Charles Town vet honored
CHARLES TOWN – U.S. Sen. Jay Rockefeller calls Frederick Mayer one of the “unsung heroes” of World War II.
[cleeng_content id="199292262" description="Read it now!" price="0.15" t="article"]On Saturday, Mayer, 92, of Charles Town, and a veteran of the Office of Strategic Services, America’s WWII-era spy agency, received the Prisoner of War Medal from the West Virginia Democrat.
Born in the Black Forest of Germany in 1921, Mayer moved with his parents to the United States in 1938 as the Nazi regime of Adolph Hitler rose to power. He tried to enlist in the armed forces following the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, but couldn’t get in because he was considered an enemy alien, said Mayer, who is Jewish.
“So I had to wait until the next year when they drafted me,” he said.
After completing Army basic training, Mayer joined the elite Rangers, saying that regular Army service was “too boring.” But while participating in a mock battle in Arizona during Ranger training, Mayer caught a general’s eye when he captured the opposing team’s officers.
“The next day the general called me in and said, ‘You’re wasting your time. Wouldn’t you like to do something special?’ I said, ‘By all means.’ And that is when I got into the OSS.”
The OSS would later be reformed into the CIA and focused on training for intelligence and sabotage missions behind enemy lines.
In February, 1945, Mayer led a perilous mission called Operation Greenup, when he was parachuted behind the German lines, onto a glacier in Austria.
Mayer, along with Austrian expatriate Franz Weber and Dutch expatriate Hans Wynberg, made their way off the glacier in a gut-wrenching sled ride, all in the middle of the night.
“It was about a 60 degree slope, and we skidded down it about two miles,” he said.
Once behind enemy lines in the Austrian region of Tyrol, Mayer and his men were given the task of determining how shipments of arms and munitions were making their way into Axis-controlled Italy, where Generals George Patton and Bernard Montgomery were working to gain a foothold for the Allies in southern Europe.
“Our aerial photographs showed that all the (railroad) bridges and tunnels were blown. We found out that what they had done was to create movable bridges. They kept them in the tunnels and only brought them out when the trains were ready to roll,” he said.
Once Mayer and his men learned this, they called in an airstrike that wiped out the supply lines to the Axis forces in Italy.
“They destroyed 24 trains in one night,” he said. “There was no more supply for the Italian front.”
Mayer and his men steadily built up a large force of informants within the Austrian and German community and by the end of the war had 3,500 people working for him, including a whole battalion of German alpine troops. “I told them, that Hitler was losing the war, and they might as well help us,” he said. “They were not very pro-Hitler to begin with. After, all, he invaded Austria against their wishes. It was not hard to convince them to go onto our side.”
Most daring of all, Mayer began regularly disguising himself as a wounded Nazi officer, frequenting the local Nazi officers’ club, where he gained a wealth of valuable intelligence, including the locations of Hitler and Mussolini at various times, of several of Hitler’s headquarters and even of Hitler’s secret bunker in Berlin.
“It wasn’t too hard. I had been born in Germany, so I knew all the slang,” he said.
Ultimately, however, Mayer was captured by the Gestapo, the Nazi secret police and was brutally tortured at the hands of his interrogators.
“They hung me upside down, poured water up my nose to make me choke, and beat me up until blood was dripping down. But I never gave my partners up,” he said. “I never confirmed anything.”
Mayer’s ability to endure torture impressed a doctor who was present, an advantage that Mayer used to eventually negotiate the surrender of German forces in the region.
“The doctor who was present during my torture was taken by the fact that I never talked, so he said, ‘I have to take you to the governor.’ I told the governor, ‘Your time is up. I’ll give you free passage if you surrender.’”
“The next day, he gave a radio address to tell them to continue fighting,” Mayer said. “I told him, ‘You better reconsider.’ And he did.”
“The doctor’s car drove me through enemy lines to meet with the Americans, and I arranged the surrender of the territory,” Mayer said.
After the surrender, Mayer was given the opportunity to confront one of his interrogators.
“He was just a Gestapo agent,” Mayer said. “My people captured him, and said, ‘Do you want to see him?’”
“And I said, ‘By all means. I have a few licks to give,’” he said, although he ultimately changed his mind. “I didn’t because he was cowering in the corner. Our people had beaten him to a pulp. So I was embarrassed that our people would do that.”
“He said, ‘Please, do anything you want to with me but please don’t hurt my family.’ So I told him, ‘What the hell do you think we are, Nazis?’ And I walked out.”
Mayer has previously received both the Purple Heart and the Legion of Merit.
Patrick O’Donnell, who wrote a book about Mayer and several other Jewish OSS agents called They Dared Return, has said that he thinks Mayer should be considered for the Medal of Honor.