German-born Peter Sichel was recruited for America’s new spy agency after his family, who is Jewish, escaped Nazi-controlled Europe and made it to New York. Brooklyn native Stephen Weiss joined the Army at 17 after convincing his father to sign the enlistment papers.
Both men wound up going ashore 70 years ago this week when the Allies launched Operation Dragoon, the invasion of southern France. They’re headed back there as guests of the French government for events commemorating the 70th anniversary of the landings designed to relieve pressure from the Normandy campaign begun two months earlier with the D-Day invasion in northern France.
Sichel (pronounced SEE-shell), who turns 92 next month, and Weiss, 89, will be representing The OSS Society on Friday when American veterans and others are honored by French President Francois Hollande aboard the aircraft carrier Charles de Gaulle off Toulon.
“Technically, he wasn’t OSS, but as far as we’re concerned, he was,” said Charles Pinck, president of the Falls Church, Va.-based OSS Society.
Sichel was born in Mainz, Germany, into a Jewish family of wine merchants. He was working in the family business in Bordeaux when the Germany army advanced into France in 1940. A year later the Sichel family escaped to the U.S. and settled in New York City, where Peter joined the Army after the bombing of Pearl Harbor. In 1943 he was recruited by the OSS, founded the previous year by Buffalo native William Donovan and a forerunner to the CIA.
After landing in southern France, Sichel’s job was to recruit German prisoners of war as spies for the Allies, train them and send them back to Germany to gather intelligence.
“We were highly successful,” Sichel said in a phone interview before departing for France Tuesday. “We were able to get the intelligence the Army needed and I think we made a major contribution to the war.”
Sichel remained in Germany after the OSS was dissolved in 1945 and replaced by the CIA two years later. He stayed with the spy agency until 1960, when he rejoined the family wine business.
Weiss, a veteran of the fighting in Italy, got separated from his unit after landing but was rescued by French partisans and served for a time with OSS agents operating behind enemy lines. His actions earned him France’s Legion of Honor and a Bronze Star from the U.S. military.
After the war, he worked as a psychotherapist in Los Angeles, but later in life moved to Great Britain, where he’s a senior researcher in the Department of War Studies at King’s College.