“Helping my fellow man in this great country seems to be the best possible way of showing my gratitude,” Colonel Jerry Sage writes in the epilogue to his memoir. Steve McQueen’s character Virgil Hilts, better known as the “Cooler King,” in The Great Escape was based on Sage.

Colonel Sage spent World War II with the OSS, the forerunner organization of the CIA, and the U.S. Army’s Special Forces. Sage would later serve in Special Forces and command the 10th Special Forces Group (10th SFG) in Bad Tolz, Germany. 

Sage was born in British Columbia, Canada, and was selling housewares when the war began. During the early days of WWII, he volunteered for the new, shadowy unit, the Office of Strategic Services (OSS), commanded by William “Wild Bill” Donovan, who had been awarded the Medal of Honor during the First World War

OSS’s mission was to “collect information, conduct research, and analysis, coordinate information, print, and broadcast propaganda, conduct special operations, inspire guerrilla action, and send commandos into battle.”

Donovan’s glorious “band of amateurs” as he put it, sought young, self-reliant operatives who could think on their feet and act decisively under conditions of extreme stress. Superior intellect was valued as much as physical courage — everything else could be learned. The ideal OSS candidate, according to Donovan, was “a Ph.D. who could win a bar fight.”

The neophyte OSS operatives learned hand-to-hand combat from the British William E. Fairbairn, a famous officer who had battled Chinese gangs before the war in Shanghai. Fairbairn taught the men… and women several ways to kill an opponent. 

Sage after the war with Cardinal Spellman in Germany.

“Forget any idea of gentlemanly conduct or fighting fair,” Fairbairn told the students. “There are no rules except one: kill or be killed.”

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In his memoir, Sage recalled the training by Fairbairn and the weapons they used. Sage became so good at his trade that he was given the nickname “Dagger” or “Silent Death” by his fellow OSS operatives.

“In time, Fairbairn taught us all the martial arts — judo and karate, the most useful blows of Chinese boxing, the high kicks of the French savate, and many other tricks of gutter fighting picked up in the alleys of the Shanghai waterfront. Among the weapons, he taught us to use were his own stiletto-type Sikes-Fairbairn knife, a jungle machete, and another weapon he called a smatchet.”

Sage was sent to North Africa where he was supposed to conduct sabotage operations, behind enemy lines, against the German Afrika Korps, commanded by General Erwin Rommell. He was captured when an Arab tipped off the Germans to his presence. Had the Nazis discovered his true identity and unit, he would have been executed on the spot. But he convinced his captors, despite a brutal interrogation, that he was in actuality an American aviator who had been shot down. 

Jerry Sage in Captivity. The Real “Cooler King,” Behind the Great Escape.

He attempted to escape 15 times while a prisoner of the Nazis. Each time he was caught and sent to solitary confinement; this gave him the name “the Cooler King.”

He was shipped to Luft Stalag III in Sagan, Germany, near the Polish border. The location was selected by the Germans because the camp’s soft sand made it difficult for the Allied officers to dig escape tunnels. 

Sage took part in what became known as the Great Escape as the men dug three deep tunnels in different parts of the camp, code-named Tom, Dick, and Harry. The problem was hiding the sand from the German ferrets, the guards who were responsible for literally “ferreting out” escape tunnels. Sage’s job during the 15-month operation was to hide the golden sand of the tunnels. By the end, he had disposed of 200,000 pounds of sand. 

Sage recalled after the war that he had drawn upon his inner resources, which he said were his religious faith and “the superb training I had received under Donovan.” As Sage wrote in memoirs,

“We were always aware of the presence of the hundfuhrer with his sentry dog as well as the ‘ferrets,’ trained security men armed with pistols who tested the ground with long steel probes to check for tunnels. On nightly rounds, the ferrets pointed their powerful flashlights under the buildings and in every dark corner of the compound, searching for anyone who defied the curfew.”

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“To prepare for ‘The Great Escape,’ we not only had to build the tunnels, but also needed to manufacture clothing, forged papers, and ready the supplies necessary to flee Germany. For these preparations, we set up factories where kriegies (POWs) manufactured hundreds of items.”

Just before the big escape, Sage was transferred to another German POW camp. So, he neither took part in the escape nor performed the motorcycle jumps that McQueen did in the film — which was a bit of Hollywood fantasy. In January 1945, he finally escaped from his prison camp in Poland as the Red Army was approaching. From a wireless radio transmitter in a hidden office of the Polish underground, he sent out a Morse Code message that was picked up by OSS base stations in Egypt, Italy, and England: “Jerry the Dagger is on the loose and coming home!”

After arriving in the U.S. just prior to VE Day, he met with General Donovan, who exclaimed, “I knew you’d get home early, Jerry!”

After the war, Sage was a natural for the newly formed Special Forces units as an expert in Unconventional Warfare (UW), helping BG Yarborough and Colonel Aaron Bank in shaping the early training of SF units. He also served as an instructor at West Point and attended the Army’s Command and General Staff College. 

Sage later deployed to Laos with Special Forces and trained with the Montagnards in the highlands. Later, after being promoted to colonel, Sage commanded the 10th Special Forces Group in Bad Tolz, Germany. He went on to duty with the Third Army and worked with the Army ROTC programs and universities. 

After his retirement, Sage became assistant to the President of the University of South Carolina. He later became a high school teacher in the public school system and won the 1979 “Teacher of the Year” award for the state of South Carolina. Sage retired in Enterprise, Alabama, and won 1991 Enterprise “Man of the Year.”

Sage's gravesite
Sage’s gravesite

Sage passed away on March 26, 1993, and is buried in Dothan, Alabama. His son Travis was killed in Vietnam in 1968. 

Today, the final SF training exercise for all SF candidates is the premier Unconventional Warfare exercise “Robin Sage” which is partly named after Jerry Sage.