This is a story I shared with some of you a couple of years ago, but given the well-deserved tributes this week to our veterans, it seems an appropriate time to share it with all of you. It is about a terrorist; an honest-to-God terrorist. Not only does he not deny the appellation, he’s proud of it.
Frank Gleason is an elfin man in his 90s with a perpetual twinkle in his eye and a smile on his face; a man who laughs as hard at his own jokes as does his audience and who scolds me for what he sees as my misguided political views. I tell him he is the only liberal I’ve ever met with a sense of humor, and we enjoy a good laugh.
It is hard to believe this kindhearted and compassionate soul once was a trained saboteur.
The son of a Pennsylvania coal miner and a chemical engineering graduate of Penn State University, Gleason had grown up around explosives. At the beginning of World War II, he was a second lieutenant in the Army, busy blasting rocks in the Catoctin Mountains of Maryland to put the finishing touches on President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s getaway, “Shangri-La” — you know it today as Camp David — when he suddenly was deployed to England by the OSS to train agents there in sabotage. Thus, his matter-of-fact statement: “I was a terrorist teaching others how to become terrorists.”
In case the term “OSS” is unfamiliar to you, the Office of Strategic Services was an intelligence agency formed during World War II that was the predecessor of today’s Central Intelligence Agency.
After his assignment in England, Gleason was ordered into China to teach the locals there the fine points of industrial sabotage in order to stall a Japanese army advance into the country. The Japanese had bombed two airfields in China and had dealt our air forces a serious setback.
Gleason said when he arrived he discovered the Chinese army had disappeared in the face of the advancing Japanese. It was left to him, two other Americans and a handful of Chinese to slow the enemy down. What they lacked in numbers, they made up for in effectiveness.
The results speak for themselves. During their time there in 1944, this little band of saboteurs blew up over 150 bridges, destroyed 50,000 tons of munitions and managed to severely cripple the last Japanese offensive in Southeast China. They were lucky to get out alive.
How significant was the operation? Their efforts were the source of a novel, “The Mountain Road” by famed author Theodore White. That was followed by a motion picture in 1960 starring Jimmy Stewart. Frank Gleason served as a technical advisor for the movie.
After the war, Gleason earned a master’s degree in civil engineering at Harvard and continued his military service, including a command at Cam Ranh Bay, Vietnam. He ended his military career in Atlanta and, wise man that he is, decided to make Georgia his home. Today, he resides in Cobb County, which is where I first wrote about him.
This remarkable nonagenarian has more enthusiasm for life than most people half his age. He tutors children in English and math. Gleason has created a number of seminars for a senior citizen organization known as Life Span which meets at various churches around his area. He is active in his church and the local Rotary Club.
A perpetual optimist, the former OSS saboteur turns serious when he talks about the future of our country and a subject he knows all too well.
“Terrorism,” he says, “is going to be with us for a long time and we have got to figure out a way to control it.”
Col. Gleason believes we eventually will but predicts it could be a decade or so before we figure out how to do it effectively. Not a pleasant thought.
As we remember the sacrifices of our veterans and of those currently in military service who put their lives on the line for us every day and those who made the ultimate sacrifice, I couldn’t think of a better time to tell you about Col. Frank A. Gleason, U.S. Army, ret. He is proud to have served his country in what amounted to a suicide mission and is grateful to have survived the experience. He did his job and moved on with his life.
Needless to say, he is a Great American. He is also my favorite terrorist.
Contact Yarbrough at firstname.lastname@example.org; at P.O. Box 725373, Atlanta, GA 31139; online at dickyarbrough.com; or on Facebook at www.facebook.com/dickyarb.