Military history

Chapter 10

Screw the British

A few months after the Allies officially turned their backs on Mihailovich, in March 1944, the British ordered all Allied units attached to Mihailovich to return home. The OSS’s man in Ravna Gora, Musulin, was ordered to leave the Yugoslav general’s stronghold in the mountains and report to the OSS post in Bari, Italy, where Vujnovich was in charge. He was instructed to leave as soon as an evacuation could be arranged for him and forty American airmen who were in the immediate area at that time. Musulin did not want to leave the field and tried to stall by saying that he had heard of an additional dozen men who were expected to arrive soon and also could be rescued if he stayed a while longer. His superiors knew that Musulin was trying to resist orders and supported the effort, appealing to President Roosevelt for permission to let him stay with Mihailovich. But the British would not relent and Churchill personally intervened to reiterate that Musulin had to come out. Mihailovich was no longer to receive any cooperation from the Allies, and that meant Musulin had no more business with the Chetnik guerillas, Churchill explained.

In May 1944 a plane was sent to pick up Musulin and the downed fliers, and it successfully completed Musulin’s extraction and a noteworthy rescue of airmen. Meanwhile, the Allied support of Tito was on the upswing. In November 1943 only six men had been assigned to Tito’s group, but by October 1944 that number would reach forty.

Musulin was one unhappy agent when he stepped off the plane in Bari, and he progressed into a rage when he heard what the SOE and the OSS had been saying about Mihailovich.

Musulin was dumbfounded that anyone could believe the accusations that Mihailovich had collaborated with the Germans and Italians. When he heard that airmen were being warned to bail out only in the Yugoslav territory controlled by Tito, he was outraged. Musulin had personally witnessed the unwavering dedication of the Chetnik soldiers and the local villagers to the downed American airmen, and now his colleagues in Bari were trying to explain to him how Mihailovich was no longer a friend. They actually tried to tell Musulin that Mihailovich’s people would pretend to take in downed airmen and then turn them over to the enemy for a reward. He couldn’t believe the words he was hearing. Only days earlier he had seen these very people giving up their last bits of food, offering their beds to strangers from another country, risking their lives with every act of kindness to an American. Musulin was furious and he argued at every opportunity with anyone who would listen, trying to convince them that he had personally experienced life with the Chetniks, had become a good friend of Mihailovich himself, had lived with them for months, and he knew that they were loyal beyond belief.

Vujnovich asked Musulin for details about how many more airmen Mihailovich was aiding in the region. Was it more than just a few stragglers here and there? He was looking for confirmation that the rumors from his wife back home were correct, that there were a lot of men awaiting rescue. Musulin’s response was quick and certain: Yes, Mihailovich was harboring a large number of airmen. He didn’t know exactly how many, but he guessed close to one hundred men were near Mihailovich’s headquarters in Pranjane. Nearly all were American, with a few British, French, Russians, and Italians.

So Mirjana was right. Vujnovich had known he could trust his wife to have good information. He was glad he had trusted her and that he had already started pursuing a rescue attempt. The effort was much farther along than it would have been if Musulin’s report was the first anyone in Bari had heard of all those men awaiting rescue.

Musulin could not be calmed, and he was a formidable sight when angered. Not only was Musulin not pleased to hear that Mihailovich had been abandoned, but he felt that the Allies had for all practical purposes abandoned him while he was behind enemy lines with the Chetniks. Despite his pleas for aid, virtually nothing was sent to Mihailovich and his men. The burly agent stormed into the OSS headquarters in Bari one day and demanded that someone listen to his complaints.

“Listen, you bastards! You think I went in and risked my life for almost a year for nothing?” he screamed, instantly gaining the attention of everyone in the room. He went on for some time, railing about how he had almost no contact with the British the whole time he was in Yugoslavia and that when he arrived in Bari, the Brits weren’t even interested in hearing his report about Mihailovich. They were concerned only with dressing him down for bringing five members of Mihailovich’s political staff out with him. The general had requested that the men be evacuated, and since there was room on the plane, Musulin had obliged. After all, he explained, these were allies and he was doing a favor for the man who was supporting the American cause in Yugoslavia. Musulin refused to apologize for bringing the men out and grew more livid every time the British complained about it. He finally became so angry that he asked to be court-martialed for the incident so the truth of the whole ugly situation could be aired beyond the cloistered walls of the OSS.

Wisely, his superiors did not take him up on the offer and the British backed down. But Musulin was still furious about how the OSS seemed to be turning Yugoslavia—and more—over to the Communists. He was so disgusted with what he found in Bari that he decided it was pointless to even write a report about his experience with Mihailovich. Referring to pro-Communists as Partisans, like the followers of Tito, Musulin complained that, “I came to Bari and saw Partisans all over the damn town. I saw them in our headquarters. They were packing supplies on our planes in Brindisi.” And he was right. The OSS officers’ mess in Bari had seven Yugoslav refugee girls working as waitresses who made no effort to conceal their pro-Communist politics, even wearing Partisan uniforms around Bari on their off hours. Musulin went on to complain that the OSS and SOE “forgot that I was even alive.”

Musulin was a bitter man, dejected by the politically motivated betrayals and propaganda he found waiting for him in Bari. He eventually was convinced to write a nineteen-page report that declared Mihailovich was a loyal ally and that he saw no evidence of collaboration with the enemy. But his protests and his report changed no one’s position. London and Washington had painted their own picture of Mihailovich and the truth didn’t matter.

Vujnovich listened to Musulin and believed him. Unlike many OSS leaders, Vujnovich understood what it meant for the Allies to throw their support behind a Communist, because he had seen them at work in Yugoslavia before the war and he knew their ideology and their tactics. He tried to explain to Musulin why his protests were going nowhere.

“People in the OSS don’t have any real political orientation,” he said. “When they hear ‘Communist’ they just think of Russian Communists. When they hear ‘Fascist’ they think of Germany and Italy. They don’t realize what Communism really is, the way it works to overpower a country’s people and take everything from them. They don’t understand that Communism is a cancer that can spread all over if you don’t stop it. They just think it’s Russia and right now Russia is our ally.”

Musulin found some solace in knowing that Vujnovich at least was on his side. And Vujnovich knew that Musulin was a man he could trust. That might come in handy, as Vujnovich was under fire in Bari from some of the pro-Communists in the OSS who thought he was too pro-Chetnik. Several of his colleagues who were sympathetic to Tito and the Russians regularly harassed Vujnovich, making unfounded charges about the way he ran his operations and generally trying to create trouble for him.

He had recently spent a difficult five months in Brindisi, Italy, at the air base from which the OSS launched incursions into Yugoslavia and Greece. (The OSS base in Bari was focused on analyzing intelligence and planning operations. The actual missions launched from Brindisi.) Vujnovich found himself under fire the whole time from other OSS officials who filed anonymous complaints and kept him busy responding to his superiors about supposedly poor performance on the job. It didn’t take long for Vujnovich to figure out that the pro-Communists were behind the harassment, which ended only when he was transferred back to the OSS post in Bari.

That the OSS was full of Communist sympathizers, outright Communists, and even some people who were secretly spying and working behind the scenes to further the Communist cause came as no surprise to anyone familiar with the unusual makeup of the OSS. This group of operatives and analysts was unique in the history of the American military. They were given great leeway and resources to get the job done in unorthodox ways, with just about anything acceptable in the cause of defeating the Axis. The men and women of the OSS were some of the most dedicated fighters in World War II, many of them among the most idealistic patriots, but they also were a mix of down-to-earth “regular Joes” like Musulin and effete intellectual types who tended to the leftist, Socialist political spectrum. The mix made for an effective system overall, but it also created inevitable conflicts among people who had a common enemy—Hitler and the Axis—but who differed sharply on their basic political outlook and what they wanted for the country after the war. In that way, the struggle within the OSS mirrored the struggle within Yugoslavia.

Established in June 1942 as the country revved up for full-scale war with the Axis, the OSS was charged with collecting and analyzing strategic information required by the Joint Chiefs of Staff and conducting special operations not assigned to other agencies. Right off the bat, however, those other agencies started to feel that the OSS was encroaching on their turf. The Federal Bureau of Investigation, under the direction of the fiery and extremely powerful J. Edgar Hoover, was insistent that this upstart bunch of academics and wannabe spies neither get in the way nor usurp its own areas of operation. The FBI retained all responsibility for fieldwork in Latin America and essentially shut the OSS out of work in the Western Hemisphere. But the OSS was nobody’s meek little brother. The organization was conceived and developed by William J. Donovan, known as “Wild Bill,” a charismatic, energetic leader and one of the few men who could stand toe-to-toe with Hoover and not be intimidated.

Born in Buffalo, New York, Donovan was a college football star at Columbia University, graduating in 1905. Donovan was a member of the New York City establishment, a powerful Wall Street lawyer and a Columbia law school classmate of Franklin Delano Roosevelt. Donovan first became known for his military exploits in 1912, when he formed and led a troop of cavalry of the New York State Militia that in 1916 served on the U.S.-Mexico border in the Pancho Villa Expedition. In World War I, Donovan led a regiment of the United States Army, the 165th Regiment of the 42nd Division, the successors to the famed 69th New York Volunteers, on the battlefield in France. He was awarded the Medal of Honor for leading a successful assault despite serious wounds. By the end of the war he was a full colonel.

The disaster at Pearl Harbor had underscored what many in Washington already knew: The country was terribly deficient in its foreign intelligence and special operations. Nobody in Washington or anywhere else had put the pieces of the puzzle together and figured out that Japan was about to strike, and intelligence in the ever-darkening Europe was no better. President Roosevelt was preparing for the next world war, and he was ready to take bold news steps regarding intelligence, ready to undertake operations that the country had never pursued before. He was looking for men who had already proven themselves, and Secretary of the Navy Frank Knox recommended Donovan. Roosevelt gave him a number of increasingly important assignments, trusting him absolutely even though Roosevelt was a Democrat and Donovan a staunch Republican. In 1940 and 1941 Donovan served as an emissary for Knox and President Roosevelt, traveling to Britain and parts of Europe that were not under Nazi control. When he persuaded Roosevelt in 1942 that the country needed a more extensive and aggressive network of spies, analysts, and secret agents across the world, the OSS was born and Donovan became one of the most powerful men in Washington.

This cloak-and-dagger society was housed in a nondescript government building a short distance west of the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, DC, in the former home of the National Health Institute. It was in a rundown section of town, far from the gleaming white Capitol and the other glamorous structures of the city. But inside, brainy academics were performing some of the most important work of World War II, and others were supervising the dangerous, nerve-racking work of OSS agents in the field halfway around the world. The National Health Institute had been hastily evicted to make way for the rapidly growing OSS, and they hadn’t completely vacated the premises by the time the OSS moved in. The health researchers left behind an experimental laboratory full of live monkeys, goats, and guinea pigs, all inoculated with deadly diseases, and the OSS staff were none too happy about sharing their space with them. More important was the need for the space taken up by the menagerie. So Donovan, in the creative style that he would employ throughout the war, complained to the National Health Institute that one of the monkeys had bitten a stenographer and caused a rebellion among the staff, who were afraid that the plague would sweep through the building. The scientists doubted the whole story but were forced to remove the laboratory and give the space over to the OSS. Nazi propaganda seized on the incident to broadcast gleeful accounts of how the supposedly fearsome OSS was really nothing more than “fifty professors, twenty monkeys, ten goats, twelve guinea pigs, and a staff of Jewish scribblers.” As soon as Donovan had taken the helm at the OSS, Nazi propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels focused on him, directing more hate toward him than any American other than President Roosevelt.

The OSS had been designed from the start as a different kind of government agency. Even the FBI, as powerful as it was under Hoover, adhered to a strict bureaucracy that was every bit as rigid as the bureaucracy in any more mundane government operation and sometimes more so. But with the OSS, the whole purpose was to do things differently. President Roosevelt’s order establishing the OSS had defined its purpose as being “to collect and analyze strategic information, and to plan and operate special services,” which were described as “all measures . . . taken to enforce our will upon the enemy by means other than military action, as may be applied in support of actual or planned military operations or in furtherance of the war effort.” Roosevelt and Donovan understood that to mean anything the country needed, anything that the regular military could not accomplish logistically or could not do ethically. When a task had to be performed out of the public eye and without any obvious ties to the United States, that was a job for the men and women working under Donovan.

Donovan’s stamp was all over the OSS, never more so than in the type of agents it recruited. When the OSS structure was just being planned in 1941, a high-ranking officer in the British Naval Intelligence named Ian Fleming, later the creator of James Bond, advised Donovan to select agents who fit the bill of the quintessential gentleman spy. They should be between forty and fifty years old and possess “absolute discretion, sobriety, devotion to duty, languages, and wide experience,” Ian advised. Donovan ignored the advice and instead told President Roosevelt that he intended to bring in young men and women who were “calculatingly reckless” and trained for “aggressive action.”

The OSS attracted some of the best and brightest in the country, even though it was still an obscure agency known only to government wonks and military leaders. Donovan’s extensive network of contacts in business, academia, and the military, along with his own stellar reputation and gregarious personality, enabled him to recruit the top players in any field, many of whom would go on to their own high-profile accomplishments after a stint in the OSS. Recruiting was a major task for OSS leaders because the agency needed a lot of bodies at desks and in the field. Analysts were chosen for their skill in languages, mathematics, codes, sciences—any specialty that could be of use. Field agents—spies in the truest sense of the word—were chosen on more esoteric but equally stringent guidelines. The most important qualification, Donovan declared, was strength of character. While some suggested recruiting petty criminals experienced in deception, Donovan refused. He wanted good men and women who had nothing to hide, who were upstanding people with no experience living a double life. The reason was simple, Donovan explained: It was easier to train an honest citizen to engage in subterfuge for the good of his country than it was to teach a dishonest man to be a trustworthy agent. The people who fancied themselves secret agents and wanted to live a glamorous but dangerous life behind enemy lines always raised red flags with Donovan and his subordinates. Donovan found that the staid businessman, the type who would have led a perfectly sedate and uneventful live if not recruited to the OSS, made the perfect field agents. The OSS also made a point of recruiting people who could get along well with others, especially people of other races and cultures, and conducted psychological testing to confirm that trait.

The result was perhaps the most unusual collection of spies and analysts ever assembled, a mix of wealthy blue bloods, sons and daughters of the rich and powerful, men and women who looked more like the businesspeople they were before the war and not the skilled killers they were training to be. Newspapers joked that OSS must stand for “Oh So Social” because the recruits looked as though they had been taken from the Social Register. The halls of the OSS were full of DuPonts, Vander bilts, Roosevelts, Morgans, and Mellons. The cousin of Winston Churchill, a star polo player, worked in the OSS. So did Ilya Tolstoy, grandson of the famous novelist. A columnist for the Washington Times wrote of the new OSS that:

If you should by chance wander in the labyrinth of the OSS, you’d behold ex-polo players, millionaires, Russian princes, society gambol boys, scientists, and dilettante detectives. All of them are now at the OSS where they used to be allocated between New York, Palm Beach, Long Island, Newport, and other meccas frequented by the blue bloods of democracy. And the girls! The prettiest, best born, snappiest girls who used to graduate from debutantedom to boredom now bend their blond and brunette locks, or their colorful hats, over their work in the OSS, the super-ultra-intelligence-counter-espionage unit that is headed by the brilliant “Wild Bill” Donovan.

Other notable members of the OSS were Jumping Joe Savoldi, a full-back at Notre Dame and a professional wrestler, and John Ringling North, the owner of Barnum & Bailey Circus. Quentin Roosevelt, grandson of the president, died on an OSS mission in China. Julia Child worked for the OSS in Ceylon before becoming a world-famous chef, claiming she was only a lowly file clerk but nevertheless winning the Emblem of Meritorious Service. Actor Sterling Hayden, often called “the most beautiful man in Hollywood,” was recruited by the OSS to command a fleet of ships that ran guns and supplies to Yugoslavia.

OSS recruiters were always on the lookout for anyone with a special connection that might be useful, so many people with no special ambitions to be a spy—like George Vujnovich—found themselves approached with a unique offer. If you had spent significant time in a European country, or if you spoke a language that was in demand—like George Musulin—the OSS might come looking for you. The military ranks were often screened for those with needed skills, particularly languages spoken in Europe. Sometimes the recruit’s value was less obvious but could prove vital in wartime. The OSS recruited a former Paris bartender from the Yale Club, a former German sergeant who could help forge military passes, a Swiss mountain climber who knew the high passes of the Apennines, and a Catholic missionary who had lived with the Kachin tribesmen in northern Burma. When the OSS spotted someone who could add to the agency’s skill set, one or two men approached without warning and explained that his country needed his services. Questions were met with cryptic responses that provided little detail, not even the name of the outfit that wanted him to join. The men emphasized that he would be making a great contribution to his country, but they also were clear that he would be participating in extremely dangerous missions with a good chance that he would never return. In the patriotic fervor of the early war years, few of those approached by the OSS refused.

Donovan’s whole approach to the OSS mission was to employ real people in real situations. He had no patience for those who thought the spy game was nothing but shooting and knifing the enemy or conducting explosive raids, or for the dilettante diplomats and amateur detectives. Donovan knew that in wartime, advances were often made not by the dramatic charge of a thousand troops but by one lightweight, bespectacled former accountant asking the right question of a bored farmer driving his sheep down a country road. While the work of OSS agents was often extremely dangerous, until the agents got caught their work encompassed the pedestrian more than the exotic. After the war, Donovan explained: “Our experience showed us that a half hour spent with the brakeman of a freight train running into occupied France would produce more useful information than a Mata Hari could learn in a year. We did not rely on the seductive blonde or the phony mustache. The major part of our intelligence was the result of good old-fashioned intellectual sweat.” In addition to their particular skills, field agents were selected for their idealism. Most were under thirty years old, and they had a clear conception that the Allies were right and the Axis was wrong. When they parachuted into villages in Europe and lived with the people fighting bare-handed against the Nazis, they developed immense respect for the plight of those people.

The OSS would employ some thirty thousand people by the end of the war, and its zeal for assembling a broad collection of resources meant that the particular skill or knowledge possessed by the recruit could overshadow nearly anything else that might make the person undesirable for an intelligence post. If a dishwasher in Chicago spoke fluent Italian and had worked on the railway in his home country, he might be recruited for the OSS even if he spent every Tuesday night at a meeting of the Communist Party USA. Donovan had no love for Communists, but he also did not hate them so much that he let their politics get in the way of a larger goal. After all, this was the 1940s, before Westerners recognized that Communism was more than just an extreme political movement and the very word “Communist” became synonymous with evil. Largely because of the number of upper-class Ivy League graduates in the ranks, OSS agents at desks in Washington and in the field around the world tended to share a social idealism, the same unwavering faith in the common man espoused by Donovan. This idealistic view of the working man was more common among those who had spent time at Yale and on yachts in Bar Harbor than the recruits from the regular military, but the blue-blood idealism often meshed with the thinking of the Italian immigrant who had fled Fascists in his homeland and was recruited while waiting tables in New York. It was not uncommon for OSS agents serving in Europe to be immigrants who had fled the Nazi onslaught and joined the Communist movement mostly because it was staunchly anti-Fascist. The result was an OSS that was not nearly as inhospitable to Communists as other branches of the military or the government, especially Hoover’s FBI, where any Communist trying to infiltrate had to keep a very low profile.

Donovan regularly confirmed that Communists were found throughout his organization. When the OSS sent a group of four confirmed Communists into Italy to send back information, an American congressman investigated and angrily informed Donovan that one of the group was said to be on the honor roll of the Young Communist League. Donovan didn’t deny the charge but made it clear that he didn’t care as long as the men continued sending back useful intelligence from Italy. “I don’t know if he’s on the Communist honor roll, but for the job he’s doing in Italy, he’s on the honor roll of OSS.” Donovan’s attitude was, again, pragmatic above all else. When the FBI presented him with dossiers proving that three OSS employees were Communists and demanded their firing, Donovan scoffed and replied, “I know they’re Communists. That’s why I hired them.” The agents in question had fought for the Republican Loyalists in the Spanish Civil War of 1936-39, in a brigade sponsored by the American Communist Party. As far as Donovan was concerned, they were good fighters with a healthy hatred for Nazis, and that was good enough for him.

That attitude permeated the OSS, with all involved adopting the idea that they could and should do whatever was necessary to achieve the end goal and not worry about meaningless details along the way. This approach grew out of the very freedom that the OSS was founded on, the idea that its reason for existing was to get things done creatively, without the usual restrictions that hindered other military units. To some extent that was an effective way to cut through the bureaucracy that could bog down such important work, but some critics said the OSS took it too far and became a rogue outfit, too undisciplined for its own good. Though the majority of OSS operatives held military rank, they ignored most military protocol, rarely saluting and by necessity eschewing military uniforms. Most agents in the field, and even those working desks in foreign posts, were allowed to dress however they wanted, growing beards and long hair if they felt like it. Insubordination was a way of life in the OSS. The same instruction that would have been considered a direct order in the army might be considered a mere suggestion in the OSS. If a superior annoyed a junior officer, a request for information might be “lost.” This was not the regular army, in more ways than one.

The OSS favored results over drama, but there was no denying that OSS agents had the opportunity for more romantic roles in the war than most soldiers. Rather than fighting on the front lines with a rifle or in a tank, the OSS agent lived inconspicuously behind enemy lines, blending into the often exotic locales and charming his or her way into the lives of people who could provide important information. Instead of a foxhole in Belgium, the OSS agent might be living in an apartment in occupied Paris. Plenty of agents, however, like Musulin, spent their time out in the countryside with local people who were just barely getting by. OSS agents went where they were needed and blended in wherever they were.

The OSS was designed to be creative, and it led the way in developing some of the most ingenious devices and methodologies used in World War II. Propaganda was a major focus, with the OSS facilitating radio broadcasts into enemy territory, leaflet drops to lower the morale of Axis soldiers, and even some strategies aimed at convincing the people of Germany that the war was lost. Intelligence gathering was perhaps the primary activity for an agent, but sabotage also occupied OSS agents to a great extent, sometimes with the aim of softening up an area before conventional forces moved in, sometimes with the goal of harassing and slowing down enemy forces in a given area. Donovan thought that his men had to be clever and devious because the Germans were the eight-hundred-pound gorilla of international warfare. There was no denying that Hitler had the arms, the soldiers, and the ruthless attitude necessary to take what he wanted, so Donovan’s theory was that his men would take the other tack, slipping in behind enemy lines to create mayhem. They could nip at the heels of the Nazis, slowing them down as they ravaged another country and distracting them until the big guns of American firepower could come in for the kill.

In addition to extensive training in hand-to-hand combat and conventional weapons, the OSS provided agents with an astonishing array of clever gadgets and innovative ways to kill. Most of them were developed by Stanley Lovell, handpicked by Donovan to head the agency’s research-and-development branch. He was given free rein to be as devious and underhanded as he wanted, with a premium placed on unusual, creative tools that the enemy would never suspect. Lovell did not disappoint, equipping agents with special weapons like Aunt Jemima, an explosive that looked remarkably like regular flour and could even be used to bake muffins and bread. The surprise came when you stuck a fuse in the muffin and threw it at some Germans. There was also the Casey Jones, a device that could be attached to the bottom of a railroad car. It had an electronic eye that sensed the sudden decrease in light when the train entered a tunnel, which set off an explosive charge that filled the tunnel with a mangled mess of metal. The train was destroyed, the tunnel was blocked, and it took days to remove the wreckage by hand. As a final touch in case the device was discovered, the OSS added a sticker to the Casey Jones that played into the Nazi soldier’s seeming inability to challenge authority. In German, the sticker said, This is a car movement-control device. Removal or tampering is strictly forbidden under heaviest penalties by the Third Reich Railroad Consortium. Heil Hitler.

Other weapons included miniature guns disguised as pens, tobacco pipes, and umbrellas, and bombs disguised as everyday objects. A favorite was the lump of coal that Felman had seen used against a train in Yugoslavia. Another was a candle that a female agent could light while spending time with a German officer, making sure she left the room before it burned down to a preset mark and exploded. Shoes had hidden cavities and corsets had stilettos hidden in the fabric. Anything that a person might normally carry without suspicion was reworked in the OSS laboratories to make it a weapon, a hiding place, or a way to collect information. OSS scientists also produced huge volumes of forged documents, everything from identity papers to supply requisitions and Gestapo badges.

Some of the weapons that Lovell and his team designed were so dangerous that the OSS lost agents while trying to demonstrate them. One was the Beano grenade, designed to be much more deadly than the typical grenade, which was plenty deadly already. A key difference was that the Beano had a small butterfly-shaped fitting on it that caught wind as the grenade was thrown. The butterfly turned in the wind, which activated the grenade, causing it to explode the instant it landed on the ground or contacted anything else. This design meant that, unlike when using regular grenades that worked on a timer after pulling the pin and throwing it, the enemy did not have a second or two to run away—or to pick up the grenade and throw it back at you—before it exploded. The Beano carried twice the explosive power of a regular grenade and one of its first victims was an instructor who was making the point that the round Beano could be thrown just like a baseball. Without thinking, he tossed the grenade up in the air as he would a baseball to demonstrate. The Beano activated and exploded when he caught it on the way down.

OSS agents knew that they were risking their lives every single day they were in the field. If caught by the enemy, spies and saboteurs could be killed on the spot without even violating the conventions of civilized warfare. Not that the enemy gave a whit about following the rules, of course. OSS agents knew that once they were caught, a quick execution might be the best they could hope for. In reality, they were far more likely to be tortured for days or weeks as the Nazis tried to squeeze information out of them or “turn” them, forcing them to work as double agents to feed misinformation to the Allies and draw out useful intelligence. The smallest slip of the tongue or a careless moment of inattention could result in an OSS agent dying slowly and painfully in a Gestapo torture chamber. Every person the OSS trusted was a link in the chain, a link that could be broken and lead the Germans to you.

Of the 831 members of the OSS decorated for gallantry during World War II, a significant number received their medals posthumously. Many disappeared without warning, never making another radio call to Cairo. When the radio remained silent for weeks, their contacts knew what must have happened. And on occasion, the agent would radio but provide a subtle signal, perhaps a slightly different code word, to let his superiors know that he was contacting them under duress. When that happened, the Allies would continue providing instructions and information to the agent, making sure that the transmissions were plausible enough to keep the agent alive but not actually useful to the enemy holding the gun to his head.

The brutality of the Nazis knew no bounds. The cruelty unleashed on captured agents was unspeakable, including every type of beating imaginable and the liberal use of instruments of torture. The treatment of captured agents was surpassed perhaps only by the punishment exacted on members of the local resistance, like the villagers helping hide the Allied airmen in Pranjane. If caught helping the Allies, these hapless local people felt the worst of the German military. The Germans were great believers in the public spectacle and the power of heinous acts to cow anyone who witnessed them inflicted on others. The Nazi SS often castrated members of the resistance and gouged their eyes out, and a favorite method of terrorizing the local populace was to impale members of the resistance on meat hooks in the public square. The prisoner’s hands were tied and soldiers lifted him off the ground, positioning him so that the meat hooks penetrated the underside of his jaw. Then the SS would force the entire village to file past the man and see him writhing in agony. The prisoner could hang for more than a day before the jawbone finally snapped and the hooks were driven deep into his brain.

Knowing that horrors like that awaited them, many OSS agents carried “L” pills hidden somewhere on their persons. The “L” stood for “lethal.” The rubber-coated capsule could even be carried in the mouth for long periods, ready to use if the SS came through the doors. Biting down on the pill would spill its contents and bring nearly instant death.

Most of the field agents had been recruited through the army, so they had substantial military training and often some experience in the war before joining the OSS. The OSS administrators, on the other hand, tended to be the businessmen, the overeducated and the well connected. They usually were recruited because they possessed skills that were of use to the OSS, and there is no disputing that they served their country admirably. But inevitably, the agents risking their lives in the field developed a disdain for the “bourbon whiskey colonels” in Washington and other OSS posts who thought they could tell them how to do their jobs. Even the field agent who had led a sedate life before becoming a spy quickly developed disdain for someone who was giving him orders from the comfort of London or Cairo while he infiltrated German units and slept in pigsties. Unfortunately, these disputes sometimes went beyond the typical griping that comes from all soldiers in the field who think their commanders are out of touch. Arthur Goldberg, who worked for the OSS and later became a Supreme Court justice, complained after the war that Donovan had made a major mistake by selecting “men for the higher echelons of the organization who by background and temperament were unsympathetic with Donovan’s own conception of the necessity of unstinting cooperation with the resistance movements.” The men and women in the field shared Donovan’s enthusiasm for supporting the insurgents and guerilla movements throughout Europe, but the OSS administrators in between were not always as consistent.

The OSS also had an ongoing feud with the State Department that would rear its head later in the Mihailovich affair. Part of the dispute was an old-fashioned turf war, the type that can be found in a thousand permutations around Washington, DC, but the State Department did have good reason to fear Donovan and his clandestine army. The freestyling ways of the OSS were a sharp contrast to the hidebound, stodgy, protocol-driven ways of the State Department. Where the OSS did whatever it felt would work in a given situation, the State Department was hobbled by tradition and diplomatic niceties. An analyst moving from the OSS to the State Department would be moving from a politically liberal, dynamic, intellectually driven agency to one that was conservative and driven largely by the career ambitions of bureaucrats. State Department officials knew that meant Donovan could always come out ahead when the president looked for results.

Musulin’s confirmation about the number of airmen with Mihailovich, and his outrage at the abandonment of Mihailovich, built on the emotions the letter from Mirjana stirred in Vujnovich. When he started looking into the possibility of rescuing the downed airmen in the hills of Yugoslavia, he knew immediately that political concerns would be the first challenge. A year earlier, the same rescue mission would have been a very different proposition. It would have been a question of logistics mostly, a routine sort of decision about if, how, and when such a large rescue could be made. The answer might be no, but it would be for realistic reasons, not political ones.

In the spring of 1944, however, the logistical question took a backseat to politics. When Vujnovich presented his plans for rescuing the downed airmen in Yugoslavia, his superiors in the OSS knew there would be trouble getting approval from Washington. Aside from the risks of the mission, the Allies were now locked into their stated position that Mihailovich was a Nazi collaborator and could not be trusted. All Allied aid was given to Tito’s forces, which ended up using the guns and ammunition against Mihailovich as much as against the Germans.

If Vujnovich could not get past the political impediments it didn’t matter whether he could come up with a way to get those men out. The mission could never take place without approval from very high up, especially a rescue this large and one that would have to be so daring. Vujnovich worked with other OSS leaders in Bari and started formulating a plan. The OSS met with General Nathan Twining, commanding general of the Fifteenth Air Force, and at that meeting Musulin emphasized the need for an immediate rescue. The group discussed how such a large rescue might be accomplished, and then they sent the request up the chain of command. The OSS in Bari and the Fifteenth Air Force were in agreement that they wanted to go ahead with a rescue mission, but every time the request went across another bureaucrat’s desk, the response was the same: We’d love to rescue those men, but how can we do that now that we’ve written off Mihailovich as a Nazi collaborator? If he really can’t be trusted, this would be a suicide mission. And what if it’s all a trick? What if he doesn’t have a hundred airmen waiting to be rescued?

Vujnovich suspected the real motivation was fear that Mihailovich did have the airmen and really was protecting them. That could create an awkward situation if the man that the Allies accused of collaborating with the Nazis actually was protecting the downed airmen. If they went in and rescued the airmen, how could the Allies continue calling Mihailovich a collaborator?

The British, still operating on the false information fed to them by their spy James Klugmann, were vehemently opposed to anyone going into Mihailovich’s territory for any reason, as were the Russians. The British insisted that Mihailovich could not be trusted and that no rescue mission be attempted. It was easy for them to say that, Vujnovich thought. There were maybe a few British fliers among the downed airmen in Yugoslavia, but there were a hundred or more Americans trying to get out, and the Brits were willing to let them stay in Yugoslavia until the Germans found them, they succumbed to injuries and disease, or in some other way were no longer a problem.

Vujnovich and the others in Bari kept pushing and eventually the debate went all the way to the top. On July 4, 1944, Donovan sent a letter to President Roosevelt asking for permission to send in a team of agents to conduct the rescue, working the request into a larger discussion about how Donovan and his subordinates were not happy about losing their presence in the territory controlled by Mihailovich. He noted in the letter that Musulin had been withdrawn at the request of Churchill, but he explained that the changing fronts of the war made it imperative to gather more intelligence from the region. Donovan was careful to acknowledge the delicate dance that had to take place between the United States and Britain when discussing intelligence operations in Yugoslavia, noting that there was “a basic difference between clandestine agents sent in for the purpose of obtaining general information and operational reconnaissance directed to the preparation of military movements.” His interpretation of the current arrangement with the SOE was that the first could be carried out by either the Americans or the British without each other’s approval, while the second required coordination.

Further, the British intend to send (if they have not already done so) an intelligence team into that area. In view of the above facts, and particularly of the view of General [Henry] Wilson that we aid him in searching for American pilots now known to be in that area, I respectfully request that we be permitted to send in our intelligence team and also our search parties.

Donovan’s letter had been carefully crafted to convey the proper respect for diplomatic channels and the propriety of international relations during wartime, the bureaucratic language striking all the required notes. But he was much more direct when speaking to the president in person a few days later. As they were discussing the issue, Roosevelt made it clear that he wanted to rescue the airmen but was concerned about how the British would respond.

Wild Bill Donovan, a man known for mincing no words and doing whatever it took to get the job done, spoke plainly to the president: “Screw the British! Let’s get our boys out!” This was a tactic that Donovan often used when he was fed up with the insanely political maneuvering between the OSS, the State Department, and anyone else who thought they knew better than he did: Just say it in plain English. Get right to the point.

Sometimes it worked, sometimes it didn’t. Fortunately the president was in the same no-nonsense mood that day and agreed. Word was sent from Washington to Italy, and on July 14, 1944, Lieutenant General Ira Eaker, the commander of the Mediterranean Allied Air Force, signed an order creating the Air Crew Rescue Unit (ACRU). The unit was assigned two B-25 bombers to use as needed, and the Fifteenth Air Force was on call to provide whatever other air resources ACRU wanted. The order creating ACRU specified that its work would be carried out by OSS agents and that missions would be coordinated from Bari. ACRU was commanded by none other than Colonel George Kraigher, Vujnovich’s old friend from Pan American.

Kraigher’s involvement gave Vujnovich some degree of confidence that this was a team he could trust. Vujnovich and his men could go ahead with his risky plan. Whether they could pull it off was still very much in doubt.

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