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
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