August 19, 2020 — Hilaire du Berrier grew up in Flasher, North Dakota. His life was one adventure after another – from running his “Du Berrier Flying Circus,” to fighting for Haile Selassie in Ethiopia’s fight against Mussolini, to becoming a spy for Spain’s exiled King Alphonso XIII. Twice the enemy captured him – twice he escaped.

In the 1930s, du Berrier lived in Paris, where he frequented Paris cafes sporting a cane and wearing spats and a monocle. His friends were other American expatriates like Ernest Hemingway, Man Ray and Louise Bryant.

He was writing for the French newspapers when one of his flyboy buddies told him the Chinese and the Japanese were mixing it up. It was just the sort of adventure he loved; he headed to China to fly for Chiang Kai-shek. Soon, he was running a Nationalist spy ring in Japanese-occupied Shanghai, making covert radio transmissions to Chungking twice a day. He operated his spy ring from a large house in the French quarter of Shanghai. To save on costs, he rented out a first-floor room to an actress who one day disappeared. She later reappeared as the new wife of Mao Tse-tung.

To protect himself, du Berrier joined, and trained with, an ultra-secret alternative wing of French intelligence. Everything changed on December 7, 1941. “One morning,” du Berrier said, “I was awakened by a telephone call from John, my No. 1 Chinese agent. He said, ‘You’d better get out. The Japanese have just declared war on America.’ I said, ‘You’re crazy, John, it’s just another Chinese rumor.’ I went back to bed, but the noises in the street didn’t sound right to me, so I got up and looked out the dormer window.

“As far as I could see were trucks, unloading the Japanese naval landing party,” he said. “Blue-uniformed Navy men who looked like toy soldiers, each the same height, each with the same wooden expression. One group was putting sandbags on the streets at intersections. Others were drawing a rope across the street so that they could paralyze traffic if the siren sounded. And I [thought] about the gravity of the situation: me with a transmitter and receiver in my place, me running this ring and at the same time being paid a retainer by Chiang’s general.”

The French sent a car to spirit away the transmitter, but it was just a matter of days before du Berrier heard the heavy steps of soldiers coming to his door. He was captured and taken to a POW camp near the River Kwai. “After about six months,” he said, “the men from the Kampeitai, the secret police, came and took me away to the torture house. I was in a cage. And day after day, between sessions, I would sit on the concrete floor and look at my shoes – they had taken my shoelaces – and I would ask my feet how they brought me there.”

For 18 days, Japanese interrogators tortured du Berrier, but he never broke – everybody in his spy network would have been executed if he had. However, the experience left his face partially paralyzed, and his flying days were over.

Du Berrier was liberated from the camp on this date in 1945. The Chinese Nationalists gave him a special citation, and the French awarded him the Croix de Combattant Voluntaire and the Croix de Combattant de la Resistance. They even gave him a military pension.

Du Berrier returned to Paris, where he continued working in espionage. When he was discovered for his part in attempting to overthrow Charles de Gaulle, he escaped to Monaco, where he continued his career as a writer.

“Dakota Datebook” is a radio series from Prairie Public in partnership with the State Historical Society of North Dakota and with funding from the North Dakota Humanities Council. See all the Dakota Datebooks at prairiepublic.org, subscribe to the “Dakota Datebook” podcast, or buy the Dakota Datebook book at shopprairiepublic.org.

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