MOST FEMALE spies in World War II weren’t Mata Haris. Witness Elizabeth “Betty” McIntosh (then MacDonald), a disinformation specialist with the U.S. Office of Strategic Services. McIntosh helped the OSS devise campaigns in the Far East that under mined Japanese morale and saved American lives. She detailed those frenetic days in two books, Undercover Girl (1947) and Sisterhood of Spies (1999). Recalling them now, the spirited 97-year-old observes, “The war meant women could do a lot more than they’d been allowed to before. Where I was, there was equality and openness between the sexes. That’s what made it work.”
You started out as a journalist.
I worked on a Hawaiian newspaper, writing for the “women’s pages”—stories women were supposed to be interested in. Alex MacDonald, my then-husband, was also a journalist. He and I visited a Japanese professor every day to study Japanese. We both were intrigued by the Far East; we wanted to be foreign correspondents.
What was December 7, 1941, like for civilians in Hawaii?
Honolulu was pretty gruesome. There was complete terror. Planes were everywhere, with a constant roar overhead. Ambulances were racing through the streets. I saw a building just disintegrate. An open air market took a direct hit. One dead little girl was still holding her jump rope’s wooden handles; the rope had burned away. It was terrible. Our Nisei—some, like the late Senator Daniel Inouye, were later in the famous 442nd Regimental Combat Team—strung barbed wire along Waikiki Beach in case of invasion. At the hospital, there were dead bodies everywhere. So when my editor asked me to write about what was going on in the city, I took him at his word. I don’t think he expected to get what I reported about the damage and dislocation and confusion. The story was never published. They thought it would be too damaging to morale.
But you got promoted.
The Scripps-Howard newspaper chain sent me to Washington, D.C., to write a women’s column called “Home Front Forecasts,” largely about how to cope without things like gasoline and liquor that Americans couldn’t get because of rationing. I also covered the White House, so I interviewed colorful people like Eleanor Roosevelt.
How did that lead you to the OSS?
In 1943 I met a businessman from Hawaii, and mentioned I was getting bored with this job and with Washington, that I’d studied Japanese, and that like most correspondents I wanted to go overseas, where the action was. He got cagey, and said he might be able to help, but I’d have to work for the government. I said that didn’t matter, I just wanted to go. He arranged for me to join the OSS. Their offices were way off the beaten path; to find them you had to know where they were. For weeks they put me through examining and testing, including Japanese language skills. Then they decided I’d be assigned to the Far Eastern section of something called MO— Morale Operations.
What was that?
Disinformation, psychological warfare. We would be trying to change the minds of the enemy. Writing pamphlets and newspapers and books, broadcasting on the radio about how Japanese children were suffering and starving, for instance, and making these appear Japanese in origin—however we could get to the enemy to change their minds about the war and their role in it. That was “black” propaganda, as distinct from the Office of War Information, which did “white” propaganda: morale-boosting stories for our side.
How did the OSS train you?
Our commander was Major Herbert Little. Like most in the OSS, he was casual about rank; we called him Herb. He was shrewd enough to let me imagine scenarios that our instructors hadn’t outlined, which introduced some radical thinking into our black propaganda. And we had field-agent training: ciphers, clandestine meetings, interrogation techniques, fire arms. The first time I fired a Thompson submachine gun it almost turned me around in a circle—the kick was so powerful! But I got the hang of it.
You got your husband into the OSS, too. Why?
Alex had been activated from the naval reserve and was in the Office of Naval Intelligence. He was very much better at Japanese than I was. He did a beautiful job for the OSS at radio in Burma while I was in India, then China in 1944–45. But like so many ,our relationship didn’t survive the war.
How did you set up the MO unit in New Delhi?
My colleague Marjorie Severyns and I developed people and material. The first was Bill Magistretti, an OSS analyst who had lived in Japan. He spoke absolutely flawless Japanese, and had a huge cache of Japanese newspapers, postcards, and photographs—just what we needed. Bill and I pooled ideas and worked really well as a team. The son of my Japanese teacher joined us, as did other Nisei I knew from Hawaii. Each MO group had a Nisei member, whose contributions were essential: They made sure we grasped nuances of Japanese culture. They had to overcome so much to be there, but there they were.
What was your first operation?
A British major let me go through sacks of captured Japanese field manuals, books, magazines, and newspapers—all grist for the MO mill. At the bottom of one bag I found a leather pouch. Inside were almost 500 clean, dry postcards with standard greetings from homesick soldiers, stamped by the censor. I said, “Let’s erase the messages and substitute our own.” Bill immediately agreed, saying we could easily have them slipped back into the Japanese postal system. That was Project Black Mail. The cards would hammer the same message home, like an ad campaign slogan: The Japanese were losing in Burma, there was heartbreak and starvation in the jungle, and slackers back home weren’t supporting the troops. Several hours later, we were done. The pouch of postcards was success fully slipped into the Japanese mail. A week later Tojo’s cabinet resigned, and Bill joked, “See what you’ve done!”
Your next gambit was even more ambitious.
We were told there was a Japanese POW in jail in Burma; we could visit him, but he wouldn’t talk to anybody, because he felt he’d let the emperor down and was ready to die. Bill and I figured we’d go anyway. When we walked into his cell, he wouldn’t look at us. Bill managed to get his eye, and the POW recognized him—they’d been at school together in Japan. The man broke down, and from then on he was with us. He helped us to fake a Japanese order aimed at troops in northern Burma. It said they were now allowed to surrender if they were completely surrounded or wounded with no food—the opposite of reality, of course. This was put into proper Japanese, and the order’s paper and seal were taken from real ones we’d captured. The POW forged the necessary signatures and corrected the language. We got the fake order through the Japanese lines by pretending it was a captured document. Soon Japanese soldiers were surrendering in increasing numbers. It was a wonderful feeling to have accomplished that.
What was your final operation?
In early August 1945, our black radio station broadcast a prediction by the Hermit, a Chinese seer and astrologer very popular with his people. We had the Hermit predict that a Japanese city would suffer a catastrophic disaster during the first week of August. Now, we had no idea about the atomic bomb. But we caught the dickens anyway, about how we could have blown this top-secret mission.
What did you do after the war?
I worked for Glamour magazine. Dis cussing fashion after all I’d done seemed absolutely ridiculous. I lasted a year. Then I married Dick Heppner, one of [OSS chief] Bill Donovan’s law partners, whom I’d met in the OSS through his wonderful dog, Sammy; we decided he needed a real family. After Dick died suddenly in 1958, I joined the CIA.
Originally published in the June 2013 issue of World War II. To subscribe, click here.