The other operational arms of OSS established their training programs more slowly and with fewer students than Special Operations did with its vision of the mass production of commando-like saboteurs, bold, brash gung-ho men with submachine guns and plastic explosives, whom other branches sometimes belittled as the “bang-bang boys.”28 Secret Intelligence, which had taught a handful of agents in a room at OSS headquarters in the first four months of 1942, opened its school in May 1942 on a 100- acre country estate 20 miles south of Washington. Designated RTU-11, but known informally as “the Farm,” it began with a class of eight. It had a capacity of nine staffers and 15 SI students for its four-week course in espionage, ciphers, communications, concealment, and handling agents, as well as weapons and martial arts. In the fall of 1942, the Communications Branch established its school in the NPS cabin camps in the eastern sector of Prince William Forest Park. Labeled Area C, it trained the radiomen who would operate the regional base stations and many of the portable field radios in Commo’s global clandestine shortwave radio network. Communications training at Area C took three months.
OSS established Area D in what may have been an old Civilian Conservation Corps camp in 1,400 isolated wooded acres on the rural eastern shore of the Potomac River some 40 miles south of Washington. Its mission was instruction and practice in waterborne raids and infiltration. After the Maritime Unit was formed in 1943, it moved its training sites for underwater demolition teams and others first to Florida, then the Bahamas, and finally to California.29
Area E, two country estates and a former private school about 30 miles north of Baltimore, was created in November 1942 to provide basic Secret Intelligence and later X-2 training— as a result, RTU-11 became the advanced SI school. Area E could handle about 150 trainees. When the Morale Operations Branch was established to deal in disinformation or psychological warfare, “black” propaganda, men and women of the MO Branch also trained at Area E, although men from MO, SI, and X-2 often received their paramilitary training in the national parks.
The Congressional Country Club and OG Training
In stark contrast to the rustic cabins of the national parks, OSS’s grandest training facility was the magnificent Congressional Country Club, with its palatial clubhouse, its fancy tennis courts and Olympic swimming pool, its 400 acres of manicured lawns, well-maintained fairways and greens of its acclaimed golf course, and the surrounding woods. Established in the 1920s, with Herbert Hoover as founding president, the club had been hard hit by the Great Depression
and in 1943 was bankrupt and in foreclosure proceedings. Consequently, the board of directors was delighted when Donovan offered to lease the facility for the duration at a monthly rent that would more than meet the mortgage payments. In addition, the War Department agreed to restore the property to its prior condition at the end of the war.
Designated Area F, its location in Bethesda, Maryland, made it easily accessible for dignitaries from the capital less than 20 miles away, and it provided a dramatic locale for Donovan to showcase one of his most original concepts, ethnic, commando-like Operational Groups (OGs). For their training the club was transformed— its entrance way lined with tents, fairways torn up into obstacle courses and firing ranges, and the elegant clubhouse converted into classrooms and a mess hall.
It was one of Donovan’s great insights that he could obtain from America’s multiethnic population combat guerrilla teams that could successfully infiltrate enemy-occupied countries because its members spoke the language, knew the culture, and, in fact, were often the descendants of immigrants from that country. By 1943, the Joint Chiefs of Staff accepted not only increased numbers of Special Operations teams but also Donovan’s proposal for these larger ethnic, or at least foreign-speaking, OGs
Special Operations teams and Operational Group units had many similarities. Recruits for both had to meet the high physical standards required for parachute infiltration and wilderness survival as well as superior mental and psychological standards of uncommon stability, judgment, and independent thinking. Both SOs and OGs were supposed to be fluent in a foreign language and both would be engaged in sabotage and irregular warfare, but SO generally worked in teams of two or three and often focused on particular acts of sabotage or subversion. The most famous SOs were the “Jedburghs”—nearly 100 multinational, three-man teams, two officers and a radio operator— most of which were composed of a Frenchman and either a Briton or an American, who received substantial extra training at SOE schools in Britain and were parachuted behind German lines in conjunction with the invasion of France.
In contrast, OGs were organized into sections of 34 men as well as half sections of two officers and 13 NCOs, including weapons and demolitions specialists, a shortwave radio operator, and a medic. These uniformed units were seen as military forces capable of longer and more sustained independent action. In practice however, SOs and OGs often spent similar periods and engaged in the same kinds of missions with resistance groups. For Europe, Donovan created OSS Operational Groups for France, Italy, Greece, Yugoslavia, and Norway. The OGs (and some other branches) received their basic OSS training at Area F
OGs trained as units under their own officers together with OSS instructors. To create the OG training program, a team of bright and bold young officers from the army’s new airborne units was assembled under the leadership of Lt. Col. Serge Obolensky, a former Russian prince and New York socialite who had fought the Germans in World War I, the Bolsheviks in the Russian civil war, and who had gone through SO training and studied guerrilla fighting after joining the OSS at age 51.
The training curriculum for the new Operational Groups included a six-week basic training course. It emphasized the need for trainees to achieve proficiency,
self-confidence, and determination and to recognize that unconventional warfare behind enemy lines was a hazardous undertaking and required not only skill but a certain degree of ruthlessness.
In the OG curriculum, the Preliminary Course taught at Area F began with an hour introducing and going through the training’s objectives. Over the next few weeks, it would include 22 hours of map reading, sketching, and compass work, both theoretical and field problems; 20 hours of scouting and patrolling; 14 hours of physical training; seven hours of camouflage and fieldcraft; four hours of close combat and knife fighting; six hours training on the obstacle course; four hours instruction on the .45 caliber pistol; and four hours on the submachine gun. There would be seven hours of training films. The longest amount of time, 57 hours, was devoted to tactics. That included compass runs, target approach, and day- and night-time field problems. Finally two hours were
devoted to hygiene and camp sanitation; and four hours went for special subjects: enemy organization, communications, security, and current events. Total OG preliminary instruction and training was 152 hours.
Then the OG section moved on to either Area B or Area A, where the final OG course involved eight hours of physical training, 22 hours of demolitions, and 40 hours of weapons training, which included two to three hours each on the mechanics and firing of the M1 rifle, carbine, light machine gun, Browning Automatic Rifle, Colt .45 automatic pistol, British Sten gun, Thompson submachine gun, Marlin submachine gun, M1 and AT rocket launcher, 60-mm mortar, 81-mm mortar, and the .50 caliber machine gun. There was also a bit of hand grenade and antitank training. One French OG, Ellsworth (“Al”) Johnson, remembered firing a bazooka at Area B, “just to get the feel of how it worked.”
Thereafter, students went through four hours on the care of clothing and equipment, four hours on hygiene and camp sanitation, and eight hours of training films. Finally, there was ground training for the parachute jumps that would be made at Fort Benning, Georgia, or more often at OSS or SOE jump schools overseas. Total advanced training was 106 hours. A grand total of 250 hours of stateside training was prescribed for an OSS Operational Group.
The size of the Operational Groups ranged from about a hundred men in the Norwegian group to some four hundred in the French OG.40 In all, there may have been up to 2,000 members of OSS Operational Groups.41 Another 1,600 Special Operations personnel were sent behind enemy lines. The extensive destruction caused by what Donovan liked to call his “glorious amateurs” and their local partisans was accomplished by only a few thousand SOs and OGs, a number not much larger than a single army brigade.
Obtaining Recruits and Instructors
Most of the Americans who volunteered for hazardous duty in Special Operations or the Operational Groups were recruited from high-aptitude, citizen-soldiers of the wartime armed forces. They had already undergone basic military training and often advanced training as well, but OSS demanded even higher proficiency. To weed out recruits unqualified physically or emotionally for dangerous and unpredictable situations behind enemy lines, OSS ultimately developed a highly effective psychological assessment program. Beginning in 1944 at a country estate (Assessment Station S) in Fairfax County, Virginia, candidates underwent three days of tests to determine not only their mental and physical aptitude but their judgment, independence, emotional stability
and their ability to act effectively under pressure. Ranging from their capacity to withstand harsh interrogations to dealing with frustration when, for example, alleged assistants surreptitiously impeded the assembly of a complicated wooden platform, the tests were designed to provide an assessment of a person’s entire personality. Not surprisingly, the evaluation teams learned that, beyond the specific skills and training, what made an effective saboteur in France, an able spy in Germany, a successful commando in Burma, or a reliable clandestine radio operator in China was a secure, capable, intelligent and creative person who could deal effectively with uncertainty and considerable stress
In 1942, when Garland Williams had first sought instructors to train men for clandestine operations, he had drawn on two main sources. One was former law enforcement officers, who, like him, were experienced in undercover work and in the use of firearms and the martial arts. He recruited instructors from officers in the Federal Bureau of Narcotics, the Customs Service, and the Border Patrol, as well as state and local police
For other skills, Williams, who was also a reserve army officer, drew upon activated reservists: army engineers for instruction in explosives and demolition work; military police for pistol shooting and close combat techniques; and infantry officers for the use of small arms, hand grenades, machine guns, and mortars, plus map-reading, field craft, and tactical maneuvers. Signal corpsmen often taught wireless telegraphy, coding and decoding. Paratroopers became instructors in parachute infiltration; and navy and the coast guard instructors taught small craft handling and waterborne landing
There were some problems in initial instruction, particularly with the use of law enforcement officers. Despite their qualifications in weaponry and undercover work, law enforcement officers were deeply imbued with a respect for the law and a belief that lawbreakers and fugitives should and would be apprehended. But the aim of the operatives behind enemy lines was to break the law and not get caught.
Some of the regular army officers who joined the OSS also proved too set in their ways for the path-breaking organization.
Donovan himself recognized this by recruiting bold, risk-taking, rule-breaking individuals. In time many of the law enforcement and regular army instructors left or were reassigned, and OSS came to rely primarily upon citizen-soldiers for SO and OG instructors, rather than already established, fulltime, career professionals in the officer corps.
Similarly for trainees, OSS also sought intelligent, independent- minded individuals. One OSS recruiter remembered looking for activists, from free-lance journalists to trade union organizers. “What seemed liked faults to rigid disciplinarians of the regular services often appealed to us as evidence of strong willpower and an independent cast of mind.”47 Recruiting for Special Operations drew almost entirely from the military—not so much career military as former civilians now in the wartime armed forces.
OSS’s Personnel Procurement Branch scoured training camps and advanced schools of all the services looking for intelligent candidates knowledgeable in a foreign language who were willing to volunteer for unspecified challenging and hazardous duty behind enemy lines.48 As a subsequent Special Operations field manual explained, “SO agents and operatives are selected for their intelligence, courage, and natural resourcefulness in dealing with resistance groups. In addition, they must have stamina to be able to live and move about undetected in their area of operation.