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A North Africa Story: The Anthropologist as OSS Agent 1941-1943

I don’t mean to be so ignorant and opinionated, which I frequently am, to evade the fact that many historians of war have written, and continue to write, supremely good books. There’s really no doubt of that. However, there’s no sidestepping the assumption that the most rewarding illuminations are in books written by men and women who have risked their lives in operations against their enemies.

Carlton S. Coon, a noted anthropologist who studied under Earnest Hooton, wrote a masterful book about his OSS experiences in North Africa, Corsica and Italy. He and his colleagues, among them Gordon H. Browne, received high decorations for their valor. If there were an OSS Hall of Fame Carlton Coon and Gordon Browne, deserve a niche in it. I quote from Mark Saxton’s from his preface to Mr. Coon’s book:

“By all accounts, not only this one, life in the OSS appears to have had a character all its own. Coon describes it by saying, ‘I never took an oath for the COI or OSS. We were all gentlemen volunteers on our honor. We were never under orders. We were always asked, ‘Would you like to … (e. g. get yourself killed)?’To which we always said ‘Yes.”

That feeling comes clearly through this account. Not remarkable for any secret it discloses, it is noteworthy for the sense of immediacy it conveys, for its picture of people doing extraordinary things in an ordinary manner, and as a rare glimpse into an agent’s mind while he is on the job, or at any rate what he feels he can set down about it.”

He had the best of preparations for his OSS assignments. Unlike the majority of OSS representative, he knew as much as any American about the North African territories the history, the people, and the languages -- in which he was engaged. He was one of General Donovan’s “glorious amateurs” when it came to intelligence and covert operations. No doubt of that. But he was a consummate professional when it came to understand the land and the cultures of natives.

Mr. Coon and Mr. Browne became intelligence agents in Operation Torch, our code name for the Anglo-American invasion of North Africa. They helped to provide intelligence keys before the invasion and conducted dangerous operations after it. For much of the time, their cover was as vice consuls. They helped to sort out and identify fascists and traitors in Vichy’s line-up from those Frenchmen determined to help to fight the Germans and Italians.

If you want to read a historic overview of Operation Torch to complement Mr. Coon’s adventures, I suggest that you also read FDR’s 12 Apostles: The Spies Who Paved the Way for the Invasion of North Africa, by Hal Vaughan.

You may have difficulty finding a copy of Mr. Coon’s book. But you will find a copy in some of the better libraries. This book should be reprinted. It’s a gem.