By the time World War II had run its course and the Japanese Instrument of Surrender was signed on the 2nd of September 1945, roughly 16 million United States citizens had been part of the largest war in the history of human existence. Battlefields in the European and Pacific theatres were the setting for brave men committing acts of valour, men like Gunnery Sergeant John Basilone and Colonel Chesty Puller, revered and decorated Marines who names are etched into the metaphorical Halls of Montezuma. In contrast, the legacy of some remained as clandestine as the feats they performed. Men like Frederick Mayer.
Born in the German city of Freiburg on the 28th of October 1921, Frederick Mayer’s upbringing occurred in the period between two pivotal moments in his country’s history. His father, Heinrich, was an Iron Cross recipient for heroic actions in the Battle of Verdun during World War I. Heinrich’s time as a Lieutenant in the Imperial German Army was an inspiration to young Frederick and likely played a role in his enlistment later in life.
The Mayer family was German-born but ethnically Jewish. And as Frederick grew older, the sprouting anti-Semitism in post-war Germany started to mature in tandem with him. Not even Heinrich’s decorated service record could be enough of a paid due to their homeland, and so the Mayer’s ended up fleeing Germany in 1938 and finding residence in New York City.
Throughout his time in the US, Mayer found himself working numerous simultaneous jobs, but the tide was turned after a pivotal event in the nation’s history. In his book They Dared Return, author Patrick K. O’Donnell writes,
“Hitler’s December 8, 1941, declaration of war against the United States following the Japanese bombing of Pearl Harbor was a call to arms – and Mayer answered the call. That morning, he promptly showed up at his local recruiting center in Brooklyn. Mayer felt that ‘the United States [had] provided [his family] a haven. I felt a need to give something back.’”
Upon completing boot camp, Mayer received orders to the US Army’s 81st division. He was known amongst the men to have a fighting spirit and a joyful personality, and a strong will to act independently. Along with that, he brought a unique skill set to the Army – fluency in French, English, and German. And as it is common practice within the armed forces, if you have a unique skill set and the right people hear about it, your life can quickly change.
Frederick Mayer ended up being recruited by the Office of Strategic Services (OSS) – an intelligence agency and early precursor to the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA). Mayer was grafted into the Strategic Services Operations (SSO) – a paramilitary force that conducted unconventional missions in highly dangerous places – a similar concept to modern special operations units. While serving in the German Operation Group within the SSO, Mayer was tasked with the mission where he earns his heroic reputation. Operation Greenup.
In 1945, the Nazi regime was nearing its end. As Hitler’s forces were dwindling and his foothold lost, the OSS was using its resources to figure out what the Nazi’s final move could look like. Intelligence and analysis directed eyes to focus on the Brenner Pass – a region of the Alps that cuts southern Austria from Northern Italy. Rumours were swirling about this being the location of the “Alpine Redoubt” – a site for the Nazi’s final stand.
Mayer along with a Dutch operative named Hans Wynberg were inserted into the Alps via parachute off a B-24 Liberator on the evening of the 25th of February 1945. Their mission, titled Operation Greenup, was to conduct intelligence gathering operations around the Austrian city of Innsbruck.
As if that was not daring enough, the pair dropped onto a mountain glacier and proceeded to ski down the pass in the dead of night as an evasive manoeuvre. Upon arrival into Innsbruck, Mayer and Wynberg pretended to be German servicemen that were disconnected from their home units – this allowed them to stay in the local Officers Barracks where they could collect and relay information back to their HQ.
In the nature of any heroic story, Mayer met resistance that almost ruined his mission. After being outed to the Nazi’s like a spy by one of his companions, Mayer was mercilessly tortured by his captors. Upon learning about his identity and status as an OSS officer within the US, the Nazi’s had a change of heart. Mayer requested to be interrogated by Franz Hofer – a high ranking Nazi party leader in the region.
His intent on doing so was for an equal playing field – himself essentially being interrogated by an officer on the same level and not a subordinate. Upon spending time with Mayer, Hofer realized that the best chances of a beneficial surrender (that avoided the Soviets) were to use Mayer to relay a message to his OSS command – a message stating an intent for German surrender.
The legacy of Frederick Mayer goes beyond the coordination of a Nazi surrender. Accounts of his bravery tell stories of how he performed a myriad of special operations in the Brenner Pass that directly impacted the capabilities and strength of the Nazi forces. His actions not only preserved the lives of thousands but also helped organize and coordinate resistance movements behind enemy lines – a true old school cool special operator. Although he was denied the Medal of Honor for his actions, Mayer received the Legion of Merit. After the war, he settled in the state of West Virginia where he lived until his death on the 15th of April 2016 at the age of 95.
Image: Outside the Beltway (link)