World War II jungle spy recounts unheralded role

October 20, 1994|By Robert A. Erlandson | Robert A. Erlandson,Sun Staff Writer

Fifty years ago today Gen. Douglas MacArthur waded ashore with the American invasion force on the east coast of Leyte to redeem his pledge, 'I shall return," to the people of the Philippines.

The invasion which began that day and the ensuing Battle of Leyte Gulf were among the fiercest of World War II. Had it not been for the unheralded work of people such as Robert E. Stahl behind the Japanese lines, the general's walk could have been delayed much longer and followed an even bloodier path.

Mr. Stahl, 73, a retired engineer from Anneslie, was part of one of the war's best-kept secrets -- the Allied Intelligence Bureau. It was the Pacific theater's counterpart of the famous Office of Strategic Services, precursor to the Central Intelligence Agency.

The Pacific war held no romantic cloak-and-dagger adventures. AIB men lived rough in the jungle, working and fighting with Filipino guerrillas and coast watchers. They harried the Japanese and spied on them, particularly along shipping lanes, and sent coded radio reports to Naval Intelligence headquarters in Australia.

"The Japanese chased us around, but I never went off the air. I had good guerrilla groups to help me," Mr. Stahl recalled half a century later.

It was through the persistence of Mr. Stahl and Lt. Gerald Chapman -- with their clandestine radio stations -- that the U.S. Navy was warned in time to turn on the Japanese fleet and win the Battle of the Philippine Sea in June 1944.

It broke the back of Japanese air power, and the American pilots called it 'the Great Marianas Turkey Shoot."

Mr. Stahl will tell the world of his group's largely overlooked adventures in a new book, "You're No Good To Me Dead," to be published by the Naval Institute Press in Annapolis next fall.

Mr. Stahl took his title, "You're No Good To Me Dead," from General MacArthur's admonition to the AIB men before they left for the Philippines.

"We were to avoid physical contact and armed combat, a feat not always possible," Mr. Stahl said. "Our primary mission was to gather intelligence and send it to Australia."

"This is not a blood-and-thunder account of combat with the enemy," he wrote in the book's preface. "It is, rather, an account of the experiences of a young man who suddenly finds himself in the role of a spy in a totally alien environment, living a life of anxiety, boredom, frustration, loneliness, some pleasure, occasional excitement -- and constant danger."

Danger was indeed a constant as the men landed by submarines, hauled heavy generators up steep cliffs, dodged Japanese patrols, and picked up and moved quickly to new locations.

When he decided a year ago to write the book, Mr. Stahl refreshed his recollection with a 60-page collection of anecdotes he typed shortly after his discharge from the Army in 1946, an official history the 1st Reconnaissance Battalion (Special) and the contemporary log he kept of all the messages that went through his radio stations.

Mr. Stahl, a native of Shamokin, Pa., was rejected for pilot training because of nearsightedness when he tried to enlist after Pearl Harbor. In 1942, he was drafted and assigned to the Signal Corps at Fort Monmouth, N.J.

He was training as a cryptanalyst -- making and breaking codes -- when the school was moved to the new, top-secret War Department Radio Intercept Station at Warrenton, Va.

There he was tossed out of Officer Candidate School after a rowdy night on the town and sent to OSS training, "where they tried to make us spies in a hurry," he said.

Dispatched to Allied Headquarters in Brisbane, Australia, he was handling coded messages to and from guerrilla radio stations in the Philippines when he met some Americans who had escaped from Japanese prison camps on Mindanao.

After hearing their stories, he got angry. "I wanted to go up there and help. We had to have secure code systems, and the only way was to take them in. I volunteered," he said.

Mr. Stahl arrived in the Philippines on the submarine Narwhal, carrying tons of supplies to establish radio stations and supply guerrilla units on Mindanao.

He endured a variety of difficulties setting up stations before reaching Bondoc Peninsula on Luzon, 100 miles south of Manila, his final post. From Bondoc, he relayed reports from other operators and sent Filipino agents into Manila to report on conditions.

"They had no guns, no radios, they were spies pure and simple," he said.

As the island-hopping American forces neared, Mr. Stahl said he continued to arrange submarine re-supplies for the guerrillas and became involved in saving downed pilots.

"I don't know how many we rescued -- a lot," he said.

His spy career ended in February, 1945 as the Japanese retreated southward toward Bondoc ahead of the American forces.

"Headquarters offered to take me out, and I said, 'I'll accept with pleasure.' "

He flew to Mindanao and then made his way to Manila, where he became a virtual displaced person because his personnel records were scattered who-knew-where.

Nonetheless, he made his way back to to Shamokin on April 19, 1945, and married his childhood sweetheart five days later.

Mr. Stahl was done fighting the Japanese. But his war with the American military bureaucracy was just beginning.

"They wouldn't let me out -- they couldn't find my record," he recalled. "It was easier to fight the Japanese."

On January 6, 1946, five months after the war had ended, the Army finally discharged him -- as a captain.

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