AfriGeneas Military Research Forum Archive
Haitian Was Nazi POW Camp Hero
Posted Date: Tuesday, 13 January 2004, at 6:17 p.m
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Billions and billions of years after our universe was created by the big bang, a black man from Haiti entered hell. The year was 1943, and the place was Camp Dora, which was near the city of Nordhausen in the heart of Nazi Germany. There and then, hell for Johnny Nicholas, and thousands of slaves from all over Europe (Russians, Poles, Gypsies, members of the French Resistance, Jewish children) was an underground factory called Mittelwerk, which manufactured Hitler's "wonder weapon," the V2 rocket.
How did Johnny Nicholas end up in this hell? It all began in Port-au-Prince, Haiti, where he was born into a prosperous and well-connected family. During these early years, Johnny Nicholas spent much of his time dreaming about the American way of life. He learned English from the British, and American gestures and accents from the U.S. Marine Corps stationed in Haiti, and told everyone he met that he was an American. So obsessed was he with America that he changed his name from Jean Marcel Nicholas to the all-American Johnny Nicholas.
After getting in trouble with the law in his teens, Johnny Nicholas fled toFrance where, as J. Carl Ganter writes in his short Black History Month article for MSNBC, "Forgotten Black WWII Chameleon," Nicholas reinvented his identity as an American. He was rich, a big-time gambler, a charming playboy who had film stars for friends and a luxurious apartment near the Eiffel Tower. Even after the Nazis marched into France in June 1940, handsome and athletic Johnny managed to live on in comfort as the rest of Paris suffered. He owned a big car, had lots of cash to spend, and held a German pass that permitted him to drive around the city after curfew hours. He also reinvented himself as a gynecologist, and displayed a fake medical degree from some Boston university in his office.
Johnny, who rescued downed American and French pilots in his spare time, might have breezed through the nightmare that consumed Europe had he not been turned in to the Gestapo by a heartbroken lover named Florence. He was then promptly sent to Camp Dora, where he was registered as Dr. Johnny Nicholas, a medical doctor and a captured American fighter pilot. "Like so many of those who were in the prison camp," explained Huge Wray McCann, author of In Search of Johnny Nicholas, "he had to use his wits to survive. If you couldn't tell a good story then you didn't stand a chance in the camps. And that is what Johnny did so well; he was a charmer who could tell a great story."
Despite his lack of any real qualifications, Johnny became something of a hero in Camp Dora, where he prolonged the lives of his fellow prisoners with improvised medical services. "He prescribed drugs, sutured wounds, performed surgery, set broken limbs in casts improvised out of paper," J. Carl Ganter writes. "He relieved skull fractures using carpenters' tools." It was a "magnificent hoax" that kept hundreds of men, women, and children from death at the darkest hours of the war.
While the 27-year-old Dr. Johnny Nicholas tended to exhausted slaves, a 27-year-old rocket scientist named Dr. Wernher von Braun worked hard to inflict more pain and suffering on the slave population at Camp Dora. The son of a baron and baroness, von Braun was the leading scientist at Camp Dora and an influential member of the SS. His fascination with rockets began in his mid-teens, and by age 20 he had designed his first weapon. His early rockets never flew, but his enthusiasm so impressed Nazi generals that he was hired to lead the military's rocket artillery unit. By 1944, von Braun was the main man at Mittelwerk, ensconced in a comfortable office with a window that looked out onto the courtyard where any slaves caught attempting to sabotage his mad inventions were tortured and hanged.
Near the end of the war, Johnny Nicholas escaped Mittelwerk and "hobbled 60 miles to the town of Lubz, where troops from the U.S. 87th Cavalry Reconnaissance Squadron evacuated him to a Paris hospital," according to Ganter. Baron Wernher von Braun, on the other hand, left Mittelwerk in the comfort of a passenger train, for the welcoming arms of American "Counter Intelligence." A month later, von Braun and 100 of his Nazi scientists were in the United States of America, where they were "deemed vital to national security" by the U.S. War Department. Meanwhile, Jean Marcel "Johnny" Nicholas, who had contracted tuberculosis while in Camp Dora, was in a hospital spending the last two months of his life composing a now-lost manuscript about the dreadful underworld that was the birthplace of the space age.
"Everything that is now in space had its origins [at Mittelwerk], not in America or Russia," said Rene Steenbeke, a retired Belgian army officer who survived Camp Dora. "This is where a new science started, but it is also where science and death met" (Reuters). Indeed, 27,000 slaves died at Mittelwerk during the war.