Chapter 1: Dying to Fight CHAPTER 1 DYING TO FIGHT
May 24, 1941
The American checked in and surveyed his luxurious surroundings.
Estoril’s Palacio, Portugal’s finest, was everything he had heard: an opulent five-star hotel and resort with a golf course, spa, and Europe’s largest casino, all situated alongside the gleaming Tamariz Beach. Royalty often visited here, creating Estoril’s reputation as the Portuguese Riviera, and with Portugal’s neutrality during the war, many were here now, enjoying the town’s safety, beauty, and amenities.
The clerk mumbled in broken English about a form for foreign guests and asked his occupation. Thinking of something generic, he said “businessman” and watched as the clerk wrote comerciante
on the form.
Stepping away from the registration desk, he could see the pool and terrace tables through the full-length windows. To his right was the Palacio bar, small but handsomely appointed. If the rumors were true,
many of its patrons were spies, which meant he’d have to frequent it nightly.
His cover was sound as he had no ostensible reason to be here; America wasn’t in the war, after all, and he couldn’t be suspected of being a spook since the US had no intelligence agency. He wasn’t even in the military. For all practical purposes, he was a ghost.
His name was Frank T. Ryan.
What he was up to was off the record but vitally important to US national interests. And his timing couldn’t have been better. British Naval Intelligence officer
Ian Fleming had checked in to the Palacio four days earlier.
German press attaché Hans Lazar—the most powerful Nazi in Spain—would arrive two weeks later.
Frank Timothy Ryan’s Palacio Hotel registration, May 24, 1941. Cascais Archive
Meanwhile, an ocean away in rural New York, a tall young woman who had just
graduated from the College of Mount Saint Vincent was searching for employment. She had the good looks of a model or actress, but her small town didn’t offer those kinds of jobs.
Born May 22, 1920, in Pearl River, New York, Marie Aline Griffith was the eldest of six children.
Her mother and father also had been born in Pearl River, a hamlet located twenty miles north of midtown Manhattan.
Founded in 1870 by Julius Braunsdorf, a German immigrant who had relocated his
Aetna Sewing Machine Company there, the town began to flourish some twenty-two years later when Aline’s grandfather, Talbot C. Dexter, moved his Dexter Folder Company into Braunsdorf’s building. Dexter had invented and patented a machine that changed the way that books, newspapers, and magazines were assembled.
During Aline’s childhood Pearl River was a Norman Rockwell town, with four Main Street attractions:
Schumacher’s grocery, Rowan’s butcher, Sandford’s drugstore, and the
First National Bank. There was one school—the Pearl River School—and Aline would see no other classrooms until she left for college.
Aline’s father managed the Dexter factory and her mother was a homemaker.
Their house, situated less than a thousand feet from the Pascack Valley Line, allowed Aline to see and hear the train as it whistled by, twice in the morning and twice in the evening, on its way to and from Manhattan.
Pearl River as Aline knew it during her childhood. The Griffith home was located in the wooded section about where the center of the north-pointing arrow is located. Directly above “Pearl River” the rendering shows the Braunsdorf-Dexter factory where her father worked, and to the right of “Pearl River” the local train can be seen heading into town.
Even in the 1930s and 1940s, Pearl River felt like a town somehow suspended in an earlier time, and some of Aline’s schoolteachers had taught her mother. Crime was virtually nonexistent here, but there wasn’t much to do other than stroll to the park or hike in the woods. In an effort to promote business and commercial construction, Pearl River branded itself “
The Town of Friendly People.” Indeed, it was
a friendly town—a nice, quiet place to raise a family—but when Aline graduated from high school, she couldn’t get out fast enough. She was seventeen, yet she knew nothing of the outside world. Life was ticking by, and she was determined to broaden her small-town horizons.
Hoping to attend a university that had football games and dances, Aline was a bit disappointed when her parents chose for her a less exciting alternative: Mount Saint Vincent. It was a
Catholic girls’ school with the regimen of the Marines: lights out at ten o’clock. It was also in the Bronx, a less than appealing college town.
The adventure Aline had been hoping for seemed far away.
In the summers she found convenient, mundane jobs. After her sophomore year, she worked as a supervisor at
Rockland State Hospital, and after her junior year she worked as a secretary for Manny Rooney, a Pearl River attorney. She wasn’t quite sure what she wanted to do after graduation, but events soon conspired to create the opportunity she was looking for. During her final semester, the winter of 1941, the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor, and her younger brothers went off to war almost immediately,
Dexter as a fighter pilot in England and Tommy as a submariner in the South Pacific. Aline knew that as a woman she couldn’t be a soldier but felt that nothing short of joining the war effort in some manner would fulfill her patriotic longing to do her part. Throughout December she searched for a way to help, but without success.
After the New Year she found employment, but it was a far cry from military service. At five foot nine, slender, and beautiful, Aline was perfectly suited for modeling, so she took a job with
Hattie Carnegie in New York City. It was a dream job for any young woman, as Hattie was one of the top fashion designers in the country, but it wasn’t Aline’s dream.
While Aline wouldn’t have known it, Hattie Carnegie was an American success story. When her father died in 1902, thirteen-year-old Henrietta Kanengeiser commenced her business career as a messenger for Macy’s. Two years later she began modeling, and in 1909 she launched her own custom clothing business, having changed her last name to Carnegie, a nod to Andrew Carnegie, the wealthiest man in America. Just a few years later Hattie opened her own store just off Park Avenue and was traveling to Paris annually in search of the latest fashions.
From Hattie, Aline would learn not only fashion, but poise, composure, and how to mingle at high-society events—skills that would come in handy later in situations with much higher stakes.
For eighteen months Aline modeled each season’s new dresses, parading down runways as if she’d been trained in Paris. But the fittings, makeup, hair styling, and glitz of fashion were the last things she wanted. She was grateful for the work but there was a war going on, and what she was doing on a daily basis seemed almost sinful compared to the sacrifices others were making.
August 1943 one of her friends, Amy Porter, invited her to a dinner party. Amy was dating a wealthy young man named John whom she hoped to marry, and she wanted to introduce Aline to John’s brother Frank, who was coming to town. Frank was in his midthirties, Amy said, and he was flying in from somewhere overseas. Overseas.
Perhaps he’d have firsthand knowledge about the war, Aline thought.
The dinner was at John’s apartment in Manhattan, and along with
Frank, Amy, and Aline, two of John’s colleagues from Standard Oil had been invited. The oilmen sat to Aline’s left, Frank to her right. His suit was immaculate and looked hand-tailored, suggesting Wall Street or Madison Avenue. He had light
blue eyes, a square, intelligent-looking face, and thin lips. His neck and jaw were thick like a wrestler’s, but he had an easy smile. He was handsome, she reckoned, in a college professor sort of way.
As the night wore on the men bantered endlessly about the war, going back and forth about Patton and Rommel, Hitler and Roosevelt. Aline noticed that Frank was polite but a bit aloof, as if preoccupied with more important matters. He also didn’t seem to express any romantic interest in her, which was something of a relief.
When the conversation lulled, Frank turned to her, smiling.
Are you planning to become a famous model?”
The question caught Aline off guard, but she realized that John must have told Frank that she worked for Hattie Carnegie.
Aline smirked. “Not if I can help it.”
“Really? And why is that?”
“I want to get into the war—overseas.”
Frank suggested that she could become a nurse, but Aline brushed it off, saying that training to become a nurse would take years. She wanted to get into the war now
, she said, and in Europe where the real fighting was.
“Now, why on earth would an attractive girl like you, safe and sound here in New York, want to go abroad to become embroiled in a bloody massacre? Someplace where your life could be in danger?”
Aline shrugged. “I love adventure. I like taking risks. All the men I know are eager to get over there. Why should it seem strange that a woman wants to also?”
Frank ignored the rhetorical question and probed about Aline’s romantic life. Did she have someone she was in love with? Was she about to get married?
The inquiries were a little personal, Aline thought, but she answered that no, she wasn’t in love—not that it should make any difference about what she could or could not do for her country.
Do you know any foreign languages?”
Aline replied that she had majored in French and minored in Spanish.
Frank flashed his easy smile. “Well, Miss Griffith, if you’re really serious about a job overseas, there’s a slight possibility I can help.
If you should happen to hear from a Mr. Tomlinson, you’ll know what it’s about.”
Aline returned the smile with a glimmer of hope, but at the same time she didn’t expect much. Frank hadn’t said who Mr. Tomlinson was, or even taken her number, so how serious could he be?
At the very least, though, she felt she’d made a new friend in Frank Ryan.
About two weeks later Aline’s father mentioned that their bank had received an
inquiry of some sort about them. Her mother thought it probably had to do with their boys now that they were in the service, but her dad worried the investigation might be connected to business.
But when they heard nothing more about it, it slipped from their minds. Then, on the last day of September, Aline received a long-distance call.
This is Mr. Tomlinson,” the man said in a deep voice. “Can you be free for a few minutes tomorrow?”
Aline said she could.
“Then please be in
the Biltmore Hotel lobby, at six o’clock. A man with a white carnation in his lapel will be looking for you. Don’t mention this meeting to anyone.”
At the appointed hour Aline was at the hotel. Soldiers in crisp uniforms were buzzing in and out, a few at the bar having their last drinks before shipping out. After several minutes a distinguished silver-haired man in an expensive suit—duly adorned with a white carnation—greeted her without mentioning his name. He motioned to a quiet alcove where they could talk.
He said he worked for the War Department, and that they might have some work that could interest her. He couldn’t tell her exactly what the work would entail, though, until she had passed some tests. He had a calm, soothing demeanor that put Aline at ease, and he seemed to take it for granted that Aline would be interested.
“Would I work overseas?”
The man nodded. “If you succeed in the tests, yes. Can you come to Washington within ten days? It will mean taking leave from your job. You may never go back, if all goes well.”
Aline said she could.
He thumbed through a date book and told her she’d need to arrive in Washington on
November 1. Handing her a card with a phone number and address to give to her parents, he explained that she would not be at that location, but that calls and messages would be forwarded to her.
Tell your family you’re being interviewed by the War Department for a job. Bring a suitcase of clothes suitable for the country. Remove all labels. Carry nothing with your initials, nor papers or letters with your name. No one must be able to identify anything about you.”
He gave her a second card with a different address and told her this was where she was to arrive, no later than noon. “Go directly to the Q Building. Give a false name and home address to the receptionist.”
With that he bid her good luck and was gone.