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William Pietsch Jr., who led a commando team in World War II, dies at 94

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William Pietsch Jr., a retired Army colonel and one of the few remaining survivors of the World War II “Jedburgh” espionage and guerrilla operation in Nazi-occupied France, died Sept. 3 at a medical care facility in Rockville, Maryland. He was 94.

The cause was dementia and Alzheimer’s disease, said a daughter, Aloysia Hamalainen.

In 1944, then-Lt. Pietsch parachuted into France as leader of a three-man team in a clandestine operation to ease the advance of invading Allied armies and help French Resistance forces fight the Germans.

Ninety-three such teams made nighttime jumps at scattered sites behind enemy lines in France. Their mission: coordinate airdrops of arms and supplies to French Resistance fighters and help partisans in hit-and-run attacks against the Germans.

The Jedburghs are widely said to have been the combat ancestors of the elite Special Forces units in today’s U.S. Army. William Colby, director of the CIA from 1973 to 1976, was a Jedburgh who, at age 24, led a team that parachuted into occupied France in August 1944.

The Jedburgh teams included American, British, Free French and sometimes Canadian, Dutch or Belgian officers and enlisted men.

Lt. Pietsch’s team was dropped into the Burgundy region, where he helped the Free French guerrillas obtain weapons and ammunition and monitored the location of Allied prisoners of war being held by the Germans.

Later in the war, after the Allies had retaken France, Lt. Pietsch was assigned by Gen. William “Wild Bill” Donovan, head of the Office of Strategic Services (OSS) to escort author Ernest Hemingway around London.

There is no confirmed count of the number of Jedburgh veterans still alive. But Charles Pinck, president of the OSS Society, said in an email that there could be “only a handful.”

William Hiram Pietsch Jr. was born in New York City on Aug. 29, 1922.

He graduated from the U.S. Military Academy at West Point in January 1943 after an accelerated wartime program.

He volunteered for duty with the OSS, the CIA’s predecessor, and was called in for an interview with Donovan.

According to a citation on a 2014 Distinguish Service Award of the OSS Society, the OSS chief asked the young lieutenant only one question: “Do you consider yourself lucky?”

“Yes, sir,” the young officer replied.

Donovan smiled and ended the interview.

Col. Pietsch’s postwar assignments including training to speak Russian, then assignments in at least 25 countries in Europe and Asia as a special operations and special warfare officer. He was a veteran of the Vietnam War and served as a defense and Army attache in Cambodia.

He retired in 1973.

Col. Pietsch, a resident of Kensington, Maryland, was later a library volunteer at the Walter Reed National Military Medical Center.

His first marriage, to Alla Popoff, ended in divorce.

Survivors include his wife of 38 years, Rose Marie Fuchs Pietsch of Kensington; four children from his first marriage, William Pietsch III of Kensington, retired Army Col. James Pietsch of Honolulu and Aloysia Hamalainen and Alexandra Fletcher, both of Silver Spring, Maryland; and seven grandchildren.

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