March 12, 2007 issue - A few years ago, just as her father was about to disappear into the fog of dementia, journalist Lucinda Franks stumbled upon a small box in a corner of his dilapidated apartment. The contents shocked her. Beneath some mysterious maps and crumpled foreign bank notes, she found a military cap embellished with the raised metal insignia of an eagle, a skull and crossbones—and a swastika. Franks knew little about her father's military service during World War II, and had always sensed that he was hiding something. Now questions consumed her. "Was my sphinx-like father presenting one character and living another?" she writes in her new memoir, "My Father's Secret War." "Whose side was he really on?" When she pressed for an explanation, her father refused to talk, citing a decades-old pledge of secrecy.
But after years of detective work and long conversations with her ailing father, Franks eventually pieced together most of his story. Fluent in German, he was a spy and occasionally an assassin. The Nazi cap was part of his disguise as a member of the Waffen SS, worn the night he broke into a Gestapo headquarters and killed a guard while looking for files with the names of people wanted by the Nazis. Near the end of his life, he finally tells Franks he kept the hat because of the "death's head" insignia: "I never wanted to forget who these German soldiers really were."