Key point: Trained in special, clandestine skills, these brave agents would do great work. Here's how they fought and helped later create the CIA.
In utter silence, the saboteurs carefully wired their target for demolition. All knew even the slightest noise might alert sentries to their presence underneath the Occoquan Creek bridge in northern Virginia. Finally, with explosives and detonators in place, the team of infiltrators made their escape undetected by patrolling watchmen.
During World War II, thousands of would-be secret agents roamed rural Maryland and Virginia while learning the “ungentlemanly arts” of espionage, covert action, and irregular warfare. These operatives in training belonged to the U.S. Office of Strategic Services (OSS), the first national-level intelligence organization. Soon they would put their skill and nerve to the ultimate test—as clandestine warriors fighting far behind enemy lines.
On July 11, 1941, President Franklin D. Roosevelt took a momentous step toward centralizing America’s intelligence-gathering efforts when he authorized the office of the Coordinator of Information (COI). In doing so, FDR hoped to create a single agency responsible for sorting and analyzing reports collected by more than a dozen U.S. diplomatic, law enforcement, and military establishments. Chosen to head the COI was prominent Wall Street attorney Colonel William J. Donovan.
Donovan, who had earned the nickname “Wild Bill” along with a Medal of Honor for heroism in World War I, took to his task with characteristic energy and enthusiasm. A man of extraordinary vision, he foresaw a growing role for secret intelligence and special operations activities in the conflict already engulfing much of Europe and Asia. America’s newest spymaster resolved to build what would become his nation’s contribution to this “shadow war.”
The COI faced enormous challenges in just getting off the ground. Other information-col- lecting bodies—among them the State Depart- ment, Army, Navy, and Federal Bureau of Investigation—deeply resented Donovan’s intrusion into their traditional domain and often obstructed his directorate’s early efforts.
Things started to change after Pearl Harbor, perhaps the worst intelligence failure in modern American history. A presidential order dated June 13, 1942, significantly expanded Dono- van’s responsibilities while reorganizing the COI under a new name—the Office of Strategic Ser- vices (OSS). Its mission, in the words of histo- rian Thomas Troy, was to “collect information, conduct research and analysis, coordinate infor- mation, print and broadcast propaganda, mount special operations, inspire guerrilla action, and send commandos into battle.”
Donovan’s immediate problem was how to staff and organize this unconventional civilian-military organization. The U.S. armed forces rarely practiced covert warfare, and its diplomatic corps tended to look down on the practice of espionage. Famously, an American codebreaking operation was halted in 1929 because in then-Secretary of State Henry Stimpson’s view, “Gentlemen don’t read each other’s mail.”
The British, long acknowledged as masters of intrigue, were eager to offer their assistance. In Bill Donovan they found a willing ally; he frequently traveled to the United Kingdom for conferences with officials of Britain’s Secret Intelligence Service (SIS) and Special Operations Executive (SOE). William S. Stephenson, head of the British Security Coordination office in New York, was a friend and mentor who first encouraged President Roosevelt to consider selecting Donovan as Coordinator of Information.
With British assistance, an organizational model slowly took shape. Ultimately, OSS formed 12 major branches: Special Operations (SO) and Operational Groups (OG) performed paramilitary, direct-action operations. Secret Intelligence (SI), X-2 (Counterintelligence), and Research and Analysis (R&A) branches focused on espionage activities and intelligence study. Morale Operations (MO) handled propaganda, while Research and Development (R&D), a Maritime Unit (MU), and the Communications (Commo) branches provided special capabilities to field agents. Finally, the Administrative Services and Personnel Procurement branches managed OSS’s Washington D.C. headquarters. A Schools and Training (S&T) branch was added in 1943.
Armed with an almost unlimited budget and the benefit of his years as a Washington insider, Donovan began the work of hiring prospective agents. His initial recruits tended to be associates from the legal and academic worlds. Urbane, well educated and often fluent in several languages, these selectees were perceived by some as effete, Ivy League elitists—leading to the snide comment that OSS stood for “Oh So Social.”
No one then quite knew what kind of person would make a good agent. William Stephenson’s aide, a Royal Navy lieutenant commander named Ian Fleming (later to create fictional super spy James Bond), suggested the Americans appoint as intelligence officers men of “absolute discretion, sobriety, devotion to duty, languages and wide experience.” Fleming further recommended their age “should be about 40 or 50.”
Donovan himself sought younger, self-reliant operatives who could think on their feet and act decisively under conditions of extreme stress. Intellect was valued as much as physical courage—everything else could be learned. The ideal OSS candidate, according to Wild Bill, was “a PhD who could win a bar fight.”
In truth, most of the organization’s first employees were hired for skills they already posessed. The so-called “bad-eyes brigade” of 900 economists, historians, psychologists, anthropologists, and political scientists who staffed R&A produced information that immeasurably assisted the war effort. Their analysis of German industrial capacity, for example, led to the Allies’ “oil plan” that all but choked off the supply of fuel for Nazi tanks and aircraft during the war’s final months.
While the scholars and administrators working in Washington required little specialized training to orient them to their duties, the same could not be said of those selected for overseas service. Donovan met with two of his branch chiefs during the summer of 1941 to address the need for training schools.
The British had in fact already established several such installations, including a new SOE facility near Toronto, Canada, called Camp X. Beginning in January 1942, several dozen American agents underwent the four-week program of instruction there. These men, all Special Operations Branch cadre, were eager to learn as they would shortly begin schooling paramilitary operatives back in the States.
At Camp X students were introduced to close combat techniques, sabotage, surveillance, codes and ciphers, maintaining a cover identity, and other elements of tradecraft. The emphasis there was on physical fitness, strict discipline, and attention to detail—all for good reason. “If there’s anything loose in the intelligence business,” warned chief instructor Major Richard T. Brooker, “you’re dead!”
Along with a suggested training curriculum, the Americans left Camp X with an assortment of teaching aids, enemy weapons, and specialized equipment for use by OSS schoolhouses. The British also sent along from Canada several officers who possessed particular knowledge in close combat fighting and maritime operations.
The first American instructors were a varied lot. Major Garland H. Williams, an Army reservist and former Federal Bureau of Narcotics investigator, headed this team. Many of Williams’ cadremen came from the Military Police or civilian law enforcement agencies. Military Policeman Lieutenant Rex Applegate taught a system of combat pistol shooting while Captain George H. White applied his considerable prewar expertise as an undercover narcotics officer to the dark art of counterespionage.
Not every instructor had a police back- ground, however. First Lieutenant Jerry Sage (whose later exploits as a POW inspired Steve McQueen’s character in The Great Escape) sold housewares before signing on as a physical conditioning trainer. Marine Corps Lieutenant Elmer Harris previously worked for General Petroleum Company in Alaska; he now taught fieldcraft and camouflage to prospective saboteurs. Two fraternity brothers from the coal mining region of Pennsylvania, 1st Lt. Charles M. Parkin and 2nd Lt. Frank A. Gleason, became demolitions experts. “He loved to blow up simulated enemy targets,” Jerry Sage said of Gleason, at age 21 SO’s youngest cadreman.
Special Operations Branch’s most memorable instructor, however, was British Army Captain William E. Fairbairn. Remembered as “Dangerous Dan” by everyone who underwent his intensive program of “gutter-fighting,” the 57- year-old Fairbairn led a colorful life even by OSS standards. Seconded from Camp X on sort of permanent loan to the Americans, this martial arts master once battled Chinese gangsters as head of the Shanghai Municipal Police’s riot squad. Rumors spread that he knew 100 ways to kill a man.
Fairbairn quickly achieved a fearsome reputation for his ruthless instructional approach to armed and unarmed combat. “Forget any idea of gentlemanly conduct or fighting fair,” the captain advised his students. “There’s no rules except one: kill or be killed.”
To illustrate his point, Fairbairn would often provoke the largest man in each class into throwing a punch at him. Dodging the blow, Dangerous Dan would then flip his would-be assailant onto the ground, face down, arm twisted behind his back. Few dared underestimate their wiry, bespectacled close combat instructor after witnessing such a display.
With a syllabus established and instructional cadre in place, freshly promoted Lt. Col. Williams next needed to find training sites suitable for the thousands of prospective saboteurs then being recruited. To Williams, an ideal camp was “situated in the country and thoroughly isolated from the possible attention of unauthorized persons.” Such a facility also required plenty of land, at least several hundred acres, and must be located “well away from any highway or through-roads and preferably far distant from other human habitations.”