Once, a friend asked if I'd ever heard of Operation Paperclip. This was the secret program started at the end of World War II that allowed German rocket scientists, including some highly placed Nazis, to enter the United States and work for our military. Its name was derived from the secret practice of putting a paperclip on the first page of an individual's visa as a signal to U.S. immigration officials to let them through, no questions asked. These former adversaries became the foundation of America's space program and helped NASA put us on the moon.
I'd written about Paperclip in several books, so I was surprised when my friend told me that his grandfather had worked on a similar Army program that was even more secret.
This is how I got to meet Bob Jamison, my friend's father. He'd just written a family memoir about his father, Jim Jamison, and the extraordinary adventures he had during World War II — and beyond.
Mack Maloney: Without really trying, your father found himself at several pivotal moments in history. For instance, he was the first person to ever fire a bazooka.
Bob Jamison: He worked at the famous Aberdeen Proving Ground, the place where the U.S. Army designs and tests a lot of its weapons even today. He started there in 1941 as a carpenter, but his ability to do just about any job caught the attention of the higher-ups, and he was recruited by the Ordnance Department to do ballistic testing. That's how he got to fire the first bazooka. He also worked on the proximity fuse, which is still in use.
Then he was drafted into the military?
Yes. It was December 1943, and America needed fresh recruits. He went into the Army and suffered the same snafus as any soldier – for example, they lost his basic training file and made him take basic over again. He also had a very uncomfortable flight to Europe once he deployed. He caught a ride with some paratroopers and the plane was tossed around so badly, even the airborne guys were getting sick.
Then one of the plane's engines began smoking. The pilot announced that they would probably have to ditch in the North Atlantic, a virtual death sentence. But – and here's a good example of what kind of a guy my father was – he helped the crew hook up a light so they could look out at the engine and keep an eye on its condition during the long night. Then he took a nap. The plane landed safely and all ended well. But I'll tell you, my dad was a very cool customer.
He was eventually made a corporal and assigned to a top-secret unit known only as V-2.
Yes. It was a program to surreptitiously seek out German rocket scientists and bring them over to our side without anyone knowing about it, including our closest allies. It was May 1945. The Germans had surrendered and Werner Von Braun, Germany's top rocket scientist, had already contacted U.S. Army Intelligence. My father's team was to find the rest of the scientists who'd worked with Von Braun, and do it before the Russians did. Sometimes his unit worked in two-man teams – one officer, one enlisted man – but later on they sent the enlisted men out alone. Army Intelligence would give them the names and locations of key scientists with orders to bring back anyone willing to come to America and work for us.
Your father was carrying orders signed by Eisenhower himself. Extraordinary for a corporal.
His best story about that happened when he was traveling alone. He was close to the Russian sector, hoping to connect with another German scientist, when he stopped at an American outpost to get directions. When he went back outside, he was stopped by a captain who had a colonel standing behind him. The captain told my dad the colonel's Jeep had broken down and he was going to confiscate my father's. But my father told the captain he couldn't have his Jeep. The colonel stepped forward and said, "You better have a damn good reason why, soldier!" My dad pulled out his orders signed by Ike, giving him priority over anything else happening in the war zone. The officers read the orders, knew my father was right, and walked away, grumbling. It was an enlisted man's dream come true!
One day your dad went out looking for rocket scientists and ran into someone totally unexpected.
My father and a captain were driving through Munich following up on a lead when they came upon a convoy of signal corps troops, the same outfit my father's brother was serving in. My dad mentioned it to the captain, who told him to pull over. While the captain talked to the officer in charge, my father asked some of the soldiers if they knew Lester "Leck" Jamison. Leck overheard his name being mentioned and came around the truck and, to his amazement, saw my father.
Talk about a chance meeting.
Well, it was two brothers seeing a friendly face in a very unfriendly place. But it was one of a few really amazing situations my dad found himself in.
As you said, even though the war with Germany was over, your father was in a very hostile place.
There were still live land mines buried everywhere, including on the roadways. There were Nazi snipers hiding in outlying villages who didn't realize Germany had surrendered. Even some German civilians – even children – believed they should fight to the very last. But not the least, the Russians desperately wanted the very same scientists my father and his V-2 team members were looking for. If he'd been caught with one, well – let's just say the Russians liked to shoot first and seek forgiveness later.
It was the beginning moments of the next war – the Cold War.
Right. We were more or less inviting these scientists to America, and the Russians were forcing them at gunpoint back to Russia. The Russians were technically our allies, but at the same time, some very dangerous people.
Your dad had at least one face-to-face encounter with the Russians, and it led to yet another amazing happenstance.
He was given an assignment to find a German scientist Army Intelligence had heard was being kept against his will by the Russians. My father arrived at his destination, an old rural village that was split in two. The U.S had a small outpost at one end of town and the Russians had one at the other. On seeing my father's orders, the captain of the American outpost was ready to assist in any way. My father told him he needed an interpreter to explain to the scientist why he was here, since he didn't speak enough German to get the point across.
The captain sent for his interpreter, and when the man walked into the room, my father couldn't believe his eyes. He was an old friend of his from back home named Jerome Porkorney. His family had fled Germany and eventually immigrated to America. He could speak Czech, Polish, German, Russian, and English.
Jerome confirmed that the scientist was on the Russian side of town awaiting a detail to transport him back to Russia. But Jerome had a plan. He inconspicuously made his way behind the houses and spoke to the German scientist, explaining that this was his one and only opportunity to escape and go to America. Then Jerome instructed my father to hide his wristwatch and wedding ring, because if the Russians saw any jewelry, they would take it. They would also be very suspicious if they saw my dad's Tommy gun, so he was going into this unarmed.
While my dad stood casually in front of the American outpost and smoked a cigarette, Jerome took some schnapps to the two armed Russian soldiers at the other end of the street. On a subtle signal from Jerome, my father got in his Jeep and casually drove away. But once out of sight of the Russians, he doubled back and headed for the rear of the scientist's house.
My dad knew this was a mortally dangerous affair. If he or Jerome were caught, they could be summarily shot. Even worse, if he wasn't able to destroy his orders in time and the Russians figured out his mission, it would endanger the V-2 operation and, ultimately, America's position in the coming space race.
He reached the back door of the scientist's house not knowing what would happen next. But the man quickly jumped into the Jeep and they sped away. They'd pulled it off.
Your father's unusual life didn't end after he left the service.
He went back to work at Aberdeen after the war and continued to have a high profile. He worked on many secret cases for which he tested weapons and issued reports. One day in late 1963, two FBI agents arrived at Aberdeen, one with a rifle handcuffed to his wrist. They met with the post commander, who directed them to the branch chief, who sent them to the section chief, who sent them to my father. The agent un-handcuffed the rifle and gave it to my dad for testing but never let it out of his sight. When the tests were completed, the agent re-handcuffed the rifle to his wrist, and he and the other agent left. That rifle was believed to be the one used to assassinate President John F. Kennedy.