Training Real Spies for War and Espionage – Office of Strategic Services During WWII

Training for War and Espionage

Office of Strategic Services Training During World War II

Dr. John Whiteclay Chambers II

“ Largely neglected [in
histories of OSS] is the
challenge OSS leaders
faced in developing a
program to train the
“glorious amateurs” of
America’s first central
intelligence and covert
operations agency ”

In the histories of the Office of Strategic Services, the heralded predecessor of the Central Intelligence Agency in World War II, what has been largely neglected is the challenge OSS leaders faced in developing a program to train the “glorious amateurs” of America’s first central intelligence and covert operations agency.  OSS’s response to the challenge of preparing operatives for missions deep inside enemy-controlled territory began in 1942 with a paramilitary training program in two national parks. One of its legacies is the CIA training program today.

In In examining OSS training, this article draws on the author’s recent 600-page report to the US National Park Service on OSS training in the national parks as well as his subsequent research for a forthcoming book on OSS training and service in World War II.2 The article deals primarily with the two main direct action branches, Special Operations (SO) and Operational Groups (OG). In the process, it also refers to training in other operational branches: Secret Intelligence (SI), X-2 (Counterintelligence), Morale Operations (MO), and the Maritime Unit (MU), plus the Communications (Commo) Branch.3 Most of the organization’s other components, such as the Research and Analysis Branch, employed people who were already skilled in their fields and who did not generally require OSS training.

This essay addresses several questions. Why were the national parks chosen as training sites? How was the training program created? What were its aims and methods? What Type of Spy Equipment was used? How did it evolve? Most importantly, how effective was the training and
what was its legacy?

Origins of OSS

The OSS engaged in new forms of warfare for the United States: centralized intelligence, “fifth column” activities, psychological or “political warfare,” and the kind of sabotage, commando raids and directed guerrilla activity now known as irregular warfare. The British had begun such operations in 1940 through the Special Operations Executive (SOE) and the Secret Intelligence Service (SIS), the former established as a result of Prime Minister Winston Churchill’s order to rouse resistance against the German army in occupied countries and “set Europe ablaze.”

In the United States, William J. Donovan, a World War I hero and a Wall Street lawyer with extensive contacts on both sides of the Atlantic and a keen interest in modern warfare, sought to create a comparable organization. President Franklin D. Roosevelt named him director of the new, civilian Office of the Coordinator of Information (COI) in July 1941. Existing agencies, especially the Military Intelligence Division, the Pffice of Naval Intelligence, nd the FBI, vigorously opposed the new and centralized Intelligence agency, but the US entry into World War II in December 1941 led to a dramatic expansion for Donovan’s

In June 1942, Roosevelt reorganized COI as the OSS, in which military and civilian personnel had responsibilities in the fields of intelligence and counterintelligence, psychological warfare, and guerrilla operations, including sabotage and the coordination of resistance movements. Donovan now reported to the newly formed Joint Chiefs of Staff, but he also retained direct access to the president. Among the units established in the new OSS were the Special Operations and the Secret Intelligence Branches. SO took the lead in obtaining instructors and recruits and setting up a substantial paramilitary
training program. Its driving force was Lt. Col. Garland H. Williams, a no-nonsense character with a highly successful career in federal law enforcement and the Army Reserves. The native Louisianan had been head of the New York office of the Federal Bureau of Narcotics and a reserve major when the army called him to active duty in January 1941. That year, he created a training program for the army’s new Counter-Intelligence Corps and then went on to assist at the army’s infantry and chemical
warfare schools. Transferring to Donovan’s organization in early January 1942, Williams began recruiting and training the first
SO force.

First Thoughts on Training

In establishing the SO training program, Williams drew in part on Britain’s experience in unconventional warfare since 1940. Donovan had visited the training schools SOE and SIS had set up in secluded country estates in Britain. Now he, Williams, and other senior officers inspected a new, secret SOE training camp in Canada located on 275 acres of rolling farmland on the edge of Lake Ontario, 25 miles east of Toronto. SOE’s Camp-X was designed to provide secret agent and saboteur training for Canadians and for some Americans. In early 1942, at least a dozen American instructors for SO, and a few for SI, attended all or part of SOE’s basic four-week course; beginning in April, they were followed by the first of several dozen American recruits who trained there. A typical day for trainees at Camp-X began with a five-mile run and two hours of gymnastics followed by lectures on various topics, such as personal disguise, observation, communications, and field craft. The afternoon might include training with explosives in an open field, practice with small arms at a basement firing range, parachute jumping from a 90-foot jump tower, or crawling under barbed wire while machine guns fired live rounds overhead. In the evening, students might study assignments, go out on night maneuvers, or undergo simulated interrogations by instructors or by one of the German officers from an enemy officer internment camp nearby. The course ended with the field testing of students: finding their way back to the camp after parachuting into a forest 30 miles away or infiltrating a local defense plant.8 Garland Williams also drew on his own experience with the Federal Bureau of Narcotics and the US Army as well as Donovan’s vision for the organization. Williams rejected British- style country estates as inappropriate for training saboteurs and guerrilla leaders who were known to operate from forest and mountain hideouts. The ideal special operations training camp, he wrote, would be “situated in the country and thoroughly isolated from the possible attention of unauthorized persons” with plenty of land, at least several hundred acres, located “well away from any highway or through-roads and preferably far distant from other human habitations.” But it should be within about 50 miles from OSS headquarters in Washington.9 Williams found what he was looking for in two nearby national parks.

The First Sites

Operated by the National Park Service, the two woodland properties, then called Recreational Demonstration Areas, were located in the Catoctin Mountains near Thurmont, Maryland (where the presidential retreat called Shangri-La, now Camp David, would later
be built), and in rolling woodlands in the watershed of Chopawamsic and Quantico Creeks near Quantico, Virginia. Each park comprised more than 9,000 forested acres and contained several, recently built cabin camps. The appeal of Catoctin Mountain Park and what was later called Prince William Forest Park was their secluded yet convenient location; expansive wilderness terrain; existing, rustic accommodations; and the fact that they were already owned by the federal government.

Neither the National Park Service nor the Department of the Interior wanted to turn the parks over to the OSS for paramilitary training camps. The Park Service’s mandate was to conserve the nation’s parks for the public, and its cabin camps there were used for summer recreation by charitable organizations serving needy, urban youths from Baltimore and Washington. But the declaration of war enabled the War Department to declare their use a military necessity, and a reluctant acting secretary of the interior signed an agreement, leasing the properties for the duration, albeit with provisions that the military abide by certain conservation restrictions and restore the parks as much as possible to their prewar condition.

OSS map of training for spies

Between 1942 and 1945, the OSS pretty much did what it wanted in the two national parks. The public was excluded, the park rangers gone, and the park superintendents moved out to the nearest towns. OSS erected obstacle courses, firing ranges, and demolition areas, winterized the facilities, expanded the dinning halls, constructed some classrooms and a few barracks and built armories and munitions magazines. Every SO training camp had a commanding officer and a chief instructor, each with a
separate staff. Groups of trainees began to arrive in closed army trucks to these undisclosed locations. At their peak, Catoctin’s two subcamps could accommodate up to 400 men, including trainees and staff members, and Prince William’s six subcamps could hold 900 men (there were nowomen at the training camps in the parks)

The Stomach-Churning Rough House

Throughout the war, park superintendents made regular visits and informal inspections of the properties, and they did not always like what they saw. Some abandoned farm houses were destroyed during mortar practice and field exercises. Park rules against hunting wildlife and cutting down trees were violated. The Catoctin superintendent complained to the camp commander when trainee/hunters killed a rabbit; he lodged a formal protest when a dozen large trees were cut down; and he expressed dissatisfaction when trainees shot several wild turkeys. Midway through the war, the Prince William superintendent was commissioned an officer at the adjacent Marine Base in Quantico and assigned to supervise control of brush fires there, as
he did in his park. Accompanied by his dog and in his park ranger hat and uniform, the superintendent continued to inspect the park property on weekends. Appalled at the ruthlessness involved in the training of the OSS saboteurs and guerrilla leaders, he later complained of what he called “the stomach-turning roughhouse of the OSS!” Although SOE had considerable influence in the beginning, not only through Camp-X, but by temporarily lending instructors and providing copies of its manuals, lectures, and training materials, as well as the latest explosives and Allied and Axis weapons, OSS eventually went its own way. It never adopted the British model of two entirely separate government agencies for secret intelligence and special operations (SIS and SOE). It rejected the class formality between officers and enlisted men and the rigid military discipline of SOE training camps. By mid-1943 only one British instructor remained with the Americans. The OSS was a most un-military military. With little attention paid to regular army protocol and procedure, OSS training camps fostered a highly informal atmosphere. There were few distinctions between officers and enlisted men and little or no saluting or drill in the manual-of arms or marching in ranks. Emphasis was on individual responsibility and initiative. “I’d rather have a young lieutenant with guts enough to disobey an order than a colonel too regimented to think and act for himself,” Donovan declared.

Special Operations Curriculum

The training program that Garland Williams envisioned in early 1942 consisted of a general curriculum that provided preliminary, basic, and advanced training courses to SO and SI recruits before they prepared for their different types of missions. His training plans provided elasticity and allowed for varying the instruction according to a person’s previous experience, special qualifications, or assignment. Williams believed that the preliminary two-week, “toughing up” course of demanding physical exercise, obstacles, night marches, and tryouts in close combat and weapons skills would weed out the unqualified and help to classify accepted individuals for future instruction and assignment.

Toughening up was to be followed by two weeks of basic SO training drawing on more intellectually demanding skills derived from SOE’s curriculum: identification of targets of opportunity, observation, intelligence gathering, sabotage, and so on. In addition to learning new skills, the students, Williams explained, “will also be physically and mentally conditioned during these two courses for the aggressive and ruthless action which they willbe called upon to perform at later dates.”

After completing the preliminary and basic courses, the student would go on, under Williams’s plan, to either parachute or seaborne infiltration training and then to one of the advanced schools that would be set up for intelligence work, propaganda, sabotage, or guerrilla leadership. Throughout all of the training, the focus was to be on imparting skills, building up the candidate’s physical condition and self-confidence, and developing the student’s individual initiative, personal courage, and resourcefulness. All instruction, Williams emphasized, should be practical, not theoretical. Instructors should keep lectures short, rely more on the “discussion or conference method of instruction” and make good use of “interest-provoking equipment and materials.” Indeed, OSS produced hundreds of training films, several of them by Hollywood director John Ford.16 Classroom instruction, Williams added, should alternate with outdoor demonstrations and practice. As he summarized his pedagogical philosophy: “Whenever possible, the system of instruction will follow the principles of explanation, demonstration, application, and examination.”

Later, the advanced courses would include “schemes”—mock attacks on real targets. Students would be assigned, for example, to place imitation explosives under a nearby railroad bridge or radio tower, or directed to infiltrate a defense plant in Baltimore or Pittsburgh and obtain classified information or leave a dummy explosive charge. Williams continued to stress that the focus was on the individual:

“Constant thought will be given to the building of a high state of morale and a high esprit de corps. However, the military indoctrination will be so handled as to develop to the maximum extent his individual initiative, personal courage and resourcefulness. Emphasis will be constantly placed on the development of this agent as an individual and not as a fighter who is only effective when under close leadership. The guerrilla concept of warfare will be the guiding principle.”

The first classes in basic special operations training began in early April 1942 at Catoctin National Park, which was designated Training Area B for basic OSS training. The first advanced course began a few weeks later in Prince William Forest Park’s western sector, some 5,000 acres, designated Area A for advanced training. At Area B, a dozen instructors taught about two dozen students per course in those early days. The number of instructors and students would grow into the hundreds at the peak use of the camps in the two parks during 1943–44. Because of the drive to produce substantial numbers of SO agents, this basic course lasted two to three weeks.

During the war, the topic titles in the basic special operations curriculum remained roughly the same, but the content would change as a result of new information from overseas. Basic SO training, although initially held at Area B, came to be known as A-4 training because, for most of the war, it was centered at Area A’s subcamp A-4 in Prince William Forest Park. It included such topics as physical conditioning, close combat, weaponry, demolitions, map reading, field craft, Morse code, first aid, as well as intelligence gathering and reporting, and enemy organization and identification. Field problems included night map and compass exercises, reconnaissance and patrol, and simulated sabotage.

Physical conditioning in Special Operations’ courses for members of SO, or SI, MO, or whoever took its paramilitary training, meant not just morning calisthenics but challenging exercises testing limits of stamina and nerve. On a giant, timbered jungle-gym more than 40 feet in the air, at Area B, Catoctin Mountain Park, for example, trainees climbed poles, walked narrow planks and swung from perilous platforms, testing themselves and simulating clambering around bridge or tower beams or repelling down cliffs. They learned how to cross surging streams and rivers on a single rope while gripping two overhead lines for balance. On obstacle courses, they crawled under live machine gun fire and dodged along booby-trapped trails studded with explosive trip wires.

In 1942, William Casey, a future director of central intelligence, but then a young naval officer and trainee in Secret Intelligence, did not crouch down enough on the trail at subcamp B-2. When he accidentally snagged a trip wire, it triggered a block of TNT attached to a nearby tree. The blast sent a chunk of branch hurtling through the air, striking him on the side of the face and breaking his jaw.

Instructors William Fairbairn (left) and Hans Tofte.Because of the OSS emphasis on prowess, self-confidence, and self-reliance on hazardous missions, instruction in close-combat techniques, armed and unarmed, was a major component of the training. Its chief instructor was a William (“Dangerous Dan”) Fairbairn, legendary former head of the British Shanghai riot squad, who had taught for SOE in Britain and Canada and then for OSS from 1942 to 1945. He had fought Chinese street gangs, mastered Asian forms of martial arts, and invented a slim, razor-sharp stiletto for use on sentries. Fairbairn knew a hundred ways to disable or kill an enemy with his hands, his feet, a knife, or any instrument at hand. “Forget about fighting fair,” was Fairbairn’s mantra. “In war, it’s kill or be killed.

Under the direction of Fairbairn and Rex Applegate, a reservist and military police instructor from Oregon, OSS jettisoned standard marksmanship in favor of practical combat shooting. With their pistols, students learned “instinctive fire.” Instead of carefully aiming at fixed “bull’s-eye” targets, OSS trainees jerked into a crouched position and quickly squeezed off two rounds at a time. The idea was to kill or startle an armed enemy before he killed you.

For realistic training and testing, Fairbairn created special, dimly lit structures that he called “pistol houses” or “indoor mystery ranges.” “Under varying degrees of light, darkness and shadows plus the introduction of sound effects, moving objects and various alarming surprises,” he explained, “an opportunity is afforded to test the moral fiber of the student and to develop his courage and capacity for self control.” Students called it a “house of horrors,” and one remembered it this way:

” Each of us over a period of a couple of days would be awakened in the middle of the night and hauled off to carry out a special mission. When it came my time, I was told that there was a Nazi soldier holed up in a building and that it was my job to go in and kill him. I was given a .45 a two clips. The house I was sent into was a log house with long corridors and stairways. I wasn’t sure whether there really was a Nazi soldier there or not. I kicked a door open with my gun at the ready. Paper targets with photographs of uniformed German soldiers jumped out at me from every corner and every window and doorway. We had been taught to always fire two shots at the target. There must have been six targets because I got two bullets in each one. The last one was a dummy sitting in a chair with a lighted cigarette in his hand. If you didn’t shoot him you failed the test.”

For sabotage training, OSS instructors taught students about various forms of explosives, including the new moldable, gelatin-like “plastic” compounds, which were more stable and contained more explosive power than TNT. Trainees learned how to use various kinds of explosives, fuses, and timing devices to destroy railroad tracks, trains, ridges, tunnels, dams, radio towers, supply depots, and ndustrial facilities to impede enemy operations.

In practical field exercises, students practiced escape, evasion and survival techniques, as well as tactical operations. As training progressed, the intensity increased. Lt. John K. Singlaub, SO, then a young UCLA graduate fresh from paratroop school who would soon serve in France, later wrote: By the end of November [1943], our training at Area B…had become a grueling marathon. We fired American, British, and German weapons almost every day. We crawled through rainsoaked oak forests at night to plant live demolition charges on floodlit sheds. We were introduced to clandestine radio procedure and practiced typing out code and encrypting messages in our few spare moments. Many mornings began with a run, followed by a passage on an increasingly sophisticated and dangerous obstacle course. The explosive charges under the rope bridges and wire catwalks no longer exploded to one side as exciting stage effects. Now they blasted directly below, a moment before or after we had passed. “

Training in the “House of Horrors,” with Fairbairn (right) observing the student’s reactions

OSS field training exercises often culminated in mock espionage and sabotage missions. Local bridges and dams were
handy simulated targets for nighttime raiding parties, and nearby industrial facilities offered similar opportunities for practicing reconnaissance and sabotage. Most students succeeded in penetrating the plants, using cover stories and forged documents, but some were nabbed by the police or the FBI. A most embarrassing incident was the capture, “red handed,” of the professional baseball catcher and spy Moe Berg trying to infiltrate a defense plant in Baltimore.


See Part Two of this Article on The Real Spies of the OSS: Training Real Spies for War and Espionage – Other Spy Branches/Other Spy Schools