Barely 20 and two years out of Silver Spring’s Montgomery Blair High School (Maryland) – Class of 1940 – Doris Sharrar became an employee of the Office of Strategic Services, the World War II predecessor of the CIA. She began as a typist but, by the end of the war, she had spied on the Nazis from vantage points in Italy and North Africa and played a role in plotting the Allied invasions of Sicily and the rest of Italy.
For her safety, she packed a Browning pistol in a shoulder holster. She examined aerial photographs to track enemy movements, including the railway transport of civilians in cattle cars bound for European concentration and death camps.
When the war ended and the OSS morphed into the CIA, she went to Germany for Cold War espionage on the Soviet Union. She interviewed German scientists who had been captured, held and interrogated by the Russians, trying to glean from them the strengths and weaknesses of Soviet science.
She retired in 1979 as deputy chief of counterintelligence, training U.S. officers on the methods and tactics of foreign espionage operatives. “She spied on the spies,” said her son, Jason Bohrer.
Doris Bohrer, as she became known, died Aug. 8 at a care center in Greensboro, North Carolina. She was 93. The cause was heart ailments, her son said.
She served 27 years as an intelligence operative, a career that began in 1942 when she took a civil service examination. The OSS hired her to type intelligence reports. She then got a promotion and analyzed aerial photos from which she created relief maps of likely European battlegrounds.
She was one of only a handful of OSS women serving in assignments above the typist or clerical level. Much of their work was unnoticed and unacknowledged. Years later, Bohrer recalled OSS postings in North Africa and Italy where she was doing the same work as men who were routinely addressed as “major,” “captain” or “lieutenant.” The women were simply “the girls.”
Pistol-packing men escorted her wherever she needed to go. Eventually she demanded a weapon for herself, which was issued reluctantly. She never needed to use it. She was assigned to Bari, on the Adriatic coast of Italy, where she studied aerial photographs from bombing and reconnaissance missions.
“That’s how we knew where the concentration camps were located, but we were too late,” she told The Washington Post in 2011. “We kept wondering where all the trains were going. The Germans were also building rocket and electronics factories. We watched what went in, what went out.”
Doris Arlene Sharrar was born in Basin, Wyoming, on Feb. 5, 1923. She was in high school when her father, a teacher, came to Washington for a wartime government job. She had initially wanted to fly airplanes to defend the country after the Dec. 7, 1941, Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor brought the United States into the war.
She never did get to fly. But she found aerial photographs “an interesting way to look at the world. It was almost as good as flying,” she told The Post. “Maybe I am nosy.”
Her husband of 61 years, Charles Bohrer, retired as director of the CIA medical office in 1980. He died in 2007. Survivors include their son, Jason Bohrer, of Greensboro and two grandchildren.
In the 1980s and 1990s, Bohrer was a residential real estate sales agent in the Old Town section of Alexandria. She lived there until 2009, when she moved to the Westminster at Lake Ridge retirement community in Prince William County. She bred and raised poodles, which won several prizes at dog shows.
She said little publicly about her CIA career until 2011, when The Post published a story about her and a former CIA colleague, Elizabeth McIntosh, who found themselves neighbors at Westminster. In 2013, CIA Director John Brennan met with them at CIA headquarters in Langley, Virginia, to thank them for their service.
That year, Bohrer told NBC News that male soldiers in Bari had once belittled her for being a female spy. Furthermore, one of her OSS bosses denied her request to carry grenades, which she felt unfair. So she asked an engineer friend to make her a disabled grenade that she then slammed on the table one day when her foes were eating lunch.
They scattered fast, running for cover.
“When I reached for the handle, the boys went out the windows,” she told NBC. “They just disappeared. And I sat there and ate my salad.”
(c) 2016, The Washington Post · Bart Barnes