General William “Wild Bill” Donovan, the founder of the Office of Strategic Services (OSS) said that the type of people he was looking for were “PhDs who can win a bar fight.” And in that regard, no one fit that description better than Joe Savoldi.
Savoldi was a college football star at Notre Dame. He played for the Chicago Bears, was a champion wrestler who was credited with inventing the dropkick, and was also an operative with the OSS during WWII.
OSS was the CIA’s predecessor. Many of the wartime organization’s members later joined the CIA including some directors of the agency such as Allen Dulles, William Casey, William Colby, and Richard Helms. The Operational Groups and Jedburgh Teams became the modern-day Green Berets of the Army’s Special Forces. Members of the OSS Maritime Unit along with the UDTs of the Navy were the forerunners of the U.S. Navy SEAL teams.
Savoldi was born in Italy as Giuseppe Savoldi and was raised by his grandmother until the age of 12 when he joined his parents in Michigan. He then anglicized his name to Joe, and after graduating from high school went to Notre Dame and played a backup role on the football team. He was powerfully built and his chiseled features were further developed by toting bricks up ladders for his bricklayer uncles.
After injuries sidelined the players in front of Savoldi on the depth chart, his coach put him in during Notre Dame’s undefeated 1929 season. Savoldi scored six touchdowns, including one over Carnegie when he leaped over the line and into the end zone. A sportswriter gave him the nickname “Jumping Joe.”
The 1930 season saw Savoldi become a star of the undefeated team. He was averaging a whopping 11 yards per carry and 40 yards per kickoff return. But scandal hit when it was learned that he was married. When his wife filed for an annulment, he was forced to leave school.
He was signed by the Chicago Bears and helped them win their final three games of the 1930 season. At that time, he was invited back to play with the Notre Dame All-Star team vs West/South All-Star team in a game in the Los Angeles Coliseum. During the 20–7 Notre Dame victory, Savoldi scored all three touchdowns.
While playing in the All-Star game, Savoldi caught the eye of wrestling promoters who convinced him to join the pro circuit. He wrestled throughout the 1930s briefly holding the championship title and inventing the flying dropkick, today known as the dropkick.
When World War II began, his adoptive home and government came calling. As one veteran OSS agent later recalled, “You don’t choose OSS, they choose you.”
Savoldi caught the eye of Colonel Jerry Sage, the unarmed combat instructor for OSS (on whom Steve McQueen’s character in the Great Escape was based). Sage was impressed with Savoldi’s wrestling and boxing skills and told the instructors to let Savoldi fight his own way.
Donovan chose an eclectic bunch of Ivy Leaguers, bankers, athletes as well as recently naturalized citizens who could speak the languages of what would become America’s battlefields. Savoldi, having grown up in Italy, was a natural for OSS. And winning a bar fight? Well, he could clear the room by himself.
His cover was that the War Department had hired him to travel to different bases to put on wrestling demonstrations. Savoldi was put on the OSS payroll and given the codename “Sampson” and the cover name Joseph DeLeo.
Savoldi was part of the McGregor Project and with his fluency of Italian, his skill in unarmed combat, and knowledge of Italian geography was an important member of the team.
The project’s first mission was to escort Italian-American film producer Marcello Girosi, the brother of Massimo Girosi the commander of the Italian Navy, around the Mediterranean and convince Massimo to peacefully surrender the Italian fleet to the allies to avoid losing it to the Germans.
The McGregor Project’s second mission was to extract Italian scientist Carlo Calosi from German-occupied Italy. Calosi was the inventor of the highly effective magnetic trigger used in the Silvrifici Italiano Calosi (SIC) torpedo, which the Germans used extensively. Savoldi, Donald Downes, and Andre Pacatte located Calosi in Rome. Their mission was to spirit Calosi away and convince him to work for the Allies. If he refused, they were to eliminate him.
However, Calosi agreed to join the Allied cause. Savoldi, dressed as a priest, picked him up. Then the team transported him, his commander Admiral Minisini, their wives, several technicians, and secret documents on the SIC to the Amalfi Coast. From there, they were picked up by U.S. forces. Calosi’s party went to the U.S. and developed countermeasures against the SIC for the Allies.
During his third major mission, Savoldi worked undercover as Giuseppe DeLeo. Posing as a rogue black market operator, he worked to infiltrated and break up the Mafia rings operating the Black Market in Naples.
But he grew tired of living the undercover life and was discharged in January 1945. He resumed his wrestling career just a day after returning to the States.
In the 1950s he returned to finish his final year of college at Evansville College. He began teaching at-risk youth in Evansville and taught science in the school system.
But his years of football, wrestling, and his undercover work had taken their toll both mentally and physically. He had recurring nightmares and arthritis wracked his body. He died in January 1974 at the age of 65.
He is buried in Henderson, Kentucky.
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