The Washington Post Magazine

Star Agents
(Page Two)

The Washington Post
Sunday, September 7, 1997


















Barbara Annette Robbins
Barbara Anette Robbins
A 21-year-old secretary at the U.S. Embassy in Saigon, Robbins died March 30, 1965, when a car packed with explosives was detonated near the embassy.

'They Fired Three Shots'
A grave: In a place called Shigarhunglung, along the Tibetan border with China, a pile of stones really, nothing more, and a crude wooden cross that marked the spot where a young American fell in a volley of bullets on April 29, 1950. Over the decades, the grave vanished beneath the Himalayan snows. So, too, did nearly all memory of the man. The first nameless star in the Book of Honor belongs to him.

In February 1947, Douglas S. Mackiernan was a 35-year-old Army meteorologist, a lanky Henry Fonda look-alike, working in Nanking, China. He was about to make a career move that seemingly defied logic -- he volunteered for the State Department's most remote outpost on the planet. It was called Tihwa. Today it is known as Urumqi in Xinjiang, the wind-raked frontier of far western China. His salary was to be $2,160 a year, his duties those of a clerk. The State Department snapped him up, noting he was "ideally qualified for . . . this wild territory."

It was a place he knew well. During the final years of World War II then-Lt. Col. Mackiernan had overseen the U.S. Army Air Force's weather station at Tihwa. He reported on emerging meteorological patterns that would soon pass over the Pacific, data vital to planning B-29 bombing runs over Japanese-held territories.

Mackiernan's move to the State Department in 1947 was merely a cover. His true employer was the CIA. The outpost he was assigned, not far from the Soviet-Chinese border, was at the geographical and political vortex of what would later be viewed as one of the most monumental series of events of the 20th century: the fall of China to communist forces and the start of the Cold War.

Mackiernan was born in Mexico City in 1913. His taste for adventure was foreordained. His father, Douglas Mackiernan Sr., ran away from home at 16 to become a whaler. Later he roved the world as a merchant seaman and twice went on aborted expeditions to the North Pole. Douglas Jr. was the eldest of five sons. In Mexico, he attended a German school. By 8, he was fluent in English, German, Spanish and French.

The family moved from place to place, settling in Massachusetts, where the senior Mackiernan bought a filling station. Doug Jr. pumped gas after school. He was a wizard in science. He would go on to study and teach meteorology at MIT and conduct advanced research on hurricanes.

After the war broke out he showed a genius for encryption. By 1942, not yet 30, he was named chief of the Cryptographic Cryptoanalysis Section at Army Air Force headquarters in Washington. Soon he was to add Russian, Mongolian and Kazakh to his inventory of languages.

This was the man who, so far as the public record showed, now aspired to be a clerk. In May 1947 he arrived in Tihwa. He ordered sophisticated scientific equipment and spent hours behind his closed door transmitting encrypted messages. By day he often took horseback rides into the countryside. He also maintained close contacts with a regimen of virulently anti-communist White Russians.

Within months Mackiernan was promoted to vice consul. A declassified State Department memo notes his expanding duties: "He will assist with increasingly heavy load of code work to be expected; make extensive trips, collecting politico military and economic information and weighing data obtained . . ." Nor was he to be interfered with: "All field assignments outlined will have to be left to him for development without any advice or assistance until completed, decisions during operation depending entirely on his own judgment."

Two months after Mackiernan's transfer, an attractive American freelance journalist named Pegge Lyons arrived in Tihwa looking for stories and photographic spreads. Mackiernan persuaded her to assist him. He showed her how to use his Leica camera, which she carried with her to the Russian border. She took pictures of trucks and soldiers and anyone with a gun. To escape suspicion, she dressed in bobby socks and played the role of a bubbly American tourist. Her pictures would later be published in newspapers, but not before they were analyzed in Washington. It was part of Mackiernan's mission to monitor Soviet aid and materiel crossing the border and bound for Chinese communists.

Lyons and Mackiernan were soon married in a civil ceremony. And on September 30, 1948, Pegge Mackiernan gave birth in Shanghai to twins, Mary and Mike. A picture records Mackiernan cradling his swaddled son. But six weeks later, on November 10, 1948, with the Chinese communists now sweeping to power, the State Department ordered Pegge and her twins to evacuate. She tucked them in a laundry basket, covered them with a blanket and boarded a Pan Am flight for California.

In the ensuing months, she received many letters from Doug. He described the deteriorating political situation and his efforts to ensure that his meager paychecks were reaching her. He still hoped she and the twins might rejoin him. "I am sporting a beautiful (to me only probably) curly black beard," he wrote, "and as soon as I get my photo stuff set up will send a picture of me in my hirsute glory. Have sworn a great swear not to shave it off till you arrive, so hurry before I have to braid it (like a Sikh)."

He also sent hints that he might be contemplating an escape as the communists took power. He asked her to send two books, one he called "List of the Stars for the 60 Degrees Astrolabe," the other the "1949 American Ephemeris and Nautical Almanac." Both might be useful for plotting position.

Unaware of the full scope of his mission, Pegge wrote an influential friend, Claire Boothe Luce, asking if perhaps she could help get him transferred to a safe post. Luce replied: "I cannot possibly promise to get your husband moved to a Consulate a little more accessible to a mother and twins than Chinese Turkestan -- but I just might be able to get him transferred to a spot as wild and woolly but a little more on the flat for an approaching caravan with cradles!" Nothing came of it, however.

On August 16, 1949, the State Department ordered that the Tihwa consulate be closed. Its personnel were to leave the country immediately. But Mackiernan received different orders. He was to stay behind, destroy all crytographic materials, continue monitoring the situation and aid as he could the anti-communist factions.

Mike Maloney
Mike Maloney
Fresh out of paramilitary training, Maloney died October 12, 1965, in a helicopter crash on his inaugural mission in Laos. He left behind a wife, Adrienne, shown above, and two sons.
Years later, Pegge would surmise that her husband might have had yet another reason to stay behind -- to listen for a possible first Soviet atomic test. It is a theory only, but based on an intriguing confluence of events. Who better, after all, than a meteorologist stationed along the Soviet border to pick up traces of radioactive debris from an atomic device? He had much advanced equipment, some of which was secreted in the surrounding foothills. If that indeed was part of his mission, he did not have long to wait. On August 29, 1949, the Soviets detonated their first atomic bomb, dubbed Joe-1 by the United States. On September 23, President Harry Truman announced that the Soviets had the bomb -- the nuclear arms race had begun.

Days later, Mackiernan left Tihwa. By then, conventional routes of escape had been severed. He decided to flee south, a tortuous overland trek to India. He estimated it would take three months. With him went Frank Bessac, an American Fulbright scholar then in Tihwa, and three White Russians. One of these was Vassily Zvanzov. Before setting out, Mackiernan ordered Zvanzov to torch several armfuls of classified materials in the kitchen fireplace. The party set out with a jeep and 22 horses heavy with provisions. Mackiernan holstered a pistol under his arm and packed a light machine gun.

In the harrowing months that followed, they would exhaust their food supply and live on horse meat, wild deer and anything else that strayed across their path, according to Zvanzov. Mackiernan and his men went days without water. In the mountains they warmed themselves over fires of dried yak dung. Unable to shoe the horses, they eventually traded them for camels or watched them starve to death. Mackiernan had brought along a copy of Tolstoy's "War and Peace"; they used it for toilet paper. Caught in the grip of a Himalayan winter, they spent three months in a yurt beside a remote lake, waiting for the mountain passes to clear.

Along the route, Mackiernan dutifully set up his radio to transmit his position. To check the accuracy of his compass, he converted an old camera into an octant. Washington closely tracked his progress. As he neared the Tibetan border, U.S. officials asked Tibet's Dalai Lama to send messengers to the border guards to arrange a safe crossing for Mackiernan.

Eight months and 1,000 miles later, Mackiernan and his bedraggled party stood in sight of the Tibetan border. They had crossed the Takla Makan desert and the Himalayas.

When they reached the border, Mackiernan and his men began to put up their tent. Just then they heard shots and dived for cover. Tibetan border guards were firing at them. As Zvanzov lay on the ground he tore a strip of white cloth from the tent and tied it to the barrel of his rifle, waving it as a flag. The shooting stopped. Zvanzov suggested that they make for higher ground and then have one member of their party approach the guards.

But Mackiernan argued that they should approach the guards as a group. He stood up and ordered the others to do likewise. Hands raised, he and the others slowly walked toward the guards. "As soon as we came within close range, 50 meters or so," remembers Zvanzov, "they fired three shots at the same time." Mackiernan and two of the Russians fell. Zvanzov, wounded in the left knee, threw himself behind a boulder.

Half an hour later, the guards arrested the survivors. Leaning on a stick, Zvanzov hobbled to where Mackiernan lay on his side in the snow. Blood was coming from his mouth and nose. His chest had been pierced by a single bullet. He was dead.

Two days after the incident, the Dalai Lama's courier arrived carrying a message that Mackiernan's party should receive safe passage. As he convalesced, Zvanzov passed the time making wooden crosses to mark the graves of Mackiernan and the two slain Russians.

It took two months for a "SECRET" memo to reach the secretary of state, informing him of Mackiernan's death. Not long afterward, Pegge remembers, a broad-shouldered government official knocked on her door and told her that her husband had been killed. The official "was a tower of strength at a terrible time for me," she recalls, but he was also there to protect the CIA's interests. "He said, `Say nothing to the newspapers. Keep your own counsel. Be so grief-stricken that you cannot speak to anyone, and if you have any problems let me know.' "

Efforts to quash news stories failed, however, and on July 29, 1950, Mackiernan's death was reported on the front page of the New York Times. The headline read "U.S. Consul, Fleeing China, Slain by Tibetan on Watch for Bandits." Later, survivor Bessac would sell his own story to Life magazine. But Mackiernan's status as an undercover CIA agent was never revealed.

On October 18, 1950, Secretary of State Dean Acheson presented a posthumous medal of service to 15 diplomats killed in action. Among those honored was Douglas S. Mackiernan, vice consul, Tihwa. Today his name appears on a plaque in the State Department lobby, his cover story intact.

(continued on Page Three)

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