Near South Bend, Ind., at 3:30 p.m. on Thursday, Nov. 6, 1930, Joe Savoldi boarded a train bound for Philadelphia and what would be his final college football game. He was bearing a grave secret, one in a life of them.

The train was a Golden Arrow, and Savoldi and the other members of the Notre Dame Fighting Irish, coach Knute Rockne among them, traveled in comfort and extravagance; onboard services included a barber, a valet, tablecloth dining, and a sleeper car with three drawing rooms. The Golden Arrow was scheduled to arrive at West Philadelphia Station at 9:04 the next morning, giving the players a day to rest and prepare for their game at Franklin Field against Penn.

The contest promised to capture the interest of the entire city. During Notre Dame’s unbeaten 1924 season, Grantland Rice had memorably compared the Fighting Irish’s backfield to the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse “outlined against a blue-gray October sky.” By writing for The New York Herald Tribune — his story ran on the newspaper’s front page and in other papers around the country — Rice had the power to lift Notre Dame’s program into legend. The Fighting Irish had gone 9-0 in 1929, despite playing all their games on the road as the university was building a $750,000 football stadium, and were off to a 5-0 start in 1930. Savoldi had emerged as one of the squad’s most popular and recognizable figures, a star on a team of stars, young men made famous through the words and photos that blackened daily broadsheets and the smoky, static-flecked voices that poured forth from Radiolas and Philcos.

Notre Dame's 60-20 victory over Penn on Nov. 8, 1930, was front-page news in The Inquirer the next day. The crowd, according to the paper, was "the greatest throng ever to witness a gridiron game in this city."
Inquirer archives
Notre Dame's 60-20 victory over Penn on Nov. 8, 1930, was front-page news in The Inquirer the next day. The crowd, according to the paper, was "the greatest throng ever to witness a gridiron game in this city."

A fullback, Savoldi was 22 years old and powerfully built, 5-foot-11 and 192 pounds, his smile disarming, his hair a curly black tousle, his body shaped like a stone X. One sportswriter described him as “the most remarkably developed lad [who] ever applied to Rockne for a football suit. … His back, shoulders, and chest are one mass of muscle, supported from a wasplike waist on a pair of equally sturdy legs.” Born in Castano Primo, Italy, in 1908, he had come to the United States when he was 11 and developed his strength by toting bricks up ladders to help his uncle John construct churches and other buildings in Three Oaks, Mich. His father, Joe Savoldi Sr., owned a candy store.

It took the boy just two years to complete the coursework required to move up from kindergarten to eighth grade. At Three Oaks High School, Savoldi excelled in football, basketball, and track, and having taken pride in ridding himself of his accent, he delivered the oration at the Class of 1927’s commencement. The speech’s title, “Quo Vadis Italia” (“Where Are You Marching, Italy?”), would turn out to be prescient.

Rockne swooped in before the University of Michigan could get an official commitment from Savoldi — it didn’t take much to persuade the Savoldis, who were Catholic, that Notre Dame was the right fit — and an injury opened a spot in the starting lineup for him as a junior. During that 1929 season, he scored six touchdowns, including one, in a 7-0 victory over Carnegie Tech, in which he leaped into the end zone on fourth-and-goal from the 1-yard line. Charles Dunkley, a writer for The Associated Press, gave him a nickname: “Jumping Joe Savoldi.”

One newspaper article about Savoldi described him as "the most remarkably developed lad" to play for Notre Dame coach Knute Rockne.
One newspaper article about Savoldi described him as "the most remarkably developed lad" to play for Notre Dame coach Knute Rockne.

With a moniker like that, Savoldi was poised as a senior to become a national sensation. In the 1930 season opener, against SMU, he fielded the first kickoff that the Fighting Irish received in their new, palatial stadium and weaved 98 yards for a touchdown. In their next game, a 26-2 rout of Navy, he scored three times. By the Penn game, Savoldi’s sixth of the season, he had 356 rushing yards and seven touchdowns. His coaches regarded him as a sweet-tempered kid and terrific player who was capable of even greater feats. “I don’t believe the boy was ever angry at anybody,” Jack Chevigny, Rockne’s top assistant, once said. “If once we can get him thoroughly mad in a football game, heaven help the other fellows.”

If Savoldi appeared at ease during the 17½-hour trip to Philadelphia, carrying himself with his usual amiable calm, tumult awaited him after Saturday’s game, where choices and actions that he had done his best to conceal would be revealed to the entire nation. Already, as that train trundled east, a series of events had begun to unfold that would lead to the end of Joe Savoldi’s career at Notre Dame and to his embarking on an American life so accomplished and so secretive that it seems, as one contemplates its scope and even confirms its facts, too improbable to be true.

That journey started here, with a scandal.

A marriage of inconvenience

It was a perfect day for football, crisp and sunny nearing the 2 p.m. kickoff, and even Franklin Field had trouble accommodating everyone who wanted to attend the game. Penn had not had a losing season in 15 years, maintaining its standing as one of college football’s elite programs, and in 1922, the university had expanded Franklin Field into the country’s first two-tiered stadium, increasing its capacity to more than 78,000. The next day, The Inquirer published on its front page a photograph, snapped from an airplane above West Philadelphia, that showed the stands full, not a seat available, a gigantic swarm around a white-lined rectangle. The paper estimated that 80,000 people squeezed themselves into the stadium and that another 25,000 had been caught in traffic outside the east gate and missed the opening kickoff — “the greatest throng ever to witness a gridiron game in this city.”

In the following week's game program, Penn coach Lud Wray praised Savoldi and the Fighting Irish. "There was no stopping their irresistible attack," he wrote.
University of Pennsylvania
In the following week's game program, Penn coach Lud Wray praised Savoldi and the Fighting Irish. "There was no stopping their irresistible attack," he wrote.

The throng witnessed a blowout. Notre Dame scored the game’s first 43 points and won, 60-20. Quakers coach Lud Wray later wrote that the Fighting Irish “seemed inspired when they played on Franklin Field. There was no stopping their irresistible attack.” Martin Brill, a halfback who had transferred to Notre Dame from Penn, ran for three touchdowns. Savoldi rushed for 84 yards and crashed through the Quakers’ overmatched defensive line for a 1-yard score.

But the game itself was not the news of the day. With the visitors’ locker room still thick the smells of sweat and mashed sod, reporters asked Savoldi: Had he ever been married, and had he ever been divorced? There was a good reason for the two-pronged question.

The South Bend Tribune had published a salacious scoop: A year-and-a-half before, on April 3, 1929, Savoldi had married Audrey Koehler, 19, who had been a local high school student. But on the same day that Notre Dame’s football team embarked for Philadelphia, a local judge filed a divorce action bearing Savoldi’s signature. Savoldi had charged his wife with "cruelty and added that she … quarreled with him over trifling matters,” according to The Tribune. The next day, the judge, who had officiated the couple’s wedding ceremony, withdrew the suit.

“The whole thing is news to me,” Savoldi said after the game. “I have never been married, and I’m not seeking a divorce.”

His denial didn’t satisfy university officials. As a Catholic institution, Notre Dame did not condone or abide either interfaith marriage or divorce, and Savoldi, according to a university disciplinary report, had engaged in both, “resulting in public discredit” to the school. At another university, in another football program, Savoldi’s personal affairs might not have been noteworthy. At Notre Dame, they ignited a crisis.

Savoldi’s grandson Jim, who has spent more than 30 years researching his grandfather’s life, believes the questions caught Savoldi off guard: “He assumed it would all remain fairly quiet.” The truth, Jim says, is that while the marriage was not common knowledge, Savoldi’s closest friends on the team knew he had a wife — and that Koehler had tricked him into marrying her by telling him she was pregnant, even though she wasn’t. She had confirmed to The Tribune, in fact, that the two of them had never lived together, that he stayed in the dorms and she remained at home with her parents, and even Savoldi’s family may have been unaware of his relationship with her. “Joe isn’t married. It’s just a joke,” Joe Savoldi Sr. told The Associated Press hours after the Penn game.

When the team returned to South Bend, 192 reporters were waiting to interrogate Savoldi. Frank Carideo, the team’s starting quarterback and Savoldi’s roommate, did his best to protect him by filibustering and deflecting the questions. Savoldi offered one, oblique answer: “Sure, I wasn’t married.”

Ultimately, he admitted to school administrators that he had indeed married Koehler. On Nov. 17, 1930, he withdrew from Notre Dame. For all of Rockne’s power and prestige, he either could not or would not exercise his influence to keep Savoldi on the team. “The officials at Notre Dame would have made no decision so decisive unless there was a good reason,” Rockne said. “If Joe had only taken me into his confidence, if he had only come to me for advice, maybe this whole matter could have been straightened out.”

It never really has been. Weeks later, Audrey Koehler sued Savoldi for desertion. The marriage was subsequently annulled, and the episode faded from public discussion. “He never talked about it or complained,” Jim Savoldi says. “He eventually went to his grave knowing whatever he knew. At this point, it is what it is — an interesting mystery.”

It is remarkable that it has remained one, given what Joe Savoldi chose to do next.

Later in his life, Savoldi (center) grew famous enough to hang out with the likes of Ed Sullivan (right), the famous variety show host.
Later in his life, Savoldi (center) grew famous enough to hang out with the likes of Ed Sullivan (right), the famous variety show host.

Grappling with fame

Days after he withdrew from school, Savoldi agreed to a contract with the Chicago Bears, a decision that caused another controversy to arise around him.

In 1930, the National Football League had a rule that a team could not sign a player who had not yet graduated from college, and Joe Carr, the league’s president, determined that Bears owner George Halas had violated the rule by acquiring Savoldi. Despite already having two outstanding running backs on the roster — Red Grange and Bronco Nagurski — Halas and coach Ralph Jones wanted Savoldi to suit up at the earliest opportunity: the Bears’ next game, against the Chicago Cardinals on Thanksgiving. Savoldi scored the only touchdown in a 6-0 victory. The league fined the Bears $1,000, chump change compared to the $12,000 they paid Savoldi for his three games that season, making him the second-highest-paid player in the NFL, behind Grange. His hefty salary, predictably, engendered no loyalty from his new teammates, many of whom got just $50 a week.

“I didn’t have 11 enemies. I had 21,” Savoldi said years later. “After a while, I just got the ball and held it and stood there and said, ‘Come on.’ Pretty soon, I was riding the bench. Then I quit pro football.”

He could afford to quit. He was entering the realm of celebrity. Hollywood came calling; he screen-tested for the role of Tarzan, the role that went to Johnny Weissmuller, the former Olympic swimmer. Notre Dame re-embraced him in December, after the Bears’ season had ended, by inviting him to rejoin the football team for an exhibition game — the Notre Dame All-Stars against the West/South All-Stars at the Los Angeles Coliseum. The Fighting Irish won, 20-7, and as if to remind everyone who he had been, what he had done, and what he might have done, Savoldi scored all three of his team’s touchdowns.

Two men at the Coliseum needed no reminding. Billy Sandow and Ed “Strangler” Lewis, partners in the professional wrestling business, approached Savoldi after the game with a lucrative proposal: Forget football. We can pay you more. Pro wrestling enjoyed a popularity then that was at least the equal of the NFL’s. Jim Londos, the heavyweight champion in 1930, routinely drew crowds of more than 20,000 and, over one five-year period, was responsible for more than $5 million at the gate.

The opportunity was tailor-made for Savoldi. He had wrestled and boxed to stay in shape at Notre Dame, and having swelled to 220 pounds, his neck now an 18½-inch tree trunk, he had fortified himself against the violence of his new profession. Pro wrestlers faced off in plywood-covered boxing rings that lacked the relative cushion and recoil of springs and canvas mats. As combatants head-slapped, head-locked, head-butted, head-scissored, arm-locked, arm-chopped, arm-wrenched, back-flipped, body-pressed, grabbed, kneed, tackled, and clotheslined each other, the arenas heated themselves into stews of flying teeth, fine sprays of fresh blood, and clouds of cigarette smoke. The sporting press covered matches as if they were on the level. Sometimes, they were.

In February 1931, Savoldi needed just 13 minutes to win his first match, and for that quick work, he pocketed $3,500. Using the same agility and leaping ability that had served him so well in football, he developed a trademark move, the dropkick, in which he would jump straight up and thrust both of his legs into his opponent’s chest, sending the opponent careening across the ring while Savoldi fell, back-first, against the wooden floorboard. It was just the flourish he needed to rise in the game. He wrestled 100 matches in one year, his gate receipts ranging from $12,000 to $24,000 per show. “I pack ’em in wherever I go,” he once said.

The money rolled in, too. Through the prime of his wrestling career, Savoldi earned annual payouts of $50,000, before expenses. His name and photograph never left the papers. He married again, to a woman from Santa Monica named Daisy Florence. He was punishing his body, but the fame must have been intoxicating.

Savoldi and his father, Joe Sr., spent time together at Muscle Beach in Santa Monica, Calif., in 1931.
Savoldi and his father, Joe Sr., spent time together at Muscle Beach in Santa Monica, Calif., in 1931.

Londos had been the champ for nearly three years, and Savoldi resented his lengthy reign. They faced off for the world title at Chicago Stadium on April 7, 1933. Twenty minutes into the match, the two wrestlers stood near the ropes, their arms locked around each other, when Londos, thinking that the referee was signaling them to loosen their grips, relaxed for a moment. In a stunning sequence, Savoldi threw Londos down and held his shoulders against the mat long enough, referee Bob Mangoff ruled, to pin him. Joe Savoldi was the world champion, ostensibly.

In pro wrestling, though, skepticism was always advisable after a surprising outcome. Rumors of a double-cross swirled, fueled by accusations that a few promoters had wanted to wrest the title away from Londos. Because each state, through its athletic commission, had to determine whether it should recognize Savoldi as the official and legitimate champion, his victory settled little. Illinois suspended wrestling in the state to investigate, eventually upholding the decision but deeming the bout a non-championship match.

Once again, while at the center of a firestorm, Savoldi was publicly either silent or inscrutable. He had other matters on his mind: He had been separated from Daisy for six months, and their divorce was finalized on April 14. But as the investigations continued, disclosures sometimes spoke for him. During a three-hour hearing in Philadelphia on April 26, the Pennsylvania State Athletic Commission learned that Savoldi had signed a contract with a Canadian syndicate that guaranteed him $100,000 if he beat Londos, and Mangoff testified that he would be officiating several of Savoldi’s matches in Canada. Savoldi said that he was unaware of any such arrangement. Pennsylvania ruled for Londos to remain world champ. “My grandfather’s sole intention was to pin him,” Jim Savoldi says, but even if that’s true, it still leaves open the possibility that the ref had stacked the deck.

There was no such ambiguity in Savoldi’s next match, in May against his friend Strangler Lewis. Newly married for the third time — to the former Lois Poole, whom he had met in South Bend four years earlier — Savoldi threw the bout, handing Lewis the title, defusing the controversy with Londos, and freeing himself to go wherever and do whatever he wished. He toured the globe for years: New Zealand, Australia, the Fiji Islands, South Africa, France, Italy. Cecil B. Brown, the foreign correspondent, found Savoldi in 1938, living on the Left Bank with Lois and their son, Joe III. His hairline was receding, and his eyes had “lost the luster of youth,” Brown wrote, “except when he starts to demonstrate a pet hold, or how he starts his famous flying kick. Then they become adolescent, mischievous, completely boyish.”

Soon, he and his family returned to the States, and he went back to wrestling, in small towns for smaller paydays. He opened a beer distributorship, then developed an energy drink, called Dropkick, that he billed as “The Drink for All Americans.” But once the United States entered World War II and rationed sugar, he had no way to mass-produce the beverage. The business bottomed out.

It was 1942. Savoldi was 34. He had spent much of his life entertaining the world. Now the world was burning. He had spent much of his life in the public eye. A particular group of men had been watching him, without his knowing. They had a job for him.

Savoldi used multiple aliases while working for the OSS. His agency code name was "Sampson."
Savoldi used multiple aliases while working for the OSS. His agency code name was "Sampson."

Secrets of the war

Catoctin Mountain Park was a place that nature had designed for secrecy: 10,000 acres of forest canopied by young trees — chestnuts and white pines, ash and hickory — in rural Maryland. Nighttime was blacker there. Wild turkeys waddled around, squeaking and gobbling. Salamanders clung to straw-thin branches. Franklin Delano Roosevelt chose Catoctin as the site for his presidential retreat, Shangri-La, setting it on a mountainside camp once used by the Boy Scouts. The park was just 65 miles north of Washington, D.C.

It was in a section of the park, called Area B, that the Office of Strategic Services — created by an executive order from Roosevelt in June 1942, the precursor to the Central Intelligence Agency — taught men how to kill and how to slip from death’s grasp without making a sound, how to disguise their voices and their faces and identities, how to bury all their memories, their tics, their intrinsic and distinguishing traits, for the sake of a cause and their country and their own survival. It was where a man was dispatched after an OSS interviewer had sized him up at a small brick D.C. schoolhouse, after the agency had taken away his wallet and photographs and identification, stripped him of his outer clothes and cut the name tags from his underwear, blanched his past and deemed him ready to lead a double life. It was where Joe Savoldi learned to become a spy.

There are many details and elements of Savoldi’s life that are unknowable. His first contact with the OSS is one. You didn’t choose the OSS, a veteran of the agency, Al Materazzi, told Jim Savoldi in 2003. They chose you. William “Wild Bill” Donovan, its director, mined college campuses and cocktail parties for recruits — bankers, truckers, professors, actors, captains of industry, few of them with military experience, all of them with just enough of the devil in them to make them valuable in war. “They were definitely mavericks,” says Kasey Clay, Catoctin’s historian. Donovan sought men who were “calculatingly reckless,” possessed “disciplined daring,” and predisposed to “aggressive action.” And if some of them happened to be recent immigrants from Germany, Japan, or Italy — eager, as one general put it, “to pay off their obligations to their adopted lands as well as to drive the dictators from their ancestral homes” — all the better. The price of capture could be torture in a prisoner-of-war camp or death by firing squad. An OSS recruit had to be robust, resourceful, and motivated.

So … a professional wrestler and football player who as a teenager had called out the fascism of his native country? Savoldi’s profile hit the agency’s sweet spot. Col. Carroll T. Harris of the OSS interviewed him in July 1942 and found him “a person who is not only extremely intelligent but superbly qualified because of his excellent physical condition. … He is also shrewd in the tricks of personal combat.” At Catoctin, he became one of 400 men to undergo the OSS’s special-operations training. Each course was taught in a gray-roofed cabin and lasted two to three weeks. The skills that recruits had to master ranged from Morse code to ciphers to lock-picking to assembling and firing a .45-caliber pistol to talents that were more … particular.

Col. Jerry Sage, whose life was the inspiration for Steve McQueen’s character in The Great Escape, was proficient in judo and French savate, and he demonstrated to his students how to subdue an opponent with a pen or pencil, a rolled-up magazine or newspaper, even just a matchbox, highlighting pressure points on the human body that, if struck, could immobilize anyone. In one of Sage’s classes, Savoldi jerked free of an assistant instructor’s hold and sprained the man’s wrist. Sage, unaware of Savoldi’s wrestling background, admonished the recruit.

“Captain,” Savoldi asked after class ended, “could I talk with you a minute?”


“Let’s go over to the mat.”

Outside, a long wrestling mat lay on grass.

“Show me how you would attack,” Sage said.

Savoldi faked, then jumped legs-first toward Sage, catching him in a flying-scissors move, dropping Sage to the ground and filling his mouth with dirt and gravel. Point taken. “The maneuver was remarkable for a man of his size,” Sage later wrote in his memoir. “As a rule, we didn’t try to change the habits of a man who was already a good boxer or wrestler.”

Those habits and his fluency in Italian made Savoldi an obvious and immediate asset — and ideal for one of the agency’s most audacious missions, called Project McGregor. Believing that Massimo Girosi — a leader of the Italian navy whose family had long been loyal to the country’s former king, Umberto I — might turn against Benito Mussolini, the OSS hatched a plot: Perhaps the agency — with the aid of Girosi’s brother Marcello, who was living in New York — could persuade Massimo to surrender the entire fleet to the Allies.

Even after Marcello Girosi agreed to help, however, the OSS couldn’t be certain that Marcello himself wasn’t an Italian agent. Michael Burke, one of the leaders of the McGregor operation, suggested that the team add another member whose responsibility would be to guard Girosi, to eyeball him at all times. As Burke perused a list of Italian-speaking trainees, one name caught his eye.

“Is that ‘Jumping Joe Savoldi?’ " he asked. "The old Notre Dame player?”

Burke selected Savoldi immediately. “He was built like a gorilla and moved lightly as a leopard,” Burke, who went on to become president of the Yankees, the Knicks, and Madison Square Garden, wrote in his autobiography, Outrageous Good Fortune. “His wrestler’s face had been mashed against the ring canvas a thousand times. He was enthusiastic. I thought he would be perfect. He would terrify Girosi and maybe the entire Italian fleet.” On June 3, 1943, Burke sent a letter to Savoldi’s home in Harbert, Mich.:

Dear Joe:

This is just a word of caution to warn you not to mention your connection with our outfit. I know this is unnecessary but it pays to be overcareful, not only for ourselves but for your own good.

You realize, of course, that when we call you down here that you should just drop out of your present picture quietly and with no publicity. If necessary you could explain to your friends that you have been called to Washington by the War Department for some sort of consultation. …

We will be getting in touch with you in the near future. See you soon.

Very truly yours,

E.M. Burke

Savoldi signed on in June 1943 for $400 a month. His code name would be Sampson. One of his aliases would be “Joseph DeLeo,” a name Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower once mistakenly used to identify him in a confidential travel memorandum. His cover story was that he was touring Europe, entertaining the troops with wrestling exhibitions. To maintain the ruse, his monthly paychecks were mailed in plain envelopes and not on OSS letterhead. Lois Savoldi once said that it wasn’t until Burke’s book was published in 1984 that she learned the nature of her husband’s work. While Savoldi was away, his family received the most cursory of letters from the agency. He was “well … and in fine spirits.”

Lois Savoldi, Joe's wife, used a blue fountain pen to write a letter to the OSS, asking about his whereabouts, in August 1943.
National Archives
Lois Savoldi, Joe's wife, used a blue fountain pen to write a letter to the OSS, asking about his whereabouts, in August 1943.

On Aug. 9, 1943, Lois wrote a letter to R. Davis Halliwell, chief of the OSS’s special-operations branch:

Dear Mr. Halliwell —

Since you have been kind enough to send me news of my husband on two occasions I am taking the liberty of asking you to see that he gets the enclosed letter. …

I make this request as it seems Mr. Savoldi has heard no news of us in the almost seven weeks he has been away and I’ve written almost every day. His letters come regularly and Saturday, last, I had his second cable asking me to write … he apparently still had had no means to.

Thank you very much.

Cordially yours,

Lois Savoldi

(Mrs. Joe Savoldi Jr.)

What she didn’t know, couldn’t know, was that her husband and Burke already had flown from Washington to Algiers. They rendezvoused there with another member of the McGregor team, Lt. John Shaheen, and with a courier charged with delivering a letter, outlining the wild plan that the OSS had devised, from Marcello Girosi to his brother. The messenger, “Tommy,” carried the letter in the slit cover of a book.

By Aug. 10, the team established a base in Palermo, Sicily — the city destroyed, dead bodies rank under a blazing sun four days after American troops had first landed there. That night, the 10-man crew boarded two patrol-torpedo boats and pointed north for the Gulf of Gaeta, between Rome and Naples, to escort the messenger ashore. From his boat’s deck, gripping either a machine gun or an Oerlikon cannon, Savoldi could see the Tyrrhenian Sea stretching before him, tranquil and bathed in pale light from a full moon that painted the water a brilliant blue.

The reality of war soon pierced the beauty. Three German JU 88 bombers cut across the sky, no more than 500 feet above the boats, then vanished. As the two PT boats approached the shore, the men aboard noticed glowing dots in the darkness: fishermen, presumably under German watch. The radar on Burke’s boat picked up another foreboding piece of information: A German E-boat had set out from the north end of the gulf.

None of them — not the bombers, not the fishermen, not the E-boat — spotted the PT boats, but shepherding “Tommy” to land required dropping a rubber raft into the water, paddling him to shore, and paddling back. It would be time-consuming. The McGregor men took no chances. They turned around and returned to Palermo. Two nights later, they tried again but chose a different penetration point: to the south, at Calabria. This time, the courier made land. Weeks later he delivered the letter to Massimo Girosi, who, just as the OSS had hoped, was receptive to turning the navy over to the Allies. But unbeknownst to the McGregor men or the Girosi brothers, Eisenhower already had begun negotiating Italy’s surrender with Gen. Pietro Badoglio, who would soon replace Mussolini as prime minister. The mission had been successful, but it was not necessary.

Savoldi’s next one would be, if he could survive the invasion of Italy. In early September, he and the rest of the McGregor team hitched a ride on a British torpedo boat to Salerno, spending an evening sitting on the deck, sipping gin with lime, waiting for the signal to get back to the fray. It came at 2 a.m. At 6:30, the boat broke through morning fog to the awesome sight of the British fleet — cruisers, destroyers, five aircraft carriers — near Naples. As the convoy rumbled slowly over the roiling sea, artillery fire boomed in the men’s ears, and one team member became so ill that Burke noted it in his log notes: “Savoldi’s stomach not too tranquil.” A liaison craft zipped the men to the beach, and they sprinted on the sand as German mortar bombs exploded around them, killing Allied troops in swaths. That night, the team found a deserted hotel, with beds and mattresses, and fell asleep to the screeching and reports of German shells.

For two days, the McGregor team remained trapped in Salerno. Even a daring move by Savoldi and Shaheen — they dashed to the beach one morning and, in an attempt to escape, commandeered a landing craft — didn’t work. They had to abandon it in the harbor for a rescue tug, and when they returned, they found the craft half-sunk, a gaping shell hole in its side. A Nazi patrol had stolen their equipment. “All they left,” Savoldi said later, “was my toothbrush and a tube of paste.” As the men tried to pack up their remnants, the Germans began launching more 88mm shells at them with such accuracy that seawater splashed into the men’s faces. They were pinned behind cement blocks for 15 minutes until a British landing ship came for them. “I was never so glad to see anybody in all my life,” Savoldi said later.

With the Italians’ surrender now formalized, the McGregor team took on its new assignment. One of the Axis’ most potent weapons was the SIC torpedo, designed with a state-of-the-art electromagnetic configuration that allowed it to detonate and destroy a vessel just by passing underneath it. The OSS estimated that the Nazis had ordered 12,000 of them. The initials “SIC” stood for Silurificio Italiano Calosi, and that final word was the key to the team’s mission. The scientist who had perfected the device was Professor Carlo Calosi, a tall, skinny, 42-year-old scientist at the University of Genoa. The Nazis had occupied Rome, where Calosi was thought to be in hiding, and if they located him, the OSS believed, either he would continue helping them develop weapons, or they would kill him. The McGregor team’s orders: Find Calosi and spirit him out of Italy.

Here was Joe Savoldi in disguise. In one of his missions, he went undercover in Naples to break up several mafia-controlled black markets.
Here was Joe Savoldi in disguise. In one of his missions, he went undercover in Naples to break up several mafia-controlled black markets.

Landing in Naples on Oct. 4, 1943, Savoldi and the team sent through the Italian underground a message to Calosi’s last-known address in Rome. They waited two weeks. Nothing. Then a courier located Calosi, hiding in a convent. On Christmas Eve 1943, a member of the Italian Secret Information Service contacted him: You’re leaving tomorrow. Dressed as a priest, Calosi hopped a dilapidated railway car from the convent to a villa on the Tyrrhenian coast, where he and six members of the Italian military waited for the McGregor men.

It wasn’t until Jan. 3 at 1:50 a.m. that Savoldi and the team arrived, picked up Calosi, and shepherded him to a safe location. In Naples on Jan. 15 and 16, Calosi met with representatives of the American Scientific Mission, demystifying for them the technology behind the SIC torpedo and other armaments. One historian later suggested that, by capturing Calosi, the Allies had saved themselves a year’s worth of research.

Though Savoldi continued working for the OSS — he went undercover in Naples to break up several of the city’s mafia-controlled black markets — the Calosi mission was the peak of his intelligence career. He grew tired of the stress, wanted to rejoin the civilian world. On the bottom of the December 22, 1944, memo notifying him that his employment would end in 30 days, he hand-wrote a note:


Please send me an idea of something that I can say as I am going back to public life (wrestling) and I am sure that the newspapers will ask a million questions and I don’t want to be blamed for any newspaper man misunderstanding anything I have to say.

“Let’s just say I was working for the government on special assignment.”

Joe Savoldi

Less than four weeks later, on Jan. 16, 1945, a United Press International reporter interviewed Savoldi before his return to pro wrestling — at the Met in North Philadelphia. The reporter asked if Savoldi had been discharged from the Army.

“I wasn’t in the Army,” Savoldi said.

What was he in?

“Let’s say I wasn’t in anything. Let’s just say I was working for the government on special assignment.”

His wrestling career resumed the next night on Broad Street. He won his match easily.

The story and the scars

If Joe Savoldi’s story began in West Philadelphia with a scandal, it ended in Western Kentucky in relative, and self-created, obscurity. He had stopped wrestling by the early 1950s, though he mentored and managed others, including Houston “Bobo Brazil” Harris, the first black heavyweight champion. A 1945 book about the OSS’s exploits in World War II, Cloak and Dagger, devoted an entire chapter to Savoldi. He marked up his copy, pointing out inaccuracies and scribbling corrections in the margins. A movie of the same title, starring Gary Cooper, came out in 1946. It made no mention of Savoldi by name, which didn’t bother him. He had seen the big places but missed the little moments as Joe III grew to be a track-and-field standout at Michigan State. The Savoldis moved to Henderson, Ky., to be closer to Lois’s mother.

Savoldi mentored and managed Houston "Bobo Brazil" Harris, the first black heavyweight champion in pro wrestling history.
Savoldi mentored and managed Houston "Bobo Brazil" Harris, the first black heavyweight champion in pro wrestling history.

At 54, he went back to school, needing less than a year at Evansville (Ind.) College to finish his B.A. degree. Fran Frellick, a Baptist pastor who was running a club for troubled boys in Evansville, read a short newspaper article that said Savoldi had moved to the area and was studying to become a teacher. He asked the old champion if he’d like to show the boys a few wrestling moves, teach them how to lift weights. His hands curled and aching from arthritis, Savoldi could not pick up the barbells himself. But he volunteered at the local community center every Thursday evening for three years, never mentioning to the boys anything about his past.

“I thought it would be great for them to be able to say they knew one of the greats,” Frellick, 89, says over the phone one recent afternoon, his voice breaking at the memory. “I think he did a beautiful thing there. He obviously loved the kids, and they loved him for what he was doing, even if they didn’t fully appreciate who he was.”

No one could. All the football games and wrestling matches, all the drop-kicks and the wartime horrors, all the physical and psycho-emotional strain had left scars obvious and invisible. To ease his persistent back pain, Savoldi slept atop an inch-thick wooden board that he had slid underneath a sheet on one side of his and Lois’ bed. The former secret agent, so unflappable and confident and cool that he had once snoozed through a nightlong Nazi bombardment, confessed, in a diary he kept, to having nightmares so vivid that he took medication before laying his head on the pillow. As a boy, Jim Savoldi always thought it strange that, whenever he and his brother visited their grandparents, Lois demanded that they make her a promise: that they would never play football or wrestle. Only in time did he understand why.

“It’s an understatement,” Jim says, “to say that his body was completely destroyed. The life he had lived robbed him of the years he wanted.”

Henderson County High School hired Savoldi as a science teacher, and after 11 years there, he died of a heart attack on Jan. 25, 1974. He was 65. A fellow faculty member said of him at the funeral, “I never knew him before he came to teach at Henderson County High, but I don’t think I ever thought more of any other teacher I’ve known.” Jim was just 12 then, but a few years later, as an undergraduate at Auburn University in the mid-1980s, he found himself sitting at a microfilm machine one day, rifling through archived New York Times articles about Joe’s exploits at Notre Dame, hoping to verify the tales that he had long heard, his grandfather’s mythology.

Jim is 57, a financial market analyst in San Francisco, and people think it’s odd that he continues adding to his three decades of research, that he has spent so much time investigating the life of someone both so famous and so furtive. Still, he gathers whatever minutiae and memories he can — scattered shards and fragments of Joe’s story that have been forgotten or ignored or will soon disappear. He collects them in the hope that, someday, he or someone else might piece them together and preserve the narrative. “My focus has always been to bring the true story to the public,” he says. He has pursued and is optimistic about the prospects of a book or film to tell it in full. But he is a Savoldi, so he is keeping the details to himself.

Henderson County High School in Kentucky, where Joe Savoldi taught, keeps a plaque on a wall to memorialize him.
Henderson County High School in Kentucky, where Joe Savoldi taught, keeps a plaque on a wall to memorialize him.