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© The Boston Globe 2001.  Used by permission.
The Secret History of World War II

by Mark Fritz / Globe Staff / November 19, 2001

Page 2 of 11

Continued from page 1

The Insurance Intelligence Unit was formed by OSS General William Donovan from a gaggle of rival insurance executives motivated by patriotism and personal gain.

It is difficult, if not impossible, to determine which companies operating in this gray zone profited from Axis war crimes. But the records show with stunning frequency just how determined businessmen were to continue commerce even if the sharing of risk also meant the sharing of critical intelligence information.

Some examples from the newly declassified files:

  • In 1941, a year in which US trade embargoes of, and military tensions with, Japan culminated in the attack on Pearl Harbor, the San Francisco office of a British insurer resold coverage of the Panama Canal -- the US Navy's key link between the Pacific and Atlantic theaters -- to two Japanese firms. ''In connection with this insurance, there was forwarded to Tokyo a detailed description of the locks, all machinery in connection therewith, exact location, etc.,'' a 1942 OSS report said.

  • In 1938, with Germany and Japan looming as potential conquerors of their respective hemispheres, the Axis-linked Swiss Re insurance group asked for, and received, detailed reports on the flammability of major American cities from the National Board of Fire Underwriters.

  • With war underway in 1942, Fireman's Fund Insurance Co. sold risk coverage of a key US defense contractor, the Sperry Gyroscopic Compass plant, to Axis-dominated Switzerland General Insurance Co. As part of such transactions, Fireman's shipped the complete plans of the Compass plant to Zurich, though they were intercepted by US censors.

  • When a fire of suspicious origin wiped out an enormous Firestone tire plant in New Jersey in 1939, it turned out that Fireman's of Newark had sold the risk to a group of Axis-connected European insurers. In exchange for covering the loss, Fireman's of Newark and the Marine Office of America had to provide the US supply and production capacity of an essential wartime material: rubber.

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