Today is the birthday of Sterling Hayden, he would have been 103 years old today. Most people when they hear his name think of the crooked cop, Captain McCloskey in “The Godfather”. Working with a rival faction of Mafiosi, Hayden met his end when Michael Corleone shot him in a restaurant. He was also outstanding as Colonel Jack D. Ripper in Stanley Kubrick’s “Dr. Strangelove” which is a classic.
But before those roles, Hayden was an operative in the OSS (Office of Strategic Services), during World War II. OSS was the forerunner of the modern-day CIA and the U.S. Army Special Forces (Green Berets). He completed two overseas deployments working with Partisans in Italy and Yugoslavia.
Hayden was born in Montclair, NJ on March 26, 1916. His father died when he was just nine and his mother remarried. His stepfather, moved the family around the East Coast trying to stay one step ahead of his creditors.
By the time Hayden was 16, he quit school for good. He went to see and quickly learned the hard lessons of sailing. By the time he was just 22, he’d earned his master’s license, and was given the command of a square rigger, the Florence C. Robinson, which he sailed from Gloucester, Massachusetts to Tahiti.
He spoke about his voyage to the Adventurer’s Club of New York and some of the pictures of this young sea captain taken at a race in Gloucester, were published and Hollywood immediately came calling. They offered the young captain a seven-year contract paying him $250 a week, no small amount in those days.
He had made a couple of films and then once the United States entered WWII, he enlisted in the Army.
Hayden joined the Army and was assigned to the O.S.S. General Donovan sent him to Commando training in Scotland. After completing a course there, he moved on to parachute training, also with the Brits. On his tenth and final jump, Hayden shattered his ankle and injured his back. His injuries were thought to be serious enough to be separated from the service. The Army discharged him and he went back to sailing ships for a short time. But that wasn’t the end of his service.
As soon as he was healed up, Hayden enlisted in the Marine Corps, using a pseudonym, John Hamilton. There, while excelling in boot camp he was selected for Officer’s Candidate School. After his commissioning, General Donovan somehow found out who 2LT Hamilton really was and had him assigned back to OSS. After lounging around Cairo waiting for an assignment, he was sent to Bari, Italy.
OSS had set up a smuggling operation using ships to provide food, weapons and other support to partisans fighting in Yugoslavia. Hayden, never one to mince words, described that operation as the first time he’d met OSS operatives who were actually doing a job. But the British Navy was hampering operations, something the Americans felt the British were trying to ensure they failed.
After being forced to move their operation further down the coast at Monopoli, the American commander was called to Cairo. Hayden/Hamilton went to Yugoslavia in his place, his motor quit and he paddled back to the mainland. He hooked up with Tito’s Communist partisans.
Hayden recalled “We hooked up with about thirty of the toughest bastards on earth. None of them had had a bath in years. All had been in the thick of the fighting and marching all up and down Bosnia and Croatia. They would only take one cigarette at a time, which they passed around in circles.”
The year he spent with Tito’s men left an indelible mark on him. “the crews of planes would leave their shoes, anything they could spare, with the Partisans . . . We knew they were Communists, we knew they had commissars, but there was very little discussion of that.”
Hayden was involved in several close calls during combat operations where one evaluation report said that he had a “reckless disregard of his own life.” His men were attacked by Stuka dive-bombers, he captured a German E-boat, their version of the American PT boats, they were ambushed by the Germans where his jeep driver was shot. He arranged for a rescue of 26 downed American airmen, including 11 nurses who were forced down in German-held Albania by engine trouble.
He was awarded the Silver Star and the Bronze Arrowhead for parachuting into Yugoslavia. He received a commendation from Tito who also awarded him an Order of Merit. His affinity for Tito’s men and fighting beside them made him briefly join the American Communist Party.
House Un-American Activities Committee Testimony:
Hayden’s brief fling with the Communist Party got him on the radar with the FBI and J.Edgar Hoover. After the Communist unions in Hollywood tried to take over the remaining ones, the Red Scare took place in Hollywood and Washington.
He was called to testify and the FBI threatened him with losing his children and even jail time if he didn’t cooperate. Hayden “named names” and later would regret having cooperated. In his autobiography, he wrote:
“I don’t think you have the foggiest notion of the contempt I have had for myself since the day I did that thing.”
He maintained a very lucrative career as a “B” action movie star but he never liked being in the films and did so only enough to finance his seagoing adventures. He considered himself more of a sailor or writer rather than an actor.
Sydney Pollack, the film director put a mention of Hayden and his OSS service in one of his films. In his film “Three Days of the Condor” (1975), two veteran CIA officers were reminiscing about their past exploits. Higgins (Cliff Robertson) asked Mr. Wabash, (played by John Houseman) “You served with Col. Donovan in the OSS, didn’t you, sir?” Wabash replies, “I sailed the Adriatic with a movie star at the helm. It doesn’t seem like much of a war now, but it was.”
Hayden died of prostate cancer in Sausalito, California in 1986, he was 70.
In our own favorite film role, as Colonel Jack D. Ripper, here he tells Peter Sellers (who played three roles) about why he launched a nuclear attack on the Soviets.
Silver Star Citation:
The President of the United States of America, authorized by Act of Congress July 9, 1918, takes pleasure in presenting the Silver Star (Army Award) to Captain John Hamilton (AKA: Sterling Hayden) (MCSN: 0-22085), United States Marine Corps, for gallantry in action while serving with the Office of Strategic Services in the Mediterranean Theater of Operations from 24 December 1943 to 2 January 1944. Captain Hamilton displayed great courage in making hazardous sea voyage in enemy-infested waters and reconnaissance’s through enemy-held areas. His conduct reflected great credit upon himself and the United States Armed Forces. General Orders: Headquarters, Mediterranean Theater of Operations, General Orders No. 145 (July 31, 1946)
Photos: OSS Archives/IMDB