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COLUMN ONE

The Secret (Insurance) Agent Men

A WWII unit gathered underwriters' data, such as bomb plant blueprints, from warring nations, declassified U.S. files show.

September 22, 2000|MARK FRITZ | TIMES STAFF WRITER

COLLEGE PARK, Md. — They knew which factories to burn, which bridges to blow up, which cargo ships could be sunk in good conscience. They had pothole counts for roads used for invasion and head counts for city blocks marked for incineration.

They weren't just secret agents. They were secret insurance agents. These undercover underwriters gave their World War II spymasters access to a global industry that both bankrolled and, ultimately, helped bring down Adolf Hitler's Third Reich.

Newly declassified U.S. intelligence files tell the remarkable story of the ultra-secret Insurance Intelligence Unit, a component of the Office of Strategic Services, a forerunner of the CIA, and its elite counterintelligence branch X-2.

Though rarely numbering more than a half dozen agents, the unit gathered intelligence on the enemy's insurance industry, Nazi insurance titans and suspected collaborators in the insurance business. But, more significantly, the unit mined standard insurance records for blueprints of bomb plants, timetables of tide changes and thousands of other details about targets, from a brewery in Bangkok to a candy company in Bergedorf.

"They used insurance information as a weapon of war," said Greg Bradsher, a historian and National Archives expert on the declassified records.

That insurance information was critical to Allied strategists, who were seeking to cripple the enemy's industrial base and batter morale by burning cities.

"Within a few days, a conference on the burning possibilities of some important cities will be held," unit chief Robert "Lucky Luke" Rushin wrote a colleague in February 1944, when he was sending data to an Allied bombing-target committee. "I have reproductions of approximately 150 plans covering Jap plants about ready to ride."

The files, at the National Archives office in College Park, are among the latest U.S. intelligence documents ordered declassified by President Clinton last year to speed the identification of Nazi assets.

Most of the research attention there has focused on what U.S. intelligence knew about the Holocaust, the whereabouts of Nazi loot, the migration of Nazi war criminals and how much important information never made it to the Oval Office.

But the documents suggest that insurance played an important, if less-noticed, role in the war.

The OSS insurance unit was launched in early 1943, long after it had become alarmingly clear that the Nazis were using their insurance industry not only to help finance the war but also to gather strategic data.

American insurance companies had been competing furiously for overseas business even after the United States entered the war, and the OSS files suggest that details about U.S. factories and cities were falling into enemy hands because of the interlocking international relationships among insurance companies.

Germany had 45% of the worldwide wholesale insurance industry before the war began and managed to actually expand its business as it conquered continental Europe. As wholesalers, or "reinsurers," these companies covered other insurers against a catastrophic loss that could wipe out a single company. In the process, the wholesaler learned everything about the lives and property they were reinsuring.

Unit's Efforts Are More Than Altruistic

The motives of the OSS unit's founders were both pragmatic and patriotic.

"This story is incredible because the unit begins as part of the desire of American [insurance] interests to contribute to the war effort and exploit it for future economic gain," said historian Timothy Naftali, a consultant to the Nazi War Criminals Interagency Working Group that was created by Congress last year.

The men behind the insurance unit were OSS head William "Wild Bill" Donovan and California-born insurance magnate Cornelius V. Starr.

Starr had started out selling insurance to Chinese in Shanghai in 1919 and, over the next 50 years, would build what is now American International Group, one of the biggest insurance companies in the world. He was forced to move his operation to New York in 1939, when Japan invaded China.

In the early years of the war, the German insurance industry expanded its business as it conquered continental Europe. Nazi insurance brokers who traveled with combat troops during invasions also scoured local insurance files for strategic data.

German-owned companies were blacklisted by the Allies, but the Insurance Intelligence Unit found that the Nazis did business through countries such as Switzerland and laundered transactions through South American affiliates, particularly in Argentina.

"The blacklist is of no good use because the firms not blacklisted are full of Germans," one of the Insurance Intelligence Unit's reports complained in 1943.

Starr's people and other insurance executives had intimate knowledge of the people involved in the global insurance business, so they were able to track potential collaborators.

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