Since the days of the American Revolution, the U.S. government has relied on a number of organizations to ferret out threats to our national security. Today, one of the most crucial is the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), which is responsible for gathering information on America’s enemies. Though used less often now than in the past, the accepted CIA method has been to secretly place an operative within the enemy’s ranks and have the individual transmit reports back to headquarters. One of the agency’s most successful infiltrations came during World War II when it was called the Office of Strategic Services. The agency recruited and trained a young man from New York City who yearned to bring down Nazi Germany. He had a personal stake in the war — he was a German-born Jew. No one would ever envision how monumental his contribution would be. His name was Frederick Mayer. This is the story of the role he played in the final days of WWII during Operation Greenup.
Frederick Mayer’s early life would not have been considered a normal prelude to his days as an American soldier and spy. He was born in Freiburg, Germany in October 1921 to a decorated hero of World War I. As he grew up, Frederick was treated no differently than any other German youth. He went to school, had both Gentile and Jewish friends, and participated in athletics, excelling at skiing. All that changed in 1933 when Adolf Hitler and the Nazi Party came to power. Over the next five years, he watched as the Nazis cracked down on Jews and denied them many rights and opportunities they had previously enjoyed. As Nazi persecution intensified, his mother begged his father to leave Germany, but his father believed his status as a war hero would protect the family. His mother often said she “wouldn’t trust them to accept anyone.” The situation continued to worsen, and in 1938, just before Germany invaded Austria, his father finally agreed to move the family to the U.S. Upon their arrival, they settled in New York City where seventeen-year-old Frederick searched the streets for work. It was not long, however, before he discovered that anti-Semitism was as prevalent, though not as savage, in his adopted homeland as it was in his native one. Frederick was not one to be bullied though. One time an employer made disparaging remarks about him, and Frederick punched him out before quitting. Because of the obvious prejudice and his reaction to it, he worked in over twenty jobs over the next few years. His treatment did not stop him from becoming a naturalized American, but he still longed to return to Germany to avenge his people.
Frederick saw his chance to strike back when the U.S. entered the war in December 1941. He enlisted in the army and was assigned to the 81st Division’s reconnaissance team, the Wildcat Rangers, where he excelled at subterfuge, successfully capturing the “enemy” general during war games in Arizona. Upon learning Frederick spoke four languages — German, English, French and Spanish — and impressed with his ability to avoid detection, his commander realized Mayer’s talents would be wasted as an ordinary soldier. Frederick was promoted to sergeant and was soon on his way from Arizona to Washington, D.C. to join the new organization headed by William J. “Wild Bill” Donovan, the Office of Strategic Services (OSS). Upon his arrival in the city, he was ordered to join the OSS’s German Operational Group. He spent the next few months on the grounds of the Congressional Country Club practicing hand-to-hand combat, like knife fighting and weapons improvisation, turning any object into a weapon. Afterwards, he was transferred to Fort Benning, Georgia where he and his comrades underwent intense training as paratroopers. By the summer of 1944, he was ready to participate in the deliverance of Europe from Nazi oppression.
Although he arrived in Europe soon after the D-Day invasion of Normandy, it began to appear as if Frederick would not see any action against the Nazis. He and his fellow operatives arrived in Italy, but they were told no one had heard of the OSS. Some officers thought they should be used to fill the ranks of depleted units. Mayer’s superiors refused to let this happen, and as a result of the bureaucratic standoff, the operatives were told to stand down until orders came. It did not take long for boredom to set in. The longer he waited, the angrier Frederick grew. This was not what he had signed up for. He wanted to invade Germany and fight back in defense of his people. Unable to stand it anymore, he and fellow Jew Hans Wynberg commandeered a jeep and drove to Allied intelligence headquarters in nearby Caserta. They reported to Lieutenant Colonel Howard Chapin and begged for reassignment. Chapin asked them if they understood what would likely happen to Jewish spies such as themselves if captured. Frederick replied, “This is more our war than yours.” Impressed, Chapin promised to see what he could do. Within days, the two joined the OSS’s German-Austrian Section at Bari, Italy. From there Mayer began planning one of the war’s most daring missions.
In late 1944 Mayer was called in to confer with the head of the section, Lieutenant Alfred Ulmer. Ulmer told Frederick he had been chosen to lead a mission behind enemy lines that would help bring victory to the Allies, a plan known as Operation Greenup. The plan called for him and two companions to cross into German-occupied Austria and monitor the movements of German troops in the city of Innsbruck. Ulmer told Mayer to radio his observations back to Bari so commanders could properly prepare for the upcoming Allied invasion of Austria. Frederick was also told to look for an opportunity to demolish the railroads to prevent supplies from reaching the German forces still occupying northern Italy. As Ulmer finished the outline, Frederick practically leaped for joy. Here was his chance to retaliate against those who had driven him from his homeland. When Ulmer asked him who should accompany him on this mission, Frederick immediately chose Hans Wynberg. He also requested a prisoner-of-war who had recently deserted the German army, Franz Weber. Weber lived near Innsbruck and still had family in the region. With his team assembled, Frederick spent the next few months gathering supplies and outlining how the men would reach their target.
As Wynberg and Weber collected radios, winter clothing and skis, Frederick studied maps of the region in order to lay out their route to Innsbruck, high in the Austrian Alps. In a plan right out of a future James Bond movie, he decided the three men would parachute from a plane onto a glacier-covered lake. Then they would ski down the mountains and set up base in Weber’s hometown of Oberperfuss. As Frederick and his two operatives prepared to leave, he requested the supplies be dropped around the lake in anticipation of the team’s arrival. In the early morning hours of February 26, 1945 Mayer, Wynberg and Weber boarded a plane piloted by Lieutenant John Billings and headed towards the Austrian border. The three men hung on for dear life as the plane cleared the 9,000-foot high ridgelines and tried to avoid fierce Alpine winds that threatened to tear the plane apart. Finally, Billings spotted the drop zone and signaled that the three men should prepare to jump. Frederick and the others zipped up their white parkas, fastened on their parachutes and jumped. Moments later they safely landed on top of the glacier and unbuckled their chutes. They dug in the snow for the containers of supplies and eventually found them, but the container filled with skis was missing. Undaunted, Frederick led his small group in a trek down the mountainside through sometimes neck-deep snow. Several hours later they entered a village and claimed to be lost soldiers from a German mountain unit. Eager to be of assistance, the villagers provided the “soldiers” with a carriage to take them into Oberperfuss.
Upon their arrival, the spies took refuge inside Weber’s fiancé’s home where Wynberg set up his radio to communicate with American officers in Bari. Through the help of Weber’s sister who was a nurse, Frederick acquired and donned a German officer’s uniform. He tied a bandage around his head and spent several days in the hospital visiting with other convalescing soldiers. One of those he talked to provided him with details about Hitler’s private underground bunker. After passing on this information, he moved into the officers’ quarters where he inquired about activities along the Italian border, especially the transport of troops and armaments through the mountains. Before he could pass on any of this information, however, he needed to know the exact timetable for the trains. He decided to pay a visit to the railroad depot. Wearing his officer’s uniform, he demanded to know what was going on. The officer in charge told Frederick that even though American planes had destroyed the bridges, German engineers had constructed movable bridges to allow shipments to resume. Then Frederick was told that twenty-six trains loaded with ammunition were being sent to the border that night. He dashed back to the team’s safe house and told Wynberg to pass on everything to their superiors in Bari. As soon as the information was transcribed, American bombers took off and successfully destroyed all twenty-six trains. His superiors expressed their delight with his reports, but they told him he had one more job to perform.
From Bari, Frederick’s OSS superiors asked him to survey how much air power Germany had in and around Innsbruck. Deciding a civilian persona was more appropriate, Frederick told the aircraft factory manager he was a French electrician fleeing from advancing Soviet soldiers. The manager gave him work in the secret jet engine factory, but before he could complete his evaluation, Gestapo agents, tipped off he was a spy, seized him and dragged him off to jail. For the next three days Frederick was hung upside down and beaten, even loosing some teeth from a haymaker punch. He stuck with the cover story of being a French electrician as long as he could, but he finally admitted to being an American spy, though he insisted he was working alone. He refused to give up Wynberg and Weber, who had evaded capture. As Mayer was being tortured, fellow agent and prisoner Hermann Matull observed his courage and developed a daring new strategy. Matull told the Gestapo the man they were torturing was a “big shot,” and this claim persuaded the guards to bring Mayer before Franz Hofer, the region’s leading Nazi. Frederick was astonished, however, when he was treated extremely well rather than interrogated. Hofer had decided Germany’s defeat was inevitable but had planned to tell his troops to fight to the death. Then Hofer told Frederick something even more incredible. He would be willing to surrender — but to the Americans, not the Soviets. He wanted this sergeant to be his emissary to the advancing U.S. Seventh Army. Hofer then basically placed himself under arrest and effectively surrendered his forces and the city to Mayer. On May 3, 1945 Frederick met with American officers from the 103rd Infantry Division and escorted them into Hofer’s office. There he had the honor of watching the commander of Germany’s Alpine fortress formally surrender. This Jewish sergeant had single-handedly ended the fighting in the entire region. After the war he returned to the U.S. and, like most servicemen, settled back into a normal life. He made his home in West Virginia where he lives to this day.
It is sometimes amazing what one man can do. Frederick Mayer, tired of being abused because of his Jewish heritage, began the war as a private, intent on doing his part to end the slaughter of his people and other innocents by the brutal Nazi regime. He ended up playing a crucial role not only in crippling the German war machine in his area of operation but also in bringing about the surrender of the entire German Army in that region. The number of lives saved by this one man is inestimable. That same concept guides the U.S. intelligence community up to this very day — that one person, committed to faithful service to their country, can make a difference in protecting countless American lives and in preserving our way of life.
3 responses to “Behind Enemy Lines”
What an incredible story! I had never heard of Mayer and his exploits. Thanks Jake, for another great take on our nation’s history. Well done!
Another great read, thanks Jake!!
Thanks Jake Man – Great research. Wow.