Profiles In Valor - Fred Mayer

  • Friday, April 19, 2024
  • Mark Caldwell
The REAL “Inglourious Basterds”
The REAL “Inglourious Basterds”
Recently, I profiled West Virginia native Chuck Yeager and noted that, like some other heroic folks from the Mountain State, including Medal of Honor recipient Woody Williams (USMC), this ancient Appalachian region had shaped some remarkably heroic Patriots.

There is another West Virginian who was a Mountain State citizen by choice, not by birth, who was also fearlessly heroic.

For some related context, film producer Quentin Tarantino intentionally misspelled the title of his 2009 fictional film, “Inglourious Basterds,” about the recruitment of Jews for a U.S.
Army commando platoon whose mission was to kill Nazis. He did so in order that his film not be confused with the 1978 movie, “The Inglorious Bastards.”

The Basterds’ platoon was led by Lt. Aldo “The Apache” Raine, a Smoky Mountain bootlegger — which is to say, a kindred spirit. He tells his recruits: “Once we’re in enemy territory, as a bushwhackin’ guerrilla army, we’re going to be doing one thing, and one thing only, killin’ Nazis! … They’re the foot soldiers of a Jew-hatin’, mass murderin’ maniac and they need to be destroyed.”

Among his Jewish recruits were Sgt. Donny “The Bear Jew” Donowitz, Cpl. Wilhelm Wicki, and a German defector, Sgt. Hugo Stiglitz - all of whom excel at killin’ Nazis. As Raine says to one of his Nazi prisoners before his demise, “We ain’t in the prisoner-takin’ business, we in the killin’ Nazi business, and cousin, business is a-boomin’!” Their adversary is SS Col. Hans Landa, who is tasked with tracking down Raine’s commandos but ends up with Raine’s trademark inscription on his forehead - a carved swastika that forces him to bear the Nazi shame for life.

The film, which concludes with the assassination of Hitler and his propagandist, Joseph Goebbels, is replete with entertainingly vindictive violence. After all, you can’t go wrong killin’ Nazis!

While many reading this are familiar with Tarantino’s “Inglourious Basterds,” few will know the very compelling story of “The Real Inglorious Bastards” — the true story of two incredibly brave American Army soldiers who were naturalized European Jewish refugees. Their names were Fred Mayer (1921-2016) and Hans Wijnberg (1922-2011).

Mayer and his family had fled Germany for the United States in 1938, his father foreseeing what was ahead under the tyrannical regime of Adolf Hitler. Wijnberg, a Netherlands native, was sent with his twin brother to the U.S. by his father in 1939, the former also fearing the rise of Hitler. In fact, all of Wijnberg’s family who remained in Europe were murdered in the Holocaust.

After the attack on Pearl Harbor, Mayer, age 20, enlisted in the Army, where he excelled as a leader. Wijnberg enlisted two years later.

Because both men were native German speakers and familiar with the regions under Nazi occupation, they were recruited from their enlisted Army assignments by the CIA’s predecessor, the Office of Strategic Services, and trained as spies. Then-SGT Mayer and CPL Wijnberg were trained by the OSS in hand-to-hand combat, methods of infiltration, explosive demolition, and sniping. In one training exercise, Mayer crossed “enemy lines” and “captured” officers. When his commanding officer chastised him for breaking the rules of the war game, Mayer responded: “War is not fair. The rules of war are to win.”

Mayer would become commander of a deadly mission, code-named “Operation Greenup,” and his unit included four other European Jewish refugees: George Gerbner (Hungary), Alfred Rosenthal (Germany), Bernd Steinitz (Germany), and Wijnberg, who would be their clandestine radio operator. Mayer also recruited former Austrian Wehrmacht officer Franz Weber, a devout Catholic, for Operation Greenup.

In February 1945, at the apex of the Third Reich’s “final solution,” they dared return to enemy territory as spies, subject to immediate execution if discovered.

Mayer and his men parachuted into the Austrian Alps under cover of darkness in a fierce winter storm, dropping in a “safe zone” in the rugged mountains near Innsbruck, Austria. Their pilot, John Billings, volunteered for the drop mission, recalling, “If they are crazy enough to jump there, I will be crazy enough to take them there.”

They were assigned to collect intelligence in Innsbruck, where they recruited other Austrian Jews to both collect intelligence and strike Nazi units. Their perilous mission was thoroughly documented by noted military historian Patrick O'Donnell in his book, They Dared Return.

Brazenly, at one point Mayer even posed as a German Army officer as Wijnberg secretly communicated the intelligence Mayer collected back to the OSS. But after considerable success, Mayer’s ruse was discovered, and he was arrested, then subjected to torture, as his captors attempted to extract the identity of his radioman, Wijnberg.

Mayer used his wit and resolve to counter his interrogators, and in fact, against all odds, he ultimately negotiated the surrender of the German occupiers and collaborators of Innsbruck.

At the same time Mayer was being tortured, another American agent, Hermann Matull, was also being interrogated by the Gestapo. Shown a photo of Mayer’s beaten and battered body, Matull determined that the only way he could save his friend was to claim Mayer was a “big shot” in the American operations in Austria and that, with the end of the war imminent, anyone who killed Mayer would be pursued by American forces and shot like a rat.

Matull insisted that the only authority who should interrogate Mayer was the Gauleiter of Tyrol and Vorarlberg, Franz Hofer, knowing that Hofer believed the fall of the Reich was close and would want to negotiate his own surrender.

Indeed, upon hearing of Mayer’s arrest and interrogation, Hofer ordered the Gestapo to bring Mayer to him. Hofer dined with Mayer, who believed this was a ploy to find out the name of his radio operator, Wijnberg. But Mayer soon realized that Hofer and Rudolph Rahn, the German ambassador to Mussolini’s government, actually wanted to discuss their surrender and that of Innsbruck. He arranged for Rahn to get a message to OSS senior officer Allen Dulles, still protecting the identity of radio operator Wijnberg.

Dulles received the message from Rahn and relayed it by cable to OSS headquarters in Italy: “Fred Mayer reports he is in Gestapo hands but cabled ‘Don’t worry about me, I’m really not bad off.’” This from a Jew arrested by the SS. Typically discounting his own condition and safety, Mayer actually had been badly tortured.

On the morning of May 3, 1945, as America’s Seventh Army, 103rd Infantry Division was poised to capture Innsbruck, the American line was approached by a car with a white bedsheet flying on a pole — a surrender flag. Intelligence officer MAJ Bland West recalls that a young man emerged from the car with a swollen face and identified himself as “1LT Mayer” of the OSS, presumably so West would put more credence in the word of an officer than a Sergeant. He took West to the German commanders, where, indeed, they surrendered.

For the record, the entire German and Austrian contingent in the region actually surrendered to a Jewish Sergeant!

After I first read the authentic accounts of Fred Mayer’s daring mission a decade ago, it was clear to me that his leadership, his refusal under torture to give up any of his fellow Jewish spies, and his mission’s success due to his valorous actions far above the call of duty qualified him for the Medal of Honor. In fact, in September 1945, he was nominated for the Medal of Honor by his commanding officer, who affirmed that Mayer “knowingly and willingly risked his life almost daily.” But the War Department rejected Mayer’s nomination for reasons that are far from clear or acceptable.

William Casey, former OSS operative and Ronald Reagan’s director of Central Intelligence, said that Operation Greenup was “by far the most successful of OSS operations” in southern Europe.

Charles Pinck, former president of the OSS Society, observed, “When OSS founder Gen. William Donovan said that OSS personnel ‘performed some of the bravest acts of the war,’ he must have had Fred Mayer in mind.” He noted further, “What he accomplished was just astonishing: He saved thousands of lives on both sides.”

For his actions, Mayer was awarded the Legion of Merit, Purple Heart, Prisoner of War Medal, and American Campaign Medal, among others. However, not only was his fitting nomination for the Medal of Honor rejected, but his recommendation for a Distinguished Service Cross, which had been awarded to other OSS members for far less valorous actions, was also rejected.

In April 2013, almost 70 years after Operation Greenup, former Sen. Jay Rockefeller (D-WV) appealed to then-President Barack Obama to reconsider Mayer’s service record. Obama responded with a letter to Mayer thanking him for his service.

In 2014, the Department of Defense reviewed Medal of Honor nominations that may not have advanced because of some element of discrimination and rectified that by awarding Medals to 24 veterans. Fred Mayer was not among them.

Of that rejection, Mayer said: “I did my job, and that’s all that really mattered. I didn’t do it to get a medal, that’s for sure.”

Mayer survived World War II. He lived out his years after the war in the small community of Charles Town, West Virginia, dying at age 94 in 2016. Sen. Joe Manchin (D-WV) said of Mayer upon his death: “He was a true American hero and an emblem of courage. When he was captured, he exemplified what it is to be a true American hero. Mr. Mayer refused to give up sensitive information and instead convinced his captors to arrange a meeting with senior Nazi leaders. The subsequent meeting led to the surrender of a key Austrian post. His valor is an example to all who serve.”

In November of last year, knowing as a Democrat he would likely not win reelection in West Virginia, Manchin announced he would not seek reelection in 2024. However, perhaps as his last notable act as a senator, he should take up this case and ensure that a Medal of Honor is finally and fittingly approved for Fred Mayer.

Fred Mayer: Your example of valor — a humble American Patriot defending Liberty for all above and beyond the call of duty, and in disregard for the peril to your own life - is eternal. “Greater love has no one than this, to lay down one’s life for his friends.” (John 15:13)

Semper Vigilans Fortis Paratus et Fidelis
Pro Deo et Libertate - 1776

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Please consider a tax-deductible gift to support our hometown National Medal of Honor Sustaining Fund. Make a check payable to NMoH Sustaining Fund and mail to: Patriot Foundation Trust, PO Box 407, Chattanooga, TN 37401-0407. Visit the National Medal of Honor Heritage Center at Aquarium Plaza. (
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