In Memory of WWII Counterintelligence Officer and War Hero Earl S. Browning (1917-2013)

Earl S. BrowningRetired Army Colonel Earl S. Browning, a WWII Counterintelligence Officer known for his many remarkable war exploits, passed away last October 23 at the old age of 96.

According to his son E.S. “Jim” Browning, a Wall Street Journal reporter, he died from congestive heart failure and pneumonia.

A commemorative celebration about his life was held at the Colonnades, his home for the last 13 years, last November 1 and he will be laid to rest in Arlington National Cemetery at a later date.

Browning spent more than 30 years serving the US Army as a counterintelligence officer as well as in the infantry and public affairs. He was in Normandy a few days after D-Day and in the liberation of both Paris and Dachau. He also played a key role in stopping the undercover plan of Hitler’s master-spy at the Battle of the Bulge.

On to the Army

Born Earl Staten Browning Jr. in Mediapolis, Iowa on September 7, 1917, He was a journalism graduate from the University of Iowa and was a reserved Army officer as he was in the ROTC in his college days. After Pearl Harbor happened, he sent a telegram to the Army, every word of that short notice he sent he remembered clearly even in his old age:

“Am instantly available for active duty. Gladly accept any assignment but have journalistic background and may be more useful in military intelligence.”

He was called to active duty just weeks after he sent the said telegram and was trained for the Counter Intelligence Corps (CIC). Afterwards, he was sent to London in 1942 and then shipped to Iceland.

His Remarkable Feats

He set shore on Normandy a few days after the D-Day invasion in June 1944. He and his team were in Belgium when the Germans launched their final offense against the Allies, the Battle of the Bulge. There was a growing fear in the Army that the Germans want to kill or capture Allied  commander Dwight Eisenhower after it was learnt that Hitler’s master-spy, Otto Skorzeny, was sneaking in English-speaking German spies wearing Allied  uniforms.

Browning, a captain at that time, successfully coordinated the Meuse River, which was near Liege, lock-down, it being a strategic point in keeping Skorzeny’s agents out. For that, he was given the Bronze Star.

He was sent to Munich near the war’s end and was in Dachau during the liberation of the Dachau Concentration Camp. The horror he witnessed in the place cemented his will to bring war criminals to justice.

Browning and the “Butcher of Lyon”

At the start of the Cold War, Browning was stationed in Frankfurt as head of Germany’s CIC operations when he learned that the ill-famed Gestapo chief Klaus Barbie, well-known for his being the “Butcher of Lyon”, was employed for intelligence work. Unknown to the Americans, Barbie was responsible for the death, torture and deportation of thousands of Jews and French resistance fighters while he was Gestapo chief in Lyons, hence, his nickname.

The man was also at the top of Browning’s most-wanted list so naturally, he was stunned to learn the former had permeated the organization he was working in and worse, was working as an intelligence informant.

“It was a shock to me. Here he was being looked for — and there he was!” Col. Browning said in a later interview with New York Times about it.

He then persistently argued about Barbie’s credibility as an informant and even insisted that the man be detained for interrogation. However, some officers in the CIC opposed him as they feared Barbie had come to know too much about the organization’s operations including spying on Allies like the French.

Browning prevailed…but only for a short time. Barbie was detained for five months and then dropped from the organization as an informant months later…or so it seemed. In truth, he was living at a CIC safe house in Augsburg, Germany and was working with American handlers.

When the French government formally requested for Barbie’s extradition and sent a report that accused CIC officers for obstructing justice by betraying the US civil authorities in Germany with their clandestine relationship with barbie, the organization sent the former Gestapo officer and his family to Bolivia under fake papers  and for the next thirty years spent his life as a businessman in La Paz.

He was extradited by Bolivia’s civilian government to France in 1983 and was sentenced to a lifetime of imprisonment for his war crimes in 1987. he died while serving that sentence in 1991.

In a book about CIC, “America’s Secret Agency”, released in 1989, Col. Browning stated that it was not only him who wanted to out Barbie from the organization – he had comrades in the Frankfurt headquarters who opposed it also due to credibility concerns.

“This was not necessarily because we were more virtuous or had better judgment than the agents in the field who pressed to use him. It was mainly because we had had more wartime intelligence experience, were more aware of how the Gestapo had operated and, never having laid eyes on the man or been influenced by his personality, were more hard-headed in our appraisal of him,” he wrote to the book’s authors.

Col. Browning was seen in the 1988 Oscar-winning documentary by Marcel Ophüls shown in 1988 – “Hotel Terminus” – which centered on the disconcerting Barbie legacy.

Remembering Col. Browning

Col. Browning ,a s a child, had dreamed of great adventures and in his lifetime, that dream was realized. Throughout his career, he had traveled into over 250 countries and saw the sights from the Stonehenge to Angkor Wat which he could describe in great details.

To his friends at the Colonnade, he was the guy who loved jazz and journalism and was an ardent storyteller about his exploits all over the world.

– The Washington Post reports; Additional notes from his obituary in Daily Progress

Heziel Pitogo

Heziel Pitogo is one of the authors writing for WAR HISTORY ONLINE