Oak Harbor man Paul Birkeland reflects on his CIA career

Paul Birkeland received two awards from Poland because of his work in that country. He received the Gold Cross of Merit and Order of Polonia Restituta, two of the highest decorations offered to recognize people for their service to the country. - Photo by Michelle Beahm/Whidbey News-Times
Paul Birkeland received two awards from Poland because of his work in that country. He received the Gold Cross of Merit and Order of Polonia Restituta, two of the highest decorations offered to recognize people for their service to the country.
— image credit: Photo by Michelle Beahm/Whidbey News-Times

Nationally recognized as a great place to retire, Whidbey Island is filled with myriad aging adults with fascinating life stories.

Take, for example, 95-year-old Paul Birkeland. He currently resides in Harbor Tower Village in Oak Harbor, though he’s lived in the city for decades.

His life can all be traced to a mishap.

His parents, Carl and Sophie Birkeland, both from Norway, met and married in the United States.

While they were visiting their families in Norway, Birkeland said they “got stuck.”

That started a long career for him and his father with the United States government.

During their vacation, the United States joined in World War I, and travel between Norway and the U.S. was suddenly restricted.

Birkeland’s father found a job with the U.S. Embassy, and from there his life was shaped.

“He joined the state department. He made a career out of that,” Birkeland said. “Then when I came along, I made a career out of it, too.”

Birkeland grew up all over Europe. He lived in Norway, Latvia, Finland, Poland and Denmark, before eventually landing at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champagne, studying political science and participating in the Reserve Officer Training Corps.

After graduating, he joined the army full time. When his training was complete, Birkeland was sent to London as a military attache, to work with people exiled from their own countries because of the fighting in World War II.

When that war was over, he was then sent to Yugoslavia through the state department to help with the residual fighting between political parties there.

“When I went to Yugoslavia, the first thing that happened was I got sick,” he recounted.

Having contracted scarlet fever, Birkeland was quarantined for a month inside the embassy and, though no one could enter his room, he wasn’t wanting for company.

“The word that I got was that they said, hey, a captain is here, and he’s single,” Birkeland said. “On their lunch hours, the ladies would come over and visit me, and I wound up marrying one of them.”

Birkeland’s daughter Carla Birkeland said that Yugoslavia was not the first place they’d crossed paths.

When Birkeland was in Washington, D.C., for training before going to London, his future wife, Jane Downs, was in a boarding house just down the street from where he was staying. They were also in London simultaneously, as she was working in the U.S. Embassy at the time.

One day, when she was leaving the embassy and he was arriving, they crossed paths. She was wearing a multi-colored beret that was striking.

“We didn’t know each other, but I noticed that hat,” Birkeland said.

Carla said that the connection wasn’t made until after their marriage, about two months after they met in Yugoslavia. Her mom’s trunk arrived late, and it was when she was unpacking it that Birkeland discovered the beret.

After that, the two traveled the world together on Birkeland’s many assignments. They lived in Washington, D.C., Norway, Denmark, Liberia and other places. Along the way, they had five children: Leslie, Carla, Paul, Janet and Ann.

Sometime during the Cold War, Birkeland left the Army and joined the State Department as a political attache. Not long after that, he was recruited by the CIA.

“I was of interest to them for several reasons,” he said. “One was the fact that I speak five or six foreign languages. I fit in with that crowd, so they recruited me.”

“We were all, as children, oblivious,” Carla Birkeland said.

“We just thought we were with the embassy and living abroad.”

When the family was living in Denmark during the Cold War, Birkeland knew invasion from Russia was a possibility and bought a boat for his family as an escape plan. They used it as a pleasure boat to quash suspicion, but Birkeland said “it was intended for escape to Sweden.”

They never needed to use it to escape.

“One mistake that a lot of people make is they hear I worked for the CIA, and they think spy,” Birkeland said.

“That was not the case because we never spied. We hired spies.”

His main job with the state department and later the CIA was to gather intelligence that might be of interest to the government.

Birkeland retired in 1973 in Oak Harbor, a place he and Jane found “by luck.”

“Everybody that we know has remarked as to what a nice place it was that we retired,” Birkeland said.

Jane passed away in 2000 at the age of 82.

Birkeland still owns the house he and his wife bought, though for the last four years, he’s been living in Harbor Tower Village in Oak Harbor, and his daughter Carla visits him frequently.

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