By the beginning of 1951, the belligerents of the Korean War had been locked in a brutal struggle since June of the previous year. Ground combat had seesawed up and down the peninsula, at first seeming to favor the North Koreans, then the United States, then the Chinese, and then finally no one. China’s momentous entry into the war as American forces approached its border had sent the United States reeling; only by an extreme effort had the Americans been able to stabilize the front and prevent a complete collapse. The winter cold now brought unrelenting misery and disease to the Chinese, grinding their progress to a sickly halt.

Equipped only with quilted cotton uniforms and plagued by inadequate provisions, they had suffered immensely, far more than their American antagonists. But the orders from Peking (not yet called Beijing) were clear: attack and evict the Americans from the peninsula now, with one final push to Pusan. The spring of 1951 promised to bring a massive series of coordinated Chinese-North Korean offensives.

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It was against this background that the director of CIA operations in Japan, Hans Tofte, received an intelligence report of great interest. A well-placed source in the Indian government had reported that a cargo of battlefield medical supplies was soon to leave Bombay, aboard a Norwegian vessel chartered by the Chinese government, and was bound for some communist port in North Korea or Manchuria.

Should those supplies reach the enemy, Tofte was warned, they would provide an immense material aid to the coming communist offensives. Regardless of the cost, the ship had to be stopped. To make sure that Tofte got the message, his superiors gave him $1 million in cash to work with, a vast sum by the CIA standards of the day.

Tofte’s plan called for Chinese Nationalist forces, disguised as pirates, to intercept the ship near Taiwan (then called Formosa) and seize the cargo. Chiang Kai-shek, whom Tofte had known personally before the war, promised men and material aid to the plan. The operation went off nearly seamlessly; without a shot being fired, the entire cargo had been stolen, in what had appeared to be a “random act” of piracy on the high seas.

It was the type of daring operation—which the agency had code-named “TP Stole”—that the twentieth century’s greatest commando, Otto Skorzeny, would probably himself have admired. The success of the operation without doubt saved many lives: deprived of medical logistics, the Chinese were unable to mount many of the offensives that they had planned for in 1951.

Who was this Hans Tofte? Joseph C. Goulden’s excellent book Korea: The Untold Story of the War contains the most complete account of Tofte’s colorful career and exploits. Goulden interviewed Tofte in the early 1980s while researching his book and was amazed by the scope of Tofte’s exploits in the 1940s and 1950s. Yet he remains an obscure figure today.

Born in 1911 in Denmark to a maritime merchant family, Tofte had been stationed at age 19 to live in China as an employee of a Danish shipping firm that did business in east Asia. Living in Manchuria, he learned to speak Chinese, and gained an intimate knowledge of the country’s geography, political factions, and political personalities. The Second World War brought him back to Denmark, where he saw some service in the anti-German resistance.

Eventually escaping from Denmark, he enlisted with Allied American intelligence services–first the Office of Strategic Services (“OSS”) and later the regular US military–and participated in many operations, most notably running supplies to Chinese guerrillas fighting against Japan, and smuggling weapons under Mussolini’s nose to Tito’s partisans in Yugoslavia.

But the end of the war had come suddenly, and with it came a need to reinvent himself as a humdrum man of peace. America’s rapid post-1945 demobilization left little opportunities for a man of action like Tofte. Promises that his skills would be used in some new intelligence agency came to nothing, and so he took up the life of a middle-class small businessman, marrying an American woman and moving to Mason City, Iowa. Yet he promised his friends who remained in the intelligence business that, should another war break out, he would certainly come in with both feet.

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Hans Tofte (on right)

He did not need to wait long. In June 1950, North Korean forces burst across the border into South Korea, and there was an immediate need for anyone with operational combat experience. He was restored to an equivalent position in the fledgling CIA, only just created, and sent to Japan to run special operations against communist forces in Korea. In Tokyo, he quickly found out that he and his detachment of CIA men faced severe institutional resistance from Douglas MacArthur’s headquarters.

MacArthur had always hated special operators, presumably because they were beyond his direct control; in MacArthur’s theatre, there could be no secrets kept from him. Tofte’s abilities to navigate the perilous bureaucracy became the stuff of legend. With deftness, cunning, and an incredible ability to scrounge resources from nothing, Tofte amassed a team of operators that pulled off some incredible missions during the war.

In the beginning, most of his efforts focused on establishing a covert network of guides in North Korea to help downed fliers escape to the coasts, where they might be rescued by a fleet of CIA-controlled “fishing boats” that patrolled coastal waters. But one of his more amusing coups came in late 1950, when the Soviet Union released a large number of Japanese prisoners who had been held in captivity since the end of the Second World War. The Soviets intended to use the issue to score sympathy points with Japanese labor unions, many of which in those days were communist sympathizers.

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Anti-communist partisans ready for action

Tofte came up with the idea of making a movie about the abuse of Japanese prisoners in Soviet gulags. On a shoestring budget, he used the secret diary of a former Japanese prisoner as the basis for anti-Soviet propaganda film that caused anti-Russian feeling in Japan to reach new heights. It was so successful, in fact, that it actually turned a profit, netting Tofte at least $400,000 which was turned over to his superiors.

Another chance for distinction came early in the war when Tofte learned that the Chinese were using an underwater cable stretched across the Yellow Sea to communicate with its North Korean ally. If the cable could somehow be cut or disabled, it would force the enemy to rely more on wireless communications, which the National Security Agency could more easily monitor. From his prewar years of living in Manchuria, Tofte had a good general knowledge of where the cable left China; and assembling his fleet of “fishing boats,” he had them converge on the cable, raise it from the ocean floor, and sever it.

For all his distinguished service and incredible wartime feats, things eventually soured for Tofte in civilian life. Like many warriors, he discovered that the skills needed to survive in a wartime environment bear little resemblance to those needed in a peacetime bureaucracy. He remained in the employ of the CIA during the 1950s and 1960s until being unceremoniously booted out in 1966.

According to his obituary, which appeared in the Los Angeles Times of September 13, 1987, Tofte in 1966 had put his Washington D.C. home up for sale. Apparently without his knowledge, his real estate agent showed residence to a prospective buyer, who happened also to be a CIA officer. The buyer claimed to have seen “classified documents” in plain view in Tofte’s basement, and reported the matter for an investigation.

Although Tofte claimed that it was customary for high-ranking agency officials to take classified work home with them, the investigators were unconvinced, and Tofte was dismissed. So ended one of the most distinguished and colorful Cold War intelligence careers. It was a great pity that a man who had rendered such long service had been brought down by such an apparently middling transgression, but such are the ways of large organizations.

Here we see a theme played out countless times in history: a man of action, perhaps resented by his peers and having worn out his organizational welcome, finding himself given a final push out the door. Men of ability invariably arouse envy among those who prefer to lurk in obscurity behind the comfortable partitions of stifling bureaucracies. So it has always been.

Although the full circumstances of Tofte’s are not public record, we may still overlook this sad last chapter in his professional to the incredible achievements he produced in his operational roles. The handprint of Tofte will remain forever pressed on the history of Cold War covert operations. Those who wish to know his work need only read the history of the times.

The grammarian Aemilius Probus, writing during the reign of emperor Theodosius II in the early part of the fifth century A.D., is said to have composed this epigram at the end of one of his works, in a poignant exhortation to readers:

If he may ask for the author, then little by little reveal our name to the Lord.  Let him know that I am Probus.  In this work is the hand of my father, my grandfather, and myself…It is a happy hand that merits the Divine.

Tofte would have liked this. Great deeds produce their own garlands, and need no others.

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