Long Island Home's Secret Role in WWII Espionage Revealed

Since the end of World War II many stories have surfaced about the efforts of the United States and Great Britain to deceive the Germans and Japanese about Allied troop movements, invasion plans and atomic research.

But only recently has the world come to know the role that a nondescript, wood-frame house overlooking the Long Island Sound played in that spycraft.

Known as the Benson House, the Wading River home is now used by the Episcopal Diocese of Long Island for meetings and retreats, but from 1942 to 1945 the house was the site of a highly secret FBI counterintelligence operation.

The story of Benson House was discovered by retired FBI agent Raymond Batvinis, who now teaches history at George Washington University, while doing research for a book on wartime counter-intelligence.

Just weeks after the Dec. 7 attack on Pearl Harbor by the Japanese, the FBI began using Benson House as a top-secret radio site transmitting and receiving encoded messages with German intelligence agents in Hamburg, Germany. The Germans believed they were communicating with their espionage agents operating in New York. FBI radio operators transmitted a blend of accurate and false information to the Germans from January 1942 to the end of the war in Europe in May 1945.

As cover for the operation, the FBI moved one of its agents, Donworth Johnson, and his family, into the house. Mrs. Johnson cooked meals for her husband and the other agents who worked on the second and third floors. The other agents working at the house traveled to and from the house at night.

A cover story was developed that Johnson suffered from tuberculosis and was, therefore, deferred from military service. The house was outfitted by FBI technicians with several large shortwave radios and supporting equipment. Antennae were hidden in nearby trees and intruders were discouraged by Clifford, the agent’s large German shepherd, Batvinis says.

The radio equipment drew enormous amounts of electricity and, as Batvinis tells it, not wanting to attract undue attention from the local utility companies, agents powered their equipment using the engine from a Buick which they bolted to the basement floor. The car’s muffler was also used to dampen the sound of the engine.

According to Batvinis, the FBI operation at Benson House played a role in President Roosevelt’s decision in the spring of 1942 to pursue development of the atomic bomb when information received at Benson House indicated that Germany was very interested in developing high explosives from atoms.

In the summer of 1943, FBI transmissions from Benson House gave the Germans bogus information designed to freeze German forces in northwest Europe to prevent their redeployment to strengthen the Italian and Eastern Fronts. In 1944 and 1945, radio transmissions from Benson House fed the Germans a steady stream of truthful and false information to confuse the German military about the size and disposition of Allied forces in Great Britain, along with the time and place of the D-Day invasion.

In addition to misinformation about Allied forces activity in Europe, the radio operators at Benson House also sent to the Germans false information about American military plans and advances in the Pacific.

To commemorate the role Benson House played during World War II the Society of Former Special Agents of the FBI and the Episcopal Diocese of Long Island will dedicate a plaque fixed to the outside of the house at a ceremony this Saturday, June 7, the day after the 70th anniversary of the Allied invasion of Normandy.

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