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The Corpse That Fooled Hitler

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On the morning of April 30, 1943, a fisherman working off the coast of Huelva, Spain found a body floating in the water. The corpse, an adult male, was badly decomposed and wearing a military uniform, trench coat, and boots. Floating nearby, and attached to the man’s trench coat belt with a chain, was a briefcase.

The fisherman alerted the authorities and the body was retrieved. The contents of the briefcase, a mix of military documents and personal effects, identified the man as Major William Martin of the Royal Marines. A few days later, Martin’s body was turned over to British forces stationed in Spain and he was given a burial with full military honors. Martin’s briefcase did not accompany him, though, and London sent a slew of frantic messages to their forces in Spain asking for the quick, quiet return of the sensitive documents it contained. 

Spain was a non-belligerent in the war, but Franco’s government supported the Axis Powers ideologically and materially, and German agents were able to get the Spanish to give them a peek at the case before it was returned to England. Amid Martin’s various papers—a used bus ticket, a letter from a bank demanding payment of an overdraft fee—they found a letter addressed to a senior British officer in North Africa from the vice-chief of the Imperial General Staff. A letter like that, delivered in a briefcase chained to a officer courier, would no doubt contain useful intelligence.

The German agents slid a thin metal rod through a hole in the side of the envelope, wound the letter around it and then pulled it out without breaking the envelope’s seals. They were right about the letter: It revealed the Allies’ next big move in southern Europe and explained plans for British and American forces in North Africa to cross the Mediterranean and capture Greece and Sardinia. Copies of the letter were sent to Hitler and the German high command, which strengthened its forces in the Mediterranean, and the original was slipped back into the envelope and returned to London. 

“Swallowed Whole”

Normally, Allied intelligence falling so easily into Nazi hands would have been called a disaster, but in this case, everything happened exactly as it was supposed to. The letter, the briefcase and the body were actually all part of an elaborate hoax—dubbed Operation Mincemeat—cooked up by British intelligence to mask the Allies’ real plans.

Knowing the Spanish would probably share anything they found with the Germans, two British intelligence officers, Charles Cholmondeley and Ewen Montagu, hit upon the idea of letting them “intercept” false documents under the guard of a courier who’d met an untimely end in a plane crash at sea. If the plan sounds like something out of a paperback thriller, it is. Cholmondeley and Montagu got the idea from a memo written by a naval intelligence officer named Ian Fleming, who’d gotten it from a pre-war detective story called The Milliner’s Hat Mystery (Fleming would also go on to write some novels of his own). 

With help from the famed forensic pathologist Bernard Spilsbury, Cholmondeley and Montagu sought out a specific corpse to play their courier. They needed a body that looked like it had spent several days at sea and offered few clues as to the cause of death. There were plenty fitting that description in London’s morgues, but acquiring any of them would be difficult without raising suspicion. If military intelligence asked the next of kin for a body, but couldn’t reveal what they needed it for, people would surely gossip, and who knew how far that talk might travel.

With help from a London coroner, they were able to find a man with no known relations and whose body had gone unclaimed. The man had died from ingesting rat poison, either by accident or with the intent to kill himself. The dose was small enough that it probably took him several painful days to die, but it left few clues as to what had happened to him. 

Their body secured, Cholmondeley and Montagu started on the work of building from scratch the man who it had belonged to, filling his life with little details and his pockets and briefcase with odds and ends. Their creation, Major William “Bill” Martin, Royal Marines, was born in 1907 in Cardiff, Wales. He had a fiancee named Pam, and carried a snapshot of her (really an MI5 clerk) in his pocket. Before his death at sea, he’d purchased a diamond engagement ring from a London jeweler, and still had the receipt on him. He also carried a letter from his father, ticket stubs from the theater, a receipt for a dress shirt, a hotel bill, a St. Christopher medallion, and other items. 

In the early morning hours of April 30, the submarine HMS Seraph surfaced about a mile off the Spanish coast. The crew fitted “Major Martin” with a life jacket, attached his briefcase to his coat, read Psalm 39 over his body and then set it out to drift at sea. Two weeks later, when Martin’s briefcase was returned to England, British intelligence analyzed the letter he’d been tasked to deliver and figured out that the Germans had slyly opened it. They sent a simple confirmation to Winston Churchill of their success: “Mincemeat Swallowed Whole.”

Over the next several weeks, the Germans redistributed their defensive forces in the Mediterranean. Additional minefields were laid down, panzer divisions were rerouted to Greece, and General Erwin Rommel was sent to oversee operations there. On July 9, Allied forces launched Operation Husky and struck at their true target, an under-defended Sicily.

The Real Major Martin

Mincemeat was a success, and as the story was told and retold and even turned into a movie after the war, one question was on many people’s minds: Who was Major Martin? The picture on Martin’s ID card belonged to MI5 officer Ronnie Reed, that much was known. But who was the poor soul, so hungry or so desperate to die that he’d eaten rat poison, whose body cleared the path to Sicily, and is still buried in Huelva?

There are several candidates. In 1996, a historian named Roger Morgan suggested that Major Martin was really Glyndwr Michael. Originally from Wales, Michael was an alcoholic and was living on the streets of London during the war. On January 26, 1943, he was discovered in an abandoned warehouse and taken to a nearby hospital to treat “acute chemical poisoning” that the doctors attributed to rat poison. He soon died, and his body was kept in the morgue until a family member could be located. In researching a book about Mincemeat more than a decade later, Canadian historian Denis Smyth uncovered additional, previously unseen evidence supporting Morgan’s idea. 

In 2003, filmmaker Colin Gibbon released a documentary making the case that Major Martin was really Tom Martin, a Royal Navy sailor who served aboard the HMS Dasher. In March 1943, the Dasher suffered an internal explosion and sank, losing 379 crew. In their book The Secrets of HMS Dasher, authors John and Noreen Steele claim that it was actually the body of another sailor from the ship, John Melville, who was used in Mincemeat. In 2004, a memorial service was held on another ship currently in service named the Dasher, where the commanding officer of the ship's naval squadron recognized Melville as Martin in a speech. 

Officially, the Royal Navy, Naval Historical Branch, and Ministry of Defense have long recognized Gyndwr Michael as the man whose body was used, and Martin’s gravestone in Spain reads: William Martin, born 29 March 1907, died 24 April 1943, beloved son of John Glyndwyr and the late Antonia Martin of Cardiff, Wales. Glyndwr Michael; Served as Major William Martin, RM.

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Bea Arthur: Golden Girl, U.S. Marine
Kevin Winter, Getty Images
Kevin Winter, Getty Images

When Bea Arthur joined the cast of The Golden Girls in 1985, she had already established an impressive career on stage and television. But one of her most important jobs predates her acting career—for 2.5 years, Arthur served in the U.S. Marine Corps.

According to the National World War II Museum, her service came at a time when women enlisting in the military was still an anomaly. The country had recently entered the Second World War, and the Marines began recruiting women as a way to free more men to fill combat roles. The Marines opened the Women's Reserve in 1943 after every other military branch had already started accepting female members.

One of the program's first enrollees was a 20-year-old woman who was called Bernice Frankel at the time, and who's best known as Bea Arthur today. Prior to enlisting, she had attended Blackstone College in Virginia for a year, worked as a food analyst at the Phillips Packing Company, and volunteered as a civilian air-raid warden. As she later wrote in a letter, she joined the Marines on a whim: “I was supposed to start work yesterday, but heard last week that enlistments for women in the Marines were open, so [I] decided the only thing to do was to join.”

After attending the first Women Reservists school at Hunter College in New York, Arthur spent the remainder of her service at the U.S. Marine Corps Air Station in Cherry Point, North Carolina as a truck driver and typist. According to her Official Military Personnel File (OMPF), she exhibited “meticulous good taste” and was "argumentative," "over aggressive," and “officious—but probably a good worker if she has her own way!”

Bea Arthur entered the Marines a private and had risen to staff sergeant by the time she was discharged. Her exit paperwork shows that she expressed interest in going to drama school after the military, foreshadowing a long career ahead.

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5 Things You Might Not Know About Henry Kissinger
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Keystone/Getty Images

You probably know Henry Kissinger as a Nobel Peace Prize winner and former National Security Advisor and Secretary of State. Let’s take a look at five things you might not know about the German-born political scientist and diplomat.

1. MAO ZEDONG TRIED TO GIVE HIM "10 MILLION" WOMEN.

In 1973, Henry Kissinger was engaged in a discussion of trade with Mao Zedong when the chairman abruptly changed the subject by saying, “We [China] don't have much. What we have in excess is women. So if you want them we can give a few of those to you, some tens of thousands.”

Kissinger sidestepped this bizarre offer and changed the subject, but Mao later returned to the subject by jokingly asking, “Do you want our Chinese women? We can give you 10 million.”

This time Kissinger diplomatically replied, “It is such a novel proposition. We will have to study it.”

Other Chinese officials in the room pointed out that Mao’s attitudes toward women would cause quite a stir if the press got their hands on these quotes, so Mao apologized to his female interpreter and talked Kissinger into having the comments removed from the records of the meeting.

2. NO, HE'S NOT THE INSPIRATION FOR DR. STRANGELOVE.

Here’s a riddle that’s been bugging film buffs for decades: who was the basis for the title character in Stanley Kubrick’s Dr. Strangelove? For years many observers thought that Kissinger might have inspired Peter Sellers’s memorable performance. Blame it on the accent and the glasses. Even though Kissinger was still a relatively obscure Harvard professor when the film premiered in 1964, the rumor that Kubrick modeled the character on him just wouldn't die.

Kubrick did what he could to dispel this notion before his death, saying, “I think this is slightly unfair to Kissinger ... It was unintentional. Neither Peter nor I had ever seen Kissinger before the film was shot.” Most observers now think that Dr. Strangelove was actually a distorted version of Herman Kahn, an eccentric nuclear strategist for the RAND Corporation.

3. HE WAS QUITE THE LADIES MAN.

Even in his youth, Kissinger didn’t quite fit the bill of a matinee idol, but he has always been a hit with the ladies. A 1972 poll of Playboy bunnies selected Kissinger as the man with whom Hef’s ladies would most like to go out on a date. He also had a string of celebrity girlfriends in his younger days, including Diane Sawyer, Candice Bergen, Jill St. John, Shirley Maclaine, and Liv Ullman, who called Kissinger, “the most interesting man I have ever met.”

Kissinger’s swinging bachelor days are long gone, though. He was married to Ann Fleischer from 1949 to 1964 then married philanthropist Nancy Maginnes in 1974—a union that at one point seemed so improbable that just a year before they tied the knot, Maginnes had called speculation that she and Kissinger would marry “outrageous.”

4. PROTECTING HIM ISN'T ALWAYS EASY.

In 1985 former Secret Service agent Dennis McCarthy released the memoir Protecting the President—The Inside Story of a Secret Service Agent, in which he described being on Kissinger’s security detail as “a real pain.” McCarthy shared a funny anecdote about a 1977 trip to Acapulco with Kissinger and his wife. There were signs warning of sharks in the water, but Nancy wanted to go for a swim. Kissinger then told his security detail to get in the water to guard for sharks.

Personal protection is one thing, but McCarthy and his fellow agents drew the line at fighting off sharks. Instead, they made the reasonable point that if the Kissingers were afraid of sharks, they shouldn’t go swimming. Agent McCarthy did, however, offer a compromise; he told Kissinger, “If the sharks come up on this beach, my agents will fight them.”

5. THE STATE DEPARTMENT NIXED HIS OFFICIAL PORTRAIT.

Official portraits of government luminaries don’t usually become big news, but in 1978 the painting of Kissinger commissioned by the State Department for its gallery made headlines. Boston artist Gardner Cox had previously painted Secretaries of State Dean Acheson and Dean Rusk, so he got the $12,000 commission to paint Kissinger. The finished product didn’t earn rave reviews, though.

Some viewers at the State Department thought the painting lacked Kissinger’s dynamism and made him look “somewhat a dwarf.” Others felt the portrait was “a rogues' gallery thing." The State Department offered to let Cox fix the painting, but he said he didn’t see anything that need changing. He lost the commission but got $700 for his expenses.

Kissinger took the whole episode in stride, though. When Houston artist J. Anthony Wills painted a replacement, Kissinger declared it to be, “an excellent likeness, swelled head and all,” and called the unveiling "one of my most fulfilling moments. Until they do Mount Rushmore."

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