There is a terrorist living in my neighborhood, and I couldn’t be prouder. You may remember that I shared with you the story of Col. Frank Gleason sometime back, but as we prepare to commemorate Memorial Day on Monday, his is a tale worth repeating.
Now in his mid-90s, Col. Gleason doesn’t look like your run-of-the-mill terrorist. A gregarious man with a perpetual twinkle in his eye and a joke he is always eager to share, you would never know that once upon a time, he was a hard-nosed saboteur.
A chemical engineering graduate of Penn State University and the son of a Pennsylvania coal miner, Frank Gleason had grown up around explosives. At the beginning of World War II, he was a second lieutenant in the Army, blasting rocks in the Catoctin Mountains of Maryland, putting the finishing touches on President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s getaway, “Shangri-La.” You know it today as Camp David.
In case the term “OSS” is unfamiliar to you, the Office of Strategic Services was an intelligence agency formed during World War II and the predecessor of today’s Central Intelligence Agency. Some referred to OSS as “Oh So Secret.”
An early recruit to the organization and later an instructor, Gleason was deployed to England by the OSS to train agents there in sabotage. Thus, his matter-of-fact statement: “I became a terrorist teaching others how to become terrorists.”
He told one military historian, “What they teach you at sabotage school will blow your mind. Six or seven people, properly trained, can cripple a good-sized city.” He was talking about their transportation system, their power grid, communications and even their water supply.
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 advance into the country. The Japanese had bombed two airfields in China and had dealt our own Air Force a serious setback.
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 handful of Chinese — 12 people in all — to slow the enemy down. What they lacked in numbers, they made up for in effectiveness.
This little band of saboteurs blew up anything and everything they could find that could be used by the Japanese army, including more than 150 bridges, three dozen ferries, locomotives, railroad cars, trucks, army barracks, machine shops and more than 50,000 tons of munitions.
Thus, 12 people managed to severely cripple the last Japanese offensive in Southeast China in World War II. They were also lucky to get out of there alive, and all of them did.
The group’s exploits became the stuff of legends. They were the source of a novel, “The Mountain Road” by famed author Theodore White, which became a motion picture in 1960 starring Jimmy Stewart. Gleason served as the film’s technical adviser.
This past November, Col. Gleason was recognized by the Office of Strategic Services Society at its annual awards dinner in Washington for his heroics. OSS Society President Charles Pinck said Gleason deserved the annual honor because he “almost singlehandedly stopped the Japanese army from advancing deep into China.”
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 permanent home.
While he is justifiably proud of his achievements, he doesn’t dwell on them. For him, life is about the future, not the past. Since his retirement, Gleason has tutored children in English and math. He has created and conducted seminars for senior citizens. He is active in his local church and Rotary Club and still drives himself around town.
He is obviously well-respected by those with whom he served during his career. The last time I wrote about Col. Gleason, I got mail from people around the country who remembered him fondly and wanted to get in touch with him. All spoke of him with great admiration.
As we honor those who made the ultimate sacrifice for their country, let’s not forget a man who risked his life for us and survived what amounted to a suicide mission in hostile territory. Retired Col. Frank A. Gleason, U.S. Army, is a true American hero, a great man and my favorite terrorist.