Natick’s Secret Role During World War II
Spy Work on Pegan Hill
During World War II, some of the highly secret stuff happened on the western slope of Pegan Hill in South Natick.
In 1942 the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) set up nine young operatives in an old house on the historic site of a colonial-era farm. George Hanchett had built his house there in 1856 and operated a large dairy farm (Lookout Farm is now active in this area).
In the fall of 1942, the FBI surveyed the greater Boston area for a inconspicuous and noise-free location. The Pegan Hill location in South Natick was the ultimate choice, offering a high point (elevation about 400 feet) for handling radio traffic to and from the Axis powers.
It was very hush-hush—all about spying, secret agents, secret codes, and radio surveillance. The FBI sent eight men and one woman to create a highly secure listening post, intercept German radio traffic, and play a role in counter-intelligence activities during 1942-1945.
The rented house on the former Hanchett property sits today on the southern side of Sassamon Road. Single agents lived in the house, and married men lived in nearby homes. It’s said that the agents enjoyed juicy treats from the large apple tree in the side yard.
Agent Harry Arnold was in charge of mounting antennae on four 40-foot poles in the field behind the house. High quality radio equipment and recording devices were installed, along with a Teletype machine.
Although we don’t have a lot of declassified information about what happened at the listening post, it is believed that the Natick station received and transmitted critical information before the 1944 D-Day landing in Normandy, and two days before the Japanese surrendered in 1945.
Before and during the war, the FBI was given extraordinary powers to place suspicious persons under close surveillance, and to create a network of secret wireless stations that were charged with monitoring traffic between suspected potential saboteurs in America and their handlers abroad. The radio sites also monitored international communication channels that were used by Germany, Italy, and Japan, and they got involved in some “dirty tricks” that were part of counter-intelligence gambits.
There is some evidence that the Natick operators had an active involvement in a counter-intelligence coup involving a German spy named Helmut Goldschmidt (codename “Peasant”) in Britain. Goldschmidt wanted to become a double agent working for the U. S., but he was thought to be unreliable and so his identity was used to feed false information to the Germans. An FBI agent (one of the Natick men?) learned to imitate Goldschmidt’s radio transmission style to send deceptive messages.
You can read more about this episode in Natick’s history in Hoover’s Secret War Against Axis Spies, written in 2014 by Raymond J. Batvinis, a former special agent for the FBI. The Natick Historical Society helped Batvinis in his research on Natick’s role in helping to win WWII.
Note: 30-year-old W. Mark Felt was the agent who supervised the Peasant Case. Six decades later, Felt revealed that he was “Deep Throat,” journalist Bob Woodward’s Watergate source.
Selected sources and additional reading:
Natick Historical Society collections.
Batvinis, Raymond J. Hoover’s Secret War Against Axis Spies: FBI Counterespionage during World War II. Lawrence, KS: University Press of Kansas, 2014.