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Excerpt from Oral History Interview with George A. LeMaistre, April 29, 1985. Interview A-0358. Southern Oral History Program Collection (#4007) See Entire Interview >>

Using human intelligence to combat submarine attacks in the Gulf of Mexico

LeMaistre describes what he and other naval intelligence officers did after what he ironically calls "the Battle of the Gulf." They debriefed "neutrals" from places like Chile and Argentina, unsure what they were trying to find out. Nevertheless, their investigations sometimes uncovered useful information, especially with help from volunteers, such as one Communist Party member who found that his loyalty to his country exceeded his loyalty to his party.

Citing this Excerpt

Oral History Interview with George A. LeMaistre, April 29, 1985. Interview A-0358. Southern Oral History Program Collection (#4007) in the Southern Oral History Program Collection, Southern Historical Collection, Wilson Library, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

Full Text of the Excerpt

ALLEN J. GOING:
After New Orleans, where did you go then?
GEORGE A. LeMAISTRE:
After the battle of the Gulf, so to speak, subsided, after that submarine was dealt with, we didn't have any more sinkings for a while. Although one or two of those ships that were sunk out there were heavily loaded with aviation fuel and gasoline; they made spectacular torches. I remember seeing one of them blow up. I was walking along the levee down at Venice which is 100 miles south of New Orleans on the river. I heard this noise and looked over to the east and there was this huge ball of flame. We borrowed a boat as usual, we had none of our own, and went out there to it and didn't find anybody. We never found a soul. We found the board off the bridge of the ship which had the ship's name on it. It was the Raleigh Warner. Raleigh Warner is now the president of one of the big oil companies. He was the son of the president of Pure Oil Company. But after the shipping scare subsided, we spent a great deal of time setting up travel control, because most of the neutrals, or so called neutrals, came in by ship in those days. Not many planes flew in. We had passenger ships coming in from Spain, a great many ships from South America; Chile and Argentina just continuous traffic between New Orleans and their home ports. The Delta shipping lines based in New Orleans had passenger ships and cargo ships. Mostly mixed cargo and passenger ships. Freighters carrying a few passengers. And all the United Fruit ships carried passengers. Some of them as many as 150. Standard Fruit was still running a big fleet of white ships, all of them carrying passengers. So we had to set up some kind of control to interview every passenger that came in to find out where he came from, what he had seen. In effect, a debriefing without him really knowing what we were trying to find out. Most of them volunteered information and were very helpful. The Spanish government had a little bit of a problem with us or maybe we had one with them. I don't know. On one or two occasions they were suspected of bringing information that was helpful to the German fleet—submarine fleet. That they would either drop off in South America or Corn Island or somewhere down in the Gulf, or maybe bring it on with them. I assume we would use the same tactics if we were trying to get information to somebody. It would be a lot easier to let some neutral take it than it would be to try to get the word there yourself. We used to visit with the officers of these ships—spend maybe half a day quizzing them. In a few cases we actually put surveillance on those officers and followed them everywhere they went to see what kind of contacts they made. You'd be surprised how many times a man with a name like Fernandez would make his first contact with somebody named—a name like von Peppinon [?] or [laugh] something like that. They seemed to have an affinity for people with German names. And, of course, at that time everybody was suspicious of anybody with a German name. I guess there were no Japanese names. I don't remember anybody ever contacting the Japanese. Which did two things: it gave us a chance to observe the man who come in on the ship and it also pinpointed some of his contacts. By cross checking lists like the German-American Bund and organizations like that. We quite often found that the people that they were making contact with were engaged in other subversive activities. Matter of fact, we had a great setup in New Orleans in one regard. A young man who had joined the Communist Party and had become a minor official, assistant secretary or something like that of the cell that was located in New Orleans, decided that that was the wrong thing to do. He had joined before the war and when the United States became involved, he decided he was a loyal American. So instead of just quitting and going into the army, he came to see us in Naval Intelligence and asked if he could be helpful. We said, "Yes, stay right where you are." So we had the entire roster of the Communist set up not only in Louisiana but throughout the entire mid-South. We ran into some interesting problems with it. For instance, this boy's number in the draft came up. We had a problem. We couldn't just let him escape the draft when nobody else could, but we wanted to keep him where he was, so we managed to get him assigned to Algiers Naval Base. So he remained in uniform a member of the Communist Party. It was a dangerous job for him but he did a good job. He kept us pretty well informed.
ALLEN J. GOING:
You could keep track that way.
GEORGE A. LeMAISTRE:
We knew when meetings were going to take place, and we could infiltrate the meeting—have someone there who would otherwise attract attention—let them join up with some group before the meeting started.
ALLEN J. GOING:
When you identified actual subversives and informants, what happened?
GEORGE A. LeMAISTRE:
I never did quite understand why we were so reluctant to make examples of some of those people, but I do now understand it. It was much better for us to watch those people and to somehow neutralize their activity without them knowing it than it was to punish them. Because punishment would just mean that they would search for somebody else, and you'd lose your contact and your information. Whereas to let them go and observe them closely kept them, we hoped, from being suspicious and they became more open with their activity. I will say this, though; when Russia came into the war on our side, or when they began activities on our side I should say against the Germans, the Communist activity slowed down a great deal. They became pretty much interested in the welfare of the American military. It was not a source of worry really.
ALLEN J. GOING:
Yeah that, I guess, was '42.
GEORGE A. LeMAISTRE:
I don't know exactly when they declared war on Hitler, but remember in '40, I guess it was, they had had a nonaggression pact. [NOTE: Germany invaded Russia June 22, 1941.]
ALLEN J. GOING:
It might have been '41.
GEORGE A. LeMAISTRE:
Yeah, I think it might have been before our actual participation in the war that they came out on our side. But as they began to suffer more and we were trying to get goods to Murmansk and that kind of thing, we got a great deal more cooperation.