The ‘Moriarty’ Supremacy
How a Yankee genius invented the tools for America’s secret wars
The ‘Moriarty’ Supremacy
How a Yankee genius invented the tools for America’s secret wars
by STEVE WEINTZ
Fifty years ago, Stanley Lovell published a book he’d waited 20 years to write. The reason it took so long: Lovell was once the chief scientist of the Office for Strategic Services (OSS) — the legendary predecessor of the CIA.
Necessarily hedged in by security concerns even in 1963, Lovell’s stories and anecdotes — collected in his memoirs Of Spies & Strategems — paint a lively picture of the astonishing origins of the American way of secretive war, along with sober and forceful arguments for its excesses and restraints.
The story begins with Gen. William “Wild Bill” Donovan, a high-powered and connected lawyer. Donovan had already worked as a personal representative to Pres. Franklin Roosevelt to consult with the Allied powers before the attack on Pearl Harbor. But when the war came to the United States, Donovan used his considerable pull to launch a new clandestine service answerable only to the Joint Chiefs.
While there are a few well-known OSS agents remembered today — most were unknowns or known only as anonymous “Joes” behind enemy lines — all these people needed specialized supplies to stay undercover, produce intelligence and conduct sabotage.
It was that job Donovan handed to Lovell, who went by the nickname “Professor Moriarty.”
“I need every subtle device and every underhanded trick to use against the Germans and the Japanese … you’ll have to invent all of them, Lovell,” Donovan told him. And Lovell did, leaving behind a thriving biochemical company he’d built from scratch.
Lovell had risen from an impoverished, orphaned childhood to his selection by Donovan through grit, drive and education. He needed no patriot’s call to serve a country which had delivered on its promise. But he needed some kind of blessing on the black arts of wartime espionage.
“P.T. Barnum is still a basic hero because he fooled so many people,” Donovan told Lovell. “Outside the orthodox warfare system is a great area of schemes, weapons and plans which no one who knows America expects us to originate because they are so un-American, but once it’s done, an American will vicariously glory in it.”
Unleashing the eggheads during World War II proved riotously creative and often effective.
A book-sized incendiary and an explosive candle (“Shall I light a candle before bed, Monsieur Herr Colonel?”) were early favorites. Another was the “Casey Jones,” a bomb that Italian partisans clamped to railroad car wheels with its strong magnet.
The bomb’s fearsome warning label in the German language deterred removal, while its photoelectric cell triggered the explosion upon registering an abrupt drop in light levels — say, when the railroad car entered a tunnel. Repair trains dispatched to clear the mess carried their own “Casey Jones,” so soon rail tunnels were filling with junk.
American forces in China requested a saboteurs’ explosive that could be easily smuggled around the countryside. “Professor Moriarty” asked explosives expert George Kistiakowski for the solution. Kistiakowski, who created the explosive “lenses” that drove the Fat Man plutonium bomb, came up with a white powder that could be wet with water, mixed with yeast and baked into bread, all without losing its TNT-like power. Lovell named the explosive “Aunt Jemima.”
There were others. The “firefly” was an small incendiary device easily slipped into a vehicle’s gas tank by a pump operator. The gas caused a rubber ring to swell and some chemicals ensured that the whole tank, not just the vapors, exploded.
Out in the Pacific, Marines and soldiers on jungle patrols were stalked by Japanese troops who would pick off the trailing men of a column before they could raise an alert. Lovell’s solution, the “Bushmaster,” was thuddingly simple: a time delay, spring and tube with a .30-cal rifle bullet inside. As a platoon made its way along a trail, soldiers would shinny up trees and attach Bushmasters. Once the timers ended, the bullets went off back down the trail and the trees shook violently, just as if snipers were hiding there. The resulting volley of shots gave the Japanese snipers away.
Ultraviolet light was tried as an invisible beacon signal for clandestine night landings, but it turned out to be too invisible for even friendly forces to see. A chance comment by a colleague to Lovell about cataract patients’ sensitivity to ultraviolet light led to some very brave, elderly heroes riding rubber rafts into dark surf, guiding commandos by their special sight.
Other tricks included camouflaged compartments in buttons and shoes for hiding things, and miniature cameras and microfilm for capturing data. Forged documents became key weapons in the Allied arsenal.
It’s easy to see the necessity for accurately forged identity documents and ration cards, but what about money?
The Axis powers used various forms of special currency in their conquered territories to control both the local economy and the local population. In the Philippines, Japanese authorities marked the occupation currency with regional stamps. A Zamboanga bill spent in Manila could get the user arrested — or worse. Internal travel and concentration were hobbled, making the organizing of resistance difficult.
For this and other “duplication” tasks, Lovell made use of one “Jim the Penman” — a guest of Uncle Sam on leave from a penitentiary — and his extraordinary forging skills. More than an act of Congress, it took Pres. Roosevelt’s personal, deniable authorization to permit the OSS to make so much funny money, and it became something of a diplomatic headache later in the war.
Some ideas Lovell’s team dreamed up seemed to come not from Skull and Bones, but Delta House. When OSS anthropologists noted the extreme shame associated with defecation in Japanese culture, a substance dubbed “Who? Me?” was whipped up, encapsulated and dispatched to Asia, where children delighted in sneaking up behind Japanese officers and spritzing their pants with the strong essence of unwashed rectum.
Over-the-transom ideas were especially zany, often pushed forward by politically-connected enthusiasts.
The Bat Bomb concept came from someone known to Eleanor Roosevelt, who thought he knew about bats. Bats roost under eaves; Japanese buildings are made of paper and wood; if tiny firebombs were attached to a zillion bats and they were released near Tokyo from submarines or planes, the bats would roost under those wooden eaves and (poof!) the whole town would burn down.
The bats were collected at Carlsbad Caverns and carefully fitted with tiny bombs, but either died or flew away instantly, and no one at OSS was terribly sorry.
But this was a deadly serious war and every harmful thing was considered, including gas and assassination. Key figures on all sides were targeted. The Americans assassinated Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto, while the Germans failed to get Winston Churchill. When intelligence reported an upcoming meeting between Hitler and Mussolini at a known location, “Professor Moriarty” proposed and implemented a gruesome scheme.
Armed only with a chemical capsule and a vase of flowers, an agent would enter the meeting room just before the leaders entered. After the agent dropped the capsule into the vase and left, it would release nitrogen mustard gas into the air just as Der Fuerher and Il Duce sat down. The gas attacks the optic nerve, inducing permanent blindness within minutes, and Lovell’s hope was that no one would follow a dictator suddenly stricken blind.
Only a sudden change of schedule prevented the plot from proceeding.
“[W]e had tried and that thinking, by itself, was a new way for America to wage a war,” Lovell writes. “I submit it as more intelligent by far than killing a man in an enemy’s uniform — a man unknown to you, set on killing you only because he is so ordered, but without power or responsibility. You win the game much faster if you checkmate the King and treat the pawns as the relatively unimportant nuisances they are.”
But one weapon was off limits, even in a fight to the death.
Biochemical weapons might be researched and used against individuals, but gas and germs were not used during World War II — outside of China — as weapons of mass destruction.
It wasn’t for lack of trying: the U.S. alone built its chemical warfare stockpile from almost nothing in 1940 to 115,000 tons by 1945. The Germans invented gas warfare and had huge stockpiles of nerve gas available to crush the Normandy invasions. Why didn’t they? Lovell wanted to know and submitted his questions to the interrogators of Hermann Goering, the Nazi air force chief, at Nuremberg.
“The horses,” replied Goering.
The Nazis knew the Allies would retaliate with gas if attacked with gas, and the German armies were short on fuel. The Germans — whose military still relied heavily on horses throughout the war — were terrified their transport system would collapse if the horses got gassed.
This was one piece of intelligence everyone missed.
In early 1944, a British officer submitted a highly classified document at the request of the War Department. He was asked for his assessment of the planned assault on Iwo Jima. The Lethbridge Report forecast 20,000 casualties if the island fortress were taken by conventional means, and recommended a naval bombardment using unmarked gas shells mixed in with regular munitions. After the winds dispersed the gas, the island could be taken easily. Adm. Chester Nimitz and other senior commanders agreed to the plan, but Roosevelt vetoed the operation without explanation.
Lovell darkly wrote that he could never look at the iconic image of Old Glory rising over Mt. Suribachi without thinking of the 23,000 dead and wounded on Iwo Jima, who might have been saved if gas warfare had been authorized.
That same year, Churchill considered a then-abandoned a proposal to begin gas bombing the Reich. Both Roosevelt and Churchill approved many morally questionable acts, but gas warfare was not among them.
Lovell’s original concerns over “un-American” activities eventually came home to roost, when the CIA’s heavy hi-jinks in Southeast Asia and elsewhere rose into public view during the Church Committee hearings in the 1970s. “Blowback” was already a problem for the OSS before the CIA was founded. Some silent guns of Lovell’s own design went missing and turned up in the hands of the Haganah in Palestine, where the British suffered terribly from snipers.
The American public may once have loved P.T. Barnum, and they cheered when the SEALs got Bin Laden, but the debate over the American way of secret war shows Stanley Lovell to have been as prescient as he was brilliantly sinister. Whether Americans want to once again embrace that kind of war is another matter.