The Dirty Tricks Department
St. Martin’s Press
Hardcover; 338pg; photos
Spy vs. Spy vs. batbombs to biological warfare
Science historian John Lisle’s ‘The Dirty Tricks Department’ delves into the activities and operations of the Office of Strategic Services, the espionage agency established in 1942 in the wake of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor.
Lisle investigates development of the OSS’s secret weapons and grotesque experiments aimed at neutralizing enemies by any means necessary from foot soldiers to secret agents, by concocting lethal weaponry, including vectors of biological weapons including bubonic plague, typhus, anthrax, and other nerve agents within enemy territory with little regard on collateral damage to civilian population.
It was headed by Colonel “Wild Bill” Donovan, a WWI hero, and chosen by President Franklin D. Roosevelt, a former Ivy League classmate FDR. Donovan in turn recruited the once mild-mannered Stanley Lovell, a chemical scientist from MIT who hatched some diabolical weapons of mass destruction to be used in espionage mission against the Germans, Italians and Japanese. The battalion of operatives and newly recruited American and foreign spies in the field to carry out covert missions behind enemy lines.
Many of the schemes that failed spectacularly, for instance the gathering of thousands of bats that were sedated and outfitted with bombs for deployment to Japan. Or cluster bombs ignited from pens, to firearms strapped to the body that could be triggered by breathing heavily as to expand ones chest. Or how about mixing explosives in Aunt Jemima pancake mix that could be detonated. Or bribing German farmers who supplied food for Hitler’s mountain fortress, to lace it with female hormones so his moustache would fall out and he would grow breasts. At one point they spray painted foxes to make them ghostly, transporting them to Japan on the off chance that enemy soldiers would see them and think it was an omen that the war was doomed. Needless to say, many of these project barely got off the ground before the schemes literally blew up in their faces.
The book has an episodic structure. The Camouflage Division and Undercover Missions and the first half focuses on the agency’s desperate attempt to develop viable secret weapons. As entertaining as some of them might be in a mad scientist sort of way. Lisle is a noted expert on US Intelligence systems and the chapters focused on US spy cells and secret military operatives on field missions are much more interesting. Those undercover agents working with the freedom fighters of the French Resistance, for instance, sabotaging Nazi trains and decoding propaganda.
Tracking agents captured, escaped, or outwitted their captors. Virginia Hall joined the resistance movement in France and was a fearless saboteur. After recovering from losing her leg from a gun accident, she returned to field, and disguised herself as a peasant woman in a perilous climb through the Pyrenees Mountains (a range that astronaut Chuck Yeager dubbed “the bitchiest bitch” of a Trek. Hall survived all and was awarded the Medal of Honor by Truman (which she declined.)
Another was George Langelaan who had radical face surgery, in part because he wanted to be handsomer, but mainly to disguise himself to infiltrate German intelligence cells. He was caught. Spend a year of hard time being starved in solitary but had devised a morse code transmitted (by tapping) via prison pipes among fellow prisoners on death row, planning their successful escape from imminent death.
One of the most fascinating OSS operative was Moe Berg, who quit being a professional baseball player to become an OSS spy. Berg was known as “the brainiest guy in baseball.” The OSS was also impressed with the fact that he spoke 10 languages. He even had film footage of Tokyo shot from rooftop when he was on a baseball exhibition series in Japan with Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig in 1934. The film that OSS found valuable for some strategic planning. Berg was dispatched on a mission to assassinate German physicist Heisenberg who was part of the group developing Germany’s atomic bomb. After the war Berg was awarded the Medal of Freedom, but he refused to accept it,
The political and espionage suspense kicks in with the chapter on the hunt for Germany’s heist of Europe’s Uranium mines and Heavy Water stockpiles. Lovell and European agents piecing together the trail and timeline of launch sites for the atomic bomb. Germany was well on its way with prototype of atomic bombs in the 1930s, by the time Oppenheimer was recruited for the Manhattan Project at Los Alamos.
Division 101 first deployment was a near disaster and they lost lives, Unprepared initially to destroy the Japanese tactical airfield that launched from the Narazi jungle in India. Daredevil pilot Carl Eifler headed the mission who Donovan sent back to the US, even after his fearless infiltration into enemy encampments, for which he suffered serious injuries and PTSD. He eventually went to divinity school and “tried to distance himself from the demons of his past.” Lisle reports. At a reunion of OSS personnel, Eifler intimated “And you know,” he said, “If we had our just desserts, we’d all be hung as war criminals.”
Another major project getting off the ground was the creation and infiltration of propaganda and counterintelligence misinformation. Methods that we now live with daily now has dominated the news not only in the United States, with our enemies around the world and home-grown fringe groups as Q Anon and nationalist militias armed with weapons of war and embracing fascism, all working overtime..
But as John Lisle exposes in his book The Dirty Tricks Department. The worlds of secret codes and disinformation and aggressive propaganda are nothing new…only deadlier than ever in its destructive reach.