Vernon and I were both relieved when we taxied clear of the runway at the airport in Asunción, Paraguay. It had been a long, hard flight that had started out in Baranquilla, Colombia, delivering a single prop airplane with a cruising speed of about 100mph, following the eastern shoreline of South America to stay away from the peaks of the Andes Mountains. We were tired of flying for a while and happy to have a bit more elbow room between us. We’re glad there were two of us on the flight, but the togetherness was getting tiresome.
We had been contracted to spend one more week in Asunción to get the airplane on a Paraguayan registry, train a couple of pilots and audit their flight department. Vernon, the more experienced pilot of the two of us, would do the training while I made the audit. Since I would soon be auditing flight departments in several different countries, I could use the experience.
President Alfredo Stroessner was well past the halfway mark of his 35-year reign over Paraguay when we landed there in early April of 1977. He had led a military coup in 1954 and immediately put the entire country into a state of siege which allowed him to suspend civil liberties and rule by Presidential decree. (Hmmm. That sounds vaguely familiar.) By the time we arrived the state of siege only applied to the capitol, Asunción.
Prior to our leaving on this trip, I had read an article in a magazine about the Odessa connection that smuggled Nazi war criminals out of Germany and into different South American countries. Stroessner’s parents had immigrated to Paraguay from Bavaria, in Germany and although he was reported to be anti-Nazi, I had read that Nazi refugees flitted across the borders of Argentina, Brazil and Paraguay to avoid the Nazi hunter team of Simon Wiesenthal.
Once I learned that I would be making the flight, I did a crash research project at the West Palm Beach library. Among my readings, I learned that Dr. Josef Mengele, the “Angel of Death” at the Auschwitz concentration camp, had reportedly been seen having drinks at the Asunción German Club. What a fascinating interview that would be if I could pull it off. I purchased a small voice recorder, extra tapes and began to jot down questions that I would ask Dr. Mengele if I could get the chance to talk to him. I didn’t know if he spoke English or not, but he was reportedly well educated. Even if he didn’t, I was confident we could find someone who could interpret my questions. I’d worry about translating his answers back to English later.
I wanted to know, firsthand-from him, about his background, his education and most of all, how he decided on what “medical experiments” to use. I knew he had probably justified it to himself numerous times, but I wanted to hear his thoughts on what he thought he was accomplishing by fundamentally torturing the thousands of victims he used and put to death.
The second afternoon, on the way back to the hotel from the airport, I told Vernon of my plans for the evening. If I disappeared, I wanted him to know where I was going. Sort of like a flight plan for journalism. Vernon didn’t like the idea and spared no effort in trying to convince me not to do it. However, I was committed. Flying had overcome my earlier career in television journalism, but my instinct still twitched at the thought of finding something different, and incredibly interesting to “report”.
That evening I caught a taxi over to the German Club. The “greeter” at the door and I didn’t speak a common language, but my sign language convinced him that I wanted to go to the bar, have a drink and dinner.
Once at the bar I wasn’t sure what to do next, so I watched the bartender and his clients while sipping a local beer. It was surprising to me how good all the local beer was on our overnight stops on the way to Asunción. Probably the German influence throughout South America. I pulled out one of my business cards, wrote the name of the hotel I was staying in and the room number. I kept it on the bar in front of me while I screwed up the courage for my next step.
I gathered that the bartender spoke a bit of English, so I started a conversation with him. You know the routine; Who are you? Where are you from? What are you doing here? On my third beer, I decided to go for it. Nothing ventured, nothing gained. If you don’t ask, you don’t get. Thoughts, running through my mind.
Once there was a slight break in the action at the bar I said, “Excuse me. Can I talk to you about something important?” (I won’t try the Spanish accent on what I remember to be his answers.)
“Yes. What can I do for you? Are you looking for a woman for the night?”
“No, nothing like that. But I do have some questions I’d like to ask you.”
“Of course, what would you like? Perhaps a boy?”
“No, again, nothing like that,” I said, getting nervous.
“I have read that Dr. Josef Mengele sometimes comes in for a drink with friends and I was wondering if he is here tonight or if you have some way of contacting him?”
“Excuse me? Who do you mean?”
I didn’t want to say that I desired to speak with one of the most hunted Nazi war criminals in the world, so I tried a softer approach.
“I am looking for Dr. Mengele. He is a German refugee from World War II who is supposed to live somewhere around here. I am a pilot, but my hobby is writing. I would like to talk to him.”
“If I knew this person you are speaking of, why would he want to talk to you?”
“I don’t know if any journalist has talked to him since the war. I was hoping that I could get his thoughts on the war and what it’s like to live as a refugee.”
I pulled the small voice recorder out of my pocket and put it on the bar.
“I would record the interview and then put the tapes in a safe deposit box in my bank back in the United States. Once I hear of his death, I would remove the tapes and write the interview for publication.”
“I do not know of this man so I am sorry that I cannot help you.”
“That’s all right. I had to try since I may never get an opportunity like this again. I will leave my business card here on the bar, have dinner and then return to my hotel. Thank you very much for your time and assistance.”
I stayed on at the German Club and had a wonderful steak for dinner. It was obvious that I was being talked about by the staff. Probably discussing the level of ignorance that the Americano displayed. I ignored them as much as possible, skipped dessert and asked the staff to call a taxi for me. I wondered if I’d wind up on a deserted jungle road instead of at my hotel. All I had for protection was a pocketknife with a little, three-inch blade. Carrying it was a habit from my rural upbringing.
A feeling of relief came over me as the taxi pulled up to the front of my hotel. It was still a bit early, so I decided to go for a short walk around the immediate area. The city was under a permanent state of siege by the government so, gee whiz, how dangerous could it be? In fact, it was very quiet. Only a few shops open for smokes and nick-nacks. I went back to the hotel, sat on the street-side patio, and ordered one final beer before bedtime.
A man walked up to my table, tried a couple of different languages before we settled on English. I invited him to sit down and had the waiter bring him a beer. An English-speaking Paraguayan would put a cap on an interesting evening. We began the usual routine; Who are you? Where are you from? What are you doing here?
He told me his name which I have long forgotten and told me that he worked at a variety of jobs, mostly at night in the city. As we were talking two women and a little girl walked by the patio.
My companion asked me quite bluntly if I would like either or both women for the night. I politely thanked him and said no. I had a lot to do the next day and that the exertion would probably kill me.
He laughed politely and said, “No the exertion for love would not kill a young man such as yourself. Do you prefer young men?”
“Thank you but no I do prefer women, but I am not interested in any activity tonight.”
“Perhaps you would like the young girl. She is a virgin, so you will be pleased.”
“Good grief no. That’s the last thing I would be interested in. She’s just a child.” She appeared to me to be about 9 or 10 years old. “Drink your beer and let’s talk about something else. You know anything about baseball?”
“This makes you nervous, talking about virgins?”
“Yeah, it kind’a does. It seems to me that it’s awfully cruel to sell a young girl like that who is far too young to have sex.”
“Oh no,” he replied. “She has had sex many times. You would probably be surprised to know how many men want to have sex with a virgin child. They think it is special and will not get them sick with a disease.”
“How in the world do you sell her for virginal sex more than once?”
“It’s easy señor. Before we bring her out for the evening, we put a small pouch of pigeon blood inside her. When she has sex, the pouch breaks and the customer is happy.”
“Ok, that’s enough information for me amigo. Thanks for the conversation but I’ve got to get to bed. I have to go to work tomorrow.”
I was awake early the next morning. Before six. I had ordered coffee from room service, and I was wandering around in my remaining set of underwear brushing my teeth.
There was a knock on the door and thinking it was room service I walked over and opened it without looking through the peep hole. As I opened the door two men pushed into the room. Their visit was not completely unexpected since I thought I might have company based on the previous night’s adventure. I was only concerned about how serious this early morning visit might be.
“Come on in guys,” I said, walking over to put on my flight suit. Before I could get to it one of the men pushed me aside, picked it up and did a quick frisk to see if there was anything of interest in it. Fortunately, all the pockets were empty, and he gave it to me to put on. I was glad to wear it since it would, hopefully, validate the real reason I was in the country, and I was no longer wandering around in my underwear.
“Why are you in Asunción,” asked the apparent leader. It was obvious he was the senior of the two since the other man was younger and seemed to look at him for direction. They were dressed alike in dark suits, white shirts, and black shoes. They each had noticeable lumps under their arm pits.
“Another pilot and I have delivered an airplane to the oil company exploring your country for possible oil drilling sites.” I hoped to play the major oil company and oil exploration card to tactfully let them know that someone would be looking for me if I disappeared.
“Why did you go to the German Club night last night if you are only a pilot?” This was the senior of the two, asking questions while he rifled through my open suitcase.
“I am a professional pilot,” I replied, “but I write for a hobby.”
“What do you write about?”
“Most of the time about flying airplanes but occasionally a subject comes up and I look more deeply into it to see if it interests me enough to write about it.”
“Why are you interested in this Mengele person and asking about him at the German Club?”
“He’s been out of sight for many years, and I don’t think he’s given an interview to anyone in all that time. I thought it would be interesting to see if I could talk to him. I would make an audio tape of the interview, take it back to the United States and put it in a safe deposit box until I have heard of his death. Then I would write it and, perhaps, another side of him could be shown.”
“Why do you think you will outlive him?” This was beginning to sound ominous.
“He’s a lot older than I am so the odds are in my favor and I’m a very cautious and careful pilot.”
“But not so cautious and careful as a pilot posing as a journalist and entering the country with a false visa.”
I could feel the tension rising in my throat as I became more nervous. “I don’t think I entered your country falsely and I would never do so. As I said, I am a professional pilot who writes for a hobby. Just like someone who likes to take photographs is not a photojournalist, they are only a hobby photographer.”
“I think it would be good if you limited your activity in my country to your pilot duties for the remainder of your visit. When do you leave?”
“My return ticket is the middle of next week. In the meantime, the other pilot and I are training your national pilots to fly the airplane and run an efficient flight department.”
“Be sure to confine your activities to that.”
The two plain clothes policemen walked to the door. The senior of the two turned around as he was leaving and said, “We will be watching you.”
“I understand completely officer. Pilot activities only. Thank you for your courtesy.”
Vernon was aghast when I told him of my previous night’s activities and the early morning visit from the police.
“Pat, you are fuckin’ nuts. You could have wound up in jail and we’d of had a hell of a time getting you out. The company could have lost the contract down here and the boss would be fierce angry with you. You’d be out of a job.”
“You’re right Vernon. I had to try it though. I guess President Stroessner and his government are anti-Nazi or I probably would have wound up in jail.”
The next few days passed quickly. The pilots were highly experienced, jungle bush pilots and learned the airplane quickly. Only a few recommendations were made to improve the flight department and our job in Paraguay was completed. We boarded the airline back to Miami with no further incidents. If the boss ever heard about it, he never said anything to me. The company kept the contract, but for some reason, unknown to me, Vernon made the future trips to Paraguay while I traveled elsewhere.
Two years later in 1979 I read that Dr. Mengele, suspected of using the name of Wolfgang Gerhard, had drowned while swimming at a resort in Brazil. In 1992 his body was exhumed and through DNA testing it was confirmed that it was, indeed, Dr. Josef Mengele.
What an interesting interview that would have been.