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Review: Fluorescent Foxes and Other Outrageous Projects of WWII Espionage

THE DIRTY TRICKS DEPARTMENT: Stanley Lovell, the OSS, and the Masterminds of World War II Secret Warfare, by John Lisle

Had you taken a midnight stroll in Rock Creek Park in Washington, D.C., one summer night in 1945, you might have seen around 30 foxes, spray-painted with glow-in-the dark radium-based paint, gamboling radioactively in the moonlight. Those who did witness this apparition were understandably petrified. The National Park Police reported, “Horrified citizens, shocked by the sudden sight of the leaping, ghostlike animals, fled from the dark recesses of the park with the ‘screaming jeemies.’”

The luminous vulpines were a test of the latest secret weapon developed by the research and development section of the Office of Strategic Services (O.S.S.), the forerunner of the C.I.A. formed in 1942 to run spies and organize resistance against Axis powers. Led by an industrial chemist named Stanley Lovell, this department was responsible for dreaming up covert ways to baffle, terrify, destabilize and destroy the enemy: Poison pills, silent guns, gizmos to derail trains, invisible inks, truth serums, forgeries, exploding dough, disguises and camouflage were all developed for the use of O.S.S. agents operating behind the lines. The unit was also responsible for psychological ploys designed to get inside Axis minds.

The fox ruse was the brainchild of Ed Salinger, an importer-exporter who had lived in Tokyo. Salinger maintained that glowing, fox-shaped spirits — kitsune — could be portents of doom in Shintoism. If fluorescent foxes could be introduced into Japan, he argued, this would give their foes the screaming jeemies, thus helping win the war.

The plan, code-named Operation Fantasia, got quite far: Several unfortunate painted foxes were tossed into the middle of Chesapeake Bay to see if they would swim ashore. Most of the paint had washed off those that reached land.

William “Wild Bill” Donovan, the bullish founder of the O.S.S., described Lovell as his “Professor Moriarty,” the evil mastermind of the Sherlock Holmes stories. Lovell was an eccentric innovator who took pride in the most outlandish and lethal inventions, and his closest fictional counterpart is really “Q” of James Bond fame. (At this time, Ian Fleming was working in British Naval Intelligence, also inventing bizarre schemes, most notably Operation Mincemeat, the successful deployment of a corpse with fake papers to mislead the enemy. Fleming’s experience of wartime espionage became the basis for his novels.)

Read entire article at New York Times