BUFFALO, N.Y. – FBI Special Agent Harold Haberfeld's ill-fated mission to North Africa during World War II was so secret that even now, 69 years after the plane crash that kept him from completing it, his home bureau in Buffalo isn't entirely sure what his role was.
As Buffalo agents dedicated a memorial in Haberfeld's honor on Thursday, they said they're asking FBI headquarters in Washington to declassify the information.
"Special Agent Haberfeld never reached his final destination," Buffalo Special Agent In Charge Christopher Piehota said. "Due to the covert nature of his national security mission, we still do not know what his final objective was."
What is known is that the assignment had come from FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover at the request of Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower. The FBI at the time was tasked with counterintelligence and intelligence collection duties in South and Central America.
"In November of 1942, the allied forces under Eisenhower stormed the beaches of North Africa and we took Algeria and Morocco," James Robertson, the Buffalo office's former special agent in charge, said at Thursday's ceremony. "There was some information that the allied forces had captured an individual that collaborated with the Nazis and so Eisenhower actually contacted Director Hoover and asked him for a couple of agents to go over to North Africa to interview this individual."
The prisoner was a French-born American citizen living in Algiers, the FBI said.
Chosen for the task was Percy "Sam" Foxworth, the assistant director of the FBI's special intelligence services branch, and Haberfeld. While only a year into his FBI career, the 30-year-old Buffalo agent had lived and worked as an accountant in Algiers and was fluent in French, German and Portuguese.
But on Jan. 15, 1943, the C-54 plane carrying the two agents and 33 military and other personnel went down in Suriname on the northern coast of South America in what was the worst American aviation disaster to date. Although sabotage was at first suspected, mechanical failure was found to have caused the crash.
Wreckage was strewn across a mile and a half of dense jungle. It would be five years before the victims' scarce remains, contained in a single casket, would be returned to the United States. They're buried at the Jefferson Barracks National Cemetery in Missouri.
"Sam Foxworth was one of my most capable assistants," Hoover wrote afterward, according to the FBI. "... And Special Agent Haberfeld had an outstanding record in the service. His excellent background and superior abilities were assurance of a splendid future in the Bureau."
The reason for the FBI agents' presence on the plane was a mystery to the public for a year, until the man they were going to question killed himself after being brought to Miami to be prosecuted for treason, according to a Feb. 20, 1944 Los Angeles Times article. Charles Bedaux, a 57-year-old millionaire industrialist who admitted close friendships with Nazi party leaders, overdosed on the "sleeping compound" he'd saved from small doses given to him, the report said.
"Bedaux's death enabled officials to reveal the answer to a year-old mystery — what two Federal Bureau of Investigation agents were doing aboard a plane which crashed in the South American jungles in January 1943 while en route to North Africa," the newspaper said. "Attorney General (Francis) Biddle revealed that he had dispatched the agents ...to investigate Bedaux's activities."
The FBI Buffalo office dedicated its main conference room to Haberfeld during an outdoor ceremony attended by current agents and a representative from Haberfeld's alma mater, Geneva College in Pennsylvania, where he held leadership positions in the French and Spanish clubs and played intermural football and basketball before graduating in 1934.
Susan James of the AP News Research Center contributed to this report.