The Women Whose Secret Work Helped Win World War II

The O.S.S. field station was a converted villa with a code room in the basement. On the third floor, I found a square room piled with international newspapers and back issues of Life magazine interspersed with a hodgepodge of dispatches gathered from personnel in the region. It was a different registry from the one I’d known in Washington, but with the help of an enlisted Army soldier assigned to me and the procedures I’d learned from Evie in Washington, we got a system in place. Men and women came in and out all day, stopping by when they had a question or were looking for reference materials or secret reports.

A year later, I flew over the hump to land in Kunming, China, for my next assignment. Within a week, the news reached us: America had dropped the first atomic bomb on Japan. It was cataclysmic, but we couldn’t get any details at first. Who the hell knew what “nuclear” was? As word of Hiroshima flashed across the world, O.S.S. commandos parachuted behind the lines in Manchuria to liberate the Japanese prisoner of war camps. With surrender imminent, most of the foreigners posted in China were eager to get home. I’d just arrived, so I decided to stay. At a Chinese victory party, I met Gil, a British-Australian colonel in the Chinese Nationalist Army. He was working with the O.S.S. to coordinate guerrilla attacks on the Japanese. In September President Truman issued an executive order terminating the O.S.S., but we still had rooms full of sensitive documents to transport or destroy. I was reassigned to Shanghai. By the time my family received my cable about our wedding plans, Gil and I had already married, on a rainy Saturday, at Shanghai’s Holy Trinity Cathedral.

So began many more years of adventures, from living in the Philippines and in the mountains of Honduras, three hours down an unpaved road, to producing and anchoring a daily television news program for women in Rhode Island. Handling information has been the common thread of my career, but my priority in life has been to raise children who are comfortable wherever they are and as whoever they are in the world. Gil fell ill and died in 1973, much too soon. He was the most fascinating and attractive man I’d ever met. Still is.

I recently stopped traveling. My four kids, nine grandkids and eight great-grandchildren are off having their own adventures in Thailand, Mexico and France, in Hawaii, Montana and Alabama. They email me photographs, and my Providence apartment is a bit of a bed-and-breakfast for them. I never did sail around the world — not in one go, anyway. But my eldest granddaughter, Lisa, did that for me. Twice.

Inside a brightly lit sculptor’s studio, we stirred buckets of milky white goop. It was after midnight in early 1943. The war was going full blast across the Atlantic as our team of about six government cartographers buzzed around our makeshift office, an artist’s workshop three floors above the stage of the shuttered Ford’s Theater in Washington. We were racing to complete our assignment: a three-dimensional topographic map illustrating the rugged terrain of Sicily. We didn’t know it at the time, but the Joint Chiefs of Staff would soon be meeting to discuss plans for an invasion, and this was to be their visual aide.

I was a 21-year-old country girl with a knack for numbers. I had planned to teach elementary school in upstate New York, a few hours north of the town where I grew up. My parents had lost our pea farm in the Depression, and my mother worked as a cook in a fraternity house at Colgate University. Girls from some families in town went to finishing school, but that wasn’t for me. I always had my nose in a book, and I graduated from Potsdam State Teachers College in 1942.

Marion A. Frieswyk in Washington, shortly after she married her colleague Henry Frieswyk in 1943.Creditvia the Frieswyk family

Pearl Harbor had changed everything. Americans began mobilizing by the millions. My geography professor, who had been paying me 15 cents an hour to compute averages, encouraged me to apply to a summer graduate school course at Clark University that trained civilian geographers for war-service jobs. I moved to Worcester, Mass., and spent six weeks learning economic geography, weather and all sorts of related skills that might benefit the government. Of the 30 men and women in the program, a lanky, soft-spoken New Englander named Henry and I were the two recruited to a new cartography unit within the Office of Strategic Services. O.S.S. was known around Washington as “Oh So Secret.” All I knew was that I’d be doing war work for the government alongside some big brains in the geography community and that the annual salary was $1,800 — which was just a fortune to me. I said yes quicker than I could find D.C. on a map.

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