Thursday, August 21, 2008

Obit of the Day

Roger Hall died last month, aged 89. He wrote the funniest WWII memoir I've read, "You're Stepping on My Cloak and Dagger," about his time in the OSS (the predecessor to the CIA). Adam Bernstein's Washington Post obit captures Hall's spirit and the flair of his book:
The son of a Navy captain, Mr. Hall grew up in Annapolis. He said the OSS book was not meant to show "contempt for authority, but bridling at authority."

Mr. Hall described himself as an ideal match for the OSS, which was interested less in formal military expertise than in recruiting agents who could use their wits and innovation in sticky situations to win the war.

"There were no parameters, and you did what the hell you wanted, up to legal and military limits," he told The Washington Post in 2002. "The more creative you were, the more they liked it."

One of his favorite OSS stories involved a colleague sent to occupied France to destroy a seemingly impenetrable German tank at a key crossroads. The French resistance found that grenades were no use.

The OSS man, fluent in German and dressed like a French peasant, walked up to the tank and yelled, "Mail!"

The lid opened, and in went two grenades.

Mr. Hall learned guerrilla warfare at Congressional Country Club, which the OSS had taken over for training, and infiltrated a Philadelphia circuit breaker plant on a test run. He not only got a job at the plant, but the handsome trainee also wangled a date with a woman in the personnel office who happened to be the company vice president's daughter.

His made-up identity included a falsehood about being wounded while parachuting into Sicily, and the vice president was so taken with his bravery that he invited Mr. Hall to speak at a company war bond rally. He did the job so well that news of his rousing speech was published in a local paper.

"You're supposed to be a spy, not a bond salesman," an OSS companion said.

Mr. Hall spent much of the war in Great Britain, training and working alongside a motley gang of paratroopers: new recruits, war-hardened Poles and the occasional rising star, such as future CIA director William E. Colby. (He later was an usher at Colby's first wedding.)

Ultimately, Mr. Hall arrived in a war zone, the little-known but strategic Norwegian theater of operations. "Operation Better-Late-Than-Never," he called it.

One of his tasks was to oversee the surrender of thousands of Germans to his small contingent. Mr. Hall said the German colonel who surrendered to him pulled out a ceremonial dagger and told Mr. Hall that his men were like blades -- temporarily sheathed.

Mr. Hall grabbed the dagger and broke it on the ground with his feet, one of his proudest dramatic moments.
Read the whole article--and Hall's book.

(via reader Doug J.)

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Definitely read the book. It's a classic. Doug J.