Ivan T. Sanderson — Chapter 5 — World War II: Cloak-and-Dagger in the Caribbean

1940-41  War service abroad; Naval Intelligence; various countries; ending in transfer to...

1945-47  British Government Services — Information and Overseas Press Analysis, New York

Earthquakes were not the only rumblings going on during December, 1941. The United States had just entered World War II, and Ivan Sanderson (who had now finished his last expedition for the museums) would play a rather shadowy role. Up until this time, Ivan had a sort of tentative relationship with British Naval Intelligence that dated from around the time of his marriage in 1934. With the coming of the Blitz in Britain and U.S. involvement, he was called on to serve full-time in counter-espionage work, ultimately rising to the level of Commander. Pretending to be an animal collector/writer of harmless English idiocy, he had a perfect cover—for a while.

After leaving Nicuragua...

ITS: We then went back to England, my wife and I were in British Naval Intelligence anyhow. They wanted to send us to northern Australia, because they were worried about, well, they knew the Japs were coming down, and they knew the war was going to start in a few months.

RG: They were sure going to put you away, weren’t they.

ITS: No. You see they had no agents down there, and I speak Malay, and my wife is partly Malayan, They wanted me to buy a schooner in the Portuguese Timor to find out what the Japs were playing at. They suddenly switched us at the last minute to Mexico, because we didn’t have any agents there, and America was not in the war yet. The Americans were relying on us to keep an eye on all the Germans. I built a schooner, and we wandered around there. Then I was in charge of counter-espionage in the western Caribbean, all the way through the war.

Then, of course, America got in the war—Pearl Harbor—and that made it all “official.” So I then came under the American Command. [Ivan was under U.S. command from 1941 to 1944, working in Naval Intelligence involving counter-espionage and anti-submarine warfare against the Germans, though at one point he was called away to "the Orient" for a year.]

My cover then “got blown” as they say, and they transferred me to the information service as a diplomat in America. That’s how I ended up here.

RG: Tell me more about your 50-foot schooner that you refitted as a home and laboratory.

ITS: Well, I bought the thing on the bottom of the sea for 300 dollars. It was built up as a motorboat. It had a funnel on the top and a latrine sticking out of the back–horrible looking thing.

Underneath, the boat was very old. She was a baby schooner, well, actually a baby clipper—a terapin clipper. I got her up from the bottom of the sea by getting a lot of good local swimmers together for a salvage job. We got these big 50-gallon oil drums, filled them with water, and took them down to the bottom. Then we got some pumps, put tubes down into the drums, pumped air into them and pushed the water out. When we got enough of these lashed on, this big boat came up to the surface. We towed her into shore and pumped her out. Then we pumped out all the mud and stuff. We found a hole in her bottom and we fixed that up. I then took her completely apart—whole boat. We put it all back together again, threw all those funnels and things away, and made her into a—well, wait, I’ll show you. I know this is “radio,” but you just hold the fort, I’ll be right back. I’ve got a photograph of the boat here [Ivan then got up, walked over and picked up a photo from a shelf of photos at the other end of the room, came back and showed it to me.]

This is what she was like when she was finished.

RG: Yes, beautiful.

ITS: She was a beautiful yacht. We painted her all white and everything, and we lived on her for seven, nearly eight years.

RG: Seven or eight years!

ITS: We went 2,000 miles up the Amazon on her, and we listed 10,000 little boats in the Caribbean, and we visited probably 10,000 keys and islands. We checked on all the maps and things.

RG: Quite a journey.

ITS: Oh, but how lovely to live on! No telephone, no people, fresh seafood you could dig up yourself right offshore.

RG: You also went to British Honduras.

ITS: Well, that was our headquarters all the way through the war.

Ivan’s counter-espionage involved tracking down and reporting on the positions of Nazi sea craft and the approximate locations of their shore parties. As he wrote in Uninvited Visitors (New York: Crowles Education Corporation. 1967, p. 19): "During World War II, I was engaged in counter-espionage duties in the Caribbean and thereabouts, employing my own schooner. The Nazis had become out­rageously bold, surfacing submarines in daylight to do their laundry, and signaling each other and their chums ashore by searchlights at night. The Nazi shore parties set up ingenious devices with battery-powered lights of various colors. Finding and reporting them was a tough job, even though a sailing vessel is quieter than a powered one."

If he was to keep up with all of the evil-doings in the Caribbean using only a sailboat, Ivan would then need some kind of assistance in the way of navigation. To this end, he enlisted the aid of a rather unusual captain: "The captain held a Master’s certificate but did all our navigation with a school atlas, a 16-foot bamboo pole for taking soundings around reefs, and an ancient binnacle that was later found to be some 16 points off. Otherwise he used the stars for direction and his sense of smell to detect land. And he never failed!" [Uninvited Visitors, p. 19]

This captain was born in Nicaragua and was “wanted” in seven countries! He knew all of the Caribbean waterways, and was later murdered by his “friends” during the war for aiding the U.S. Government by giving it secrets of smuggling operations being conducted by some Caribs for the enemy.

Around this time he is said to have become friends with a fellow intelligence officer named Ian Fleming, who would go on to write the James Bond novels. Some of today's forteans claim that, long after the war, in August of 1964, Fleming was allegedly planning to meet with Ivan Sanderson, but died of a heart attack on 12 August 1964, "at his Jamaican home". In reality. Fleming died at the age of 56 after a heart attack on the morning of 12 August 1964, in Canterbury, Kent, England (not Jamaica), and was later buried in the churchyard of Sevenhampton village, near Swindon. Some conspiracy-minded people have written that Fleming, in his last days, was communicating with Sanderson about the so-called Philadelphia Experiment and was going to visit him to "reveal" something, but died—ironically, on the 20th anniversary of the "experiment." This appears to be nonsense. Even Albert K. Bielek, a man known for his fabulist tales of the Philadelphia Experiment, told Rich Grybos in 2010 that Ian was planning on visiting Ivan but it had "nothing to do with the Philadelphia Experiment." Yours Truly is still researching any direct links between Ivan and Ian Fleming. There are some interesting coincidences, such as Fleming arriving in New York on October 26, 1946 on Pan American Airlines, stating on his entry form that he would be visiting the New York offices of Britain's Kemsley Newspapers at 235 West 45th Street—just a short walk from Ivan Sanderson's New York apartment at 325 West 45th Street.

As for indirect links to Fleming, Ivan was definitely good friends with Ian Fleming's older brother, the travel writer Peter Fleming.

Moreover, in later years, Ivan would also periodically meet up with a friend of Ian Fleming and former agent of the OSS (Office for Strategic Services, the predecessor to the CIA) by the name of Ivar Felix C. Bryce (also known as Ivor Felix Bryce and John F. C. Bryce). Fleming used him as the basis for the character of "Felix Leiter" in the James Bond novels. (The "Leiter" surname was taken from another of Fleming's friends, Tommy Leiter.) After Ian Fleming visited Bryce's Jamaican house in 1944 and decided he wanted to live on the island, Bryce personally roamed the island in search of a suitable residence and discovered land on the north shore at Oracabessa. This became the site of Fleming's "Goldeneye" estate. Bryce was married to Josephine Hartford, sister to the A&P Supermarket heir Huntington Hartford who was the original owner and developer of Paradise Island in the Bahamas. Fleming, Bryce and another OSS official named Ernest Cuneo were all involved in early development work on the movie Thunderball.

Ernest Cuneo was liaison between William Stephenson (BSC and British Intelligence) and Franklin Roosevelt during World War II. Cuneo and Ian Fleming became close friends. Fleming later credited Cuneo with having throught up over half the plot for Goldfinger and all of the basic plot for Thunderball; the dedication of the former novel reads, "To Ernest Cuneo, Muse." Cuneo also had ties to Ivan Sanderson, both before and after World War II:

Sanderson's transition to an American writing career may have been aided by Ernest Cuneo... Cuneo's primary responsibility during the war was liaison with British intelligence, in which position he likely came to know Sanderson. Following the war Cuneo became president, then owner (in partnership with Ian Fleming, the creator of James Bond) of the North American Newspaper Alliance. Cuneo was also an executive for the Saturday Evening Post. According to Sanderson's partner, Ed Schoenenberger, Sanderson was the best of friends with the editor of the Post. [McLeod, Michael. Anatomy of a Beast: Obsession and Myth on the Trail of Bigfoot. Berkeley and Los Angeles, California: University of California Press, 2009. p. 189.]

  • Ivan Long Gun Collection
    While in charge of all counter-intelligence against the Germans in the western Caribbean in World War II, Ivan acquired a rather interesting collection of firearms. In this late 1960s photo we see his "long gun" collection. At the top is a German Mauser sniper rifle which was fitted with a silencer that is not included in this photo. The second from the top is a Webley .177 pellet gun used to down birds with minimal damage (for collecting animal specimens). Below that is a .242 Nitro Express hunting rifle. Richard T. Grybos, a SITU Resident Staff member of that era, says that, "Ivan said the Nitro Express fired bullets filled with TNT that would explode on inpact, but if you do a search, you'll see there was never such a round. He may have thought 'Nitro' somehow equated with TNT, hence the implication of a an exploding bullet. Fellow SITU Staff member Mike Freedman and I fired the weapon with ammo so marked, but there was no 'big bang'." At the bottom is a .410 single shot shotgun, manufacturer unknown. Second from the bottom is a shotgun that was apparently worth a great deal of money, even back in the late 1960s. It was one of a pair - the other was stolen, according to Ivan. It appears to be a 12 gauge weapon. (Photo courtesy Richart T. Grybos.)
  • Ivan and Alma Sanderson Pistol Collection
    Certainly any well-attired British Intelligence agent - or even a married agent couple such as the Sandersons - needed a pistol with some "stopping" power. In the case of Alma Sanderson, I surmised that she preferred the dainty pistol shown at top: an FN Model 1910, a blowback-operated, semi-automatic pistol designed by John Browning and manufactured by Fabrique Nationale of Belgium. It was offered in both .380 ACP (6-round magazine) and .32 ACP (7-round magazine) calibers, and it remained in production until 1983. At first I thought that Ivan probably favored the handgun at the bottom, which appears to be a Browning-designed .45 caliber, Colt M1911A1 designed in 1924 and made by Remington Rand. The gun in the middle may be a variant of Alma's Model 1910 known variously as the Model 1922 or 1910/22. This was a larger model with a longer barrel, slide extension, and a longer grip frame to accommodate an extra two rounds. This model was designed for the military, police and various "agencies." As it turns out however, SITU Resident Staff member Richard T. Grybos tells me that, "Ivan told me he carried the bigger Browning 9mm, not the .45 Colt. I believe he said that was given to him by the Americans. He preferred the Browning because it didn't have an exposed hammer to get caught when drawing and was easier to conceal in the front waistband under a shirt (He demonstrated at this point)." (Photo courtesy Richard T. Grybos.)
  • Ian Fleming
    While operating in British Naval Intelligence in the western Caribbean during World War II, Ivan Sanderson apparently became friends with Ian Fleming (at left), author of the James Bond novels, but was definitely better friends with his brother, Peter Fleming, and Ivar Felix Bryce (also known as John F. C. Bryce), who was the model for the character of "Felix Leitner" in the Bond novels. Fleming was supposedly going to visit Sanderson at Sanderson's New Jersey home (a story confirmed by Sanderson's former assistant, Michael R. Freedman) when he suffered a fatal heart attack on 12 August 1964.

When Alma died decades later, Ivan revealed the following interesting fact about Alma's role in World War II counter-espionage...

Another little accomplishment that she did not talk about was that she took over my command on behalf of all the allies for counter espionage (and anti-submarine warfare) for the whole western Caribbean when I was rushed to the Orient: and she carried it for almost a year. We were both in British Naval Intelligence from 1934, but came under the U.S. command a year after Pearl Harbor. When I finally got awake one morning and staggered downstairs at our headquarters—and we had been up all night decoding, I found her entertaining four admirals, one general, a Latin-American Ambassador, and one of our local agents, a Black Carib who had been a rum-runner and pirate all his life. I tell you that was some mix in 1943, as the admirals were all American southern gentlemen, but she carried it off like the aristocrat she was and proud of this fact, too. [Tribute to Alma V. Sanderson. Published in the Blairstown Express (New Jersey) and sent as a letter to Ivan Sanderson's neighbors in Columbia, NJ. 18 January 1972.]

One particular incident stood out in Ivan’s mind over the years, according to his friend and neighbor, Allen V. Noe. During the war, Allied tankers were being torpedoed by U-boats off the coast of Florida, and it was Ivan’s job to locate the precise positions in latitude and longitude of the concealed bases where these enemy subs were being resupplied. Ivan found and mapped these supply points with the aid of his schooner. Since the Caribbean lacked a concentration of British forces, Ivan felt that something had to be done about those secret enemy supply points immediately. Brushing aside all protocol, he took the entirety of his top secret maps directly to the Commandant of Panama and explained the situation to him. Within a short time, a huge American air effort totally destroyed all of the Nazi bases.

Problem was, the Americans had destroyed a number of hideouts that happened to reside on British property.

A certain British officer did not like Sanderson’s not presenting his findings “through channels.” Americans dropping bombs on British property? Incredible! Something must be done about Sanderson. This perturbed officer then came to a decision: Sanderson must “go.” His plan was to send Ivan on an “impossible” one-way mission against the Nazis. Somehow Ivan managed to survive every kind of mission that was thrown at him; and later, when he assumed a position of authority at the British Information Service in New York, he again discovered that the officer who had tried to eliminate him had been transferred out of his former niche of leadership.

He was now working at the Bureau under Ivan!

Another version of this story (or perhaps an entirely different incident) was told by Ivan to one of this assistants, Rich Grybos. According to Grybos,

..after the war someone (I don't know if Ivan ever gave a name) in American intelligence didn't like the fact that a foreigner was going to be here in the U.S. who had information about the U.S. operations during the war and so, according to Ivan, this individual wanted Ivan eliminated. Ivan was in New York at the time. Ivan had to go into hiding until this fellow was removed from his position of authority. [Grybos, Richard T. Personal Communication. 13 February 2010.]

Ivan's fears of being assassinated as a result of his past spy "adventures" never left him. Toward the end of his life, as both he and his wife Alma were nearly simultaneously dying of cancer, he told various people that he and Alma were being targeted by someone or something, as we shall see.

RG: Then, in 1945 you became attached to the British Ministry of Information in New York.

ITS: That’s right.

Ivan's bio in the National Cyclopedia of American Biography reads, "Employed in the British Government Services as assistant comptroller during 1945-47, he was engaged in information and overseas press analysis for that organization in New York City." Located in New York's Rockefeller Center, this organization was apparently a sort of "spiritual descendant" of the British Security Coordination (BSC), also headquartered in Rockefeller Center (on three floors), a huge cover organization set up in New York City by the British Secret Intelligence Services in May 1940 upon the authorization of Winston Churchill. According to the Wikipedia, "The office, which was established for intelligence and propaganda services, was headed by Canadian industrialist William Stephenson. Its first tasks were to promote British interests in the United States, counter Nazi propaganda, and protect the Atlantic convoys from enemy sabotage." Ivan Sanderson is listed as a notable member, along with Roald Dahl, Noel Coward and Ivan's friend Ian Fleming. The organization was particularly active in 1941 prior to Pearl Harbor, attempting to convince otherwise isolationist Americans that entering the war against Germany was a good idea. Estimates of how many agents the BSC had operating in the U.S. range from "many hundreds" up to 3000 British and American agents and sub-agents.

William Boyd wrote about the BSC in Britain's The Guardian, in 2006:

...BSC became a huge secret agency of nationwide news manipulation and black propaganda. Pro-British and anti-German stories were planted in American newspapers and broadcast on American radio stations, and simultaneously a campaign of harassment and denigration was set in motion against those organisations perceived to be pro-Nazi or virulently isolationist (such as the notoriously anti-British America First Committee—it had more than a million paid-up members). [William Boyd. "The Secret Persuaders." The Guardian. (Weekend comment & features section) Saturday, 19 August 2006. p. 26.]

The BSC's "friends" included the American columnists as Walter Winchell and Drew Pearson, and it could influence coverage in major U.S. newspapers such as the Herald Tribune, the New York Post and the Baltimore Sun. BSC pretty much operated its own radio station, WRUL, and a press agency, the Overseas News Agency (ONA), feeding stories to the media as bona fide news reporting, with foreign datelines to disguise their true origin at the BSC offices in Rockefeller Center. The immense ruse was never uncovered by U.S. civilian news agencies.

RG: You then resigned from the service in 1947?

ITS: Sort of. I was with a branch of the British Information Service which was called the British Overseas Press Analysis. What we were doing—see, the British Information Service was trying to keep American newspapers and so on informed of the British war effort—what we were trying to do on the other side. The British Overseas Press Service was trying to keep the English informed of what the Americans were doing. It was outgoing rather than incoming. Well, all this happened in 1945, when the breakthrough came in Europe, which, in a couple of months ended the war in Europe. This news all came out of the British Foreign Office. We all then became official diplomats. They wanted me to go in the diplomatic corps, and send me to Iran—Persia, it was called then—as a diplomat.

Well, I didn’t see that because I always wanted to be an American citizen, and I lost everything in the war, Richard. A 500-pound aerial torpedo went into my mother’s house, and everything went. She was saved, she wasn’t there.

I was one of 33 cousins before the war, and I was one of two left at the end of the war. It just cleaned out everything, you know, stuff I couldn’t replace.

RG: You were rather lucky.

ITS: I was lucky personally, but that finished me with my home country, and I always wanted to be an American anyhow. So I was here, and I said to the government that I wanted to stay. I applied to the Americans for my first papers and I obtained them. I had been here long enough for that.

In my 1970 interview with him, Ivan Sanderson was tip-toeing around his real reasons for becoming an American citizen. In a 1951 interview he was more blunt:

In 1943, Sanderson was transferred to London to the British Foreign Office doing propaganda work. He was sent to New York and was in sole charge of all propaganda for the British and U.S. governments for all countries with the exception of the British Empire, U.S territory and enemy occupied territory.

In April 1947, he came to America and took out citizenship papers.

"I did not approve of the British Socialist government and refused to do propaganda work for them," Sanderson said, "We parted with expressions of mutual disgust." ["Noted Author-Lecturer Here with Speleologists." The Charleston Gazette. (Charleston, West Virginia) Friday, 27 April 1951. 4.]

ITS: Then I said to the British Government: 'Now I think I’d rather stay here and go back to private life than become a British diplomat.' So I stayed and then I went into radio and television, and writing books and things again...

...which was a modest understatement, as we shall soon see…

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