Oss 101 Assignment Of Benefits

 

 

APPROVED FOR RELEASE
CIA HISTORICAL REVIEW PROGRAM
22 SEPT 93

Aspects of a classical scouting and resistance-leading unit behind Japanese lines in Burma, from the viewpoint of its commander. 

INTELLIGENCE OPERATIONS OF OSS

DETACHMENT 101

W. R. Peers

For Detachment 101 intelligence was an all-pervasive mission. The Detachment did plan and carry out espionage operations specifically to collect both strategic and tactical information, but intelligence was also a by-product of all its other operations, including guerrilla actions, sabotage, and psychological measures. Its intelligence activities were therefore augmented rather than decreased when large-scale guerrilla operations were initiated in the spring of 1944.

 

Early Operations

The history of Detachment 101 began in the spring of 1942, when a small group of officers and men was assembled in Washington under the Office of the Coordinator of Information. Captain (later Colonel) Carl Eifler was the first commander. After a short period of training and equipping, the unit shipped overseas to the China-Burma-India Theater. In the summer of 1942 it received its first directive from General Stilwell, short and to the point: "Establish a base camp in northeast India and from there plan and conduct operations against the roads and railroad leading into Myitkyina in order to deny the Japanese the use of the Myitkyina airfield. Establish liaison with the British authorities to effect coordination with their operations."

The remainder of the year was spent in locating and developing a base camp in Assam Province of northeast India and recruiting and training agent personnel for subsequent operations. An office was established in Calcutta to receive supplies from headquarters in the United States and to procurebulk goods from the Army Service of Supply. At that time there was available no small, portable military or commercial radio capable of transmitting from northern Burma to Assam, a distance of 200 to 500 miles. Accordingly it was necessary for the unit to design and construct its own radio set. The result was crude, but it worked well. It became the model from which the SSTR series of sets was built by OSS, which by now had succeeded to the intelligence and paramilitary function of COI.

In 1943 exploratory field operations were carried out in Burma on a trial-and-error basis. Some of them were failures; but they taught us many lessons as to what could be done and, even more important, what should not be done. By the end of the year six base camps had been established behind the lines in northern Burma, three east of the Irrawaddy River and three to the west. Each of these had recruited an trained a small group of indigenous Kachin personnel for local protection and to perform limited operations, principally simple sabotage and small ambushes. Each also trained a few native personnel as low-level intelligence agents, who reported their information by means of runners or via the bamboo grapevine. From the field bases this information was forwarded to the base camp in India by radio. By the end of the year it was possible to assemble a fairly comprehensive picture of Japanese strengths and dispositions in northern Burma.

The field bases also selected native recruits for more intensive intelligence training. These were flown by light aircraft or infiltrated through the Japanese lines to the airfield at Fort Hertz in the northern tip of Burma and thence flown to the base camp in India. Their training, of three to five months duration, followed the normal curriculum for intelligence agents. The Kachins were particularly adept at CW radio communications; by the end of the course most of them were able to operate at 25 to 45 words per minute. When their training was completed, some of them were returned to their field bases to expand local information procurement and others were parachuted into Burma for independent operations.

 

The Myitkyina Campaign

With the initiation of orthodox military operations in the winter of 1943-44 by the Chinese ground forces, later augmented by Merrill's Marauders, General Stilwell directed the Detachment to expand its guerrilla force to a strength of approximately 3,000 in order to assist in the drive down the Hukawng Valley and the eventual attack on Myitkyina, and also to extend its intelligence operations south of Myitkyina at least to the area of Bhamo and Katha. He made available the arms, ammunition, personnel, and airlift necessary to fulfill this directive. He also stated that should the Detachment be successful in providing this clandestine support to the combat forces, approval would be forthcoming to expand its guerrilla forces to a strength of 10,000, with a commensurate increase in intelligence and other operations.

That the Detachment was indeed successful in this assignment can be illustrated by several incidents from the Hukawng-Myitkyina campaign. The final drive on Myitkyina was made in May 1944 by the Galahad Force (Merrill's Marauders and two Chinese regiments) across the Kumon Range and thence south through Arang to the Myitkyina airfield. Detachment 101 assisted this movement by providing two coumpanies of Kachin guerrillas to reconnoiter and screen the front and flanks. When the Galahad forces reached Arang they picked up additional guides and scouts from a Detachment field base located there. One of the scouts, who had been bitten by a poisonous snake and was so weak that he had to ride horseback, nevertheless led the Galahad Force to the airfield over some old unused trails, completely surprising the Japanese. The airstrip was thus occupied with but little resistance. The part played by the Detachment in this operation points up the interrelationship between its intelligence and other activities.

A day or so before the Galahad Force seized the airfield, Detachment 101 had some of its agent personnel in and out of Myitkyina town. They estimated the Japanese strength there at that time to be only approximately 300, and this information was given to the Northern Combat Area Command and the Galahad Force. After the airstrip was seized, two Chinese units were therefore assigned to secure the town. It was to be a double envelopment, one Chinese unit moving north along the Irrawaddy River and the other attacking from the west. All went well until the two converged on the railway station in the center of town at about dusk. It has been reported that Japanese snipers between them started picking them off. Whatever the reason, they soon became heavily engaged with each other and inflicted such severe mutual casualties that they had to be withdrawn. The attempt at an early seizure of the town thus came to nought.

It was two days before the forces were reorganized and made another assault on the town, and when they did they encountered a hornets' nest. In the interim the Japanese had reinforced the town from every direction. They came by road and railroad from Mogaung to the west, from the supply installations to the north along the Irrawaddy, from Maingna and Seniku across the river from the town, and from elsewhere. Within two days, it was estimated, Japanese strength in the town had been augmented to over 1,500, by the end of a week it exceeded 3,000, and it still continued to grow.

This build-up was so rapid as to create for a while the feeling in some quarters that our original strength estimates must have been wrong. But Detachment intelligence agents and guerrilla patrols placed along all the access roads and trails leading into the city confirmed by observation the frantic effort of the Japanese to reinforce the garrison. And subsequently the interrogation of Japanese POW's by NCAC and Galahad intelligence staffs verified as proximately accurate the 300 figure which had been provided by the Detachment. The only discrepancy was in the other direction: an original strength figure of 275 for the Myitkyina garrison was obtained through the interrogations.

The battle for Myitkyina town continued beyond June and into the monsoon. Meanwhile Detachment 101 had expanded its activities to the south as directed by General Stilwell and was providing intelligence and operational support to the combat forces. By the time Myitkyina fell to the allied forces in August 1944, the Detachment had organized its guerrilla forces across an area generally 100 miles farther south and was well on its way toward its ultimate strength of 10,000. Intelligence operations were also increased, and espionage groups were deployed along Japanese lines of communication as far south as Toungoo, approximately 400 miles away.

 

Mandalay and Beyond

In the fall of 1944 the allied forces in northern Burma opened their drive from Myitkyina toward central Burma. Detachment 101 moved its guerrilla operating area to a line generally through Lashio to Mandalay and thence to the Chindwin River and the India border. At that time it reached its greatest strength and highest stage of development. In the area of Lashio there were seven separate battalions, each capable of independent operations. North of Mandalay there were approximately 2,500 guerrillas, organized into units of varying size, depending upon the local situation. To the west, between the railway corridor and the British 14th Army in the Imphal area near the India-Burma border, lay a stretch of over 250 miles in which no allied combat forces were operating. Through this gap ran a series of parallel corridors, excellent natural approaches for the enemy to the Ledo Road being constructed behind the allied combat forces. General Sultan, who had succeeded General Stilwell as Commanding General NCAC, directed Detachment 101 to utilize its guerrilla and intelligence resources to block these several approaches Guerrilla forces were accordingly deployed in each of them, and with information supplied through intelligence activities were able -- although not without some severe fighting--to fend off several Japanese probes through the area.

Intelligence operations during this phase of the campaign were widely developed and reached their greatest degree of reliability. There were over 100 operations involving in excess of 350 agent personnel. Through these and the collection of information by the guerrilla forces, Detachment 101 was able to stay abreast of the changing organization, deployments, and strengths of the Japanese forces. In fact, its intelligence officers probably knew at least as much about the Japanese tactical organization and capabilities as the Japanese themselves did.

When Lashio and Mandalay were captured by allied forces, the Detachment was directed to withdraw its forces from the field and inactivate. Soon, however, the combat situation in southern China became extremely critical, and it was necessary to withdraw all Chinese and American combat forces from northern and central Burma to try to stem the Japanese drive there. General Sultan therefore directed the Detachment to reconstitute whatever force was necessary to conduct a mopping-up operation in the southern Shan States and seize the Taunggyi-Kengtung road, the Japanese escape route to Thailand. Most of our intelligence operations had been retained fortunately, so there was a sound basis for embarking on this assignment: with some of the Kachin guerrillas as a nucleus, a force approximately 3,000 strong was organized into four battalions. The Japanese, however, had evidently not been told that this was to be a mopping-up operation; it resulted in some of our bloodiest fighting of the war. In less than three months the Detachment's forces killed over 1,200 Japanese and suffered more than 300 killed in action themselves, far more than in any other period. When the escape route to Thailand had been secured, Detachment 101 was inactivated. This was 12 July 1945.

 

Requirements and Collection

Intelligence requirements on the Detachment stemmed from a variety of sources. Tactical information was required chiefly by Headquarters NCAC, its subordinate commands, and the 10th Air Force, but requests were also received from the British 14th Army and Headquarters Allied Land Forces Southeast Asia. Information of a strategic type would be requested by higher OSS headquarters, CBI Theater Headquarters, and the allied Strategic Air Command under General Stratemeyer in Calcutta. Detachment 101 itself required information of all varieties for planning and conducting its field operations.

With the NCAC, broad intelligence requirements were normally received from the Commanding General in conference. Specific requests came through the Detachment's liaison officer maintained on his G-2 staff. The same general procedures obtained with the 10th Air Force. On the basis of these requirements, along with all others, an intelligence plan would be drawn up, outlining the information to be obtained, the probable target areas, and the likely sources. If sources were already available in the target area, they could simply be asked for the information through normal communication channels. When sources were not available, it was necessary either to adjust operations to obtain the information or to plan new intelligence operations, for which indigenous personnel would have to be recruited, trained, and infiltrated.

The infiltration of agent personnel into proposed areas of operation was effected by parachute or light aircraft or along land routes. The infiltration procedures were in general similar to those used in other theaters of war; but there was one device we employed that involved a unique use of pigeons. Each agent parachuted behind the lines had attached to him a small bamboo cage just large enough to hold a pigeon by which he could report the condition of the radio that had been dropped along with him. After the agent had landed, cleared the drop zone, and had an opportunity to test his radio, he would release the pigeon, preferably near daylight, with a coded message either indicating that all was well or giving instructions when and where to drop another one. For ranges up to two or three hundred miles the pigeons were highly reliable; beyond 400 miles their dependability decreased rapidly.

The intelligence requirements levied on the Detachment were such that almost anything taking place behind the enemy lines was of interest. Primary emphasis was placed upon military information, such items as the strength, identity, and movement of Japanese units, details on supply installations, airfields, and equipment, and whatever else was required to provide a continuous, composite picture of the enemy situation. Much terrain information was also reported, principally on the condition of roads and railroads, the water level and fordability of streams, and the location of potential airfields and drop zones. Since most of the Detachment's personnel were indigenous to the area and intimately familiar with its physiography, this information was rather easy to assemble and report. Economic, sociological, and political intelligence was also in great demand in higher OSS headquarters in the theater, in such agencies as OWI for psychological warfare operations, and in air units for pilot briefing and survival training. It was also needed by the Detachment itself both for morale operations aimed at psychological subversion and for developing agent cover.

The main sources of information were the numerous intelligence agents trained at the Assam base or in the field. Each major field unit had an intelligence officer, usually an American but in some instances a foreign officer or an indigenous recruit trained for the position, whose principal duties were to interrogate captured enemy soldiers or agents, debrief guerrilla personnel, and direct the activities of the espionage agents assigned to the unit. Intelligence personnel at the forward operational headquarters and at the base camp were also engaged in collecting information, principally through interrogation of prisoners and debriefing of operational personnel returned from the field.

 

Weather and Air Targets

In conjunction with Air Weather Service of 10th Air Force, the Detachment developed a capability for collecting and reporting weather data. The Weather Service provided the equipment, instruction, and weather codes. These were given to selected agents who were then so dispersed, singly or with other groups, that in the aggregate they provided coverage of all of central and northern Burma. According to the A-2, 10th Air Force, this service was of considerable assistance in developing meteorological forecasts for cargo flights over the "hump" and for tactical air operations in northern Burma.

Of especial interest were some of the procedures used in reporting air targets for the 10th Air Force. In the lower reaches of the Hukawng Valley an intelligence agent worked out some simple but ingenious ways to pinpoint and report Japanese supply installations concealed by dense jungle foliage. One method was to select a landmark such as a trail junction, bridge, or prominent tree which could be identified readily on an air photo or by the pilot of the fighter-bomber aircraft. From the landmark the location of the target was given by polar coordinates (distance along a given azimuth). Another method was to lead the pilot from such a landmark to the target by a series of reference points.

Numerous Japanese installations located by these means were bombed or strafed without the pilot being able to see his target; huge explosions or fires erupting through the trees would indicate a successful attack. The Japanese knew that something was amiss. Since the targets were completely hidden from the air, they deduced that the attacks were being directed from the ground and suspected the Kachins. They accordingly restricted entry to their supply areas and would shoot a Kachin on sight. To protect the Kachins these operations had to be suspended for a time.

In the later phase of the Burma campaign procedures were worked out with the 10th Air Force for immediate air strikes against targets of opportunity. Pilots flying air alert and agents on the ground were given duplicate sets of air photos with a special grid superimposed. To obtain action against a target the agent would send a coded radio message specifying the type of target and its grid location to the Detachment's forward operations headquarters, located in the immediate vicinity of Headquarters NCAC and the 10th Air Force. 10th Air Force would relay this to the pilot in the aircraft, and after a normal elapsed time of 20 to 30 minutes from the origination of the message an air strike would be made on the target.

 

Transmission Channels

To expedite the flow of intelligence to user agencies the Detachment established comprehensive handling and transmission procedures. All messages from the field came in to the forward operations headquarters, where field operations were coordinated by an operations officer and a staff including members of the morale operations, intelligence, resistance, and other sections. The intelligence personnel on the operations staff screened all incoming information. If it was of an urgent nature, it was given a hasty evaluation and immediately dispatched to the using agency. Other intelligence messages were routed to the intelligence section for review and subsequent transmission to user agencies on a routine basis.

Detachment 101 had liaison groups with each of the major combat commands it supported--NCAC, 10th Air Force, British 14th Army, and ALFSEA. These officers represented the Detachment in all operational matters, an arrangement that served to enhance their stature and give them considerable prestige in their intelligence dealings within the headquarters. Intelligence-wise, they were responsible for accepting information requests from the headquarters and forwarding them to the Detachment, for passing information and intelligence received from the Detachment on to the intelligence staff, and for representing the Detachment in all other intelligence matters. Information was transmitted to NCAC and the 10th Air Force by teletype and could be moved most rapidly. The communication link with 14th Army and ALFSEA was radio, which required additional time for coding and transmission; the elapsed time, however, was sufficiently small that it could be measured in terms of minutes.

Field liaison groups were also maintained with the Chinese 1st and 6th Armies, the British 36th Division, and the Mars Task Force, which had succeeded Merrill's Marauders. These liaison groups were small, normally consisting of one officer (generally one with considerable field experience) and a radio operator. They performed intelligence functions comparable to those of the higher headquarters liaison groups.

The intelligence transmitted via radio and teletype was summarized and supplemented in the Detachment's weekly and monthly situation reports, distributed through ordinary military messenger service. These were given fairly wide distribution in the theater, going to approximately 100 agencies.

 

Reliability and Security

Detachment personnel concerned with the evaluation of information arrived at some unusual conclusions. They found, for example, that information reported by the Kachins was generally highly accurate, but that their reports of enemy strength were almost invariably about three times the actual figures. Strength reporting was then stressed in the training program to the extent that the pendulum swung the other way, and the strengths given in Kachin agent reports were so underestimated that they had to be increased by a factor of three. It was not until the winter of 1944-45 that it was possible to obtain reliable strength figures from Kachin personnel. Other ethnic groups were found to have comparable traits, more or less uniform within each group. The evaluators developed correction factors for the Shans, Chins, Burmese, Padaungs, and even the remnants which had remained behind in Burma from the original Chinese Expeditionary Force. All of these groups overestimated strengths, but the Chinese grossly exaggerated them. Their strength figures had to be reduced approximately ten times, and this practice remained constant to the end of the campaign.

The Detachment's counterintelligence operations were purely defensive, designed to protect it and its field operations from infiltration by enemy agents. The number of counterintelligence personnel assigned was consistently small, 3 to 5. They arranged for the physical security of base installations and for the indoctrination of U.S. and indigenous personnel. The indoctrination was concerned principally with the methods used by Japanese agents to penetrate and mislead allied clandestine operations and with means for isolating such agents. Counterintelligence functions in the field were the responsibility of the Area Commander or Group Leader in charge of a unit. As a general rule the commander relied mainly on his intelligence officer to ferret out enemy agents, uncover double agents, and of course determine what should be done with them. The Detachment attempted to make all personnel security and counterintelligence-conscious for their own benefit and to avoid attracting undue attention to the clandestine activity. As a result, the security of the Detachment and its operations, despite some minor infractions, was very good. Not a single agent or operation was known to have been eliminated through enemy intelligence penetration.

 

Appraisal

Detachment 101's two principal intelligence consumers made attempts to weigh its intelligence contribution to the northern Burma campaign. G-2, NCAC, estimated that it provided between 80% and 90% of all of the combat intelligence utilized by that headquarters. The 10th Air Force reported that it furnished up to 70% of its usable information and designated between 90% and 95% of its air targets. In addition, the Detachment was one of the principal sources of bomb damage assessment information for the 10th Air Force and for SAC. No attempts were made to measure the intelligence contributed to other headquarters, but letters of appreciation showed that it was welcome and considerable. This intelligence was also an indispensable ingredient in the development of the Detachment's own resistance and other clandestine operations.

Units comparable to Detachment 101 collected information behind the lines in France, Italy, the Philippines, China, and other areas. In the aggregate they represented an immense intelligence capability of a type for which, if there should be another war, there would in all probability be a strong requirement. Each of these operations, however, experienced growing pains, and there was a lag time of from one to two years before they were able to produce tangible results. It would be highly desirable, therefore, that the personnel who may be used in such operations in the future should be so oriented, trained, and organized that this critical lag could be minimized. How this is to be accomplished appears as a pressing and continuous problem for the intelligence community.


Historical Document

Posted: May 08, 2007 07:30 AM

Last Updated: Jul 01, 2008 10:16 AM


The 65th anniversary of the opening of OSS training camps for spies, saboteurs, guerrilla leaders, and clandestine radio-operators in the National Parks—in particular Catoctin Mountain Park and Prince William Forest Park—occurred in 2007. Although the training camps were closed and the OSS terminated in1945, the valuable contributions to the Allied victory made by those facilities and by Donovan’s organization itself are an important part of the history of World War II. William J. (“Wild Bill”) Donovan believed that intelligence, deception, subversion, and psychological and irregular warfare could spearhead the Allied liberation of Europe and the Far East, and he crafted a novel instrument to serve that purpose. Like the secret agency itself, much of its history was cloaked in silence and mystery. The American public remained only partially aware of the OSS, its members, their training, their missions and their accomplishments until the 1980s when the CIA began to declassify the records of Donovan’s organization. Subsequently, OSS veterans, sworn to silence, began to feel free at last to talk about their experiences in training and serving in America’s first centralized intelligence and clandestine operations agency. Most of the remaining OSS files, including personnel files, were not declassified until 2008, more than half a century after the end of World War II.1

Particularly during the Cold War, with its extensive intelligence and counterintelligence operations and clandestine actions on both sides, the public became fascinated with the shadowy world of spies and secret agents. Before the cynicism of recent years, secret agents were seen as glamorous. Popular novels and films reflected that view. Sometimes they noted the institutional dichotomy between the civilian spies and the rowdy, covert action agents, whom the less combat-oriented members of the OSS sometimes referred to as the “Bang-Bang Boys.”2 But more often, particularly the sensational ones produced for the mass market, merged espionage, counterespionage and covert operations in a mélange of action, most famously in Ian Fleming’s debonair James Bond-007 series, but also in the tense, suspenseful Mission Impossible episodes originated by Bruce Geller, and the action-filled techno-thriller films starring Tom Clancy, Tom Cruise, or Matt Damon. Aside from the three postwar films, O.S.S., Cloak and Dagger, and 13 Rue Madeleine, which celebrated the OSS and Robert DeNiro’s recent film, The Good Shepherd, which attacked both it and the CIA, the OSS itself has seldom provided the basis for Hollywood films. Because until relatively recently the full extent of the operations of Donovan’s organization had not been made public, the OSS has been portrayed mainly through historical, biographical, or autobiographical works rather than through the movies.

While the most popular topics concerning the OSS for the public and scholars alike have been the cloak and dagger work of the spies and counterspies, and the behind enemy lines operations of OSS guerrilla leaders and saboteurs, the least explored area of the OSS has been its training schools. The present study, commissioned by the National Park Service to help understand the role of the National Parks in the OSS’s activities in World War II, provides considerable new light on that aspect of the OSS—and indeed on the CIA and the Special Forces which inherited some of its personnel and adopted much of the training techniques of Donovan’s organization.

Training Spies, Saboteurs, and Agent Operatives in the Parks

With its cardinal principle of secrecy, the OSS established its training camps in secluded yet accessible areas, most of them rural Maryland and Virginia within two hours drive from the organization’s headquarters in Washington, D.C. Here as in many other matters, OSS initially drew upon the experience of the British secret services. Donovan’s Special Operations (SO) Branch replicated the British Special Operations Executive’s (SOE) penchant for rugged, isolated terrain for toughening up its covert operators for paramilitary missions behind enemy lines. It set up Training Areas A, B, C, and D in secluded woodlands. The only deviation was Area F, which was established on the grounds of the former Congressional Country Club for the Operational Groups. OSS’s Secret Intelligence (SI) Branch replicated British Secret Information Service’s (SIS) use of country estates as schools for introducing recruits into the murky world of espionage. Thus, it established Training Areas E and RTU-11 (“the Farm”) in spacious manor houses with surrounding horse farms. Yet some members of each of the two American branches trained at the other’s facilities. This was particularly true in the teaching of rugged survival and close-combat techniques at the Special Operations training camps at the two National Parks, where men preparing to be spies or other operatives sometimes joined the military recruits who were being trained physically and psychologically for clandestine raids from forest or mountain hideouts upon enemy outposts, command centers, or vital communication or transportation facilities.

The appeal of Catoctin Mountain Park and Prince William Forest Park, then known as Catoctin and Chopawamsic Recreational Demonstration Areas respectively, was precisely because of their location not far from Washington, their comparative isolation in rural areas, their existing camp facilities, and the fact that they were already federal property. That meant they could be obtained quickly and easily in the spring of 1942. With war declared, the War Department simply demanded that the Department of the Interior lease those lands of the National Park Service to it for military purposes for the duration of the war. The two parks had cabins for accommodation, woods in which to practice hit and run attacks on enemy targets, and open meadows for firing ranges, demolition work, and other field exercises. With nearly 10,000 acres each, the two parks were sizable enough to cloak the secret training that would be provided there, yet they were only one or two hours away from OSS headquarters.

The first three OSS training camps were established in the two parks in April and May 1942. Training Area B for the basic paramilitary course was created in Catoctin Mountain Park in northwestern Maryland, 70 miles north of Washington. Training Areas A and C were established thirty-five miles south of Washington in Prince William Forest Park. Area A for the advanced courses in special operations was located in the cabin camps in the western part of Prince William Forest Park. Training Area C, a school for preparing clandestine radio operators, was established in the cabin camps in the northeastern sector of Prince William Forest Park. At the end of the war, Schools and Training (S&T) Branch’s only complaint about the facilities for Areas A and C at Prince William Forest Park was that OSS had to make a considerable number of changes to winterize them for its year around training, since they had originally been built as summer cabin camps.3 Although S&T found the mountainous terrain of Catoctin Mountain Park useful for paramilitary training exercises at Area B, it concluded that the location a full two hours north of Washington was somewhat too far for efficient coordination, and that Franklin Roosevelt’s use of his Presidential Retreat there during the summer considerably curtailed the paramilitary training exercises when he was in residence.4

Although additional OSS training schools for other operational branches of the OSS were subsequently established, Areas A, B, and C in the two National Parks served as the primary training sites for the Special Operations and Communications branches. Areas B and A also served as subsidiary training sites for the commando-like units of the OSS Operational Groups (OGs) after their initial training at Area F, the former Congressional Country Club in Bethesda, Maryland, acquired by OSS in 1943. The lakes in Area A served as the training site for waterborne infiltration practice before the acquisition of Area D on the eastern bank of the Potomac River and the establishment of the OSS Maritime Unit. The fields of Area A were used for parachute practice and low altitude jumps before OSS parachute training was relocated to the Army’s main parachute school at Fort Benning, Georgia.

In the summer of 1942, the Secret Intelligence Branch acquired a country estate in Maryland 20 miles south of Washington as a training school called RTU-11, or “the Farm.” The following year, the newly established Schools and Training Branch established Area E, ultimately consisting of two country estates north of Baltimore, which served as training sites for a general introductory course for OSS recruits of various operational branches (as would sub-area A-3 in Prince William Forest Park). Area E eventually served mainly the Secret Intelligence, Counter-Intelligence, and Morale Operations branches.

The majority of the 13,000, or more, men and women in OSS, however, did not go to the training schools of the so-called operational branches. The clerks, typists, office workers and other administrative and support personnel, as well as the scientists and engineers of the Research and Development Branch and the scholars and other analysts of the Research and Analysis Branch, most all of these civilian employees, had been employed because they already had the skills required.5

In the winter of 1944-45, as the war in Europe neared its end, and the U.S. Army began plans to transfer many troops to the Far East, most of the OSS operational branch training sites in Maryland and Virginia became holding areas for returning veterans awaiting reassignment to Asia or other purposes. Most of the OSS’s Far Eastern training programs had shifted to the agency’s new training schools located on Catalina Island and Camp Pendleton Marine Corps base in southern California. These West Coast schools were modeled after those in Maryland and Virginia. With the Japanese surrender and the rapid termination of the OSS in October 1945, all of the OSS training sites were returned to their former owners. They were given back without the firing ranges, demolition areas, “houses of horrors,” and other facilities that the OSS had built for the rough and tough training of the Special Operations teams (SO) and Operational Groups (OGs).

Aims and Methods

“Set Europe ablaze!” was the goal enunciated by Prime Minister Winston Churchill when he authorized the creation of the British commandos and Special Operations Executive (SOE) forces, and it became part of Donovan’s grand vision of the OSS as well, not just a centralized intelligence agency but also one that acted to subvert the enemy. It was widely believed at that time that the Germans’ success in conquering much of Europe so quickly was not simply due the capability of their armies but also to the effectiveness of their spies, saboteurs and sympathizers (“fifth columnists” in the term of the day), who undermined the ability of the targeted nations to resist Hitler’s forces. Churchill and Donovan sought to turn that technique against the Axis. They would use spies, propagandists, saboteurs, commando raiders, and guerrilla leaders to inspire, supply, and direct resistance movements to conduct subversive activity and raids behind enemy lines in the Axis-occupied countries. What Churchill meant by his famous phrase was to set German-occupied Europe ablaze with the fire of subversion by indigenous resistance movements supplied and directed by the Allies. The German Army’s lines of communication and supply would be hampered by subversive efforts by these Allied-led local partisans. Eventually, when the Allied conventional armies were raised and assaulted Hitler’s Empire from the front, the Allied agents played a crucial role in sabotaging the German Army’s supply lines with explosives they set as well as by bombs dropped by Allied aircraft they directed to the supply depots, assembly points, troop trains and convoys and other tactical targets.

Such unconventional warfare was made possible largely by two technological developments: the airplane and the radio. Airplanes facilitated the delivery of spies, saboteurs, guerrilla leaders and other personnel as well as weapons and supplies into enemy-held territory. Agents and supplies were generally parachuted in at night from low flying, black painted bombers. Radio, or more precisely the wireless transmission (W/T) of telegraphic messages by short-wave radio signals, provided a means of communication between regional headquarters and the spies and agents behind enemy lines. The idea was to obtain strategic and tactical intelligence and to engage in sabotage and other subversive activities behind the enemy lines. The regular military was suspicious, even hostile, to Donovan’s group of civilians and former civilians. They disdained the absence of military discipline and protocol in the OSS and the inattention to the precision of dress that the regular military required. But the professional soldiers made a mistake in so easily dismissing Donovan’s neophyte crew, since these were glorious amateurs, who were talented, eager, daring, and innovative, and most importantly, were in the forefront of new approaches to intelligence operations and unconventional warfare.

Donovan’s vision of unconventional warfare, encouraged by the British, was broad and bold. He wanted to carry the war to the enemy right away and behind their lines in weak spots in occupied territory. Initially, he planned a combined centralized intelligence and subversive operations agency that would include more than gathering and coordinating intelligence and staging guerrilla and commando operations behind enemy lines. It would also use information and technology, especially radio, as weapons. Foreign radio broadcasts would be beamed at Allied, neutral, and enemy-occupied countries with news of the positive efforts and achievements of the Allies and negative, disinformation (“black propaganda”) to undermine the morale of the enemy forces and civilian population. Donovan lost the positive propaganda entity in a bureaucratic battle to the Office of War Information, but he kept the black propaganda aspect, which became the domain of OSS Morale Operations Branch (MO). The centralized gathering and analysis came from the spies of the Secret Intelligence Branch (SI) and the rings of local agents they would recruit and run, and from one of Donovan’s primary innovations, the Research and Analysis Branch (R&A), the scholars and others who used the foreign language newspapers, economic and political reports, and other published material in the Library of Congress as well as material obtained from agents overseas to provide comprehensive assessments of key industrial, political, and military targets for Allied bombers, commandos, or saboteurs.

The concept of deploying commandos, saboteurs, and guerrilla leaders behind enemy lines assumed organizational form in the Special Operations Branch and the Operational Groups. Despite considerable support from President Roosevelt and a number of influential friends among economic, political, and social elites, Donovan had his enemies. The Wall Street lawyer and his organization of amateur soldiers, spies, and intelligence analysts, raised hackles among professionals in established and competing agencies, including especially the Military Intelligence Service, the Office of Naval Intelligence, the FBI and the State Department. Donovan had originally envisioned the agency providing primarily centralized strategic intelligence to various clients from the President himself to the Joint Chiefs of Staff (JCS), to particular military and civilian departments. He also hoped to have saboteurs and guerrilla leaders, and British type military commando units which he daringly hoped he would sometimes be able to lead personally on raids. But while the President and occasionally the JCS valued the intelligence that SI and especially R&A provided during the war, it became clear by 1943 that what some military theater commanders wanted more from OSS was tactical intelligence about the enemy forces deployed against them that could be used immediately. That involved running rings of agents near the battle zone. The U.S military developed its own commando-like units—Army Ranger units, Navy Underwater Demolition Teams, and Marine Raider battalions, primarily for short-range penetrations, spearheading advances. The armed services limited Donovan’s Special Operations and Operational Groups mainly to deep penetration, working with partisan resistance groups far behind enemy lines. Thus, the missions Donovan’s organization had originally conceived of and trained for were altered somewhat during the course of the war.

OSS training also evolved, but much more slowly. Training methods for these paramilitary forces came originally from the British Special Operations Executive (SOE) forces, which provided instructors, manuals, equipment and the aura of having already conducted operations behind enemy lines. The first American special operations instructors were trained at British SOE’s secret Camp X at Oshawa, near Toronto, which one of them referred to as the “Oshawa School of Mayhem and Murder.”6 They, like most of Donovan’s uniformed personnel, were citizen soldiers at that time rather than career soldiers, often they were reserve officers. Some were military police officers, some civilian law enforcement officers, some, particularly in the case of demolitions instructors, were engineering officers. The influence of the law enforcement officers/instructors quickly waned as it became clear that their orientation had been towards apprehending law breakers, while the OSS/SO curriculum was designed to teach trainees how to create damage and avoid being caught by local police or military forces. The British emphasis, carried over to OSS, on extreme secrecy and the “cloak and dagger” aspects of training, also seem to have become less important as time went on, and although not abandoned, they were de-emphasized in contrast to the increasing importance on practical techniques of accomplishing the mission whether espionage, sabotage, commando operations or guerrilla leadership.

Charismatic and visionary, William J. Donovan, more than anyone else, was responsible for creating America’s first central intelligence agency, and through his Special Operations teams and Operational Groups, he was a major progenitor of the Special Forces. Yet, he was an abysmal administrator. Uninterested and perhaps unable to manage a growing organization that had so many different missions and branches, Donovan frequently fled to the war zones and left the daily management to others. He built the organization by recruiting intelligent, able, and innovative people and then largely letting them find places for themselves. The branches essentially operated autonomously. “I ended up disliking Donovan,” recalled H. Stuart Hughes, Harvard trained historian and grandson of 1916 Presidential candidate Charles Evans Hughes, who worked in Research and Analysis Branch. “He was, I think, responsible for a certain wild style of administration and the sense that everything was chaotic. I remember that Sherman Kent [Yale historian and head of European Division of R&A] at some point had been reading Shakespeare. He found the passage, ‘Confusion now has made his masterpiece.’ He laughed and said, ‘That’s us!’”7

It was in response to such a haphazard arrangement and the problems of building a training program at the same time that OSS itself was evolving that the Schools and Training (S&T) Branch was formed in the winter of 1942-1943. The S&T Branch spent the rest of the war seeking to coordinate and to the best of its ability to standardize at least some of the training policies among the schools and training camps of the various operational branches—especially the often competing Secret Intelligence and Special Operations branches. S&T never did completely control them, and the branches remained the dominant influences on their trainees throughout the war. Indeed, they remained more attuned to evolving developments in the war due to their own agents in the combat zones. Although Schools and Training Branch had official authority over the instructional program, including the training schools, the curriculum, written and visual teaching materials, and the staff and instructors at the training camps, most of the staff and instructors came from the operational branches. Their loyalty remained with their branches, and most of them sought to be assigned overseas. It was not until near the end of the war that Schools and Training Branch obtained authority over the training camps that the various operational branches had established overseas, and even there, S&T had difficulty imposing its will. In practice, Schools and Training Branch served more as a managerial agency—overseeing and allocating among the training camps—than the key instructional agency. As instruction became less general and more specialized, it derived largely from the operational branches themselves. Overseas, the training camps were dominated by their regional detachments.

The trend in instruction over the course of the war moved from more generalized training in the early days, when it was unclear how individual recruits would ultimately be used, toward more specific training aimed at particular types or locations of missions. Because of the pressure to produce agents, the basic courses in both SI and SO were three to four weeks of intensive training. Graduates then went on to advanced and more specialized courses.8 Yet attempts by SI and SO to tailor training of individual students to their future missions, were generally fruitless, in part because the area “desks” at OSS headquarters often did not know the missions of particular individuals in advance. So there always remained general aspects to the training. They deliberately included the kind of physical and intellectual demands designed to test the individuals and weed out those unsuited either physically or emotionally for the demands of operations behind enemy lines. These physical and mental demands were also designed to create in those who graduated as members of the OSS operational branches, a sense of self-confidence, élan, and belief in themselves, their ability, and the mission of their elite organization. The OSS paramilitary training, as in other elite military organizations—rangers, paratroopers, Marines—was in part designed to impart the proud, can-do spirit of an extraordinary organization.

Aggressive physical toughening had greater emphasis in the paramilitary training camps than in the more subtle training schools of Secret Intelligence, CounterIntelligence, and Morale Operations. The men and women of the latter three branches were often older and civilians, in contrast to the trainees in SO, OG, and CB who were required to have be in the armed services. All of the branches learned some basic aspects of the others’ skills, but the training that occurred in the two National Parks, was primarily geared to SO, OG, and “Commo” work. (The Communications Branch was a technical service, and its training course for its own personnel, required a mastery of OSS’s specialized equipment, codes, and high-speed wireless transmission. It course for its personnel generally lasted three months.9) In addition to the physical toughening, the training courses at the two National Parks included a mastery of weapons. Most of the military recruits had already received basic training in the armed services. OSS trainees had to achieve a level of proficiency far beyond the standard Army training. They had to learn to operate and maintain not only a variety of standard American weapons but also various weapons from Allied or enemy countries. They learned to use specialized OSS weaponry—knives, grenades, pistols, rifle and submachine guns, some with silencers. To bolster their confidence, overcome combat fear, and simply give them skills to survive in the war’s killing zones, they learned quick and effective means of pistol shooting (the “instinctive” method of firing off pairs of shots from the hip) as well as a hundred ways of disabling an enemy in unarmed combat using jiu-jitsu, kick-boxing, karate, and other forms of martial arts.

The OSS schools taught other skills as well. For sabotage, the students learned about various forms of explosives, including the new malleable but stable and highly explosive “plastic” compounds. They studied how to use such demolitions to destroy, railroad tracks, trains, bridges, tunnels, supply depots, industrial plants. For intelligence gathering, they gained knowledge about how to identify enemy units by their particular insignia, what to look for in military or industrial facilities. They were taught how to obtain and direct rings of indigenous agents. For guerrilla leadership, they learned how to recruit and work with local guerrilla resistance groups, how to train, lead, and supply them. SO and OG trainees practiced raids against simulated enemy outposts, power plants or bridges. The students were taught how to create miniature cameras out of matchboxes, how to sketch particular facilities, how to operate one of the wireless, radio/telegraph sets carried in what looked like a regular suitcase. They learned learn how to maintain cover even if captured, how to resist interrogation, and, if necessary, how to break the coated cyanide pill (the “L” for lethal pill they carried) in their mouth before revealing the names and locations of other agents or other vital information. “They gave us three [kinds of] pills,” said George Maddock, a member of an OSS team that jumped into southern France in 1933, “one to give us energy, one to wake us up, and another one to kill us in case we were captured.”10

Organizationally, the OSS personnel who ran the training camps were divided into two staffs: one for administration and maintenance of the camp and the other for instruction. A commanding officer was put in overall charge of the camp, but he dealt almost as an equal with the chief instructor. As with the vast majority of uniformed personnel in Donovan’s hastily built organization, most of the men who staffed the paramilitary camps, as well as the OSS recruits who trained there, had previously been civilians. Donovan and his chief subordinates were successful business and professional people, and they recruited men and women who showed initiative, imagination, intelligence and adaptability, people who could think imaginatively, “outside the box.” They also wanted people who were reliable, and so they frequently counted upon personal connections and background for recruiting, particularly those who would become commissioned officers. This personal network contributed to the OSS’s reputation for being filled with socialites, of being “Oh-So-Social.” Although there was some truth to this as, the presence of Vanderbilts, Morgans, Whitneys, Mellons, and the like in the upper ranks attested, the vast majority of men and women who worked for the OSS came from the college-educated middle class. Some of the rank and file, especially those recruited from among the draftees and volunteers in the enlisted ranks of the military, came from the high-school educated, working class. What most of them had in common was that they scored high on intelligence tests and had already showed considerable ability and initiative. Many of them were adept in at least one foreign language. Those in the Communications Branch generally had some prior radio or telegraphy experience, a good number were short-wave radio hobbyists, known as “Hams.” With a few exceptions, most of the members of the OSS were not career military people. Even those in uniform in Special Operations, Operational Groups, and the Maritime Unit had generally been civilians who had became part of the armed forces only because of the war. On the whole, the regular military establishment was leery of Donovan and what it considered his free-wheeling, improvised group of amateurs. With its quasi-civilian status and its notorious lack of attention in its military branches to standard Army protocol and discipline, the OSS was indeed a most unmilitary military.

Although the training camps at Areas A, B, and C, at Catoctin Mountain Park and Prince William Forest Park were organized as military detachments and were filled with uniformed personnel, both staff and trainees, they were most unmilitary in their decorum. There was no saluting or marching and few distinctions between officers and enlisted men. An atmosphere of informality and individual self-responsibility rather than ceremony and formal discipline pervaded the OSS and the training camps as well. The uniforms, weaponry, munitions, and tactical problems may have been military, but the emphasis was not on following orders but on individual skill, initiative, and imagination to achieve success in the mission.

Critiques of Training

Initially, Donovan’s organization received advice, teaching aids, equipment, and even some instructors, from the United Kingdom, but it had its differences with its British counterparts. These differences involved both the OSS’s organization, which included both intelligence and special operations, and in its goal, which was only to defeat the Axis, not to restore the British Empire. OSS had its own American missions and style. It was geared toward Americans not Englishmen, as the informality and lack of military discipline illustrated. Starting with the British model, the Americans gradually developed their own training system, evolving both by plan and by trial and error, primarily learning by doing. It was a new organization feeling its way along. In general, its training was effective in one of its major goals: preparing agents psychologically, physically and to respond rapidly and appropriately to unpredictable situations. Nevertheless, there were issues that needed to be resolved.

As the OSS expanded during the rapid American mobilization of 1942-43, it faced the fact that some of the recruits who volunteered for overseas operations proved to be unfit for the physical and emotional demands. An elite organization, emphasizing heroism and hazardous duty attracted volunteers who craved the excitement and glory. But some of such volunteers lacked the emotional stability or the physical stamina for dangerous service behind enemy lines. Instructors tried to identify and weed out such characters and many trainees were dismissed and sent back to their armed forces. But some of the unstable got through training and were dispatched overseas before their unsuitability was discovered. Consequently, Donovan’s office in 1944 initiated a major new psychological program to assess candidates for overseas duty even before they began their training.

The psychological assessment program, as it ultimately evolved, proved remarkably effective. In 1942 and 1943, many OSS recruits had found the interviews with psychologists perplexing and even a waste of time. As one student reported in 1942, he and the other students at Area B were “somewhat bewildered and made uncomfortable by our interviews with the psychological staff. The questionnaires given out by these men seemed pointless and naïve to us all.”11 Two years later, a radio-operator recruit had the same kind of senselessness after being interviewed for less than a minute in the psychologist’s darkened tent in Area A. The psychologist waived a little pencil flashlight around, “asked a few things: where you were born, what you’re interested in, and various others things. One question he asked me: `Why do you wear your sideburns so long?’ I said, ‘I didn’t know they were that long.’ That was the end of it….It was strange, a little disorienting.”12

By 1944, the OSS had expanded and perfected its assessment techniques. It established an Assessment Center, Station S, in a country estate in Fairfax County, Virginia. There recruits were held and observed through a series of written and verbal tests and practical field exercises. Over a three day period, the potential agents for dangerous overseas missions were observed as they worked, played, talked and went through three dozen lifelike situation tests. In the last twenty months of the war, OSS teams of leading psychologists and psychiatrists, using radical methods and working in secrecy, developed a novel and successful method for assessing personalities and predicting an individual’s performance on the kind of unpredictable situations prospective agents would face in the field. They employed simulations and situational exercises to identify and evaluate knowledge, behavioral traits, skills, competencies and weaknesses. According to an OSS report, the assessment program succeeded in “screening out the 15-20% who were obviously unfit.”13 The evaluation teams learned that beyond the specific skills and training, what makes an effective saboteur in France, an able spy in Germany, a good commando in Burma, a reliable undercover radio operator in China was a secure, capable, intelligent and creative person who can deal effectively with uncertainty and considerable stress. The effectiveness of the OSS’s predictability with reasonable accuracy based on their assessment performance charts contributed to the success of the OSS. It also contributed to the postwar publication of the technique and its adoption by other government agencies as well as a number of corporations. It is still being used today.14

There were other gaps and difficulties along the way, some of which were quickly addressed and some of which were not so readily resolved. Francis (“Frank”) Mills, a major in the field artillery, arrived at the OSS training camps outside the nation’s capital in 1943 and could mainly recall the self-defense and silent killing instruction by the famous British expert, Colonel Fairbairn. All OSS trainees who saw him remembered the extraordinary skills of that otherwise unassuming, bespectacled, older Englishman. Mills said his group did not receive any training in intelligence gathering activity. “We were in special operations, fighting with the sympathetic forces behind enemy lines. We knew that,” he said. “[But] we were given very marginal, almost no real training in how guerrillas were supposed to operate. So, we were given what little training the Army or OSS had to offer.”15 Erasmus (“Ras”) Kloman, who entered OSS as a Princeton graduate and a young lieutenant, recalled a number of problems in Special Operations training in the winter of 1943-44. Most importantly, it was never clear what his mission would be, and thus the training could not be matched to it. At first based on his knowledge of French, he was assigned to training as a SO agent who would be parachuted into occupied France. But that assignment was changed to SO in Yugoslavia. When he actually arrived overseas, he was sent neither to Yugoslavia or France but was given a series of administrative assignments in Egypt, Algeria, and Italy. A lot of his training in particular skills, for example a couple of days of Morse code, half a day of lock-picking instruction, he considered too brief to be adequate. He considered it “a little bit of this and a little bit of that in case it might come in handy someday.”16

In fact, a major complaint by many trainees and indeed by officials in the Schools and Training Branch, was that neither the students nor S&T knew, particularly in 1942- 43, what kind of mission the operational branches and their regional desks had planned for particular students. Thus it was not clear to the students how any given topic related to their future mission, if at all, and the instructors at did not know either. (This was not true, of course, for the foreign trainees, the Yugoslavs, Norwegians, Thais, and Koreans, for example, who knew they would be infiltrated back into their home countries.) One response by Schools and Training was to establish a more generic form of training for the American trainees. Although Kloman was rescheduled to be sent to Yugoslavia, he had never been given instruction in Serbo-Croatian languages, nor had he been briefed on the political and military situations in that country. His superiors said that everything would become clear when he reached the Yugoslav desk in Cairo. “I supposed,” he wrote later, “it was assumed I would pick this up once I went abroad.”17 Very much concerned about this problem, Schools and Training Branch did seek to link the regional desks in particular OSS operational branches—especially Special Operations, Secret Intelligence, Operational Groups—with particular individuals and groups of students, the better to gear their instruction toward their ultimate missions for OSS. Another problem, albeit one that conflicted with the desire for secrecy, was that especially in the early years, students were ignorant about the overall organization of the OSS and its various and sometimes competing branches.18 Schools and Training Branch did later add an introductory course to give students a sense of where they fit in the larger organization and how the different branches could compliment and work in support of each other.

OSS tried to make the training as realistic as possible, despite the fact that the exact situations agents would face in the field could not always be foreseen, and in any event, many of those situations could not be adequately duplicated in the camps. Firing at a cardboard target was not the same as shooting at an enemy who was trying to kill you. Instructors tried to increase the realism by using live ammunition and explosives. They designed a rigorous obstacle course with small explosives set off by trip wires. They forced students to crawl under barbed wire with machine gun bullets zipping over their heads. Fairbairn built a mystery, pistol house, or “house of horrors” as it was called by the students, at Areas A and B. Students would be awakened in the middle of the night, given a pistol and ordered to kick in the door to the mystery house and rush though its darkened rooms and corridors, responding instantly and accurately with their Colt .45 to suddenly illuminated enemy mannequins and pop-up silhouettes of German soldiers. In addition, Fairbairn, who had mastered jujitsu, judo, knife-fighting, taught awed trainees what one of them recalled were “100 Ways to Kill a Person without Firing a Shot.”19

The most frequent complaint of the students was of being “held” too long after completing their training. When they graduated, they were at their peak of enthusiasm and self-confidence and ready for their mission overseas, but OSS then confronted the problems of obtaining space on ships and planes going abroad. Priorities were lost among a welter of inter-service rivalries, bureaucratic confusion and the overall demands of logistics upon an already overburdened global transportation system supplying America’s armed forces. The new graduates were frustrated by the endless delays, and their enthusiasm and readiness eroded the longer they remained unassigned after graduation. Schools and Training officials tried to remedy this by sending them to additional courses, if there was space for them, or letting them go on leave, but sometimes they were kept in camps that were not at full capacity at the time.

Making Training Realistic

Few of the OSS instructors in the Stateside training camps had any actual combat experience, at least until late in the war, and this was worrisome. As an espionage or morale operations student at Area A complained after graduation in 1942, “with the exception of Capt. White [from the Federal Bureau of Narcotics], no single instructor had any major experience with undercover work. Consequently, the lectures seemed rather lifeless. As a graduate of this course, I still have no idea of how to deal with ‘black market’ operations, false entry, financial operations, or any of the present day operational problems.”20 To ameliorate this inexperience, several instructors were sent to Great Britain in the early fall of 1942 to gain firsthand experience at the British schools staffed by instructors, some of whom had worked behind enemy lines. Lieutenant Frank Gleason, a demolitions instructor at Area B in Catoctin, attended an industrial sabotage school in England for two months and learned how to blow up steam turbines, power plants, and factories. “When I left, I was a trained terrorist,” he recalled in 2005, “but in a worthy cause!”21

Initial American instructors subsequently gained combat experience in the field, but they seldom returned to the United States as instructors. Some who had been overseas at British schools, like Frank Gleason and Charles Parkin in late 1942, or combat veterans, like Carl Eifler and Allen Richter from Detachment 101 in Burma in 1944, did give guest lectures upon their return.22 It should be noted that most of the U.S. Army’s officer instructors in the first years of the war lacked combat experience, although some of the old-time NCOs had seen combat in World War I.

In place of the general lack of experience by instructors, OSS sought, as the war went on, to incorporate lessons its agents derived from experience in the field and apply them to the curriculum in the training schools. But generally the field agents were too busy to write reports on recommendations for further training back home. Operational branch officers declined S&T’s requests for copies of reports from overseas units as breaches of security and useless extra work.23 This was a slow process for S&T, and apparently the lessons could be implemented into the curriculum more rapidly by the operational branches themselves (agents’ field experiences relayed directly via branch headquarters to instructors) than by the more pedagogically oriented and centralized Schools and Training Branch. The training at the stateside camps was seen as a form of basic and mid-level advanced OSS training. For more advanced, specialized training, including instruction from veterans of the combat theaters, OSS first relied upon British SOE schools, and subsequently on overseas training schools established by the OSS operational branches themselves. SO and SI, for example, set up schools in North Africa, Italy, England, and China. In 1944, Schools and Training Branch was given official authority over these overseas OSS schools, and it then sought to coordinate OSS training at home and abroad. Some members of OSS in England and in China argued by late 1944 that S&T’s role in the United States be limited to assessment screening and providing general indoctrination and basic military training. They argued that recruits would benefit from then being sent to specialized finishing schools overseas where they would be immersed in conditions in that theater of operations and brought into direct contact with operatives from the field.24 This was not adopted, although Schools and Training did assume organizational responsibility for the overseas training schools that the operational branches had established.

OSS, like the Regular Army, was developing new curricula and training manuals to meet the new forms of warfare and to use the new weapons, munitions, and equipment, such as plastic explosives, a variety of weapons with silencers, bazookas, suitcase-size wireless transmitters and receivers. The OSS syllabuses and manuals were clear about the initial aims and methods of training in Special Operations and Communications in the training areas in Prince William Forest Park and Catoctin Mountain Park. The initial part of the training was to provide both physical conditioning as well as a sense of selfconfidence and spirit in the organization and its purpose. It was also designed to weed out the unfit. For those who remained, it was to provide them with elementary skills in most of the areas they would need, plus advanced skills in their specialization. OSS did modify and adapt the curriculum in light of what its operatives learned in the field in the combat zones.

“The overall layout of training by OSS was really good,” concluded Allen R. Richter, who was part of the initial Detachment 101 communications contingent. “When we got overseas to Assam [India], we followed the same ideas. We would get our recruits and keep them together, but separated from the others, which meant they would sleep, eat and train there in their own little compounds. The advantage of that would be that everyone was doing their own thing, and not mixing demolition with radio and other activities--specialization. We copied Area C overseas.” Richter recalled that at least from 1942 to late 1944 when he returned to the United States, the specialized training program of Detachment 101had been influenced by the Communications Branch back home and its training school at Area C, not by Schools and Training Branch, the umbrella training organization of OSS. “We had nothing to do with Schools and Training [Branch],” in India, Richter concluded.25

Problems of Schools and Training Branch

Back home, the Schools and Training Branch suffered its own problems. “Someone recently likened Schools and Training to an island of ignorance with darkness on both sides of it,” bemoaned the new chief of S&T in October 1943, Lieutenant Colonel Henson L. Robinson. “We are trying to run a group of schools without knowing anything about the number of students we must train, the type of missions our students will have, or what happens to them after they get to their eventual destinations.”26 In a lengthy report, Colonel Robinson included some examples of what led to S&T’s frustration:

We are suddenly informed by one of the [Operational] Branches that next Monday there will be 80 students to be trained for a very special mission; who must be kept segregated in a separate area; who will have to have special training in demolitions along with some other subjects that have not yet been decided upon; and a request that we rig up some models of various power plants, etc., for these students to play with.

Or, we are told a large group of Japanese, Thailanders, or Balkans [Yugoslavs] may be expected week after next and must be put in a separate area. A group now in process of formation is a good illustration. After various meetings, in none of which was any representative of Schools and Training included, a plan was evolved. Somebody was to recruit a hundred officers and fifty wireless operators. Operational Groups agreed to furnish some of their officers to give the group a short course in demolitions and small arms. Communications agreed to furnish some [telegraph] key sets and a few instructors to train the wireless operators. Quite by accident, later, we were told that we might expect to have 150 people suddenly dumped on our hands and it was up to us to find some place to put them. We tentatively agreed that, if and when the plan matured, we would put the group in Area F. Without further warning or advance notice, about 120 officers and men arrived at Area F, bag and baggage….The camp commander suddenly was confronted with the necessity of feeding and housing 120 people for whom he had drawn no rations or prepared any accommodations. He complained, justly, and we complained vociferously….So far we have received nothing.27

Schools and Training wanted to be involved from the inception of plans that could involve its training camps. Its leadership also desired reports on the successes or failures of the former trainees in actual operations abroad or lectures by returning field veterans to instructors in the training camps in the United States so that training could be adjusted and improved to reflect actual conditions in the field.28 Since it could not obtain such branch reports, S&T sought similar information on its own, conducting a series of interviews with OSS operatives returning from overseas in 1944-1945.29 These individuals had numerous suggestions for S&T’s instructors. In 1949, the CIA summarized a number of them as it built its own training program, modeled largely on that of the OSS. Many of the returning OSS veterans in 1944-1945, had contended that OSS as a whole and the training schools in particular put too much emphasis on what Major Peter Dewey, returning from France before his assignment to Indochina, called “too much ‘cloak and dagger’ creepiness in the training.” Dewey advised that the training “approach should be more matter-of-fact.”30 A number of the field veterans complained that there was too little training in observing and reporting compared to cover and security. “Discipline, power of observation, military perspicacity, and common sense are the sine qua non of life behind the lines,” reported an SI agent from Greece.”31 Different agents sometime offered opposite views of the same issue. One SO instructor in Ceylon declared “natives being trained as [special operations] operatives must be treated with friendliness and respect. There is no other way.” But an SI agent from a neutral European country stated flatly “Never trust a man the first time,” and the chief organizer of a sabotage team warned that “friendly elements in the police can supply information of great value, but in nine out of ten cases the friendly policeman is a dangerous agent provocateur.”32 Despite S&T’s efforts, the operational branches continued throughout the war to view the Schools and Training Branch merely as a support unit to provide instruction facilities for them as needed. Although S&T was given some additional authority, the operational branches remained predominant in operations and in the training of their agents throughout the war.

Value of OSS Training

Many of the American agents overseas attributed their success at least in part to the value of what they had learned at the OSS training camps in the United States. They credited their achievements to the physical training, specific skills and techniques, and the self-confidence and faith in themselves and the organization, and the value of their mission. Not surprisingly, those who stayed in the armed forces or later joined the CIA continued to draw upon and replicate techniques from the OSS training camps.

Major General John K. (“Jack”) Singlaub who as a young Jedburgh had trained at Areas B and F and then SOE schools in Britain, served with distinction in France and China, and after the war wound up his career by commanding all U.S. Army troops in South Korea, reflected in 1996 on what he had learned in his OSS training. “These were individual skills that are perhaps useful but are most important for training the state of mind or attitude, developing an aggressiveness and confidence in one’s ability to use weapons,” he said. “One of the most important aspects of the training was that it gave you complete confidence.” By the time he and his colleagues jumped into France in 1944, Singlaub said, “we had complete confidence that we could survive if we had a weapon. We were good. I mean, we hit targets in very dimly lighted places…. We were taught this `instinctive fire’…. [All of] that gave you an ability to concentrate on your mission, and not worry about your personal safety. That’s really a great psychological advantage. I used that later in training my units when I was a battalion commander and later, a Battle Group commander.”33

After the war, Robert R. Kehoe was employed by the CIA’s Office of Training and Education. The young New Jersey native had been a Jedburgh team radio operator in France after completing Commo training at Area C and SO training at Area B, and SOE instruction in Britain. “The experience at Area B-2 was a great morale builder,” he said later, “and when we departed in mid-December [1943], we were in top physical condition.”34 He incorporated much of OSS training for the CIA.

Relating his personal experiences in a postwar memoir, Lieutenant Jerry Sage, who had spent more than two years in German POW camps after being captured in North Africa in February 1943, emphasized the importance of what he had learned in the OSS training camps, particularly Area B, where he learned while also instructing. Using techniques he learned at the OSS training school, he had escaped half a dozen times, but each time was recaptured in Germany. One of Sage’s most stressful moments and one in which, he said, his OSS training came to his rescue occurred in spring 1944, when he was brought back to Stalag Luft III after having been caught and beaten by the Gestapo. He was soon confronted by the irate camp commandant, a rather old colonel, under pressure from his Air Force superiors and the Gestapo to prevent any more escapes. As Sage recalled, Kommandant von Lindeiner went into a rage and pulled his pistol out of its holster, his hands shaking. “I’d learned from Dan Fairbairn that nobody is dangerous who just tells you to put your hands up and holds his pistol firmly on you,” Sage wrote later. “You can finally trick him and get close enough to disarm him in a number of ways. I knew how to do that…. I stood up slowly, fixed him with my eyes, and walked very gently toward him—with no threat and no bombast. Very quietly and calmly I said, ‘Be reasonable.’ This was in my poor German but he understood me. ‘You would never forgive yourself, if you killed an unarmed man like this.’” It worked, the tension of the moment was broken, and the commandant went back to his office.35

At Stalag Luft III, where he was part of the plan for what became known as the “Great Escape,” rumors spread in1944 that the Nazis might kill the POWs if the Allies reached Germany. The senior American officer asked Sage to train a hand-picked group of men to try to seize the camp if the Germans started such an operation, or at least to avoid being killed without a fight. Sage drew upon Fairbairn’s instructions on “silent killing,” the dispatching of sentries with knives, other instruments, or bare hands, to train a selected group of his fellow prisoners to take over the POW camp in case the Germans started “liquidation proceedings.” That did not happen, but Sage did escape successfully in January 1945 from a German POW camp in Poland, returning home via the Ukraine and Egypt.36

OSS training was equally effective in the Far East according to many veterans who served there. After a tour of duty as a demolitions instructor at Area B from 1942 to early 1943, Lieutenant Frank Gleason, SO, was sent to China. There he helped instruct Chinese commandos and he personally helped impede a Japanese advance by blowing up bridges and several warehouses of stored weapons and munitions to keep them from falling into enemy hands. After a successful postwar career in the Army Corps of Engineers, he retired as a full colonel. Asked how effective OSS training had been in China, Gleason asserted, “It was very effective. We blew those bridges. We did it with what we learned in our training here and in England. In China, we had classes where I taught Chinese how to destroy mechanical equipment. Joe Lazarsky used it against Japanese in China and with [Ray] Peers in the jungles of Burma. I felt fully prepared….Most of the students who graduated from the OSS training camps in Maryland and Virginia thought highly of their preparation there.”37

Lazarsky, who later spent a career with the CIA, concurred in regard to OSS training. “The training in weaponry and demolitions was effective. So was building selfconfidence and the ability to get things done.” Lazarsky had also used such training to prepare indigenous agents in the Far East. “It was very effective [training],” he said. “If you debrief a Thai agent, they would tell you that. Even after the war, they would say thank you. [One of them said] `You know what you and Leo [Karwaski] taught me about demolitions—we could not have gotten that anywhere else.’”38

“Training is not spectacular work,” Schools and Training Branch acknowledged in its typewritten history. “It means doing a sound teaching job, adjusting sights to fit circumstances, and keeping right on doing it.” Certainly there were some brilliant instructors who spiced the programs with their personalities and operating experiences, “but the bulk of the work was done by hundreds of lesser known instructors and administrators who stuck to the grind, class after class.”39 Operating like the OSS itself which was created in haste and without American precedent and which was impelled with a tremendous drive for speed, production, and results, the Schools and Training Branch sometimes appeared confused and indecisive, as S&T acknowledged. Yet, training areas and programs were indeed developed almost overnight to fit the evolving needs of Donovan’s organization and other wartime developments. To meet suddenly increased quotas, the capacity of training areas was from time to time doubled in size, sometimes by putting new sub-camps into operation, sometimes with the creation of “tent cities” to accommodate additional students. Yet, Schools and Training also admitted that “only toward the end of World War II was OSS beginning to approach the kind of training that was really adequate for the complex and hazardous operations carried out by OSS personnel.”40

Size of the OSS and the Task of Training

At its peak in December 1944, OSS included 12,974 uniformed and civilian personnel worldwide. This included nearly 8,500 men and 4,500 women; approximately 7,500 of these (including 900 women) served overseas.41 Intelligence branches composed 26.8 per cent (3,484 persons) of the total. Operations, including the OGs, made up 23.7 per cent of the total. Miscellaneous units comprised 22.8 per cent. For some reason, the Communications Branch was listed within the Miscellaneous Category. It was the largest segment of that category. Communications Branch personnel on December 31, 1944, numbered 1,728 persons and represented 13.2 per cent of total OSS personnel. Administrative Services [support services: including Research and Development, to Security, Special Funds, Medical Services, Procurement, as well as other branches, including Schools and Training] comprised 16.5 per cent of the OSS.42 Of the nearly 13,000 members of the OSS, approximately 4,000 were civilians and some 9,000 were uniformed personnel.43

In summarizing Schools and Training’s achievements, the branch’s postwar history emphasized the numbers that the organization had handled in the last two years of the war. Between January 1944 and the end of the war, the Assessment Stations screened and evaluated 5,300 candidates, the Basic Espionage Schools graduated more than 1,800 operatives, and the Advanced School at RTU-11 (“the Farm”) graduated 800 men and women; the Special Operations Schools trained 1,027 men.44 These figures did not include the trainees in 1942-1943, nor did they incorporate the numbers of trainees in the specialized groups over which Schools and Training had divided or little control, such as the training of military recruits for the Maritime Unit, the Operational Groups and the Communications Branch. S&T’s official historians concluded that “like the other branches of OSS, though falling far short of perfection, Schools and Training on the balance somehow accomplished a creditable task. Men were trained and sent against the enemy. Men did accomplish results that substantially contributed to the war effort.”45

CIA adopts OSS Training

Effectiveness of the OSS training was confirmed by the fact that its successors, the CIA and Army Special Forces, adopted much of it. “The [Central Intelligence] Agency picked it up almost 100 per cent,” explained Lazarsky, who subsequently spent twenty-five years with the CIA. “They took the manuals, instructional materials, and that right into the Agency. You know, the COI [Office of the Coordinator of Information] and the OSS started it from scratch. The Agency would have been foolish not to have adopted their training.”46 Indeed, William R. (“Ray”) Peers, who as a young lieutenant had trained at Area B in spring 1942 before leaving for the jungles of Burma as one of the early leaders of Detachment 101 in Burma, later served in Taiwan as chief of a CIA program for training Chinese agents to be infiltrated into mainland China, 1949-1951.47

Although former OSSer Frank Wisner’s covert operations office was the driving force within CIA for its first few years as well as one of the main recruiters of former OSS SO personnel and OSS training methods, when former Army General Walter Bedell (“Beetle”) Smith became Director of Central Intelligence in 1950, he began to emphasize intelligence gathering and analysis. Smith established a relationship of confidence and trust with Truman similar to that of Donovan and Roosevelt. He quickly recruited former OSSers, some from Secret Intelligence but mostly from Research and Analysis to prepare the basis for what became the national intelligence estimate that the DCI would present to the President. Called back William Langer, former OSS chief of R&A, from Harvard, and Langer recruited a number of former OSS staffers to assist him. Ray Cline, had been a young Harvard graduate when OSS enlisted him in 1943 for R&A’s Current Intelligence office. In 1950, he became the CIA’s the first chief of the new Estimates Staff. The National Estimates Board members included several former OSSers: Langer; Calvin Hoover a Duke University expert on the Soviet Economy and a former member of OSS Secret Intelligence; Sherman Kent of Yale, who been with Langer at R&A; and a number of non-OSS veterans. Kent was reluctant to leave Yale to join the National Estimates Board, and Cline later recalled talking to him in 1950 at the temporary CIA headquarters in an old OSS building, across a scarred old wooden desk inherited from OSS. “I told him that so few people in the new CIA knew what intelligence analysis was all about and such threatening situations existed in the world that he was needed.” “I do not know whether this influenced him,” Cline said, “but he came, stayed, and [as Langer’s successor] built the National Intelligence Estimates into a significant element in decision-making.”48 General Smith also brought in as deputy director of CIA Allen Dulles, former OSS Secret Intelligence chief in Switzerland, who had resumed a law practice but also maintained his Washington connections. Dulles would replace Smith in 1953 and serve as Director of Central Intelligence until 1961.

For the indoctrination and initial training of field agents, CIA has continued to rely in part upon OSS paramilitary style training to evaluate recruits and build selfconfidence and élan as much as imparting usable skills. While the agency first relied upon Army bases, by the early 1950s it established its own top-secret, 10,000-acre paramilitary training facility at Camp Peary in the woods near Williamsburg, Virginia. It continues the rough and tumble type of OSS special operations training there to the present day. But unlike the exclusively male trainees at the rugged OSS Special Operations training camps in the National Parks in World War II, there are now women as well as men engaged in military-style training and simulated Special Operations exercises at the CIA’s “boot camp” that is known in agency variously as “The Farm” “Isolation,” and “Camp Swampy.”49

Valerie Plame Wilson, a CIA covert operations officer, became famous when officials in the administration of President George W. Bush blew her cover after her diplomat husband challenged a key rationale they had put forward for the 2003 U.S. invasion of Iraq. She opened her best-selling 2007 memoir with a description of the paramilitary exercises she had participated in as a 22-year-old trainee for the CIA in 1985. In the climactic field exercise, her team of three male and two female trainees, each carrying an eighty-pound backpack containing survival materials and ammunition and each toting an M-16 automatic rifle, spent a clammy late fall night practicing what she called “escape and evasion from an ostensible hostile force—our instructors.” At dawn, they linked up with another group of trainees at the designated landing zone, but soon found themselves under simulated attack by hostile forces. Magnesium flares exploded around them amidst the sound of machine gun fire and the noise of exploding artillery shells. Adrenaline flowing, M-16s blazing, they rushed to the helicopter, which whisked them off to safety.50 Earlier, Plame Wilson’s CIA training had included personality tests and stress tests, many of them derived from the OSS, an introductory course providing an overview of the organization, more tests and courses, and most appealing to the CIA students as to their OSS predecessors, talks by case officers about their direct experiences in the field. Without wartime pressures, CIA provided a much longer training period than OSS. After three months of introductory training, the future intelligence analysts and operational case officers were assigned as “interims” in various departments, after which they were sent to a three-month, military-style course at the “Farm.” It was tough and demanding and, according to Plame Wilson, although “the Agency clearly understood that we were rarely, if ever, going to be called upon to use these skills” the managers maintained the paramilitary course because it “forged an esprit de corps that would last throughout one’s career” and it provided yet another chance for the Agency to assess “a new employee’s strength of character, ability to work in a team, and dedication—all skills critical to success in the Agency, no matter what your career path.”51

From the beginning, the CIA had also adopted the OSS’s communication system. “The agency kept on the OSS radio training and equipment,” Joseph Lazarsky stated firmly.52 But it was even more than that. Looking back on the antecedents of the Agency, Ray Cline declared in 1976 that “one of Donovan’s lasting achievements for central intelligence was securing the right of independent encrypted radio and cable communication with all of his field units.” This achievement of a separate and effective network, Cline concluded, was “essential for clandestine intelligence collection operations, and an indispensable precedent for building up the magnificent professional staff of communications operators, which later gave CIA the advantage of prompt, secure links to the field with regular staff communications or clandestine radio nets that neither the State Department nor the military agencies could rival.”53 Cline knew whereof he spoke, for in the course of his long career, he worked not simply for the OSS and CIA but also for the Pentagon and the State Department.

OSS’s paramilitary operations behind enemy lines had impressed a number of influential U.S. military commanders, and their support, Cline surmised, was one of the key reasons why the OSS was able to maintain its separate communications network.54 One of those commanders was General Dwight D. Eisenhower, the Supreme Commander of the Allied Expeditionary Force, who in May 1945, with the defeat of Hitler’s regime, declared that the value of the OSS “has been so great that there should be no thought of its elimination.”55

Special Forces: Successor to the OSS

Although the OSS was eliminated in October 1945, its legacy included the Army’s Special Forces as well as the CIA, and those Special Forces, know from the 1960s through the 1990s as the “Green Berets,” also adopted many OSS training procedures. When the U.S. Army established in first Special Forces unit in 1952, it followed the training and traditions of the OSS Special Operations and Operational Groups. The commander of the first Special Forces unit, Colonel Aaron Bank, later celebrated as the “father of Special Forces,”56 had received his initial OSS training at Areas F and B, before serving in France, Germany, and Indochina. In 1952, much of Bank’s initial cadre was composed of former OSSers, including Jack Shannon, Caesar Civetella, and Herbert Brucker, and they prepared the training curriculum for the first Special Forces Group, which was established at Fort Bragg, North Carolina.57

Like OSS paramilitary training, initial training of the Army’s Special Forces emphasized self-confidence and élan as well as individual skills with weapons, demolitions, field craft5, and at least rudimentary ability with communication equipment and medical treatment. There were also courses in organization of resistance movements and operation of their networks, agent training to include espionage and sabotage, guerrilla warfare, codes and radio communication, survival, instinctive pistol firing, and the Fairbairn method of hand-to-hand combat and silent killing. Although many of the initial recruits came from the Rangers which were being deactivated, more than fifty came from OSS veterans. Most of the training was done at Fort Bragg and its satellite, Camp Mackall, with its woods and swamps. But the final extensive field exercise simulating clandestine operations behind enemy lines was held in Chattahoochee National Forest in the Appalachian Mountains of northern Georgia. Banks and the other former OSS officers used the mountainous timberlands of the U.S. Forest Service just as the OSS had used the forests of the National Park Service in World War II.58

Drawing on the legacy of elite Army units, including the Rangers, Paratroopers, and various Army Raider units, the U.S. Army’s Special Forces today also embrace the aura of the OSS’s combat teams. Their tough, hard-boiled, daredevil self-image was augmented by ultra-demanding physical training, thriving on danger, and achievements in the field. Through the daredevils of Donovan’s Special Operations teams and Operational Groups, OSS is widely recognized as a forerunner and an ancestor of today’s Special Forces, indeed, some of the OSS emblems are incorporated into insignia worn by troops in today’s Special Operations Command.59

Achievements of the OSS


The reputation of the OSS rested in part on its accomplishments and in part on the aura of “Wild Bill” Donovan himself, who President Eisenhower eulogized as “the last hero.”60 But in part the organization’s reputation derived from the legend it created after the war. It was a romantic legend emphasizing individualism, innovation, heroism, and glamour. In keeping with traditional American images, the tale focused on amateur adventurers bent on excitement, glory, and victory in a crusade for law and order, justice and democracy. Although it may have irked many professionals in the armed forces and the old line government intelligence bureaus, the legend of the OSS helped establish a cult of romanticism about secret agents that contributed to popular support for dark arts of espionage and special operations for decades afterwards. Both the OSS and later the CIA helped to foster that image for their own purposes. But that meant that controversies over the CIA’s clandestine activities would sometimes lead to disputes over the nature of the OSS and its relationship to the CIA.61

The deliberately crafted image of the OSS, like that of the dominant narrative of the American war effort itself, emphasized heroism, self-sacrifice and significant contributions to Allied victory. Understanding that the legend accentuated the achievements and minimized the problems in the organization, one can still appreciate the value and the historic role of the OSS. Although the military intelligence agencies and some other have remained skeptical of the glamorous history of the OSS, and while it is true that the Allies would have won the war without it, there is considerable evidence, as this and other studies have shown, that Allied victory was expedited and many Allied lives saved by the extraordinary efforts of the men and women of Donovan’s comparatively small but highly dynamic organization. Despite its brief existence, the OSS did have a lasting impact.

Although the public has been fascinated by the spies and saboteurs, the real world probably has few “James Bond” characters. Instead, one of the most important an contributions of OSS was the unglamorous work of the men and women, studying and writing in the Research and Analysis Branch (R&A). They were little known by the public and unheralded by the media. It was a Donovan innovation, a group of civilians expert in particular areas, not working for any particular department, but rather gathering data on specific topics from as many sources as possible, analyzing this material, and generating strategic intelligence reports. They collected disparate scraps of information and tried to assemble them into a meaningful mosaic. Working primarily in Washington, D.C., the more than 900 scholars in this path-breaking unit, included many persons destined for future fame. Among them were Crane Brinton, Ralph Bunche, August Hecksher, H. Stuart Hughes, Charles Kindelberger, Herbert Marcuse, Walt Rostow, and Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr. They produced reports on everything from the state of enemy morale and weapons production to the most effective targets for Allied bombing attacks, such as the Nazis’ synthetic oil plants. The detailed reports R&A made of economic, geographic, strategic and political aspects in various countries not only proved valuable during the war but were still being used by intelligence officers of the U.S. Army,62 and undoubtedly the CIA as well, for years afterwards. Donovan’s R&A demonstrated that much valuable intelligence could be obtained from seemingly mundane published sources and how civilian scholars, working with libraries and other resources, could play an important role in obtaining, summarizing, and evaluating intelligence data. Despite the problems achieving inter- and even intra-agency cooperation and access to information, R&A’s Current Intelligence Office began the process of what would under CIA become the preparation of the centralized, summarized, regularly submitted National Intelligence Estimate.

Spies and Intelligence

OSS was denied direct access to the most important intelligence breakthroughs of the war—the American MAGIC and the British ULTRA decrypts of enemy coded wireless messages—and this limited OSS to less vital information. British Secret Intelligence Services (MI-6) dominated Anglo-American human espionage in Europe until 1944, when OSS’s Secret Intelligence Branch began to achieve independent results from its own spy handlers and the rings of indigenous agents. An exception was the OSS success in 1942 in Vichy French North Africa where because of French distrust of the British, it was the OSS which was able to establish an extensive network of agents there who not only provided vital information for the U.S. invasion in November but negotiated with the Vichy French to limit resistance to the American landings.63 By the last year of the war in Europe, SI officers and their agents, were able to provide accurate and useful Battle Zone intelligence. An Army G-2 staff member of the Joint Intelligence Committee of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff, recalled that at the meetings of that bickering inter-service intelligence committee, “the Army and OSS both claimed a universal competence….The Army had no hesitation about contradicting an OSS political or economic estimate. OSS delighted to expose deficiencies in the Army’s order of battle [Army intelligence’s identification of the enemy units in the battle zone].”64

There were numerous instances where Army commanders were able to utilize effective OSS intelligence to supplement their own G-2 staff reports. OSS’s chief agent in occupied Rome, Peter Tompkins, provided information about an impending German counterattack on the Anzio beachhead that enabled Allied commanders to sustain their position against what was supposed to be a surprise attack. Most exemplary among the Allied commanders using and coordinating with the OSS was Lieutenant General Alexander M. Patch, head of the Seventh U.S. Army. Information from OSS agents helped convince him that he could risk initial landings in southern France with only three U.S. divisions and a small Allied airborne force. In Patch’s subsequent drive through the upper Rhone River Valley, intelligence from OSS revealed a hole in the German defenses that enabled his forces to race 150 miles around the enemy’s left flank. By pinpointing the location of the German commander’s only remaining armored division, OSS agents led to its destruction by Allied airpower and subsequently helped the Seventh Army push forward, later eliminate the Colmar pocket, and finally drive into Germany. In March 1945, an OSS agent in a German uniform provided key tactical intelligence, the location of a German Panzer division, that allowed the Ninth U.S. Army to cross the Rhine River at a location where there was little chance of a counterattack by German armored forces.65

OSS’s Secret Intelligence and Counter-Intelligence Branches proved effective in both Europe and Asia. In China, although hampered by Chiang Kai-shek’s own spymaster, Dai Li, and the Chinese intelligence and surveillance system, OSS’s Secret Intelligence Branch produced significant results by the last year of the war there. It was responsible for identifying a high percentage of the targets attacked by the bombers and fighter-bombers of General Claire Chennault’s Army Air Forces, and relaying information from its coast watchers to Admiral William Halsey’s fleet that led to the destruction of significant amounts of Japanese shipping.

In Europe, Secret Intelligence and Counter-Intelligence was also effective. OSS’s X-2 Branch that handled counter-intelligence and counter-espionage seems to have been more effective than the Army’s Counter-Intelligence Corps in ferreting out enemy agents planted behind advancing American armies. The most spectacular achievement of OSS Secret Intelligence, however, was certainly the accomplishments of Allen Dulles in Switzerland. Dulles obtained some of the best human intelligence coups of the war through his top level contacts within the German foreign ministry, general staff, and military intelligence agencies in Berlin, most importantly career foreign service officer and anti-Nazi, Fritz Kolbe who had been rebuffed by the British. Dulles’s contacts with disaffected Germans provided much valuable economic, political, and strategic information. The topics included the location where the V-1 and V-2 rockets were being developed, the spying of the Albanian valet to the British ambassador to Turkey, who as “Cicero” was selling secrets to the Nazis, foreknowledge of the German generals’ conspiracy against Hitler in 1944, and solicitations to Dulles that eventually led to a negotiated German Army surrender in Italy a week before the Nazi regime capitulated in Berlin. In regard to Dulles’s main German agent, Fritz Kolbe, Richard Helms, retired Director of Central Intelligence, wrote in a memoir published in 2003 that “Kolbe’s information is now recognized as the very best produced by any Allied agent in World War II.”66

Although Donovan championed centralized intelligence and authorized the scholars and spies to make it work, his own combative nature led him to take special interest in the paramilitary teams fighting behind enemy lines. Driving by his sometimes misguided sense of the demands of personal honor and perhaps also by a thrill of danger, Donovan went ashore in American landings on Sicily, Anzio, and Normandy, and recklessly flew in an inspection tour deep inside Japanese-occupied Burma. He envied his paramilitary forces, hailed their accomplishments, and sought to make sure that they were well trained, equipped, and supplied. Donovan took a personal interest in the development of special weapons, explosives, and espionage devices and materials developed by various support offices to service different branches of OSS. The most noted was the Research and Development Branch under chemist Stanley P. Lovell, who Donovan liked to call his “Professor Moriarity.” Some of the projects were ludicrous— the idea of bats carrying small incendiary bombs over Tokyo, for example. But others were so effective they continued to be used, in different forms, to the present day: magnetic limpet mines, self-contained underwater breathing devices, waterproof watches, swim fins, small mines shaped like insignificant camel, donkey or horse droppings (later in the Vietnam War, the CIA adopted the idea and used simulated tiger droppings to conceal small, fist-sized sensitizer/transmitters to signal enemy movements along jungle trails). The “Liberator” pistol, a cheap one-shot .45 caliber pistol, designed for killing a sentry or other solitary individual and obtaining his weapon, was distributed by the OSS behind Japanese lines in China. Later during the Cold War, they were distributed by CIA in the Congo, and a 9mm version went to anti-communist tribesmen in the mountains of Laos and Vietnam.67

Other development offices had their successes as well as problems: producing forged passports and identity papers and paraphernalia for spies, some of which passed inspection and some of which did not; as well as matchbox cameras and various mechanisms for hiding secret messages. In those days when electronics was based on the vacuum tube and home radios were sizable pieces of furniture, OSS Communications Branch developed some extraordinary pieces of equipment. Among these were the famous “suitcase radio,” the SSTR-1, a portable transmitter-receiver and power supply that could be packed into a suitcase or three small packages, which became the standard equipment for OSS field agents behind enemy lines around the globe. A small, shorterrange wireless set, the SSTR-3, could be carried in a briefcase. These wireless telegraphy transmitter/receivers proved highly effective, when they were not damaged in the aerial drop, as too often happened. OSS also developed and deployed in the last year of the war, a small, hand-held radio communicator, which enabled an agent on the ground to communicate by voice with a plane circulating high over the area in a very high frequency system, codenamed “Joan-Eleanor,” which could not be detected by enemy direction finding equipment.

For the protection of its agents who frequently worked in stealth, OSS created effective silent, flashless pistols and even submachine guns, so the agents could fire without betraying their position. Seeking to impress President Roosevelt with the OSS’s latest invention, Donovan once sneaked one of the new silenced .22 caliber pistols into the Oval Office in a shoulder holster while carrying a small bag of sand. While the Chief Executive was dictating to his secretary and looking away, Donovan pulled out the weapon and fired an entire, ten-round clip into the bag of sand in the corner without the President hearing a sound. With his handkerchief around the still hot barrel, Donovan handed the pistol to the President and explained that he had just fired ten bullets into the bag of sand. Shocked, the wide-eyed President quickly composed himself, then inspected the weapon, thanked Donovan for the new gun and offered his congratulations to its developers. Then regaining his sense of humor, he joked, “Bill, you’re the only black Republican I’ll ever allow in my office with a weapon like this!”68

OSS and the Multiplier Effect

The OSS itself particularly hailed the work of the daring, action-oriented paramilitary teams organizing, training, supplying, and directing indigenous resistance groups behind enemy lines. These were the Special Operations teams or two or three agents and the Operational Group sections, usually of ten to twenty men each, sent in when more substantial, self-sustaining units were needed. The Operational Group sections, somewhat like commando units, were generally ethnic, foreign-speaking Americans drawn from the ranks of the wartime Army of citizen-soldiers. It was one of Donovan’s great insights that from America’s multiethnic population, he could recruit commando-like units familiar with the language and cultural of countries occupied by the Nazis. While the SO teams were more oriented toward liaison with local Resistance, the OG detachments were combat units themselves and were more oriented toward direct combat engagements in guerrilla warfare. Both SO and OG, however, engaged in sabotage and subversion usually in coordination with indigenous resistance groups. In total, about 1,500 members of Special Operations teams and Operational Group detachments were infiltrated behind enemy lines.69 Most of the SO and OG personnel were trained at Area F and also either Area A or B. Their missions would not have been possible without the clandestine radio-operators of the OSS Communications (“Commo”) Branch, who kept their teams in contact with their base stations, sometimes under the most adverse conditions. Most of these combat radio operators, like Robert Kehoe, Spiro Cappony, and Art Reinhardt, had been trained at Area C. As Major Frank Mills later wrote of the radio operators who had accompanied the Jedburgh teams from Europe to the Far East in 1945, “These radio operators provided the essential communications link between the operational teams and the supporting base, and they were not only superb radio operators, but were some of the best combat soldiers we had in France and China.”70

Paramilitary teams demonstrated what would later be called a “multiplier effect.” OSS had dispatched less than 200 agents in France, and according to Donovan, they armed and organized more than 20,000 men and women in the local Resistance.71 Other small groups of agents in Italy, Greece, and the Balkans played similar roles. A few Americans, two or three in a Special Operations team or a dozen or so in an Operational Group detachment, were inserted behind enemy lines, and then trained, supplied and directed local resistance groups numbering hundreds, even thousands. In the Mediterranean and in Europe, these paramilitary OSS teams infiltrated and fought with distinction in North Africa, Sicily, Sardinia, Corsica, Italy, Albania, Greece, Yugoslavia, Hungary, France, the Low Countries, and Norway. There they organized, supplied, and directed local partisan bands in hit and run raids and in destroying key bridges, railroad lines, and tunnels to impede German efforts.72 In 1944 following the Allied landings in France, they were particularly active in seeking to block or delay hundreds of thousands of German reinforcements from trying to drive back the Allied liberators. In addition to seriously interfering with the sending of German reinforcements, these OSS teams also rescued more than a thousand downed Allied fliers, who were then able to continue in the air war against the Axis.

The accomplishments of the Special Operations teams and Operational Groups in the European and Mediterranean theaters ranged from Serge Obolensky’s inducing the surrender of a 300,000-man Italian garrison on Sardinia, to the multinational Jedburgh and SO teams that helped impede German reinforcements to the Normandy invasion area and then directed the French maquis in protecting the exposed right flank of Gen. George Patton’s Third Army as it rushed across northern France. The chief of Army Intelligence (G-2) in the European Theater of Operations estimated such actions may have saved the lives of as many as twelve thousand Allied soldiers, and reported to Supreme Allied Headquarters, “You can be satisfied that the OSS has already paid for its budget in this theater.”73 Throughout the European and Mediterranean Theater, the OSS paramilitary operations included both SO teams and Operational Groups, and their effectiveness was certainly disproportionate to their small size. Small teams totaling 200 Greek-Americans, led by officers like Jim Kellis and Johnny Athens, inflicted 1,400 casualties on German units while suffering only 25 casualties themselves. They destroyed key bridges, halting Turkish chrome shipments to Germany, cut railroad lines, severed communications links, and tied down large numbers of German units in Greece for a year and a half. In southern France, a French-speaking American OG team led by Roy Rickerson blew up bridges and railroad viaducts and blocked the Rhone River canal and with his dozen troops and a hundred Resistance fighters, forced the surrender of a contingent of 3,800 German soldiers. Aaron Bank and his team armed and directed some 3,000 French maquis against the Germans supply lines. William Colby parachuted with white-clad OG team into the snow-covered mountains to destroy a key railroad line in Norway. Actor turned Marine and SO officer Sterling Hayden skippered supply vessels past German patrol boats to deliver much needed supplies to the partisans in Yugoslavia. Teams of Italian Americans, many on missions organized by Albert Materazzi, helped the Italian Resistance cause enough problems in northern Italy that the Germans had to dispatch several divisions from the frontlines to try to suppress them.

Because of their location behind enemy lines, the SOs and OGs also became involved in sending intelligence information, particularly tactical information, especially concerning German troop and supply movements and vulnerable transportation targets (although unpredictable flying conditions, coordination, and the Army Air Corps’ own priorities, often made it difficult to get fighter-bombers to the target in time—or to obtain supplies on schedule74). A number of women agents were used by the OSS, as well as by local Resistance movements, particularly as spies and liaison personnel. The most celebrated American woman SO agent was Virginia Hall, the “limping lady” with the artificial limb, feared and hunted by the Gestapo, who provided valuable information for the Allied invasion and also organized and trained three battalions, several thousand resistance fighters, in the maquis for guerrilla warfare in support of the Allies. In 1945, she became the only civilian woman in the war to be awarded the Distinguished Service Cross, America’s highest medal for bravery after the Medal of Honor.

Assessing the OSS

Although many in the Regular Army were skeptical, General Eisenhower and his top assistants came to understand the value of the OSS. A report by one of Eisenhower’s trusted subordinates, Brigadier General Benjamin F. Caffey, in the U.S. Army’s Operations Division in early 1945 concluded after a study of coordination of Resistance movements throughout Europe by the OSS and SOE that “Resistance Groups, alone, cannot win a campaign or a battle, but they are capable of rendering important assistance to regular forces.” This, Caffey said, included forcing the enemy to deploy large numbers of troops to protect lines of communications and supply, disrupting the flow of vital supplies and information to the enemy by destroying his lines of communication and supply, and alerting advancing forces to hidden defenses such as gun emplacements and minefields, and also freeing advancing conventional troops from the need to clear up pockets of resistance. General Caffey, like other regular officers, criticized the lack of experienced, career officers among the unconventional units, but his overall assessment was positive. “While OSS and SOE are hampered by poor staff work, their personnel in the field have done remarkably well,” His conclusion was that “They deserve credit and appreciation for their fine work…This method of warfare is a vast potential in obtaining military strategical and tactical objectives. No commander should ignore this potential.”75

In occupied France and elsewhere, the sight of armed and uniformed American soldiers deep in enemy occupied territory lifted the spirits of the villagers and swelled the ranks of the Resistance, especially when parachuted loads of weapons and other supplies began to follow. Ralph Ingersoll, a member of the staff of General Omar Bradley, commander of U.S. forces in the Normandy invasion, concluded that the German commanders had to assign at least half a dozen divisions to counter the maquis during the invasion. “The [OSS led] French Resistance was worth at least a score of divisions to us, maybe more.”76 German generals in France and Italy were quite concerned with the seriousness of having to face not only the Allied armies in their front but increasingly assertive and effective Resistance forces in their rear.77 General George C. Marshall, U.S. Army Chief of Staff, declared flatly that “The Resistance surpassed all our expectations, and it was they who, in delaying the arrival of German reinforcements and in preventing the regrouping of enemy divisions in the interior, assured the success of our landings.”78 “Without their great assistance,” General Eisenhower concluded, “the liberation of France and the defeat of the enemy in western Europe would have consumed a much longer period of time and meant greater losses to ourselves.”79

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