Cloak and dagger army: The OSS
Spies and saboteurs, rakes and femmes fatales, scientists and radicals: they all fought for Allied victory under the Office of Strategic Services.
by John E. Stanchak
Sixty-one-year-old Major General William J. “Wild Bill” Donovan and Colonel David Bruce found themselves pinned down by Nazi machine gun fire after jogging forward with the Allied troops invading France in June 1944. Bullets were picking apart the hedgerow that covered the two Americans, and Donovan and Bruce were armed only with Colt .45s.
“I must shoot first,” said Donovan.
“But can we do much against machine guns with our pistols?” Bruce asked.
“Oh, you don’t understand,” Donovan replied. “I mean if we are about to be captured I’ll shoot you first. After all, I am your commanding officer.”
Such grim resolve was a little over the top, even for a blood-and-guts American general. But in this instance, it was what the job required. Donovan was chief of the Office of Strategic Services (OSS), the American government’s unified espionage arm, and Bruce was head of the OSS’s London station. He and Donovan were top cloak-and-dagger men.
Donovan and Bruce lived to see the end of that day, but it would not be the last close call for either of them. The situation pointed out a blunt truth: Donovan’s first duty, and the first duty of every OSS agent, was never to be caught. There were few other duties, rules, or even guidelines. The fascinating truth was that the men and women who made up the OSS—the WWII agency that gave rise to the modern Central Intelligence Agency—had no precedents. The OSS was built from scratch by some of America’s bravest, quirkiest, and most innovative patriots.
Wall Street powerhouse and future Cold War diplomat Allen Dulles was an OSS man. Future cuisine guru and TV cooking show host Julia Child began her working life in the OSS. And young movie actor Sterling Hayden left Hollywood to take up the life of a gun-runner and OSS special operations man in Yugoslavia. But most OSS agents got no attention. Many were known simply as “Joes.” In the espionage business, anonymity was—and still is—best.
The founder of the OSS, however, was anything but anonymous. Wild Bill Donovan was a World War I hero, wealthy Wall Street attorney, famed Republican party activist, vocal opponent of fascism, and longtime friend of President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s navy secretary, Frank Knox. In 1940, when Roosevelt worried that Britain would collapse under Axis pressure, Knox suggested that he dispatch Donovan to London to meet with officials of MI6, Britain’s intelligence office. Donovan would gauge Britain’s chances of survival if the Nazis tried to invade.
That June, the French army had collapsed. Germany had no other western European military opponents except the English. The outlook was bleak. The Brits were showing pluck, but even to an Anglophile like Roosevelt, pluck wasn’t enough. He was concerned about fifth columnists, traitors like the Nazi sympathizers inside Norway, Belgium, Holland, and France who had worked to let the Germans into their countries. Were there large numbers of active fifth columnists in Britain? Donovan, who was still a private citizen at that time, was charged with getting the English leadership to divulge such details.
Donovan’s trip was successful. Upon his return to the States in August, he traveled with Roosevelt on a vacation in New England and offered up hard news and some gossip. Months later he was sent to Britain again, met with Prime Minister Winston Churchill, and then put in more than two months traveling the Mediterranean basin, interviewing sheiks, exiled royalty, Islamic potentates, and anti-Nazi leaders from Spain to the Balkans to North Africa.
The reports that came out of all that travel proved useful to the British and to Roosevelt. But the US still had no central intelligence office. The army and navy, the state department, and the FBI all had uses for such information, but they feuded with one another over who could have access to it. British Admiral John Godfrey, head of the Royal Navy’s intelligence branch, visited the United States in 1940 and wrote home in disgust. “There is no US Secret Intelligence Service…,” he wrote. “[There is a] small, uncoordinated force of ‘special agents’ who travel abroad on behalf of one or another of the Government Departments. These ‘Agents’ are, for the most part, amateurs without special qualifications and without training in Observation. They have no special means of communications or other facilities and they seldom have clearer brief than ‘to go have a look.’”
Roosevelt tried to remedy the problem. After consulting Knox and others, he appointed Donovan head of the newly created Office of the Coordinator of Information (COI) in July 1941. But the COI lasted only about one year. It was called on to serve too many masters. And on the inside, Republicans feuded with Democrats, intellectuals argued with hard-core military types, and too little information was garnered from Asia and the farthest parts of the Axis empires.
Many Americans first heard about Japan’s December 7, 1941, attack on Pearl Harbor from radio news bulletins. Donovan was at a New York Giants football game at the Polo Grounds in Brooklyn, oblivious. About 2:30 p.m., his name was called out over the public address system—he had a phone call from Washington, DC. It was an especially mortifying moment for Donovan. He wasn’t stunned that the Japanese had attacked, but few of his informants had put Hawaii at the top of their lists of potential first targets. Clearly, there still was no effective American intelligence network.
On June 13, 1942, Roosevelt issued an executive order creating the Office of Strategic Services. The COI was dissolved, and Donovan, who had left the army in 1919 as a colonel, was commissioned a general—under the new arrangement, the head of the office could not be a civilian. The OSS answered directly to the military Joint Chiefs of Staff. The arrangement was one Donovan suggested. Days after the Pearl Harbor attack, he conceded that the COI was a bust and made plans for a new outfit. He called in Kenneth Baker, a psychologist from the COI’s research and analysis division, and Dr. J.R. Hayden, a former vice-governor of the Philippines. To their amazement, he assigned them to set up training schools for spies. In answer to their protest that they knew nothing about espionage schools, Donovan replied, “Who does?”
The first spy school—Camp X—was established with help from the British at a rural spot about 30 miles outside Toronto, Canada. Not long afterward, another training camp was set up in the Catoctin Mountains of Maryland on federal park land (the site of today’s Camp David presidential retreat). At these locations, anonymous recruits were schooled by British intelligence veterans.
One memorable instructor was William Fairbairn, an Englishman in his mid-50s who had run anti-gang police squads in Shanghai, China. He taught hand-to-hand combat techniques that combined bits of Asian martial arts with what he called “gutter fighting.” He said that in his system “there’s no fair play; no rules except one: kill or be killed.” One of his favorite attacks was to castrate a man with his bare hands. Rather than disable an opponent, Fairbairn taught, kill him quietly. “Use a knife,” he said. “Sure, there will be blood. But you can clean that up later.”
The business at Camp X and in Maryland was to train agents who could be inserted behind enemy lines. Men and women from all walks of life joined the low-key operation. Psychiatrists, gunsmiths, welders, immigrant dentists, crossword puzzle addicts, chemists, radio engineers, Spanish Civil War veterans, police detectives, historians, bankers, Communist party organizers, accountants, safe-crackers and gangsters, journalists, discredited doctors, international playboys, and very, very attractive women were just some of the types that were cajoled, wheedled, or forced into service.
The OSS philosophy was that bright people could get things done, regardless of class, gender, ethnicity, or formal schooling. When Julia Child joined the OSS, for example, she was a recent Smith College graduate who was put to work typing and doing clerical tasks. Later, she was inserted into an OSS research and development group to invent a new shark repellent. Former Brooklyn Dodgers and Chicago White Sox catcher Moe Berg happened to be a law school graduate and amateur linguist who was widely read in science. Recruited into the OSS, he led missions in Italy and Switzerland to interview scientists on atom bomb development and jet technology. Elsewhere, bankers were put in charge of the financial activities of Communist partisans fighting behind enemy lines and of Mafiosi bleeding money out of the German and Italian fascist economies. On the medical front, Dr. Henry Murray, a Harvard University Clinic psychiatrist, headed up a team of scholars that produced a top-secret personality analysis of Adolf Hitler with predictions of his future behavior without ever meeting or interviewing him.
Some of what these groups produced was astounding: “Aunt Jemima,” an explosive that resembled pancake flour; K pills and L pills—knockout (K) chemicals that rendered an enemy unconscious and lethal (L) or suicide pills that insured instant death; guns disguised as pens, packs of cigarettes, and umbrellas; “mule turds,” booby-trap explosives disguised as dung; a variety of truth drugs to be administered to enemy prisoners under interrogation; and a cock-eyed plan to air-drop pornography on Berchtesgaden, Hitler’s mountain retreat, in the hope of getting him addicted to the stuff.
The chief of OSS gadgets was Dr. Stanley Lovell. Historian Patrick K. O’Donnell interviewed Lovell for his 2004 history of the OSS, Operatives, Spies, and Saboteurs (2004) and learned of a particularly creative psychological weapon:
“Who? Me?” was a chemical that smelled like a bowel movement crammed in a toothpaste-sized tube. Japanese soldiers took great pains to defecate in private since it was considered shameful to do it in public, even in combat situations. According to Lovell, “Who? Me?” was distributed to children in Chinese cities like Peking, Shanghai, and Canton. When a Japanese officer, preferably of high rank, came walking down a crowded sidewalk, little Chinese boys and girls would slip up behind him and squirt a shot of “Who? Me?” at his trouser seat…. It cost the Japanese a world of face.
For the OSS, the world was divided into four parts: Europe, Africa, Asia, and South America. But South America had been lost to the OSS from the start; J. Edgar Hoover, director of the FBI, zealously guarded his agency’s control of espionage in the Western Hemisphere. The rest of the globe, however, was the OSS’s playground, at least in theory. The British headed up most of the clandestine activity in India, West Africa, the Balkans, and the Middle East, while the Americans conducted subversive activity in North Africa, China, Korea, the South Pacific, and Finland. Both countries considered Western Europe mutual territory.
One result of these agreed-upon divisions was that most of the American work in Asia was paramilitary. The ethnicity of OSS agents made them stand out from the Chinese, Thais, Indo-Chinese, Burmese, and Malayans, so their role was usually confined to training guerilla armies and saboteurs. OSS agents and cooperating British intelligence men set up native spy circuits, or cells, of Asian agents, and taught them code, espionage, and radio skills. They mediated between China’s quarreling Nationalist and Communist guerilla armies. And they famously backed Indo-Chinese patriot leader Ho Chi Minh, later to be America’s Communist opponent in the Vietnam War of the 1960s.
In North Africa, OSS business was more delicate. French, Italian, Spanish, and British colonial regimes all faced armed nationalist revolutionary movements there in the days before the war. These ready-made armies were openly for hire after the 1939 outbreak of hostilities. But if the OSS gave them material support in fights against the Nazis and Italian fascists, it implied that the United States was supporting them in their struggle against their prewar colonial masters—including America’s English and Free French allies.
Europe was the scene of most of the clandestine American adventures that inspired novels and movies. And the heroes and heroines of these exploits were often Yanks who had been visiting the Continent before the war and remained after the fighting broke out in 1939, or who had lived abroad for so long that they had been absorbed into European society. One was exotic beauty Josephine Baker, a black St. Louis native who became a star of the Folies Bergère in the 1920s and 30s. “Le Baker” affiliated herself with the French underground after the Nazis occupied Paris, and performed many small covert duties for the OSS and British intelligence. Another was Nicol Smith, a travel writer and bon vivant familiar to party-goers in Vichy, the capital of unoccupied, Nazi-supported France, and a city famous as a mineral spring spa. Before December 1941, Smith was attached to the American diplomatic mission in the city. He mixed freely with Nazis and pro-Nazis to gather information, but found the pressure of a double life exhausting. He wrote:
Vichy is mad. That is the Vichy one sees. But there is another that lies just below the surface. On all sides are members of the German Gestapo [secret police]. You find them at bars. They are seated next to you at the opera…. Nearly every servant at the hotel is in the pay of either the Germans or the [Vichy] French…. I have received anonymous letters to have this or that place blown up. All sorts of traps have been prepared. Foreign ladies of a type never to have noticed me in the past, in fact of a type to have avoided me, now find me irresistible. I have met an enormous number of people and am asked out constantly to dine and to lunch. I drink two bottles of Vichy water [mineral water] a day to neutralize the effects of this generosity.
“La Dame Qui Boite” (“the Limping Lady”) ended up the war as America’s most decorated female agent in France. Named Virginia Hall, she was a college-educated former US State Department staffer who spoke fluent French. She had been relieved of her post after she lost a leg in a hunting accident in Turkey, because a petty rule disqualified amputees from serving in the diplomatic corps.
At loose ends, Hall had traveled to France and was there when war broke out in 1939. She served as a volunteer Red Cross ambulance driver with the French army until France surrendered in 1940, then worked as a US embassy code clerk. Finally, at the request of the COI and later the OSS, she became a spy, a leader of covert Allied operations, and a coordinator of strategy with the French underground. Her first cover was as an American newspaper correspondent; she openly observed life in Vichy France and secretly established a special operations unit. Suspicious Nazis and Vichy French officials drove her out of France into neutral Spain. In 1943, she was commissioned a second lieutenant in the OSS and returned to France, slipping onto the coast aboard a small boat. She lived the remainder of the war in disguise, sometimes as a bourgeois woman, other times as a peasant shepherd. By then the Nazis were aware of her and her prosthetic leg and had their troops and agents on alert to arrest a limping woman.
Hall survived the war, was decorated by the administration of President Harry Truman for her war service, and then carried on as a CIA employee until retirement in the 1960s. English radiomen who used to receive her coded messages remembered her well. On one occasion she complained that “Cuthbert” was giving her trouble. Unaware that “Cuthbert” was the name Hall had given her prosthetic leg, the officer in charge radioed back that, if Cuthbert was giving her trouble, she should “eliminate” him.
Others who remembered Hall well were the Joes and the Jeds, or Jedburghs. A Joe was an OSS agent who parachuted behind enemy lines. The men of the “Carpetbagger Air Force,” the airmen who flew black-painted planes over the English Channel to drop operatives into enemy territory, coined the name. A Jedburgh team consisted of three men inserted behind enemy lines to commit acts of sabotage or organize resistance fighters for an operation. The name came from the Scottish town near which the men trained for their missions.
Too many Joes and Jeds were unlucky, killed or captured by the enemy, or killed in parachute accidents. But others lived to record their memories. One was E.F. Floege of Chicago. Before the war, he had lived for several years in Angers, France. A Joe, he was dropped behind enemy lines in summer 1943 and established a cell near Le Mans (the town famous today for auto racing). His son, also an agent, joined him, along with a radio operator who went by the codename Narcisse. Six months into organizing the local resistance fighters, the cell was broken. Floege’s son was captured and tortured and gave up names and locations where agents and resistance fighters met. O’Donnell’s Operatives, Spies, and Saboteurs includes an excerpt from a circuit member’s diary of the event:
On the 23 of December, seven of the Gestapo came to the house where Narcisse was staying, during dinner, and arrested him and his host. They handcuffed him and while they were doing this [a Gestapo agent] threatened one of them with his revolver. [Narcisse] kicked him in the groin with both feet, upon which the man shot him in the chest. He pretended to be dead and three of them immediately bundled him off in a car, leaving the other four to deal with his late host. Two sat in front discussing the affair, the third was with the ‘body’ in back.
They had searched his trouser pockets but they had not searched his jacket, in the pocket of which he still had his revolver. While in the car he managed to ease this out of his pocket and shoot in rapid succession the man beside him and the two in front….
The car carrying Narcisse crashed, but he escaped the wreckage and hid at a compatriot’s home. The next morning, the Gestapo came for Floege at a house where he had been hiding. He escaped them by leaping over a back garden wall and joined Narcisse in his hiding place. Together, they decided their operation was blown, so they escaped over the Spanish border. Incredibly, especially in the face of Floege’s horrible personal loss, they both volunteered for more service and were later inserted back into France.
Among the valuable information that OSS agents provided to the US military before troop landings were detailed maps, engineering information, troop strengths, biographies of enemy commanders, and geographical quirks. Donovan was often alongside or nearby the invading troops, assessing how well the OSS’s end of an operation was going. As a major player in the June 1944 Allied invasion of Normandy, for example, he went in behind the first waves of American troops.
In achieving success, the OSS made plenty of domestic political and military enemies. US senators and congressmen with limited access to information about the OSS charged that it was riddled with Communists and criminals. They complained that for every OSS idea that worked there were 7 or 10 that didn’t, that the OSS had no organizational chart, that there was no accountability for the hundreds of millions of dollars it spent, and that Donovan ran it “like a country editor.” They concluded it was dangerous.
Roosevelt ignored the complaints as long as possible, and then had Colonel Richard Park, Jr., an officer from the White House map room, quietly look into the allegations. Park’s report damned the office as frivolous and profligate, noting, among other things, that it maintained more high-paying positions than any other Federal agency and maintained a training facility at a Virginia country club where it tested the alcohol capacity of recruits. While conceding that the OSS had done well in espionage and covert operations, Park concluded that, if it were allowed to continue operating it might “do serious harm to citizens, business interests and national interests of the United States…. It has all the ear marks of a Gestapo system…. It is therefore recommended that General Donovan be replaced at the earliest possible moment by a person who shall be recommended by the Joint Chiefs of Staff.”
Roosevelt never got to read the report. He died on April 12, 1945. The next day, Park delivered the report to the new president, Harry Truman, a partisan Democrat who thought little of the Republican Donovan or any agency involved in subterfuge. Three weeks after the Japanese surrender in mid-August 1945, Truman turned over the fate of the OSS to Congress. The Congressional Committee on Agency Liquidation then closed the OSS—and with it one of the more intriguing and compelling chapters in American military history.
Photo credits: National Archives, except the camera, which is the International Spy Museum.
Copyright 2007 by 310 Publishing, LLC. All rights reserved.