Alma Soller McLay, the last surviving member of the U.S. team that prosecuted many of the highest-ranking Nazi war criminals at the famed trials in Nuremberg, Germany, after World War II, has died at the age of 97.
McLay is credited with later helping compile the official U.S. record of the trials, a painstaking four-year task that resulted in a 12-volume collection that offered many Americans their first unvarnished look at the atrocities committed by the Nazis and Adolf Hitler’s diabolic vision for rolling across the globe, enslaving and killing people as his troops advanced.
A secretary by training, McLay was thrust onto the world stage at the age of 25 and asked to fulfill the role of documentarian for what would be the world’s first international criminal tribunal.
The Nuremberg trials became a postwar spectacle as 24 ranking Nazi officials were indicted for war crimes, conspiracy and crimes against humanity. Twelve were given death sentences, though one committed suicide and another was reportedly killed while trying to escape. The rest were hanged in a gymnasium near the courthouse. Most of the other defendants were given prison sentences.
Hitler and several of his closest confidants had committed suicide at the end of the war.
The U.S. prosecution was led by then-U.S. Supreme Court Justice Robert H. Jackson, who hand-picked McLay to be part of his 18-person team. McLay had just returned to the Pentagon after a two-year government assignment in Alaska when she met Jackson at his home in Virginia. She later recalled that she was weary of traveling, but was immediately won over by the justice’s endearing personality.
McLay later told her son Derek that she recalled asking Jackson about the swing set in his backyard. “Do you have grandkids?” she wondered.
No, he said, the swing set was for him. “That’s where I do my thinking.”
McLay traveled with Jackson’s legal team in June of 1945 to London, where the U.S., England, France and Russia drew up the blueprint for the International Military Tribunal, which would weigh the evidence against the accused wartime criminals and, accordingly, hand down its punishments.
For its era, the trial had shades of advanced technology. Testimony, questions, answers and even evidence was rapidly translated into four languages, which lawyers and others could listen to on headphones. A team of interpreters were housed in a soundproof glass box in the courtroom to handle the translations.
The U.S. wrapped up its prosecution in early 1946, and Jackson, sensing that the documented record of the dramatic proceedings needed to begin immediately, sent Lt. Roger Barrett, a lead government attorney, and McLay back to Washington to start pulling together the record of what was transpiring at Nuremberg and the chilling evidence that had been unearthed.
“The facts in this circumstance are so horrific, no one would believe the facts unless they had access to the documents,” Jackson reportedly said.
John Q. Barrett, a law professor at St. John’s University in New York who is now writing a biography on Jackson, said McLay — a working woman in a male-dominated bureaucracy — likely never got the full credit she deserved for her work transcribing the testimony, often in various languages and in shorthand, and collating the evidence.
When published, the collected volumes came to be known as the Nuremberg “red set,” which — as the world was still trying to wrap its head around the barbarism that had been unleashed by the Nazis — came to form the “spine of the Holocaust,” Barrett said. The government documents continue to be a much-used resource for researchers.
“This was, in real time, the story of the Third Reich and the horrors of the Holocaust,” Barrett said.
Born Alma Florence Soller on Dec. 28, 1919, McLay grew up on a chicken farm in Narrowsburg, N.Y. To help make ends meet, the family sold doughnuts from their farmhouse.
McLay began work with the Department of Defense in 1941 and moved to Rancho Palos Verdes in 1954 with her husband, Stanley, an Air Force colonel. She retired from government work in 1984.
McLay died Wednesday in Torrance.
She is survived by her son Derek; a daughter, Alma; and three grandchildren. She is predeceased by her husband and a son, Murdoch.