A caller last week told me she’d just read a new World War II book that contained a stunning tidbit of interest to us at The Morning Call.
The book is The Deserters by Charles Glass – I heard him interviewed on NPR — and in the introduction he has a paragraph about a mob of U.S. deserters called the Lane Gang who “terrorized the military and civilians alike in a crime spree of robbery, extortion and murder.” This was in 1944 in Europe. The gang’s leader was a 23-year-old, Robert Lane.
But that was an alias, Glass says. This bad guy’s real name, he writes, was Werner Schmeidel, and he was from Allentown, Pa.
In my almost 30 years at The Call, I’d never heard of him. Who would’ve thought a Lehigh Valley resident in uniform had been a notorious criminal?
A search of the paper’s electronic archives, which go back to the mid 1980s, turned up nothing. I did manage to find him in an old clip file, but not under Schmeidel (Glass has the name misspelled) – he was Werner Schmiedel, and he wasn’t from Allentown exactly, but Breinigsville, a dozen miles west. If the clip-cutters had been diligent, the last time we wrote about him was in the spring of 1945 when he was hanged.
An online check of Army enlistment records in the National Archives’ archival databases also has the spelling as Schmiedel. They show that Werner E. Schmiedel lived in Lehigh County and enlisted in the Signal Corps in 1942.
Here’s the story that ran in the Evening Chronicle, one of The Call-Chronicle newspapers in Allentown, on March 28, 1945. There’s no byline or any indication of how the writer got the information, but it was probably combined with a wire service report. The war against Germany was still raging. Note how the paper connects Schmiedel to the Nazis in the very first line, as if a true American wouldn’t have committed such crimes:
Lehigh Soldier Sentenced
To Death for Murder in
Italian Wine Shop Robbery
German-born Werner E. Schmiedel, 22, ran away from a good home on his parents’ 50-acre farm, two miles west of Fogelsville, five years ago to enlist in the U.S. army at Fort Knox, Ky.
Yesterday, in GI uniform minus any insignia, Schmiedel stood un-manacled before a general court of eight Army officers in Rome and heard himself sentenced to hang for the murder of an elderly Italian during a wine shop robbery last Dec. 10 .
His accomplice in the killing, James Adams, 23, of Oklahoma City, Okla., was given the same sentence.
Schmiedel’s parents … received the news of their son’s plight this morning with mixed feelings. They were unaware of what had happened yesterday in Rome until the news was broken to them by an Evening Chronicle reporter.
Mrs. Schmiedel, mother of 10 children, eight of them living, was told the story of the case as she stood with another son, [R.W.], 14, on the porch of their farmhouse.
The father heard the news during a lull in business at his store and meat market….
Mrs. Schmiedel had little to say about Werner, but recalled that he “…always wanted his own way.” The father, however, said the young soldier had caused the family a lot of grief. “He was hard to handle and when we didn’t hear from him for such a long time I thought he might be in trouble,” Schmiedel said.
The Schmiedels had their last letter from the son early in February, when Werner sent a V-mail letter to congratulate his mother on her birthday anniversary, Feb. 6. That was the first letter since Mother’s Day of last year.
Another son, …, has been in Burma two years and he writes regularly and sends gifts to the family. The parents are awaiting a gift he sent for their 25th wedding anniversary, which they celebrated St. Patrick’s Day. Werner forgot the anniversary; nor did he remember his mother’s birthday with a gift.
The robbery that ended with the killing of the Italian wine man netted Schmiedel and Adams little more than $15. both heard their sentences impassively yesterday after the court deliberated only 40 minutes at the conclusion of testimony in the general court-martial. The verdict was read by Col. Walter L. Medding of Memphis, Tenn.
Both youths, in unsworn statements that lasted less than a minute each, claimed they had been drinking and the gun in Schmiedel’s hand went off accidentally. Several witnesses testified the pair had been in the same wine shop, impersonating MPs, the night before the shooting.
In addition to the murder for which they were brought to trial, Army authorities have a long list of criminal acts perpetrated last autumn by the pair. They were listed as leaders of the infamous Lane gang, and Schmiedel was said to have used the name Robert Lane, among other aliases. The two were characterized by the trial judge advocate as “small-time criminals.”
The time of execution cannot be announced until the two-day proceedings that ended yesterday have been reviewed by the judge advocate general’s office, which probably will take a month or six weeks.
Schmiedel and Adams virtually condemned themselves with their own testimony. It told how on the night of Oct. 10, they discovered they were “broke,” and, in Adams’ words, “We decided to go out and rob an Italian.”
Schmiedel’s parents were born in Germany; the father came to this country in 1923, shortly after Werner was born at Stollberg, and the mother followed a year later. Werner was brought to America at the age of two years by his grandmother, … who lives on the farm with her son and family.
Werner attended Ziegels church. He helped around the farm, but several months after his 17th birthday he ran away and enlisted in the Army.
He wrote home with no degree of regularity, and the last the family saw him was in December of 1943 when he was home on a furlough prior to going overseas.
Mr. and Mrs. Schmiedel said they “sensed some trouble” when they received a letter from the government’s Office of Dependency Benefits, Newark, N.J., a short time ago. It stated that because their son faced court-martial action, the application he had made for an allotment to his mother was being held up.
When the mother was told that her son was in trouble, she said: “Was he in that gang in Rome?” she said she had worried a lot about Werner, and felt that he would eventually get into serious trouble.
According to Army records, Schmiedel never made application for government insurance, and he delayed applying for a dependency allowance for his mother until after the holdup slaying.
The Schmiedel family has had more than its share of troubles in recent years. Mr. Schmiedel suffers from a stomach ailment, but has been able to manage the farm and also operate his store…. He is respected by a large clientele, which includes a number of public officials and some of the city’s most prominent families.
[R.W.], 14, lost his right leg just below the knee in an accident on the farm five years ago, and when a high wind storm unroofed the Schmiedel house in 1941, [a 13-year-old daughter] suffered a broken leg.
The father takes pride in the business he has built up at the store, but he said today he fears he will be forced to close soon because of the scarcity of some foods, principally meats.
The Schmiedels have 500 chickens and one goat on their farm, and within the next few days will start planting 2,500 peach and apple trees.
About Werner’s case, they don’t know what to do. The news came so suddenly, and without warning, and left them stunned. And although he has caused them a lot of grief, the family is hopeful that something can be done to save his life.
Me again. That wasn’t going to happen. The only other clip in the file is a three-paragraph AP story dated June 12, 1945, with the headline:
Army Deserter, Holdup
Leader Hanged in Rome
ROME – Werner E. Schmiedel, American Army deserter who, under the alias of Robert Lane, led a band of American and Canadian deserters in a wave of holdups in Rome and Naples last year, was hanged in the prison stockade at Axersa today.
Schmiedel, whose home was listed as Breinigsville, Pa., was convicted by special court-martial March 27 of murdering an Italian civilian during the holdup of a Rome restaurant.
Crimes by the Lane gang included the hijacking of the private car of Gen. Wladyslaw Anders, commander of the Polish Army Corps. The car was taken on the Rome-Naples highway from Anders’ chauffeur.
Read my story about Schmiedel that ran in the July 12, 2015, issue of The Morning Call: http://www.mcall.com/news/local/mc-schmiedel-war-deserter-gangster-20150711-story.html#page=1