Mason, who caught a notorious spy during World War II, dies

Posted June 09, 2014, at 5:29 a.m.
Last modified June 09, 2014, at 5:36 p.m.

Gordon Mason’s quarry, a wily teenage Fascist spy named Carla Costa, was said to have been the best female agent working for the Germans in Italy.

She had not yet turned 17 when she ran away from her home in Rome during World War II and joined a cadre of Italian spies organized to aid German military intelligence. She proved so skilled at carrying messages to and from enemy territory that she received an audience with Benito Mussolini at his northern headquarters near Lake Garda.

“Young woman,” the Duce told her, according to an oral history by a U.S. intelligence officer, “if all Italian women were like you, we’d win this damnable war.”

Mason, who died April 3 at 98 in Warrenton, Va., was in his late 20s at the time and was serving in the Army Counterintelligence Corps. The son of Italian immigrants — and a future career officer in the CIA — he spoke Italian fluently and was tasked with arresting Costa before she could further damage the Allied cause.

With information gathered from a Fascist agent in custody, his unit closed in on Costa in October 1944 near the Tuscan town of Pistoia. Mason was following her presumed route and spotted her on a bicycle.

He detained Costa and brought her back to his station for questioning, according to an account by British historian James Holland in the book “Italy’s Sorrow: A Year of War, 1944-1945.”

The Americans quickly discerned that they had met a formidable opponent.

“Agents of this Detachment have handled and interrogated thousands of espionage and other types of suspects, ranging from Italian Fascist generals, German Army officers and every shade and pattern of Fascist gerarchi, to peasants, farmers, peddlers, pimps and prostitutes,” reads a Counterintelligence Corps report cited by Holland.

“Despite her youth and sex,” the document attests, Costa “has proven herself the most stubborn and tenacious enemy agent or suspect whom CIC, 5th Army, has encountered in the course of its work in Italy.”

Mason observed that Costa was “utterly unafraid of death,” Holland wrote. She had braced herself to be taken before a firing squad. But in time, the interrogators persuaded her to confess by presenting the extensive evidence collected in her case and by reminding her of the legal advantages of cooperation.

Costa ultimately was released, her youthful spunk having earned a sort of admiration from her captors.

Mason was born Jan. 20, 1916, in Cherry Valley, Pa., and went by Gordon Bruno Mason throughout his life. His daughter said that he was named after Giordano Bruno, the Italian philosopher and astronomer who was burned at the stake for what were deemed his heretical ideas.

After the death of his father, a coal miner, Mason moved to Ohio. He received a bachelor’s degree in political science and journalism in 1942 and a master’s degree in labor economics, awarded in 1947, both from Ohio State University.

In the Counterintelligence Corps, he attained the rank of captain and participated in the invasions of North Africa in 1942 and of Italy the following year.

He joined the fledgling CIA in 1947 and served in positions that included chief of external operations for the Soviet bloc and station chief in Romania, Ghana, Holland and Ethiopia, according to information provided by his family.

He later held high-ranking positions at the CIA headquarters. Before his retirement in 1977, CIA Director George H.W. Bush awarded him the Distinguished Intelligence Medal. Mason’s military decorations included the Bronze Star Medal.

His wife of nearly 50 years, Louise Knapp Mason, sometimes joined his CIA missions. At least once, she ran interference while he helped bury money and other supplies for anti-communist organizers in Romania.

Louise Mason died in 1990. Survivors include Mason’s wife of 18 years, Jewel Huff of Leesburg, Virginia; two children from his first marriage, Laura Parker of Catlett, Virginia, and Gordon W. Mason of Sterling, Virginia; four grandchildren; and five great-grandchildren. Mason was a longtime Fairfax County resident and had recently lived in Sterling.

His daughter confirmed his death and said that he had congestive heart failure.

She said that although he rarely spoke about his exploits in espionage, her father liked to recall his arrest of Carla Costa. He knew he had found her, he told his family, when he spotted her on the getaway bicycle with her telltale blue shoes.

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