Copyright 2015 – Stephen Redgwell
In 1978, I met a strange, older lady named Eloria on the wharf in Baie Ste. Anne, NB. It would prove to be a fascinating friendship.
That first time was 37 years ago. I was buying lobster. She spoke about a recurring dream of living in the Andes. I never pressed her about it because moving there seemed unlikely. I thought that she was a sweet old lady who was ‘touched by the angels’. That was an expression my mother used when she described people who were batty, but harmless. My wife and I were visiting the area and found ourselves on the wharf early in the morning. Like me, Eloria was always awake at sun up, and would sit on a folding chair near the boats every morning, staring out to sea. I thought it was sad.
Her husband died a year earlier of a heart attack. He was 79, but in good shape. Eloria often talked about their 52 years of marriage, and their trips to the Middle East and Indo-China. These days., people refer to the region as Southeast Asia. She never seemed to tire, and even though she didn’t know me, would talk at length about her life.
“Those bastards in Vietnam stole years from Ed.” she’d say. “The blood and fat of the sacrificed, oiled the world. I’m just glad Ed had a hand in making them into grease.”
It was painful to watch, but anyone in that business, despite their age, had seen a lot of hard times and ugliness.
Eloria and Ed travelled a lot in French Indo-China, especially in the countries now known as Laos, Vietnam and Cambodia. Ed was a fixer, which is an old time expression for someone who goes into an area and gets things moving again. Officially, Ed and Eloria were teachers, but they were paid by Ottawa. Fixers are still around today, greasing the wheels of governments and private enterprises in various parts of the world, but their activities aren’t talked about because of the nature of the business.
For Eloria and Ed, it was usually spreading money around or organizing meetings, but sometimes it involved making people ‘go away’. Ed never spoke about what he did, but Eloria could be coaxed, with a little brandy, to tell all. It was because those events were so long ago and she was older. Alcohol loosened her tongue.
So it came to be that she would tell me about the ends of many people who were difficult to deal with. Some ‘went away’ by her husband’s hand, but usually it was a cheap payoff to a local thug. They knew where to dump the bodies.
Eloria and Ed traveled using several passports, but being Canadian meant that they were no threat. At least, that’s what the SE Asian governments thought. For everyone in the region, the big trouble was with the French. Very few people liked them and wanted “the Frogs” tossed out.
Today, most people think that Canada has always got along well with the French, but you’d be wrong about that. The French were, and still are, very full of themselves. They did not appreciate Canadians poking their noses into their business affairs. Trying to ‘rule a colony’ kept Paris very busy. France saw everything in SE Asia as theirs to do with as they pleased. And when it came to ravaging other countries for whatever they could lay their hands on, the French were as bad as the English.
The French knew who Eloria and Ed were, and who they worked for, but could do nothing. Indo-China was the Asian version of the wild west. The best Paris could do was to complain through channels. That meant Eloria and Ed had free rein, but they always had their hands full. Part of their job was to keep innocent French, US or European citizens from being killed. They spent a lot of time wheeling and dealing with local tribal and community leaders. Canadian innocuousness made them valuable to many countries playing in the region.
But being Canadian and living there was not without its dangers. As Eloria put it, most of the local leaders were hotheads and when they could not be bribed, they had to ‘ go away’. I always laughed when she talked like that. Eloria, gangster lady!
“Eloria says it’s time for him to ‘go away’!”
But as she explained, it was easy to do. No one really cared if you disappeared. And certainly, none of local police agencies could conduct a proper investigation, if one was ever ordered. You have to remember that this was right after WWII, but before 1954. What’s so important about 1954, you ask? That was when Ho Chi Minh kicked the French out of what was called “French Indochina”. They had their asses handed to them. It was just before the Americans failed to learn the same lesson that the French failed to learn. The US figured that region of the earth needed their guidance, and since the French moved out…Well, that ended badly too. Later, the Vietnam War was, as Ed used to say, a ‘tactical misunderstanding’.
Anyway, life was cheap…and it still is there. These days, even with technological advances to solve crimes, most things simply happen in the region with no justice served. Back when Eloria and Ed were living there, and especially in the jungle, things like murder went unsolved for all time. It was a perfect place to operate, if you needed to ignore the law.
A Quick Aside
Ed and Eloria were going to retire in BC, until they discovered unusually high levels of toxins in the air and soil. They stumbled upon this information quite by accident.
Ed was back from SE Asia for about six weeks in the summer of 1950. Eloria remained in Hanoi. Ed had an appointment with some federal government officials in Vancouver. They wanted to talk to him about the increasing Communist activity in the region. Ho Chi Minh was busy in what would become Vietnam. Mao Zedong was busy farther to the north.
The Communists were gaining strength all over the Far East and would punt the French from the region.. Canada had specific plans for when that happened. As early as 1948, we knew that the French would fail. Canada suggested giving them a little rope and see where they would go politically. The US disagreed, explaining to whoever would listen that they were concerned about the spread of Communism. In fact, Truman sent a few military advisors to the region in 1950, but no one knew what was going to happen. If you recall, the Red Scare was in full swing. Back in the US, Senator Joe McCarthy was rounding up anyone who was suspected of being a Communist sympathizer.
1954 would see the birth of the Republic of Vietnam, but in 1950 there were only signs of what was to come. There were no firm indications of when the shit would hit the fan.
At any rate, Ed had his meeting. During one of the breaks, he overheard two men talking about Vancouver Island. Apparently, Ottawa was heavily involved in testing chemical and biological agents there. They were releasing toxins into the air. The original plan was to observe the illness and death rates for the southern half of Vancouver Island, where the spraying was concentrated. The test area stretched from Nanaimo, along the eastern part of the island, to an area just north of Victoria. Ottawa chose the Island because they felt it offered little or nothing to the Dominion.
Scientists looking after the program were unaware that the airborne toxins would settle on the ground, be absorbed into it and end up in the water table. The earth’s natural filtering would have no affect. Live and learn. As well, some of the toxins were carried to the mainland, depositing chemicals on places like Texada and the Sunshine Coast.
The program went from 1949 to 1953. When Ed heard about it, the feds had already been actively releasing agents for over a year. Later, when he returned to Hanoi, he told Eloria and they both decided the other coast would be a better choice for a retirement home.
Ed and Eloria ended up moving to Cape Breton. Houses were cheap and they liked the slower pace.
Back to the Show
Ed and Eloria lived in Persia for a time. That was what they called Iran, prior to 1935.
They were sent to chase Nazis. There had been German diplomats in the Middle East since WWI, but Hitler had new plans. Franklin Roosevelt and Prime Minister Richard Bedford Bennett, or RB, to Canadians, wanted more information about Hitler and why he sent his henchmen there.
1933 was an interesting year. Ed and Eloria, “The Huggies”, as most of their friends called them, left Indochina for two years and relocated to the Middle East . The Persians had wanted to improve relations with Germany since the late 1800s, and Hitler notwithstanding, that was still their goal. The Middle East was isolated from the rest of the world in those days, and the Persians saw an opportunity by befriending a strong European nation. Elora used to say it was bad luck to choose Germany, but it was a 60 year old dream. They had been trying since the 1870s, and knew little about Hitler, the Nazis, or the quest of Aryan domination of the world.
German citizens working in the Middle East were either taking money out of the region, or harassing the British. Their job was to stir up trouble by coaxing the Arabs to attack them – as if Arabs needed any prodding. No one liked the British anyway, so it was easy work.
As far as west was concerned, both Canada and the US were blissfully unaware of what was happening in that region. It was before big oil, and the leaders of the 100s of petty fiefdoms kept the inhabitants constantly fighting. What was to love about the Middle East? It was a sandy, desolate and unbearably hot wasteland, full of savages.
Ed and Eloria’s job was to follow and report on the activities of a fellow called Wilhelm Litten, who had worked in the region for 20 years. First as consul, and later, as the German Minister in Tehran.
It seemed that Ed and Eloria Hugis were never destined to relax. Neither retired until they were in their late 60s.
Aren’t Spies Highly Trained?
Many people have asked me if people like Ed and Eloria are still being used by world governments. The answer is yes! They work for many agencies – private, charitable and religious. Their covers fit whatever group employs them. Most are everyday working people who have received sufficient training to accomplish a specific task.
Famous people have also worked as spies like harpist and comedian Harpo Marx! Here is an excerpt from – My Hyperbaric Film Festival: Harpo Marx, Super Spy .
In “Harpo Speaks!”, his 1961 autobiography (written with Rowland Barber), Harpo (1888-1964) admits to serving as a secret courier, delivering communiqués taped to his leg to and from the US embassy, no easy task given he was closely watched during his visit. At the tour’s end, safely out of the USSR, Harpo writes, “I pulled up my pants, unwound the straps, handed over the dispatches from Ambassador [William] Bullitt, and gave my leg its first scratch in ten days.”
This may seem unlikely, but a letter exists to Harpo from the FBI’s J. Edgar Hoover, praising Harpo’s “loyal services” and suggesting, “there may be ways that you can help your country again.”
I love the idea that Harpo worked as a spy, taking real risks in the land of Stalin.
I read the book and it was a fascinating glimpse not only of Harpo Marx, but the topsy-turvy times in which he lived. You can read it too, either as a paperback, or as a Kindle.
Doing the Everyday
Ed and Eloria used to spend their time doing whatever it was that spies did. That included trips back and forth from Tehran to Baghdad.
Persia and the newly independent state of Iran were used to seeing whites traveling around. As a people, as soon as they found out that you were not British or German, the Arabs were friendly. As a result, the couple never had problems with anyone.
Ed spoke five languages – English, French, Arabic, Vietnamese and German. Eloria was fluent in three – French, English and Vietnamese. In those days, English and French could carry you through most countries with a minimum of fuss, but it was Ed’s knowledge of Arabic that was often a ‘get out of jail free’ card. Most of the locals were happy that a white person spoke their language.
The British spoiled everything they came into contact with, in the Middle East. They thought themselves better than the locals, telling them not to speak Arabic. Learn the King’s English or be silent! That’s precisely why they were hated. Unfortunately, they did not take the advice of Thomas Edward Lawrence (Lawrence of Arabia). He said on many occasions that the British were guests, and to act accordingly. He did not think himself better than any Arab. Ed was of the same mind.
Eloria was somewhat restricted because of her sex. She could not wander too far, except for markets and short distance trips from their apartment. It wasn’t because she was a woman per se, or because she was a Christian. It was her fair skin, dirty blonde hair and blue eyes. They were a sexual beacon. She attracted the attention of men who wanted to bed her for her “unique qualities”. She was warned about this before the couple left for Persia, and Ed would usually escort her wherever she wanted to go.
They only place she felt safe was at the embassies. Inside the fences, she could wander around unmolested.
Years later, Ed would say the only people he had ‘invited to lunch’, a euphemism for people he killed, were Europeans. He added that he usually acted alone, but those times where he needed help, the Arabs always were eager to help – especially if the ‘lunch guest’ was English.
Ed talked about his time in the Middle East as being ‘confused and violent’. People today don’t realize that previous generations had their own share of troubles. Ed and Eloria watched the Nazis come to power in 1933, and their job gave them a unique perspective of what was to come. They knew that smiles and good manners hid the barbarity of Germany from most of the world. They were dismayed that politicians didn’t see the danger of the Third Reich, despite being fed a mountain of damning intelligence. Their reports fell on deaf ears.
But Ed and Eloria saw it and were aghast. The Germans needed to be stopped.
In the early to mid 1930s, Adolf Hitler’s star was ascending. It was before the world understood his evil nature. And while many people blame British PM Neville Chamberlain for allowing himself to be fooled by Hitler, there were two PMs before him, and an American president, Franklin Roosevelt, who must shoulder some of the blame. Ramsay MacDonald and Stanley Baldwin were the British prime ministers from 1929 until 1937. Chamberlain got handed a mess, yet history treats him shabbily. Today, we look back at Chamberlain’s 1938 trip to Germany, and his declaration of “peace for our time” as a naïve attempt to stop the Nazis, but for him to shoulder all the blame is unfair.
Ed Hugis would have told you that directly. There would be no mincing words. Ed and Eloria’s transfer to the Middle East in 1933 was an attempt to gather information about Germany’s interest in the region. Two Canadians on their way to a largely backward area of the planet. It was a region ruled by a tribal culture, complete with fights over water, livestock or someone’s daughter. There were always conflicts going on. About the only ones who ignored most of it were Bedouins – a lowly caste of desert wanderers. Few Arabs liked them. That would make the Bedouins valuable allies for Ed and Eloria throughout their time in Persia.
Most of the world did not understand the violent nature of the countries there. Islam has never been a peaceful or accommodating religion, but prior to WWII, few people knew much about the area or Muslims generally. Their leaders, both religious and tribal, were cruel, unforgiving and absolute rulers. The common folk were illiterate and lived hand to mouth. Before big oil, the region had little to offer the western world.
So why did the Germans want to establish a close relationship with the Arabs? It made little sense. As far as Hitler and the Nazis were concerned, Arabs were untermensch – subhuman. Who wanted to be their friend? The answer was simple, and completely missed by most of Europe. Like the Germans, the Arabs did not care for the French or the British. The Middle East was subjugated by both countries, who took much, but gave little in return. The Arabs came to realize that being a colony wasn’t much of an existence.
The French and the English looked upon the Arabs with contempt. Inferiors to be governed, taxed and used. While Hitler might have considered Arabs inferior, he was not averse to a friendship of convenience that would help them defeat the French and British. The Arabs were to be tools of the Reich. The Germans knew the brutality of the people, and wanted to use them for their own ends. And there was this whiff of crude oil in the air…
Ed and Eloria were sent to gather information primarily for the British. It was something that Ed found personally distasteful. He disliked the snobbish nature of the English, but at the time, Canada was closely allied with the little island. As Ed used to say, “Life is a series of unpleasant events, bad gas and stomach pains, punctuated with a bit of fun. There’s never enough fun, but what little there is stops you from ending it all.”
Ed was very private and level headed, but you could tell that he worked hard to control it. There was a dark rage just beneath the surface of a calm exterior.
If anyone kept the Arabs engaged, confounding the Germans before the war broke out, it was the two dozen western agents in Persia and Iraq. Until 1938, just before WWII broke out, none were killed. An enviable track record. Unfortunately, scores of others lost their lives there while involved with intelligence gathering.
Ed was more engaged than Eloria when they were in the Middle East because he was a man. Women had few rights there, and were considered by many to be property. Now, that was a good thing sometimes. Kill or disfigure another man’s possessions might get you killed. This strategy was employed by western agents against the Germans from 1933 to 1937. It also made Eloria’s trips to the marketplace easy. That’s what women do. They go to the marketplace.
Ed and Eloria were operating out of Tehran. The oil industry was still small change, but the need for it was growing. Although few recognized what was happening, the Germans were jockeying to be receivers of that oil when the war broke out. Or that’s what they thought. In fact, because of the growing need when the war broke out, 30% of the oil used by the Germans was made from coal. A synthetic product of the time.
Ed was surveilling a couple of ‘alt bund‘ diplomats and several businessmen. It was an old fashioned expression for the German ‘old boys network’. The work was easy, but occasionally Ed had to deal with the police. Others in his field would quietly phone the authorities and report him. Generally however, the Arabs left him alone. He was a Canadian. Another country that the British were exploiting. And after all, Ed was only spying on Germans.
The Persians saw that the Germans were just as bad as the British. As a result, they forged more alliances with the Allied Forces before, and during the war. The British would promise anything to get the job done, but it back fired later. They had lied so much that many countries tossed the Brits out.
The sun had set on the British Empire after 1945.
Ed was to detail the appointments, movements, and daily activities of the Germans on his list. This surveillance list was provided by Ottawa. The names were drawn up in London, and passed by diplomatic pouch to the RCMP. In the days before electronic communication and monitoring, information handling was slower, but harder to crack.
But war broke out in 1939…