Leatherneck: And a Few Marines – Colonel William A. Eddy

4 May 2004 | 1 comment | Annuitants | by

Three men lay concealed in the uncut field, heavy with the smell of clover,
just a few feet from a gravel road. The crunch of hobnail boots, guttural
commands and the muffled sound of engineer tools drowned out the night sounds.
The three interlopers carefully recorded the activity and then silently withdrew
into the darkness.

Second Lieutenant William A. Eddy, intelligence officer of the Sixth Marine
Regiment, and his two men slipped back through the German lines and reported to
the regimental commander, Colonel Albertus W. Catlin, “The Germans are
organizing in the woods and consolidating their machine-gun positions.”

The foray was not the first for the young officer. Catlin remembered that
Eddy “did some remarkable work with the patrols. He was a daredevil, who loved
nothing better than to stalk German sentries in Indian fashion and steal close
to their lines. The Marine service has always attracted men of this type.”

Eddy’s actions that night earned him both the Navy Cross and Army
Distinguished Service Cross. The citation reads in part: “Near Torcy, France, on
the night of June 4, 1918, at a great personal risk, he led a reconnoitering
patrol of two men into the enemy’s lines and established the location of those
lines. At one time he and his patrol were between two bodies of the enemy,
remaining there for more than an hour. The information which he brought back
proved of great value in determining the disposition of the enemy, and he was in
imminent risk of capture during the greater part of his journey.”

The Marine Brigade, consisting of the 5th and 6th regiments and 6th Machine
Gun Battalion, moved into attack positions and at 1700 on 6 June 1918 assaulted
the heavily defended “Bois de Belleau,” wrestling it from the German defenders
in a horrific monthlong battle. Thereafter, the wood was known as the “Bois de
la Brigade de Marine.” During the action, Eddy and Sergeant Gerald C. Thomas
(later General) made a personal reconnaissance in front of the lines to judge
the effects of Allied artillery.

Thomas recalled: “We worked forward slowly through the dense wood. Eddy
climbed a tree to get a better look. He had no more gotten up there when he came
down with a thump. ‘My God,’ he whispered, ‘I was looking square at a German in
a machine-gun nest!’ ” After several more close personal observations, they
returned to friendly lines. Both Marines were awarded the Silver Star for their
actions, the first of two for Eddy.

Catlin noted, “Eddy’s conduct was distinguished to a degree by unerring
judgment, immediate action, and a remarkable sangfroid.” His luck finally ran
out on 25 June, when he was wounded in the leg by a high-explosive shell. After
recuperating, he rejoined the brigade as its intelligence officer and
aide-de-camp to then-Brigadier General Wendell C. “Buck” Neville.

Three months later Eddy was evacuated to the U.S. Naval Hospital, Brooklyn
after contracting a near-fatal case of pneumonia. In his weakened condition, he
contracted a severe infection in his right hip, which resulted in complete loss
of motion in the joint that caused him to walk with a limp for the rest of his
life. The Marine Retiring Board found that he was “unfit for active service” and
placed him on the retired list with the grade of captain. In a letter to his
mother, Eddy expressed concern for the future. “It is a real question what [I]
will do after I leave the hospital. As you know, I will be a cripple all my
life. There will be something I can do, I know.”

William Alfred Eddy was born in Sidon, Syria, on 9 March 1896. His parents
were American Presbyterian missionaries, who insisted their son immerse himself
in the local culture?a decision that would have important consequences in his
later life. It was there among the Bedouin that he learned the language,
traditions and customs of the Arabs. He was completely comfortable in the
bazaars, eating sheep’s eyes and couscous. Arab chieftains claimed there were
few tents in North Africa in which Eddy wasn’t welcome.

In the traditions of his family, he returned to the United States to get an
“American education,” graduating from Princeton in time to gain a commission and
ship out for France with the 6th Marines. After a slow recovery from wounds, he
re-entered the academic world, earning a doctor of philosophy at Princeton
(1922) and honorary doctor of laws at St. Lawrence University (1936) and humane
letters at Wooster College (1937).

In 1923, he returned to the Middle East as chairman of the English Department
at the American University in Cairo. Five years later he returned to the United
States as a professor of English at Dartmouth. In 1936 Eddy became president of
Hobart College in upstate New York, much to the delight of Major General John H.
Russell, who wrote, “As Commandant of the Marine Corps, and speaking for your
friends, it gives me distinct pleasure to offer you congratulations and best
wishes for every success in your new assignment.”

Despite his academic achievements, he never lost touch with the Corps. In
1936 he was promoted to major on the retired list, and at a chance meeting in
December 1940 with the Commandant, Lieutenant General Thomas Holcomb, Eddy
volunteered for active duty, “if his services could be profitably utilized.”

Holcomb discussed the proposal with the Director of Naval Intelligence, after
which he wired, “How quickly can you report for duty?” Eddy promptly resigned
from Hobart, explaining to the college trustees, “College presidency is a job
with which I am definitely out of love; I want to be a Marine!” Two months later
he was on the way to Cairo as naval attaché, wearing the silver oak leaves of a
lieutenant colonel.

Prior to leaving, however, Eddy became aware of some behind-the-scenes
maneuvering. Col William J. “Wild Bill” Donovan, World War I hero and newly
appointed Coordinator of Intelligence, took over the K organization, undercover
intelligence officers who ran secret agents in North Africa. Eddy was tasked by
Donovan to “tie in several Arabic-speaking Americans into a network that would
give us a continuous picture of military activity in Arabia.” Thus, he was
thrust into being the spearhead for the intelligence penetration of North
Africa. In a letter to the Commandant, Donovan wrote that Eddy pursued the
assignment with “initiative, tact, and daring far beyond that required of most

In the fall of 1941, Donovan, head of the Office of Strategic Services (OSS),
received presidential blessings to expand his operations in northwest Africa. He
picked Eddy to head all undercover and subversive operations, even over the
objections of his embassy boss, who said, “Upon your departure from Cairo I wish
to tell you again how deeply I personally deplore your transfer and what a loss
to this Mission the termination of your service here constitutes.”

The newly selected intelligence chief shifted his base of operations from
Cairo to Tangier, a city broiling with intrigue, swarming with Allied and Axis
agents, spy vs. spy, who rubbed shoulders in its watering holes and bistros.
Unscrupulous double agents thrived by passing information to the highest bidder.
“Dirty work” abounded: car bombings, sabotage, assassinations and intimidations.
One night Eddy’s assistant, First Lieutenant Franklin P. Holcomb, USMC, son of
the Commandant, was accosted by a group of Italian thugs. In the ensuing brawl,
Holcomb upheld the highest traditions of the Corps. President Franklin D.
Roosevelt learned of the Marine “victory” and directed that Holcomb be promoted
immediately to captain.

Eddy, an intellectual man of action, a field officer who detested office work
and bureaucrats, thrived in that environment. He was a man with pronounced likes
and dislikes, not one to mince words. With a powerful voice and rugged physique,
he was an intimidating figure who did not suffer fools well.

Eddy inherited a dozen agents, nicknamed the Twelve Disciples. Ostensibly
they were vice-consuls attached to the U.S. Missions in Casablanca, Algiers and
Tunis, but, in fact, they were tasked to collect intelligence. To facilitate
this collection effort, Eddy established a clandestine radio net. His own
transmitter (code-named Midway) was installed on the roof of the U.S. Consulate,
but had to be moved when the wife of the Consul complained that the mysterious
tapping on the roof kept her awake at night. Much to the delight of the operator
it was moved to a local wine press.

With his agents in place, Eddy moved into high gear. He bankrolled Berber
tribesmen to smuggle arms and equipment, persuaded a religious brotherhood to
spy on the Vichy French and recruited dozens of individuals to become agents. A
fisherman provided the location of antiaircraft guns and the movement of German
submarines, herdsmen located hidden fortifications, two coding clerks turned
over all decoded copies of German cables, an airline chief technician passed on
the blueprints of all airfields, their defenses and recognition signals and on
and on, amassing a treasure trove of intelligence.

“Operation Torch,” code name for the Allied landings in French North Africa,
was the first OSS operation in direct support of a military action and the
crucial test for Donovan’s organization. Eddy was ordered to head up all OSS and
SOE (Special Operations Executive, British sabotage and subversive agency)
operations in French North Africa. The assignment seemed “snake bit” at the
start. Cooperation between OSS and the British SIS (Secret Intelligence Service)
was tenuous at best. Eddy thought its chief would “sell his country, his soul,
or his mother for a peseta” (Spanish money), while the Brit was violently
jealous of the Americans.

The animosity between the two didn’t make for a good working relationship.
Washington stubbornly refused to provide arms, equipment and cash to support a
nascent guerrilla force. An irate Eddy cabled Donovan: “If I cannot be trusted
with a few million francs in an emergency then I should be called back and
someone who can be trusted sent.” Finally, the U.S. Army distrusted the OSS,
calling it “Donovan’s Dreamers.”

Eddy plunged ahead, despite the obstacles. In July 1942, he achieved a major
breakthrough while on a liaison visit to London. He was invited to a dinner with
three of the Army’s key general officers: James Doolittle, George Strong (U.S.
Army Chief of Intelligence) and the redoubtable George S. “Blood and Guts”
Patton. Walking with a noticeable limp from his old leg wound, Eddy arrived in
uniform, with five rows of ribbons over his left breast pocket, top row left to
right, Navy Cross, Distinguished Service Cross, Silver Star with cluster and two
Purple Hearts. Patton gazed at the younger officer and exclaimed, “The son of a
bitch’s been shot at enough, hasn’t he?”

Eddy’s subsequent intelligence brief was just as impressive. He gave a
factual, point-by-point analysis of the situation in North Africa, which lasted
into the wee hours of the morning. He ended by saying, “If we send an
expeditionary force to North Africa, there would be only token resistance.”

Strong, a bitter enemy of Donovan and the OSS, went away impressed. “You seem
to know what you’re talking about,” he conceded, although he warned that if
Eddy’s intelligence was wrong, many American lives would be lost on the beach.
The successful briefing earned Eddy an audience with LTG Dwight D. “Ike”
Eisenhower (Supreme Commander) the next afternoon and a major intelligence role
for the OSS.

Ike telegrammed the Army Chief of Staff, GEN George C. Marshall: “Colonel
Eddy of the U.S. Marines will arrive in Washington this week. He possesses much
information which will be valuable to the Chiefs of Staff.”

On 14 Oct. 1942, the Torch Operations Order was issued. Eddy received his own
annex: “S.O. Operations Instructions to Lieutenant Colonel W. A. Eddy, U.S.
Marines.” His organization was tasked to carry out subversive activities in
support of the landings?light the landing beaches, neutralize coastal gun
batteries, provide guides, block roads and rail lines, and sabotage enemy
airfields. Eddy’s men came up with a plan to assassinate Gestapo officers, but
headquarters got cold feet and turned him down, much to his disgust. They
devised another more humane solution: drug the Nazis’ drinks with “Mickey
Finns,” but this turned out to be impracticable.

At midnight on 8 Nov., with the landing just hours away, the BBC in London
broadcast, “Allo Robert, Franklin arrive!” the signal for the pro-Allied French
resistance to rise up. Flares lit the landing beaches; guides welcomed the men
ashore; the password was “whiskey,” the response “soda.” Telephone lines were
cut, but not everything went according to plan. In some areas, the landings were
strongly opposed, but overall the Allied invasion of North Africa proved

Eddy was elated and cabled Donovan, “Thank God, all well ? ‘Le Jour De
Gloire, C’est Arrive [The day of glory has arrived].’ “

“You are a superb soldier,” Donovan wired back. Two weeks later, Donovan
wrote the Commandant requesting Eddy’s promotion. Holcomb responded: “I have
thought for some time that he should be promoted. I will send his name in at
once for spot promotion to the temporary rank of Colonel.”

Along with the promotion came a new assignment, Chief of the OSS in the
Mediterranean theater?secret intelligence, special operations and
counterespionage?with responsibilities for Italy, southern France, Spain,
Tunisia and Spanish Morocco. Eddy’s organization supported a wide array of
special operations in the soft “underbelly” of Europe, including Operation
Husky, the Allied landing in Sicily and the introduction of Allied agents into
southern France.

For this service he was recommended for the Distinguished Service Medal, but
it was downgraded to a Legion of Merit, despite Donovan’s appeal for the higher
award. “It is my personal opinion that Colonel Eddy represents the very highest
type of officer. ? Without his inspired leadership it is doubtful if the work
could have been successful.”

In November 1943, the State Department wrote Donovan requesting the loan of
“a senior officer expert in the Arabic language and political matters in the
Arabic speaking countries of the Levant” and requested Eddy by name, saying,
“[he] is ideally suited for the functions that the Department has in mind.”
Donovan concurred, and in a letter to Cordell Hull, the Secretary of State,
confirmed that the OSS and the State Department would share Eddy’s intelligence
reports while on this “special temporary duty.”

President Roosevelt confirmed Eddy as Envoy Extraordinary and Minister
Plenipotentiary to the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. FDR’s letter to King Ibn Saud
stated, “My knowledge of Colonel William A. Eddy [is as] a distinguished citizen
of high character and ability.” Eddy officially “resigned” from the OSS and was
placed on the retired list of the Marine Corps to accept the assignment. A year
later, in February 1945, he became the official interpreter for FDR and Saud at
the Great Bitter Lake Conference in the Suez Canal.

Eddy left the State Department in 1947 to become a consultant to the
Arabian-American Oil Company (ARAMCO), but he continued to provide intelligence
to Donovan’s successor organization, the CIA. During the Lebanon Crisis of 1958,
he advised the Marines on political matters.

Col Eddy died in Beirut in 1962 and is buried near his Sidon birthplace.

Editor’s note: Retired Col Dick Camp is a frequent contributor to
Leatherneck. A co-author with Eric Hammel of “Lima-6,” a book about a Marine
company commander in Vietnam, Camp commanded L/3/26 at Khe Sanh. His book is
available from the MCA bookstores.

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