In February 1943, Elmer Harris ’42 arrived in North Africa on a top-secret assignment. World War II was at its height. Germany had invaded France, Denmark, and the Soviet Union, and the United States was fighting Japanese forces in the Pacific.
Nazi troops, led by General Erwin Rommel, were rapidly taking territory in northwestern Africa. To stop them, the Allies, under commanding general Dwight David Eisenhower had moved their headquarters from London to Algiers to fight Axis occupation.
Harris, who was known to his friends as “Pinky,” was under orders to collect munitions and meet up with Jerry Sage ’38, his old classmate from Washington State College. Sage had already been in the region several months, making trouble for the Nazis.
They were stationed in Algeria near Tunisia and the Kasserine Pass. Both men worked for Roosevelt’s secret army, the Office of Strategic Services (OSS), and both had been given very general orders: Do what you can to slow down the Germans.
Sage and his crew were harassing Rommel’s forces by blowing up supplies and soldiers behind enemy lines. They would set bombs in the road and then bury them under a pile of manure, making them nearly invisible to the Italian and German soldiers driving through. “It was a job you did on the spot. And to get what [equipment, manpower, and munitions] you needed, you begged, borrowed, or stole,” said Harris, one of several OSS agents who attended Washington State, and the only one of the five who figure in this story to be still alive.
On this particular mission, Sage was planning to “do a sabotage job” on the front lines in Kasserine Pass to weaken the German forces and help an American combat command. He arrived to find that the command had already been outgunned by German Tiger tanks. He decided to take a few men and get behind enemy lines through a flank being held by a British outfit. He and his men wove their way into a German minefield. They were spotted and tried to run, hoping the British would fire on the Germans to give them cover. Instead, two German shells exploded just above them. One man was hit in the leg and head with shrapnel; Sage was hit in the leg and shoulder, but he could still move. He dragged the man as far as he could, then promised to come back for him after dark. Crawling a short distance away, he lay in a depression in the sand, hoping the Germans wouldn’t spot him. It didn’t work. Fortunately, he managed to jettison his guns, dagger, and other spy equipment before his captors loaded him into a tank. Had he kept them, they would have known he was a spy, and would have killed him.
As Harris drove up the road for his meeting with Sage just a half hour later, a local who was a member of Sage’s crew came zooming toward him in a jeep, shouting, “Mr. Harris, Mr. Harris! Major Sage is captured!”
“I’ll never forget that,” Harris said during a recent interview at his home in Edmonds. “I missed him by half an hour.”
Over the next few days Sage made several attempts to escape. He even tried to steal a truck. He and two other prisoners managed to slip out of a moving train, only to stagger through the desert and get caught and handed back to the Germans. Sage was again able to escape detection as a spy when the two other prisoners, who were airmen, told the Germans he was their commander, leading them to believe he was a pilot.
Harris, meanwhile, returned to his station, where he was set up to train American and guerilla spies to parachute behind enemy lines and bring information back to Allied troops.
The Washington State connection
Sage and Harris weren’t the only men from Washington State College to end up in our country’s first secret service agency. At least three more trained with them and served in critical wartime posts in China, England, and France.
Sage was among the first to join. The Spokane native was handpicked because of his efforts training recruits on the West Coast, his athleticism, and his readiness to use his fists. An ROTC student and first lieutenant in the Army Reserve, he sought active duty in 1941, believing that the United States would soon join the fight against the Nazis. He reported for duty early and was quickly placed in command of a field bakery platoon. He trained his men to carry rifles in their hands and ovens on their backs. But that assignment didn’t last long. He was pulled into an officer training school at Fort Lewis, and just a few weeks later was called across the country to Washington, D.C.
He arrived to find himself in a private meeting with William Donovan, a Medal of Honor winner from the First World War whom President Roosevelt had appointed chief of the intelligence community. Donovan, then operating under the title of coordinator of information, was just starting to shape the Office of Strategic Services.
He told Sage he had a job for him as agent, saboteur, and possibly assassin. To Sage, it sounded exciting. It was a chance to take action against the Axis forces. “I’m aboard. Yes, sir,” Sage told Donovan.
His first stop was a secret training camp called Area B on Catoctin Mountain in Maryland. Sage learned hand-to-hand combat, how to use a fighting knife, and how to kill silently. He was made an assistant instructor. From that perch, he saw his WSC classmates filter in. Chris Rumburg ’38, a farm boy from eastern Washington who was student body president and played center on the football team when Sage played end, showed up among the first military officers to be trained as instructors. Along with him came Joe Collart ’39, who had been a diver and member of the Washington State gymnastics team. Collart used his engineering education and Rumburg’s brawn to build a confidence course for the camp. They erected a structure of tall logs with crossbeams to help the men overcome fear and vertigo at great heights.
At the camp, Harris, who was living nearby and training with the Marines, ran into Rumburg, and they went out and had a night on the town together. Not long after that, Harris’s name somehow made it onto the OSS list. Besides being a trusted friend of several other agents, Harris had a good Marine career going, and had broken many shooting records while training at Pendleton. His years growing up and hunting in Ketchikan may have given him the gun smarts that served him so well in the Marines. “Well, on your ninth birthday you got a gun,” he said.
Harris’s former fraternity brother, Arden Dow ’40, also joined the trainees at Area B. “Donovan and Roosevelt decided they should have a secret force that wasn’t tied to just the Army or the Navy,” said Harris. “They could get anybody they wanted. I don’t know who pulled me out of the Marine Corps, but someone did.”
The men learned how to change their appearance, how to handle all kinds of weapons and explosive devices, and how to tell if their rooms or luggage had been searched. They also learned how to jump out of airplanes and collect strategic information from behind enemy lines. Some, including Sage, were sent to England to refine their spycraft under the guidance of their British counterparts.
When the Americans joined the Allied efforts during World War II, the new OSS agents were ready to go.
Agents of history
Rumburg, who spent the early part of the war training new agents at the Catoctin camp, was eager for a mission overseas, said Harris. He was made an officer and given a command leading men into France from England. Sadly, he never made it to France. On Christmas Eve 1944, Rumburg was crossing the English Channel with more than 2,000 servicemen on a converted Belgian passenger liner, the S.S. Leopoldville, when the ship was hit by a German U-boat torpedo five miles off the coast of France. Rumburg hurried below decks to help save the hundreds of American soldiers waiting there. Witnesses say he threw off his coat and dove into the icy water that was filling the boat to rescue a soldier who was calling for help. Harris said that was the last he heard of Chris. “I talked to
three people about it. They said he was on the third deck, and his crew was down on the lower deck. He went down below to get the crew out because they got torpedoed, and he was never seen again.” Although nearly 800 U.S. soldiers were killed in the incident, the full story of the Leopoldville wasn’t made public until 1996. It was suppressed, according to several historians, because the Allied governments were embarrassed that so little had been done to save the soldiers on the sinking ship.
Arden Dow became a senior OSS officer in China. For a time he was a deputy in charge of OSS/SACO affairs. SACO (the Sino-American Cooperative Organization) was an effort to join U.S. and Chinese soldiers in a force to fight the Japanese. American soldiers integrated themselves into Chinese culture, learned the language, and moved into Chinese communities.
Dow appears in the history books as a witness to a diplomatic faux pas that could have destroyed the relationship between the OSS and Chinese nationalist forces. According to OSS in China: Prelude to Cold War, by Maochun Yu, an American brigadier general went to Chungking in 1944 to meet with the two SACO leaders, U.S. Navy commander Milton Miles and Chinese general Tai Li. The meeting went smoothly, but afterward, at a welcoming party that Li gave in the general’s honor, the relationship fell apart. Dow gave his account in an urgent top-secret report to Washington, explaining that the general drank during the meal, said disparaging things about Chiang Kai-shek and his wife, and denigrated the Chinese people and their culture during a vulgar and racist two-hour tirade.
Dow later apologized to Li for the incident, at which point the Chinese leader vented his anger. The whole SACO effort was in danger, Dow told his superiors in Washington. Fortunately Miles and Dow’s superiors were able to repair relations.
Later in the war, Dow traveled deep into China to gather information about potential enemy forces and to train guerilla fighters.
Harris was assigned to the parachute school in Kungming, so he was close by when a team brought Dow out of his station deep in country. It took him days to unwind and return to normal, said Harris. But the presence of Dow’s old friend helped him adjust. When Dow went home to the states, he became a teacher, Harris recalls.
Joe Collart joined the IX Engineer Command, which built airfields in England during the war, according to public records. Later he became a colonel in the U.S. Army and took part in Army construction projects in Vietnam. After a long military career, he retired and returned to Washington. He passed away in 1999.
After his capture at Kasserine Pass, Sage was sent to Germany, where he sat out the war in Stalag Luft III, the POW camp made famous by the movie The Great Escape. The character of the American soldier played by Steve McQueen was based, in part, on Sage, who spent many hours in the cooler and was constantly trying to break out. In one attempt, he squeezed out of a moving ambulance. Preparing for another, he was playing catch with a fellow prisoner and tossed the ball close to the fence to find a spot where he wouldn’t be seen from the guard towers.
Besides persisting in his attempts to escape, he taught fellow prisoners some of his OSS skills, including the art of silent killing. He writes in his autobiography, Sage, about the tunneling efforts for which the camp is famous. He explains that crowds of prisoners, presumably gathered to take self-defense classes, would provide cover for men transferring excavated dirt from the tunnels. They would then dump the dirt on the ground through their pantlegs. The other prisoners would shuffle about and disperse the dirt into the surrounding sand.
Sage finally managed to escape in 1944, toward the end of the war. During a prisoner march between camps, he buried himself in a pile of rutabagas at a farm where they were spending the night, and was overlooked the next morning by the German guards. “This final escape was the easiest of any I had attempted,” he wrote. Sage took several months to make his way out of Europe and travel back to North Africa before heading home. One of the first things he did when he got to Washington, D.C. was call Ernie Krom, a buddy from WSC who was enlisted in the Navy, and invite him to dinner. Sage went on to a career in the Army, and in 1985 published his account of his time in the OSS. He died in 1993.
And what of Pinky Harris?
After missing his meeting with Sage in 1943, he went back to Algiers to train agents to parachute behind enemy lines. He was stationed close to Eisenhower’s headquarters—close enough to trade daily greetings with the future president. He was also close enough to pick up bits of information to pass on to parachutists infiltrating enemy lines. When Eisenhower turned his focus on Sicily, Harris and his crew parachuted in first to spy on the Germans and Italians.
As U.S. forces pushed farther into Europe, Harris and his team went too. He eventually ended up in Italy, then India, Burma, and finally China. He remained attached to the parachute school throughout, and made a number of jumps out of B17s and B24s.
After the war, he left the service and moved back to Washington with his wife and college sweetheart, Betty. They settled in Seattle. This year, Harris turned 90, and he and Betty celebrated their 65th wedding anniversary.
At its peak, the OSS was a $43-million-a-year operation and stationed 7,500 men and women overseas. But politics and power struggles in Washington, D.C. brought it to an end. In 1945, Donovan was released from his duties, and the OSS was broken apart. The secret intelligence and special operations pieces were given to the War Department. And the foundation, networks, allies, and operations the OSS had established became the beginnings of the Central Intelligence Agency. Some agents stayed on to work for the CIA, while many others, like Harris, went back to civilian life.
Harris is still amazed that he and almost all his Washington State classmates survived the war and came home to lead normal lives, have jobs, and raise families. “A lot of times I got in a place and said, ‘What am I doing here?'” he said. “We were so damn lucky, it wasn’t even funny.”