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OSS Training in the National Parks and Service Overseas in World War II

By John Whiteclay Chambers II
U.S. National Park Service, 2008
Reviewed by Dan Pinck

What a rare occasion it is to read a book about the Office of Strategic Services that deserves a host of encomiums. Mr. Chamber’s book is not one of those 20-watt intelligence books mugged by writers who can’t write. Far from it, his book is a startling and unexpected illumination by an outstanding historian. His book is actually a report commissioned by the National Park Service. It is likely to be published in hardcover in the near future by Rutgers University Press.

The title is a camouflage for a 719-page book about how OSS personnel were taught to shoot pistols and submachineguns; to throw hand grenades on a golf course; to detonate plastic; to dismember trees; to read maps; to kill an enemy with a rolled-up newspaper or a small knife; and to encode and decode one-time pad messages. It is a superbly-researched history of the Office of Strategic Services, from its pre-war birth as the Office of the Coordinator of Information to the OSS’s activities around the world during the war, and to the adoption of many OSS branches by the CIA and the U. S. military after the war.

It’s not a stretch to claim that his book is one of the better histories of the OSS, ranking a place on a shelf with Thomas Troy’s book, Donovan and the CIA: A History of the Establishment of the Central Intelligence Agency. Mr. Chambers’ book puts a closure on the need for more knowledge about the National Park Service locations during the Second World War utilized by OSS.

If Mr. Chambers had limited or confined his book to the work of OSS’s Schools and Training Branch in the United States and to National Park Service sites in Maryland and Virginia, it’s possible, though unlikely, that the interest of many readers, including OSS veterans, would wander off.

However, you will discover that he travels to the OSS theaters around the world; he also traces the irregular, ambitious and successful exploits of a number of OSS representatives who gained distinctive reputations in risky circumstances, some of whom we first meet in his book while they attempt to survive classroom lectures, many dangerous field exercises (four men were killed), and goofy psychological assessments at Park Service locations in Virginia and Maryland. (A minor note: William Casey, who became the 13th Director of the CIA, broke his jaw in a training accident. Many men were injured. OSS training was not a piece of cake.)

I’ve no doubt that a majority of the OSS veterans who entered service in the United States has more than a ragtag knowledge about a few of the training sites in Maryland and Virginia, especially at the Congressional Country Club in Bethesda, Maryland. For these veterans, the sites were their kindergartens and graduate schools.

In peacetime, Congressional had been a swanky private club on four hundred acres, with an 18-hole golf course and other amenities, including a swimming pool, tennis courts, and lakes. The Club’s existence was threatened by the continuing depression and the beginning of the war. It had severe difficulty in making its mortgage payments. When General Donovan, the founder and sole head of the OSS, heard that the Club was seeking a tenant with deep pockets, he visited Congressional and made an offer on his first visit. Its board of directors accepted his offer. The lease required monthly payments by the OSS and the promise to restore whatever damage had been done to the buildings and grounds to be restored immediately following the war to its prewar grandeur.

The latter provision was a wise one since the entire golf course was destroyed during OSS training exercises by grenades, explosives, and demolition weapons of all kinds. They took the place of putters and drivers. The OSS succeeded in wrecking most of the Club. Despite its temporary designation as Area F by=2 0the OSS, Congressional was still privately owned.

Roughly 5,300 veterans in the major OSS branches received some or all of their training at National Park Service locations in Virginia, Washington, D.C., and Maryland.

OSS veterans whose memories are in good working order are familiar with these wartime designated areas:
  • Area A at Prince William Forest Park in Virginia;
  • Area B at Catoctin Mountain Park in Maryland;
  • Area C also at Prince William Forest Park;
  • Area D also at Prince William Forest Park;
  • Area E at Towson, Maryland;
  • Area F at Congressional Country Club;
  • Area RTU-11 at Lothian Farm in Clinton, Maryland;
  • Area S at a country estate in Fairfax, Virginia;
  • Area W at a townhouse in Washington, D. C.
Other training locations included the banks of the Potomac River where the Maritime Unit had its start. (The OSS initiated training in the armed forces of “frogmen.” OSS Limpets sunk several German transport ships, including the Donat in Norway.) When the OSS discovered that the ice and cold hindered training, this operation was moved to Florida and Nassau in the Bahamas and later to Catalina Island and then to Puget Sound, Newport Beach and San Clemente. Worth noting is a nightime landing in assault boats – a mini-invasion, no less – at Gay Head on the western edge of Martha’s Vineyard. This training exercise was led Serge Obolensky, born a Russian Prince and the oldest combat parachutist in the OSS and in the American armed forces. Camp Edwards on Cape Cod (it exists today) was his group’s training base. He, too, had prior training at Congressional Country Club.

Mr. Chambers devotes more than one-third of his book to an examination of OSS training, its merits and its defects. The rest of the book is all value added. By leading us on expeditions to every part of world in which the OSS engaged our enemies, we learn how the OSS accomplished its missions. In this fashion, the book becomes a comprehensive history of the OSS at home and abroad.

Mr. Chambers’ book is a complete package. On this tack, his book achieves landmark status as an OSS history, in much the same way that Dr. John W. Brunner’s outstanding books, especially his OSS Weapons (Second Edition) closes the history on this topic. Dr. Brunner, an OSS veteran who served in China, is acknowledged as the premier historical researcher of the weapons used by the OSS. He received his early training at Congressional Country Club.

General John Singlaub, one of our few generals to serve in the frontlines and to be always ahead of his men in combat, in Europe as a Jedburgh; in China and French Indochina, and as commander of all U. S. troops South Korea, gives this assessment of what he learned in his training at the Congressional Country Club and at other Park Service locations: “These were individual skills that are perhaps useful but are most important for training the state of mind or attitude, developing an aggressiveness and confidence in one’s ability to use weapons. One of the most important aspects of the training was that it gave you complete confidence. It gave you an ability to concentrate on your mission, and not to worry about your personal safety. That’s really a great psychological advantage. I used that later in training my units when I was a battalion commander and later, a battle group commander.”

General Singlaub very likely received the most complete training and education for his responsibilities in warfare of any general. He received a Combat Infantryman’s Badge, Pilot Wings, a Parachute Badge. He received twenty-four awards and decorations. Top that. You ought to read his book, Hazardous Duty: An American Soldier in the Twentieth Century.

Erasmus Kloman had many risky assignments overseas and he received high grades in his domestic training. He had a different tack about the value of some of his experiences in Virginia and Maryland. In his wartime memoir, Assignment Algiers: With the OSS in the Mediterranean Theater, he wrote: “Another camp I attended was Area B in the Catoctin Mountains of Maryland. Some time was spent learning how to steam open sealed envelopes leaving no trace of tampering. At area B we had a couple of days of Morse code (nowhere near enough to function as radio operators). Considerable emphasis was placed on explosives, how to place fuses in various devices, where to place demolitons under bridges or on train tracks, and even how to attach limpets to the bottoms of ships. None of these abilities proved very useful in my later years. The official history of the OSS explains the difficulty of training operatives in the skills they would need.”

Emmett McNamara, a distinguished Operational Group fighter in Europe and China, recalls his training at Congressional Country Club: “There wasn’t much training. What I most remember is running five miles or more every morning. In China, near the Indochina border, my colleagues and I ran for three days through rice paddies to escape Japanese forces. They appeared late one night. I didn’t have time to put on my boots. So I ran barefoot for three days. Maybe that’s why I only remember running at Congressional.”

You’d probably have to make the assumption that the overall OSS training was generally successful. If this were the case, you’d have to infer it was due more to the innate abilities of the men and women who underwent the training than it was to the often disconnected instruction they received. Mr. Chambers thoroughly examines the results of the OSS Schools and Training Branch’s decisions; and he notes the efforts by more than a few of its leaders to overcome the limited vision of other leaders. Few leaders as well as instructors appear to have known precisely how their training at home would help their students overseas. (Weapons instruction was an exception. No one ever suffered from knowing how to use a weapon.)

General Donovan was the perfect leader of the OSS, commanding a rare imagination that fostered success even when his concept may have been misguided. An example was his belief that a single training program would work for all recruits in all of the OSS branches. What would work best for Special Operations and Occupational Groups would be just as appropriate for the training of Secret Intelligence and Morale Operations representatives. Noting the attributes that can lead to effective performance in each activity in sometimes desperate situations, it doesn’t seem logical that a common scheme of training and education could be a proper way to inculcate in each group of trainees the types of expertise that are essential. Should we expect that one size fits all? For longer than a year, there was scant differentiation in the training programs. It took almost two years, until the end of 1943, that each branch’s training programs were more closely focused on their own separate requirements.

Mr. Chambers observes that “Donovan wanted a unified OSS basic course to be attended by all new male OSS personnel, but changes had to be made to bring training into line with the field experience and demands of the operational branches.” Further, he notes that “during the big OSS buildup between the summer of 1943 and the fall of 1944, the training camps had operated at breakneck pace as field activities of Donovan’s organization expanded along with the U. S. military effort, first in Europe and then in Asia.” In OSS fashion, it’s not so surprising that the training branches operated as well as they did. The total number of instructors at more than twelve branches in the United States numbered nearly five hundred men and women. The Schools and Training Branch Headquarters was staffed by about fifty persons. Oh, yes: the deputy head of OSS personnel had been the general manager of Macy’s department stores in civilian life, for what it’s worth.

General Donovan said many times that he had more enemies in Washington than he had overseas. Many of us are aware of some of the officials who attempted throughout the war to throttle him and the OSS. J. Edgar Hoover, generals, and admirals had their knives out to wreck the OSS. Without President Roosevelt’s constant support, they would have succeeded. A new wartime opponent has been uncovered in Mr. Chambers’ research. We know the man’s name, Harold D. Smith. To OSS veterans, his name will live in infamy: as head of the Bureau of the Budget, he carried out President Truman’s order to fire Donovan and to put the OSS out of business two weeks after the end of the war. In fact, Smith wrote Truman’s order and Truman’s letter firing Donovan.

What Mr. Chambers uncovered is this: In the early fall of 1944, Smith ordered Donovan to reduce the size of the OSS by roughly six hundred persons. Donovan responded in his typical fashion by hiring about three hundred additional recruits. This occurred, of course, while the training programs were in operation.

Yes, beyond a doubt, the training operation was successful. At the end of the war, and before the OSS was liquidated, Mr. Chambers wrote: “Operating like the OSS itself which was created in haste and without American precedent and which was impelled with a tremendous drive for speed, production and results, the Schools and Training Branch sometimes appeared confused and indecisive, as S&T acknowledged. Yet, training areas and programs were indeed developed almost overnight to fit the evolving needs of Donovan’s organization and other wartime developments. To meet suddenly increased quotas, the capacity of training areas was from time to time doubled in size, sometimes by putting new sub-camps into operation, sometimes with the creation of “tent cities” to accommodate additional students. Yet, Schools and Training also admitted that “only toward the end of World War II was OSS beginning to approach the kind of training that was really adequate for the complex and hazardous operations carried out by OSS personnel.”

To see the world of the OSS by focusing on the training that the majority of veterans received at National Park Service sites in the United States as well as at some overseas locations is a novel and highly effective approach.

I was skeptical when I began Mr. Chambers’ book. After the first ten pages, I was excited by the quality of his thinking; by the scope and detail of his research; and by the pleasure of reading a book by an first rate historian. I felt the same way when I finished the last page.

He has written a kind of a “Who’s Who of the OSS,” buttressed by an imposing collection original and archival sources: books, records, maps, photographs, and interviews.


DP: What surprised you the most in your research on your new book?

JC: Just how active, lively, and engaged physically and mentally so many OSS veterans remain even in their 80s. In retrospect, it should not be surprising, because this was a group selected on the whole for being above average in intelligence physical ability, individual initiative, and desire to master challenges. But it surprised me at first until I saw the pattern in it and the causes for it.

DP: Were there noticeable differences in the way recruits from the military and from civilian life performed?

JC: I have not seen any breakdown of statistics in this way. All members of the Operational Groups and most, but not all, of the Special Operations teams came from the military. But few were career soldiers at that point at least. I think the key point is that the OSS operational personnel in OG and SO were basically civilians turned into wartime soldiers or paramilitary operators. They were more often citizen-soldiers who volunteered or had been drafted into the military for the war effort. But because of OSS’s priority status in recruiting, OSS sometimes acquired military volunteers who had not had basic training, so were little different from civilians. I can think of several instances where civilian operational personnel in SO, Americans such as Virginia Hall in France or, of course, civilian foreign nationals who were recruited in France or Italy from the Resistance, operated as bravely and possibly as effectively as military-trained personnel. Of course, many of the Secret Intelligence personnel were civilians, although others were citizen-soldiers as indicated before. The short answer is that the OSS had its own training and on the whole it effectively prepared personnel physically and mentally for their roles and also in particular skills that proved useful to them.

DP: Who are a few of your favorite writers?

JC: William E. Leuchtenburg, James McPherson, David Kennedy, Arthur Schlesinger, David McCullough, Stephen Ambrose.

DP: What’s the subject of your next book?

JC: The short answer is: it will be “the forgotten Civil War,” the coastal engagements along the seacoast regions of the Carolinas, Georgia, and Florida

DP: Before I read your OSS book, I had merely a cocktail knowledge about what went on at Congressional and the other sites. Now I know more than I ever thought I’d know. I thank you

JC: Thank you. What did you know?

DP: I knew the golf course. Before the war, I played golf there. I broke 100. I learned from you, among other things, that the OSS literally saved Congressional by blowing up and wrecking its golf course. I’ll note that the present fee to join Congressional is at least $150,000 and that you have to wait about twelve years to become a member and an additional three years to receive golf course privileges.

JC: I don’t expect to play golf there.

DP: How long did it take you to write your book?

JC: From start to finish, I spent four years, three on research and a year to write it. I had a year free of classroom responsibilities.

I have a question to ask you: what did you learn that was especially pertinent to your interests?

DP: I learned not to listen to anyone who believes that stalking the history of the OSS is a task for amateurs. I’m reminded of a frieze on a government building on Pennsylvania Avenue. I’ll paraphrase it: “To seek the wealth of the Indies, you must take the wealth of the Indies with you.”

I’ll add that your book enforces or invigorates the memoirs and splendid careers of OSS veterans who received some or all of their training at the sites noted in your book, including especially training at Congressional Country Club. I’ll mention Erasmus Kloman, John Singlaub, Albert Materazzi, William Colby, Elizabeth McIntosh, William Casey, Arthur Reinhardt, Bernard Knox, Roger, Hall, William Pietsch, John Brunner, and Emmett McNamara.

Read the National Park Service Report on OSS Training Facilities