The 885th Bombardment Squadron (Heavy) (Special) did not fly ordinary missions. But, John M. Billings was no ordinary pilot. The most eventful mission Billings flew was the inspiration behind “Inglorious Basterds,” but the real story is even more remarkable.
Until I came to the end credits, I sat through the whole movie without realizing it was inspired by Operation Greenup and OSS [Office of Strategic Services] agent Fred Mayer. The vengeful Jewish-American soldiers in the fictionalized Inglourious Basterds resembled Mayer only in the respect that he was a German-born Jew who sought revenge against the Nazis. For Fred and his fellow agents, also European-born Jews, victory was achieved not by scalping German heads but by infiltrating enemy ranks to gain vital intelligence. Greenup was one of the most successful covert missions of World War II, saving thousands of lives and accelerating the war’s end in Europe. If you want to know the real story about Fred and Operation Greenup, watch The Real Inglorious Bastards, a documentary made in 2012. Fred was my hero and closest friend until his death on April 15, 2016, at age ninety-four.
The war in Europe was finally grinding down, and by the winter of 1945, the Germans were on the run. Innsbruck, their last stronghold, was the most heavily fortified territory of the Third Reich. The OSS needed to gather intelligence regarding Nazi movements of munitions and supplies down through the Brenner Pass, which forms the border between Italy and Austria. This was a mystery because all the railroad bridges going through the pass had been bombed by Allied planes, yet supplies were still getting through.
The top-secret mission was to drop three agents behind enemy lines over a frozen lake 10,000 feet above sea level in the Austrian Alps. The steep mountain peaks were heavily guarded by anti-aircraft, and the operation was so dangerous that the British Royal Air Force, as I learned later, refused to go. Naturally, I signed up for the job. “If they’re crazy enough to jump there,” I told the officer, “I’ll be crazy enough to take them.”
On a cold, dark night — the date was February 20, 1945 — a windowless panel truck from headquarters in Bari pulled up under the wing of my B-24. As always, I’d started the engines at the designated time, checked them out, then taxied to the end of the runway where our crew was waiting for the “Joes”' arrival. From the cockpit, we couldn’t see the three agents and dispatcher/jumpmaster as they climbed out of the truck and headed to the rear of the plane. The truck backed out, and an officer walked around to signal me that all was clear. I could feel the adrenaline pumping as I took off, excited to be on such an important mission. Two hours later, as we were en route to the target point, I got this message from a radio operator: “In the event there is no reception,” she said, “or if you can’t see the drop site, or if for any reason you can’t complete the mission, do not return to home base, but instead, go to Cyphon.” That was the code name for Rosignano Airfield, about 500 miles from Brindisi.
We climbed until we were over the Alps and at the drop site. Smitty, the navigator, said he knew the lake was below us. Imagine a giant soup bowl with a rim about 13,000 feet above sea level, whereas the drop zone was 10,000 feet. We were supposed to drop the agents into the bowl. The only problem was, we couldn’t see anything because of heavy cloud cover. There was no way I was going to let three men jump out of the plane without being able to see the ground, even though I had every confidence in Smitty for accuracy. It was too much to ask. We flew off for about twenty miles and stayed on a straight line, then turned around on the same line to take another look. It was still a no-go. So, we went to the alternate Rosignano. Our passengers remained incognito as they were directed to their tents for the night and we to ours.
In line at the mess hall for breakfast the next morning, I spotted the four strangers, all of whom appeared to be in their early twenties, and introduced myself and my crew. “Won’t you join us at our table?” I asked, gesturing for them to sit down. Now, the only thing we knew about these men is that we were taking them on a secret mission to gain intelligence. As their identities were concealed, the information I include following each agent’s name is what I learned much later.
The team leader was a good-looking, dark-haired man of slight build. “Joe,” AKA Fred Mayer, was the son of Jewish parents and born in the Black Forest area of Germany. His father, Heinrich, had been awarded an Iron Cross in the German Army in World War I. When the Nazis came to power, his wife begged him to leave, but he said, “No, they’re not going to bother me. I’m a war hero! My distinguished military record will protect us.” But with growing antisemitism, the handwriting was on the wall for Jews. Heinrich realized he had to get his family out of the country and moved them to Brooklyn in 1938.
After high school, Fred worked as a diesel mechanic, and when Pearl Harbor was bombed, he joined the army. To show you the stuff he was made of, when he was in training and playing war games, he went to the mock headquarters and arrested the brigadier general running the exercise. The general protested that he was breaking the rules, but Fred stood his ground. “The rules of war are to win,” he said. Afterwards, at the briefing to discuss the success of the “war,” the general told him he was in the wrong outfit. “You need to be in intelligence.”
Fred was indeed the ideal OSS candidate and absolutely fearless. He was a risk-taker, spoke German and two other European languages, and was trained in demolition, hand-to-hand combat, and other martial skills. Officials at the OSS headquarters in Bari wanted to give him a forged document that would allow him to get away with things when he was doing his spy stuff. “No,” he said. “I don’t want it. You can give it to me, but I’ll just throw it away. I’ll handle things myself.” As we sat around the table drinking coffee, Dick started speaking to Fred in German. He, too, had German parents and the two men seemed to have quite a lot to talk about.
The second “Joe” was the radio operator, a Dutch boy named Hans Wynbert. He had a long face, a big grin, and indeed looked like a schoolboy. Like Fred, he was also Jewish. Hans and his twin brother had been sent to America by their parents to escape the Nazis in Holland. Tragically, his mother, father, and younger brother were captured, sent to Auschwitz, and never heard from again.
The third agent was Franz Weber. He was Austrian, a devout Catholic, and a disaffected officer in the Wehrmacht. He had intentionally gotten too close to the front lines so he could be captured. With the OSS needing more European recruits to infiltrate the enemy, Fred dressed as a German officer and slipped into a POW camp in southern Italy, pretending to be a prisoner. There he found Franz and persuaded him to become the third member of the Operation Greenup team. Of great advantage was the fact that Weber’s family lived near Innsbruck in a village called Oberperfuss that would later become a protective home base for the agents.
The fourth “Joe” was Walter Hass, the jumpmaster, also Jewish. He’d fled Nazi Germany with his family and eventually emigrated to America. Recruited by the OSS, his job was to check the equipment and oversee the parachute jumps to ensure safety and timing. Normally, as mentioned, personnel would be dropped at 600 feet altitude and supplies at 300. Fred demanded we drop the agents at 300 to avoid radar detection. “My best wish would be for the parachute to open and my feet touch the ground,” he said. That was a little too much precision to ask for!
The next day, a P-38 Lockheed Lightning was sent out to check on the weather to see if conditions were suitable for our mission. Now, the P-38 was a great fighter plane but also excellent for recon missions and equipped with the most sophisticated cameras of their time. To lighten the plane so it could fly high and fast, there were no guns aboard. When the pilot came back, he said, “Don’t even try.” So, we spent the entire day together sitting around and swapping stories.
The third day, another no-go, was the day I let Fred fly my plane. Fred could tell you anything, and in fact, he did tell me anything, including his aviation background, all the airplanes he’d flown – he even told me about the time he stole a Junkers airplane from Franco. The way he talked, you couldn’t not believe. So, when we found out that we weren’t going down that day, Smitty asked if we could go on a short test flight to check out the accuracy of the airspeed gauges. He always wanted to calibrate everything to the nth degree, so I agreed. Then I told Fred we’d be going on a test ride. “You want to come along and fly the airplane?” I asked. “Ja,” he said, and before long, he was in the co-pilot’s seat. He admitted he’d flown many airplanes except for the B-24 and said for me to do take-off and landing – he could handle everything else.
We took off from Rosignano and did our calibration run. Afterward, I said, “Okay, Fred, it’s your airplane.” Without a blink, he pulled the power back and leveled off over the harbor at about a hundred feet, the height of a sailboat mast. Then he flew toward a cut in the mountain on the shore and did a beautiful Immelmann. (This is a half loop followed by a half roll. It reverses direction and increases altitude.) I thought, “Boy, is he a good aviator!” The whole flight lasted about thirty-five minutes.
Several weeks later, Colonel Monroe McClusky summoned me to his office at Brindisi. For what seemed an eternity, I stood at attention in front of his desk. Finally, he spoke. “So, why did you buzz the base headquarters at Rosignano? What in the hell am I supposed to tell the base commander?” “Well, sir, I didn’t really have a reason. But honest, I didn’t know it was headquarters.”
“NOW you know where it is, and as a matter of fact, we’re going to be moving there soon!” I didn’t say a word about Fred who, by then, was undercover in enemy territory. Many years afterward, Fred admitted that he’d had exactly one glider lesson! He was a natural-born pilot. I’ve never known anyone like him. In fact, I was quoted in a New York Times story that came out after his death. “I was in awe of him. He was born without the fear gene. He feared nothing, and he was able to be whatever he needed to be.”
On February 23, the P-38 came back and reported large breaks in the clouds over the Alps. Again, we launched. Six hours and fifteen minutes later, we arrived at the designated site, only to see heavy overcast and no visibility. On the 24th, we stood down again, but that night, Fred, Walter, Smitty, and Dick pored over the maps and found a secondary site. “This will work,” Smitty said. “It’s a bit farther away and will delay the arrival in Innsbruck by a day. But it would save the mission.”
The next day, February 25, we were given the okay to go, and this time we were determined to make it happen.
Excerpted from “Special Duties Pilot: The Man who Flew the Real ‘Inglorious Bastards’ Behind Enemy Lines” by John M. Billings. Copyright ©2021. It is available to purchase now.
John Billings took his first plane ride in 1926, began taking piloting lessons in 1938, and has been flying ever since. Having joined the U.S. Army Air Forces in July 1942, he was assigned to fly the Consolidated B-24 Liberator bomber. He completed fifty-three missions during the war, thirty-nine of which were for the Office of Strategic Services, the wartime predecessor to the CIA, and the U.S. Special Operations Command.
Editor’s note: This is a book excerpt and as such, the opinions expressed are those of the author. If you would like to respond, or have an editorial of your own you would like to submit, please contact Military Times managing editor Howard Altman, firstname.lastname@example.org.