Richard Helms was the Deputy Director of Central Intelligence (DCI) from 1966 to 1973, having served for two decades in predecessor units before leading the CIA. Helms’ career is a storied one that first began outside of intelligence. The well-read and well-educated student with a fluency in French and German studied at Williams College in Massachusetts. He was the editor of his college newspaper, and upon graduation he took a job as a foreign correspondent for the United Press International in Berlin.
He was 23 years old and fresh out of college when he took one of his first assignments covering the 1936 Summer Olympics, or “Hitler Games.” He even interviewed Hitler himself after a Nazi rally held in Nuremberg, a notable and poignant experience that he’d reflect back on nearly a decade later.
When the U.S. entered World War II, Helms joined the U.S. Naval Reserve and worked at the Eastern Sea Frontier Headquarters in New York where they studied movements of German U-boats in the Atlantic. Helms joined the Office of Strategic Services (OSS) in 1943 after a wire service colleague suggested he had the right intangibles for the Morale Branch (MO). The MO specialized in black propaganda campaigns against the Nazis.
He went through OSS training and learned advanced techniques in tradecraft and planning espionage operations. He worked out of the OSS Secret Intelligence Branch in Washington where he ran agents across Europe targeting German officials. Although he was stateside, he made considerable progress that earned him the confidence to be sent overseas to London to work under William Casey, an OSS trailblazer who later became a DCI.
It is not clear how Helms obtained a personal sheet of stationary from Hitler’s Bavarian mountaintop retreat, but he wrote a message to his 3-year-old son dated May 8, 1945, — V-E Day — that evidently describes the feelings of many as the war was coming to a close.
“Dear Dennis, The man who might have written on this card once controlled Europe—three short years ago when you were born. Today he is dead, his memory despised, his country in ruins.”
With experience in Berlin and a proficiency in German, Helms was an easy choice for an assignment there where he “tracked down die-hard Nazis” and “searched for war criminals.” His connection to Hitler didn’t stop with the letter — later that year he personally ransacked Hitler’s office compound where he acquired a plate. The souvenir features an inscription that translates to “The Chancellery of the Fuehrer.”
These two personal artifacts were donated to the CIA museum and are on display in the OSS Gallery. However, since the museum is located on the CIA compound, the museum is closed to the general public.
Matt Fratus is a history staff writer for Coffee or Die. He prides himself on uncovering the most fascinating tales of history by sharing them through any means of engaging storytelling. He writes for his micro-blog @LateNightHistory on Instagram, where he shares the story behind the image. He is also the host of the Late Night History podcast. When not writing about history, Matt enjoys volunteering for One More Wave and rooting for Boston sports teams.
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