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A lingering World War II mystery that offered lessons for handling Osama bin Laden's corpse

July 22, 2011 |  5:18 am

Rudolf Hess former grave in Wunsiedel Germany

One of the most intriguing and enduring mysteries of World War II began 70 years ago last May.

And yet another page of the story turned this week, indicating that perhaps President Obama was onto something last May when he had Osama bin Laden's bullet-riddled body dumped so quickly in an undisclosed location in the Indian Ocean to deny loyalists a potential pilgrimage site.

The original mystery began May 10, 1941, when Adolf Hitler's deputy, Rudolf Hess, filled the extra drop tanks on his personal ME-110 and took off from Berlin around dinnertime heading West. Hitler is said to have ordered pursuit of his top aide. Strangely, however, there was no real effort to stop Hess.

Later that evening the Fuhrer's longtime aide flew low and fast across the Scottish coast. Britain being at war with Germany at the time, Hess' distinctive plane was spotted. Fighters scrambled. But couldn't find him in the darkness.

No wonder. Hess had parachuted from his plane, which crashed. And the notorious....

...Nazi was captured. He denied attacking Britain, pointing out that his plane's guns had no ammunition. But he told a fantastical story of being on a secret, one-man mission to broker peace with Britain.

Hitler had a history of making convenient peace with countries and then attacking them once fully prepared. And, remember, Hess' flight came just six weeks before Hitler launched Operation Barbarossa, an invasion of the Soviet Union, his presumptive Axis alliance ally.Rudolf Hess and Adolf Hitler

If beleaguered Britain had been at least temporarily neutralized as an enemy, the Nazi leader could have shifted more forces from the Western front to bolster and hasten his Eastern attacks.

They stalled and ultimately froze to death in the Russian winter, as Napoleon's invasion had long before.

Anyway, the Brits didn't believe Hess, who was interrogated and interrogated, pronounced looney, tried at Nuremburg and not sentenced to hang like Hermann Goring and so many other Hitler associates.

Instead, Hess received a life sentence to Berlin's Spandau Prison, jointly operated by the U.S., Britain, France and the Soviets. After four decades, the allies suggested the harmless old man be released on humanitarian grounds. Each time the Soviets vetoed the idea, even when Hess became the entire prison's sole resident.

And then one day 24 years ago next month, the 93-year-old Hess was found dead, an electrical cord around his neck. Official cause of death: Asphyxiation. Ruling: Suicide.

The immense prison was razed. And, get this, even the rubble was dispersed to unidentified places. Hess was buried in a family plot by a Lutheran church in Wunsiedel, Germany.

However -- and this is where concerns may begin sounding familiar -- some visitors began frequenting Hess' gravesite, especially on the anniversary of his death. The numbers grew every year after 1988. They were Nazi wannabes.

Ultimately, thousands of these political pilgrims came to pay their respects to the man who, among other things, transcribed Hitler's "Mein Kampf" during a joint imprisonment after a failed 1920s coup attempt.

The annual swarms of disagreeable fascists did not go over well with townsfolk or the church. So when the plot lease came due this year, it refused to renew. With his family's concurrence, Hess' remains were exhumed during one night this week, cremated and scattered at an undisclosed location at sea, presumably closer to Germany than the Indian Ocean.

-- Andrew Malcolm

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Photos: David Ebener / EPA (Hess' former grave in Wunsiedel, Germany); CBS News (Hess and his Fuhrer).