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BEAVER FALLS — When Harold Haberfeld graduated from Geneva College in 1934 with a French degree, he had no idea his language skills would lead him on a secret World War II mission nine years later that would end in his death and a mystery.
Haberfeld was honored recently by the FBI’s Buffalo, N.Y., office for his sacrifice nearly seven decades ago. The office dedicated its main conference room to the Beaver Falls-area native during a ceremony.
Thomas Stein, director of alumni relations at Geneva, attended the ceremony and spoke about what an honor it was to have a graduate of the Beaver Falls college memorialized.
“It is a fascinating story,” Stein said. “The kind of story we want more people to hear about, not just Geneva folks.”
Stein said no one at Geneva knew the story about Haberfeld, who was a leader in the French and Spanish clubs and played intramural football and basketball at the school, until about a year ago, when the FBI contacted them for more information on him.
He said the Buffalo office also didn’t know one of its own had been killed in World War II until someone from the Washington office came across the information and the still-classified particulars on Haberfeld’s mission.
FBI Special Agent Harold Haberfeld was a recent addition to the Buffalo office when he was selected for an ill-fated mission to North Africa that was so secret that even now, 69 years after the plane crash that kept him from completing it, his home bureau isn’t entirely sure what his role was.
Buffalo agents said they’re asking FBI headquarters in Washington to declassify the information.
“Special Agent Haberfeld never reached his final destination,” Buffalo Special Agent in Charge Christopher Piehota said. “Due to the covert nature of his national security mission, we still do not know what his final objective was.”
What is known is that the assignment had come from FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover at the request of Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower. The FBI at the time was tasked with counterintelligence and intelligence collection duties in South and Central America.
“In November of 1942, the allied forces under Eisenhower stormed the beaches of North Africa and we took Algeria and Morocco,” James Robertson, the Buffalo office’s former special agent in charge, said at the ceremony. “There was some information that the allied forces had captured an individual that collaborated with the Nazis and so Eisenhower actually contacted Director Hoover and asked him for a couple of agents to go over to North Africa to interview this individual.”
The prisoner was a French-born American citizen living in Algiers, the FBI said.
Percy “Sam” Foxworth, the assistant director of the FBI’s special intelligence services branch, and Haberfeld were chosen for the task. While only a year into his FBI career, the 30-year-old Buffalo agent had lived and worked as an accountant in Algiers and was fluent in French, German and Portuguese.
But on Jan. 15, 1943, the C-54 plane carrying the two agents and 33 military and other personnel went down in Suriname on the northern coast of South America in what was the worst American aviation disaster to date. Although sabotage was suspected at first, mechanical failure was found to have caused the crash.
Wreckage was strewn across a mile and a half of dense jungle. It would be five years before the victims’ scarce remains, contained in a single casket, would be returned to the United States. They’re buried at the Jefferson Barracks National Cemetery in Missouri.
Hoover himself appeared at Haberfeld’s funeral in Beaver Falls, according to the FBI.
“Special Agent Haberfeld had an outstanding record in the service. His excellent background and superior abilities were assurance of a splendid future in the Bureau,” Hoover wrote afterward.
The reason for the FBI agents’ presence on the plane was a mystery to the public for a year until the man they were going to question killed himself after being brought to Miami to be prosecuted for treason, according to a Feb. 20, 1944, Los Angeles Times article. Charles Bedaux, a 57-year-old millionaire industrialist who admitted close friendships with Nazi party leaders, overdosed on the “sleeping compound” he’d saved from small doses given to him, the report said.
“Bedaux’s death enabled officials to reveal the answer to a year-old mystery — what two Federal Bureau of Investigation agents were doing aboard a plane that crashed in the South American jungles in January 1943 while en route to North Africa,” the newspaper said. “Attorney General (Francis) Biddle revealed that he had dispatched the agents … to investigate Bedaux’s activities.”
Stein said there are no known surviving relatives of Haberfeld, but his story will live on as it is retold. “It is a story well worth telling,” he said.