In the early years of WWII, shipping supplies from the U.S. to Great Britain via the North Atlantic was a hazardous endeavor. The German U-boat wolf packs were ravaging American merchant ships, sinking a total of 421,000 tons of shipping in 1939 and 2,606,000 tons in 1940. Someone in the U.S. had to be tipping off the Nazi high command about when and where to expect U.S. convoys, their numbers, and their cargo. Therefore, any information on Nazi spy rings would receive a high premium.
An inspector of the Radio Intelligence Division (RID) of the Federal Communications Commission did pick up unauthorized short wave signals from an area in the Bronx, NY. The FBI was notified and J. Edgar Hoover ordered his G-Men to canvas all stores and shops that might have sold radio parts to suspected Nazi sympathizers. Eventually, their efforts paid off. One store owner recalled a nervous-looking Joseph Klein, who lived with two other German immigrants, Alex Wheeler-Hill and Felix Jahnke, at a boarding house on Caldwell Avenue in the Bronx. The trio were engaged in transmitting the convoy schedules of American shipping to Great Britain to higher headquarters.
Rather than expose the little spy ring – which the FBI would later discover to be quite extensive – Hoover opted to allow them to operate. His plan was then to divert or delay the convoys from their planned routes, and hopefully have bombers or destroyers meet the wolf packs instead.
But the FBI hit a serious roadblock intercepting the spies’ messages. The Americans found the messages meaningless because the spies had encoded the messages. Unknown to the FBI, all the spies’ code names came from a series of popular novels – but which novels? The FBI could easily procure a search warrant to search for the book, but the law required them to serve it to the occupants of the apartment. However they didn’t want Klein, Hill, or Jahnke to know they were under surveillance. How could they ever get into the apartment without tipping off the spies?
Enter a middle-aged cleaning lady of the Caldwell Avenue apartment building, whose name, unfortunately, will forever remain anonymous. Could she be the key to open the way into the spies’ secret transmission center? The FBI pleaded to her for help, which she gladly gave. She discovered the novel which supplied all the code names. They deciphered the messages. Therefore her response led to saving hundreds of ships, hundreds of men’s lives, and thousands of tons of shipping.
Her clandestine work on behalf of the FBI continued until 1941 – by which time her efforts had finally helped uncover the largest Nazi spy ring in America during WWII. This was the infamous Duquesne spy ring, of which Klein, Hill, and Jahnke were all a part. This anonymous cleaning lady’s assistance led to the conviction of 33 members of the Duquesne spy network.
Life’s most significant works hinge upon the contributions of the seemingly least significant people.
In the third chapter of St. Luke’s Gospel, we read a historical list of the who’s who of the day – Augustus Caesar, Governor Pontius Pilate, King Herod, the Tetrarch Philip, etc. Yet, when God chooses someone to share history’s most important message, He bypasses them all. Instead God brought His message to a simple and humble man in the wilderness – John the Baptist (Luke 3:1-2). It mattered nothing to God who the world’s power-brokers were. God chose John the Baptist to herald the coming of the Messiah, the Redeemer of the world.
God always does this. St. Paul declared that God purposely avoids the high, wise, and mighty. Instead, He favors of the humble, “foolish,” and weak whom He chooses to accomplish His mightiest works (1 Corinthians 1:26-31).
So, the next time you’re watching the news and feel utterly powerless to make any positive changes, don’t despair. God wants to recruit you in His service – to pray for our nation and for those around you, to express His love through kind and loving deeds, and to change your corner of the world for good.
Lord, make me an instrument of your peace;
Where there is hatred, let me sow love;
Where there is injury, pardon;
Where there is doubt, faith;
Where there is despair, hope;
Where there is darkness, light;
And where there is sadness, joy.
O Divine Master, Grant that I may not so much seek to be consoled, as to console;
To be understood, as to understand;
To be loved as to love.
For it is in giving that we receive;
It is in pardoning that we are pardoned;
And it is in dying that we are born to eternal life.
– St. Francis of Assisi
Breuer, W. B. (2003). The Spy Who Spent the War in Bed: And Other Bizarre Tales from World War II. Hoboken, NJ: Wiley. pp. 46-49.