In 2009, Quentin Tarantino’s “Inglourious Basterds” hit the big screen. The film shows a small group of American-Jews, led by Brad Pitt, as they hunt and kill Nazis in Vichy France. While Tarantino’s story was revisionist history, it drew from real-life inspirations. There was no group of Nazi hunters called the Bastards. But, a small team of mostly Jewish, European-born men became OSS Agents and wreaked havoc on the Nazi regime from behind enemy lines.
This small crew of covert operators was supported by a handful of women who displayed similar bravery in resisting Nazi rule. Together, they uncovered confidential details of Nazi plans for western Austria. They saved thousands of lives, destroyed tons of Nazi cargo, and even negotiated German surrender.
Frederick Mayer was born in 1921 to a Jewish family living in Freiburg, a small town in the southwest corner of Germany. Frederick’s father was a German war hero, earning the Iron Cross second class for his service to the German Imperial Army. The Mayer family expected to call Germany home for the rest of their lives.
But, in 1933, things began to change. The new Nazi government immediately made life worse for its’ Jewish population. They encouraged boycotts of Jewish-owned shops, including one that belonged to the Mayer family. Frederick later recalled increased tensions amongst his classmates, some of whom insulted him for his ancestry. Despite the strengthening Nazi regime, Frederick was never afraid to fight back.
In 1938, the Mayers picked up their belongings and sailed across the Atlantic for the United States. They lived in New York. Fred worked as a mechanic, and he grew to love the country that took him in. So, in December of 1941, after the attack on Pearl Harbor, Frederick Mayer decided to fight for the Americans. He wanted to kill Nazis.
Fred enlisted in the US Army, shipping off to training in Arizona. His fiery spirit caught the leadership’s attention. They saw in Mayer a willingness to do anything to succeed. In Fred’s words, “war is not fair. The rules of war are to win.” And he was good at winning.
Mayer trained in the typical Army skillset. But, his language skills caught the attention of a small, covert team called the OSS. The Office of Strategic Services was a precursor to the CIA, focusing on intelligence gathering and subversion. Mayer’s fluency in German, French, and Spanish made him an attractive candidate. His knowledge of European culture would allow him to operate with a higher degree of inconspicuousness than his American-born colleagues. So, he was offered the chance to join the OSS on a team of Europeans who would operate behind Nazi lines. It was on this exclusive team that Mayer would meet his right-hand man: Hans Wijnberg.
Wijnberg was born into a Jewish family living in Amsterdam in 1922. Like the Mayers, the Wijnbergs realized that trouble was about to spill into their country. In 1939, shortly before the Nazis invaded, the Wijnberg parents sent Hans and his twin brother to the United States. The rest of the family stayed behind. Over the next several years, Hans received terrible news from across the Atlantic. His country had been invaded, and his family taken to concentration camps. In 1943, Hans Wijnberg learned that his mother and younger brother were being tortured at Auschwitz. That same year, he joined the US Army.
While in training, an officer approached Wijnberg, saying, “We understand you speak German, Dutch and English. Would you like to help your country?” Without hesitation, Hans responded: “Sure.”
At this time, Hans Wijnberg and Frederick Mayer arrived at OSS training camp, becoming fast friends. The two men had contrasting personalities. Hans was loving and peaceful. He saw fighting in the war as the only way to restore peace. Fred, on the other hand, was fiery. He was rough and physical and reveled at the prospect of killing Nazis. At OSS training camp, that’s just what he learned.
The OSS commandeered a congressional country club where they trained young officers in guerilla warfare. The men learned advanced conditioning, knife fighting, hand-to-hand combat, underwater demolition, parachuting, and close-range firearms. Essentially, they were being trained to operate in close quarters behind enemy lines. Their goal was to find any way to disrupt Nazi operations.
But, while the war raged in Europe, Hans and Fred were stationed in North Africa, where there was little room to operate. The OSS was still a secretive organization. Most Army men had no idea it existed, and spilling the beans to the wrong person could be catastrophic. So, Fred quietly asked around until he found an officer with the knowledge and authority to get them a transfer. The officer sent Fred and Hans across the Mediterranean to Bari, Italy— the regional headquarters for intelligence in Europe.
Still not assigned to a clear mission, Fred worked day and night to develop a plan to put himself to good use. Some of these plans were beyond reasonable ambition. In a telling example of Fred’s daring attitude, he attempted to convince his boss, a man named Dino Lowenstein, to airdrop Hans and himself onto Dachau with a crate of weapons. In Fred’s mind, they would distribute the firearms to the prisoners and overtake their Nazi captors. Unsurprisingly, Lowenstein vetoed the plan. Instead, they went with something only slightly less wild.
At the time, a man named Franz Hofer was emerging as a critical leader in the Nazi regime. Hofer was the Nazi Gauleiter, or regional leader, of Tyrol and Vorarlberg, two regions in western Austria sandwiched between Italy and Germany. As such, he controlled the shipping routes between Germany and fascist Northern Italy.
Perhaps more importantly, Hofer also saw himself as the next in line when Hitler fell. His goal was to prolong the war, developing an impenetrable fortress in the Alps from which he could retain control of post-war Germany. He saw his region as the future capital of the German-Austrian mega country.
Frederick Mayer’s plan was to counter Hofer. Together with Hans Wijnberg and Dino Lowenstein, they formulated Operation Greenup. The op had two goals: first, observe and, if possible, disrupt supply routes between Germany and Italy. Second, discover details of Hofer’s Alpine Fortress and the Nazi redoubt.
The first step of Greenup was to find a local informant. Mayer and Lowenstein searched Allied PoW camps for anyone with knowledge of the region. They found the perfect co-conspirator.
Franz Weber was a former Wehrmacht officer who had resigned and defected due to his moral issues with the Nazi regime. Franz was a Catholic German, completely safe from Hitler’s government, but he could not, in good conscience, help them carry out their murderous plans. So, he joined Fred and Hans in taking down Hofer and the Nazis from the inside.
Franz’s Austrian hometown of Innsbruck would serve as the covert base for Greenup. To reach that base, Fred, Franz, and Hans would parachute into the Alps and trek down the mountain into town. The RAF refused to fly the parachuters, protesting that the operation was too dangerous. But, an American pilot agreed to do the flight.
The men were dropped into the Alps, about 3,000 meters above sea level. From there, they hiked into Innsbruck and connected with Franz’s fiance. The woman’s mother had connections throughout town, and she used those connections to hide the three men. At that point, the operation truly began.
Hans, who filled the crucial role of radio and communications operator, tapped out a message to the base in Bari. This would be his role for the duration of the mission. Franz, who had to remain hidden entirely due to his reputation as a deserter, would provide critical intel on the nearby region and communication with helpful locals. Fred was the undercover operative.
But, the three men weren’t the only people involved in the mission. A team of women also played critical roles. Franz’s fiance’s mother, a local community leader, drummed up covert support from a handful of anti-Nazis. Franz’s three sisters also played vital parts. One of them, Luisa, was a nurse at a nearby hospital. One day, shortly after the men arrived, a Nazi officer showed up at the hospital with fatal wounds. Luisa took the man’s uniform, cleaned it, and gave it to Fred.
Fred, now decked in full Nazi garb, walked right into the front door of the barracks in Innsbruck, claiming to be an officer on leave from the front lines. He showed his fellow Nazis papers that Luisa had also taken from the dead officer, establishing his own authority and place in the army. With these papers, Fred got new identification, rations, and local currency. Then, he played the role to the best of his ability.
As far-fetched as it may seem, Fred simply utilized his skill as a world-class conversationalist. He spoke as little as possible, asking leading questions and allowing actual Nazis to spill their secrets— that’s precisely what they did. Over the next couple of months, Fred received intel about border activity, troop movement, train schedules, supply shipments, and training exercises. He even spoke with a Nazi engineer who shared details on the location and layout of Hitler’s bunker in Berlin. All this time, Fred shared the info with Franz’s sisters, who passed it to Hans, who sent it to Bari, who shared it with Army leadership.
Still, in Fred’s eyes, he wasn’t doing enough. So, he took on a side mission to spy on an aircraft factory in the Austrian Alps. The German aircraft company Messerschmidt had designed some of the world’s most capable airplanes, and the Americans needed to know how many the Nazis could produce. Fred asked around the officer’s club about the factory and learned that they were short on skilled labor. So, Fred forged documents saying that he was an electrician and walked right into the factory. Once there, he discovered that the factory was incapable of producing even a single plane due to supply issues.
Another time, Fred walked up to a large train depot, where he counted 26 trains. He spoke to a man working there, who said that all 26 were fully stocked and prepared to deliver supplies to Mussolini’s troops in Italy. The trains would leave in two days. But, before they could take off, Fred passed the info along, and the location was hit by Allied bombs. All 26 trains were destroyed.
By April of 1945, the Russians were on the edge of Berlin, and the Americans were pushing into western Germany. Fred was spending less time in the barracks. He worried that the Nazis were on to him, and he wasn’t entirely wrong. Fred lived with Franz Weber’s sister in Innsbruck until, one night, a squad of Gestapo burst into the house and took him prisoner.
The Gestapo beat Fred to a pulp, asking him where his radio operator lived. By this point, Hans was well-hidden on the fringes of Tyrol. Fred couldn’t take the beating, and he kept a cyanide pill hidden in a fake tooth for this very occasion. He slipped the fatal drug out with his tongue and prepared to bite down on it. Then, he was punched in the stomach, and the pill fell out of his mouth. Suicide was now impossible.
The officers beat Fred within an inch of his life, knocking out most of his teeth. They hung him upside down like a rotisserie chicken on a pole suspended between two tables, continuing to beat him. Fred didn’t give in. Just before he passed out, a Nazi doctor walked into the room. The doctor ordered the Gestapo to cut Fred down. He then dragged Fred to a car and drove off. Barely upright and covered in his blood, Fred was taken to a large mansion up on the mountainside. The doctor led Fred inside to a dining room where six high-ranking Nazi officers were eating. Standing above the room on the balcony was Franz Hofer.
The men peppered Fred with questions. What were the allies thinking? Were they willing to negotiate peaceful surrender?
Hofer had changed his mind about continuing the fight. He wanted immunity and a safe end to the war. Critically, Hofer also believed that Fred was a high-ranking officer. Without any authority to do so, Fred offered Hofer complete immunity in exchange for immediate surrender. He demanded that Hofer declare Innsbruck liberated from Nazi rule.
Finally, with a radio microphone at his mouth, Hofer declared Innsbruck a free city and turned himself in to Fred. Just as Allied troops pushed into the region, expecting a drawn-out battle, Fred arrived with Hofer as his prisoner and declared that he had already accepted a surrender. Rather than a long siege of an Alpine fortress, the war came to a swift end. Franz, Hans, and Fred, with the help of Franz’s family, saved countless lives by avoiding the continued conflict. Hofer was denied the promises that Fred offered him.
In a chilling interview years later, Fred shared a story of meeting the Gestapo officer who had tortured him. Fred went to the prison where the officer was held. The officer told Fred to beat him up all he wanted but begged to spare his family. Fred looked at the pathetic prisoner and said, “What do you think we are? Nazis?” He left the man unharmed.
In Fred’s own words, “I hated the nazis and I loved America. Simple as that. It was a good feeling that we won. A happy ending.”
All three men went on to live long lives well into the twenty-first century. They were awarded for their service to the country and the world. Fred Mayer passed away about five years ago, in April of 2016. Even in his final days, he spoke proudly of the work he had done.
So, what do you think? Do you prefer Tarantino’s Inglourious Basterds? Or the true story of Operation Greenup? What do you think you would do in Fred’s position? Where do humans find the strength and courage to withstand torture and display such bravery? Is it hidden deep inside all of us? Or is it only a rare few who possess such admirable characteristics?