John or Jean, known as “Frenchy” because of his father’s French Consular status, had dual nationality when he was born on 2 January 1901 in New Orleans, Louisiana, but he became an American citizen with his cadet oath. This was the beginning of a life story as mysterious as any in the Long Gray Line. Cadet Grombach was in a secret meeting with the Superintendent, Brigadier General Fred W. Sladen, and General John J. Pershing prior to graduation but was officially discharged on the day before graduation for too many demerits. This was unusual because all members of his Class, including Jean, had the choice of graduating in three years but, following the advice of the Academy faculty to complete the full four year course (restored after World War I), he elected, with most of his classmates, to remain another year. His disciplinary and academic record would have qualified him for graduation in June 1922. The Academy discharged him on 11 June 1923, the day before his delayed graduation for having eight too many demerits, none of which cast any shadow on his honesty, morals or soldierly qualities. More than eight demerits had been taken by him for his roommate in order that his roommate would be eligible by the rules at that time to obtain weekend leaves to visit a sick fiancee. Although Jean’s roommate on the day before graduation submitted a statement explaining that ten specific demerits had been taken for him, the Superintendent’s answer was, “This explanation is too late”! Was there some secret reason for this strange action? No one will ever know! Shortly thereafter, the U.S. Marine Corps, the U.S. Air Force, and the U.S. Army solicited Grombach’s application and offered him a commission in their respective services without any further examinations. Jean chose the Army.
Prior to going to West Point, Grombach was an Amateur Athletic Union boxing title-holder and a bouncer in a house of assignation in New Orleans. Based on his resulting capabilities, he called out a few upper classmen as a plebe and never came out second best, which certainly did not make him popular. As a result he was not even recognized by his predecessor from New Orleans and almost silenced by the upper classmen in his company, but his morale was lifted and he got tremendous encouragement by being recognized by Red Blaik who, at the time, was a most outstanding First Classman. Blaik mentioned the incident in his book on West Point.
Frenchy was an unusually versatile athlete and was a good enough high school football player to get scholarship offers from several colleges. However, notwithstanding this, changed by Coach Daly from the backfield to the line, he was never more than a lowly varsity squad member. Later he played quarterback successfully on service and semi-pro football teams. In the winter of 1922-23, he was on three cadet varsity squads in three sports at one and the same time—boxing, fencing and polo, involving intercollegiate competition in all three.
No classmate can forget when Frenchy, as a light heavyweight (never defeated in college competition), boxed and defeated the then undefeated intercollegiate heavyweight boxing champion, “Rags” Madera, of Penn State, who outweighed him by forty pounds. Nor can they forget Grombach’s reception as he entered the mess hall the evening after the fight—with two black eyes! Frenchy was to make the U.S. Olympic Boxing Team in 1924 in Paris, and one of his teammates was—you guessed it!—“Rags” Madera. The two put on an exhibition bout in a near Paris stadium for a large crowd, including the President of France, Baron de Coubertin, Douglas Fairbanks, and Mary Pickford.
Frenchy applied for an appointment as second lieutenant, Regular Army, and was so appointed effective 3 July 1923. He served as an Infantry officer on active duty until his resignation in September 1927. While stationed at Governor’s Island in 1923, he was assigned as an observer to the New York Police Academy and later was assigned with the New York police and the Federal Bureau of Investigation on a secret and rather sensational criminal case involving the Army staff. The results of this never appeared in the press or became known in any way. After that came a tour as Assistant Provost Marshal and Assistant G2 of the Panama Canal Zone and, again, an involvement in both a secret criminal and a secret counter-espionage case, unknown to even his classmate, Bill Biddle, who shared the same bachelor quarters with him.
After resigning from the Army, Jean attained business success as a producer of radio programs and owner and operator of a recording and broadcasting studio in New York City (both formerly subsidiaries of Paramount Publix) which he sold before Pearl Harbor. During the intervening civilian period, from 1928 to 1940, also mysterious and unknown to all and as a broadcast executive with a Sir Basil Thompson, Scotland Yard radio series, he served on a secret intelligence mission in Europe for the U.S. State Department, on which there is little or no record During this period he was associated with the management of Max Baer, world heavy weight champion, also Laurent Dauthuill and Elis Ask, boxing championship contender.
Frenchy could have made the 1928 Olympic Fencing Team, but business (he had resigned from the Army) interfered. He did however, represent the U.S. in two world fencing championships with the dueling sword—one in Paris in 1937 and the other in Stockholm in 1950. He also won an international dueling pistol competition in Paris. More important, because of his French and his ability to win friends and influence people he became Secretary General of the International Amateur Boxing Federation from 1924-28 and Secretary General of the International Fencing Federation from 1960-61. He then became interested in the Modern Pentathlon, especially in its fencing, shooting and riding events and was advisory coach at the U.S. Olympic and world championship teams from 1928 to 1968. He also was member of five U.S. Olympic Games Committees (1952-1956-1960-1964-1968). He also became the International Fencing Federation’s representative to the International Modern Pentathlon Union from 1956 to 1970. H served as an official at five Olympic Games.
Because of his mysterious career, we later learned “after the fact” that from January 1942 to 1 January 1955, French organized and directed the Secret Intelligence Branch of the War and State Departments, under various covers, first as a colonel General Staff Corps from 2 January 1942 to 15 September 1947, and, after his release from military service, with the real cover of an international business consultant and Olympic official, from 1 October 1947 to 31 December 1954 on a voluntary and gratuitous basis. This was unknown to the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) up to 1952, but when disclosed by the State Department continued on a separate and unintegrated basis through the State Department. This was under a contract negotiated through State with General Walter Bedell Smith, Director of the CIA at the time, who promised no integration and no disclosures. However under Smith’s successor, Allen Dulles, CIA, insisted on full integration and disclosure: This resulted in a friendly termination of activities, cooperative institutions and persornnel of the organization and of its management. All of the latter served on a voluntai and gratuitous basis, but questioned CIA security. This mysterious period of 13 years, the only one generally but only afterward admitted by Frenchy—involved two fellow cadets during his West Point days—Hoyt C. Vandenberg ’23 who, as Assistant Chief of Staff G2 was Frenchy’s boss for a short time and Charlie Stevenson ’24, who was chosen by Frenchy to be his executive officer.
In 1967, one more mysterious incident—this time a graduation ceremony at West Point on 27 February in a large room in the administration Building with a capacity group of spectators. The master of ceremonies was Superintendent of the Military Academy, major General Donald Bennett. A retroactive diploma was presented to John V. Grombach by Brigadier General Robert Danford, the very same Commandant of Cadets who had been directed or had actually recommended his dismissal in 1923 for failure in conduct, but who after 44 years, was correcting an error which he perhaps had not been responsible for. The Army Board for Corrections of Military Records had declared his discharge as a cadet void and of no force, that he graduated on 12 June 1923, was awarded a diploma, and a degree of Bachelor of Science. There are probably other mysterious stories about the Long Gray Line but this one is certainly worth noting.
Notwithstanding his highly secret work, Grombach earned some official recognition is a Colonel GSC with secret commendations, region of Merit and Commendation Medal and, in 1950, a commission as a brigadier general in the NYNG Reserve.
Speaking of stories, Frenchy has written quite a number of them on his own, i.e. Popular books (mostly on sports), broadcast programs and one class A movie, all as an avocation. His best known books are The Olympic Guide and The Saga of the Fist, both of which have had many editions in several languages.
After World War II and his second miliary service, as an international business consultant he also owned and operated, as an adjunct, a worldwide, licensed investigativeaigency. His clients were among some of the top industrial organizations in the U.S. and Europe. As an Army officer, sports competitor and official, business executive and consultant, he visited (sometimes also on intelligence nissions) some 48 countries. His most sensational intelligence operation is still highly classified and may never be known. His most sensational attainment as a business consultant with an investigative and industrial intelligence agency was refusing to permit one of his clients to invest over five million dollars in Cuba after the war, although cleared by the State and Commerce Departments and by the press, who labeled Fidel Castro, then a guerilla chief in the hills, as only an agrarian reformer. Grombach’s report was that, as a Communist, Castro would shortly win control and expropriate all U.S. holdings in Cuba without recompense.
One more startling story on Frenchy— through his father’s contacts and through loans, cash investments, and consultant services by Frenchy before World War II, he owned a 40% share in a French Indo-China shipping company, complete with dry dock and harbor facilities in Saigon, and a fleet of ships on a Saigon-Marseilles run, all of which were destroyed in World War II. Frenchy’s war claim for his share was seven million dollars. It was turned down as he held no stock shares in his name, as they were held in trust, which is perfectly legal in France but evidently is not to the U.S. War Claims Commission. So Frenchy lost seven million dollars in World War II and was a former millionaire—a title he frequently, but jokingly, referred to.
According to his wishes, he desired the last words of the obituary to be about his wife who made his final years so happy and so meaningful, Olga Lohinecz, who was not even conceived when he failed to graduate in 1923!