William Morrow McGhee
July 8, 1922 – October 8, 2016
William M. McGhee, a decorated Central Intelligence Agency officer died on October 8th. At 94, he was one of the last living witnesses of the Office of Strategic Services’ World War II activities in Asia and was a founding member of the CIA. His 41-year career spanned the formation of the modern U.S. intelligence establishment to his retirement from the CIA in 1979. To the regret of those who were closest to him, he always remained circumspect about his actions in the Cold War. He died of age-related causes this week at the Collington Retirement Community, located in Bowie, Maryland. The definition of the cold war warrior, Mr. McGhee joined the CIA in 1948 shortly after it was founded and served in a variety of overseas postings in Asia, Africa, and Europe. While almost all of his career was shielded from the public behind a wall of secrecy, he worked for a few years in the 1960s for James Angleton, the CIA’s famed spy catcher; was awarded the CIA’s Intelligence Medal of Merit for actions in Ethiopia; and was posted under state department cover in various embassies located in the Philippines, Ethiopia, Singapore, and Hong Kong. In his final post in London from 1974 to 1979, he became embroiled in the notorious activities of Philip Agee. Born in 1922 in Columbia, South Carolina, Mr. McGhee, the son of John R. McGhee and Anna Morrow, was raised in Washington DC. He attended Washington DC public schools graduating from the Theodore Roosevelt High School in 1940. After finishing three semesters at George Washington University he was called up in late 1943 and assigned to the ill-fated 99th infantry Division, a unit crushed by the Germans in the Battle of the Bulge. Mr. McGhee escaped this fate by applying for an officer’s commission via the Army’s Specialized Training Program. In a recent writing, he related the challenge to have some language ability of which he had only high school training: “I soon found myself in front a 99th Division review board and when asked language I prepared for, I replied Spanish.” The examining officer then recited the following purportedly Spanish phrase, “Whan thot Aprille with his shoures sote…”, he interrupted him, saying that it was not Spanish, but Chaucer. The officer promptly announced, “you’re in!” After attending University of California at Berkley to learn Mandarin Chinese, he was recruited by the Office of Strategic Services, and sent off to “S School” for assessment. Driven to a small town in Virginia and billeted at a farm, he then underwent a battery of exercises and field tests. The OSS realized the need to improve the quality of the field agents through bitter experience. In response, the OSS created a new facility in Virginia to test and train new recruits. The new program at the Virginia farm was designed to weed out temperamentally unsuited individuals likely to crack under the pressure of operating in enemy-held territory. Mr. McGhee noted “it’s really hard to stay cool under pressure when working a timed field problem using deliberately unhelpful project assistants.” Successfully passing the screening tests at the farm, he was subsequently trained and assigned for duty in Kunming, China. Mr. McGhee has never spoken of his classified Chinese missions in 1945-1946. He noted that the only time he was concerned for his safety was as a member of the small six man OSS advance team sent to Japanese-occupied Peking in August 1945, only days after the surrender of Japan. There was considerable doubt the Japanese troops stationed there would willingly lay down their arms. Many years later, Mr. McGhee commented about his time in Peking, “we didn’t know that the armed Japanese wanted to surrender only to US troops believing that they would be mistreated and killed if taken prisoner by the Nationalist Chinese troops. Until we saw their officers come forward to surrender, we were really worried about what they were up to.” In the immediate postwar period, after completing his undergraduate degree at GW in 1948, Mr. McGhee joined the newly formed Central Intelligence Agency. He was posted back to China and then evacuated from Shanghai to Taiwan in the last months of the Chinese Civil War in 1949. His unit was then transferred to Japan from which they continued to run operations into China. One of the milestone moments of his career was his involvement in events related to the failed December 1960 coup-d’état in Ethiopia. U.S. Ambassador Arthur L. Richards, escorted by Mr. McGhee, the First Secretary and CIA Station Chief, and W. H. Crosson Jr., the U.S. Army Attaché made their way to Emperor Haile Selassie’s’ palace, hoping that with U.S. mediation, the rebels occupying the palace would safeguard the lives of the royal government’s ministers being held hostage. As detailed in the official January 13, 1961 report by Ambassador Richards to the U.S. Secretary of State, they met the coup's rebel leaders who were faced with demands by the loyalist army to surrender unconditionally. With advance units of the army at the gates firing directly at the palace, Mr. McGhee was warned by his rebel contact to leave the palace at once with the Ambassador. The continuous firing into the front of the palace forced the Americans to jump from the closest window only to find themselves stranded, their embassy car missing. After a few very tense minutes, the trio in a crouching run finally found a car in the palace motor pool with the keys still in the ignition. They fled with the commandeered car through a back gate to safety. In the moments after the American delegation left, rebel leaders conducted the infamous “Green Room Massacre” of the hostages. For his conduct on that day, Mr. McGhee was awarded the CIA’s Intelligence Medal of Merit. In the final five years of his career, he was posted as a senior CIA officer at the U.S. Embassy in London. Philip Agee, a disaffected former CIA agent accused of collaborating with the Soviets and Cubans, destroyed Mr. McGhee’s secrecy cover along with other CIA agents stationed in London by making known their names and home addresses in local Marxist publications. As a result of his cover being exposed, Mr. McGhee and his family required additional security in response to leftist demonstrations outside their London address and to threats of assassination. After retirement in 1979 he continued his association with the CIA into the 1990s as a contract employee assigned to evaluate archived records. He commented that he was well placed to understand the sensitivity of the reports as he was in some instances a report’s author. “Publicizing the names and activities of our friends and allies would be a betrayal, and could cause great harm to them if their help and support to the U.S. became publicly known.” After his second retirement from the CIA, he was a docent at the National Cathedral where he developed an expertise in educating the public about the cathedral’s outstanding metal work. He is survived by his wife of 65 years, Nancy Marsh, his sons William, Christopher and Edward, and six grandchildren. Memorial services will be held at Collington Retirement Community on November 12 at 2:00 pm. Interment will be in Swanzey Center, NH at a later date.
Saturday, November 12, 2016
William Morrow McGhee
February 25, 2017
The McGhees were family friends going back to China days. I greatly regret his passing and that we found out too late to be at the memorial. Rest in peace, Bill.
November 12, 2016
Bill McGhee left memories of years of treasures with Nancy. I am
fortunate to have been part of their life. Beverly Simmons, DC.
October 19, 2016
With great esteem for a distinguished colleague whom we respected and regarded as a admirable example of intelligence officer.
October 14, 2016
After Chris texted us Sunday evening to say that Bill had passed, Mom was reminiscing that she and Dad had met Bill and Nancy in Manila -- Rut and I would have been 2 then, and I'm not sure if Jeff and Chris were around yet -- but had then remained close friends for the next 60+ years.
I have childhood memories of visiting for a few days with the McGee clan in Hong Kong on our way out to Bangkok, where Dad was newly posted. Hong Kong was in a severe drought then, so Bill had to take us young men aside and explain that this meant restrictions on things like flushing and bathing. And then it was off to explore the old WWII bunkers in the hills (boys being boys, of course).
Later on, right after college, I remember as the Boris and Bobby era, when Mom and I were staying at the McGee homestead in DC and Rut and I had shadow chess matches running parallel to the Fisher-Spasky showdown in Reykjavik.
But the best and most important memories are of the many summers at Swanzey Lake, lazing in the sun on the McGee dock while the kids splashed around, canoeing across from the Spear cottage to the McGee cottage to keep the motorboats away from the swimmers, and the sailing regattas.
Presiding over it all were Bill and Nancy's smiling faces.
We will miss him.
Alice Forbes Spear
October 13, 2016
I remember Mr. McGhee as far back as I can remember - the entire McGhee family was a big part of my childhood, both at Swanzey Lake and in DC. I was sad to hear from Nat that his grandfather wasn't doing well - when I'd reached out to say the same about my grandfather. It feels a bit silly and childish, but I take solace in the fact that their lives seem to be on parallel tracks - which is how they always seemed from my perspective (a child's perspective). I will forever cherish my memories spent at Swanzey Lake - paddling right across the lake to the McGhee's, excited to see them and all of their grandchildren. It's amazing to reflect on the sweet, special, delightful and innocent world that our grandparents and the McGhee's created for all of us kids (going well into our early adulthood!). My love to the entire McGhee family, I miss you all.
October 13, 2016
The McGhees were fast friends with my in-laws, and became very much part of three generations my family's life. Summers on the lake in Swanzey, NH, where their grandchildren and my children forged lifelong memories, and regular visits to Washington, DC. Bill's intelligence, wit, worldliness and grace made any gathering the better for his presence.
October 11, 2016
Bill McGhee was an amazing man who will be dearly missed by the many people who's lives he touched. I was blessed to call him family and will always remember him as a dedicated husband, father and grandfather. I will forever keep him close in my heart as he gave my family an incredible gift of a truly caring and unselfish act. Sending love and prayers to the whole McGhee clan.
October 9, 2016
A wonderful man, a true gentleman who had an extraordinary life. A great reader, a loving husband, father, grandfather and father in law who I will miss but think of always with love.