OSS Operations End With Agents' Executions in Mauthausen
(September 1944-January 1945)
Shortly after the Slovak uprising in August 1944, the Czech Intelligence Service in London learned several British and American flyers recently liberated from German POW camps in Slovakia were at Banska Bystrica and Tri Duby. This was where the Czech Forces of the Interior (CFI)—a group of partisans—were defending a liberated area against enemy troops. The information was forwarded to the Office of Strategic Services (OSS—the forerunner of the CIA) in London. A decision was made to send teams of agents into Slovakia to evacuate downed airmen, provide supplies to the partisans and gather intelligence. These were to be the first OSS units to operate in central Europe.
OSS Bari arranged for the 15th Air Force to send an evacuation flight on September 17. Two B-17s with fighter cover landed at a secret air base established at Tri Duby. They stayed on the ground for less than an hour, picking up 17 flyers and dropping two OSS teams.
The first group of agents, known as the "Dawes" team, comprised of intelligence officers, weapons and demolitions experts and a radio operator. A 35-year-old textile worker from Charleston, South Carolina, Lt. J. Holt Green was in command of Jerry Mican, Joseph Horvath and Robert Brown. They were later joined by a second team, code named "Houseboat," comprised of John Schwartz and Charles Heller.
The Dawes team was dispatched as a liaison group to the CFI headquarters at Banska Bystrica with the assignment of transmitting to Bari intelligence and situation reports on the progress of the campaign, as well as estimating arms, ammunition and demolition requirements for further resupply of the CFI.
Three additional OSS teams were sent in on October 7. The "Day" team was comprised of E.V. Baranski and two civilians, Anton Novak and Daniel Pavletich. Their mission was to work close to combat lines west of Banska Bystrica for frontline tactical intelligence.1
The "Bowery" team was comprised of Tibor Keszthelyi, Steve Catlos, and civilians using the code names Francis Moly and Stephen Cora. They were to arrange with the CFI underground to infiltrate two civilian agents across the Hungarian border to the vicinity of Budapest and were then to return to Dawes HQ for evacuation. The infiltration of Moly and Cora was successfully accomplished on Oct. 11 and Keszthelyi and Catlos rejoined the Dawes group.
Francis Perry was sent in under code name "Dare." He was to represent the German Austrian desk collecting information on Slovak headquarters and exploring the possibility of courier routes over the frontier.2
Two other civilians also were dropped. Emil Tomes, an American who lived in Slovakia, was sent in to work independently on counterintelligence, and Associated Press correspondent James Morton.
Despite the covert nature of the operation, the OSS gave Morton permission to report on the evacuation of fliers. He sent a message to AP saying he was off to cover the "greatest story of his life." When he arrived in Slovakia, Morton immediately sent back a story with the plane that had carried him there, but the dispatch was snatched up by censors. He was never heard from again.3
On October 17, six Flying Forts landed with arms, ammunition and demolitions equipment. Six additional agents were sent to join the Dawes team: James Gaul, Lane Miller, William McGregor, Kenneth Lain, J. Dunlevy and photographer Nelson Paris. Gaul, a Harvard Ph.D. who spoke six languages, became Green's deputy.
By the end of October, the situation began to deteriorate as organized resistance began to fade. Green had said he wanted to fly out a group of airmen, as well as several members of his team, including correspondent Morton. This flight was scheduled for October 18, but had to be postponed. Constant weather problems either in Slovakia or at the point of origination prevented the flights from ever being made.4 This proved to be a death sentence for those who were to be evacuated.
OSS Bari's concern for the teams was evident in the message to Green on October 25 stressing that their security was "vital" and urging him to do everything possible to insure the safety of the party.5 Green's options were running out, however, after Banska Bystrica was bombed by the Germans and the Tri Duby airstrip was lost.
Green decided to evacuate the camp. He divided his group of 37 (agents and downed fliers) into four units, headed by Lain, McGregor, Perry and himself. The group retreated with the CFI in the direction of the Russian lines. On the long, arduous march, many Czech soldiers and Americans became ill from lack of food and exposure.
On November 6, a patrol consisting of one OSS Army enlisted man, Pvt. Schwartz, and five Air Force personnel was captured by the Germans. Shortly thereafter, the Czechs and Americans fought off a German attack.
A week later, Green's group, after almost nine days of marching in the bitter cold through the mountains, stopped at a farm house on the outskirts of the village of Doolnia Lehota. On the following day they traveled to a nearby mine camp where partisan nurses dressed their feet. It was learned later that the Germans captured and killed these nurses.
Green and his men lived on the mountainside not far from the Czech Brigade's headquarters from November 18-30. During that time, Green contacted Major Sehmer of the British mission and went to Polomka to send a message to Bari over the British wireless.
In Green's absence, on the 30th, the Czech Brigade was attacked by the Germans. Perry and one Slovak soldier had gone down to the village for food and were captured. The rest of the Americans narrowly escaped.6
Bari had not received any messages from any of the teams since the end of October. In early December, Green finally contacted headquarters. The next and last message from the Dawes team, although badly garbled, was interpreted as follows:
By then, the net had begun to close around the agents. On December 9, Baranski and Pavletich were arrested. Three days later, Keszthelyi, Mican, and Tabor were captured.
The rest of the group stayed in the mountains for the next three weeks, most of them living in a shack about three hours north of Polomka and the remainder at a winter resort hotel at a place known as "Velky Bok." On Christmas Eve, the British and Americans held a party at the shack. Religious services were conducted by Lt. Gaul. The next morning the men were washing their clothes when they came under attack and were surrounded by Germans. The partisans guarding the house resisted for three hours, but were driven away by artillery fire from Polomka. According to a Czech soldier, 14 persons fully dressed and in complete uniform were marched out of the shack and taken away.8 Only one man escaped—Anton Novak, a 25-year-old Czech who was part of the "Day" team. He eventually made his way through the Russian lines to Belgrade.9
This was the end of the Anglo-American mission. Between November 6 and December 26, 1944, 15 members agents were captured along with 2 American civilians, 2 British officers and one private, and a Czech officer who had joined the group. Five people escaped capture because they were away from the shack at the time of the attack: two OSS Army enlisted personnel (Catlos and Dunlevy), a British officer, a British enlisted man and a Czechoslovakian girl working with the OSS unit.10 Lain and McGregor, who separated from the Dawes team to escort the group of Air Force personnel, were captured by the Germans and imprisoned in a POW camp. The camp was subsequently overrun and they were repatriated. The same was true for Schwartz.11
Unaware of what had happened to the agents, a final attempt was made to resupply the OSS teams on December 27. The pilot flew off course, however, and missed the target.12
In early January, Werner Mueller, one of Berlin's best linguists, and Dr. Hans Wilhelm Thost, an interpreter for the Reichssicherheitshauptamt (RSHA-Reich Security Main Office), were ordered to go to Mauthausen to interrogate a group of English and American officers who were taken prisoner in the sector held by the Slovak rebels.
Thost testified after the war that he saw one POW in a room with Frank Ziereis, a balding 43-year-old Bavarian who was Mauthausen's Commandant. Ziereis slapped the man across the face. He continuously demanded that his subordinate, a cigar-smoking, World War I U-boat sailor named Habecker, hang the prisoner by his wrists.13
Meanwhile, in another room, two SS officers were interrogating another POW. The American was in a crouching position with his hands bound beneath his thighs behind his knees. One SS man was holding a heavy whip in his hand and Thost could see the American's forehead and buttocks were bloody from where he had been lashed. The second German seemed to think the marks on the POW's face was funny. He called it a "Jesus halo."
Thost said he was overcome watching this torture and went back to the room where Habecker was still trying to coerce information from the first POW about the Allied service in Bari that had sent him to Slovakia. Ziereis took out three or four wooden rings, about the shape and size of a pencil, which he put between the prisoner's fingers. He then pressed them together hard. "This 'Tibetan Prayer Mill' causes intolerable pain," Thost said. "Ziereis got an intense pleasure out of that torture."
Later, Ziereis had Sehmer, the British agent, hung by his wrists in another room. Thost heard him scream. Afterward, Sehmer was brought back to sign a confession, but he could barely write "because all the blood was drawn from his hands."
The worst treatment was given to Baranski. When he refused to reveal details of his mission, the Commandant tied his wrists behind his back and fastened them to a chain hanging from the ceiling. Ziereis kicked the table Baranski was standing on out from under him, leaving the American dangling. After seven or eight minutes, Baranski said he would tell all, "but the Commandant let him hang a few more minutes."
During the next four or five days, the British and American POWs continued to be tortured. Thost said these interrogations were carried out so the prisoners had no permanent injury. "These Gestapo men did not torture the prisoners in fits of anger but, on the contrary, with all composure....The pleasure experienced by Ziereis and Habecker was apparent."14
When the Germans were satisfied they had elicited all the information they could, the POWs were told to remove their uniforms and put on prisoners' uniforms. Then they were marched out.
Mueller sensed something was wrong and asked an SS officer why they were not being transferred to a POW camp. He was told a teletype message from Berlin, signed by Ernst Kaltenbrunner, Chief of the RSHA, had come in ordering their immediate execution. The order directly contradicted his earlier instruction that Americans and Englishmen were to be exempted from the "bullet order" directing that escaped prisoners be taken to Mauthausen and eliminated.15
Mueller asked how the prisoners were to be killed. He was told: "Don't be excited; they will have a very easy death."16
The Americans were unaware they were going to be executed, according to a Polish prisoner who was in Mauthausen at the time. The signs on the door they entered said they were going to the bath. "After they undressed," Wilhelm Ornstein testified, "they went to another room with a camera where Ziereis was yelling: 'photograph, photograph.' Baranski, Green, Gaul, Perry, Keszthelyi, Mican, Horvath, Haller, Paris, Pavletich, Sehmer, Willis and Wilson were shot by SS Hauptsturmfuhrer Georg Bachmayer." Ornstein took Nelson Paris' dog tag off his neck after he was killed and later gave it to investigators. He said the Americans were executed on January 26 and cremated.17
The OSS canceled its operation in Slovakia at the end of January, long after contact with the Dawes team had been lost. By this time, the agents were all believed to be dead.18 In fact, on January 24, 1945, Allied Force Headquarters intercepted a broadcast from Berlin that said 18 members of an Anglo-American group of agents were captured and executed.19 Additional reports to this effect were picked up a couple of weeks later.20
2Chapin to Dawes, September 27, 1944, RG226, Entry 136, Box 26, Folder 264, OSS Files, NARA.
3"War's End Brings Story of Morton's Death," AP World, no date, pp. 10-12.
4Messages from Dawes, October 25-28, 1944, RG226, Entry 136, Box 26, Folder 264, OSS Files, NARA.
5Messages to Dawes, October 25 and November 7, 1944, RG226, Entry 136, Box 26, Folder 264, OSS Files, NARA.
6Cables dated March 4 and 14, 1945, RG226, Entry 154, Box 42, Folder 642, OSS Files, NARA.
7Chief SICE to Chief X-2, OSS, Operational History, Dawes and Associated Teams—Slovakia, January 27, 1945, RG226, Entry 190, Box 22, Folder 1, NARA.
8Cables dated March 4 and 14, 1945, RG226, Entry 154, Box 42, Folder 642, OSS Files, NARA.
9Cables dated February 1 and 14, 1945, RG226, Entry 190, Box 22, Folder 1, OSS Files, NARA.
10Lt. Kelly O'Neall, Jr., War Crimes Investigation Committee, HQ, 2677th Regiment, OSS, July 19, 1945, RG153, 8-9, Box 116; report on Interview of Anton Novak, RG226, Entry 190, Folder 1, Box 22, OSS Files, NARA.
11Report on Green Mission, OSS, no date, RG153, 8-9, Box 116, NARA.
12Lt. Col. H.M. Chapin, Chief SICE to Chief X-2, "Operational History, Dawes and Associated Teams--Slovakia," January 27, 1945, OSS Files, RG226, Entry 190, Folder 1, Box 22, NARA.
13Testimony of interpreter from Mauthausen, undated and untitled, RG153, 8-9, Box 116, NARA.
14 Testimony of Dr. Hans Wilhelm Thost attached to memo from Capt. Wallace Wharton, Office of the Chief of Naval Operations to Capt. J.J. Robinson, Navy Division (JAG) War Crimes Office, Sept. 22, 1946, RG153, 8-9, Box 116, NARA.
15UN War Crimes Commission, Mauthausen Trial, RG153, 5-31, Volume 1, Trial Record, Book 1, Folder 1-2, Boxes 9-10; First Lt. W.A. Underwood, War Crimes Section, U.S. Forces in Austria, War Crimes Section progress report for the month of August 1945, August 31, 1945, RG153, 8-9, Box 116, NARA.
16Appendix III, OSS Slovakia Mission, no date, RG153, 8-9, Box 116, NARA.
17Lt. Kelly O'Neall, Jr., War Crimes Investigation Committee, HQ, 2677th Regiment, OSS, July 19, 1945, RG153, 8-9, Box 116, NARA.
18Bennett to Billman, et al., January 26, 1945, RG226, Entry 154, Box 42, Folder 642; OSS Casualty Report, January 29, 1945, RG226, Entry 190, Box 22, Folder 1, OSS Files, NARA.
19Col. C.W. Christenberry, Allied Force Headquarters, "Capture of Anglo-American Group of agents," February 13, 1945, RG153, 8-9, Box 116, NARA.
20Memo from Saint Caserta to Saint Bari, February 9, 1945, RG226, Entry 190, Box 22, Folder 1, OSS Files, NARA.
Source: Bard, Mitchell G. Forgotten Victims: The Abandonment of Americans in Hitler's Camps. CO: Westview Press, 1994.