Untold stories of unheralded women spies

Untold stories of unheralded women spies

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Those of us along the North Shore and particularly in Setauket, who routinely live with tales of the local spies, might be especially interested in the life of Doris Sharrar Bohrer. One of the few female spies for the Allies during World War II, she died earlier this month at the age of 93 and was not publicly recognized for her extraordinary work until this century.

A Class of 1940 graduate of Montgomery Blair High School in Silver Spring, Maryland, she applied to take the civil service exam and was for whatever reason assigned to the Office of Strategic Services, forerunner to the CIA. There, after typing for a year, she was sent to photo reconnaissance school, where she learned to interpret aerial maps and photographs. Few women in the OSS rose beyond the typing pool. A posting in Egypt followed, where she would make 3-D balsa-wood relief maps from the aerial photos that helped prepare the Allied troops for the invasions of Sicily and then of the rest of Italy. Soon she was moved to Bari on Italy’s Adriatic coast, advising where to drop and to pick up OSS agents from behind enemy lines.

In examining aerial photos, she was able to see closed cattle cars with passengers heading east, and her group located the Nazi concentration camps. However, she told The Washington Post in 2011, “we were too late” in finding the concentration camps. “We kept wondering where the trains were going.”

During the war, she packed a Browning pistol in a shoulder holster but was denied the right to carry a hand grenade as a female Yugoslav partisan co-worker could do. In fact, some of her male counterparts were condescending and even outright hostile to women intelligence agents, calling them “the girls.” These included her superior officer who denied her the grenade. So she had an engineer friend fashion a dummy grenade that she carried into the mess hall where some of the other agents were having lunch. When her superior officer reached across to grab it away, she picked it up and smashed it against the table.

The boys scattered “out the windows,” she told Ann Curry of NBC News many years later. “They just disappeared. And I sat there and ate my salad.”

After the war, Bohrer was assigned to Germany, where she spied on the Soviet Union. She interviewed German scientists who had been detained by the Soviets in order to find out for the CIA as much as possible about the state of Soviet science. This was during the lengthy Cold War.

Bohrer retired from the CIA in 1979 as deputy chief of counterintelligence, training U.S. officers on tactics of foreign espionage operatives. In effect, she spied on the spies. She married Charles Bohrer after World War II and after retirement became a residential real-estate sales agent in the 1980s and ’90s in the Old Town section of Alexandria, Virginia. She also bred and raised poodles, some of which won ribbons and prizes. Her husband retired as director of the CIA medical office.

In 2013 two high-ranking CIA women directors thanked Bohrer and Betty McIntosh, another CIA operative, at the Langley, Virginia, headquarters for their service.

Bohrer’s work had remained secret until The Washington Post discovered in 2011 that she and McIntosh, the author of two books, lived at the same retirement home in northern Virginia; McIntosh had carried out propaganda work in China. Both women had not known each other during the war but had become good friends. Bohrer, whose husband died in 2007 after they were married 61 years, is survived by her son and his two grandchildren. McIntosh died in 2015 at age 100.

Bohrer had wanted to learn to fly to defend the U.S. after the 1941 Pearl Harbor attack. She never did take up aviation but found looking at aerial photographs “an interesting way to look at the world. It was almost as good as flying,” she told The Washington Post. Like the Setauket spies, Bohrer and McIntosh went unheralded for many years but their stories are now told to the world at large.