Hal Leith Rescue Mission

 

 

Hal Leith, one of the Central Intelligence Agency's "old guard," was involved in one of history's major rescue efforts-the recovery of Lieutenant General Jonathan Wainwright at the end of World War II.

 

The story of the rescue mission was recorded by Leith, a staff sergeant in the Office of Strategic Services (OSS), in a diary he maintained during the summer of 1945.

 

Wainwright, a frail 98 pounds when freed, had endured a brutal period of captivity while being held by the Japanese during the war years. After he left Corregidor he surrendered to General Homma. He was first sent to the Tarlac Prison in the Philippines and then to Formosa until he was finally sent to Manchuria in October 1944. He remained imprisoned in Manchuria until saved by the rescue mission which found the General as well as hundreds of other POWs.

 

Hal Leith was assigned to the OSS early in his Army career, primarily because he had a fluency in several languages and a canny knack for learning more. Although he shifted to the new Central Intelligence Agency after the war, the rescue mission to Manchuria in the summer of 1945 while working for CIA's predecessor is still considered the capstone of his career.

 

Leith now lives in Golden, Colorado, where he keeps busy assisting others in many ways. He works to help the hearing impaired and was in charge of the deaf skiing program at Winter Park, Colorado. "I am proud of having been part of the CIA," he emphasizes while relating details of the Wainwright rescue mission he undertook as a member of the OSS. "When we walked into the POW camp and told them they were free, I never saw such happy people," Leith points out. 

 

"They came crowding around us, asking a million questions. They were starved for any kind of news from their home. They asked about the World Series and they wanted to know if Shirley Temple was still alive; they'd been told she was dead."

 

Arrival in Manchuria:

 

The six man rescue team parachuted into Manchuria on August 16th, 1945 and immediately ran into trouble. After just a half mile advance four men of the team ran into a Japanese patrol that was unaware that the war had just ended. 

The team consisted of Major Hennesy the leader, the doctor, Major Robert Lamar, Hal Leith and Fumio Kido interpreter. When the group was confronted by the enemy patrol, Lamar insisted that he was going to go down fighting.  Hoping to talk their way out of the tight situation (we were surrounded), Leith states in his diary: "I said I was going to let him (Lamar) have it if he made a move. He didn't!" 

 

After the team was blindfolded, it was taken to the Japanese Kempeitai headquarters in downtown Mukden where the Colonel in charge provided them with sake and whiskey. He said he had heard something on the radio about the war ending but had no orders or instructions from Tokyo. The next morning, he determined that the war in fact had ended. 

 

As a result, Leith writes, "we were the last persons captured and the first to be set free" in World War II. That afternoon, before the Japanese surrender, the Americans were put into an Army truck and driven to the nearby Japanese POW camp. Unfortunately, it wasn't the camp that held America's most famous war prisoner.

 

The Company Officer of the camp was not sure just what to do and was hesitant about immediately turning over the compound to the five Americans (One member of the team was Chinese and he, in fright, had disappeared immediately after we hit the ground). The Commanding Officer sent us back to Kempeitai headquarters where the Colonel there had the team put up in a hotel where the rescue members were given private rooms with baths.

 

"The Hotel Yamato was palatial, the best," Leith recalls. The next morning the Americans returned to the Japanese Kempeitai Headquarters where the Colonel in charge formally surrendered and offered to commit hara kiri.

 

 "We declined that offer but did ask him to keep his troops in order," Leith relates. The team was taken back to the POW camp where they met with the senior U.S. officer at the camp, Major General George M. Parker. "We told him the war was over and we were there to get the prisoners home" Leith said. "I ran outside into the prison year and, at first the prisoners were almost afraid to speak. I was the first free American they had seen in three years and four months ever since Bataan. "I waved at them and told them the war was over and they were going home. In a few moments, I was surrounded by a crowd of the happiest guys I have ever seen in my life."

 

The camp was occupied by American, British and Dutch prisoners and was, according to Leith, one of the best of POW confinement compounds (Please note the total sarcasm), "as best goes." The camp was horrible!. Leith said the freed prisoners crowded around and told the team members that they were heroes. "Nuts," Leith has transcribed in his diary. "It was such a pleasure to see them walk like free men again."

 

The rescue team still had its assignment, to free General Wainwright, who clearly was not in the Mukden camp. They were told that he and other high ranking prisoners were interned, instead, in a camp 150 miles away in Hsian.

 

Off to Hsian:

 

The Japanese assisted in arrangements to get members of the rescue team to Hsian. Leith and Major Lamar were put on a train and taken (in a first class compartment) to Ssu Ping. Another train was waiting there to complete the journey and the Japanese had added an entire car to the connecting train for the U. S. military rescuers. At 4:30 AM. they met with the Commanding officer of the Hsian prison camp, a Lt. Marui, and discovered he had graduated from the University of Oregon. 

 

And, on August 19th, 1945 they finally met with, and freed Generals Wainwright, King and Moore, British General Percival, defender of Singapore, Governor Tjarda von Starkenberg Stachower (Netherlands East Indies), Governor Sir Mark Young of Hong Kong, Dutch Generals, etc.

 

"General Wainwright was quite thin and getting deaf, Leith recalls. "In fact, most everyone was underweight." There were many other prisoners in the camp and Leith visited the enlisted men's quarters and let them know they were free. "What a happy bunch of guys," He writes. Naturally, bureaucracy had to raise its ugly head. Lamar and Leith tried to get instructions for their next action regarding the return of the prisoners but couldn't reach authorities in Mukden. The doctor, Lamar decided to travel back to Mukden to find out what to do while Leith stayed at the camp to protect the prisoners. The first day, while waiting for instructions, was spent relating news from the outside world to those in the camp.

 

The prisoners told Leith that, in the preceding days, "local Manchu's have been giving the fellows the 'thumbs up' sign. The Japanese at the camp knew we were coming but Lamar and I were described only as 'two very important persons'." The captives surmised that the two visitors would make up just another inspection group, never expecting them to be the rescuers who would give them their freedom. The next day was spent talking with the object of the mission General Wainwright. Leith wrote that the General was "quite concerned that the American people despised him for surrendering" Corregidor. Leith reassured him otherwise.

 

While in prison, Wainwright was assigned the task of sharpening razor blades for the prison population. When freed, he drafted a memorandum to all hands dissolving his "Wainwright Razor Blade Sharpening Factory" and had Leith distribute it to all concerned. Wainwright celebrated his 62nd birthday on August 23rd but there still was no word from Mukden so the newly freed prisoners and Leith remained on site. On August 24th, a Soviet motor column, commanded by a two star Soviet General arrived in town. After considerable discussion, the Soviets agreed to help get Wainwright, Leith and the other POWs to Mukden. 

 

"The Soviet commander was not happy that I was not a POW, spoke fluent Russian and had arrived several days before they did" Leith writes, making the point that the Soviets wanted to be the ones who freed the high ranking prisoners. The trip to Mukden, mostly cross country by road, took nearly three days and nights, requiring the "requisitioning" of some trucks and busses, the flagging down of a couple of trains.

 

The travel by truck/bus lasted until the vehicles got stuck in mud and ran out of gas near some railroad tracks. And, the commandeered "beat up little old train" broke down after two hours because the engineer forgot to put enough water into the boilers.

 

During this journey to freedom, Wainwright made Leith his "aide.,de camp." It was a funny spot to be in a corporal in complete charge of rescuing all these Generals and high officials," Leith recalls. He had been promoted to Staff Sergeant at the time of the jump but didn't know about it 'till later. He got no sleep for three days and nights and needed both his Russian and Chinese all the time.

 

At 12:30 A.M. on August 27th, 1945, the party finally reached Mukden. A Russian Colonel and Leith went to the Yamato Hotel where they found Major Lamar and his companions and told them the prisoners were at the RR station. Leith was given a hotel room but went back to the train to get the Generals and party. Finally, at 6:30 A.M. the released prisoners were about to begin the final leg of their journey home.

 

"We waited around, had breakfast, and took a truck to the airport where a C-47 and a B�24 waited. We got the Generals and the VIPs off. General Wainwright complimented me to his staff, saying that in bringing them safely from Hsian, I had done the job as well as any Major could have done."

 

After sending General Wainwright and his colleagues off,  Leith returned to his hotel and found both his room and clothing were gone thanks to the Soviets. "They're a tough bunch and not nearly as friendly as one reads in the paper," the CIA retiree recalls. Leith remained in Mukden till October. During that period, the Soviets kept up their looting, thievery, killing and harassment. The local Chinese population joined in, taking up "looting, breaking things, acting like crazy people." The Chinese mobs killed some Japanese and, eventually, the Chinese Communist army came to town as well.

 

The atmosphere was becoming increasingly tense and on October 5th, General Kovtun Stankevich, the Soviet Commander accused Leith and party plus the French Consul General and his family of spying and gave them a choice, "leave immediately or get a free trip to Siberia." Leave they did, but not before putting sugar into the fuel tank of their jeep. "We didn't want to leave anything useful for the Russians." Leith concluded. 

 

Leith was nominated for the Distinguished Service Cross by General Parker for his part in the rescue mission but got a Soldiers Medal instead because the operation officially took place after the end of the war. Leith has been told by many individuals that he should write a book about his 1945 experiences and says he may yet do so.

 

First, however, he has to find time. Now in his 25th year of teaching the deaf to ski and working as a volunteer with the deaf plus various fund raising activities, Leith doesn't have much free time.