Irv Refkin enlisted in the Army in 1940, at age 19, and was sent to Canada after basic training to learn about explosives. But once there, a senior officer with whom he clashed sent him to Britain without notice. Shortly after arriving—the British military still thought he was Canadian, and the US Army hadn't realized he was missing yet—he found himself parachuting into occupied France amid World War II, thanks to his demolitions knowledge and his ability to speak German. That's how Refkin became what the New York Times calls an "accidental spy," and once the US actually entered the war, he carried out special assignments for his own country in addition to the three missions he had already completed for the British behind enemy lines. The 96-year-old, who has been called one of the war's most successful secret agents, died Thursday at his home in San Diego.
Refkin, who was born in Milwaukee and raised in a German Lutheran orphanage after his parents, Jewish immigrants from Russia, were killed in a car accident, was ultimately awarded the Bronze Star and the Office of Strategic Services Society's Distinguished Service Award. During the war, he was said to have assassinated targets in Nazi Germany and smuggled explosives to the French Resistance, among other daring feats that also took him to Italy, the Soviet Union, and even South Africa. Last year, he recalled to the AP why he dressed as a German corporal during one mission: "Nobody looked at a corporal. You carry a garbage bag, put some smelly stuff in it, and they wave you right through. Nobody pays any attention to the guy emptying the ashtrays." He married after the war and ultimately owned businesses including a ship repair company in Southern California. (Read more World War II stories.)