In April 1945 Frederick Mayer, an American Jewish soldier, was working behind enemy lines in Austria trying to save the lives of thousands of Allied soldiers.
Mayer successfully persuaded the Nazi leader of Innsbruck to make a radio speech declaring Innsbruck an open city and asking soldiers in the region to throw down their weapons, and to make himself and his staff prisoners — to Mayer.
This was the same Mayer who, only a few days earlier, was being tortured by interrogators at Gestapo headquarters as an American spy.
The soldier’s audacity and quick thinking would save months of war and untold casualties.
That incident is the highlight of a new book by Patrick K. O’Donnell about five Jewish refugees-operatives titled “They Dared Return.”
The other Jewish members of the OGs (Operation Group) — some of whom remained friends for life — were George Gerbner, a refugee from Hungary; Alfred Rosenthal, a 19-year-old refugee from Germany; Bernd Steinitz from Germany; and Hans Wynberg from Holland.
But Mayer was clearly the star. Born in Germany in 1921, he came to the United States in the late 1930s and enlisted in the Army after Pearl Harbor.
His resourcefulness was legendary. After being parachuted behind enemy lines disguised as a German officer, he was accepted into a wounded officers’ club. Among the intelligence he procured was the exact location of Hitler’s secret headquarters, the time and place where the German leader met his chief of staff every night and the location of his alternate headquarters.
“They Dared Return” starts out slowly, but picks up the pace once the men have been placed behind enemy lines.
The men were members of the OGs, an earlier version of the U.S. Special Forces, who were trained by the Army during World War II “to penetrate enemy lines and strike at the heart of Nazi Germany,” in the words of the men’s commanding officer.
The book lays out some of the early operations of the Office of Strategic Services, the precursor of the CIA. Jewish readers will derive great satisfaction from the feats of these Jewish soldiers.
The crowning achievement is Mayer’s heroics in Innsbruck.
U.S. and British intelligence had feared that a rumored retreat of SS and other elite units to that area — to continue the war from fortified positions in the Alps — would come to fruition. But then Mayer came to the rescue.
“They Dared Return” by Patrick K. O’Donnell (158 pages, Da Capo Press, $26)