Herman and Hedy Allen regaled their children their entire lives with stories of their courtship and wedding amid the intrigue and danger of World War II.
Little did the Allen siblings know they were only hearing one chapter.
Shortly after Hedy Allen’s death at age 86, her oldest daughter, Pat DiGeorge, carried home boxes of mementos her mother had saved for decades. She was able to piece together the incredible story of her parents meeting and marrying while dealing with counterespionage in Sweden in the final months of World War II.
DiGeorge weaved that story with several years of research on what happened in Sweden while her parents were there, and turned it all into a book: “Liberty Lady: A True Story of Love and Espionage in WWII Sweden.”
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“It’s been a wonderful project and I have mixed feelings that it’s done,” DiGeorge said. “It’s been such an adventure.”
DiGeorge and her two sisters and two brothers knew that their parents met during World War II in Sweden. They knew a Count, spies and an airplane crash were involved.
But it wasn’t until DiGeorge put together the puzzle presented to her in that box of her parents’ memories that they learned the entire story.
“Growing up, I don’t think I really knew that my parents’ meeting was anything different than anyone else,” said Kathy Allen, Herman and Hedy’s youngest daughter who still lives in Columbia. “My parents said they worked for the ‘Oh So Secret Society’ (OSS) and I did not realize until probably a high school history class that the OSS was the CIA.”
DiGeorge’s research took her on trips to Washington, D.C., where she spent days at the National Archives searching files until she found one with her mother’s handwriting. She found the reports dictated by her father and typed by her mother, which allowed her to piece together her father’s spy story. She connected with people all over the world, many who shared photos, memories and stories.
She traveled to England and to Sweden, once with her son and again with three of her siblings where they retraced the steps their parents had taken there, visiting the spots DiGeorge learned about during her research.
“We found the church where they were married, the garden where he proposed,” DiGeorge said. The clues to these were in the box, but nothing was spelled out.
“My biggest regret is that I didn’t have sense enough to question my mother while she was still alive,” DiGeorge said. “My mother always said she couldn’t talk about the war (she signed an agreement that she would not), but 60 years later, I’ll bet I could have made her talk!”
But Hedy did leave enough clues for her daughter to put together the story.
Herman Allen was a bombardier on a B17 named Liberty Lady. During a mission, Nazis damaged the plane and the crew was forced to crash land in Sweden, a country that remained neutral in World War II.
The crew was sent to an internment camp – more than 1,200 American airmen were interned in Sweden. They were allowed to visit the town and were treated well, but they were not allowed to return to their squadrons.
Herman Allen was bored. So when someone asked for a typist, he volunteered. That led him to work for the U.S. Office of Strategic Services (OSS), a wartime intelligence agency during World War II, and a predecessor of the modern Central Intelligence Agency (CIA).
Hedy Allen also worked for the OSS, as a secretary. She was sent to Sweden and ended up working with Herman Allen.
Both were charismatic, fun-loving Americans who took their patriotic duties seriously, and thrived in social situations in whatever country they were in.
By the time Hedy arrived in Stockholm, Herman already had made contact with a suspected German spy, John Lonnegren. Thanks to information Herman gathered (and Hedy typed into reports) Lonnegren was eventually jailed in what was perhaps one of Sweden’s most notorious spy cases.
While Herman was forging a relationship with Lonnegren, which included going on trips and to parties, he and Hedy began dating. The seemingly confirmed bachelor proposed twice, since Hedy didn’t say yes the first time.
After Lonnegren’s arrest, Herman got word that he would be leaving Sweden. Hedy would have to remain in Stockholm to finish her assignment. They moved the wedding up so they could marry before Herman left.
“We heard quite a bit about Count (Folke) Bernadotte giving my mother away at their wedding,” said Kathy Allen.
Bernadotte, the Count of Wisborg, was a Swedish diplomat who famously negotiated the release of about 31,000 prisoners from German concentration camps at the end of World War II.
The first months of Herman and Hedy’s marriage were spent through correspondence – Hedy’s letters were among the mementos DiGeorge found in the box. It was in one of those letters that Hedy informed Herman that she was pregnant with DiGeorge.
It was that pregnancy that got her home sooner.
They moved to Florida, where Herman’s father owned some stores. After more than two decades there, Herman was named executive director of what is today the American Lung Association in South Carolina, and the family moved in 1969 to Forest Acres.
Kathy Allen often reflects that while her parents lived a long time – Hedy died in 2007 at age 86 and Herman in 2011 at age 94 – so much of their future was formed in that one year in Sweden.
“That one year – the year my dad’s plane crash landed and my mom transferred to Sweden with her work and the two met in the middle of World War II – would be the most significant and influential of their whole lives,” she said. “And yet their lives were so full with so much more.”
After her father died, two of the many people Kathy Allen heard from were S.C. Senator Joel Lourie and U.S. Rep. Joe Wilson.
“Both have talked to me since my dad died to tell me how much they thought of him and my mom,” she said.
“The book describes my dad being Jewish during World War II and what part that played in his being in the war effort and being a POW. Joel told me a great story about how he met my dad. He said my parents’ house might have been the first door he knocked on when he first ran for office. My dad answered and as soon as he found out Joel was Jewish, dad put a Joel sign in our yard.
“My mom would behave the same way when she found out someone was Swedish.”
Lourie said he remembers that meeting with the Allens well.
“They were just so charming and sweet,” Lourie said. “They invited me in ... Mr. Allen said, ‘You seem like a nice young man. I want to be your advocate.’ And he was.”
Lourie had “absolutely no idea” about Herman and Hedy’s involvement in World War II.
“They were so humble,” he said. “They were just as nice as they could be.”
Lourie is glad DiGeorge wrote the book about her parents. “It’s wonderful to hear the stories of the contributions and sacrifices people like the Allens made for our country. It helps me further appreciate who they were.”
DiGeorge began writing “Liberty Lady” right after her mother died. She had no idea how complex the story would become, how much history she would discover through a kind of scavenger hunt – not just about her parents, but about Sweden’s role in World War II.
“I was on a mission,” she said. “Once I started, I knew I had to finish.”
Where to find it
“Liberty Lady: A True Story of Love and Espionage in WWII Sweden”
The book can be purchased on Amazon ($19.95 paperback, $9.99 Kindle)
DiGeorge will be in Columbia for a book signing, 10 a.m.- noon Nov. 12 at St. Michael & All Angels Episcopal Church, 6408 Bridgewood Road.