Leonard LeSchack Spy, scientist and Navy captain
From the Summer 2015 Issue
Interview: Leonard LeShack, Bonners Ferry, Idaho Spy, CIA, Navy Captain, Author
The four engines on the converted B-17 bomber, flown by CIA, roared as it swung low over the frigid Arctic. It was a welcome sound to the two intrepid spies. Five days earlier, May 28, 1962, they had plummeted out that B-17’s “Joe hole” – where the belly turret had been – at 1,200 feet in subzero temperatures. Although the two parachuted safely onto a floating Soviet ice station, NP 8 (North Pole No. 8), their mission of espionage against the Soviet Union was just beginning.
The Cold War was more than a metaphor for U.S. Navy Lt. Leonard A. LeSchack and Russian linguist, U.S. Air Force Major James F. Smith. It was less than six months before the Cuban Missile Crisis, and relations between the Soviets and the Americans were spiraling out of control.
LeSchack, now 80 and a resident of Bonners Ferry, had hatched a plan that sounded more like a stunt out of a James Bond film. A year later he helped execute the mission, code named Project COLDFEET. While getting the two men to the station wasn’t difficult, getting them off safely was both complicated and risky. The newly established Defense Intelligence Agency, CIA, Army, Navy and Air Force worked together, which was unprecedented, as was their use of the complex Fulton’s Skyhook surface-to-air recovery system to pluck the spies and their booty off the ice.
COLDFEET was a resounding success. LeSchack received the presidential Legion of Merit in 1962. Two decades later, he attained a new rank, Navy captain – equivalent to Army or Air Force colonel. Twice more during the Cold War, in 1965 and in 1973, he conducted further espionage in the Soviet Union.
LeSchack spent a total of 30 years in the U.S. Navy besides having a career as a petroleum geologist and geophysicist. After his retirement in 1989, he eventually found his way to northern Idaho, where he now lives, writes, and shares his story about a life of adventure and intrigue. LeSchack is a Cold War hero, maverick, scientist, lover of classical music, history buff, and the author of his memoirs, “He Heard A Different Drummer.”
Your parents’ families were immigrants from Ukraine in the early 1900s. What values did they pass on to you?
My father became a lawyer and mom was a history teacher, both in New York City. They were liberal Jewish pacifists. Mom is the one who encouraged me in adventure; or, maybe I should say she didn’t discourage it. As a lawyer dad was always cautious, saying things like, “Don’t jump off that rock into the water.” Mom force fed me history and made me read the Constitution. My parents read to me every night.
What kind of books?
They read books about explorers, adventurers, and inventors. Even as a child I wanted to travel to “faraway places with strange sounding names” as the Bing Crosby song said. Some of my favorite stories were about Lewis and Clark, Admiral Byrd, and Admiral Perry.
Where did you grow up?
I grew up in Freeport, New York, on Long Island. It was an anti-Semitic neighborhood during War II. The neighborhood boys would repeat that old saying, “Jewish boys didn’t, or wouldn’t fight.” That got to me as a child who knew no better. However, I carried that leaden baggage bottled up in me for years! When the Israelis successfully rescued 105 Jewish hostages from terrorists in Uganda in 1976, everything changed for me. It was like a huge weight forever lifted from my shoulders.
You had another revelation in high school. What happened?
It was a hot day and one of the young teenaged girls sitting near me in my history class stretched to raise her arms. To my horror she had a concentration camp number tattooed on her arm, a “Nazi license plate.” Mom had taught me a lot about history but not much about the horrors of war. That event set in (motion) my decision to learn military skills along with my academic studies.
Where did you go to school?
I started Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute (in Troy, N.Y.) in 1952. After finishing the first two years in electrical engineering, I switched majors and began studying geology. It was here that I learned about the U.S. Antarctic Expedition during the International Geophysical Year (IGY) and applied to join it. I graduated as a petroleum geologist and was accepted into Shell Oil’s geophysical training program. By the end of 1957, I was asked to join the Antarctic Expedition as an assistant seismologist.
How did you end up in the military?
I noticed a common denominator about all my favorite explorers; they were commissioned by the government or had military training. Second, after I was accepted for the U.S Antarctic Expedition, I had an 18-month deferment from the draft; 14 of those months were spent in Antarctica. The U.S. Navy handled most of the logistics, and I got to know the Navy officers and men. The Navy’s senior commander in the Antarctic agreed to recommend me for Navy Officer Candidate School once I applied after returning to the U.S.
As a child you wanted to be a scientist and an explorer. Did you find the adventure you were looking for?
Yes, indeed. There was plenty of science and adventure, all funded by Cold War dollars. During this time the Russians launched Sputnik 1 and 2. Frightened by Soviet capabilities demonstrated by the Sputniks, the U.S. government made a decision to substantially increase funding for the military and advanced science. This shaped U.S. domestic and foreign policy for the next several decades, and funded many of my adventures.
Project COLDFEET was your brainchild. How did it come together?
The Soviets were active in the Arctic, but we weren’t certain what they were capable of doing. I recognized the importance of being able to track nuclear submarines beneath the ice as a result of assisting the Navy in setting up an acoustic array in the Arctic Ocean in 1960. I came up with the idea to investigate a recently abandoned Soviet drift station to determine if they had the capability to track our subs. I brought up the idea to my boss over a martini lunch in Washington, D.C.
How did that work out?
I suggested the next time one of the Soviet drift stations was abandoned that we go in and take a look at it. My guess was they would leave behind some useful intelligence. My boss thought about it for a moment and then said, “What do you want to do, be an American James Bond?” But he didn’t dismiss the idea.
Then what happened?
I agitated just enough. The DIA (Defense Intelligence Agency) was just set up and provided the funding. The CIA provided the aircraft with Skyhook Aero-retrieval system; the Navy and the Air Force were all involved. The problem had been finding the funding for the plane, the crew and then executing the plan. Once abandoned, the drift stations disintegrated quickly into the Arctic Ocean so time was critical.
Once the plan was approved, did you have any apprehensions?
Yes, I asked myself, “What hath I wrought?” The mission had all the trappings of a World War II OSS (Office of Strategic Services) spy mission. The more it unfolded the more I thought, “What have I gotten myself into?” Once the plan had been accepted, I lived in a constant state of subdued terror.
But the COLDFEET Mission was exactly what you wanted – adventure?
That’s right. The key to success in life is putting yourself in the right situations. You have to make your own opportunities and then live with them.
What made you uniquely qualified for the mission?
I had 14 months of polar experience in the Antarctic and four months on Air Force Drift Station T-3. I knew exactly what to look for on any abandoned Soviet drift station.
Your pickup in the Arctic didn’t go exactly as planned. What happened?
The Fulton Skyhook could only pick up one item or person at a time. We had just three complete kits so if anything went wrong, we would be in trouble. The booty bag with the intelligence was the first to go. Jim and I both had to hold onto the booty bag to keep it from being pulled away from us by the winds aloft. The wind stress was such that a safety feature of the pickup system was lost!
How did that work?
With the booty bag safely hauled into the B-17, it was my turn to be picked up. I had a suit, helmet and a face mask with eye slits cut out because of the extreme cold. The B-17 flew over, caught my line but dragged me across the ice directly toward a pressure ridge. There was about 140 feet of slack in the line combined with a 15 to 20 knot wind. When the line finally caught me, I was facing forward rather than backward. My mask turned and I was suddenly blinded. I had five seconds to adjust it before the line became taut and pulled me upward. Once I was in the air, I found that by using my arms as ailerons, I could make adjustments while being pulled behind the plane. But I couldn’t breathe. I forced myself into a 180-degree roll so my back would be to the wind. It took six to seven minutes of dangling from the line before they winched me into the plane.
What happened once you were inside?
I was stressed from the ordeal. The mission doctor checked me and Jim out and declared us unharmed. We celebrated with a bottle of Vat 69 scotch provided us by the CIA air boss who was onboard, and then Jim and I promptly fell asleep. Less than six hours later we landed in Barrow, Alaska.
Where did your career take you then?
My next assignment was U.S. official representative to the Argentine Navy in the 1962-63 Antarctic Expedition during which time I served on their icebreaker, San Martin. I then studied in Paris at Les Expéditions Polaires Françaises and geophysics at the University of Wisconsin (Madison). I traveled to Panama, Peru and Colombia to conduct environmental research under various U.S. government contracts. Part of my role was to determine the potential for political terrorism in this part of the world. In 1973 I visited Siberia as part of a scientific delegation to the Second International Permafrost Conference; the Soviet Academy of Sciences invited me based on a paper I wrote on permafrost in Alaska. The conference and the associated field trip through Gulag Archipelago country was an unusual opportunity for gathering intelligence. The Navy eventually called me back to active duty to run the Cuban-Haitian Refugee Center in Puerto Rico. Then they ordered me to the U.S. Naval Station at Panama Canal where I became that command’s intelligence officer. After my release from active duty, I moved my private research office from Maryland to the Florida Keys and worked with my midget oceanographic research submarine. I called it my “yellow submarine.” When the Navy learned that I had moved to the Florida Keys and was still in the Navy Reserve, they asked me to set up a Naval Reserve Intelligence Unit to support the then-recently established U.S. Forces Caribbean Command in Key West. I became its first commanding officer and also served as deputy chief of intelligence for that command.
What do you like most about living in Bonners Ferry?
Many veterans settle here. They feel comfortable and accepted in this community, as do I. So many Vietnam veterans came home and were treated poorly elsewhere. Many of them settled in Boundary County. The state of Idaho is also one of the most economical places to live and retire.
Any regrets about your life?
No, none at all. Basically, this is the life I chose. What I found is a lot of opportunity can be folded into adventure, if seen that way. My life has been an interesting and exciting saga, especially during the Cold War years.
For LeSchack’s complete Cold War story, find, “He Heard a Different Drummer” volumes I and II, on Amazon.com. The 1996 book “Project COLDFEET: Secret Mission to a Soviet Ice Station” that he coauthored is also available on Amazon.com.