Turncoats and Traitors – Seven Americans Who Defected to the Enemy in Wartime

Benedict Arnold conspires to surrender West Point to the British. He will go down in history as America’s most hated turncoat.

“Throughout history, America has built up a veritable rogues’ gallery of traitors, turncoats and collaborators, all of whom fought under enemy colours.”

IT WAS DEC. 1, 2001. One of the bloodiest battles of America’s two-month-old campaign in Afghanistan had just ended. For the past six days, U.S. and friendly forces had been fighting to retake Qala-i-Jangi, a 19th century prison fortress housing more than 300 captured Taliban fighters near the northern city of Mazar-e-Sharif

The previous week, the detainees had seized the stronghold after attacking their jailers using weapons concealed in their clothes. Allied forces responded with a round-the-clock bombardment and airstrikes. Hundreds of the insurgents perished in the onslaught.

With the resistance broken, anti-Taliban troops swooped in to subdue the dazed and exhausted survivors. Among the 86 insurgents still alive was a young westerner. The wounded guerrilla, who had been first captured a week earlier and was already being questioned by CIA agents just moments before the uprising, identified himself to U.S. officials only as Abd-al-Hamid. Subsequent interrogations revealed the detainee’s birth name was John Walker Lindh. Authorities discovered that their 20-year-old prisoner was also an American citizen.

John Walker Lindh shortly after his capture in 2001. (Image source: Youtube.com)

Raised in an affluent suburb in Marin County, California, Lindh converted to Islam as a teen. He travelled to Yemen to learn Arabic and later lived in Pakistan. Sometime during his time abroad, Lindh fell in with radical elements and in 2000, he moved to Afghanistan where he was trained to fight by a militant group affiliated with Al-Qaeda. He even attended a lecture given by Osama bin Laden.

Within days of the Battle of Qala-i-Jangi, Lindh was taken into FBI custody and in early 2002 was formally charged with aiding terrorism, collaboration with the Taliban and Al-Qaeda and conspiracy to murder U.S. citizens – crimes that carried a prison sentence of up to 90 years.

Lindh, whom the U.S. media quickly dubbed the American Taliban, pleaded guilty to lesser charges in exchange for 20 years behind bars. As part of the deal, he agreed to drop claims he had been beaten and tortured by U.S. forces immediately after his capture and promised not to speak publicly about his experiences for the duration of his sentence.

Lindh, now 36, was the first of several high-profile cases of Americans who joined the ranks of Islamist militants. He is currently serving his term at the Federal Correctional Institute at Terre Haute, Indiana. In 2013, he applied for Irish citizenship and hopes to settle there after an early release that could come sometime in the next two years.

Of course, Lindh was hardly the first U.S. citizen to be labelled a traitor in wartime. Throughout history, America has built up a veritable rogues’ gallery of turncoats and collaborators, all of whom fought under enemy colours. Here are few of the more infamous ones, along with some you probably have never heard of.

McKinley Nolan disappeared from a U.S. army outpost in Vietnam in 1967. (Image source: WikiCommons)

Joining Charlie

Only a handful American servicemen are believed to have defected to the communists during the Vietnam War. One of the more bizarre cases is that of McKinley Nolan. A Texan with the U.S. Army’s 1st Infantry Division, Nolan reportedly slipped away from his basecamp in Tay Ninh Province on Nov. 22, 1967 and turned himself over to the Viet Cong. Officially labelled a defector by the Pentagon, many suspected Nolan, an African American, changed sides after suffering a lifetime of racial discrimination. Within months of going missing, he unexpectedly appeared in communist propaganda broadcasts in which he urged other black GIs to join him. For years after the war, wild tales of Nolan’s fate abounded. Some stories reported that he settled somewhere along the Vietnamese-Cambodian border, while others advanced the theory that he migrated to Cuba where he rubbed shoulders with none other than Fidel Castro. There were even reports that he was killed by the Khmer Rouge in 1975. During the 1980s and 1990s, many Americans searching the jungles of South East Asia for the remains of lost U.S. servicemen heard rumours that the former infantryman was alive and well and living in the bush. “McKinley Nolan is like Bigfoot,” MIA tracker and journalist Richard Linnett told The Seattle Times in a 2009 interview. “He’s spotted everywhere.” As recently as 2006, a Vietnam veteran visiting the region on a humanitarian mission encountered a 60-year-old African American who claimed to be from Texas. According to the newspaper, the stranger even said he’d served with the 1st Infantry Division and reportedly expressed his wish to return home, but lamented that he was unable to do so. The mystery of Nolan’s whereabouts was even the subject of a 2009 documentary film.

Martin James Monti — the U.S. flier who joined the Nazis. (Image source: WikiCommons)

The American Nazi

Martin James Monti holds the unenviable title of being the only American military officer known to have defected to the Axis in World War Two. Despite enlisting in the U.S. Army Air Force in 1942 to fight the Nazis, the 23-year-old St. Louis native considered the Soviet Union to be the greater threat to world peace. After two years in uniform, Monti hatched an outlandish scheme to join the fight against the Bolshevism, by casting his lot with the Third Reich. On Oct. 13, 1944, he took off from an Allied airbase in Southern Italy in a stolen twin-engine P-38 Lockheed Lighting and flew it to a German airfield, where he formally requested political asylum. Nazi propaganda broadcasters soon had Monti on the airwaves denouncing the communists and their American and British allies. He later volunteered for the SS where he helped draft propaganda leaflets. Monti surrendered to U.S. forces on VE Day, claiming to be an escaped POW. By 1947, federal investigators had pieced together full details of his wartime activities and charged him with treason. He was imprisoned in 1949, but made parole in 1960. After his release, he lived anonymously in Missouri. He died in 2000 at the age of 78.

The 24th Infantry fought in America’s war in the Philippines. (Image source: WikiCommons)

Filipino Fugitive

What drove David Fagen, a corporal in the U.S. Army’s all-black 24th Infantry Regiment to desert to the enemy during the Philippine-American War? Some guess that the 24-year-old from Tampa, Florida was troubled by America’s harsh treatment of the local population. Others maintain he was frustrated by endemic racism of the era. Either way, in 1899, Fagen defected to the Filipino army where he was commissioned as a captain. For the next two years, he led a guerrilla brigade in the jungles of Luzon against the American occupation army that was fighting to crush the pro-independence First Philippine Republic. In one of his more daring exploits, Fagen and his band captured an American supply barge on the Pampanga River and absconded with its cargo of weaponry before reinforcements could arrive to stop them. His reputation grew from there. Hoping to avoid a mass exodus of black soldiers to his ranks (as many as 20 had already defected to the Filipino insurgency), army brass announced a hefty reward for Fagen’s capture, dead or alive. In 1901, a local hunter presented the U.S. Army with the severed head of an African American that he claimed was their man; the identity was never confirmed. To this day, David Fagen remains a Filipino folk hero.

Samuel Cooper. (Image source: WikiCommons)

The Yankee Confederate

Most will tell you that the highest-ranking Rebel generals of the Civil War hailed from places like Virginia, South Carolina, or Mississippi. But Samuel Cooper, one of the Confederate States Army’s most senior officers and a personal friend of Southern president Jefferson Davis, was actually from New York. A West Point grad and veteran of both the Second Seminole Campaign and Mexican American War, Cooper also served briefly as America’s Secretary of War in 1857. But having married into a wealthy and connected Virginia family years earlier, the 60-year-old Cooper suffered divided loyalties at the outbreak of the war between the states. In early 1861, he resigned his post as adjutant general of the U.S. Army and headed south to join the Confederacy where he became instrumental in organizing the fledgling Rebel army. Although having never commanded Confederate troops in the field, Cooper was one of five CSA officers to attain the rank of full-general. Pilloried by Northern politicians and the press alike, Union soldiers famously tore down his former Washington D.C. house and used the bricks to construct fortifications on a piece of ground overlooking the Potomac River that would later be dubbed Traitor’s Hill. Despite his tarnished reputation, historians lauded Cooper for preserving a treasure-trove of Confederate military documents after the war that helped form the backbone of the U.S. government’s official record of the conflict. He later settled in Virginia and lived out his remaining years as a modest farmer. He died in 1876.

The San Patricos go to the gallows. (Image source: WikiCommons)

John Patrick Riley and the San Patricios

It was anti-Irish bigotry that compelled John Patrick Riley to desert from the 5th U.S. Infantry Regiment and join the Mexican Army just prior to that country’s 1846 war with the United States. The 29-year-old immigrant from Galway even helped form a regiment of turncoat Irish-Americans and Catholics from Europe and Canada known as the Batallón de San Patricio, or the Saint Patrick’s Battalion. The outfit fought with distinction at Monterrey, Buena Vista and Cherubusco before finally being crushed by the U.S. Army at the Battle of Mexico City. Seventy-two Americans who fought for the unit were captured and tried for treason; 50 of them were hanged over three days in September of 1847. It’s remembered as the largest mass-execution in United States history. Ironically, Riley was spared the noose. Having joined the Mexican Army prior to the outbreak of war, he was merely considered a deserter rather than a traitor and accordingly was sentenced to 50 lashes and had a letter “D” branded on his cheek with a red-hot iron. Even after its destruction, the Batallón de San Patricio continued to be revered in both Mexico and Ireland. Train stations and schools have been named for the regiment and in 1997, the governments of both countries issued a commemorative stamp to honour the 150th anniversary of the executions.

Benedict Arnold. (Image source: WikiCommons)

Benedict Arnold

As many as 2 million Americans (about 20 per cent of the population of the 13 Colonies) sided with the British during the Revolutionary War. Yet none of them are as reviled as Benedict Arnold. The Connecticut native fought for the Continentals at Ticonderoga, Quebec, Valcour Island and Saratoga, but by 1780 had grown disillusioned with the Patriot cause, his list of grievances lengthy. A number of personal feuds with fellow officers along with his being passed over for promotion soured Arnold’s enthusiasm. Worse, a Congressional investigation of his personal finances wounded his honour greatly. He also blasted the leadership’s alliance with France and condemned their rebuff of early British peace overtures. By the time he was appointed commander of the Continental outpost at West Point, the 39-year-old major general was secretly negotiating his defection to the British through his second wife – Peggy Shippen, the daughter of a Philadelphia Tory. In exchange for his loyalty, the redcoats offered Arnold £6,000 up front and an annual allotment of £360, along with the rank of brigadier general. He accepted and agreed to surrender West Point to the redcoats. The scheme fell apart when Continental officers intercepted Arnold’s communications about the handover, forcing the turncoat general to flee for his life. After serving with King George’s army in America for the remainder of the war, Arnold relocated to London in 1782 and later launched a business from the British colony of New Brunswick. He returned to Britain in 1791 and died 10 years later. According to legend, America’s most hated traitor asked for his Continental blue coat while on his deathbed. “Let me die in this old uniform,” he whispered. “May God forgive me for ever having put on another.”

Benedict Arnold wasn’t the only Continental officer to change sides during the American Revolution. There were others. (Image source: WikiCommons)

Before Benedict

While Benedict Arnold’s treachery is well known by most Americans, the betrayal of Rudolphus Ritzema has been largely forgotten. The 36-year old Dutch immigrant was already a combat veteran when he volunteered for the 1st New York Regiment in 1775. Having served in the Prussian Army during the Seven Years War, the divinity school dropout settled in the American Colonies after the Treaty of Paris where he practiced law. As a Continental officer, he fought with Benedict Arnold at the Battle of Quebec. But Ritzema’s future in Washington’ army seemed bleak in 1776 after he was officially reprimanded for his regiment’s poor turnout during an inspection. Seething over the rebuke, the hot-headed colonel defected to the British army during the Battle of White Plains. As a redcoat, Ritzema was put in charge of raising a number of loyalist regiments, that ultimately proved ineffective. With the Tory cause lost in America, he fled to England where he faded into obscurity, dying in 1802 at the age of 63.

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