exaggerated idea of my ability to speak the language.
Instead, after a few days, they called me back and said they'd
like to have me stay in Harrisburg and teach. I thought that was a
dirty trick, and I was highly indignant, and I said, "No way." And
so when the graduation ceremonies were over, I went back to Santa
Assignment in Europe; Intelligence
O'Brien: I was there only a few weeks, however, when a call came for an
overseas assignment for one intelligence officer. As it happened,
there was another officer at Santa Ana Army Air Base who also
wanted desperately to get overseas. The commanding officer of the
base called us in and said that we were both qualified for the
assignment and he was puzzled as to how to make a choice between
us. He suggested we decide for ourselves - the military mind at
work. So this officer, who was a good friend of mine, and I
repaired to the officers club, asked the bartender for a deck of
cards, shuffled it, and cut for the assignment.
Hicke: Oh, no.
O'Brien: I cut an ace. And within a very few days, I was on my way to
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Hicke: Where is that?
O'Brien: It's in Missouri, outside of St. Louis. I stayed there for perhaps
three weeks, going through what was called the staging process,
drilling troops, which I had enjoyed at Santa Ana Army Air Base,
and putting together a replacement squadron of various enlisted
specialists, for whom there was a special call from the Eighth Air
Force. As a consequence, when my squadron got put together, it had
eight first sergeants and all sorts of technicians, radar
specialists, and so on.
Eventually we went to a base in New Jersey, and from there, we
were put aboard a British ship, along with a lot of other troops,
to sail for England. On the day of our departure, I got a telegram
from the adjutant general that I had been promoted to my captaincy.
We had a rough voyage over. I bunked with the radar officer.
We were in a large convoy, and he used to come home at night with
all these terrifying stories about the attacks that had been
launched on the convoy from various directions . My squadron was
down in about the fifth hold of the ship. I thought the British
were totally indifferent to the welfare of the enlisted personnel
on the ship, so I posted a watch on every companionway for twenty-
four hours a day in the hope that if we got hit, some of my men
would get out of that deep hold and up those companionways with a
little advice and help from officer's watch that I posted. The
Brits thought I was nuts. So we had an officer roster, and each of
us stood watch trying to make sure if we had any episode or
incident of that sort, that we could get our men out of the ship.
Fortunately we never got hit.
I want to tell you, I was very glad to see Liverpool when we
arrived. We disembarked and marched through the streets of
Liverpool and got on a British train, and I delivered my squadron
to a brand-new air base way up in the northeast corner of England,
somewhere on The Wash. Then I was detached and sent to an officers
reassignment center in Newcastle.
Hicke: Your taking a squadron over was a temporary duty?
O'Brien: Yes, just to command a squadron on the ship.
Hicke: To get them over there?
O'Brien: To get them there. And they were not an ordinary squadron, because
there were enough first sergeants for a regiment.
Hicke: It must have been an interesting squadron.
O'Brien: I hung around this replacement center for a few days, and
ultimately orders came for me to go to Ireland, of all places. I
was profoundly disappointed with that, because it seemed to me
about as remote from the war as had Santa Ana Army Air Base - but
there was no alternative. So I took a train up to Scotland, and
caught a boat across the Irish Sea, got to Belfast, and then drove
a jeep to a place called Mullighamore, God forbid - I can't even
Hicke: Well, I can find it on a map probably.
O'Brien: Yes. It was in the County of Londonderry, and it was a brand-new
base. The only personnel on the base were the surviving members of
the 82nd Airborne Division that had just been pulled out of Italy
after a big jump, and they were in bad shape. The place was
commanded by an absolute wild man, and after I had been there a few
days, I was determined I was not going spend any longer there than
I could possibly manage. So I asked him for permission to go to
the command headquarters of that command - it was called the
Composite Command of the Eighth Air Force.
I drove across Ireland in a absolute pouring, drenching rain,
to the headquarters of this command, which was kind of a casualty
of the war itself. It had originally been put together for a very
dangerous and secret mission and had been manned by some very
capable and skillful people: many regular officers and some very
high-class, and high-ranking, officers. At the last minute before
that mission was to be carried off, as often happens in war, the
situation changed, and the whole thing was called off. These
people were left high and dry in Ireland. They were mighty unhappy
and, to some degree, discouraged, depressed, if not disaffected.
Anyway, I did the biggest sales job I could think of about how
much they needed my services in that command headquarters, and
after being there for two or three days, they cut an order
transferring me to that headquarters. So I went back to
Mullighamore and collected my few possessions. My footlocker had
been lost coming overseas, and I was living a very hand-to-mouth
Fortunately I was only there for a few months when I was
transferred to an air base at Cheddington, near Tring, in England,
which became the command headquarters of this same command. It was
an operational base for the Eighth Air Force, and we began to
regroup. The command began to hand out assignments for a variety
of secret missions involving people and special operations on the
continent. I got involved in some of those. Sometime in 1944, I
was transferred to Headquarters of the Strategic Air Forces.
Hicke: Where was that?
O'Brien: That was outside of London. I moved into the huge house with all
of the top generals of the American Air Force it was near
Wimbledon. Maybe it was at Bushy Park; I've kind of forgotten.
Bushy Park was where Eisenhower's SHAEF headquarters was located.
SHAEF was Supreme Headquarters Allied Expeditionary Forces.
My boss was an extraordinary man by the name of Huntington
Sheldon. He was American but had been born in Paris and raised in
England. Indeed, he had gone to Eton, become the racquets champion
of England, belonged to all the best clubs in the Vest End
Brooks and Boodles and he and I spent many happy hours there.
Hicke: I was just going to ask if you were a tennis player.
O'Brien: No. He also was the Fives champion at Eton. Fives is a game which
began, perhaps, in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries among Eton
students. It was a sort of handball, played up by the little boys
against the sides of the chapel while they were waiting for chapel.
The buttresses of the chapel came out and made sort of a natural
court, except in the one corner there was a drain hole, and then
there's a step in the middle of the court. Over the centuries,
they built courts just like that at Eton, and my friend Huntington
Sheldon, who had been the Fives champion at Eton, had several
courts named after him.
It's just like handball, except that it's played against the
side courts (the walls of the extended buttresses) as well as the
front court, but with a step in the middle of the court, and "dead
man's corner," which was the drain.
Post-Hostility Section; Rescuing Scientific Technology
O'Brien: In any event, he became the officer in charge of what was called
the post-hostility section, which was designed to think about what
would happen at the end of the war. I, as an intelligence officer,
was assigned the task of drawing a plan - an intelligence plan.
I began to have the wild surmise that this was an unparalleled
opportunity in history to exploit the whole continent of Europe for
intelligence, by which I meant first, operational intelligence
against the Japanese, since they were part of the German orbit. Ve
knew they had exchanged information about their military
capabilities, their productive capabilities for weapons, the
locations of their aircraft factories, et cetera, and personnel.
That would be of an immediate operational interest as the European
war wound down.
But in perhaps even more important terms, the winding down of
the war would give us an opportunity for the exploitation of all of
the very high-level scientific and research secrets of the Germans.
Ve knew a good deal about German research through intelligence
channels: locations of research centers, and so on. Over a period
of a month or two - took me a long time to formulate my ideas - I
finally drew a plan, which served as the basis of this operation.
Then we began to try to accumulate the people to man such a
scheme. It was obvious that the military would not, by itself,
have the technological, the scientific capability of exploiting
these research centers by themselves, and so it was necessary from
time to time to recruit very high-level scientists from the United
States to man some of these somewhat chancy missions.
So we followed right on the heels of the invasion of the
continent. As soon as the allied armies had moved across onto the
continent after D-Day, we followed with our technical exploitation
teams at selected targets, where we knew that high-level research
had been done.
Hicke: Was there some kind of provision made to try to spare these - were
they offices or labs or some such thing?
O'Brien: Veil, not really. But they were not military targets, so they, for
the most part, were not damaged in the war. They were damaged by
some of the displaced people who had been forced to work in them:
the people who had been hauled around the face of the earth, and
were slave labor in some of these places, doing all sorts of menial
tasks. Promptly after they were liberated, the first thing they
attempted to do was to attack and destroy the scientific machines.
In any event, that was the theory of it. Ve had some notable
successes, fortunately, in the early days after the invasion. As a
consequence. Dr. Von Karman, the chief of scientific advisors to
General [Henry "Hap"] Arnold, who was the head of the Air Force,
visited me in London. I began to get very high priorities for
moving my people into targets and developing a much more
sophisticated intelligence system as to what were most important
targets and what were the highest priorities.
One of the first targets we hit, which resulted in our getting
these priorities, was a target in the Low Countries. The captured
material I had couriered back to Vashington immediately. After
being appraised and evaluated in Vashington, it was said to have
resulted in saving a couple hundred million dollars in research
1943. Cheddington Air Base, England. Office
of Intelligence staff. O'Brien, center, standing.
that we might otherwise have had done in the United States. But
the results of that research were there, done by the Germans.
Hicke: Would this have been with rockets and that sort of thing?
O'Brien: All sorts of things, yes. So then, until the end of the war and
for many months afterwards, I had the fascination of helping to
direct this show under my boss, and under a very understanding,
intelligent general, who was the chief intelligence officer of the
Strategic Air Forces in Europe, General George McDonald someone
should write his biography - under whose auspices we ran a show
all the way from Scandanavia to North Africa, playing cops and
robbers with all of the secret radar, aerodynamics, optics,
rockets, scientific intelligence of the enemies at a later stage,
and technological achievements. Ve had an eight-story building
in London, which became a documents center. Ve had there twenty
librarians from the United States. Ve got the equipment together,
we catalogued this material, duplicated it, gave copies to our
British friends, had airplanes flying documents back and forth
across the channel to London where they would be fed into this
library system, if you like. Much of it highly classified
Hicke: Where were you spending most of your time?
O'Brien: Veil, I was living outside of Paris, but I had a flat in London. I
got very tired of living with the generals in Bushy Park, being -
by then I was a major, I guess, at that time, so I -
Hicke: You would probably have to salute every time you turned around.
O'Brien: Right. I was sitting well below the salt, and I got very tired of
standing up and sitting down. It was sort of "Yes sir, no sir,
three bags full. "
So I got permission to move from the generals. Vith the help
of a delightful British solicitor named Ballentine - who
represented the Standard Oil Company of California in many of its
early negotiations in the Middle East in the acquisition of the
Bahrain concession - I was able to find a comfortable room in
which to live in a modern hotel in London, which was an absolute
miracle. Nobody could believe that I had lucked into this
comfortable room in what was then a new hotel called Atheneum Court
on Picadilly, right across from Green Park.
Hicke: Obviously there wasn't much in the way of living quarters in London
at that time.
O'Brien: No. Things were getting knocked down, and people were being
evacuated from London, and so on. After D-Day, when I was on the
continent a lot, I continued to keep that flat. I was gone for a
couple of years, so London began to seem like home, and I could
leave all my stuff there.
But I did live in a beautiful home for a while with a lot of
other officers in St. Germain outside of Paris, on the estate of
one Mr. Gervais, the cheese manufacturer in France, with lovely
formal gardens. And then we established another base in Wiesbaden,
and I had a place to live there. So I led kind of a triangular
life London, Paris, Wiesbaden and I was back and forth all
By then I had a card which enabled me to commandeer an
airplane whenever I needed one, and I flew a lot with this General
McDonald, who had been one of the original Hap Arnold, Billy
Mitchell, wild-blue-yonder boys himself.
Hicke: That must have been exciting.
O'Brien: Yes. It was kind of hair-raising.
Hicke: Yes, that's what I meant.
O'Brien: He had an RAF pilot for his own private airplane. But a general
officer, in the Air Force had the right to check himself out of an
airfield no matter what the weather.
Hicke: Oh, he did the actual flying?
O'Brien: Yes, and this RAF pilot, too. But even if the weather report says
zero/zero [visibility], he would decide he was going to go anyway,
Hicke: And you went along?
O'Brien: And I was along. So we'd first go down the deck to see whether you
could see anything, and if not, then we'd go up as high as his
plane would go to see if you couldn't break out of the overcast. I
finally got so I could go to sleep. The plane was dolled up with a
berth, which was for the general, but I couldn't stand looking out
the window wondering whether we were about to hit a mountain or
plunge into the sea.
Anyway, I stayed on doing this until December of '45. By
then, most of the material had been collected, transportation
arrangements had to be made. I got the British, at one time, to
give us a carrier, and we picked some of the most esoteric examples
of German technology and put it on the carrier and shipped it back
to the United States.
A few very remarkable things were flown from England back to
Wright Field. Ultimately, the documents that had been collected in
the document center in London found their way into the Technical
Intelligence Archives of the American Air Force.
In the end, I represented the Air Force in the negotiations
with the British Air Ministry as to the division, if you like, of
the loot. We began with a whole bunch of generals on both sides,
air chief marshals and ranking generals, and the British absolutely
clobbered us, because they were so skillful at negotiations that
within a few minutes they'd have the American generals arguing with
each other. That seemed a big catastrophe to me, so we kept
getting the groups smaller and smaller, and I finally succeeded in
being named as the single American negotiator, and I negotiated the
final deal with a British counterpart.
The British had a marvelous intelligence service; they taught
us a great deal. We had the advantage of them in the sense that,
in relative terms, we had unlimited money. While they had to
decide on particular equipment to go ahead and build it and use it,
we could keep experimenting on the basis of what we learned from
their equipment, and continue to improve and refine all sorts of
technical advances - as, for example, airborne radar.
Well, I notice that you got the Legion of Merit, the Bronze Star,
the Croix de Guerre [with Silver Star], perhaps others I don't know
about, but that was all for that work?
Yes. One of the things I monitored when I was in the Composite
Command was in relation to the French Resistance. There was a
highly sophisticated system that had to do with rescuing our downed
fliers in Europe. They were fed into a pipeline, and ultimately
out of the nonoccupied countries.
Yes, an underground. And I had some piece of that for a while. So
when it was possible to go into Paris where I spent V-E Day and a
few days thereafter, I looked up a lot of those people who had
risked their lives for American fliers. I made some life-long
You know, it's kind of par for the course for Americans to be
highly critical of the French, and vice versa, particularly now.
And yet if you lived through World War II, and saw the tragedy of
the downfall and defeat of France and its occupation, and also saw
the absolutely unlimited courage of some Frenchmen to help the
Allies and the American fliers, it makes you hesitate to be so
There wasn't any great future in trying to help an American
flyer. If you were a French farmer and a fellow came down in a
parachute and you hid him in your house and you got caught, they'd
just lock you, your wife, and your children inside of it and burn
it down. It was not calculated to add to your longevity. So it
was a very touchy thing to run such a thing, and I met some of the
people who were actively engaged in that.
You may remember, we were reading the German messages - it
was called "Ultra."
I was just going to ask you if you were involved in breaking the
O'Brien: No, I wasn't involved in that at all, but I was on the receiving
end of the information. So having sent a lot of other people to a
lot of interesting places, we learned that [Hermann] Goering had
moved the main body of his general staff to a secret headquarters
in Bavaria. I decided I couldn't resist that one.
In the final days of the war, Hitler and Goering had a great
falling-out. They had made an arrangement when Hitler was in the
bunker, or maybe even a little before, that if he got absolutely
surrounded and couldn't escape, he would send a message to Goering,
and Goering would then officially succeed Hitler as Die Fuhrer, and
lead the. troops to a final victory. They still had hundreds of
thousands of troops in the Hartz mountains, and Goering was
supposed to lead them in one last, great Gotterdammerung.
You remember that General Eisenhower did not go to Berlin for
the armistice signing ceremonies. He sent Beedle Smith, and
Eisenhower stayed with his troops, because he was fearful of a
flank attack from the great number of German troops still up there
in the mountains. And, also, he didn't want to have a
confrontation with General Zhukof, the commanding general of the
Russian force, in Berlin.
In any event, I flew to Salzburg in a plane with a jeep on it.
Another fellow - German- speaking - and I tooled off across the
country looking for this headquarters staff of the German Air
Force. We worked our way down through the country. The German
soldiers were pouring out of the mountains, and we drove through
them. We kept getting pointers: "They're there; they're over that
way." We finally got down into Austria to a little place called
Zellam See, and lo and behold, that's where they were.
They were just waiting. The war was essentially over. This
guy and I drove up to the little inn that they had turned into
their headquarters; there was a German sentry there. I said I
wanted to see General Von Kohler, who, by then had succeeded
Goering as the commanding general of the Air Force - he had been
appointed in the final days of the war by Hitler. There's an
intervening story which I'll tell you; that's kind of interesting.
Anyway, Von Kohler came into the dining room that they had
turned into a war room with all their maps and the battle lines and
the locations of their ground forces and all that stuff, and I
asked him to send immediately for the personnel general. I've
forgotten his name now but he came in, very high ranking officer.
For effect, I had my associate lay down a chart which was the
result of the intensive intelligence efforts from day one of the
war both by the British and the Americans. I spread out this chart
of the structure of their headquarters, with the names of all the
people who occupied the positions in their headquarters, and this
German general looked at it for a moment, and said, "It's a lot
better than mine." Anyway I stayed with them for a few days.
Hicke: Was he just there? He wasn't under arrest?
O'Brien: No. They were waiting for somebody - some representative of
American forces, or some enemy force - to come and officially take
possession of them.
That first day, I walked through the headquarters out onto the
lawn in the back, which led down to a lovely little jewel of a
lake, and there they were. There were about sixty or seventy
German generals there, full uniforms, decorations, and side arms,
just waiting - strolling up and down arm-in-arm, waiting for
somebody to come and officially end the war.
Hicke: That's fascinating.
O'Brien: I might have been a major or a lieutenant colonel by then, maybe -
in any event, I was very greatly out-ranked.
So I stayed there for a couple of days with them. I took
their personnel charts. I sat down and I said, "I want to know the
whereabouts of everybody on this staff." Some had disappeared;
some had been sent off on special missions and never returned; some
had been killed; some had been taken prisoner, I guess, but most of
them were still there. I had had this idea for a long time that I
wanted to keep that staff together as a staff, intact, with all of
the leading generals there and all of their principal colleagues
and associates, and then bring over from the Pentagon their
opposite numbers from the American Air Force so they could refight
the war: "When you did this?" "Why did you do that?" et cetera.
O'Brien: And I knew there would be a great effort to grab off these people,
to pull everyone in different directions - the Signals people
would want to talk to the Signals man, you know, and all that sort
of business. So after I had done my best to locate them - I still
have in my papers their chart of their headquarters staff with my
notes on it - I flew to SHAEF, to Eisenhower's headquarters, and
was fortunate enough to get to see Beedle Smith, who was his
deputy. He gave an order that the staff should be kept intact and
not pulled to pieces.
They then appointed an American general who had just come over
from the training command - a major general - to be the official
representative of the American side. He and I and some other
officers - some of his entourage - flew back and met these people
again at Zellam See. Then we moved them, in their trucks and ours,
back to Berchtesgaden, where they had had a secret headquarters dug
into the mountains .
Hicke: The Eagle's Nest.
O'Brien: Yes. Well, the Eagle's Nest was nearby, but this was a big
compound of buildings disguised as a girls' school. It had a big
signals center, and it had gates and walls around it, so it was a
good place - one that they were familiar with, it was their
headquarters. And there we disarmed them.
Then as time wore on we were fortunate to find their papers,