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In “Scholars of Mayhem,” a real-life WWII secret agent’s exploits remained hidden for years in a tin box

Co-author Daniel Guiet knew from an early age that an aura of mystery surrounded the man he called Dad, but it wasn't until years later that his stories could be told

Daniel C. Guiet is the son of Jean Claude Guiet, who began his clandestine career as an embedded agent in occupied France during WWII. Daniel graduated from Manual High School in 1970. He attended the University of Colorado and subsequently became the associate director of Rocky Mountain Planned Parenthood. He later moved to Durango, Colorado, where he founded a number of businesses. He has two sons and three grandchildren. Daniel lives in Durango and Nevy-sur-Seille, Jura, France, with his wife, Carol.


Timothy K. Smith has written and edited feature stories for periodicals for many years. He was the senior features editor at Fortune magazine, and before that he worked as a reporter and editor for the Wall Street Journal. A native New Yorker, he was educated at Brown University and the Sorbonne. He has three children and lives with his wife, Jennifer, on the Connecticut shore. He is a recipient of the Gerald Loeb career achievement award for editors.

The following is an excerpt from “Scholars of Mayhem: My Father’s Secret War in Nazi-Occupied France.”

UNDERWRITTEN BY

Each week, The Colorado Sun and Colorado Humanities & Center For The Book feature an excerpt from a Colorado book and an interview with the author. Explore the SunLit archives at coloradosun.com/sunlit.


2020 Colorado Book Awards winner for History

Unearthing A Story

My earliest memory incorporates a vivid sense of tropical heat, sea-salty moisture, sweet flowers and mildew scents surrounding me while I stared at a mysterious, light-gray tin bread box. Certainly this memory was early in my life, as the bread box was only slightly smaller than I was.

Assuredly it’s an odd place to learn so much about life, yet my father’s tin bread box held secrets that ultimately explained much of his life and its impact upon me.  It was one of the few items that always traveled with us on our frequent moves throughout the 1950s and 60s to what then were remote, sometimes primitive, and occasionally exotically glorious locations in the South Pacific, Indochina or Washington D.C. 

My father stored his clandestine memorabilia in this simple box for more than seven decades.  Honoring his oath taken in 1943 regarding The Official Secrets Act, he was prohibited from any mention of his service. He never had any need to disclose his terror, his heroics or his medals. And like so many survivors, he contentedly remained silent, carrying his secrets within.  No one other than my mother was aware of his true life, of classified missions and various clandestine agencies he worked with.  Apparently he retired in the early 1960s but that remains classified.  It was understood the tin bread box was off limits to my sister and me.  Admittedly, curiosity got the better of me when I first snuck into it when we lived on Saipan – I was 5 – the first of many explorations throughout my childhood. 

Growing up, I’d occasionally note a passing comment being incongruous with the quiet, calm, intellectual, perfectionist and loving man I knew as Dad.  More frequently, I’d observe times when he’d effortlessly and deftly deflect a conversation if he sensed it may be too close to his truth, not missing a beat, leaving a well-disguised void.  Very occasionally, always in private, I believed Dad dropped some carefully conceived form of hidden hints which he’d let slip – purposefully. So over my first two decades, I vaguely understood my father had some “minor, uninteresting role” during World War II doing something with the French resistance.  

On his 70th birthday in 1994, I gave Dad a laptop and instruction of its basic operations. I asked him — cajoled, occasionally whined, and bugged him — to write about his childhood life in France.   He resisted, claiming his “life was boring and of little interest to anyone.”  I suggested whatever he wrote would be just for our immediate family, stressing that his grandchildren might be curious someday. A few days later he began writing.  My mother quickly learned to resent “that damn machine” as she called the computer and his perfectionist-driven hours spent writing. 

The event that really opened the floodgates of his story was a phone call I received in 1998 from a woman in England. Rosemary Rigby was a founder and owner of a museum honoring Violette Szabo, a renowned special operations agent. She was attempting to track down Jean Claude Guiet for its grand opening. I said he was my father and listened in amazement as Rosemary provided a thumbnail sketch of the history of my father’s four-person team, which formed the nucleus of what was known as the Salesman II circuit operating in Nazi-occupied France.

Dad became more animated, happy, smiling, seemingly a social extrovert and so verbal once released from the classified constraints of sharing his first secret mission.

From “Scholars of Mayhem: My Father’s Secret War in Nazi-Occupied France”

Eventually, in 2000, my wife and I convinced Dad to attend the grand opening of the museum. Facts, information, untold secret stories, individuals that Dad hadn’t seen, nor ever mentioned, in the last 56 years were shared.  My wife and I were taken to new and amazing places by this week of free-flowing information.  Dad became more animated, happy, smiling, seemingly a social extrovert and so verbal once released from the classified constraints of sharing his first secret mission.

My father’s sole surviving teammate, Bob Maloubier, was also in attendance. The last time they had spoken was in a recently liberated Paris in 1944. Their reunion lasted over the course of five days, during which we listened, learned and questioned. They revisited times and memories neither had spoken of for nearly 60 years. A week later Bob flew his plane from Paris to my home in Jura, France, for further discussions in assured privacy. What ensued were far-ranging, unreserved conversations between the two veteran secret agents that covered their respective long careers. We were fortunate to have additional meetings and numerous interactions with Bob, who by then was referred to by European intelligence agencies as the James Bond of Europe.

In 2001, we flew my parents to France when we visited for a week in and near Limoges. We visited the isolated village into which the team had parachuted, as well as old ambush sites, radio huts and drop zones. We discovered a few French resistance survivors, who after extensive questioning remembered the “young American wireless operator” who’d fought side by side with them. They phoned others, who rushed to join us and the day became a celebration and a memorial. 

Jean Claude Guiet’s long-buried story of his first secret mission, secured in the tin bread box, was just beginning to be known. The box was the guardian of many such accounts.

— Daniel Guiet

Foreword

I stood with my father, Jean Claude Guiet, by a corrugated metal hangar at the Lons-le-Saunier airport in eastern France, watching a blue-and-white Cessna 182 make its final approach. Jean Claude did not allow the anticipation he felt to show in his expression. It was 9:00 a.m. on a sunny summer day that promised to build into a very hot Jura afternoon.  A single tattered windsock fluttered in the light breeze.

The Cessna was an old one, perfectly ordinary, except that someone had removed its transponder, the device that would have identified it to air traffic controllers.  Its pilot was Bob Maloubier, a 77-year-old Frenchman wearing Ray-Bans and a handlebar mustache. In the co-pilot’s seat rode his friend and former wife, Catherine, an easy-going beauty some 20 years his junior. 

Five days before, on June 24, 2000, Bob and Jean Claude had been reunited for the first time since the liberation of Paris in 1944. They had both attended the opening of a museum in Wormelow, England, devoted to the memory of Violette Szabo, an English secret agent who was a heroine of the French resistance.  Bob, who stood six foot four, wore a chest full of medals and ribbons. Jean Claude, who was five ten, wore none of his.  Their handshake turned into a long embrace. “My God, Jean, you’ve gotten very old!”  Bob said in French. Jean Claude replied, “I am still six months younger than you.”

The museum opening was of course a general hubbub: war veterans, politicians, and even a few movie stars attended; newspaper reporters and a BBC film crew competed to interview them. It was no place for a real conversation. So Bob and Jean Claude agreed to have a private reunion at the little chateau where my wife, Carol, and I spend summers in Nevy-sur-Seille, a village of two hundred souls in the Jura region. Bob would fly in from Paris, where he lived. They would have a chance to go over the extraordinary history they had shared with Violette, and also, perhaps, whatever they could divulge about the 56 years since they had seen each other last.

We watched the Cessna descend toward the grassy airstrip bordered by white-painted rocks.  My father’s face betrayed nothing. I was aflame with curiosity, especially as I knew that the wartime records of the unit both men had served with had finally been declassified. My father, a discreet, formal, French-born American—a perfectionist in all he did—had never spoken of things that were officially secret.   

We children didn’t have to be told never to touch it; the box, it was understood, was strictly off limits.

From “Scholars of Mayhem: My Father’s Secret War in Nazi-Occupied France”

My thoughts drifted to the tin breadbox that had traveled with us wherever the government-supplied moving vans took our family during my peripatetic childhood. It was light gray, painted with pink hibiscus flowers. Wherever we lived – apartment, hotel, shanty, or house – the box would be tucked away in a hard-to-reach spot in my father’s bedroom closet. There was never any food in it – it gave off no scent of crackers, bread, or nuts. Rather it smelled faintly of rubberized plastic, with undertones of old leather and canvas. We children didn’t have to be told never to touch it; the box, it was understood, was strictly off limits.

Opening it required considerable strength in the fingertips, I discovered at age five. We were living in a quonset hut on Saipan that year, 1956.  My parents and my older sister were outside on the beach, taking in a picture-perfect Pacific sunset.  The tin bread box had been placed within my reach for once, on the quonset hut’s floor among crates and suitcases, as we were preparing to move yet again.  I got my fingers under the narrow rolled lip of the lid, popped it, and peered inside.

I didn’t understand most of the things I found.  The .45 automatic was not a mystery, to be sure; I removed it carefully, along with five full clips. There were three slim knives, about four to ten inches long, in leather sheaths with straps. There was also a length of wire with a wooden handle at each end. 

There were thin pieces of paper, four inches square, titled Field Station to Home Station and Home Station to Field Station, with tiny type printed on them in sequences of five random letters. There were black-and-white photos, with scalloped white borders, of men roasting monkeys in a jungle. I found several passports with my father’s photograph in them, each bearing a different name. There was a compass. A small green box, bound with a fat rubber band, contained narrow bits of metal with quarter-inch round wooden handles—a set of lock rakes, as I later learned. There was a large silk square with eight flags printed on it, with a message underneath each flag in the language corresponding to it. I read the one in English. It said: “I am an American. Help me. You will be well paid.” I put everything back into the box in the correct sequence and snapped the lid shut.

The Cessna kissed the runway, its wheels sinking a little way into the grass, and taxied to the hangar.  Bob and Catherine climbed out of the plane and into our car.  It was a short ride to the chateau, along the bank of the Seille river, through the village, through our gated wall, past our little vineyard and trout pond and up to the 250-year-old house.  We settled on the terrace with coffee.  Bob began by asking Jean Claude: “What did you do after being dragged off to the airport by the MPs?” 

He alluded to their parting, in Paris, in September 1944.  The two young men had survived their clandestine mission in occupied France, against long odds, and had made their way to the liberated capital. For four days they celebrated their good fortune, drinking, dancing, and dining in Paris’s very expensive, very good, black-market restaurants.  They had no desire to report to their commanding officers just yet, and that meant eluding the military policemen who patrolled the city rounding up reveling soldiers. Jean Claude had two sets of papers, one French, one American, and he was perfectly bilingual. He was able to fool the French MPs by speaking only English when questioned, and the Americans by speaking French, but his luck ran out on day four when he was picked up by a joint French-American patrol. They took him in for questioning and ascertained his true identity. A few hours later an older man in civilian clothing arrived hurriedly, and, escorted by two MPs, put Jean Claude on the next flight to London.

“I spent a few days at Baker Street,” Jean Claude replied.

Number 64 Baker Street in London was, at that time, the headquarters of an organization called the Special Operations Executive (SOE). The few people who knew of its existence nicknamed it the Ministry of Ungentlemanly Warfare.  Its operatives were called the Baker Street Irregulars.  

For any reader unfamiliar with the Sherlock Holmes canon, the original Baker Street Irregulars were London urchins who, in several stories, did intelligence work for the great detective.  The men—and many women—of SOE were certainly irregular in many senses of the word, but it wouldn’t be quite right to think of them as spies. They were secret agents, to be sure, but they weren’t trained just for espionage.  Their job was mayhem—sabotage and subversion behind enemy lines. As one SOE officer told the historian M.R.D. Foot: 

“Our field operatives were for the most part temperamentally unable to regard intelligence as anything but the essential prelude to action.  To whet their appetites for action, by directing them to locate enemy activities or resources, and at the same time to forbid action, is akin to giving a lion a raw sirloin to play with but not to eat.”

The two old lions conversing at the chateau were the surviving members of a four-person team that parachuted into Nazi-occupied France, near Limoges, on the day after D-Day.  There they galvanized thousands of maquisards—rural bands of French guerrillas—to intercept German reinforcements and prevent them from racing their Panzers north to the Normandy beaches and pushing the Allies back into the English Channel.  Bob was a demolition specialist. Jean Claude was the team’s wireless operator, responsible for coded communications with Baker Street. They were not expected to survive.

Before they got into the details of their wartime mission, though, Bob and Jean Claude had some catching up to do….

From Scholars of Mayhem by Daniel C. Guiet and Timothy K. Smith. Published by arrangement with Penguin Press, an imprint of Penguin Random House, LLC. Copyright © 2019, Daniel C. Guiet and Timothy K. Smith.

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