Frederick Mayer:  Leader of the Real ‘Inglourious Basterds’

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In 2009 Quentin Tarantino made Inglourious Basterds, a fantasy revenge movie about a group of Jewish American soldiers in World War II whose sole purpose was to kill Nazis.  But in yet another example of truth being stranger than fiction, I give you Sergeant Frederick Mayer, leader of Operation Greenup and the inspiration behind the real ‘Inglorious Basterds’.

By the Winter of 1945 it became clear that the Nazis were in retreat.  However American intelligence believed they were building a stronghold of underground fortresses in the Tirol region of Austria, outside of Innsbruck, that would allow them to continue fighting and killing for months and maybe years.  So the Office of Strategic Services (OSS), the precursor to the Central Intelligence Agency, devised Operation Greenup—a plan that asked three American soldiers to parachute into the Austrian Alps and clandestinely make their way into Innsbruck.  Once there, the three men would gather information about the heavily fortified Alpine Redoubt.

Who were these heroes?  The leader of the trio was Frederick Mayer, a Jewish American soldier who emigrated with his family from Germany in 1938.  His radio man was Hans Wijnberg, a Jewish American soldier who’d emigrated from Holland, and had lost his mother, father, and sister to Auschwitz.  The third member of the trio was Fredrick Weber, a former Wehrmacht soldier and prisoner of war who, as a devout Catholic, had deserted the German army for reasons of conscience.  Weber’s family lived in Innsbruck and would end up housing the three spies.  With European backgrounds and the ability to speak German and French, all three men could blend in.

So, on a dark evening in February of 1945 Mayer, Wijnberg, and Weber parachuted onto a frozen lake in the Austrian Alps 10,000 feet above sea level, and trekked down the mountain in waist deep snow.  They made it to Weber’s family home, and went to work.

Mayer obtained a German officer’s uniform and infiltrated the German barracks.  He lived there, gathering and sending radio operator Wijnberg top secret information.  Wijnberg, working from the Weber home, then sent the intelligence on to the OSS.

After three months Mayer was given a new assignment:  investigate an underground factory that was building jets for the Nazis.  So, posing this time as a French electrician, he gathered intelligence at the factory for several weeks until he was captured by the Gestapo.  Mayer was tortured but never revealed the names of his accomplices, which enabled Wijnberg and Weber to escape.

Assuming that someone entrusted with this much responsibility must be a high ranking soldier, the Gestapo brought Mayer to the home of Nazi Supreme Commissar of the Tirol region Franz Hofer, who was interested in making a deal for immunity.  Bluffing, Mayer assured Hofer that this could be arranged in exchange for the peaceful surrender of the German army in Innsbruck.  Mayer was then given permission to communicate “terms” to the OSS.

And when the Allied Forces arrived in Tirol in May of 1945 Sgt. Mayer—his face still swollen from his torture—singlehandedly delivered Hofer and the entire German Army to them without the loss of even one life.

For his heroic service, Jewish emigrant and American soldier Frederick Mayer was awarded the Legion of Merit medal.

He is a Hero You Should Know.  And I’m Dr. Ross Porter.