Last week we posted a story on the OSS (Office of Strategic Services) and how after 73 years they were finally recognized as a group and were honored with a Congressional Gold Medal. OSS was the forerunner to both the Special Operations Command of the military, OSS Jedburgh and Operation Groups were the units that became the US Army Special Forces and Navy SEALs owe part of their legacy to OSS Maritime Group operatives, where one of them invented the US version of SCUBA. Air Force Special Operations Commandos owe part of their heritage to OSS pilots who flew many dangerous missions during the war.
OSS ran many fantastic operations and had an eclectic group of operatives. General William Donovan the creator of OSS and a WWI Medal of Honor winner wanted “PHDs who can win a bar fight” but he also called them “Glorious Amateurs” as they learned as they went. By war’s end, OSS had 13,000 personnel in their ranks, nearly a third were women and included were some Hollywood types like John Ford, Sterling Hayden, Marlene Dietrich, Julia Child and others.
Hollywood tried to capture an actual OSS operation in a highly fictionalized film called “Inglorious Basterds” by Quentin Tarantino. However, Tarantino based his film on an actual operation codenamed, “Greenup”. In this operation, OSS used former German nationals who were forced to flee for their lives just because they were Jewish. The true story reads better than the fictional one, although I admit a fondness for Tarantino films… however.
One of the OSS men chosen for this mission was Frederick Mayer. He was born in Germany and forced to flee as the Holocaust was beginning. He volunteered for the US Army but was denied service because he was considered an “enemy alien.” OSS immediately saw his potential and recruited him into their ranks.
He joined the OGs (Operational Groups), specifically Operational Group Germany. The OGs were the Special Forces of WWII, they’d support resistance groups and train for guerrilla warfare. They’d be sent into Nazi-occupied Europe and they knew what awaited them there as most were Jewish. But they all wanted some payback for the German government that forced so much suffering on them.
Mayer and his five teammates were all European Jews and were languishing in Italy waiting for a mission. Stealing a Jeep (now they sound like SF), they drive to OSS HQs and went to see the head of the SI (Special Intelligence) Section to volunteer. The head of SI was a LT. Alfred Ulmer. Most of SI’s missions had been failures with the operatives either killed or shipped off to concentration camps.
Ulmer asked them if they knew what would befall them if they were caught by the Nazis. Mayer gave what perhaps was the best answer of all, “This is more our war than yours.”
The five-man team consisted of George Gerbner (Hungary), Alfred Rosenthal (Germany), Bernd Steinitz (Germany) and Hans Wynberg (Netherlands). Each of them spoke at least two European languages, with Mayer speaking German, French, and Spanish.
The team found a German POW named Franz Weber. A native Austrian, Weber fought on the Eastern Front but was convinced that Austria needed to be free of Hitler and the Nazis. Their mission was to infiltrate the area around Innsbruck, Austria and monitor the reports of the Nazis stockpiling arms and ammunition there, the Alpine Redoubt. A secondary mission was to monitor all of the rail traffic from Innsbruck traveling thru the Brenner Pass into Italy. They would use Weber and for this mission, it would be Mayer, Wynberg and Weber.
The only area to infiltrate was a small lake frozen over in the winter between the mountains. The team would infiltrate using a blacked out B-24 bomber. The pilot John Billings volunteered, and it nearly ended in disaster. High winds buffeted the plane making them lose 6000 feet of altitude in just 18 seconds. They jumped in on February 26, 1945.
They made their way to Weber’s family and then Mayer actually stayed in the Officer’s barracks in Innsbruck for several weeks, gleaming as much intelligence as he could and then relaying it to Wynberg (the radio operator) who would then relay it to OSS HQs.
Posing as a recovering German officer, Mayer befriended an Engineer Officer who worked on the Fuhrer Bunker in Berlin. He radioed the exact locations and dimensions back to HQs. He also determined the times for troop and ammunition trains heading thru the Brenner Pass and called in airstrikes.
After three months, Mayer changed his cover to that of a French electrician who was fleeing the Soviets. He was finally arrested when a black marketeer was caught by Nazi authorities and fingered Mayer as a spy. It was the nightmare he dreaded. The Gestapo burst in and arrested Mayer and took him to their HQs.
For three days and nights, Mayer was savagely beaten, but he kept up his cover speaking only in French. In his book about the OSS Tom Moon described the torture.
In the dark room, the Gestapo officers slapped and punched the spy in the face. His cover wasn’t holding water, and so the tall one stripped him from head to toe. Despite the agent’s bullish strength, the SS men brutally manhandled him, shoving him to the floor. Cuffing his hands in front of him and pulling his arms over his bent knees, they forced him into a constricting fetal position, then shoved the barrel of a long rifle into the tiny gap behind his knees and his cuffed hands. With a man on each side of the rifle, they lifted his naked, rolled-up body and suspended the human ball between two tables, like a piece of meat on a skewer. Uncoiling a rawhide whip, the tall one put his full weight behind each swing, mercilessly thrashing the agent’s body like a side of beef.
Eventually, the man who fingered Mayer was brought in and he knew the ruse was up. Speaking German, he admitted to being an American but said he was working alone.
Then good fortune stepped in. The Germans had captured another American agent named Hermann Matull. He was shown a picture of Mayer and was asked if he knew him. Matull immediately went into a story that Mayer was a VIP in the American Army and if he was shot that the Americans would be looking to try whoever ordered that as a war criminal. By then it was April of 1945 and the Germans knew they were done. Matull then said that a person as high ranking as Mayer should be interrogated by a person of equal importance, namely the Gauleiter of Tyrol and Vorarlberg, Franz Hofer.
Hofer was looking for a way to surrender to the Americans and not the Russians and saw this as his chance. He had Mayer brought to him. Mayer was asked to dine with Hofer, his wife and the German Ambassador to Italy, Rudolph Rahn. Rahn offered to send a message to OSS HQs in Bern, Switzerland headed up by Allen Dulles who later became the head of the CIA. The Germans, wanting to surrender to the Americans passed it on.
Dulles cabled OSS HQs in Italy, ” Fred Mayer reports he is in Gestapo hands but cabled ‘Don’t worry about me, I’m really not bad off” – a remarkable message considering that it was coming from a Jew.
Hofer got Mayer to help him arrange the surrender. Early on May 3, 1945, the American 103rd Infantry Division of the Seventh Army was ordered to take Innsbruck. As the troops approached the city, they saw a car with a large white bed sheet attached to a pole racing toward them.
Major Bland West, an intelligence officer, saw a young man with a swollen face jumping out of the car. He introduced himself as Lt. Mayer of the OSS and explained that he was going to take the major with him to accept the German surrender from Hofer. Later, West learned that Mayer was a sergeant. And in one of the craziest turn of events, the German Army in Austria surrendered to a Jewish sergeant without firing a shot.
As the Germans surrendered, the Gestapo officer who had savagely beaten Mayer was taken to the very cell where he tortured him. The tables turned, the Gestapo man shaking, told Mayer to do with him as he would, but to please leave his family alone. Mayer said to him, “What do you think we are…Nazis?”
Mayer was put in for the Medal of Honor twice and it was downgraded to the Legion of Merit. In 2014, when President Obama had awarded several Medals of Honor to individuals who weren’t awarded them at the time due to racism or other reasons, was given the name of Mayer by WV Senator Jay Rockefeller. But he wasn’t so honored. Mayer died in 2016, aged 94.
Mayer saved the lives of perhaps thousands of troops on both sides by arranging the surrender of the German troops in Austria. Former Director of CIA William Casey called Operation Greenup the most successful operation of World War II.
A couple of excellent books on the subject are :
This Grim And Savage Game: The Oss And U.s. Covert Operations In World War II by Tom Moon and
They Dared Return: The True Story of Jewish Spies Behind the Lines by Patrick K. O’Donnell.
Photos: US Archives