10 Operations of the Office of Strategic Services during World War Two

10 Operations of the Office of Strategic Services during World War Two

Larry Holzwarth - May 28, 2018

William J. Donovan, the head of the US government office known as the Coordinator of Information, was attending a professional football game on the afternoon of December 7, 1941 when his name was called on the public address system. Within hours he was faced with the fact that using the intelligence provided by the Army and Navy his office had not been able to identify Pearl Harbor as a potential target for a Japanese attack. The glaring deficiencies of American intelligence, foreign and domestic, was unacceptable to his boss President Roosevelt. Donovan was tasked to establish an intelligence gathering and special operations agency.

Established by executive order in June 1942 and modeled after the British Special Operations Executive, the OSS encountered hostility from its inception by the intelligence operations of the armed services and from the FBI. It reported directly to the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and provided some information to Congress, mostly in the form of estimates and facts related to its budgets, but not its activities. Its activities were in the areas of intelligence gathering, sabotage, supporting the underground resistance in Europe, and providing military training for guerrilla warfare groups in the Chinese and European – North African theaters.

10 Operations of the Office of Strategic Services during World War Two
William J. Donovan in 1924, while working as an attorney for the United States Justice Department. Library of Congress

Here are ten activities of the OSS and its agents during the Second World War.

10 Operations of the Office of Strategic Services during World War Two
Virginia Hall receiving her Distinguished Service Cross from General William Donovan for her activities during the war. CIA

Virginia Hall evading the Nazis in France

Before Virginia Hall joined the OSS she worked for the British SOE in France. An American educated at Radcliffe, Hall used false credentials as a correspondent for the New York Post to establish an espionage network in Vichy France, providing information about German manufacturing production, troop movements, and naval activity. By early 1942 she recruited a network of ninety-plus agents throughout Vichy and occupied France, called Heckler, which was used by the SOE to parachute men into France in support of the resistance activities against the Germans. Hall also developed a system of helping captured resistance agents break out of German custody.

In November 1942 the United States executed Operation Torch – the invasion of North Africa – and in response the Germans occupied all of France. Virginia Hall, wanted by the Germans and pursued by the Gestapo, fled across the Pyrenees into Spain, a harrowing journey under any circumstances made more difficult by the fact that she was encumbered with a wooden leg. As the Gestapo rounded up many of the clandestine networks she had created they marked her as one of the most dangerous enemies of the Reich in Europe. Klaus Barbie was in charge of capturing her. She escaped to Spain, where the US Embassy secured her release from Spanish custody, and she returned to England.

When the SOE refused to allow her to return to the continent, being too recognizable to the Gestapo, she joined the OSS. Deposited surreptitiously on the shores of France via a British motor torpedo boat (her wooden leg preventing her from performing a parachute drop) Virginia managed to work her way across France, using the remnants of the networks she had created in 1942, staying at always changing safe houses. She alerted and prepared underground units for the upcoming Normandy invasion, preparing them for their roles in the assault; disrupting German communications, rail connections, and transportation efforts.

As the American’s and British began their assault across France, Virginia Hall, despite being well known by the Germans and desperately sought by the Gestapo and other German security units, remained deep behind the German lines. She organized maquis fighters, saboteurs, and assassins in attacks on the German infrastructure, military leadership, and civil bureaucracy. The Germans called her the limping lady, but despite all their efforts she eluded their pursuit. She called her wooden leg Cuthbert, and in a radio transmission she once informed her superiors that Cuthbert was giving her trouble. Not realizing what she meant by Cuthbert, she was ordered to eliminate him.

One can search for a more dedicated and courageous agent than Virginia Hall, but the likelihood of finding one is slim. After the war she remained in the service of the United States, working with the CIA formed from the remnants of the OSS. She was considered by the Gestapo as the most dangerous of all the Allied spies working in Europe, but they never managed to track her down, despite the handicap of her wooden leg. She refused a public award of the Distinguished Service Cross from President Truman, but accepted the award in a private ceremony from William Donovan. She was the only civilian woman so honored for her service in the Second World War.

10 Operations of the Office of Strategic Services during World War Two
A Jedburgh team receives instructions from their briefing officer prior to deployment. National Archives

The Jedburghs

The Jedburghs were a joint undercover operation of the British Special Operations Executive, the French Intelligence and Operations Bureau, the OSS, and operatives of the Belgian and Dutch military. Jedburgh teams of operatives were parachuted into France before and during Operation Overlord, to sabotage specific targets, and to lead teams of resistance fighters behind the German lines. Overall command of the teams was the responsibility of the Free French Army once they were on French soil. Getting them there was largely the responsibility of the OSS using Army Air Force aircraft, and their training was accomplished at SOE/OSS facilities in the UK.

It is a myth that the Jedburghs were named for the town of Jedburgh in the Scottish Borders, a haven for border raiders during the middle ages. The name was drawn at random from a British Ministry of Defense security codebook. The operation was under the responsibility of the Supreme Commander of Allied Forces in Europe, Dwight Eisenhower. Eventually Jedburgh teams operated on the European continent and in Southeast Asia, where they were under the authority of Lord Mountbatten, and bitterly opposed by Douglas MacArthur, who refused to allow their deployment in the Philippines, considering them to be an abridgement of his authority.

The Jedburghs were typically deployed as three man teams, led by either a British or American officer, supported by an officer of the nation in which the team was to be deployed, and a radio operator. The radio operator could be of any nationality, selected based on linguistic ability and overall training. The teams were tasked with leading resistance forces in open actions against the German army, and were inserted into Europe wearing the uniform of the nation from whence they came. Unlike other agents of the OSS dropped into Europe, they carried true identification and their military tags, and if captured should have been treated as prisoners of war rather than spies.

Jedburghs were trained in special operations and paramilitary operations in Scotland, then in martial arts at Milton Hall in England, where the surrounding grounds and woods were used to create conditions similar to what they would encounter on the continent. Sabotage, demolition, and close quarters combat were all part of their training. From Milton Hall teams were selected and missions assigned based on the demands of the Special Operations Executive in London, and the OSS support mission. Once ready for deployment, the teams were flown to their drop zone by OSS controlled US Army Air Force aircraft.

In 1942 Adolf Hitler issued his Commando Order, which stipulated that Allied commandos – which included all parachute troops – were to be shot immediately upon capture, superseding a previous order which stipulated that parachute troops be taken by the Gestapo. Both orders were in contravention of the Geneva Convention. Several SOE and OSS operatives were taken prisoner and executed under the Commando Order, despite being in uniform and carrying proper identification, including Jedburghs. German officers who executed captured OSS and SOE personnel were identified as war criminals and tried for their crimes following the war.

In the Pacific, most of the Jedburgh teams were of French composition, and operated in French Indochina, though they were supported by OSS operatives. Thus the first Americans fighting in what would become Vietnam were there in 1944, fighting alongside guerrillas opposing the occupying Japanese troops. About sixty Jedburgh teams operated in Indochina and in Burma, a theatre commanded by Lord Mountbatten. OSS leader William Donovan lobbied for the deployment of Jedburghs in the Philippines both before and during the American invasion in 1944, but an imperious MacArthur was wary of an encroachment on his authority and refused.

10 Operations of the Office of Strategic Services during World War Two
PT boats like these operating in the Pacific were used to insert and withdraw OSS teams in Italy, Sicily, France, and other coastal locations. US Navy

Operation Ginny

Operation Ginny was an attempt by the OSS to destroy railroad tunnels in Italy during the Italian Campaign against the Germans in 1944. A fifteen man OSS team of Italian-American soldiers was landed by PT boat on the night of February 27/28, 1944. After landing, by using rubber boats to paddle ashore from the larger PT boats, the team leader realized that his team was out of position. In order to accomplish the mission far more time than had been allotted before the team was to be picked up was required. The team requested to be allowed to remain ashore overnight, but was denied and the PT boats were sent in to pick them up.

On March 22 they tried again, and once ashore the team leader again realized that they had landed in the wrong location. After disembarking the team, the US PT boats detected German E-boat activity and one engaged the Germans, after which the American boats, having heard nothing from the OSS team ashore, returned to base. The following evening the American boats returned, to find German patrols on the water near the designated rendezvous point. Under orders not to engage, and having again heard nothing from the team ashore, the American boats again withdrew.

The team ashore had by then made contact with Italian civilians, who had provided them with food and with directions to their target. The soldiers hid in a barn during the daylight hours of March 23, waiting until darkness to return to the shore where they had hidden their rubber boats and explosives. It was not to be. An Italian fisherman discovered the boats and notified the Italian authorities, which in the area were Fascist Party officials, who notified the German military. After discovering the hidden explosives with the boats, German troops and Italian police began a sweep of the area. The OSS team was discovered in the barn, and after a brief firefight, surrendered to the Germans.

The Germans took their prisoners, and the Italian farmer in whose barn they were found, to La Spezia, where they were interrogated by German army officers and Gestapo agents. After learning from one of the team that they were a commando group sent to demolish a railroad tunnel the information was sent to Army headquarters in the area, commanded by Field Marshal Albert Kesselring. Kesselring was informed that the prisoners were in full American uniform and were carrying correct identification when they surrendered. Kesselring ordered their execution by firing squad, to be carried out the next day.

Several German officers protested the execution, and one was charged with insubordination for refusing to sign the order as it made its way through the chain of command. When the order reached the unit holding the prisoners their commander too protested, by telephone to headquarters, but to no avail. On March 26 the fifteen Americans were executed by firing squad and buried in a common unmarked grave, which was camouflaged to prevent it from being discovered by Italian partisans. The general who issued the execution order under the direction of Kesselring, Anton Dostler, was convicted of war crimes and executed after the war. Kesselring was not.

10 Operations of the Office of Strategic Services during World War Two
A French resistance fighter arrested by the militia in 1944, facing certain torture eventual execution by his captors. Wikimedia

Resistance in France

The French underground resistance movement grew steadily throughout the war, and the OSS and SOE both supported and exploited the resistance units. Early in the war the Vichy government formed a militia (la milice) of French troops to hunt down resistance fighters. The militia fought alongside German garrison troops to control the resistance. When it became apparent after Stalingrad that the Third Reich’s lifetime would be considerably less than the promised 1,000 years resistance in France intensified, as did the opposition of the militia. By the spring of 1944 France in many areas was for all practical purposes involved in civil war.

OSS and SOE operatives remained in touch with supervisors in England, but seldom by radio. Trips across the channel by motor torpedo boats or by air allowed face to face meetings. So did quick trips to neutral Spain, guided by maquis fighters. But information regarding the details of the upcoming Allied invasion could not be entrusted to the men serving in the underground due to the risk of capture. The help of the resistance was essential to the success of the Allies plans, and its coordination was critical in reducing the French telephone system, railroads, and other infrastructure. The task of providing the coordination was given to the OSS and SOE in the form of the Jedburghs.

Not even DeGaulle was informed of the timing of the planned invasion of Normandy and its date until June 4, 1944. By that time 93 Jedburgh teams were in France, and arranging the coordinated attacks on the French infrastructure, German command and control posts, and German units moving on the roads. These attacks were launched across the country. The decision not to consolidate resistance activity in Normandy was made so that the Germans would not come to the realization that it was the target of the invasion. By the time the Germans did realize it moving units to the front by rail was all but impossible due to the success of the resistance fighters.

Forced to move on roads, the German units were continuously attacked by resistance fighters, often led by Jedburghs. Roads were blocked with fallen trees or piles of rocks and the immobilized troops assaulted in heavy raids. Germans attempting to reach the battlefront at Normandy and Caen, where Montgomery was blocked, were often deprived of much of their weaponry and ammunition when they did arrive. As the campaign in Europe evolved many of the surviving Jedburgh teams were removed as elements of the French resistance began to formalize as the Free French Army in areas which had been liberated.

OSS and SOE operatives continued to serve in the European campaign as the German army retreated, dropped behind the German lines in the Balkans, and in advance of the disastrous Arnhem campaign. OSS operatives were in Antwerp before it fell to the British (the port was actually captured by Belgian resistance fighters), and helped to organize resistance fighters to assist in clearing the Scheldt Estuary, allowing Antwerp’s port to be used by the Allies. By the end of 1944 Jedburgh teams were in Germany itself, helping to organize the too often forgotten resistance to the Nazis in that country, a task made more difficult by the growing resentment of the German populace to the heavy allied bombing.

10 Operations of the Office of Strategic Services during World War Two
The OSS class depicted here in Milton Hall is somewhat inattentive given the subject matter of handling explosives and demolitions. National Archives

OSS Personnel and Activities

When William J. Donovan was tasked with establishing the OSS he recruited many of the people with whom he associated as a successful lawyer, and commandeered facilities for OSS use. He was unconcerned with political repercussions over the latter. One of the properties he commandeered as a training facility was the Congressional Country Club in Maryland. Catoctin Mountain Park was likewise taken over by the OSS as was Milton Hall in England and Santa Catalina Island in California. A training center in Cairo was the former palace of a brother in law of the King. This, coupled with the names of elite businessmen and wealthy American families on the OSS roster led to its being considered a boondoggle by many.

The OSS also faced political sniping by politicians who were unable to discover what the organization was doing, but which spent plenty of money, and those who were simple enemies of the Roosevelt Administration. J. Edgar Hoover hated the organization and kept a close eye on it to ensure that it wasn’t intruding on his own turf. Both the Army and the Navy maintained their own intelligence services and in theory they were supposed to share all intelligence with the OSS, but each was jealous about guarding its assets. MacArthur effectively kept the OSS out of the Pacific theatre for most of the war.

Julia Child worked for the OSS, initially as a typist at its headquarters in Washington DC. She later became a researcher working directly for Donovan. As a researcher Child developed a concoction which could be applied to ordnance, chiefly naval mines, to repel sharks, preventing their premature detonation. She experimented with various formulae on the stove of her apartment kitchen. It was her first foray into cooking; as a child her family had employed a full time cook and she had little interest in how meals were prepared.

Former major league catcher Moe Berg was another employee. Fluent in several languages, highly educated and well read, Berg was employed as an agent in the Balkans, the Caribbean, and throughout Europe during the war as a spy and on at least on one occasion as a potential assassin. He was able to intelligently discuss nuclear physics to the point that he could accurately assess the progress being made by the Germans in that field. Although in his forties at the time, Berg posed as a nuclear physics student in Zurich to monitor the lectures of a leading German scientist to make his assessment.

By the time the war was coming to an end more than 24,000 were working for the OSS, coming from all branches of the Armed Forces as well as civilian life. Many were later absorbed into the CIA when it was formed, including Moe Berg, for a brief period in the 1950s. By the fall of 1945 OSS expenses and secrecy were more than enough for the President, and Harry Truman dissolved the office by executive order. Congressional Country Club was returned to its members and Catoctin Mountain Park became Camp David.

10 Operations of the Office of Strategic Services during World War Two
The OSS relied heavily on the USAAF’s B-17 heavy bomber to support several of its operations in Europe. Wikimedia

Slovakia in 1944

In the late summer of 1944 the Czech Intelligence Service operating from London learned from contacts in the Czech partisan forces that several Allied prisoners of war were in an area liberated from the Germans. When the OSS was apprised of the situation it decided to send OSS agents to supply and train the partisans, participate in their activities against the Germans, and bring the former prisoners of war back to England. A pair of B-17s landed on an airstrip in the liberated area, delivered supplies and two OSS teams, and evacuated the prisoners.

The teams were to report to the OSS field office at Bari, which would forward their reports to London. In October three more teams, of three or four men each, were inserted, as well as civilian agents. One of them was an Associated Press correspondent named Joseph Morton. Morton was to report on the evacuation of fliers, with the permission of the OSS, which wanted the good publicity which would ensue. Morton’s report was killed by censors in the theatre and the Associated Press never heard from Morton again, as he was unable to file any further stories of partisan activities.

In mid-October the OSS teams were again reinforced with additional members by B-17 bombers, which landed to discharge the agents and cargo. The Czech resistance was beginning to crumble by that time, dissolving into small, disorganized bands operating independently despite the efforts of the OSS agents to organize the partisans into a coherent fighting force. The 37 OSS men split into four groups, and with the support of some Czech partisan fighters began to withdraw in the direction of the Eastern Front, hoping to reach the Russian lines.

Throughout November German Army and SS troops gradually captured most of the OSS men as they attempted to escape through the bitter cold of the mountains. By December 18 OSS and Czech fighters were living in a shack north of Palomka when they were surrounded by the Germans and after fighting until their ammunition was exhausted they surrendered. They were taken by the Germans for interrogation, and all were subjected to torture by the Gestapo and the SS. By the end of January, 1945 the Germans were confident that they had extracted all of the information regarding OSS and partisan activities that they could.

All of the prisoners were then stripped of their uniforms, issued prison uniforms, and executed by SS personnel, under direct order of Ernst Kaltenbrunner. They were executed at Mauthausen. Joseph Morton, a civilian who wore the uniform required of war correspondents, was one of the men executed. On January 24 Allied Headquarters in London intercepted a message broadcast from Berlin that the 18 prisoners from the OSS operation in Slovakia had been executed, but were unaware of the identity of the dead until after the war.

10 Operations of the Office of Strategic Services during World War Two
An OSS escape and evasion map, printed on silk so as not to make noise when opened, using inks which would not run if made wet. CIA

Spy Gear and Weapons of the OSS

The fictional Major Boothroyd – Q of the James Bond series – had real life counterparts in the OSS and the SOE, with some of their schemes and devices every bit as outlandish as those employed by 007. The Research and Development branch of the OSS was headed by a Boston chemist named Stanley Lovell, personally selected for the task by William Donovan. One such device they developed was a rebreather for working underwater which had been rejected by the Navy before the war. After seeing the device demonstrated the OSS hired its designer to run the development program, leading eventually to the creation of the OSS Maritime Unit.

The Research and Development unit created the means of hiding maps within playing cards, which were useful for both OSS agents in the field and as escape aids for prisoners of war, after they were smuggled into POW camps in care packages from fictitious charities in the United States and England. Compasses were hidden in buttons and hollowed out pencils were created for the concealment of microfilm. Early stun grenades and a device called the Hedy (after Hedy Lamarr and her ability to distract men) were developed for the purpose of distraction of their victims. Many of the devices were received with derision by the Joint Chiefs of Staff, but proved their value in the field when deployed by agents.

Silencers for pistols were developed. Explosives were designed to resemble inert items, with those resembling lumps of coal being called Black Joe and Aunt Jemima the moniker attached to explosives which looked like a sack of flour. Grenades designed to detonate on impact once armed were delivered to OSS operatives and resistance fighters. The OSS spiked cigarettes with THC, the active ingredient in marijuana, with the hope that the smoking of several would cause the user to develop a loose tongue. Other so-called truth serums were prepared for use in interrogation. The OSS also developed wiretaps and a locating beacon.

The possibility of using anthrax in synthetic manure to spread the disease via flies was studied and discarded. Devices which utilized mustard gas were considered, as was a plan in which Hitler’s food was to be laced with estrogen. These schemes were for the most part considered and discarded without the knowledge of General Donovan and the Joint Chiefs of Staff for whom the OSS worked. The adaptation of several devices which were already in use by the SOE was also the responsibility of the Research and Development branch, and several weapons were issued to agents of both, to contribute to compatibility in the field.

The OSS Office of Research and Development was in the counterfeiting business, creating German (and other nationality’s) identification cards, passports, ration books and cards, money, military identification, letters from non-existent families, friends, and lovers, and all the other papers which were likely to be carried by people in all walks of life. Whatever was believed to be of potential use to operatives in the field or to agents operating spy networks was considered and if possible produced, from hidden weapons to surveillance devices to suicide pills. All agents in the field were issued suicide pills, which were reportedly quick and painless.

10 Operations of the Office of Strategic Services during World War Two
The Central Bank of the Republic of Turkey in Istanbul was a center of intrigue and espionage during the Second World War. Wikimedia

The OSS in Istanbul

Istanbul, in neutral Turkey, was a web of intrigue throughout the war, with agents from the Germans, English, Russians, Italians, Turkey’s own secret police, Vichy and Free France, and more engaged in a longstanding campaign of spy and counterspy. The OSS joined the web in 1943, hoping to use their operation to subvert those of the Germans and their allies. They also used the Istanbul operations to keep a wary eye on the Russians, concerned about the possibility of Stalin making a separate peace with the Germans. Throughout the war the English and American agencies addressed that possibility with disinformation and spying campaigns.

The information chain which the OSS built in Turkey was called Dogwood, and it was led by Lanning Macfarland, who operated undercover as a banker involved with funding for lend lease. Dogwood was in fact hired by Macfarland and operated as an employee of the Western Electric Company of Istanbul. In reality Dogwood was an engineer from Czechoslovakia named Alfred Schwarz. Schwarz and his assistant, Walter Arndt, contacted groups opposing the Nazis in Austria, Germany, and Hungary. Schwartz used diplomatic couriers from the Balkan countries and Switzerland to transfer intelligence to resistance groups.

The information obtained by Dogwood was shared with the British SOE by the OSS. British and American intelligence officers examined the information separately, and then shared their opinions over the material. In early 1944 the British detected problems with some of the information being provided by Dogwood and questioned the veracity of some of the agents in the chain. British intelligence devised a means by which the chain could be tested to ensure that false information was not being provided to the OSS and British teams. By then the Dogwood chain was the largest information gathering system operated by the OSS.

In early 1944 the Germans discovered several agents involved in the Dogwood chain and under threat of torture and death, turned them to provide information they would be fed by the Germans. This information ensured that the OSS and British intelligence was receiving false reports about German troop movements, plans, industrial resources, and other information. The false information in turn would ensure Allied resources would be misdirected, in particular the bombing raids flown by the RAF and USAAF. It also meant that the Germans could lead the Allies to attack a particular target and be waiting for them.

A joint OSS-SOE mission revealed that the Dogwood chain had been compromised and the Germans had been feeding false information to the OSS via the turned agents. How far up the chain the Germans detected was not revealed but the entire operation was shut down. A method of using the chain to provide false information to the Germans was studied but deemed to be too risky to implement. How much false information the OSS provided to combat commanders remains unknown, as several of the files regarding the Dogwood operation were destroyed after the project was abandoned.

10 Operations of the Office of Strategic Services during World War Two
General Milhailovic (bearded) with operatives of the OSS and other American officers during Operation Halyard in 1944. Wikimedia

Operation Halyard

Operation Halyard was the name given for the OSS operation in 1944 to liberate downed Allied airmen who had been shot down over Serbia. It was the largest rescue of downed airmen of the war and it was led by three OSS operatives. According to the official report submitted to the OSS 417 Allied airmen were rescued by the operation. According to the report prepared by the OSS to the Joint Chiefs of Staff, 432 Americans and 80 Allied airmen were evacuated by the operation. The actual liberation of the men was accomplished by Chetnik partisans, and they were flown out of Serbia by the US Fifteenth Air Force.

In 1944 prior to D-Day American bombing of targets in Romania and Bulgaria intensified, and bomber losses grew. While some of the airmen who bailed out of damaged aircraft were captured, others landed in areas where they were protected by partisans in Yugoslavia. As the number of these airmen increased, the OSS developed a plan in which they could be rescued via airlift. Many of the airmen were sheltered in private homes, unknown to either the Germans or the partisans. As the number of these men increased to over 100, a rescue team was assembled of three OSS operatives, who would be tasked with working with the Chetniks to collect them.

Conflicts with the British over the partisan sides (they had shifted their backing to Tito) hampered the early efforts of the OSS to maintain contact with the leader of the Chetniks, Draza Mihailovic. The OSS selected Lt. George Musulin, who had previously led an OSS liaison mission with Draza, to head the insertion team, which was known as Operation Halyard. The members of the team were Michael Rajacich, and Arthur Jibilian. This team parachuted into Serbia and Mihailovic’s territory in August, 1944. Chetnik partisans provided security and engaged German troops, but the German interference was marginal.

The Chetniks built an airstrip for the operation, digging it with shovels rather than heavy equipment, and brought the airmen to the region for evacuation. Though the British SOE thought the airstrip too short, their mission to Tito’s partisans used it to depart Yugoslavia before it was complete, in May 1944. The airstrip, near Pranjani, was used to evacuate airmen until the Soviet invasion of Yugoslavia in September, when the operation was moved to another improvised airstrip. Yet another airstrip was built in late October and the operation continued from there. During the winter the operation continued, the strips cleared of snow by Serbian peasants.

Although the Serbians, the Chetnik partisans, and the US Fifteenth Air Force were all involved in the evacuation, it was the OSS planning and liaison with Mihailovic which allowed it to be a success. By December 1944 the mission was completed. The mission received little publicity at the time and little since. In 1944 the world was watching the Allies sweep across France, followed by the disaster of Operation Market Garden and then the Battle of the Bulge. There was only so much headline space. After the war the participation of the Chetniks was downplayed so as not to offend the communist government of Yugoslavia.

10 Operations of the Office of Strategic Services during World War Two
Ho Chi Minh,(standing third from left) and members of an OSS team in Indochina in 1945 OSS operations in Asia are largely ignored historians of the war. US Army

The Nisei Linguists

In 1943 an OSS specialist was assigned the task of providing 14 candidates of Japanese descent fluent in English and Japanese. He found them in the 442nd Infantry Regiment, a Japanese-American combat unit which was stationed at the time at Camp Shelby, Mississippi. All fourteen were volunteers and all were Nisei, meaning they were first generation Americans born in the United States of Japanese immigrants. Before volunteering all the men were told was that the men selected were destined for extremely rigorous and dangerous duty. More than 100 volunteered. At the time of the selection it was the intent of the OSS to place some of them in Japan.

Throughout 1944, the volunteers were trained in hand to hand combat. They underwent survival training. They were schooled in Japanese language, geography, and culture. They received training in the handling of explosives and demolition. They were destined to be attached to one of two OSS units, Detachments 101 or 102, which operated in the China Burma India (CBI) theatre, under the command of Lord Mountbatten. These units conducted covert operations. The Nisei were also to be used to interrogate what few prisoners were taken, translate intercepts, and listen to Japanese communications.

In Burma, the OSS operated behind the Japanese lines, supported by airdrops of supplies. Their primary mission there was the training of Kachin troops to fight the Japanese. The environment was heavy jungle and the Kachin were as ruthless as the Japanese troops themselves. The Nisei in Burma were warned that the Japanese were likely to torture them as prisoners, and recommended suicide in the face of inevitable capture. The ethnic Kachin hated the Japanese, and during covert missions the Nisei were often as afraid of them as they were of the Japanese. The Japanese Army offered a bonus for anyone capturing a Nisei.

The operations performed by Detachments 101 and 102 included the rescue of downed airmen before they could be killed by the Japanese, disruption of enemy supply lines, and cutting communications. As it became clear that the Japanese were losing the war, the OSS detachments ventured into China, and even Korea, to rescue POWs as the Japanese communications intercepted by the OSS and other intelligence agencies revealed their intention of killing all prisoners of war. The OSS operations in the CBI were welcomed by Mountbatten, who also had the support of SOE specialists in the theatre, which is an often overlooked story of the war.

The OSS operatives selected from the 442nd Infantry Regiment (incidentally the most decorated infantry regiment in American history) were some of the few Japanese-Americans sent to fight in the Pacific. Their role too has been largely overlooked by history, in part because of the clandestine nature of their duties and in part because the CBI is often ignored in histories of the war against Japan, which focus on the contributions of MacArthur and the US Navy and Marines. The OSS was dissolved following the war and its many contributions remained classified for many years. Some still are, because revealing them could reveal assets used by the CIA during the Cold War.


Where do we find this stuff? Here are our sources:

“The Wolves at the Door: The True Story of America’s Greatest Female Spy”, by Judith L. Pearson, 2005

“OSS: The Secret History of America’s First Central Intelligence Agency”, by R. Harris Smith, 1972

“A Most Ungentlemanly Way of War”, by Bernd Horn, 2016

“The Recipe for Adventure: Chef Julia Child’s World War II Service”, by Jeanette Patrick, National Women’s History Museum, 2017, online

“OSS and Yugoslav Resistance 1943 – 1945”, by Kirk Ford, 1992

“Donovan of OSS”, by Corey Ford, 1970

“Nisei Linguists: Japanese Americans in the Military Intelligence Service During World War II” review by Stephen C. Mercado, United States Central Intelligence Agency Library, cia.gov