|War reporter remembered for strength in final days
Accused WWII war criminal
Niznansky implicated in death
By Katerina Zachovalova
|A driven journalist, Joseph Morton
spent his last days holed up in a mountain cabin in
Slovakia during WWII. |
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.
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
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
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
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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