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Carl Eifler, 95; Ran OSS Unit in WWII

Obituaries

April 20, 2002|DENNIS McLELLAN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Carl F. Eifler, who commanded the first OSS covert operations unit during World War II and was dubbed "the deadliest colonel" for his daring exploits and planning of operations behind enemy lines, has died. He was 95.

Eifler died April 8 of natural causes in a medical rehabilitation center in Salinas, Calif.

Central Casting couldn't have supplied a more imposing figure than the 6-foot, 2-inch, 240-pound, tough-as-nails Army colonel.

Eifler, according to his biographer, devised top-secret plans (that were later canceled) to assassinate Chinese leader Chiang Kai-shek and to kidnap Adolf Hitler's top atomic scientist.

He was, in a word, fearless.

He thought nothing of grabbing a 10-foot king cobra by the tail and slicing off its head. He'd often challenge his men to "hit me in the stomach as hard as you can," and wouldn't even flinch.

"That was just him," said Tom Moon of Orange, who served as an OSS agent under Eifler in Burma and India and later wrote a biography of him. "Somebody told me they watched him one night digging a bullet out of his leg with a spoon handle."

The Office of Strategic Services, which was under the direction of Gen. William "Wild Bill" Donovan, was the precursor of the Central Intelligence Agency.

When Eifler became commander of OSS operations in the Far East in mid-1942, he had 22 men under his command. His Special Unit Detachment 101 ultimately included 800 Americans and as many as 10,000 natives.

In Burma, Eifler trained Americans and locals in undercover and covert operations, set up camps, built small airstrips in the jungle, cut enemy supply lines, planned ambushes, and rescued downed American and British fliers. "I broke every law of God and man, but I never did anything for personal gain," he said at an Assn. of Former Intelligence Officers convention in San Diego in 1983. "I was out to win a war for my country, and you can't fight a lawful war.... I think the CIA today has gotten a lot of bad publicity. Where do you want them to get information? From churches?"

Born in Los Angeles in 1906, Eifler dropped out of school in the eighth grade. Yearning for adventure, he lied about his age and joined the Army. But he was discharged a year later when the Army discovered he was only 15.

Back in California, he knocked around doing carpentry and other odd jobs before first joining the Los Angeles and later the Newport Beach police departments. He later joined the U.S. Customs Service and once uncovered a Japanese spy ring in Tijuana.

Eifler, who had joined the Army reserves around 1930, went on active duty in early 1941 and was an infantry officer stationed in Hawaii when the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor.

He was put in command of a detention camp on Sand Island in Honolulu, but a month later was ordered to report to the Coordinator of Information in Washington, D.C. That agency later became the OSS.

Gen. Joseph W. Stillwell Jr., who had been friends with Eifler when he was in the reserves in San Diego, was now the Far East theater commander, and he requested that Eifler head up a covert operations unit.

Eifler, who recruited the top men from various military units in the Far East, ultimately selected 20 men for the unit.

In June 1942, Eifler and his men headed to Burma. For the next two years, Eifler operated on direct orders from Washington in the China-Burma-India theater of operations.

According to Moon, Eifler tapped prostitutes for gathering information and poisoning Japanese officers.

Eifler lived a charmed life during most of the war, surviving the crashes of two light planes behind enemy lines that forced him to walk out of the jungle alone.

Once, however, he suffered injuries that would plague him throughout his life.

After jumping into the water to guide six rubber boats loaded with saboteurs and supplies, he was repeatedly smashed against the rocks while attempting to return to the patrol boats.

He suffered head injuries that required 18 months of hospitalization after the war and thereafter plagued him with headaches and occasional memory lapses.

At one point, according to Moon, Stilwell suggested to Eifler that a way should be found to kill Gen. Chiang Kai-shek, whom Stillwell believed to be interested more in internal feuds in China than in battling the Japanese.

Eifler devised a plan to poison the Chinese generalissimo, but Stillwell called it off at the last minute when, according to Moon, Stillwell thought "he didn't have the moral authority to kill the head of the world's largest nation."

In 1943, OSS director Donovan recruited Eifler for another deadly plan: to capture Werner Heisenberg, the Nazis' leading atomic physicist.

The plan Eifler devised entailed having him enter Germany, capture Heisenberg and spirit him out of the country through Switzerland and into a U.S. Army bomber, which would drop the two men to a waiting submarine.

Moon said the plan was aborted by Donovan after the Americans successfully developed the atomic bomb.

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