Chirac honors U.S. vet for counterespionage mission on D-Day

Monday, June 7, 2004

CAEN, France -- Charles Hostler has a small white scar on his forehead where a Nazi-sympathizing French grocer hit him with a meat ax 60 years ago.

It was the morning after the Allies' D-Day landings in Normandy, and Hostler's dangerous, top-secret mission was underway.

The grocer and others like him along the French coast were telegraphing military details to the Germans. Hostler, who was working for the American Office of Strategic Services -- the forerunner of the CIA -- and his American and British colleagues forced 43 of those agents to turn coat and send their spymasters false reports on Allied troops, he said.

It was part of a massive deception campaign that accompanied the Normandy landings and succeeded in keeping Hitler's forces off balance and in the wrong places.

Hostler's role was so sensitive that American officials kept it classified until the 1990s. Only in December did he receive a Purple Heart for his forehead wound -- which did not kill him because it came from the ax's blunt end.

On Sunday, President Jacques Chirac gave him and 13 other D-Day veterans the Legion of Honor, France's most prestigious award, at a Normandy ceremony attended by President Bush and more than a dozen world leaders.

Hostler, 84, of Coronado, Calif., was the sole American decorated personally by Chirac.

Ninety-nine other Americans received the Legion of Honor in Paris on Saturday. A total of 300 veterans from more than a dozen countries received the award.

Hostler, wearing an American flag tie, appeared overcome by emotion as Chirac pinned the silver and green star on his chest.

MI6 trainingHe was trained by the British MI6 intelligence agency for an operation known as X2 -- or "double cross." He said a postwar examination of German records showed the Nazis never realized that the Allies controlled any of their French agents.

British mathematicians and linguists -- boosted by the Royal Navy's capture of an encoding machine and cipher books from two sinking German U-boats -- had cracked the Nazis' complicated Enigma code.

By listening in on the Germans, the British produced a list of civilians recruited as spies in anticipation of an Allied invasion.

Hostler came ashore on Utah Beach just hours behind front-line troops. His job was to find the agents before neighbors who suspected their betrayals could take revenge.

Although the grocer initially resisted, most agents eventually cooperated, said Hostler, who said he personally helped force 10 to 12 spies to turn.

The double crossThe OSS used the civilians' transmissions to try to convince German planners that the D-Day landings were just the beginning of a bigger assault, with another invasion to come at Pas de Calais, the narrowest point on the English Channel.

Hitler is said to have believed for weeks after D-Day that a second invasion was in the offing, and he kept much of his heavy armor away from Normandy in anticipation of a strike that never came.

"We told [the agents to say] that the [D-Day] strike was minimum, the troops were light, they didn't seem to be properly prepared, they were not sufficiently armored and they were just diversionary types," Hostler said.

The messages evolved as the Allies advanced across Europe.

"In one area where we were weak, we'd say we were strong or the reverse," Hostler said.

Counterintelligence teams also gleaned useful information from questions the spymasters asked their civilian agents, he said.

OSS teams watched the transmissions closely, he recalled, on guard for signs the agents were changing their telegraphing style or using code words to indicate they were under Allied control. When the experts were convinced an agent was cooperating, they stationed two GIs in the person's home and moved on.

In an interview at a Paris hotel throwing a swing music party for returning American veterans, Hostler recalled entering the French capital as the Nazis retreated.

His two jobs in Paris: seize the engraving plates used to print French francs so the Germans could not produce counterfeit currency and keep a group of nuclear scientists out of Nazi clutches.

Hostler served in the military until 1963 and then joined the foreign service. He was U.S. ambassador to Bahrain during the first Gulf War.

Sixty years later, he's enjoying the belated praise for his secret World War II efforts.

"It was [U.S. Gen. Dwight] Eisenhower that said he felt that the work that OSS had done was the equivalent of having another [military] division and that thousands of lives had been saved," he said. "That certainly made it all worthwhile."

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