Swastikas on Wilson
Plenty of Arlingtonians despised George Rockwell for his Nazi views. But the man who killed him wasn't one of them.
The skater boys who frequent Powhatan Springs Park are too young to remember the day George Rockwell was murdered across the street at the Dominion Hills Shopping Centre. But Tom Blakeney isn’t.
Standing in the door of his barbershop, Blakeney watched as Rockwell—a tall man with a confident air—entered the shopping center’s Laundromat and exited a short time later, sliding into the seat of his blue-and-white 1958 Chevrolet. That’s when shots rang out from the roof of the building.
Two bullets pierced the Chevy’s windshield and the car rolled into another vehicle. Rockwell slumped over the steering wheel and then fell out onto the pavement, splayed beside his box of Ivory Snow and a copy of the New York Daily News.
“When I heard the shots, I thought a car had backfired,” says Blakeney, now 83 and retired in Fredericksburg. “I saw Rockwell kind of jumping around in the front seat, and I thought he was having a seizure.”
But Rockwell, 49, who was running home to fetch some bleach, had been ambushed. Blakeney and his colleague, Jim Cummings, took off on foot after the shooter and then stopped at a nearby home to call the police. The suspect was apprehended a half-hour later on Washington Boulevard. It was Aug. 25, 1967.
Plenty of area citizens had wanted Rockwell gone. As the founder of the American Nazi Party, he had been an embarrassment and an affront to the community for nearly a decade.
At the same time, he seemed an unlikely ringleader for such a radicalized group. Born in Bloomington, Ill., in 1918, George Lincoln Rockwell was the son of vaudeville comedians who counted among their friends Fanny Brice, Jack Benny and Groucho Marx. He attended prep school in Maine, enrolled at Brown University to study philosophy and then dropped out to serve as a Navy pilot in World War II. He later studied at the Pratt Institute in Brooklyn, where he developed the drawing talents he would eventually use to create Nazi propaganda.
After a short career in advertising, Rockwell married and fathered three children. When the Korean War broke out, he was called up and stationed in San Diego, and then assigned to a U.S. naval air facility in Iceland. It was there that he read Hitler’s Mein Kampf and became obsessed with Aryanism and the threat of communism. Abandoning his family in the States, he married an Icelandic woman and honeymooned in Germany (in Hitler’s retreat town of Berchtesgaden).
In the mid-1950s, Rockwell returned to the United States and founded the American Nazi Party in the suburbs outside the nation’s capital, where he quickly gained status as a national newsmaker whose name carried shock value.
In Arlington, the Nazis first made news in 1958 with a bomb threat against the Arlington Unitarian Church, a gathering spot for some Jewish congregants before they had their own synagogue. Two years later, Rockwell’s followers picketed Mario’s Pizza House on Wilson Boulevard after the owners refused the Nazis service while continuing to serve blacks. (The picketers’ signs targeted “Mario the Jew,” a reference to Howard Levine and family, whose son still owns the pizzeria today.)
Residents who lived in Arlington in the late 1950s and ’60s still remember the various homes around town that the party’s two or three dozen local members used as barracks and offices for their headquarters operations. One of the most visible was a house at 928 North Randolph St. (now the site of the Richmond Square apartments in Ballston), which bore a wooden sign reading, “White Man…Fight! Smash the Black Revolution Now.”
Local teenagers got their thrills by crank-calling the house and listening to the tape-recorded hate messages of white supremacist William Pierce, a Rockwell associate.
Following the desegregation of Arlington County public schools in 1959, Rockwell’s grinning acolytes were a familiar presence at school board meetings, staging protests while wearing swastika armbands. One Nazi flier read, “You can beat the federal race mixers.”
These tensions escalated until 1961, when two Nazis were sentenced to a year in prison for assaulting a 13-year-old boy—a crime of retaliation after several incidents of local kids hurling rocks and insults at the Nazi property on Randolph Street. Ricky Farber and some friends had been walking by the house after a dance at Washington-Lee High School when they were forced inside and interrogated at gunpoint.
Community outrage only strengthened the party’s resolve. In 1965, Rockwell ran for governor of Virginia and garnered 5,730 votes (about 1.02 percent of the vote). With his flashing eyes and 6-foot-4 frame, he had a charismatic presence to some.
“Rockwell has all kinds of leadership ability,” noted a 19-year-old William & Mary student who landed a tape-recorded interview with Rockwell in July 1967. “He never hesitates when he speaks, and he almost glows with confidence. It’s easy to see how he can use his power on ignorant people.”
The financing of Rockwell’s band of underemployed and marginalized agitators was murky, and funding was likely one of the reasons he chose Arlington as his base. One source of direct support was a Baltimore heir and white supremacist named Harold Noel Arrowsmith Jr., who lent an Arlington rambler to the Nazis in the late ’50s.
Rockwell lived in the rambler at 6512 Williamsburg Blvd., near Sycamore Street—a large Nazi flag visible through its front picture window. One April evening in 1959, Arlington police and Commonwealth’s Attorney William Hassan, armed with a search warrant and police backing nearby, raided the home looking for weapons, finding only a pistol, a revolver, a few rifles and 10,000 anti-Jewish pamphlets.
But what Hassan had failed to realize was that he’d picked Hitler’s birthday to conduct the raid.
Rockwell was quick to turn the incident into a publicity stunt. Greeting his visitors cheerfully at the door, he invited Hassan and Hassan’s assistant, Earl Shaffer, inside for a piece of celebratory cake, which they declined. Rockwell then snapped a photo, which he sold to The Washington Star, of the two men standing inside his home.
Later that night, neighbors looked on as Nazis marched in and out of the house giving the “Sieg Heil” salute—a move that prompted police to charge the Nazis with disorderly conduct and maintaining a public nuisance.
On the matter of civil liberties, the Nazis’ presence in Arlington created deep divisions among local citizens. At issue was whether it was better to fight back against the group’s members with the hope of undermining their activities, or simply to ignore them.
“Most Arlingtonians disregarded them,” recalls Jean Mostrom, who heard the sirens from her home on McKinley Road on the day that Rockwell was shot.
However, working as a U.S. Census taker in 1960, Mostrom had been instructed not to risk knocking on the door of one Nazi house set far back in the woods on Wilson Boulevard, across the street from the Dominion Hills Shopping Centre, which some had nicknamed “Hatemonger Hill.” (Today the site is the picnic pavilion at Upton Hill Regional Park.)
Local reporters assumed that many of the Nazi storm troopers in the house were, in fact, FBI infiltrators, recalls Ken Ikenberry, a former reporter for The Washington Star. And yet, most members of the press were reluctant to venture onto the property for fear of being mauled by the Nazis’ reputedly vicious German shepherds (one of which was named J. Edgar, after FBI Director Hoover).
One local journalist who was unafraid of confrontation, however, was Herman Obermayer, editor and publisher of the Northern Virginia Sun (a predecessor of today’s weekly Sun Gazette). Now 88, he still lives in Arlington in Chain Bridge Forest.
“The Nazi Party in Arlington, I felt, was a terrible blight on the community, and that their activities should be fully reported,” Obermayer says.
While the area’s three leading newspapers—The Washington Post, The Washington Star and the Daily News—followed a policy of quarantine, Obermayer exercised the power of the pen in a series of scathing editorials. In one, he urged local authorities to aggressively investigate whether the Nazis paid business taxes and maintained licenses for their printing operations. In another, he made reference to a baby girl he heard had died in one of the Nazi houses, a charge that the Commonwealth’s Attorney never investigated.
“I always thought the Nazis stayed here because they were welcomed,” says Obermayer, who is Jewish. “But I don’t fault Arlingtonians as a group, since I don’t know who could have [gone after the Nazis].”
One group did. Citizens Concerned was formed in 1961, when some 50 Arlington activists began meeting at the Pershing Drive home of Charles and Carolyn Planck. Its members included Rev. George Yount of First Presbyterian Church, Clarence Salisbury of the Arlington Civic Federation, and Jewish residents like Sylvia Nachman, whose family operated a well-known bicycle shop.
Maintaining ongoing contact with law enforcement, the group made a point of sharing information compiled by the Anti-Defamation League and the Jewish Community Council of Greater Washington. After approaching Hassan with requests for public education campaigns and an investigation into Nazi violations of zoning ordinances, Citizens Concerned ultimately took its case to the Virginia State Corporation Commission and successfully lobbied to revoke the Nazi Party’s charter.
In 1962, the Virginia General Assembly declared Rockwell’s group an enemy of the state.
But the state was not Rockwell’s only enemy.
As it turns out, the man police would arrest five years later and charge with Rockwell’s murder was not an anti-Nazi, but a disgruntled fellow Nazi.
A Greek American and former Marine from New York City, John Patler, 29, had risen to the No. 4 slot in the hierarchy of the party faithful—most of whom lived in the house on Wilson Boulevard. By this time, there was resentment in the ranks.
“Link,” as Rockwell was nicknamed, was regarded as a selfish and lazy commander. “[He] would usually sit around and read or sleep away most of the day while the rest of us would work or look for work,” one former Nazi said in a typescript memoir acquired by the Arlington Public Library. “Many sympathizers would bring food over to the headquarters during the winter months, and Link would take the choicest food and hog it up and leave the scraps for everyone else.”
Rockwell knew he was a target. In fact, shortly before the assassination, Shaffer recalls Rockwell paying a visit to his office with a petition to carry a concealed weapon. “I respectfully declined to get involved,” says Shaffer, now a retired judge. “Rockwell knew he was going to get nailed.”
On that August day in 1967, Patler was arrested at the intersection of Washington Boulevard and North Inglewood Street. Appearing suspicious, he was running and wiping his head with a towel when he was spotted by Deputy Police Chief Raymond “Boots” Cole.
Soon after, a discarded raincoat and cap (believed to be Patler’s) were found in a yard at 1033 North Larrimore St. The suspected weapon, a 40-year-old German Mauser semiautomatic pistol, was recovered below a footbridge in Bon Air Park.
In the run-up to the December trial, it emerged that Patler had maintained an on-again, off-again membership in the party. (He had left in 1961 to set up a rival group, but then later returned.) Derided by one Nazi as a “greasy Greek,” he was suspected by some of being a Marxist. Patler had also ruffled feathers when he pressed to rid the American Nazi Party of its German trappings.
But he denied killing Rockwell. Entering a plea of not guilty, Patler’s defense attorneys argued that Patler had been three miles away in his Lyon Village home at 2522 Lee Highway (now Pioneer Motors) at the time of the shooting. They said he had run errands with his wife and child, making a purchase at Arlington Paper Supply on Washington Boulevard (now Red Top Cab).
Meanwhile, the prosecution, led by Hassan, pushed for the death penalty. Law enforcement officers reported finding footprints traced to Patler on the roof of the shopping center, and a witness named Glenn Hall testified that he saw a man fitting Patler’s description running through the neighborhood minutes after the gunshots. Similar testimony was provided by other neighbors who lived along the assailant’s escape route.
Hassan further set out to prove that the murder weapon had been test-fired on property owned by Patler’s father-in-law in Highland County, Va., before it was used to kill Rockwell.
“Give him the chair!” Hassan shouted in his closing statement.
On Dec. 15, 1967, the jury of 10 men and two women found Patler guilty of murder and recommended a 20-year sentence.
Rockwell’s estate wasn’t much to speak of. He left behind $257 in cash, various writings and a corncob pipe. But his patrimony lived on in Arlington for another decade and a half.
One of the first incidents after his death centered on the Nazis’ controversial effort to bury their slain leader. Because Rockwell was a military veteran, his followers had won a Pentagon ruling entitling him to internment in a national cemetery. However, military officials prohibited the use of Nazi rituals, uniforms and flags during the burial (a position challenged on free-speech grounds by the American Civil Liberties Union).
On Aug. 29, 1967, following a six-hour face-off between Nazis and military police at Culpeper National Cemetery, Rockwell’s body was returned to an Arlington funeral home, where it was cremated.
The Nazis subsequently held a memorial service at the Wilson Boulevard barracks and the ACLU dropped its case.
The following year, the party relocated its headquarters twice—first, to a shoddy, two-story wooden house at 806 Taylor St. (a site now occupied by the National Rural Electric Cooperative Association), and later, to a brick building at 2507 North Franklin Road in Clarendon (currently Java Shack), where they hung a “White Power” sign across the building’s facade.
Newspapers in subsequent years would report sporadic feuds by, against and between Nazis. In 1976, during Arlington’s Bicentennial Independence Day parade, the Nazis marched with a swastika-decorated drum corps. One year later, anti-racist protestors threw rocks and eggs at the Nazis’ Franklin Road office.
On the 10th anniversary of Rockwell’s death, loyalists staged a commemorative ceremony in the parking lot where their vitriolic leader had perished, laying a wreath beside a freshly painted swastika on the pavement.
The party’s last stand in Arlington came in 1983, when Rockwell’s successors won permission to celebrate “White Pride Day” at a controversial ceremony at Yorktown High School. Authorities permitted the event on free-speech grounds, although some anti-Nazi protesters were arrested for trespassing.
Soon after, the group changed its name to the New Order and moved to the Midwest, leaving behind a legacy in Arlington that most have now forgotten. But for those who counted Rockwell among their neighbors, the memory is almost surreal.
On first glance, he didn’t look like a hatemonger, says Blakeney, the Dominion Hills barber who witnessed the shooting. “[He] had been a lieutenant commander, so if you didn’t know his politics, you’d never guess.”
Journalist and native Arlingtonian Charles S. Clark writes the “Our Man in Arlington” column for the Falls Church-News Press. A version of this article originally appeared in the Arlington Historical Magazine.
Postscript: Whatever happened to John Patler? In 1969, while still free and awaiting an appeal of his murder conviction, Patler won a $15,000 libel ruling against a Nazi official who had told the FBI that Patler had stolen the gun used to kill Rockwell.
After losing an appeal to the Virginia Supreme Court, Patler served four years at a camp near Martinsville, Va., and was paroled in August 1975. In 1977, he changed his name back to its Greek original, John Christ Patsolos (he had chosen the anglicized name Patler for its resemblance to Hitler). Parole violations would land him back in prison until the early ’80s, after which he reportedly went on to launch a Spanish-language newspaper (which failed) and then became a commercial artist. Whether he is alive today is unknown.