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Guarding history

MENTOR, Minn. -- Arthur Olson stood in a prison hallway 64 years ago, facing a cell that held one man. A young Army private from northern Minnesota, Olson had orders to keep watch on the prisoner at all times through a small opening in the cell d...

Art Olson, a WWII veteran from Mentor,MN, shows a card that he asked Herman Goering to sign during the Nuremberg Trials in 1946. Olson was one of Goering's guards during the famous trial. Herald photo by Eric Hylden

MENTOR, Minn. -- Arthur Olson stood in a prison hallway 64 years ago, facing a cell that held one man.

A young Army private from northern Minnesota, Olson had orders to keep watch on the prisoner at all times through a small opening in the cell door, through which meals were passed.

He also had orders not to talk to the prisoner. But one night, the 21-year-old American farm boy nudged a slip of paper through the opening and initiated a brief conversation.

"Hermann, you give me your autograph?" he asked.

"Ja," said Hermann Goering.


To this day, Olson, now 85 and living with a grandson in a small rural home west of Mentor, isn't sure why he sought an autograph from the onetime No. 2 man in Nazi Germany, sentenced to die at the Nuremberg war crimes trial following World War II.

He was struck, he said, by the quality of English spoken by some of the prisoners, "no brogue at all, better than some of us Americans."

But "I didn't think much of them, for what they did," he said. "And he was the worst one of the bunch, that Goering."

Olson came home with two other prisoner autographs, those of Hans Frank, the Nazi overlord of conquered Poland, and Field Marshal Wilhelm Keitel, the first military leader tried and executed under a new principle of international law -- the principle that "I was just carrying out orders" would no longer excuse crimes against humanity.

But Goering was the trial's most significant defendant: commander in chief of the Luftwaffe and Adolf Hitler's acknowledged successor at the outbreak of the war.

Jovial, at ease, but defiant to the end

Olson remembers Goering asking to use his pen to write his name on the scrap of paper.

"It seemed strange, since he had a pen in his pocket," he said. "But that's where he had the poison, in that pen."


Just hours before he was to be the first of the condemned men hanged, Goering committed suicide by taking a cyanide capsule. His body was later brought to the gallows to be photographed along with the others after their executions.

Goering apparently had hidden cyanide capsules in jars of skin cream he was allowed to have because he suffered from a skin disease. While some mystery continues about how Goering obtained the poison, historians generally agree that a U.S. Army lieutenant stationed at Nuremberg allowed Goering to retrieve it from among his personal effects, which had been confiscated by the Army.

(In 2005, a former Army private -- like Olson, a member of the 1st Infantry Division's 26th Infantry Regiment chosen for guard duty -- declared that he gave Goering "medicine" hidden inside a fountain pen. The pen supposedly was a gift from a German woman the soldier had met, and the soldier denied knowing what the "medicine" was. Historians have tended to dismiss the account.)

Goering was often jovial and at ease with his guards, asking about their families and interests. He defended himself vigorously, defiantly, during the trial, but the court's final judgment was unsparing.

"There is nothing to be said in mitigation," the court said in decreeing death for the man who had been celebrated as an ace combat pilot during World War II before hitching his star to Hitler. "For Goering was often, indeed almost always, the moving force, second only to his leader. He was the leading war aggressor, both as political and as military leader; he was the director of the slave labor program and the creator of the oppressive program against the Jews and other races, at home and abroad.

"All of these crimes he has frankly admitted. On some specific cases there may be conflict of testimony, but in terms of the broad outline, his own admissions are more than sufficiently wide to be conclusive of his guilt. His guilt is unique in its enormity. The record discloses no excuses for this man."

'Have a seat, Art'

To young Art Olson, Goering was just a man, a prisoner -- but he was glad he wasn't on guard duty outside Goering's cell, responsible for him, the night of the suicide.


During the nearly year-long trial, he was often assigned to stand guard behind one of the defendants during a court session. "It's tough to stand at parade rest for two hours," he said.

At the start of one session, he said, Goering spoke to him as he prepared to take his seat in the defendants' dock. Smiling at the young American standing in his stiff pose, he asked, "Would you like my chair?"

"It broke us up," Olson said.

He concedes that some of his memories have become tangled. He recalls going to the visitors' gallery one day when he was off watch and listening briefly through earphones as a translator related the day's proceedings, but he remembers none of what was said.

"It didn't interest me that much," he said.

He does remember the utter devastation of the city and the charm of the surrounding countryside. "It was beautiful country, what I could see of it," he said. "And I had no trouble with the German people. Hell, I'm half German myself."

What does he remember best?

"The night we hung 'em," he said.


"A friend (another U.S. soldier) had the west door, and I had the east door" at the building where the surviving Nazi elite were kept under guard until they were escorted one by one to the gallows.

"We had submachine guns, and my orders were, 'Keep your finger on the trigger and your eyes on the wall, and if somebody comes in trying to rescue the prisoners, shoot 'em.' Well, that's something, to be told to be ready to shoot anybody coming in -- and they'd be shooting at you!"

'I was there'

After his military service, Olson returned to Minnesota. "I went back to farming," he said, "like a darn fool."

He said he wishes he could have seen the documentary about the Nuremberg trials that was screened in Grand Forks recently, and maybe spotted himself among the uniformed and helmeted guards standing by the defendants.

He keeps his Nazi autographs in a shoebox with pictures of himself as a young soldier, faded wartime letters, a wad of old German currency and a book about the trials given to each soldier who pulled guard duty at Nuremberg.

"It got kinda beat up in the barracks bag coming home," he said, thumbing through the album.

His grandson checked once to see if his Goering autograph was worth anything.


"He was told it has no value unless it's on an important document," Olson said, shrugging as he pushed the paper with its haughtily scrawled "Hermann Goering" back into an envelope.

"But that's OK. They say it was the most famous trial in the world. And I was there, where history was being made."

Reach Haga at (701) 780-1102; (800) 477-6572, ext. 102; or send e-mail to chaga@gfherald.com .

Art Olson
WWII vet Art Olson looks over memorabilia from the time he spent as a guard during the Nuremberg Trials in 1946. Herald photo by Eric Hylden

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