It’s been a little over a year since I last sampled the website “Damn Interesting“. Although I have visited many times since, it wasn’t until today that I was met with a story that kept me as glued to my seat as the former. In fact, that first article was surprisingly successful here at GT. (check associated content after the article)
This is the story of Robert Lee Johnson, a sergeant in the United States Army stationed in Berlin. Johnson has such a hatred of the army that he risked everything to hurt the country he was tasked to serve. He finally got his wish of revenge and it came during the cold war, as an association with the Russian KGB turned a run of the mill NCO into one of the most infamous spies in history.
Follow the twists and turns of this hair raising tale as Johnson evades detection as a traitor to his country and to top it all off, this story has a shock and awe ending.
The Spy Who Loved Nothing
The meeting had not gone well, the man gloomily reflected as he was driven out of East Berlin. His head was still heavy after a few too many snifters of cognac. The American’s ambitious scheme to build a life and career in Moscow had sputtered to an unforeseen halt not unlike a Trabant’s two-stroke engine; the only concession the Russians had made was to invite him back for another meeting in two weeks’ time. The three KGB representatives he had talked to didn’t seem very enthusiastic about his offer to defect from the US Army.
The date was 22 February 1953. It was George Washington’s Birthday, a holiday for all American troops stationed in Berlin. The drunken man being shuttled out of East Berlin in a Soviet car was Robert Lee Johnson, a 31-year-old sergeant in the United States Army. Most competent intelligence services would have considered the Army clerk useless, dismissing him as an embittered bureaucrat with a grossly inflated sense of self-worth. Nine years later he would, through a combination of luck and circumstance, become one of the most destructive spies the KGB had ever implanted into the US military.
Unlike others who would find themselves pushed into the shady world of espionage, Johnson wasn’t motivated by idealism, greed or fear, but rather by vengeance against the US Army which, in his view, had squandered his considerable talents by sticking him behind a desk. He was a high-school dropout who joined the army at a young age, finding himself stationed in Berlin during the height of the Cold War. Berlin would also be the place where he was to marry a woman who would ultimately profess a vitriolic dislike for her husband.
Johnson utilized what can only be described as emotional blackmail on the person who was to become his scornful wife, an Austrian woman by the name of Hedwig Pipek, as he convinced her to arrange that first meeting with the KGB in East Berlin. An ex-prostitute, Pipek was understandably terrified of Russians, having seen first-hand the behavior of Soviet troops in Vienna in 1945. Perhaps as a side-effect of the horrors she had experienced during wartime, emotional stability was not something for which she was known, being quick to both vicious anger and severe depression. It was one of several factors contributing to what was to become a dysfunctional and ultimately doomed relationship. Johnson played on this emotional instability, and it was only after he threatened to leave her that she complied with his request to first approach the Russians on his behalf. In return, Johnson agreed to give Pipek the one thing she craved most–the security of marriage.
Johnson’s original intention had been to defect to the KGB, hoping that the Soviet spy agency would absorb him into the Soviet Union as one of their own. But as Johnson would discover in the years to come, things don’t always go as intended, and his grandiose plans for a cushy life of sipping vodka in Moscow came to an abrupt halt. The KGB eventually instructed Johnson to stay with the Army rather than defect, arguing that he would be far more useful supplying them with information rather than disappearing into the Soviet Union. He took to his new life as a Soviet spy with vigour, to the point where his KGB contact felt it necessary to tell him to be a bit more discerning in the avalanche of stolen paperwork he was passing their way.
During his time in Berlin Johnson met an old acquaintance from Fort Hood, Texas. His name was James Allen Mintkenbaugh. He too was an Army sergeant, with a similarly traitorous mindset. The two became accomplices, supplying the KGB with documents they had plundered from the G-2 intelligence section of Berlin Command. Mintkenbaugh would later go on to receive special training from the KGB in both East Berlin and Moscow, becoming a competent double-agent in his own right. Some years later he returned to American soil where amongst other things he reported to the KGB on troop buildups in Florida during the Cuban missile crisis.
For the first few years of his new life as a spy, Johnson failed to provide the KGB with much in the way of useful secret documentation, his quest for revenge appearing to peter out. He deliberately missed his final meeting with his KGB liaison, a Russian man going under the pseudonym “Paula”. With his dislike for the Army still festering, he accepted a discharge in 1956. He returned to the US together with his wife Hedwig Pipek-Johnson. In a bid to supplement their meager income they withdrew their life’s savings of $3,000 and drove to Las Vegas where they spent every waking moment in the casinos and every sleeping moment in their car. Before long they had lost every cent they had, forcing Hedwig to return to prostitution in an attempt to supply them with some manner of income. They were, in every way that mattered, destitute. Burdened with their dire economic situation, the return to prostitution and the knowledge that her husband had been involved in espionage against the nation that they were now living in, Hedwig’s mental health crept further towards the breaking point.
According to the 1974 book KGB: The Secret Works of Soviet Secret Agents, everything changed on a Saturday morning in 1957 when Johnson and his wife woke up to the sound of someone knocking on their trailer door. Johnson dragged himself out of bed and went to open the door, his head still foggy after a hard night of drinking and gambling.
Outside, he was surprised to find Mintkenbaugh, his old friend and fellow spy from his Berlin years. Mintkenbaugh smiled and handed Johnson an envelope containing a wad of hundred dollar bills, going on to explain that it was a gift from Paula and that the KGB wanted Johnson back. They would pay Johnson $300 a month and Mintkenbaugh would effectively function as his KGB contact. In reality, the KGB’s motivation for contacting Johnson stemmed not from some fraternal bond but rather from their fear concerning recent deployments of American missiles.
After an unsuccessful bid to join the Air Force, Johnson was eventually able to rejoin the Army, which reinstated him with his old rank of sergeant. In the first of a series of fortunate events, he and his wife found themselves stationed at a Nike-Hercules missile site in Palos Verdes Peninsula, California. This is where Johnson first began to give the KGB some truly valuable information–he supplied Mintkenbaugh with schematics and alleged in-flight characteristics of the Nike-Hercules missile, even procuring a sample of the fuel used in its rocket engines.
In late 1959, after a stint at Fort Bliss outside El Paso, Texas, Johnson and his wife were transferred overseas to Orléans, France. Mintkenbaugh, meanwhile, stayed in the US where he continued to spy for the KGB. In the fall of 1960 Hedwig suffered the first of what was to become a series of mental breakdowns and was rushed off to an Army hospital near Paris. When he asked if he could be with his wife, a sympathetic officer granted Johnson a compassionate transfer to the Paris area.
Once in Paris, Johnson applied for a position at Supreme Allied Headquarters but was rejected. A colleague suggested that he should instead apply for guard duty at a place called the Armed Forces courier center on the outskirts of Orly Airport near Paris. Johnson’s application for the position was routinely approved, something which, perhaps unbeknownst to Johnson himself, proved to be the most pivotal event in his life. When news of the transfer reached the KGB, the Soviet intelligence apparatus focused its baleful eye onto Robert Lee Johnson like the lens of a spy satellite.
In a pre-digitized time where state secrets still had to be written down on paper and stamped with ominous admonishments, the courier center was a hub through which flowed the information that could win or lose wars. To the US, the unassuming, slab-like building was the single most important location in all of Europe. Within its walls top secret documents were inventoried in a massive steel vault that housed some of the most sensitive military and diplomatic secrets that the United States possessed. This included cipher systems and cryptographic equipment sent from Washington to NATO, American bases in Europe and the Sixth Fleet in the Mediterranean Sea. It was a location that had risen to something of a holy grail status within the KGB: a centralized archive containing many of the most prized secrets the US and NATO had to offer–infinitely desirable yet, up to that point, unobtainable. Suddenly, Robert Lee Johnson was transformed from yet another faceless KGB drone into one of the most valuable spies in the history of the Soviet Union.
However, the courier center was also designed to be impregnable. Armed guards patrolled day and night, there was only one door that led into the building, and all documents were housed within a central vault that sat behind two massive steel doors. All of it was secured with a complicated array of combination and key-based locks. It was the responsibility of the guards to ensure that no one, from the lowliest private to the highest general, was ever allowed into the vault alone. Unsurprisingly, Johnson’s KGB contact insisted that he needed to apply for the top-secret clearance required for him to work inside the building. Johnson pointed out that this would in all likelihood be impossible as such a request came with an obligatory background check. If any discrepancy or shady dealings in his past were detected his request would almost certainly be denied.
But he finally relented and at the insistence of the KGB he submitted an application for the clearance. Johnson’s main worry was what his increasingly unpredictable wife might say. In recent bouts of screaming fits both neighbors and medical personnel had overheard her accusing her husband of espionage. So far, they had all dismissed it as delusions on her part. Nonetheless, a thorough background search could still cause everything to unravel and land Johnson in jail, or worse. But once again luck appeared to be on his side. French law prohibited American troops from interrogating any French citizens, ensuring that no attempts were made to question Johnson’s neighbors. His background check raised no red flags, even failing to notice his wife’s mental illness. In late 1961 he received the top-secret clearance and was admitted into the vault as a clerk. At long last the KGB was in.
Allegedly, the operation was given top priority within the KGB with several officers devoted full-time to making sure Johnson’s double-dealings weren’t exposed. Over the following weeks the infiltration began in earnest as he successfully copied the vault keys using clay molds supplied by KGB operatives. In October of 1961 he received a specially manufactured X-ray device from Moscow that he was instructed to place over the final lock in the vault; KGB technicians could then deduce what combination unlocked the vault by studying the cogs inside the locking mechanism. He smuggled the device into the courier center and scanned the lock as instructed, handing the device back to his KGB contact. Three weeks later he received a slip with a series of numbers that proved to be the correct combination for the last of the vault locks. With that, nothing stood between Johnson and the secrets hidden away within the heart of the courier center. The last line of defense had been breached.
Johnson successfully maintained his charade and kept on working at the courier center as if nothing had happened. His colleagues remained unaware that he was a Soviet spy who now had full access to much of the US and NATO’s most highly classified information. The KGB even provided Johnson with a bottle of sedative-laced cognac, intended as a last-ditch defense should one of his colleagues happen to intrude upon his attempt to access the vault. He was instructed by his KGB contact to pour both himself and the potential intruder a glass of cognac while Johnson was supposed to quickly down two tablets designed to neutralize the effect of the sedative. Although the odds of Johnson actually duping a potential interloper into drinking the cognac would have been poor, the information that Johnson was steadily smuggling out of the courier center was of such a nature that the KGB were willing to maintain his cover by any and all means at their disposal.
On 15 December 1962, Johnson accessed the vault for the first time and looted its contents. The operation, extensively rehearsed beforehand, went exactly as planned and by 03:15 the following morning some of America’s most sensitive cryptographic and military information–some of it classified higher than top secret–was on its way to Moscow. The treasure trove of information proved so valuable that the KGB decided to reward Johnson with a bonus of $2,000 and the rank of honorary Major in the Red Army. The information–rumored to include the numbers and locations of US nuclear warheads in Europe–was deemed so important that it was presented to Comrade Khrushchev himself. Before long, rumors began to circulate within the Kremlin of a high-level penetration by the KGB in France.
And it was only the beginning. Over the following seven months Johnson regularly raided the vault and handed over the documentation to his KGB contact, who would copy the papers. The dossiers were then resealed and handed back to Johnson via a secret drop; he would pick them up en route to work and returned them to the vault before his shift ended in the early morning hours, ensuring that no one knew that the papers had ever left the building. During this time Johnson’s interactions with his Russian contact were conducted according to a strict schedule dictated by the KGB. Such was the caution exercised that any deviation on Johnson’s part from this routine, no matter how insignificant or trivial, was enough to send the KGB into lockdown. One day he accidentally overslept, missing a secret drop with documentation he was due to return back to the vault. While he still managed to return the documentation without anyone at the courier center noticing, the incident was enough to prompt the overcautious KGB to temporarily cease all contact with Johnson.
And who could blame them–the Soviet spy agency was now sitting on a volume of classified US and NATO documentation beyond some of their wildest dreams, including detailed NATO plans for the defense of Western Europe, what the US intended to do in a variety of global emergencies, as well as secret agreements between NATO partners that the Soviet leadership could not have guessed existed. Should the Cold War suddenly turn hot the information provided by Johnson ensured that the Soviet Union would have been in a position of unprecedented strategic advantage. They could now hit NATO where it hurt the most while at the same time knowing exactly which perceived Soviet weaknesses NATO would attempt to exploit.
In some cases the damage proved irreparable for the US. Nuclear warheads could always be redeployed elsewhere, plans could be changed and defense strategies revised, but the insights the KGB had now gained into US and NATO cryptographic systems would be much harder to remedy. Years later, when the full scale of Johnson’s espionage became apparent, a Department of Defense spokesperson was quoted as saying “It is accurate to characterize our losses as enormous […] Had we not discovered the losses, and had there been a war, the damage might very well have been fatal”.
The Army, still oblivious to Johnson’s subterfuge, eventually transferred him back to the US where on 02 October, 1964, he withdrew $2,200 from the Old Dominion Bank in Arlington, Virginia, and vanished. One month after his disappearance the Army requested that he be arrested for desertion and enlisted the help of the FBI to track him down.
But it barely took two months before Johnson surfaced on his own accord. On 25 November he walked into a police station in Reno, Nevada, and identified himself as a deserter. He had four pennies to his name, having gone on a cross-country bender to escape from his wife who had suffered another mental breakdown. Mrs. Pipek-Johnson, when interrogated by the FBI, quickly betrayed her husband and on 30 July 1965 the Federal District Court of Alexandria sentenced both Johnson and Mintkenbaugh to a minimum of 25 years in prison using information provided by both Johnson’s wife and KGB defector Yuri Nosenko. Meanwhile, in Moscow, several of the KGB agents who had worked on the Johnson operation received the Order of Lenin, the highest commendation the Soviet Union had to offer.
It later surfaced that Robert and Hedwig had a son, Robert Lee Johnson Jr, who had been placed in a foster home to escape his parents’ dysfunctional marriage. Eventually he too would grow up to join the Army and fight in Vietnam, ending his tour of duty in 1972. Upon returning to the US he set up a meeting with his father at the Lewisburg Federal Penitentiary.
Johnson, having not seen his son for many years, reached out to shake his hand in the prison reception area when, without saying a word, Robert stabbed his father in the chest. Robert Lee Johnson was pronounced dead within the hour, his streak of remarkable luck coming to an abrupt end at the age of fifty-two. Later, when questioned by the FBI as to the motive of the killing, Robert refused to say anything other than “It was a personal matter”. Of Hedwig Pipek-Johnson, the unfortunate Viennese woman who had once fled from the misery of prostitution by marrying a young Army sergeant, the story ends on a more ambiguous note–her ultimate fate remains unknown.
Didn’t I tell you? Well worth the read, right? If you liked that story, here’s a video covering the cold war and it’s spies:
I want to give a big shout out and thank you to Damn Interesting for another damn interesting story! In fact, I highly recommend you pay them a visit.
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