Thomas Calabrese — The Office of Strategic Services (OSS) was a wartime intelligence agency of the United States during World War II, and a predecessor of the modern Central Intelligence Agency (CIA). The OSS was formed as an agency of the Joint Chiefs of Staff to coordinate espionage activities behind enemy lines for all branches of the United States Armed Forces. For the duration of World War II, the Office of Strategic Services conducted multiple activities and missions that included collecting intelligence by spying and performing acts of sabotage.
Before WWII, Hollywood actor Douglas Fairbanks, Jr. was famous for his big screen heroics. But none of his celluloid adventures could match those he had as a WWII U.S. Navy commando. Leading a team of maritime deception specialists called the Beach Jumpers, Fairbanks and his men were charged with raising hell with German coastal defenses throughout the Mediterranean Theater, and kept them off balance while the Allies planned the invasions of Sicily, Italy, and southern France. When the December 7, 1941 attack on Pearl Harbor launched the United States into the war, Fairbanks was already a seasoned covert operator. A close friend of President Franklin D. Roosevelt, the actor often undertook sensitive diplomatic missions abroad for the Commander-in-Chief.
The training Fairbanks organized for the Beach Jumpers included seamanship and small boat handling, gunnery, ordinance, demolitions and pyrotechnics. The Beach Jumpers were assigned 63-foot Air Sea Rescue (ASR) boats, lightly armed plywood vessels similar to the torpedo boats of the time. In addition to the twin-mounted .50 caliber machine guns, the Beach Jumper ASRs carried 3.5-inch rockets, smoke generators, and time-delayed floating explosive packets, as well as specialized deception equipment.
James Maitland Stewart (May 20, 1908 – July 2, 1997) was an American actor and military officer who is among the most honored and popular stars in film history. A major Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer contract player, Stewart was known for his distinctive drawl and down-to-earth persona, which helped him often portray American middle-class men struggling in crisis. Many of the films in which he starred have become enduring classics.
In August 1943, Stewart was assigned to the 445th Bomb Group as operations officer of the 703rd Bombardment Squadron, but after three weeks became its commander. On October 12, 1943, judged ready to go overseas, the 445th Bomb Group staged to Lincoln Army Airfield, Nebraska. Flying individually, the aircraft first flew to Morrison Army Airfield, Florida, and then on the circuitous Southern Route along the coasts of South America and Africa. After several weeks of training missions, in which Stewart flew with most of his combat crews, the group flew its first combat mission on December 13, 1943, to bomb the U-boat facilities at Kiel, Germany, followed three days later by a mission to Bremen. On March 22, 1944, Stewart flew his 12th combat mission, leading the 2nd Bomb Wing in an attack on Berlin. On March 30, 1944, he became group operations officer of the 453rd Bombardment Group, a new B-24 unit that had just lost both its commander and operations officer on missions. To inspire the unit, Stewart flew as command pilot in the lead B-24 on several missions deep into Nazi-occupied Europe.
William Clark Gable (February 1, 1901 – November 16, 1960) was an American film actor and military officer, often referred to as “The King of Hollywood” or just simply as “The King”. He began his career as a bus boy and appeared as an extra in silent films between 1924 and 1926, and progressed to supporting roles with a few films for Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer in 1930. For three and a half decades he became a leading man in more than 60 motion pictures. On August 12, 1942, Gable enlisted in the Army Air Force where he eventually united with fellow actor James Stewart in 1944. They often flew together on some the most dangerous missions in World War II because of their exceptional flying skills and fierce patriotism.
John Ernst Steinbeck Jr. (February 27, 1902 – December 20, 1968) was an American author. He won the 1962 Nobel Prize in Literature “for his realistic and imaginative writings, combining as they do sympathetic humor and keen social perception. He has been called “a giant of American letters”, and many of his works are considered classics of Western literature.
During his writing career, he authored 27 books, including 16 novels, six non-fiction books, and two collections of short stories. He is widely known for the comic novels Tortilla Flat (1935) and Cannery Row (1945), the multi-generation epic East of Eden (1952), and the novellas Of Mice and Men (1937) and The Red Pony (1937). The Pulitzer Prize-winning The Grapes of Wrath (1939) is considered Steinbeck’s masterpiece and in the first 75 years after it was published, it sold 14 million copies. Most of Steinbeck’s work is set in central California, particularly in the Salinas Valley and the California Coast Ranges region. His works frequently explore the themes of fate and injustice, especially as applied to the downtrodden and everyman protagonists.
He would come to earn his battle stripes in World War II with the Allied invasions of Sicily and Italy in 1943. In England and later in North Africa, Steinbeck had been a step removed from the battlefront, but not so with this invasion. Despite the Italian government’s surrender by September 1943, the Germans tenaciously resisted. In preparing for the invasion of Italy, Steinbeck managed to assign himself to a secretive special operations unit based on British commando units. Its purpose was to deceive the enemy, launch sudden raids, and disrupt communications by using fast mobile torpedo boats.
Charles Bronson (born Charles Dennis Buchinsky) November 3, 1921 – August 30, 2003) was an American actor. In 1943, Bronson enlisted in the United States Army Air Force and served as an aerial gunner with James Stewart and Clark Gable on their flight crew. He flew 25 missions and received six Purple Hearts and the Distinguished Flying Cross during his military career.
Audie Leon Murphy (20 June 1925 – 28 May 1971) was one of the most decorated American combat soldiers of World War II receiving every military award for valor available from the U.S. Army, as well as French and Belgian awards for heroism. Murphy received the Medal of Honor for valor demonstrated at the age of 19 for single-handedly holding off an entire company of German soldiers for an hour at the Colmar Pocket in France in January 1945, then leading a successful counterattack while wounded and out of ammunition.
In April 1945, the Office of Strategic Services, the wartime spy agency, scrambled to prepare for a particularly risky mission by inserting a team of agents deep behind Nazi lines with the goal of committing a crucial act of sabotage.
The Norwegian heavy water sabotage was a series of operations undertaken by Allies saboteurs and commandos during World War II to prevent the German nuclear weapon project from acquiring heavy water (deuterium oxide), which could have been used by the Germans to produce nuclear weapons. In 1934, at Vermork, Norway, Norsk Hydro built the first commercial plant capable of producing heavy water as a byproduct of fertilizer production and it had a capacity of 12 tons per year. During World War II, raids were aimed at the power station at the Rjukan waterfall in Telemark, Norway, but the Allies were only able to inflict minor damage and intelligence reports indicated that the Germans were only weeks, perhaps days away from developing a nuclear bomb. The Nazis had fortified their security around the location and it was almost certain suicide to try and disable the plant now, but the Allies were desperate and had no choice but to try again.
After the Royal Air Force refused the dangerous mission, code-named Operation Red Stop, James Stewart and Clark Gable, both Captains in the U.S. Army Air Corps volunteered. Assigned to the 453rd Bombardment Squadron, both men were already seasoned combat veterans, having flown close to 20 daylight strategic bombing missions.
While flying through enemy airspace, their B-24 Liberator was observed by two Messerschmitt Bf109 German fighters who commenced their attack. Captain Gable took control and went into a steep descent then radioed Sergeant Charlie Bronson, who was manning the rear gun turret, “Charlie, we got a couple of Bf109’s on our tail.”
“I see them, Captain,” Sergeant Bronson replied and once he got the first fighter in his twin 50 caliber machine gun sights, he opened fire and flamed it. He swung his turret around and caught the second fighters coming out of the clouds and riddled the cockpit, killing the German aviator instantly.
“Good job, Charlie,” Captain Stewart said and put the plane back on course.
The sabotage team consisted of; Douglas Fairbanks Jr, John Steinbeck and Audie Murphy and to succeed in the nighttime mission, the plane would have to arrive before sunrise. Stewart and Gable left RAF Hosham St. Faith, American bomber base in England at 0130 hours and navigated their B-24 Liberator 1190 miles to the Jottunheim Mountains in Norway.
With an air speed of 270 miles and flying at an altitude of 15,000 feet, they arrive at their destination in 4 hours and 22 minutes. The drop zone was located near a lake, not far from the Hardanger Plateau.
The area was so important that Nazi forces had placed antiaircraft weapons at the top of the pass so they could fire down on Allied aircraft. Gable and Stewart had flown in mountainous terrain before so they knew that they had to stay very close to the ground to evade radar detection, so close that they nipped the treetops on several occasions. As the plane approached the target zone over a valley, they were buffeted by severe downdrafts and dropped 6,000 feet in 20 seconds. Before they regained control of the plane they had dropped to an altitude of 125 feet. It took both pilots’ entire repertoire of expertise to regain control and prevent a crash. They eventually maneuvered the plane into the proper position for a low level jump of 300 feet and when given the signal, Fairbanks, Steinbeck and Murphy went out into the cloudless skies in quick succession.
John Banner (born Johann Banner) was an Austrian-born film and television actor who was best known for his role as Master Sergeant Schultz in the situation comedy Hogan’s Heroes. He was performing with an acting troupe in Switzerland when Adolf Hitler annexed Austria, so he immigrated to the United States in 1938. In 1942, Banner enlisted in the Army and because he spoke several languages including Norwegian, Swedish and the German language fluently, he was recruited by the O.S.S. to return to Europe and organize resistance against the 3rd Reich. He was assigned to meet the three Americans and lead them to the target.
“I’ve got everything that you requested,” John Banner said.
“Good, let’s get going,” Douglas Fairbank requested “No time to waste.”
John Banner and his resistance fighters took the lead and Fairbanks, Steinbeck and Murphy fell in behind them. The trail was steep and dangerous, but Banner and his men had previously scouted the area so they knew every rock along the way. Three hours later, the group took their first break and Audie Murphy turned to an exhausted John Steinbeck, “You doing alright?”
“A little tired,” John replied, “It’s a lot different doing it than just writing about it.”
About ten feet way, Fairbanks and Banner were looking at a map, “There is only one way that you will have any chance at all of getting on the grounds,” John Banner pointed to an area on the map.
“I am more familiar with operations at sea level, but war is not only about doing what has to be done, it is also about when and where you have to go to complete this mission. We must succeed or die in the attempt. Those are our only two options,” Douglas Fairbanks said with calm resolve, “Tell me about the ascent.”
“There are several men in my group that are experienced mountain climbers, they’ve scaled it several times to mark the safest route and built hand and foot holds for your team to use. It will make it a little easier, but it still remains a difficult and dangerous climb,” John Banner warned.
“What about the diversion?” Douglas Fairbanks asked.
“It is all set,” John Banner answered
“You’ve done everything that you can; the rest is up to us.”
The group hiked for three more hours until they came to the 1000 foot-high mountain, “You don’t see many hills like this back in my part of Texas,” Audie drawled as he strained his neck to see the top, “It’s so flat back in Kingston that you can see a squashed possum on the road from two miles away.”
“Reminds me of Yosemite Park, “John Steinbeck commented, “There’s a little place called Half-Dome that I used to climb when I was a boy.”
“Murphy, you’ll go up first, Johnny take second position and I’ll pull up the rear,” Douglas Fairbanks ordered.
“There is a place located ten feet from the top that recesses back into the rocks. When you reach that point, you’ll find the equipment that you requested. There is also enough room to change into your German uniforms. At midnight, we’ll commence the mortar attack and continue for five minutes. That should allow you enough time to make it across the open area to the building,” John Banner explained.
“After that, we’re on our own,” Audie guessed.
“That is an affirmative,” John Banner seconded, “Command should have allowed me and my men to do this.”
“You’re too valuable at your current assignment,” Douglas Fairbanks replied, “If we fail, you still may get your chance to go in, so be careful what you wish for.”
“The climb should take your team between five hours and seven hours, my men did it in less than four, “John Banner looked at his watch and saw it was 1100 hundred hours. “Get a couple hours rest and something to eat then you should start up at 1300 hours.”
“That sounds good to me,” Douglas Fairbanks agreed.
Every one of these men were ultimate professionals and knew how to shut it down on a moment’s notice so when they were given the word to get some rest, they found a place to sit down. Two of Banner’s men approached carrying several packs and he introduced them, “This is Lukas and Tobias, they are brothers. Their family owned a very popular restaurant in Vienna until the Gestapo killed their father and took their property. The only thing that they do better than fight Nazis is cook. I thought we would all enjoy a nice meal before you left.”
The two brothers opened the packs and took out Austrian delicacies of Wiener Schnitzel, Knodel, and Buchteln and set it out for the group to eat.
After tasting each one, Douglas Fairbanks commented with an appreciative smile, “My compliments to the chefs.”
“I second that,” John Steinbeck licked his lips and took another bite of the Knodel.
“This is mighty tasty,” Audie Murphy made it unanimous, “Beats c-rations all to hell.”
John Steinbeck laughed.
“What’s so funny?” Audie asked.
“I was thinking about a famous line; the condemned men ate a hardy meal,” John Steinbeck answered.
“When you put it that way, I might as well have seconds,” Audie Murphy quipped.
The entire group ate for thirty minutes until their appetites were satisfied. The three Americans rested for an hour before they began the arduous ascent. John Banner correctly estimated their time of completion and they reached the ledge just below the top in slightly over five hours. The sun set twenty minutes later and the three men went through the equipment that was left for them and changed into German uniforms, then sat down between the rocks to wait for the diversionary attack to begin.
At midnight, the mortar barrage began and the three Americans climbed over the top and made their way to their primary target. O.S.S. had planted a Norwegian agent as a custodian inside the plant and who was the source of the detailed plans. Fairbanks, Steinbeck and Murphy used this crucial information to enter the main basement by a cable tunnel. Once inside they rendezvoused with the Norwegian agent (Johansen), who led them, to the electrolysis chambers where they placed explosive charges and attached a fuse that allowed them sufficient time for their escape. They left a Thompson submachine gun behind to deceive the Germans into thinking that it was the work of British forces and not local resistance, in order to try and avoid reprisals.
While making their escape, the three commandos and the Norwegian agent engaged a squad of Germans and killed them, then fought their way across the open area while killing twenty three more German soldiers. When they reached the edge of the mountain, each man strapped on a parachute.
“Go ahead, I’m right behind you,” Murphy said and continued firing at the approaching Germans. Fairbanks, Steinbeck and Johansen dived off the sheer mountain face as Murphy reloaded and emptied another clip at the Germans,then followed his comrades over the edge. Their parachutes opened when they were halfway down and they floated to the ground.
The explosive charges detonated and destroyed the electrolysis chambers, the entire inventory of heavy water along with equipment critical to operation of the electrolysis chambers. John Banner and his team of resistance fighters were at the bottom to meet the Americans when they landed and they made a hasty escape, pursued by 3,000 German soldiers. Their extraction point was sixty kilometers away, the closest place that was flat and long enough for a plane to land. The Germans were quickly closing in, so when pilots Gable and Stewart saw them as they came in for their final approach, they strafed the enemy soldiers several times before touching down on the grassy field.
John Banner and his resistance fighters bid a quick farewell to the Americans, “This is where we leave you,” then disappeared into the forest.
Charles Bronson had his machine guns blazing as did the other gunners. The B-24 Liberator slowed down, but did not stop and Fairbanks, Steinbeck and Murphy ran to the open door and were pulled in by members of the flight crew. The German soldiers fired at the aircraft and while it was hit numerous times, it still managed to take off and disappear into the skies. Once inside the aircraft, Douglas Fairbanks walked up to the cockpit and put his hands on Gable’s and Stewart’s shoulders and offered a grateful greeting, “Gentlemen, it is a real pleasure to see you.”
Clark Gable slightly altered a line from one of his classic movies, “Frankly my dear, we give a damn that you made it.”
“The screenwriters could not have written this any better,” James Stewart added.
In the back of the airplane John Steinbeck turned to Audie Murphy, “I wrote; East Of Eden, Grapes Of Wrath, Mice and Men and now I’m going to write Mountains of Vermork.”
Charles Bronson looked down from his gun turret, “How about just calling it ‘Death Wish’?
Germany surrendered on May, 7, 1945, one month after this daring raid. To millions of Americans these men were celebrities and Matinee Idols, but on this mission when the fate of mankind hung in the balance, they were real life heroes and Midnight Marauders.
Also written by Thomas Calabrese and available for purchase.
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