The Hollywood stuntman is recruited for a daring anti-Nazi mission. 2,791 words. Part One. Part Three. Illustration by Thomas Warming.
1939 – Saratoga, New York
I suppose all those years of stunts and other movie risk-taking had prepared me for the biggest real-life acting role I would ever play as part of a secret mission organized by my brother Babe Wyatt and his boss Wild Bill Donovan and the British secret service MI6 in the pre-World War II days. My WWI military training also qualified me to participate.
At the time, my brother didn’t understand me or my life. He thought I was aimless and without purpose. He couldn’t have been more wrong. I knew exactly how I wanted to live and what gave meaning to my life: Hollywood and its movies. I had chased a lot of dreams and even caught a few. But I never had any doubts on how to make my way in this world.
I was just like my father, or so my mother said. Black Jack Wyatt spent the better part of his life chasing dreams and risking steady employment by learning the arts of gambling, horse trading and keeping a step or two ahead of local law enforcement. Luckily for him, these interests brought him wealth. Then marrying my mother, the daughter of a U.S. Senator, brought him respectability.
He had all the happiness in the world that one man can expect when he was shot down by one Harlan Diggs, junior on New Year’s Eve in 1913. Something to do with Mr. Diggs’ wife, a tall beautiful redhead. My father was no innocent in this affair, I’m sure, but being gunned down was not the way Black Jack Wyatt should have gone out. Babe thought otherwise. I thought our father should have fallen off the back of his beloved black stallion at full gallop.
My father had worried about Babe during the eldest son’s two disastrous semesters at Yale where he’d majored in poker, girls and pranks against the faculty. Babe was transferred to Princeton, where Black Jack hired a former Scottish guard to the Queen to get the kid through two and a half years of college. After Dad’s death, that guard became less of a babysitter and more of a friend to Babe and myself. He taught us how to ride English style, become great shots and use “our wits,” as he liked to phrase it.
It became apparent that there were things Babe did well, chief among them that he got people to move and plan and react to his orders. Soon Babe Wyatt commanded everything like it was a military campaign.
Following Germany’s invasion of Poland in September 1939 and the start of World War II in Europe, President Roosevelt began to put the United States on a war footing and gave Donovan a responsible place in the pre-war infrastructure. It was Roosevelt who contacted Donovan who contacted Babe to plan and execute a clandestine operation to rescue a highly regarded Nobel Prize-winning physicist from the Nazis before Dr. Belson was forced to build the bomb for Hitler.
Immediately, Babe took advantage of my exuberance for action and danger to enlist me. That spring and summer of 1939, there was a lot of activity in Saratoga, people coming and going, as I recall. And I was running back and forth between there and California an awful lot as well.
Babe also recruited a man, tall and lean, who had one real arm. The other arm and hand were made out of cedar and mahogany and worked with a really ingenious pulley system. It was quite effective, believe me.
Grant Styles was his name and had been an agent for the FBI. The missing arm was cut off after he’d infiltrated a certain group of Chicago gangsters and barely escaped with his life. Although he was retired with a full pension, there’d been no hero’s welcome or commendation for bravery or medal for service above and beyond. The Bureau just unceremoniously showed Styles the door, and soon after Babe recruited him.
Styles, for his part, was always cryptic. He would give little hints to his past; nothing definitive. He also had this cynical and sarcastic way of talking. “I don’t really want to know any more than he told me,” I said one night to Babe when we were worrying aloud.
“You can give him an assignment, pay him to handle a situation or put him in harm’s way and he’ll execute any task with Swiss watch precision,” my brother praised. “Men like Styles, careful and smart, don’t get killed that easily. Here was an FBI agent kidnapped by the mob and tortured who still managed to escape. And the three hoodlums responsible for Styles’, uh, dismemberment? All murdered within six months and made to look like gangland-style retribution.”
“Did you notice his left hand when you hired him?”
“To be honest, Caleb, not at first. In fact, not for a while since he used his right hand most of the time and kept his fake hand in his lap. When he saw that I noticed, it was the only time he appeared to be self-conscious; he then laughed it off. He said to me, ‘Don’t worry, Mr. Wyatt, it won’t slow me down and I can still handle a weapon pretty well.’ I told him I wasn’t concerned.”
“Of course, he shoots with his right hand,” I added, “But he can load or disarm a weapon faster than anyone.”
Our discussion about Styles led us to talk about the rescue mission just a few weeks away. “You know, this would be the same sort of bonehead movie plot the people in Hollywood usually do,” I smiled.
Babe began to chuckle, the chuckle became a laugh and then a full cackle came from him so fierce he began to cough. “That’s what I was thinking! I said to myself, ‘Now what would my wooden-headed younger brother do if a script placed him in this situation?’”
I slapped him on the back.
1939 – Vienna, Austria
Less than a month later, two black vehicles, both large and sleek machines, moved at great speed and hurtled down a road that rolls through the Vienna woods with only their headlights and a full orange moon to light their way. The pavement was wet and slick from an early evening rain but the tires on both vehicles were wide and gripped easily.
The car in the lead, a 1938 Maybach Zeppelin, built for touring, handled the speed and the road conditions effortlessly, the driver, sure of his skills, pushed the beast towards its destination. The second car, over a quarter mile behind the Zeppelin, was a Mercedes-Benz Type 770 Grosser, an even bigger vehicle with a V-8 engine but heavy with armor plating, and struggled to gain speed. Perhaps not as skilled or confident as the driver in the lead car, the second driver was having trouble staying on the road, instead brushing against tree limbs and barely making it through the sharp turns.
The Zeppelin began to slow down as it approached a gravel path. Overhead lights showed a tall iron and wooden fence with barbed wire draped over the top. The gate, as was prearranged, was open. Above it a sign read, Selbstuerwaltungsflughafen, the municipal airport.
As the Zeppelin continued on to the tarmac, the only light was from a small shed with antennae on the roof. Behind the shed were four airplane hangars with their long sliding doors closed and locked. The outline of a single airplane, a German Junkers Ju 52 tri-motor transport, could be seen on the apron in front of the runway.
“Turn us around so the headlights are facing the gate,” a voice from inside the Zeppelin commanded in English.
The driver did as ordered and swung the heavy vehicle towards the open gate which was now more than a hundred yards away. It didn’t take long before the Grosser could be seen coming through the gate as well.
The passenger door of the Zeppelin opened and a tall lean figure in a black Nazi SS uniform calmly stepped out. He reached down to the side of his belt and took a German Luger from its holster. As the Grosser approached, the SS officer braced his right arm on the opened door and took slow and deliberate aim at the oncoming vehicle and fired off two quick shots, knocking out both of the Grosser’s headlights.
The vehicle came to an abrupt stop, its rear end sliding. The SS officer leaned into the Zeppelin and said, in English, “Voss, get to the plane. Fast!”
The other driver slid out from under the Grosser’s wheel, a young American dressed in the uniform of a German Gestapo Commandant. He looked over by the gate as the Grosser’s four doors began to open.
“Go!” the SS officer shouted and the young Commandant sprinted towards the runway. The SS officer leaned back into the Zeppelin and said to the three individuals in the backseat, “They’re getting out.”
A third man came out of the back of the Zeppelin; he was tall, wearing an identical SS officer’s uniform, but he moved with athletic ease as he jumped out of the car. Without a word, he reached beneath the backseat and pulled out a large M1918 Browning automatic rifle. He wrestled the weapon into position, rolling down the back window and sliding the muzzle through the open door.
Three men started to exit the Grosser; one an older SS Commandant and two German foot soldiers pointing their rifles at the Zeppelin. The driver stayed in the vehicle and huddled behind the steering wheel. The SS Commandant began to shout. “Halten Sie an! Sie sind verhaftet! Es gibt keine Flucht…”
Next to the Zeppelin, the two SS officers looked over at each other. The leaner of the two shrugged, aimed his Luger at the older Commandant and fired one shot. The Commandant’s head and arms flew back, and he fell onto the tarmac. The two soldiers looked at each other in disbelief. Then they quickly snapped their rifles into firing position and began shooting towards the Zeppelin.
Three bullets hit the windshield and one grazed the open back door. “Okay,” the broader SS officer said in English, “I’m letting her go.” He leveled the BAR at the Grosser and pulled the trigger. Moving from right to left, using short bursts, the rifle started to chew through the vehicle. The first soldier was nearly cut in half as the rounds began making holes and sparks across the door and then kept moving, obliterating the windshield and slicing through the driver’s head. Another burst took care of the other soldier who looked to be in shock and didn’t fire back.
Both SS officers stepped around the Zeppelin to make a quick inspection and nodded to each other with satisfaction. The broad SS officer reached into the back seat and carefully carried a young woman wearing a man’s brown trench coat over her blue and gold evening dress.
Rita Lake, a Hollywood actress, would have been beautiful were she not extremely pale and barely conscience, her rich auburn hair undone and piled to one side. The SS officer was able to see her wound above her left breast and the crimson stain was spreading up to her shoulder. She tried to stand on her own. The SS officer steadied her. “Rita, can you walk?” he asked in English.
“No,” she muttered and fell against his shoulder. He picked her up, cradling her legs and shoulders, then began to walk hard and fast towards the plane.
The lean officer extended his hand inside the car. “Time to go, Dr. Belson,” he said, as he helped out a small wiry middle-aged man with steel gray hair and dark-rimmed glasses. He, too, had an overcoat atop a robe and pajamas, with bedroom slippers on his feet. All hurried towards the runway and gathered with the rest of the small group by the plane.
The Junkers Ju 52 was a good-sized transport capable of holding nearly twenty troops with room for both pilot and co-pilot and a radio operator. It had a corrugated silver metal skin with propellers on both wings and the nose.
The lean SS officer turned to the young Commandant and asked in English, “Voss, can you fly this thing?”
The broad SS officer, still carrying the young woman, who now appeared unconscious, looked over at him. “A little too late to ask that question, don’t you think? And, what the hell? We’re not using code names anymore?”
“The cat’s out of the bag now, Wyatt.”
“It’s Lt. Voss to you, Styles. And, yes, I have a pretty good understanding of how this thing works. What the hell did you think I was doing in London all that time?” Voss went over to the front propeller and took a quick look.
That when someone shouted from the shed,“Warten Sie!” The group turned and saw a teenaged boy running towards them. He was wearing grease-spattered blue overalls and a look of panic on his face. He gulped for air and managed to say, “Nehmen Sie mich mit Ihnen! Ich kann nicht hier bleiben.”
Styles and I looked over at Voss, puzzled, who translated. “He wants to come with us.”
“No.” Styles said, definitively.
Voss approached him. “Why not?”
Now I turned to him. “C’mon, Lieutenant, the doctor is our only mission…”
“This kid’s done everything we’ve asked him,” Voss continued. “He opened the gate, fueled the plane and made it ready for flight; he smashed all the radio equipment in the hut, knocked out his own boss. His life’s worth nothing if he–“
Styles interrupted, “We can’t take responsibility for this kid?”
The young man saw the argument go back and forth and pleaded, “Bitte!”
Voss grabbed him by the shoulders. “Können Sie fliegen? Kopilot?” The boy shook his head up and down eagerly, making steering motions with his hands. Voss slapped him on the shoulder and said to Styles, “I have a co-pilot.”
I was getting impatient. “Glad that’s all settled. Now can we get the hell off the ground?”
Voss took a look at the young woman in my arms. “How is she?”
“Knocked out but she’s still breathing. She won’t be for long, though, if we don’t get the hell out of here.”
I started to lift the young woman but Styles stopped me. “Let me get in first and I’ll help you.” He leapt into the plane and held out his right hand. His left arm hung useless at his side. “Here, pass her up.”
Just as I was handing Rita up to Styles, a shout came from across the tarmac. “Halten Sie an! Verräter!” Running out of the shed was a man with a small caliber pistol in his hand. He let off one wayward shot. I took a U.S. Army issue M1911 .45 automatic pistol from my holster and aimed it at the kid’s boss. The man saw me taking aim at him and turned around for a quick retreat. I fired one shot, hitting the man in the back, knocking him off his feet. His body lay sprawled.
Styles whistled. “Nice shot, movie star.”
“And in the back, too!”
“I said shut up!”
Styles laughed and offered me his good right hand.
In the cockpit, Voss and the boy settled into their seats. Voss took a look at the instrument panel and pushed two levers into place. As the engines coughed, the three propellers began to whirl. In the back of the plane, Styles and I laid out Rita and covered her with a blanket. The Doctor seated behind us looked on with curiosity. “Entschuldigen Sie mich?” the doctor asked. “Pardon, me, I do speak English. I was a medical student back in Hamburg before I went into physics. Do you have medical supplies?”
Styles saw that in the rear of the plane, attached to the bulkhead, was a white box with a red cross on the top. He handed it to the doctor. The doctor knelt down by the young woman and attended to her.
Styles stuck his head inside the cockpit. “Are we ready for takeoff? I’m sure the Gestapo are on their way.”
The Junkers Ju 52 started slowly down the runway with the full moon providing enough illumination to aid in its takeoff. The plane went into a steep climb and then banked right, heading north. The route had been decided on months before. There was still an anxious feeling onboard; if alarms were sounded in time there would be a Luftwaffe squadron scrambled and in the air within minutes. But on this particular night, the group got to safety within hours and the physicist out of Austria to work for the Allies and help us win the war.