Training Overseas – OSS Part 3

Training Overseas

As the number of OSS personnel overseas increased dramatically and as they sought to train indigenous agents, the overseas detachments established their own training schools. In addition to training local agents, the overseas OSS schools also provided advanced training and field exercises for graduates of the training camps in the United States and for Americans who enlisted in the OSS in the war zones. The most famous of the latter was Virginia Hall in France.

As the war progressed, the direct action branches came to view the stateside schools as mainly providing only testing and preliminary, introductory training. The overseas training facilities offered advanced and more directly relevant training. Overseas, combat veterans provided practical and up-to date instruction, and training, including intensive simulations in the field that usually continued until the operatives were deployed for their missions. The main OSS training camps abroad were located initially in Great Britain, French Algeria, and Egypt; later as the Allies advanced, a school was established in southern Italy. In the Far East, OSS training facilities were established in India, Ceylon, and then China.

“It was the strangest job of wartime educational administration ever assigned to a former college president,” remarked James L. McConaughy, a former president of Wesleyan University in Connecticut, whom Donovan selected to oversee OSS training from 1943 to 1945. The campus was scattered all over the world…. The students were of almost every type and race…. The teachers were nearly as diverse…. And we taught nearly everything, too: navigation, parachute jumping, how to kill wild animals and use them as food, lock picking, hiding microscopic sized confidential data, protecting oneself from dagger attacks and using one offensively, operating a wireless set, reading code and cipher, elementary foreign languages (French, Greek, Chinese, Japanese, Korean). Name me a weird subject of instruction and I will gamble that it was taught by O.S.S., somewhere, sometime!

Trying to Coordinate

Training When the United States entered the war, Donovan’s fledgling organization had not been prepared for the dramatic wartime expansion that would transform the COI, with somewhat more than 2,000 people, to an OSS which had a peak strength that would number at least 13,000 and perhaps several thousand more.53 As missions expanded, the organization confronted the need to send operatives into the field at the same time that it was developing its recruiting and training systems. Each of the operational branches established its own training program, although many male recruits took their basic paramilitary course in one of the national parks, at least in the first two years.

By August 1942, OSS headquarters began actively encouraging greater coordination, including some standardization, in the diverse training programs that were emerging. After several attempts at coordination, including a cooperative training directorate, Donovan in January 1943, established a Schools and Training Branch (S&T) independent of the operational branches to oversee and eventually operate the schools.

Internal difficulties within OSS as well as problems in dealing with the military caused the loss of some of the initial figures in the training programs, including Garland Williams and his successor, Kenneth H. Baker, SI, an Ohio State University psychologist and reserve army officer who had been the first head of the S&T Branch.54 The branch was in disarray throughout the
summer of 1943.

Not until September 1943, with McConaughy’s selection he was then president of United China Relief— would Schools and Training have a leadership team that would run the branch until the end of the war.55 To do the actual work of running dayto- day operations, Donovan selected as deputy director Col. Henson Langdon Robinson, a Dartmouth graduate, reserve army officer from World War I, and successful businessman from Springfield, Illinois. Donovan had first recruited Robinson to supervise OSS headquarters. Now he gave him the task of efficiently operating the faltering Schools and Training Branch

Schools and Training Branch spent two years trying to coordinate the OSS training system and the numerous facilities and diverse curricula that had evolved since 1942 among the operational branches, particularly the two largest, SO and SI. Although Donovan’s headquarters gave it increasing authority over all OSS schools, first in the United States and then in August 1944 over those overseas, S&T never did control them completely. Despite increasing S&T efforts at coordination and at least some standardization, the operational branches proved resistant to its control, and they continued to exert the dominant influence over their trainees through the end of the war

Schools and Training Branch created a common introductory course in early 1944. A basic two-week program for all OSS operational personnel—SI, SO, MO and X-2— it was first taught at Area E, and called the “E” or “E-type” course. The operational branches, particularly SO, thought it emphasized the wrong subjects and some of them called it a waste of time. Along with SI, X-2 and MO, SO was also angered by what all considered S&T’s overall inadequate curriculum and teaching methods, its seeming inability to incorporate up-to date information from overseas, and what they believed were its inappropriate attempts to play the branches off against each other in order to consolidate S&T’s control

With S&T under such intense criticism and plagued with problems, McConaughy apologized to the assistant director of the OSS: Many of our difficulties stem from the haste with which OSS was organized, the fact that the concept of training followed a program of operations (ideally, it should have preceded it). Schools and Training was the “tail” of the OSS “dog.” For a long time, it
was not given strong leadership, it did not achieve Branch status until recently, etc. Not very long ago, the “chief indoor
sport” of some persons in some Branches was to pick on Schools and Training—and our record probably justified their doing so

Area E was closed in July 1944, but OSS headquarters still wanted a standardized Etype basic course for all new operational personnel. It was not until S&T made changes to bring training into line with field experience and the demands of the operational branches and adopted a modified version of the basic SI training course, that a new OSS basic unified course was accepted. It was approved first by SI, X-2, and MO, and—only after it had been substantially modified to meet the needs of special operations recruits—by SO.

The new basic unified course, still called the E Course, was taught beginning in July 1944 at Area A, and subsequently at RTU-11, Area F, and the new West Coast training facility on Santa Catalina Island off Los Angeles.60 The aim of this introductory course was to provide a quick but intensive survey to all operational recruits of the various kinds of work done by OSS. Having been created by SI, it was heavier on the intelligence than paramilitary side. Subjects such as agent undercover techniques, intelligence objectives and reporting, sabotage, small arms, demolitions, unarmed defense, as well as the basic elements of counterespionage and black propaganda were crammed into only two or, at most, three weeks.61 At the same time, the basic SO paramilitary course (the A-4 Course) was also taught at various times not only in Area A but at Areas B, D, F, and on Catalina Island

During the big buildup between the summer of 1943 and the fall of 1944, the training camps had operated at a breakneck pace as OSS activities in the field expanded along with the US military effort, first in Europe and then in the Far East. Increased demands were imposed on Schools and Training Branch, which numbered some 50 men and women at headquarters and nearly 500 male instructors at stateside training facilities.

The number of OSS training camps in the United States increased to 16 in the last 12 months of the war as the original training areas and assessment stations in Maryland and Virginia were augmented by a communications school, designated
Area M, at Camp McDowell, near Naperville, Illinois, and eight relatively new training facilities in southern California. The most prominent of these “W” areas was on Santa Catalina Island, as the focus of war effort shifted to the defeat of Japan

When Phillip Allen, head of West Coast schools, arrived from S&T headquarters, he was able to institute a well-coordinated program there. His success was due in part because, except for the Maritime Unit, which already had its own school there, the other operational branches did not have training facilities there, and this enabled Allen largely to start afresh. His training program began with the new basic, unified, two-week E Course. This was followed by an advanced course in SI, SO, or MO, or a combination of them

In the summer of 1944, Allen was able to obtain as instructors seasoned veterans who had real experience and information on current conditions in the war zones and who could provide practical advice to their students. Training concluded with extremely demanding field problems, as some of the students—Korean Americans, Japanese Americans, and some Korean prisoners of war—were preparing for infiltration into Japanese occupied Korea or Japan itself

Advanced SI students, accompanied by radio operators, had to infiltrate northern Mexico and obtain and relay important information. Advanced SO menwere sent on survival problems, dispatched into desolate areas with only a minimum of food, forced to live on fish they could catch or game they could shoot. Subsequently they were tested on preparing effective plans to sabotage military facilities in San Pedro harbor and the Orange County coast. Lt. Hugh Tovar, SI, a Harvard ROTC graduate, was one of those OSS trainees in the interior of rugged, windswept Santa Catalina Island in 1945. “They gave me a carbine with one bullet and told me to survive on my own out there for several days,” he recalled. He did and went on afterward to China and Indochina. In its praise of the West Coast training program, S&T concluded at the end of the war, that it was “probably the most efficient that was given by Schools and Training, since it combined the best features of the training that had been given in the East and eliminated some of the weaknesses that experience had brought to light.”

Schools and Training headquarters team, at its peak size, in early 1945.

Schools and Training headquarters team, at its peak size, in early 1945.

Evaluations of OSS

OSS direct action training had its strengths and weaknesses; the latter, as even the Schools and Training Branch acknowl- edged, had been particularly evident in the early stages of its
evolution. Until combat veterans began to return in the fall of 1944, few of the stateside
instructors had any operational experience. There were numerous criticisms. Some students later complained that there had not been enough instruction in how to organize and work with indigenous populations, especially non-European, native populations. Nor was there enough training on how to handle resistance groups, particularly those with diverse factions and conflicting political agendas. Some veterans grumbled about undue emphasis on “cloak and dagger creepiness” instead of practical training that “should be more matter-of-fact.”

Others carped that too much of the stateside instruction had been “a little bit of this and a little bit of that in case it might come in handy some day.”

One of the most frustrating experiences was being held stateside after graduation as a result of the scarcity of transportation or other difficulties.  Another significant criticism was that in the early training program, it had often been unclear to instructors or recruits the particular assignment for which the individual student was being prepared.  Subsequently, S&T attempted to link instructors with the rel-
evant branch desk officer so that an individual’s training might be made more relevant.

Schools and Training Branch had its own complaints, mainly that the operational branches would seldom cooperate. They declined to keep the training branch informed of their plans, and they refused to share their secret after-action reports from overseas. At the same time, they expected S&T’s training camps to handle truckloads of trainees even if these new students suddenly arrived without warning. “Someone recently likened Schools and Training to an island of ignorance with darkness on both sides of it,” Colonel Robinson bemoaned in
late 1943.  We are trying to run a group of schools without knowing anything about the number of students we must train, the type of
missions our students will have, or what happens to them after they get to their eventual destinations.

Despite the gripes, many members of OSS direct action units attributed much of their success to their training. Most commonly, combat veterans cited physical conditioning, specific skills, the building of confidence in themselves and the organization, as well as their sense of the importance of their mission. “The experience at Area B-2 was a great morale builder and when we departed in mid-December [1943], we
were in top physical condition,” wrote Sgt. Robert R. Kehoe, SO, a decorated Jedburgh team radio operator in France.

Maj. Jerry Sage, also SO, credited the training with helping him organize and lead escapes from German prisoner-of-war camps.

Lt. Joseph Lazarsky, SO, who left Area B to become a successful guerrilla leader in Burma, recalled that “the training in weaponry and demolitions was effective. So was building self-confidence and the ability to get things done.” He used the same training methods to prepare indigenous agents in the Far East. “It was very effective,” he said.

Sgt. Caesar J. Civitella, an Italian OG who fought in France and Italy, also believed the training was very effective;in addition, he was impressed by the use of “peer review.” He and the other enlisted men were questioned anonymously during training at Area F about their respect for others in their OG section, as a result of which one of the officers was reassigned.

When OSS Greek OGs left the United States in December 1943, following training at Areas F, A, and B, they were in high spirits, dressed
smartly in their trim, new Eisenhower jackets and paratrooper jump boots, and singing in both English and Greek. Their communications officer said later, “We looked good, acted good, and the biggest thing, we felt good. Officers from other outfits would ask me, ‘Who are you guys?’ Security told us to say that we [were] truck drivers; they knew that wasn’t the case.”

John Singlaub reflected on that training after retiring as a major general in command of US troops in Korea. 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….an ability to
concentrate on your mission, and not 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.

By the end of the war, the OSS’s program of selection, evaluation, and training, and equally if not more important its successes overseas showed the importance of obtaining the right individuals and giving them the skills, spy equipment, and confidence to do the job.

“Training is not spectacular work,” S&T Branch admitted in a report at the end of the war. “It means doing a sound teaching job, adjusting sights to fit circumstances, and keeping right on doing it.”

Operating like the OSS itself which was created in haste and without American precedent and which was propelled by a drive for speed, production, and results, OSS training sometimes appeared confused and indecisive. Yet, training areas and programs were developed almost overnight to fit the wartime exigencies. To meet suddenly increased quotas, the capacity of training areas was sometimes doubled in size, by opening new subcamps or by erecting “tent cities.” Entirely new camps were established and instructors acquired. S&T finally obtained veterans as instructors.  S&T also set up a system of interviewing returning veterans to include their insights into the curriculum. OSS concluded that while some subjects, such as the use of small arms, demolitions, code and ciphers, could be taught by concrete example, the precise situations that agents would face in the field could not be foreseen.  Therefore, as a postwar report put it, “the major goal was psychological—to develop in the student-agent an attitude of mind which would respond to an emergency in accordance with the exigencies of the particular situation.”

Instead of learning by rote, OSS students were encouraged to use principles and examples provided in training as springboards for their own ingenuity and creativity in overcoming problems. The best training, it was believed, gave already talented, independent individuals the skills, concepts and confidence to be adaptable leaders in an unpredictable environment. The Schools and Training Branch had come a long way
since 1942, but in its postwar assessment, it 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.”


OSS’s direct action operations behind enemy lines in World War II were impressive, as acknowledged by a number of Allied and Axis commanders, among them Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower, the Supreme Commander of the Allied Expeditionary Force, who declared in
May 1945 after the defeat of Hitler’s regime, that the value of the OSS “has been so great that there should be no thought of its elimination.”

It was eliminated, of course, in October 1945 by President Harry S Truman. But recognition of its value contributed to the establishment of the Central Intelligence Agency two years later.

The effectiveness of OSS training was confirmed by the adoption of much of its curriculum by its successors, the Central Intelligence Agency and the Army Special Forces.

“The CIA picked it up almost 100 percent,” explained Joseph Lazarsky, an OSS veteran whose subsequent 25-year career with the
Agency included being chief of station in several Far Eastern countries. “They took the manuals, instructional materials, and
put that right into the Agency.  You know, the COI and the OSS started it from scratch. The Agency would have been foolish not to have adopted their training. The training in weaponry and demolitions was effective. So was building self-confidence and the ability to get
things done.”

The CIA relied in part upon the OSS model to evaluate recruits and to train them with skills, self-confidence, and adaptability. In 1951, the
Agency even tried to obtain Prince William Forest Park, site of OSS’s first training camps, from the National Park Service as a training facility.

It was only after that effort failed that the CIA established its own secret, paramilitary training facility on 10,000 acres of pine forests and swamps in southern Virginia.  The demanding OSS-style training continues there to the present day

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