Cold War Stories Dad Told Me
Encounters on the conflict’s fringes
Dad didn’t save the Free World or create The Next Big Thing, but he loves to recall his brushes with the folks who did. His twice-told tales bind the 20th century to the present through one man’s life and memory.
Now in his sunset years, Dad needs a little company around the house when Mom’s away. We have occasion to talk. He takes an interest in our work here at War is Boring and opened up the other night about his own encounters with the world at war.
Pointing to a framed document on the wall, Dad invoked his grandfather and the dawn of the American Century. Great-Grandfather C served Presidents McKinley and Teddy Roosevelt and knew Thomas Edison.
Dad recalled his boyhood home of Huntington, New York, during World War II. A July 4 parade featuring a few aged Civil War veterans and the roar of brand-new PT boats fresh from the slipways of the nearby shipyard.
His older brother Fred trained as a B-17 navigator. A prep-school teacher of his designed the cold-weather uniforms for the U.S. Army’s 10th Mountain Division.
One day during the Eisenhower years, Dad was asked to report to a certain address for an interview. His newly-minted Stanford degree and prep background appealed to a certain agency. Besides, Uncle Sam already owned him—he’d just been drafted.
“I walked in to a building on Madison Avenue in New York City and was told to go upstairs,” Dad says. “At the top of the stairs was a door with a note card thumbtacked to it.
“The card read, ‘Come in, Mr. W, and sit down at the table. Someone will be with you shortly.’ So I did and a guy comes in and hands me a test and a pencil and tells me to take the test.”
After Dad finished up, the man collected the test and departed. He soon returned. “Mr. W, Thank you for coming in today,” he told my father. “After reviewing your test two things strike us.”
Dad relishes this part. “First, your excellent command of English and ability to express yourself are credits to your education. Second, to judge from your test score, you don’t know a hammer from a nail, do you?”
Dad admits he didn’t, at least in regards to what the test asked for. “So the man said, ‘Well, since we want to win the next war, I’m afraid we won’t need your talents. Again, thank you for coming.’ And that was how the CIA found me and tossed me!” he laughs.
In the mid-1960s, Dad brokered stocks in downtown L.A. and lunched at the Jonathan Club. A Navy guy—let’s call him “Gill”—lunched there too, and the two struck up a friendship.
Gill was something brand new—a SEAL, one of the Navy's new special forces based out of San Diego. He couldn’t talk a lot about what he did, but you knew it was James Bond stuff.
Gill took Dad up in a Cessna and at one point handed over the stick. Dad white-knuckle piloted while Gill casually pointed out the Navy and Marine jets whooshing up from North Island and Miramar.
Years later, Dad says, Gill recounted an incident from those days. He’d tracked down a Montagnard triple agent in the Vietnamese Highlands with orders to kill him. Gill and the Montagnard hung out and played cards while Gill waited for confirmation of his orders.
As he’d expected, the orders changed several times as higher-ups waffled. In the meantime, he and his target played cards and got to like each other. Gill’s last orders rescinded the execution and he left the mountains with clean hands.
Man in the gray flannel suit
Our family got roughed up during the recessions of the 1970s. After Dad’s stockbroker career tanked, he stayed afloat until he secured a position at Lockheed. He became investment counsel for Lockheed’s pension system, a job he held for nearly 20 years.
At Lockheed he rubbed elbows with legends Kelly Johnson and Ben Rich, designers of the U-2 and SR-71 spy planes. Shortly after Dad started at Lockheed, he casually mentioned the F-117 stealth fighter in the executive dining room.
“The instant hush and staring eyes told me something was amiss,” Dad says ruefully. “My tablemate said under his breath, ‘George, we don’t usually discuss such things at lunch.’”
Al Ulmer, whom Dad hired to run some money for Lockheed’s pension investments, turned out to be a former OSS agent. Along with his financial acumen came a storehouse of yarns right out of a thriller.
During World War II, he posed as a Gestapo major and reported back to future CIA Director Allen Dulles in Berne. After the war he funneled U.S. support into Greece against the Communists. Later with the CIA, he tried to engineer an uprising against Sukarno in Indonesia.
“One time I was in London to meet with our money guys over there,” Dad says with delight, “and Al took me to lunch at his club—White’s I think. It was still a dangerous time then, the late ’80s.”
“A friend of Al’s joined us, a short guy with a neat mustache, and the two of them compared notes on dining in France. You know, where to position one’s aides in a restaurant for clear lines of fire. Seats near the exits. That sort of thing.”
Dad retired from Lockheed Martin at the end of the 20th century. His efforts delivered retirements to tens of thousands of defense employees, the people who helped win the Cold War.
Dad didn’t serve presidents or excel on Wall Street as others have done in his line, but his gift for meeting interesting people kept him close to the secret heart of his era. His stories capture and preserve the flavor of that secret heart as it recedes into history.