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

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