year after the confrontation in Polomka, Stanek spotted Niznansky, by then a staff captain in the Czechoslovak army, in Zilina, Slovakia, and had him arrested, Hruska recalled Stanek as saying. Niznansky was acquitted in his first war crimes trial in 1946. Two years later, after the communist putsch, a Czechoslovak court overturned the verdict, sentencing him to five years in prison.

By that time, however, Niznansky was officially unaccounted for in Czechoslovakia. As his declassified CIA file, first quoted in June by the German magazine Focus, reveals, Niznansky "cooperated wholeheartedly" with the U.S. Counter Intelligence Corps in Austria, informing the agency about secret cover addresses and passwords of the Czechoslovak intelligence service that dispatched him to Austria.

In 1962 a Czechoslovak court sentenced Niznansky to death in absentia for his role in the Edelweiss unit's massacre of civilians. But by then he had settled in Munich and was a deputy chief of the Czechoslovak analysis department at Radio Free Europe. According to the file, the CIA and his employer stood by Niznansky, who denied claims of the Edelweiss massacre.

Tracking Niznansky

Morton's daughter, Mimi Gosney, 60, who never knew her father, said she is not angry at her government for employing a man who participated in the capture that led to her father's death.

"We were in a Cold War situation and I can imagine that he could have been quite valuable to our government at that time," said Gosney, a Frankfort, Kentucky, resident, adding that she is disappointed that it has taken so long to bring Niznansky to trial. "Now, when the Cold War is over, that's ended. And I would think that that kind of protection would end."

It took 12 years after the fall of communism before Munich prosecutors began investigating the case.

Three years ago, another journalist crossed Niznansky's path. Stanislav Motl, 52, a Nova TV investigative reporter obsessed with tracking down long-forgotten Nazis, rang the bell of Niznansky's apartment. Motl became the first reporter to remind Czechs of the case.

Searching through archives, Motl says he stumbled upon records of a Czechoslovak Government Commission for Prosecution of Nazi War Criminals. In the early 1980s, the communist-controlled commission approached the United States, suggesting an investigation into Niznansky's case. The proposal was turned down. Among the reasons for this cited by the American Embassy in Prague was that "his residence is unknown," according to a commission record dated Dec. 4, 1984.

While in Munich in 2001, it occurred to Motl to look up Niznansky in the phone book. By that time, the Slovak government had already contacted Munich prosecutors in Niznansky's case.

Niznansky, who turned 87 Oct. 24, is currently on trial in Munich for the third time. This trial is widely expected to end in his favor as the witness testimonies have been unconvincing.

Although the current charges do not mention the December 1944 capture of Morton and the others, Niznansky has testified he was not in charge and that his unit stumbled upon the hiding officers by accident. "I do not have anything to hide, but the trial is ongoing and I would prefer not to intervene," Niznansky said by telephone from his Munich apartment. Speaking Slovak, his voice upbeat and confident, he declined a request for an interview.

Morton's final story

It was Dec. 25, 1944, when Liu made a decision that saved her life. She and four officers took off for a mountain hotel, another partisan hideout some two hours away. Morton led them to a spot where they began climbing, she said. They hugged and said goodbye before parting ways.

"Joe wore a hat, a green knitted cap," remembered Liu, who now lives in Oxnard, California. "I turned back after he started returning to the cabin. I can see it even now. He, walking alone in that green hat on top of his head. And then we went up to the hotel."

Morton was executed Jan. 24, 1945, at a concentration camp in Mauthausen, Austria. He did not file a single story from Slovakia and never knew his newborn daughter's name.



Katerina Zachovalova can be reached at news@praguepost.com





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