Henry W. Antheil Jr., American Diplomat

Henry W. Antheil Jr.
Henry W. Antheil Jr. was born in Trenton on September 23, 1912. Educated at Trenton Central High School, he enrolled at Rutgers University (now Rutgers, the State University of New Jersey), but cut his higher education short when through the efforts of his older brother George Antheil, a composer and pianist then-living in Paris, he obtained an interview with William C. Bullitt, a family friend who had just been appointed ambassador to the Soviet Union, and subsequently accepted a position at the U.S. Embassy in Moscow.

Bullitt presented his credentials to the Soviet government on December 13, 1933; Antheil and other newly-minted foreign service employees arrived at the embassy several months later.

After serving five years, during which Antheil was responsible for maintaining cryptographic communications devices and their codes and ciphers in the Soviet Union and Northern Europe, he obtained a transfer to the U.S. Legation in Helsinki, Finland, a country for which he developed a particular appreciation during his travels.

When the Soviet Union concluded mutual assistance treaties with the Baltic States in 1939, and moved toward their occupation in 1940, Antheil was dispatched to close the U.S. Legation in Tallinn, Estonia, and retrieve sensitive documents. On June 14, 1940, he boarded the Finnish airplane Kaleva for the return flight to Helsinki, with several diplomatic pouches in hand, but the plane crashed over the Gulf of Finland ten minutes after takeoff from the Tallinn airport.

A United Press story titled “U.S. Code Expert Dead in Plane Crash” was distributed over the wires several days later:
WASHINGTON, Monday, June 17.—The State Department was advised Saturday that Henry Antheil, clerk of the United States legation at Helsinki, was killed in an airplane crash after an explosion of a transport plane in flight.

Antheil was the State Department’s crack code man and had been assigned as chief liaison man in the diplomatic service in Northern Europe in recent years. United States Minister H.F. Arthur Schoenfeld at Helsinki reported the Finnish aerial company had advised him that Antheil was a passenger on the transport when it exploded. The cause of the explosion was not given.

The immediate thought was that the crash was an act of sabotage, or espionage, but it soon became clear that Kaleva had been downed by two Soviet fighters, killing all nine passengers and crew on board.

Fueling the intrigue, evidence that Antheil had falsified a number of telegrams was uncovered when taking an inventory of his personal effects. Schoenfeld sent a report to the State Department on June 20, 1940, however, identifying the messages and concluding that “Antheil is understood to have been engaged to a young lady of Finnish nationality and it is believed that in his anxiety to be allowed to remain in Finland he was guilty of the serious delinquency of tampering with official telegrams which had some relation to his status or continued assignment here.”

Antheil Monument
Antheil’s body was not recovered. A memorial service was held at St. Paul’s Evangelical and Reformed Church, presided over by Reverend Philip R. Zink, and he was memorialized by a cenotaphic inscription—“Killed in the Diplomatic Service of His Country”—on the monument in his parent’s lot in Section R, Lot 542.

The story may well have ended there, but for the efforts of Estonian researchers, Ants Vist and Toivo Kallas, who, with the assistance of the U.S. Embassy in Estonia, were working on a documentary film on the Kaleva.

Their work resulted in the addition of Antheil’s name to the U.S. Department of State’s memorial plaque for embassy members who lost their lives in the line of duty while serving the nation overseas. At a ceremony on May 4, 2007, R. Nicholas Burns, Under Secretary for Political Affairs, spoke of Antheil: “We now have the opportunity to honor an American citizen, an American diplomat who tried his best in the middle of a war zone to close down our legation in Tallinn and to seek the safety of Helsinki only (to be) killed tragically. Henry Antheil was not remembered for so long by us here at the State Department and today, we remember him and we thank him for his service for the democracy and freedom of our own country, but also for Estonia so many years later.

 For Henry W. Antheil Jr., it was the recognition of an American diplomat so long overdue. 

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