Meet Elizabeth Peet McIntosh – The OSS Spy

Elizabeth Peet McIntosh OSS

ELIZABETH P. MCINTOSH, a reporter and the daughter and wife of reporters, was working for two Honolulu newspapers when the Japanese brought the United States into World War II by bombing Pearl Harbor. She became a war correspondent, and by 1943 had been recruited into the Office of Strategic Services, the O.S.S., the less louche forerunner of the own C.I.A. There she worked in the blandly named Morale Operations, the home of so-called ”black” propaganda,” which today is often called disinformation.

Elizabeth McIntosh died at the age of 100 in 2015, conjured lies in the line of duty for the US Office of Strategic Services, and, as an author wrote about the women who used their brains, and sometimes their bodies, to help the spy agency in the Second World War.

The daughter of a sportswriter, McIntosh, grew up in Hawaii and followed her father into journalism. She reported on women’s issues for the Scripps Howard news service but grew restless after having witnessed the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbour in 1941. A family acquaintance with connections to the OSS, which later became the CIA, asked her, she recalled, “‘Wouldn’t you like to get into something interesting like…’ You know, he didn’t say ‘spying’, but he just said, ‘more interesting maybe than the work you’re doing.'”

A Washington, D.C. native, Betty was born on March 1, 1915. After graduating from the University of Washington, School of Journalism, Betty moved to Hawaii and worked for several news outlets, including the Honolulu Advertiser, Star-Bulletin, and San Francisco Chronicle. Betty was working as a reporter in Hawaii when Japanese forces attacked Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941. Betty covered the event first-hand and soon left Hawaii to work in the Scripps Howard bureau in Washington, D.C. Elizabeth Peet McIntosh OSS

Elizabeth Peet McIntosh OSS

During talks with CIA Historians on May 2, 1997, and June 24, 2002, Betty explained how she came to work for OSS. In 1943, Betty’s supervisors wanted her to write a story on a man named Atherton Richards, who had been the head of a firm in Honolulu, working on the mechanization of sugar cane harvesting. Richards also happened to be one of the top officials serving under General William J. “Wild Bill” Donovan, the then-chief of the OSS.

“He was a friend of my father’s,” Betty recalled. “It was challenging to get in to see him, but I finally managed to. After our interview, he said, ‘Wouldn’t you like to get into something interesting like’ …, you know, he didn’t say ‘spying.’ Still, he just said, ‘more interesting maybe than the work you’re doing,’ although I was covering [Eleanor Roosevelt at the} White House and that wasn’t too bad. I said I would be interested if it meant going overseas. He said, ‘I can promise you.’ So that’s how I joined OSS.”

Fluent in Japanese, Betty was recruited in 1943 to join the OSS, CIA’s predecessor, and the nation’s first intelligence agency.

Betty was one of the few women assigned to OSS Morale Operations (MO). “Eventually, I was introduced to the MO group in Washington, and then I was informed about what my duties were.”

The MO branch was in the business of creating rumors that our foreign adversaries would believe. In other words, black propaganda. Betty worked for the Far East division, while the other MO branch serviced Europe. “They taught us how to utilize material tailored for specific targets in the Far East. We had to learn to disseminate the material, a mix of truth and fantasy; we were taught how to get rumors started, for example.” It was at this point that Betty learned basic tradecraft, the same time-honored skills taught to intelligence officers today, talents that served her well in a post-war career at the CIA.

Betty’s first assignment was in the summer of 1943. After completing her OSS training, she was sent to India. Betty helped produce false news reports, radio messages, and other propaganda designed to spread disinformation that would undermine Japanese troops, who were already demoralized and retreating from their defeat by Allied forces on the Imphal Plain. This included efforts to distribute forged Japanese government orders to Japanese troops in Burma.

“The Japanese government told their soldiers that if they surrendered, they would lose their birthright and would not be able to go back to Japan,” explained Betty. “So consequently, very few Japanese surrendered. They cost us a great deal because they fought to the very end and many of our people, too, were killed. So the idea was to try to get them to give up without feeling that they had lost their identity.”

To undermine the notion that surrender was unacceptable, Betty and her team crafted a forged order permitting Japanese troops to surrender under certain conditions. This was a believable scenario because there had recently been a leadership change in the Japanese government, which led to a window of uncertainty. Elizabeth Peet McIntosh OSS

Betty and her team enlisted a Burmese OSS agent to kill a Japanese courier en route through the jungle and insert the forged order into his knapsack. This “wily little killer” then reported to the Japanese on the whereabouts of their dead courier. Predictably, and according to plan, the Japanese retrieved their man with his mailbag and found the order that they concluded was authentic.

Betty was among several OSS women who joined the CIA after the OSS was disbanded. “I think that OSS, as the forerunner for CIA, laid the groundwork for what is now CIA,” said Betty. “Without the OSS, I don’t think they could have created such an agency.”

Betty found the culture at the CIA a little different than what she had experienced at the OSS. “There was a little bit of bureaucracy, which had set in like rigor mortis up above us, and some people were sort of… they didn’t have imaginations… they didn’t want to do things as we did in OSS.”

Betty served overseas on several assignments. While serving in Asia, she met a dashing fighter pilot, Fred McIntosh, and married him in May of 1962. After 40 years of service to her country in the field of intelligence, she retired in 1973.

Betty has endeavored to maintain contact with her OSS colleagues over the years. “There’s not many of us left now,” she noted. Her 1998 book, Sisterhood of Spies: The Women of the OSS, is an homage to the brave women who served in the OSS as part of “Donovan’s Dreamers,” those “glorious amateurs” who laid the foundation for the most important intelligence organization in history.

“I’m glad I was in OSS,” Betty said when asked to sum up her experience as an intelligence officer. “It was a wonderful experience, and I cherish it as the most exciting part of my life.”

And finally, here you can see her passport from 1975.

Elizabeth Peet McIntosh OSS


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