Six months after the attack on Pearl Harbor, the United States formed the Office of Strategic Services (OSS) on June 14, 1942. It was a wartime military intelligence agency that coordinated espionage action, including subversion, propaganda, spying and infiltration.
The organization acted as the predecessor for the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), and was formed with members from all walks of life, including military personnel and both male and female civilians.
Local artist Mort Averack, a member of the Art League of Hilton Head, was one such civilian conscripted into the OSS. He was 16 years old.
Born in Brooklyn in 1928, Averack was 13 at the time of the attack on Pearl Harbor, a time he remembers as “life changing.” An avid artist since early childhood, he was hand-picked for recruitment by the OSS based on his exceptional drafting skills.
“They came into my school, took five or six of us into the principal’s office and began interrogating us,” Averack said. “They told us that Gen. Wainwright had been taken prisoner, and that they had people all over the Japanese theater looking for him.”
Jonathan M. Wainwright was an American Army officer and the highest-ranking prisoner of war (POW) to be captured during World War II.
Averack joined a task force dedicated to mapping out the Chinese city of Mukden, where Wainwright was being held prisoner, through the unique art of stereoscopy.
The stereoscopic method takes two slightly offset images of the same landscape and places one into the right eye and the other into the left of a stereoscope, thereby giving the illusion of three-dimensional depth.
For mapmakers like Averack, this allowed the details of the ground to become more easily identifiable and then to be transposed onto a map.
The mapmaking was arduous work requiring a precise hand and little room for error. Each detail of the aerial stereograms had to be meticulously transcribed onto a tablet, with each feature such as railroads, rivers, trees and buildings having its own symbol.
Averack recalled his “worst day in the OSS,” when he accidentally spilled India ink over the entire map he had labored over for 18 hours.
What followed were hours of scrubbing the tablet clean, taking each painstakingly accurate detail along with it, and starting all over again.
After two and a half months of 18-hour workdays, an aerial map of the city was complete, and Wainwright was successfully liberated in August 1945.
After the war, Averack continued his art, painting and drawing scenes from everyday life, either in his hometown in New York or abroad on travels across the world.
“I would sketch people every day. I would sit on the train going into the city and just sketch,” Averack said. “One of the early paintings I had made was of newspaper reporter Ernie Pyle, who was killed in the South Pacific during the war. It hung in Grand Central Station.”
Now, at age 88, Averack is a member of the Coast Guard Reserve, continues to draw and paint, and features his art regularly at the Art League of Hilton Head Gallery.
Sam Posthuma of Bluffton is a freelance writer and production assistant for The Hilton Head Sun.