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Interview with Elizabeth McIntosh [Undated]

Leslie Sewell:

Alright, I'm talking to Elizabeth McIntosh, who we also call Betty, the author of Sisterhood of Spies and, okay, so you were - you were a journalist and a - and a spy, right?

Elizabeth McIntosh:

[laughs] Well, not in that, well not in that order, yes. [laughter]

Leslie Sewell:

Let me just talk to you a little bit about the journalism part because, you were, let's see, you were in Hawaii...

Elizabeth McIntosh:

At Pearl Harbor.

Leslie Sewell:

...at Pearl Harbor, when Pearl...and you were working for Scripps Howard.

Elizabeth McIntosh:

Right.

Leslie Sewell:

Well tell me a little bit about that.

Elizabeth McIntosh:

Okay. I was what they call a stringer for Scripps Howard papers, and I used to send feature stories out on what was going on. And one special Sunday morning, December 7th, I got a really good story. I was wakened by the radio; we were listening to the Mormon Tabernacle choir singing over the radio, and all of a sudden the radio announcer broke in, and he said, "The islands are under attack. This is the real McCoy." And then he went off and the choir came back, and I thought, "Oh, this is just another army maneuver or something." And then my photographer called a little while later and said, "Hey, something's happened. They think something"--we didn't know whether they were Germans or Japanese planes hitting Pearl Harbor--"We've gotta get down, and I've got to cover it and you see what you can do." So we went into town, and that's when we began to see where all the...It was--driving in it was about, oh, ten miles of just beautiful country, people were walking their dogs, going to church. Finally [we] got in where there was real commotion. And we--actually we got to a store that had been bombed, it was an open-air market, and here was this little kid sitting in the middle with all the Christmas stuff around him and everything, wrappings, and having a wonderful time. And my photographer said, "Hey, the kid looks just too happy." And he said, "Do something about it." And I said, "Okay," and I went over and pinched him. And the kid started crying, and he got a beautiful picture that was in Life magazine. [laughs] And that was the beginning of the war. I was assigned as a hospital nurse...saw really terrible things. The Hickam Field [airfield near Pearl Harbor] firemen coming in...and some of the little kids that were badly burned, one of them had a jump rope that just the rope was gone, she's holding...and she died. And it was just a tragic morning. Everybody--in Hawaii everyone was frightened because they didn't know what was going to happen next. And what followed later was that we--I helped put barbed wire all along the beaches, Waikiki, everything, to keep the Japanese out. Then they thought they were coming in the mountains. And it was just--and we had blackout immediately. And censorship: I couldn't send any stories out for a couple of weeks because of the censorship. Let's see, what else. Just a frightening period. We had to dim our headlights. People--most people couldn't use their cars because the gasoline was out. Shortages of everything, except sugar [laughs]. So then after that kind of calmed down a bit they asked if I would report to Washington, D.C. and that's how I happened to came back to where I was born.

Leslie Sewell:

Right, good, I wanted to skip over...Now, so then tell me, when you first got to Washington, some of your observations about what it was like.

Elizabeth McIntosh:

Well, it's interesting 'cause Hawaii was a real war zone when I'd left and Washington--it was--it didn't seem like there was anything really happening, as far as the war went. Of course we did notice immediately there were the shortages, and I think it was sugar was rationed and gasoline, I think liquor, I'm not sure. But the food, well, we couldn't get nice food and things at the restaurants. It was just a little bit--You felt there was something going on, but it was not a feeling of the war like I'd had in Hawaii. I had a--being one of the first--well, I was to cover Eleanor Roosevelt as one of my jobs. And so, being a newcomer, she invited me and several others new correspondents to lunch at the White House. And I thought, "Oh boy, we're gonna get something good to eat for a change." [laughs] Then we get over there, and she was just, she was delightful, but we had macaroni and cheese. That was it. [laughs]

Leslie Sewell:

No elegant French meals, huh?

Elizabeth McIntosh:

Nothing elegant. The dishes were beautiful, you know.

Leslie Sewell:

[laughter] Food wasn't much, huh?

Elizabeth McIntosh:

She was interesting. I'd seen her hus--her father--her son in Hawaii just before I'd left, so she was interested in seeing how he, Franklin [Franklin Delano Roosevelt, Jr.], how he was looking and all that. We had a little nice talk there.

Leslie Sewell:

What other things were going on in Washington at that time? Were you still here when there started to be a large influx of workers into Washington, or had you left already by that time?

Elizabeth McIntosh:

No, they were coming in, and I could see that where I was finally assigned. I stopped working with Scripps Howard and joined something called the Office of Strategic Services. I was recruited because I had been studying Japanese, and they thought maybe I could help in their work in the Far East. You could tell--Well, first of all, he [she may be referring to Bill Donovan, head of the OSS] wouldn't tell me what I was supposed to do when he recruited me. He just said--he promised that I could go overseas. But when I got into the buildings...They were all very secret, you had to have special passes to get in and everything, something like the Pentagon. But it was very crowded, people coming and going all the time and moving them out into the fields. It was that kind of movement.

Leslie Sewell:

Where were the offices at that point?

Elizabeth McIntosh:

They were at 23rd and E, and then they had some along the pools there, some of the temporaries that are now no longer there. But they really made a mess of that area...[laughs] one after the other...terrible-looking, ramble--ramshackle.

Leslie Sewell:

Tell me a little bit more about both how you lived and then sort of what your office situation was when you first came to Washington. Where did you live, how did you find housing?

Elizabeth McIntosh:

Well I had relatives here, they lived in Wash--in Georgetown, and I had a little room up on the third floor; it was a little Georgetown house. It was very convenient, 'cause I could walk to work almost. That was another thing, getting to and back from work, gasoline was rationed. I finally made a friend who had a motorcycle and a sidecar, so I got to work in style. He was another--he was working at the OSS too, Ogden Klaus [presumably someone's name; unsure of exact name and spelling]. Anyway, that was another problem, getting around. We weren't supposed to tell people where we worked or what we did, so that was another little difficulty.

Leslie Sewell:

I could see where that could cause some problems. What did you do, say, "Could you give me a ride to work, but I can't tell you where to go?" [laughter]

Elizabeth McIntosh:

I got picked up once--I told somebody that I was working at the Pentagon, and he took me all the way over to the Pentagon, and I had to get back as best I could. [laughter]

Leslie Sewell:

And no Metro then.

Elizabeth McIntosh:

No, no Metro. [laughter]

Leslie Sewell:

Other than being secretive, what was it like in the early days of the OSS, with "Wild Bill" Donovan [founder of the OSS] and all that stuff.

Elizabeth McIntosh:

It was exciting. And as we began to find out what we were supposed to be doing, which was...Well we had several branches: some were the ones that blew things up, with Special Operations, Special Intelligence. Mine was called Morale Operations, which would fit into my background of news writing. And we would be trying to send disinformation out to, in my case it would be the Japanese, 'cause that's where I eventually ended up, with China. But we were taught what to do, and how to handle the problems, and what they were, and how to get around them...and really get people, the enemy, upset, which I hope we can do today. But, it was, it was interesting. And one time--we were shown how to use different guns and things; women got 32s. We did have hand grenades that the OSS developed that were like baseballs. The British had ones with long handles on them, but ours were baseballs, so we could throw 'em better. And we practiced throwing them out at the Congressional country club. Really blew that place up. [laughter]

Leslie Sewell:

That's amazing. So you were working with live grenades?

Elizabeth McIntosh:

Oh yeah, uh huh. Yeah. It was kind of interesting...We also had sort of safe houses and places where we'd go to study outside of Washington in the Virginia, usually the Virginia area, so that wouldn't take place in the city itself. But we did have some places where we made false documents and things right in the city. Let's see, where would that have been... Sort of hard to remember, but it was in the middle of town. Everybody was doing their regular legal business and here we were doing all this phony stuff with getting passports and false papers [laughs].

Leslie Sewell:

I have a...Was there something in your book about using people from prisons to work on some of the false documents and safecrackers...?

Elizabeth McIntosh:

Safecrackers, right, uh huh. They were trying to get the information, some plans for the--it was the French fleet, and it was during the North African planning for the invasion. And they needed those plans, to be able to find out where the fleet was. So the one wom--We used this woman who had an affair with one of the--a man, in the French embassy, and she convinced him that this was a fine thing to do. So, how do we get the things out of the safe? Well, we got the safecracker in and he was able to get it over to Vienna [unsure if this is what she is saying]. Right here at the Wardman Park [Wardman Park Hotel, in downtown Washington, D.C.] was where we had our people doing all the copying and stuff like that. I know that when she--there were problems with this--the fellow that was the guard, at the embassy. He had a dog, and Cynthia, well that was her code name, was always afraid that he would walk in while they were trying to get the papers out. And one time she was real sure that he was gonna be there, so she quickly takes off her clothes, and nothing on but this pearl necklace [laughs] and then he comes in the door and goes, "Ooh, hello." They were pretending like they were having an affair or something. Then he leaves, and they were able to get everything moving again.

Leslie Sewell:

And they actually did get the plans, right?

Elizabeth McIntosh:

They got the plans, and it supposedly helped in the North African invasion.

Leslie Sewell:

Sounds like fun. [laughter] You also were involved in spreading a lot of disinformation among the Japanese soldiers. Can you tell me a little bit about what you did on that?

Elizabeth McIntosh:

The idea would be to try and get the Japanese population to stop supporting the Emperor and their idea that they were going to conquer the world, the way that the Germans were too; we did the same thing with them. But we worked mostly with the troops in the field. One instance of how you can work that--we were--we captured in Burma a cache of postcards that were all written by hand, in pencil. They were all censored, and they were on their way to Japan. And they were all from these soldiers who were saying, "We're having--you know, we're fighting for the Emperor and we're winning the war; don't worry Mom." And we changed all those. We had these Japanese friends and myself, and we sat down, and instead of saying, "Dear Mom we're having a great time...We're starving; We have nothing--nobody supporting us; What's wrong with the Emperor; Why is he letting us down." And all these postcards, about a hundred of 'em, went back to Japan. And that was the sort of thing we did.

Leslie Sewell:

Right. Sounds, sounds like it was really useful.

Elizabeth McIntosh:

Yeah, I think it was.

Leslie Sewell:

And then, was there something about forging a document that was supposed to come from someplace high up in the Japanese command that you worked on?

Elizabeth McIntosh:

Yes, this was while I was still in Burma, waiting to go to China, and the Japanese government had just changed hands; Koiso [Koiso Kuniaki, Japanese army general and prime minister during the final phase of World War II] had taken over from the other man. And so the idea was maybe this might give him, give the government a chance to sort of rescind some of the laws that they'd written and commands not to surrender and under what conditions. So I sort of drew this up and made a list of conditions when they were surrounded, when they were wounded with no food...And then under these conditions they could surrender, and they would be honorably accepted by the Emperor. So we got the thing written up, and then, you know, we wanted to get it into the Japanese line of command. We finally found a Japanese--well he was a prisoner of war in New Delhi [India], and this friend of mine, who was a wonderful Japanese scholar, he and I went out to see him, thinking, well maybe we could talk him into something. Well, the guy was sitting there, wouldn't look at us when we came in, but he sort of looked around and he saw the guy that I was with and all of a sudden--it was--he said, "Biru"--this is Bill Druscetti [unsure of exact name and spelling] ____?. And he got up and went over, and they had been roommates together in college in Japan, and they were really bosom friends. And so he worked with us on the order and got the rice paper, the right chops [seals], everything, the right ink...And then how to get it into the Japanese again. We had this detachment in Burma, called one-oh-one [101], and they were working with the Kachins [tribal people of Burma (Myanmar)] there. So one of the Kachins waylaid a Japanese courier on his way through the--back through the jungle, really, and killed him. [The Kachin] Put the order in his [the Japanese courier's] pouch and then went running up to the next Japanese and told them that someone had killed their man, and if he'd come back he would show them where. So then that's when they found the thing, and then this is when they started to surrender in Burma. So this was another facet of our disinformation program.

Leslie Sewell:

Well it must have been satisfying to work on things, where you could see a result, a real concrete thing like that.

Elizabeth McIntosh:

Yes, yep.

Leslie Sewell:

Were there a lot of women in the OSS? Or...

Elizabeth McIntosh:

Something like 4,000--but there were 24, wait a minute, no, that's not right, yeah, there was quite a few, but they were all over the world, and a lot more were in Washington, working in the offices. There were a lot, quite a few that got overseas. Mostly they had to have area knowledge or language, some kind of training that would help them do what they do.

Leslie Sewell:

Well it sounded like there were a lot of opportunities then, there were a lot of opportunities for women, who had some expertise.

Elizabeth McIntosh:

Yes, there were. There was one woman that took over the command of French Resistance and she got--she was decorated by the president for it. Another one got some Germans to--Germans in Italy to--German prisoners of war there--to take some disinformation material back through their lines to get to the Germans to tell them that Hitler was on his way out and things like that. [laughter]

Leslie Sewell:

So some of it worked, and some of it didn't work. But a lot of it worked.

Elizabeth McIntosh:

A lot of it did, yeah. But Marlene Dietrich was another one. She used to sing these wonderful songs. We'd revise the lyrics, but she would always be plaintive, and you know, how unhappy everybody is, and ___? the war was over, and that kind of thing.

Leslie Sewell:

Also another person who you worked with was Julia Child. Can you just tell me a little bit, I don't want to get into it in detail, but...

Elizabeth McIntosh:

She was in Ceylon [now Sri Lanka], and at that point was dating a fellow named Paul Child. Julia McWilliams. She and I traveled the--we went over the hump [flight over the Himalayas] together to China. Dreadful trip. She was in charge of the registry there. Very big job, and she was awfully good at it. She'll never talk about what she did, but we know she had a lot of the agents' names, and took care of what had to be done in that area. She couldn't cook worth a darn. [laughter]

Leslie Sewell:

Well she always said Paul taught her how to cook.

Elizabeth McIntosh:

Yeah, well actually when they got to France, then they decided to...

Leslie Sewell:

Yeah, I've heard her speak on that. So your experience in Washington and during the war was pretty exciting?

Elizabeth McIntosh:

Yeah, yes. It was interesting and exciting too. Mainly wanting to get out and go overseas was the big incentive. We met a lot of interesting people during the--that I was working with in the White House, and then, of course, in the OSS too.

Leslie Sewell:

Did you get--Now you were married when you first came here and then got, and then you were divorced during the war, is that...?

Elizabeth McIntosh:

After the war.

Leslie Sewell:

Oh, after the war. So you were basically not really--didn't have a whole lot of the dating, single life experience here?

Elizabeth McIntosh:

That's right. He was also OSS but he decided to stay out there and I came home. And because of it divorced...been good friends ever since.

Leslie Sewell:

Did you have--did any of the other women who you worked with at the OSS live in these boarding houses or anything? Or were they more...?

Elizabeth McIntosh:

Mostly boarding houses. A lot of them had families here and lived with the families, like I was doing. But I know they had a lot of trouble getting rooms, and we had people assigned to try and help them locate--and it was usually--we tried to get it within the District or Virginia-Maryland areas so that they could get to work.

Leslie Sewell:

Yeah, no, housing I guess was a real problem.

Elizabeth McIntosh:

It was very, very--a real problem, mmhmm.

Leslie Sewell:

What about the other rationing stuff. Was it--do you remember it being a big problem, just kind of a minor problem...?

Elizabeth McIntosh:

It seems like gas was a--gasoline...You couldn't do much if you had a car. And a lot of people were walking. And, oh, they had streetcars in those days too; I remember Georgetown had streetcars. So that was one of the problems. I don't remember too much about Washington as I do about Hawaii when they were really--because they [Washington, D.C.] didn't have anyone bringing stuff into them...It was ships that had to bring everything in [in Hawaii[...

Leslie Sewell:

Okay, is there anything I haven't asked you about, that you'd like to talk about?

Elizabeth McIntosh:

[laughs] You've covered everything!

Leslie Sewell:

Okay. Well listen, I really appreciate your doing this. It sounds like you just had a wonderful, wonderful life, it really does.

Elizabeth McIntosh:

It's still going on! [laughs]

Leslie Sewell:

[laughing] Yeah, well, I'm not--I wasn't suggesting that it's over!

 
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  October 26, 2011
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