They Dared Return: The True Story of Jewish Spies Behind the Lines in Nazi Germany

Excerpted from the Prologue of They Dared Return: The True Story of Jewish Spies Behind the Lines in Nazi Germany by © Patrick K. O’Donnell. Reprinted courtesy of Da Capo Press. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

April 1945, Gestapo Headquarters, Innsbruck, Austria

“Jude!” the tall one barked, glaring into the man’s swollen eyes.

“Ach Quatsch!” (Nonsense!), another Gestapo officer stated. It was inconceivable that a Jew would dare return to the heart of the Third Reich as an Allied agent.

In the dank room, the Gestapo officers slapped and punched the spy in the face. His cover wasn’t holding water, and so the tall one stripped him from head to toe. Despite the agent’s bullish strength, the SS men brutally manhandled him, shoving him to the floor. Cuffing his hands in front of him and pulling his arms over his bent knees, they forced him into a constricting fetal position, then shoved the barrel of a long rifle into the tiny gap behind his knees and his cuffed hands. With a man on each side of the rifle, they lifted his naked, rolled-up body and suspended the human ball between two tables, like a piece of meat on a skewer. Uncoiling a rawhide whip, the tall one put his full weight behind each swing, mercilessly thrashing the agent’s body like a side of beef.

Book: They Dared Return: The True Story of Jewish Spies Behind the Lines in Nazi Germany

Author: Patrick K. O’Donnell

Publisher: Da Capo

Publication date: 2010-11

Format: Paperback

Length: 264 pages

Affiliate: (Da Capo)

Image:“Wo ist der funker?” (Where is the radio operator?)

“Wo ist der funker?”

A crimson pool spread beneath the agent’s body. In spite of the torment, he refused to crack, reiterating that he was merely a foreign worker (like thousands employed in the Reich’s factories).

When the whipping didn’t work, the Gestapo men decided to water-board their prisoner. They brought out two pitchers of water, and tipping their captive’s face to the ceiling, they poured the cold liquid down his mouth and nose. The water splashed into his mouth, forced open by rough hands. He felt like he was drowning, while the liquid painfully dripped into his perforated eardrum. The Nazis were methodical. One man poured while the second refilled the other pitcher. The torture assembly line kept running for six hours.

Suddenly, the door to the dank room swung open, revealing a tall man dressed in the full regalia of a high-ranking Nazi officer. His looming presence filled the room, throwing a shadow over the men in their work. Surprised, they turned and the session stopped—for the moment.


The desert sun beat down on Frederick Mayer as he hugged the ground and carefully maneuvered into position. Fred’s adrenaline surged as he moved closer to the enemy headquarters. He heard the din of battle in the background, as the staccato drumbeat of a machine gun pierced the afternoon air. As first scout of the Eighty-first Infantry Division, Mayer was at the tip of the spear and led an elite reconnaissance unit, the Wildcat Rangers, forward on the battlefield (The Wildcat Rangers were organic to the Eighty-first Infantry Division and not officially part of the six U.S. Army Ranger battalions formed during World War II). In the immediate background, Mayer heard the chatter of voices and the whirl of radio broadcasts relaying and barking orders. He was deep behind the lines, and, remarkably, the enemy headquarters he spied was not that well guarded. On his belly, .45 in hand, he slithered forward. In the blink of an eye, Mayer stealthily snuck past the guards and into the compound.

Mayer had been operating alone behind enemy lines for the past day. As a scout, Fred relied on his instincts, his ability to improvise, and his plain old chutzpah. Earlier in the day he had told his comrades that it was “silly to capture just a couple soldiers. Let’s bag the headquarters.”

With that, Mayer maneuvered into position and charged forward toward the headquarters building. Mayer burst into a room containing the headquarters, and several officers, including a brigadier general, looked at the 5′7″, broad-shouldered, olive-skinned scout in disbelief. Reality seemed suspended for a brief moment. Stunned, the U.S. Army general stammered, “You can’t do that! You are breaking the rules!”

Fred responded, “War is not fair. The rules of war are to win.”

Cornered, the general had no choice but to concede defeat, and he sheepishly raised his hands in the air.

For Mayer this was a bittersweet moment: The 120-degree desert heat nearly melted away his glorious feeling of capturing the blue army’s general during the Eighty-first Division’s training exercise on a stifling July 1943 day in Gila Bend, Arizona.

Brig. Gen. Marcus Bell, assistant division commander of the Eighty-first, was impressed by the young Jewish corporal from Brooklyn. The next day he summoned Mayer to his command tent located at Camp Horn, Arizona.

Since mid-February, Mayer had participated in the special reconnaissance unit within the Eighty-first Division. As a Wildcat Ranger, he learned advanced infantry skills, such as infiltration, demolition, raiding, sniping, and hand-to-hand combat techniques. The youthful corporal excelled at the training and became the unit’s lead scout, a position reserved for only the most daring of men.

After the maneuvers, Bell told Mayer he was “wasting his time here with the Rangers” and asked if he wanted another challenge to do “something more interesting.” With a large grin, pearly white teeth, and wavy black hair, Fred responded, “Get me out of the infantry.”

Within a few weeks, a letter arrived requesting that Frederick Mayer report to the headquarters of the Office of Strategic Services (OSS) in Washington, D.C. The letter would change his destiny. A Jewish refugee from Germany, an enemy alien whose family had barely escaped the camps, Frederick Mayer was now a naturalized American citizen holding a paper in his hand telling him to report to the Congressional Country Club in Bethesda, Maryland, where the OSS had established a training base.

An Enemy Alien

Frederick Mayer was born in 1921 in the city of Freiberg, Germany. He embarked on his military training at an early age as his father inundated him with stories of the horrors that occurred in the French fortress town of Verdun, where one million souls lost their lives. Mayer’s father, a lieutenant in the Kaiser’s army, had been decorated with the coveted Iron Cross Second Class for gallantry at Verdun. He had been a war hero and often regaled his son with tales of his wartime exploits, making quite an impression on the boy. Mayer later recalled, “This was my military training.” A businessman after the war, Mayer’s father provided for his family in the postwar chaos of the hyperinflated Weimar Republic.

Bull-like, with a stocky frame, Mayer was a great athlete. Until Hitler gained power, he had been a member of the ski and athletic clubs in high school. Known for his inquisitive mind and his ability to tear things apart, then reassemble them, Mayer soon sought an apprenticeship as a diesel mechanic with the Ford Motor Company. Charismatic, with an everpresent smile revealing his inner confidence, Frederick Mayer’s view of life was to “do your best at everything everyday, control what you can, and what you can’t, don’t worry about.” His optimism expressed a joie de vivre, and he had few enemies—until the rise of the Nazi Party.

His boss made an anti-Semitic remark, and as he had done in Germany several times, he took matters into his own hands and laid out his boss, quitting on the spot.

The Mayers were Jewish. During the early 1930s, a wave of virulent anti-Semitism accompanied the Nazis’ rise to power. Despite his father’s heroic service to his country during World War I, Mayer’s family was not immune to the anti-Jewish sentiment. Fred remembers firsthand being called a “Jew bastard.” Yet he always stood up for himself and promptly flattened the perpetrator, knocking him to the ground. The Nazis soon turned anti-Semitism into a state religion. Mayer’s father was a patriot and believed, like many other patriotic Jewish veterans, that their service would trump the radical racial views of the Nazi Party. In 1938, Mayer’s father still clung to the false hope that his service in the Kaiser’s army would insulate the family from harm. He took the view that as he had been “a German officer, nothing [would] happen to [him and his family].” Mayer’s mother was more pragmatic, stating bluntly, “We are Jews, and we are leaving.”

After a two-year struggle with bureaucrats on both sides of the Atlantic, the Mayers finally obtained a visa through contacts in the United States. Arriving with only the clothes on their backs, the family immigrated to New York, where Mayer’s father and the entire family sought work in Brooklyn. A jack-of-all-trades, young Mayer held more than twenty different jobs. While he was working in one of these positions, he recalled, his boss made an anti-Semitic remark, and as he had done in Germany several times, he took matters into his own hands and laid out his boss, quitting on the spot.

Hitler’s December 8, 1941, declaration of war against the United States following the Japanese bombing of Pearl Harbor was a call to arms—and Mayer answered the call. That morning, he promptly showed up at his local recruiting center in Brooklyn. Mayer felt that “the United States [had] provided [his family] a haven. I felt a need to give something back.” The morning Mayer reported to the draft board, he was summarily dismissed for being an “enemy alien.”

Discouraged, yet undaunted, Mayer’s opportunity to serve his adopted country came unexpectedly, weeks later, when his brother was summoned before the draft board. His brother was a college student at the time, and Mayer wanted him to finish, so he went before the draft board in his brother’s place and volunteered his own services. Seeing Mayer’s determination, the board acquiesced.

The twenty-year-old Jew was then shipped to Fort Rucker, Alabama, where he received several months of basic training. Graduating boot camp, Private Mayer received orders to report to the Eighty-first Division. For the most part, Mayer kept his nose clean, except for an AWOL incident while on maneuvers in Tennessee, after which he found himself digging ditches into red Tennessee clay. After the Tennessee maneuvers, Fred’s division was shipped to Camp Horn in Gila Bend, Arizona, for desert training. Ironically, the training would prove almost useless when the division was shipped off to the Pacific. It was while en route to the California port town of San Luis Obispo for amphibious warfare training that Mayer received the letter that would change his life.

Photo (partial) by Theo Coulombe

Patrick K. O’Donnell is the Colby Award-winning author of seven books, including a highly praised account of the Battle of Fallujah, Mu. He divides his time between Arlington, Virginia and Austin, Texas.

© Patrick K. O’Donnell