Most Americans know Julia Child (nee McWilliams) as the hostess of a popular TV cooking program in the 1970′s. Less commonly known is that she also served as a spy in the OSS (the CIA’s predecessor) during World War II in Southeast Asia.
Child’s initial Stateside duties in the OSS were clerical but her education and innate intelligince soon earned her a promotion as a research assistant to General William Donovan, chief officer of the OSS during the war.
In 1943, having grown tired of this “routine work”, Child jumped at an opportunity to serve in Ceylon (now Sri Lanka).
Her chief duties there were the encoding and decoding of radio messages which coordinated the activities of other OSS field offices throughout Southeast Asia.
Her assignment also took her to India and Kunming, China where she lived under primitive conditions with dysentary and malaria taking the lives of some of her fellow OSS agents.
By this time in the war “black propaganda” radio stations such as Aspidistra had proven effective in the European theatre so the OSS was keen to air a similar station to transmit similarly deceptive information to Japanese troops. A 5000 watt shortwave station was set up to operate on nearly the same frequency as legitimate Japanese radio station JOAK.
Although Japanese, JOAK broadcast one hour per day in Thai during “Siamese Hour”. At the prescribed time, the OSS station would air its own Siamese Hour a few kilohertz away from JOAK in the hope that listeners would mistakenly tune into them rather than JOAK in order to influence Thai sentiments regarding the war.
Content of the OSS broadcast was typical propaganda fare: that Japanese troops were refusing to fight and that the Japanese economy was suffering due to Allied bombing, etc.
At least one of these broadcasts was picked up and by a Bangkok media outlet and published in their newspaper.
Analysis of the effectiveness of such broadcasts as well as other intel was shared among OSS bureaus in the region, all encrypted of course, by Julia Child and her fellow operatives who served in that capacity.
OSS identities during World War II were only recently (2008) declassified and, in addition to Julia Child, include an interesting mix of people:
- John Hemingway (son of Ernest)
- Thomas Braden, who would later write a book (8 Is Enough) that would be made into a popular 1980′s TV show
- Miles Copeland, father of Stewart Copeland - drummer of The Police
Julia met her future husband while in Southeast Asia, fellow operative Paul Child. After the war, they both were caught up tangentially in McCarthyism. Her husband’s interest in haute cuisine took hold in Julia, igniting in her a keen interest in cooking – and the rest is history.
Julia passed away at a Califonia nursing home in 2004, two days short of her 92nd birthday.