Moments in U.S. Diplomatic History

Establishing an Escape Network in Post-War Hungary

537Throughout most of World War II, Hungary operated in conjunction with the Axis Powers and actively contributed to the Nazi war effort under the leadership of Miklós Horthy. While invading Soviet troops had pushed out the occupying German forces by April 1945, the newly established Russian presence quickly posed a precarious threat to Hungarian stability and sovereignty.

Hungary was rattled by internal political strife after the war up until the establishment of the Hungarian People’s Republic in 1949. While the Social Democratic Party and the Smallholders’ Party briefly held power under Prime Minister Ferenc Nagy, the political environment quickly became volatile after Soviet intervention propelled the Hungarian Communist Party to power in 1947. Correspondingly, those whose political inclinations failed to meet state expectations became potential targets of the government.

In an interview with Charles Stuart Kennedy in April 1995, James McCargar, a political officer who served in Budapest, Hungary from 1946-1947, explained his role in creating an escape apparatus for political targets seeking refuge in neighboring Austria. He would later write a book about the experience under the pseudonym Christoper Felix, beginning:  “I first saw Budapest in the summer of 1946. I came as a covert agent, a member of an American intelligence organization—there then being no CIA—which has since ceased to exist.” The independent intelligence operation established by Colonel John V. Grombach was known as “The Pond.”

Please follow the links to read more about World War II, Hungary, Eastern Europe, and the USSR.


“….The countryside was swarming with Russian and Communist officials….”

James McCargar, Political Officer in Budapest, Hungary, (1946-1947)

I established an effective escape network. It was that which became the one and only card I could play to help Hungarians who were resisting the Russian takeover. On one occasion I had to do this myself. The British had made a mistake somewhere and one of their people got picked up. The Hungarian Communists and the Russians arrested about 100 people, all tied to the British.

grombachAt this point there was one man who was in my network, who was a great favorite of a Hungarian who was advising Grombach (seen at left as a West Point cadet.) I had been ordered months before “You take this man out.” So I consulted him at that time, and he said, “No. That’s not the way it works. I’ll tell you when I have to go out.”

He was a very courageous man. I said, “All right, fine. I’ll take care of it then.”

I sent this word back to Washington and in exchange I received a very nasty message saying, “This man’s safety is on your head. If you fail you’re going to be in real trouble.”

At a certain point, this man, who had founded a new party and had campaigned vigorously through the August 1947 election, had been beaten up with bicycle chains. Finally, when it was clear that his Parliamentary immunity would be lifted, he said the time had come for him to go.  At this point my network was lying low. Nobody could move because the countryside was swarming with Russian and Communist officials who’d picked up the people connected to the British. My people said, “We can’t move right now.”

So I went to the British. I knew who to go to, and he said quickly, “I can’t do a thing.” There was another British [diplomat] I knew. His answer was even more abrupt. “Don’t bother me please. Just leave,” he said.

That left it to me to do it. I did and it worked.

You know, Volume IV of the Foreign Relations of the United States for 1947 contains a detailed account by George Andrews, First Secretary of our Embassy in Warsaw at the time, of how the Embassy in Warsaw got Vice Premier Mikolajczyk out of Poland that year. But that was because our Ambassador, Stanton Griffis, ordered that it be done, and paid attention to every step.

In my case I had to move without the Minister’s knowledge or blessing. In fact, I was so aware of the possible complications that on leaving for Vienna I gave my secretary a sealed letter for the Minister, to be given to him if she did not hear from me within three days. It contained my pre-dated resignation from the Foreign Service.

“….When I knock twice, absolute silence. Don’t breathe. Nothing, just silence”

img_7442As for my passengers, I gave them very careful instructions to leave their houses normally, in the morning, and go about their business. Then they were to meet me on a hill that is now built up, but at that time was countryside. It was a long walk. They were to go up there after dark and I would pick them all up there. I got a truck from the Military Mission, a sort of van. I had an assistant, Edward Prince, in the Political Section. I told him to have the Military Mission garage deliver four cases to him at his home that would fit into the truck.

I took the truck from the garage after dark, drove to my apartment, put on an Army parka (it was November), put a pistol in my pocket (sheer nonsensical bravado, but somehow reassuring), and drove to Prince’s house. We loaded the cases into the truck facing in such a way that the future inhabitants could climb into them, not over the top, but through the side. We covered all four cases with a large tarpaulin. I then drove on up to the hilltop.

There were five persons waiting for me. The two men were both Members of Parliament, accompanied by their wives, and the daughter of one of the couples, a five-year-old girl, who fortunately had been drugged. (The M.P. besides the one Washington had ordered me to take out was also the Legation architect; Chapin himself had sent him to see me when he appealed to the Minister for help in leaving Hungary — though I never told Chapin what had transpired after that.) I got them arranged inside the boxes and covered with the whole thing with the tarp.

I said, “Now, when I knock twice, absolute silence. Don’t breathe. Nothing, just silence. If I knock 3 times, then you can talk. But twice, silence.” I then started out on the road to Vienna, four hours to the west.

I didn’t realize that the Czechs, as part of the forthcoming Paris Peace Treaty, had already taken over what was known as the Bratislava bridgehead, five villages on the southern side of the Danube, which had never been part of Czechoslovakia. The Czechs said they needed that land on the Hungarian side of the Danube for the strategic protection of Bratislava, which, of course, as Pozsony, had been the old Hungarian capital up until 1848.

overland-migrant-route-hungary-to-germany-via-austria-sept-6-2015The main road from Budapest and Vienna ran through that area. I didn’t realize that the Czechs had taken possession already. So what do I come across? I come across a Czechoslovak frontier station. This was unexpected. But they gave me no trouble, and my cargo behaved perfectly.

Then I went into Austria through a Russian checkpoint. No trouble. Then, further on in Austria, I came to a second Russian checkpoint. I was stopped by a Russian sentry. He wanted to know what was in the truck. I argued at great length with him. I got out, and we walked around the truck. I said I didn’t know what was in the truck. I had an Army parka on (and I had a gun with me that it would have been insane to use. It was just to make me feel a little better).

I said to the Russian, “I get my orders like you do. These are some American General’s household effects. I can’t let you see them.”

Well, we went around. We kept arguing about this, until finally, a little bit tired, I got into the driver’s seat and pulled out a cigarette. I offered him one and he took the cigarette. His hand was still up by the pack. One by one he took out about 12-15 cigarettes. Finally, he said he we could go. Which is why in a book I wrote about this, I commented, “You can bribe a Russian but it has to be in a friendly fashion. It cannot be offered as a bribe. It has to be offered as a friendly gesture.”

“When we got to the safe house there was a bottle of cognac. We finished the whole thing off”

We got up by Schwechat, by the airfield there just outside of Vienna. I expected more trouble there but the Russian sentry wasn’t on duty. We sailed into Vienna and I tapped three times and shouted the Hungarian word for Vienna, which is “Becs.” The back of the truck exploded in hubbub. I avoided the International Zone in the center of Vienna, which was jointly patrolled by all four armies occupying Austria and Vienna.

martin-herzWe got to the American Legation. I had called Martin Herz (seen right with Marines), whom I had known previously, and who was then in the Political Section of the Vienna Legation. I had asked Martin to wait up that night, although I didn’t tell him what for. I unloaded my passengers in an unlit impasse next to the Legation, and we went into the Legation.

I went up with my one special passenger to see Martin because this man didn’t speak English, and I didn’t speak German. Martin had made arrangements with Al Ulmer, who was then CIG Chief of Station in Vienna. A brilliant officer, Al had arranged a place for these people for the night, all five of them. When we got to the safe house there was a bottle of cognac. We finished the whole thing off. Our nerves were in quite a state — and after a few cognacs one of the wives began to cry at leaving her country. Understandable.

I gave instructions for this politician through Herz; Zoltan Pfeiffer was his name. He was the head of the Independence Party, and earlier, before the fragmentation of the Smallholders Party, he had been Under Secretary of State in the Justice Ministry. I gave him the money to get all five of them to the United States, and told him simply to ask to see “the Professor” when he got there. “You’ll be taken care of from then on”. And indeed they were. That all worked perfectly.

dt_common_streams_streamserverBut we were still in Vienna, and the problem was to get these people out to the American airport at Tulln, in the Soviet Zone of Austria. This was Ulmer’s job. I attended a meeting in his office the next morning. It was most impressive. He said “So and so, you do this, so and so, you do that” and so on. His men actually drove four of them out to Tulln, while Pfeiffer (seen left), who was easily recognizable, was flown out. The Army had a small little strip in Vienna from which they could fly across the Vienna Woods and then down into Tulln.

I had no official connection with Ulmer, but after all this was over, he said to me, “I understand that there is a special road between Austria and Hungary. If you go at night and you flash your lights twice, the sentry will let you through.” In other words, I didn’t need any papers or anything else.

The only trouble was Ulmer had only a vague idea of which road it was. We studied the map and I said “Fine, I’ll try it”. So I changed cars. I had a soldier drive the truck back. I took a decent car and took out for Ulmer’s special road. I hit it by sheer good luck. Sure enough, there was a bar across the road. I flashed twice and this little figure came out and raised the bar, and I sailed through.

Then I lost my way and I found myself in a very odd little place. There was no moon or other light, and what I could see looked like low roofs with chimneys that were at kind of at a slant. I got out of the car and I was in a Russian tank park, which was no place to be. But I had learned by that time that there is a manner of speaking that you can use in Russian, which means authority. So, very rudely, I said “Budapest!” and they gave me the instructions, almost saluting, and away I went.

After that one, Selden said “Jim, I must ask you not to do those things personally yourself anymore.” I made no comment, since I was not supposed to discuss those matters with the Chief of Mission — but the question remains of how much Selden really knew of that operation, and how he knew it.



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