Martin James Monti (October 24, 1921 – September 11, 2000) was a United States Army Air Force pilot who defected to the Axis powers in October 1944 and worked as a propaganda broadcaster and writer. After the end of World War II, he was tried and sentenced to a long prison term for desertion, then pardoned, then tried for treason and sentenced to another long term.
Born in St. Louis, Monti was one of seven children of prosperous parents. His father was an investment broker who had immigrated to the United States from the Italian Graubünden, the Italian-speaking region of Switzerland. His mother was from Germany. Four of his brothers served in the Navy during World War II.
During the 1930s, Monti was an anti-Communist and an enthusiastic admirer of Charles Coughlin, a Roman Catholic priest who made weekly radio broadcasts. Coughlin was known for his anti-Communism, his antisemitism and his admiration of the Fascist governments of Germany and Italy. His broadcasts attracted audiences of millions before being stopped in 1939 on the outbreak of World War II.
World War II
In October 1942, Monti traveled to Detroit to meet Father Coughlin. In November, he enlisted in the United States Army Air Forces as an aviation cadet. During 1943 and early 1944, he completed flying training and was commissioned. He qualified in the P-39 Airacobra and the P-38 Lightning, and was promoted to second lieutenant.
In August 1944, he was sent to Karachi, India (now in Pakistan). While attached to the 126th Replacement Depot as a first lieutenant, he hitched a ride aboard a C-46 tranport aircraft to Cairo, Egypt, and from there he traveled to Italy, via Tripoli, Libya. At Foggia, he visited the 82nd Fighter Group, and then made his way to Pomigliano Airfield, north of Naples, where the 354th Air Service Squadron prepared aircraft for assignment to line squadrons. He noticed that an aircraft, a reconnaissance version of the P-38, needed work and required a test flight after repairs. He stole the aircraft and flew to Milan. There, he landed and surrendered the plane to German forces. Monti was initially treated as a normal prisoner of war by the Germans until he was able to convince them he had defected out of genuine conviction. His aircraft was handed over to Zirkus Rosarius, the Luftwaffe unit that tested Allied aircraft that were captured in flying condition.
At the end of 1944, Monti made a microphone test at the recording studio of SS-Standarte Kurt Eggers, a propaganda unit of the Waffen-SS, under the direction of Guenter d’Alquen, in Berlin, Germany. In early 1945, he was briefly employed by Reichs-Rundfunk-Gesellschaft, the German state radio organization. There, he came into contact with Mildred Gillars, the American broadcaster widely known as “Axis Sally”. Gillars took an immediate dislike to Monti and threatened to resign rather than work with him. However, Monti’s lack of ability as a radio commentator meant he made only a handful of broadcasts.
Monti later joined the SS as a SS-Untersturmführer and participated in writing and composing a leaflet to be distributed by members of the German military forces, and among Allied prisoners of war. At the end of the war, he was ordered to Italy, where he surrendered to US forces on May 10, 1945, still wearing his SS uniform.
In 1946, Monti was court-martialed for stealing the plane and for desertion; he was sentenced to 15 years in prison. His sentence was later suspended and he was allowed to reenlist in the Army as a private on February 11, 1947. He was a sergeant when he was discharged on January 26, 1948.
Minutes later, the FBI arrested him at Mitchell Field, New York, and charged him with treason for the propaganda activities of “Martin Wiethaupt”, which the FBI had now tied to him. On October 14, a federal grand jury in Brooklyn indicted him for 21 acts of treason committed between October 13, 1944, and May 8, 1945, the day hostilities in Europe ended. On January 17, 1949, he pleaded guilty, surprising the prosecutors and the court, which had prepared for a lengthy trial. Because of the seriousness of the charges, the court required testimony despite his guilty plea, and, according to The New York Times, “without hesitation, Monti took the witness chair” where he admitted all the charges. Asked by the judge if he had acted “voluntarily”, he answered “Yes”. His attorney then asked for leniency, citing his upbringing in an extremist and isolationist environment that “fanatically imbued” him to identify Soviet Russia as the nation’s principal enemy. He was sentenced to 25 years in prison and ordered to pay a fine of $10,000.
He served his sentence in Leavenworth Penitentiary, Kansas. In 1951, he tried without success to withdraw that plea, claiming he had “no treasonable intent” when he flew into enemy territory and that he had been pressured by his attorneys into pleading guilty. He was paroled in 1960 and died in 2000.