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Herbert Snyder: Headmaster…Colonel…and CIA Agent?

Herbert Snyder: Headmaster…Colonel…and CIA Agent?

As Cincinnati Country Day School’s second headmaster, Herbert “Herb” Snyder oversaw the formative years of the young institution. But his dedicated correspondence to his collegiate alumni journal illuminates the eventful years following his departure, including his travel in the Second World War and beyond. Through nearly a hundred letters over six decades, Snyder gave simple life updates, mused on campus doings, and waxed rhapsodical about his beloved Cornell football team. These entries reach a startling peak in Snyder’s obituary in the November 1972 issue of the Cornell Alumni News: “Herb was the total Cornellian, even after a full life as a private school teacher, headmaster, and CIA operative.”

Born in Iowa near the Quad Cities, Snyder graduated from Cornell in 1916. Snyder’s father, president of the American Mathematical Society, was a longtime math professor at Cornell. Snyder headed off to Europe to fight in World War I, following a brief teaching stint at the St. Mark’s School in Massachusetts. He served as a first lieutenant in the infantry, and was awarded a Croix de Guerre for “extraordinary heroism in action near Blanc Mont.” After the war, he returned to his post at St. Mark’s, where he taught for several years before briefly accepting the position of headmaster at the Valley Ranch School in Wyoming.

Snyder came to CCDS from the Cranbrook School in Detroit in the summer of 1929, where he had served as athletic director and the head of the history department. He succeeded founding CCDS head Harold Washburn and grew the school to as many as 115 students (it opened with 50) and a faculty of a dozen. In his entry in school history And Five Miles Farther, colleague and future headmaster Herbert M. Davison refers to Snyder as “a superb teacher of history and a counselor of boys without peer.” 1943 alum Tuck Asbury remembers he was “determined to make strong young men out of what he believed to be overly protected boys.” Asbury also notes the challenge of retaining students into high school during these years, as classes of 25 in the middle school would be decimated to a graduating class of three due to the lure of eastern boarding schools. His years at the helm were characterized, per Davison, by “thin populations and precarious finances–but stable administration, faculty, and trustees.”

Snyder’s tenure came to a sudden end in January of 1941 when he was called up to active duty. This is noteworthy for two reasons: Snyder was in his mid-40s, well beyond the cutoff in the prior year’s Selective Service Act, and the United States was still 11 months from entering the Second World War. Nevertheless, as the Enquirer noted on January 25, 1941, Snyder (now a major) was due to report to Fort Hayes in Columbus the following month. He was promptly replaced by Harwood Ellis, who would join the army himself three years later. Snyder spent much of the next three years at Fort Leavenworth, Kansas, home of the General Staff College, which also trained generals Eisenhower, Bradley, and MacArthur.

A military headshot of Herb Snyder from his days in the army.

Snyder and the 44th Infantry departed the U.S. via Boston Harbor on September 5, 1944. They arrived in Cherbourg on September 15,1944 and deployed to eastern France the following month. Upon landing, Snyder was named assistant chief of staff for intelligence under Commanding General Robert Spragins. The infantry’s initial deployment was near Colmar, where Country Day students now experience their exchange program. That fall, they cut northeast through the Northern Vosges Mountains and liberated Strasbourg. Much of the winter was spent on the defense of Sarreguemines, on what is now the French-German border.

The Infantry moved into the heart of Germany at the end of March 1945, freeing the industrial city of Mannheim in the process. Cutting southeast after a training period, they liberated a string of towns on the Austrian border at the end of April. After crossing into Austria, the 44th forced the surrender of the scientists from the Nazi V-2 program, including Werner Von Braun, who would later be central to NASA’s Apollo program. After V-E Day, the division occupied Imst, Austria for two months before returning to the U.S. in July, but we know from his Alumni entries that Snyder spent at least some time after this with the Group Control Council in Berlin, the small leadership group that oversaw the military government of occupied Germany. By the time of his discharge, he was promoted to colonel (a moniker by which he would be known for the rest of his life) and earned the Bronze Star.

Upon his return to the United States, Snyder became the head of the short-lived Arizona Desert School in the Santa Catalina Mountains north of Tucson, AZ, which closed in 1953 due to “accumulated debts and low enrollment,” per a brief State Historical Society footnote. His missives don’t designate the exact date of his departure, and for a long stretch his entries largely detail travel with his wife (a trip to Europe on the Queen Mary in 1950, for one).

But another Alumni Journal article tips us off to what he was up to in the years before he retired to a quiet life back in Ithaca. At a Cornell reunion in the summer of 1972, four months before his passing, Snyder told a story that tangentially referenced training “Asian” spies on the Mariana Island of Saipan. While he doesn’t go into more detail or give us a timestamp, we can infer some details about his role. The Naval Technical Training Unit—which Snyder doesn’t reference by name but calls “the worst kept secret in Asia”—made its home on Saipan from 1950-62 and was a key part of the CIA’s Cold War operations in Southeast Asia. The CIA used this facility primarily to train spies and saboteurs deployed in China and focused on counterintelligence and psychological warfare. At this point, Snyder was well into his 50s, and while we’ll never know just what his role was, it’s clear that the qualities deemed valuable by the Army upon his arrival in Europe were still proving valuable well into the Eisenhower administration.

Although his years at CCDS were rich and full, they marked a relative calm in Snyder’s eventful life between two World Wars and the onset of the Cold War. He wasn’t the only headmaster to have a long and influential tenure at CCDS, nor the only one to serve in the military. But he was the only headmaster whose pathway from Given Road led to international espionage.

So far as we know.