Joseph Gelleny is an inspiring fellow. At age 90 he plays golf three times a week and goes for walks on his other days.
“Keep busy, not in your mind, but in your body,” he said.
Though he lives quietly now in Gibsons in his independent apartment at Christenson Village, his life has been full of adventure.
Gelleny was a secret agent — a Canadian James Bond.
He had to be physically fit and in fighting shape because in the Second World War he parachuted from airplanes into enemy territory and lived by his wits. In 1943, Gelleny was trained at a secluded and secure Ontario centre called Camp X. Though his primary role was radio operator of encrypted wireless transmissions in Morse code, he was taught spycraft by trainers from the Special Operations Executive (SOE). These included how to hide documents, codes and money in clothing (which later saved his life), how to use Semtech explosive, including how to carry it in his mouth, how to shake a “tail” and how to disarm and kill the enemy. Gelleny was assigned to the British Army and trained at the famous Beaulieu and Bletchley centres in England.
He and three other spies parachuted into Yugoslavia and attempted to cross into Hungary. Gelleny was born in Hungary and spoke the language, although his family had lived in Ontario for most of his life.
Where did he find the courage to do this?
“We were in the army. We did as we were ordered,” he said.
After several efforts, the group retreated and tried again through Italy. Their drop into occupied Hungary was compromised, they were caught and tortured. He suffered under Hungarian and Nazi interrogators who applied brutal beatings and electric shocks. He had trained for this too, knowing that he might be caught, and he had thrown away his army issue suicide pill. Even under torture he gave away no secrets.
As a prisoner of war he managed a daring escape from a balcony and hid in the apartment of an allied sympathizer in Budapest. She was a charming woman and, like the Bond movies, they became romantically involved. During this period he met the renowned humanitarian Raoul Wallenberg and assisted him in obtaining false Swedish citizenship papers that would help Jews escape the country.
What does an ex-spy do after the war? Gelleny started a new life, got a degree in chemical engineering, but never practised it, married his hometown sweetheart and set about developing 500 acres of land near Toronto.
Some of the original homes that he built in the subdivision still stand today. He has also looked up many of his wartime comrades over the years. He used to go to the Legion but finds that by now, many of the Legion’s visitors are veterans of the war in Afghanistan and he doesn’t have a lot in common with them. His war was in a very different age.
The suspenseful story of his mission is told in a book, Almost, that Gelleny published in 2000. He was almost caught several times; he almost died. He now believes that everyone is born to live so many years, barring accident or disease. He was born to survive the rigours of war and he maintains his positive attitude to this day. The book is available from Gelleny or through Amazon.ca.