A few days after Pearl Harbor, General Donovan summoned two men to his office: Dr. J. R. Hayden, former vice-governor of the Philippines, and Kenneth Baker of the Psychology Division of COI's Research and Analysis department. Neither had any idea what the meeting was about. After the men were seated, Wild Bill quickly came to the point: "I want you to start the schools."
"The SI training schools."
"But we don't know anything about espionage schools -- "
Baker and Hayden had their hands full. The newly designated Coordinator of Information (COI), later redesignated OSS, had the unprecedented task of creating a world-class intelligence organization overnight, from scratch. It was hampered by America's traditional aversion to spycraft. Unlike most of the world's great powers, America had limited experience in espionage.
The same could not be said of America's British allies. Britain's SOE (Special Operations Executive) and SIS (Secret Intelligence Service), having been at war for over two years, had all the experience necessary to lay the foundation for COI's undercover training program. The British worked with a team of COI personnel, led by Hayden and Baker, to develop a training curriculum designed to produce spies, saboteurs, and guerrillas.
While the curriculum was being written, OSS was also constructing training facilities in the Washington, D.C. area, but they wouldn't be up and running for several months. Therefore, the first COI/OSS agents trained in Canada, at "Camp X." Established by the British expressly to assist America with the shadow war, Camp X was the first secret agent training school in North America. Also referred to as Special Training School 103, Camp X was located in the countryside between the sleepy towns of Oshawa and Whitby, about thirty miles outside of Toronto. The camp was so secret that even the Canadian War Cabinet wasn't informed of its existence.
Camp X played such an important role in the war that the head of the British Security Coordination (BSC), Sir William Stephenson, described it as the "clenched fist" of all Allied secret operations in World War II. A number of notable British and American agents passed through the school. Ian Fleming is said to have drawn from the underwater frogman exercises in Lake Ontario for his James Bond character.
One of the first Americans trained at Camp X was Frank Devlin. "I was given a set of orders that read like a spook book. 'Have civilian clothes. Take train such and such to Penn Station New York and get a train to Toronto, Canada. Go to Hotel and there you will find a message with a number. That number indicates the license on the vehicle you will take and it will be at the west entrance of the hotel.'
"After I got in the vehicle, we were taken to Camp X and were enrolled as the first class. We learned night work going out. On one of our missions they told us that we had to blow part of the Canadian-Pacific railroad. There were a set of rails right before a bridge. They said that this area was completely guarded and we haven't told the guards that you are coming and they have loaded weapons. We had to rehearse it, work it out in the woods so when we did it we didn't get shot. It worked like clockwork. We planted all the charges under the rails and didn't blow it up of course but we could have done it.
"We had lots of classes on what to do if you were behind the lines. We learned all the things that could give you away. There was the use of weapons, close-up and hand-to-hand, all common today. It was all stuff that was dirty, not the kind of thing you learned in infantry school. You played dirty here. We learned how to dislocate someone's arm while you had a knife under their rib. I can still do it. If I try it I might take you and throw you over the back of that chair. Eifler [commanding officer in Detachment 101] did it to everybody. He would get their hand and do something with it, turn it in the right place. You just do a flip and you're helpless."
One of Devlin's instructors was British Captain William Ewart Fairbairn, also known as "Fearless Dan" or the "Shanghai Buster." During the twenties and thirties, Fairbairn rose to the rank of assistant commissioner of the municipal police of one of the toughest cities on earth, Shanghai. He created one of the first SWAT teams, a counterterrorist outfit known as the Reserve Unit (RU), to quell the Chinese gangs and the organized crime that ran rampant in the city. In the back alleys of Shanghai, Fairbairn developed his own revolutionary hand-to-hand fighting system, a deadly mix of jiu-jitsu and street fighting, known initially as "Gutter Fighting" and later renamed the "Fairbairn Technique." In his own words, Fairbairn described his black art. "When I organized and trained Riot Squads for the Shanghai Police I developed a system of fighting out of the methods that got results...but in modern warfare, the job is more drastic. You're interested only in disabling or killing your enemy. That's why I teach what I call 'Gutter Fighting.' There's no fair play; no rules except one: kill or be killed."
Fairbairn made a lasting impression on just about everyone he met, including OSS, who got him on more or less permanent loan from the British. OSS promoted Fearless Dan to the rank of major and transferred him to Area B, a 9,000-acre compound in the Catoctin Mountains outside Washington, D.C., the present-day site of Camp David. At Area B, Fairbairn taught his lethal hand-to-hand fighting technique, and also how to handle the Fairbairn-Sykes fighting knife, a razor-sharp stiletto of his personal design.
"The knife is a silent, deadly weapon. It's great for sentries. Never mind the blood. Just take care of it quickly."
After completing a course in knife fighting, the new students took a course in unarmed "Gutter Fighting."
"In a sense, this is for fools, because you should never be without a pistol or knife. However in case you are caught unarmed, foolishly or otherwise, the tactics shown here will increase your chances of coming out alive."
A technique that Fairbairn demonstrated was the "Tiger's Claw," a clenched hand that is directed at an opponent's eyes. "Deceive your opponent. Make him think you're out on your feet. Now bring the Tiger's Claw up from the cellar and put force behind it. It will knock your opponent out. But you must attack with surprise."
The Shanghai Buster gave this advice on how to counter a bear hug: "To break a bear hug...go limp...grab his testicles. Ruin him...."
When asked if the typical American trainee was reluctant to employ the "Fairbairn Technique," since it runs counter to the American sense of sportsmanship, Major Fairbairn responded: "He does have a natural repugnance to this kind of fighting. But when he realizes that the enemy will show him no mercy, and that the methods he is learning work, he soon overcomes it."
Fairbairn was joined by several other legends in hand-to-hand combat such as Rex Applegate, a crack pistol shot and the pioneer of a technique known as "offensive shooting." Applegate taught recruits how to handle a pistol in combat. "When a man is faced by an assailant who has a gun in his hand and murder in his heart, he must be able to use his pistol instantly and effectively."
COI and OSS recruited a broad variety of men and women. The common thread was creative, "out of the box" thinkers distinguished by boldness and decisiveness. One such man, Lieutenant Charles Parkin, Jr., was unceremoniously transferred to OSS from the U.S. Army Engineer School at Fort Belvoir after displaying some unwelcome initiative.
"On our way back from maneuvers I saw all of these National Guard units guarding bridges. Security was pathetic. Some units were guarding the railroad bridges with unloaded rifles or a single shotgun so I decided once I got back to Fort Belvoir to try to change things so the bridges would get proper security. I put together a plan to take my platoon to one of the bridges. First, I mentioned the plan to the officer in charge, a captain. I told him about the lack of security and that I wanted to do something about it. He said, 'Charlie, I wouldn't touch that with a ten-foot pole!' I went ahead with the plan since this was good training for my men. I wanted to show them we better get off our asses and start doing things right.
"Anyway, I called out half of my platoon that night and we rode on assault boats across the Occoquan River. These were the only railroad bridges that crossed the river into D.C. from the south. We landed and silently planted dummy explosives on the girders of the railroad bridges. It was raining that night, and to divert the guard's attention I went up and talked to him. The fake charges were set in all the right places; if they had been real explosives we could have blown the bridges sky high. When I got back to the base that morning I sat down and wrote a report of what we did and why we did it. The report went to my battalion commander and I don't know what he said but the next thing I knew I was being called to HQ with his boss. He said in essence, 'This thing is too hot to handle. The National Guard versus the Army? I'm transferring you to an outfit in Washington called the Coordinator of Information that can put your talents to use.'" Parkin soon became COI's primary demolition instructor.
One of Parkin's first recruits was his fraternity brother from Penn State, a former national wrestling standout, Frank Gleason. After the war Gleason continued a career in demolitions and special operations, retiring as a colonel and professor at the U.S. Army Command and General Staff College in Fort Leavenworth, Kansas. "Charlie recruited me and one of the first things he did was send me to industrial sabotage school in England run by the SOE. What they teach you at sabotage school will blow your mind. Six or seven people that are properly trained can cripple a good-sized city. It is as easy as can be. These terrorists scare me. If they know this stuff, which I'm sure they do, it's really easy to cripple a medium-size city with trained demolitionists and arsonists. We learned how to operate and destroy locomotives and power plants, the turbines in power plants, communication systems, and telephones. We also learned how to make people sick by poisoning a city's water supply. Shitty stuff like that -- we were taught how to fight dirty.
"Using a locomotive we learned how to take the controls and get the train moving at a high speed, and jump off -- creating a runaway train that would plow into something -- isn't that awful? We destroyed rolling stock by removing grease in the gearboxes and putting sugar in gasoline tanks to destroy the engines. We learned how to make explosives from sugar, from basic household supplies. How to start a fire that could take out a city.
"I knew Stanley Lovell, head of OSS R&D, quite well, and he introduced me to 'Aunt Jemima.' It was a plastic explosive that looked like baking flour. The concept of it was that you could easily transport it behind the lines. In China we made muffins from the stuff. I wanted to show Major Miles how you could bake Aunt Jemima into muffins, put a blasting cap into it and blow something up. It looks like regular flour but if you look carefully at a little piece you'd see it was gritty, unlike flour. It could make bread so I told this Chinese cook at Happy Valley to make some muffins out of the explosive flour. I said, 'Do not eat those muffins! They are poison. Do not eat them!' You should have seen them when they came out of the oven, they were gorgeous. The cook thought to himself, 'Well those damn Americans want those muffins for themselves.' He violated what I told him and he ate one. He almost died."
One of Area B's early trainees was Milt Felsen, an ambulance driver and machine gunner who had fought in the Abraham Lincoln Brigade during the Spanish Civil War in the thirties. After the war Felsen went to Hollywood to produce movies, including the hit Saturday Night Fever. "Donovan came to the headquarters of the Veterans of the Abraham Lincoln Brigade. We had a little place in New York City. He came up and said he wanted a half dozen or so guys to help set up the OSS. He questioned folks and chose about ten of us. He told us to meet him in Washington, which we did.
"We went to D.C. and were sent to an abandoned boy's camp, called Area B, now Camp David.
"We went up to Area B. We helped set up the place as a training base for the OSS. There were cabins and a big hall and another building we later set up as a training building. One of the things we faced was Fairbairn's house of horrors. As you entered, pop-up targets that looked like Nazis would come at you from darkened rooms. This would be accompanied by simulated gun shots and strange lights. The goal was to get off two quick shots on the targets. You had to make your way through an obstacle course which also included pop-up targets that you had to hit and keep going.
"At Area B we met Jerry Sage, our commanding officer in North Africa. He saw that we were veterans and he stuck to us. We advised him on what we thought was needed to work behind German lines. One of the things we got was a little booklet that Mao put together on guerrilla warfare. There was nothing else in those days and we had to create it.
"We did five parachute jumps. We did everything on the basis that nothing existed and we had to create it. On our jump training we jumped in different places, i.e., mountain, river, etc. We got as many weapons as we could from the Axis and other European countries. In the event we were in Europe and came across weapons they were using, we'd know what to do with them.
"We went out on a submarine. After the sub surfaced we inflated a raft on the deck and paddled to shore. Once ashore we had to hide the raft and go someplace where the people guarding the area did not know we were coming and I'm sure would be very offended and take shots at us if they discovered us. It was as realistic as it could be...maybe too realistic."
Realistic training was a hallmark for the OSS commandos, who worked in units called Operational Groups (OGs). The OGs received most of their training on the lavish 18-hole Congressional Country Club, known as Area F. "Aggressiveness of spirit and willingness to close with the enemy were stressed," so OG training was designed to be as close to reality as possible. Tragic mistakes were inevitable, as OG trainee Al Materazzi found out. "We moved to the Congressional Country Club and were trained by a Russian prince, Serge Obolensky, whose last wartime experience had been with the White Russian guerrillas. Major Fairbairn trained us in knife fighting and hand-to-hand combat. Tragically, a private accidentally killed another private during a simulation."
The first independent Secret Intelligence training school set up by OSS was RTU-11. Known as "the Farm," since it was located on a sprawling country estate about 20 miles north of Washington, RTU-11 offered elementary and advanced intelligence training. Recruits were taught the importance of cover, intelligence-gathering methods, and the use of "cut-outs" (individuals who would work as intermediaries between the OSS agent and subagents).
SI training culminated in a course requiring students to execute practice undercover assignments, or "schemes," in the nearby industrial centers of Baltimore, Richmond, and Philadelphia. The first scheme was relatively easy, generally involving brief intelligence work or sabotage, as Geoffrey Jones recalls. "We tested the FBI and plant security and were in teams of three. The first mission we had was to blow up a plant in Baltimore. What we did was put a note on the main boiler that said "This is a bomb" and called up the FBI. Luckily we never got caught. I understand some people got really roughed up before the FBI called OSS to see if they were OSS or not."
The second scheme was more advanced. Students were allowed to carry forged documents that were produced at the training center, such as Social Security cards and draft cards. The recruits were often required to secure jobs and pass off the information they gathered to another person, in code. Jones's final mission was in Philadelphia. "My cover story was that I was an advance man from Twentieth Century Fox, I'd been out in California and I knew show business and so on. I had letterhead from the studio and used my middle names, Montgomery Talbot. I wrote a letter to the managing director of the steel mill and told him I was making a film about the plant's contribution to the war effort. I checked into a hotel in Philadelphia and invited him and his wife to dinner.
"He wined and dined me, I wined and dined him. The bonus to that was while I was waiting for him to go to lunch I noticed that his secretary in the outer office had a big long typewriter. I'd never seen anything like that. I said, 'What is that typewriter?' She said, 'I use it to type all of the procurements for the steel mill.' While she wasn't around I noticed she kept putting her carbon papers in a wastepaper basket. Over a couple of days I took all of the carbon papers. From the carbon papers we were able to project how much steel they were supposed to make.
"OSS told me I could do anything I could get away with so I just walked out on a $3,000 bill at the hotel. I paid for a fancy room, extravagant meals for him and his wife; ultimately, I had to pay half, something I've never been too happy about."
X-2, or counterespionage, was sometimes described as an elite within an elite. X-2 training included many of the elements of SI training, along with double agent handling, investigative techniques, and chicanery such as lock picking, wiretaps, and burglary. Ed Weismiller remembers his training and final scheme. "I had been a Rhodes Scholar and therefore I'd been overseas just before the war and had a pretty good command of French. It turned out that X-2 heard about me and decided that they would interview me. When they did, they asked me to join. They had slots in all the branches of the armed services and I could pick the service I wanted. Because I was a poet and was publishing poetry, I picked the Marine Corps just out of levity! All I had to do was go through marine training, officers training. I went through two courses in the Maryland and Virginia countryside during the summer of 1943 before my marine training started. I passed with ease and even was a marksman with the .45 pistol thanks to the OSS training. What you learned in the OSS courses was mainly to keep your mouth shut. You were also trained in ciphers, decipherment, coding of messages. You were taught how to use a pistol; how to read compasses and make your way through in the dark, places you didn't know. Dan Fairbairn even taught us how to roll an ordinary newspaper into a lethal dagger.
"The graduation exercise was probably one of the most interesting. We were all shipped to Baltimore and let loose on the town and we were simply to come back with as much information as we could about what was going on that had to do with the war effort. If we got in trouble, they didn't know us; we were in trouble on our own. I picked the Baltimore-Ohio Railroad because I knew that it was probably in touch with just about everything that was going on. I went in and said that I was a writer. With any lie you learned to make it as close to the truth as possible. If you make up an elaborate lie then you have to be able to repeat all aspects of the elaborate lie over and over at any time, in any order. So I said I was a writer just down from Cambridge, about to go into the war myself but I wanted to write one big story before I went into the war. I picked Baltimore because so much was going on in terms of manufacturing supply for the armed services and the more I thought about it the more I thought the key to the whole thing would be the Baltimore-Ohio Railroad. They thought this was just swell. They asked me of course for ID. I said that I'd spilled a cup of coffee on my lap just before I came over and I had to change my clothes quickly and I didn't transfer all of my stuff, but I would bring my complete ID the next day. They said that was fine.
"They assigned me a car and a driver and a photographer and drove me around to the various railroad entities. When you got to a secure area, they would say politely, 'Well, we're not supposed to let you through here.' The driver had various errands of his own to do while he was taking me around and he would say, 'Well you're not supposed to come in here but surely there's no harm.' And I would go. I would go and I got notebooks full of information about what was being manufactured and where it was being shipped to and where it was being shipped out from. Just being a nice guy could get you into the most sensitive areas. I went back to the OSS training area with this appalling load of stuff, turned it in, and was later informed that I graduated."
Another student posed as a purchasing agent for a friendly neutral country and was able to walk out the front door of a plant with the complete blueprints of the latest bomber.
But not all of the schemes had happy endings. Several students were arrested and incarcerated by the local authorities or FBI. One student who posed as an electrician was taken to a remote location, interrogated under a spotlight, and summarily beaten for hours. "I never broke," he later exclaimed. He was released 48 hours after he was hauled in.
Beginning in late 1942, OSS dispatched instructors overseas to train foreign nationals for work in Europe. Over 2,500 male and dozens of female agents passed through OSS parachute training, although few women took part in the activities of the operational branches of OSS. Many OSS agents also were trained by the British, including members of the Jedburgh program (three-man Special Operations [SO] teams that jumped into France, Holland, and Belgium on or after D-Day).
"We were trained at an estate outside Peterborough, at Milton Hall, a huge mansion, several thousand acres," recalled former "Jed" Joseph de Francesco.
"One test involved a group of five or six of us. They said you have a mission in occupied territory and you are going to destroy a radar station. You land a few miles from there. On your way you come across a civilian going to work, then they asked, 'What are you going to do about it?' One of the men in my group was a Catholic priest and he said, 'I'd kill him.' I said to myself, 'Jesus, this guy is pretty bloodthirsty.' I said I'd try to avoid him. They also said, 'On landing one of the men on your team breaks a leg.' The priest said, 'I'd kill him.' I said to him, 'You are a bloodthirsty bastard aren't you!' This guy was later captured and beheaded by the Japs."
As the war progressed OSS expanded. The rapid expansion taxed the training areas. This led to the development of a groundbreaking assessment program that included screening the qualifications of OSS candidates before they underwent expensive and time-consuming individual training. Today, a shopping center stands on the land once occupied by OSS's main assessment center -- Station S, located in Fairfax, Virginia.
Candidates wore green army fatigues with no rank and were subjected to a battery of intelligence and aptitude tests designed to test ingenuity, creativity, leadership, personality, and even patience, as secret intelligence agent Gene Searchinger remembers. "There were some large Tinkertoy poles and blocks with holes that the poles could go into. They handed you a diagram and they said, 'Build this but you're not allowed to touch it. You're supposed to give orders to these two helpers and they'll build it.' The diagram looked like a very complex rectangle.
"The 'helpers' greeted me, 'Hello, boss.' I said something like 'Let's get started.' And one said, 'Who me?' Why don't you call us by name? We have names, you know. Don't you care who the people are you have working for you.' They shook my hand and said, 'I'm Kippy and this is Buster.' They tried to get me to reveal my real name. One of them did everything you told him to very slowly, the other one always had a better idea. 'Why don't you try it in that order...or try it in that order...or try it this way, put it in this hole.' It turned into a Three Stooges comedy routine since they were trying to sabotage the effort. They claimed only one person got it to work." That person was a massive Texan who reportedly flattened the two "helpers" with two well-timed blows.
Searchinger remembers another test. "They would take you into a room and tell you to go to L-House. (By this time you were supposed to know where L-House was even though no one told you.) 'Go to L-House and go to the library and you'll find a book there called LuLaLuLa and memorize what it says and come back here. And by the way if anything should happen while you're coming back have a good excuse why you are there. Good-bye!' They'd click a stopwatch and you'd have to scramble over to L-House.
"You'd have to run to get there. You'd find the book which contained a piece of paper that was filled with phone numbers and addresses. It was an impossible thing to memorize. At the bottom of the paper it read, 'Further information will be found in a container behind the bookshelf.' I looked there and saw a box with a wire going inside it so I decided not to look into it. You didn't touch it if you were smart. You left the house in the dead of night and a guy steps forward with a bayonet and says, 'Stop!' You are taken to another house and a light is pouring on a bench and they are interrogating you as to why you were there and what was going on. (By this time you were supposed to have a clever story.) I think I played the nervous man and somehow came off as believable."
Written tests were given to assess everything from propaganda skills to memory skills to personality. The most exotic test was the Murder Mystery, which was designed to test students' investigative and inference skills. At noon on the third day of the program students were given copies of the mythical Fairfield Chronicle announcing the discovery of a dead body of a woman several miles from the village. Additional clues were provided in the form of dozens of letters and testimonials. The group was told they were the sole party investigating the murder and to solve it. On the evening of the last day, a senior member of the assessment staff judged each team's results and declared a winner.
For those that made it through the program a party was thrown for "relaxation." Of course nothing was what it seemed, as Gene Searchinger discovered. "The final test was a relaxing party. They wanted to see if you'd relax and give up your cover." A document describing the party describes its true purpose further: "The informality and conviviality were aided and abetted by the use of liquor, debates, the telling of off-color stories, horseplay between students and staff. Although social relations were the most important trait measured, data were frequently obtained on practical intelligence, emotional stability, and motivation and propaganda skills."
OSS's greatest asset was its people. Remarkably, while the organization operated in every theater of the war, in neutral and occupied countries, and even in Berlin itself, only 143 Americans died in the line of duty. This number, however, does not include the hundreds of foreigners who were killed while working for OSS. Nevertheless, character and training that emphasized leadership, creative thinking, self- confidence, and decisive action were deciding factors in their success. Most of all, OSS expected its men and women to win. They did both during the war and in life after it.
Copyright © 2004 by Patrick K. O'Donnell
The Unknown Story of the Men and Women of World War II's OSS
Operatives, Spies, and Saboteurs
The Unknown Story of the Men and Women of World War II's OSS
In a world made unrecognizable by the restrictions placed on the CIA today, OSS played fast and loose. Legendary chief "Wild Bill" Donovan created a formidable organization in short order, recruiting not only the best and brightest, but also the most fearless. His agents, both men and women, relied on guile, sex appeal, brains, and sheer guts to operate behind the lines, often in disguise, always in secret.
Patrick O'Donnell, called "the next Studs Terkel" by bestselling author Hampton Sides, has made it his life's mission to capture untold stories of World War II before the last of its veterans passes away. He has succeeded in extracting stories from the toughest of men, the most elite of soldiers, and, now, the most secretive of all: the men and women of OSS. From former CIA director William Colby, who parachuted into Norway to sever rail lines, to Virginia Hall, who disguised herself as a milkmaid, joined the French Resistance, and became one of Germany's most wanted figures, the stories of OSS are worthy of great fiction. Yet the stories in this book are all true, carefully verified by O'Donnell's painstaking research.
The agents of OSS did not earn public acclaim. There were no highly publicized medal ceremonies. But the full story of OSS reveals crucial work in espionage and sabotage, work that paved the way for the Allied invasions and disrupted the Axis defenses. Operatives, Spies, and Saboteurs proves that the hidden war was among the most dramatic and important elements of World War II.
- Free Press |
- 384 pages |
- ISBN 9780743258340 |
- March 2004