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Dan C. Pinck, writer and OSS operative during World War II, dies at 94

Mr. Pinck wrote the memoir “Journey to Peking” about his months in China for the OSS. Above, Mr. Pinck and his group of friends, from left to right: interpreter Shum Hay, Colonel Chen, Mr. Pinck, provincial magistrate Chai Cho Man, and radio operator Lung Chiu Wah.
Mr. Pinck wrote the memoir “Journey to Peking” about his months in China for the OSS. Above, Mr. Pinck and his group of friends, from left to right: interpreter Shum Hay, Colonel Chen, Mr. Pinck, provincial magistrate Chai Cho Man, and radio operator Lung Chiu Wah.

A moment of conscience arrived for Dan C. Pinck near the end of World War II, when he was stationed in China to gather information for the Office of Strategic Services, the intelligence agency that preceded the CIA.

His operatives learned that Japanese troops were storing hundreds of drums of gasoline in a school in a coastal town they held in China. Encoding a message to his superiors, he was ready to add this to the list of US bombing targets he had identified when his local interpreter asked him to think about the consequences.

“Had I considered, he asked, the number of women and children who would be killed by an air attack on the school,” Mr. Pinck wrote in the Globe in 1971.

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Thus persuaded, Mr. Pinck decided against passing along that information. And he began to censor other intelligence, too, “if there was much doubt about the nature of the casualties.” As weeks passed, his superiors took note of the sudden drop in information he provided, but then the war ended.

“I might have been court-martialed if it had lasted another few months,” he wrote in the British magazine Encounter in 1988. “I felt slightly guilty about this for many years and told only my wife about my cutting off intelligence. My feelings of guilt lasted until the Vietnam War, when I realized that I had done the right thing.”

Mr. Pinck, who wrote the memoir “Journey to Peking” about his months in China for the OSS, was 94 when he died Feb. 10. He had lived for many years in Cambridge and previously resided in the South End.

“My father epitomized OSS founder General William Donovan’s description of its personnel as ‘glorious amateurs’ who performed ‘some of the bravest acts of the war,’ ” said his son Charles Pinck, president of the OSS Society in Falls Church, Va.

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In a letter of condolence, CIA Director Gina Haspel praised Mr. Pinck’s OSS work: “Like every man and woman who faithfully served our country under the great General Donovan, your father will always be an inspiration to those of us who carry on his work in the clandestine realm.”

The stories Mr. Pinck told about World War II began with his entry into the military, just in the nick of time.

As a freshman at Washington and Lee University in Lexington, Va., he enlisted in the Army. One day, he was scheduled to take a calculus test he was sure he would fail. Instead, he received orders that morning to report to active duty.

“I much preferred to go off to war than take that exam in calculus,” he recalled in a 2003 Globe interview.

Trained in meteorology and communications, he was stationed in India, and then volunteered for the OSS. Sent to a small village on the Southeast China coast not far from Japan, Mr. Pinck filed daily reports about weather patterns and Japanese ships in the South China Sea. He also gathered intelligence that helped US forces identify bombing targets in villages held by Japanese troops.

Mr. Pinck hardly looked the part of an intelligence operative.

“I was 19 and I probably looked like I was 13 or 14,” he told the Globe years later. “I got carded until I was 27.”

Among the pieces of equipment Mr. Pinck brought with him were quite a few tube-like objects that resembled fountain pens. Each contained an explosive charge and a single .22-caliber bullet. He was instructed to place one in his mouth and end his life if he was captured.

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“I was puzzled as to why they gave me a dozen,” he told the Globe. “I asked how many times I should commit suicide.”

An only child, Mr. Pinck was born in Washington, D.C., in 1924. His father, Louis Pinck, was a US Department of Agriculture chemist. His mother, Esther Surasky, was a teacher.

Mr. Pinck graduated from the Sidwell Friends School in Washington, and returned to finish a bachelor’s degree at Washington and Lee after World War II.

In Washington he met Joan Braverman, who was then teaching English at a girls’ boarding school. They married in 1951.

After they relocated to Greater Boston, she served as dean of Pine Manor College, an assistant dean and lecturer at Harvard Business School, and state assistant secretary for higher education. Mrs. Pinck died in March 2018.

Mr. Pinck’s memoir, “Journey to Peking: A Secret Agent in Wartime China,” was published in 2003. He dedicated it to his wife: “Lost in you I find welcome places in my mind.”

In the Boston area, he worked in administration and research positions at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Harvard University, and for an education development company that consulted with countries in Africa.

Mr. Pinck’s essays, memoirs, and reporting have appeared in publications such as Encounter, The American Scholar, and The New Republic.

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After the war, he worked for a time at The New Yorker magazine as what was known as a leg man, gathering information and reporting for the legendary writer A.J. Liebling.

In a 1998 recollection for The American Scholar, he deftly sketched a portrait of his boss. “Mr. Liebling always wore a smile or a promise of one,” Mr. Pinck wrote.

“Facing me, standing halfway between parade rest and at ease, he appeared to be two characters,” Mr. Pinck added. “One was a replica of Buddha, a small statute that I had bought in Peking in the fall of 1945; the other, a comfortably stout cellist, whose cowcatcher of a stomach compelled him to sit a fair distance from his typing table while, arms outstretched, he played the keys of his Royal typewriter.”

Though he wrote regularly, Mr. Pinck had many talents. He painted in the abstract style of Jackson Pollock and exhibited his work. While in his 80s, he pitched a no-hitter in a senior league on Martha’s Vineyard.

“The rumor was that he sang and danced in off-off-Broadway plays in the ’40s,” said his daughter Jennifer Pinck, who founded the Pinck & Co. construction management company in Boston. “And he could pick up any instrument and play it, especially wind instruments.”

A service has been held for Mr. Pinck, who in addition to his son Charles of Washington, D.C., and daughter Jennifer of Boston leaves another daughter, Alexandra of Cambridge, and another son, Anthony of Delray Beach, Fla.

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“I remember he gave me some advice in high school,” Jennifer recalled. “He said, ‘Take a thought and try to express it 20 or 30 ways. That’s how you learn to write.’ ”

Mr. Pinck learned from formidable teachers, including Harold Ross, founding editor of The New Yorker, for whom he once worked as an office boy.

“Mr. Ross dressed rather like a prospector who had just arrived in town from a winter’s fur-trapping in Alaska, and who, reaching town, had put on a suit that had been packed in a duffle bag,” Mr. Pinck wrote in an essay for Encounter magazine.

“One of his favorite hats reminded me of a soggy deflated football that someone had smashed down upon his head.”

Eager to leave the ranks of leg men and office boys, Mr. Pinck kept submitting stories to New Yorker editors. After one was finally accepted, Ross — known for his use of profanity — offered a benediction of sorts.

“You’re a goddamn writer,” he told Mr. Pinck, who realized that was his signal to leave the magazine and strike out on his own.


Bryan Marquard can be reached at bryan.marquard@globe.com.