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Office of Strategic Services (OSS): American Special Operations Gets Its Start

When World War II started in Europe, President Franklin D. Roosevelt was acutely conscious that American intelligence efforts were, as diplomat Robert Murphy later said, “primitive and inadequate.” Four departments, State, FBI, the Army’s Military Intelligence Division (G-2), and the Office of Naval Intelligence, had overlapping responsibilities, resulting in wasteful and inefficient duplication. When attempts to get the four departments to coordinate efforts failed, FDR authorized in the summer of 1941 the office of the Coordinator of Information (COI) with Col. William “Wild Bill” Donovan its head. It was America’s first peacetime, nondepartmental centralized intelligence organization. The following year with America now fully engaged as a combatant in the war the COI was re-organized under the name Office of Strategic Services (OSS).

OSS Training

Candidates for the Office of Strategic Services (OSS) learn how to set up radio antennae. National Archives and Records Administration photo

It will perhaps come as no surprise to learn that contradictory information exists on the Internet regarding the actual date establishing the OSS. The confusion arises because the years of the founding of the OSS and its predecessor are incorrectly transposed. The COI was founded on July 11, 1941, and the OSS on June 13, 1942.

Responsible to the Joint Chiefs of Staff but reporting directly to the president, Donovan had the authority to shape and develop his organization as he saw fit. He did so with gusto, effectively making it the “Fourth Arm” of the military services. Donovan actively sought out immigrants or Americans who had traveled abroad. As the latter tended to be prominent individuals from Ivy League universities and society, Washington wits took to saying that OSS stood for “Oh So Social.” But recruits also included such individuals as major league baseball player Moe Berg, director John Ford, Julia Child, who later became a famous chef, and Army career officer John Singlaub.

“He said the new agency would coordinate intelligence and would also conduct offensive special operations; Donovan would report directly to the President and would have the rank of major general.”

—William “Intrepid” Stephenson cable to British Intelligence superiors in London

When President Franklin Roosevelt made the decision on July 24, 1942, to invade French North Africa (Operation Torch) Donovan now had the ultimate chance to prove the capability of his fledgling organization.

Fortunately for him, intelligence networks were already operating there: the so-called “twelve apostles,” vice-consuls working for then U.S. Chargé d’affaires Robert Murphy, and Agency Africa, a British Special Operations Executive (SOE) network that, because it was run by Polish national Mieczyslaw Zygfryd “Rygor” Slowikowski, deftly sidestepped the terms of the July 1940 agreement between Great Britain and Vichy France which banned British nationals from French North Africa.

OSS Code Training

Office of Strategic Service (OSS) candidates during code training. National Archives and Records Administration photo

For administrative purposes only, they were consolidated under the COI/OSS umbrella when Lt. Col. William Eddy (U.S. Marine Corps Reserve) arrived at the American consulate in Tangier in December 1941. A Princeton graduate, fluent in Arabic and the Arabic culture (his parents had been Presbyterian missionaries in Syria), and a World War I hero (Navy Cross, Distinguished Service Cross, Silver Star with cluster, Purple Heart with cluster), Eddy was a naval attaché working for the Office of Naval Intelligence’s “K Organization” based in Egypt. When K Organization was incorporated into Donovan’s COI in August 1941, Donovan made Eddy his intelligence chief in North Africa.

With three networks operating (COI/OSS, vice-consul, Agency Africa), the variety and amount of information passed to Washington and London quickly accumulated. One request from SOE resulted in an imaginative response by Carleton Coon.

Coon was typical of the kind of person recruited by the OSS. Originally a vice-consul in America’s Tangier Consulate, Coon was also a Harvard anthropologist and under that scientific cover he gathered intelligence. In one mission SOE asked him to gather roadside stones in French Morocco to be used as models for plaster of Paris-coated tire bombs designed to immobilize enemy vehicles. Coon couldn’t find rocks that matched SOE’s specs. But what he did find were countless mule turds that littered the roads. Coon gathered up a number of (presumably dry) examples and handed them to Eddy. As everything from Eddy was sent via sealed diplomatic pouch, it is left to the reader’s imagination what the reaction in London was to the contents of that particular delivery. Nonetheless, a few weeks later “donkey turd bombs” arrived in North Africa and reportedly were used with good effect against Axis troops in Tunisia.

In his analysis, “The Role of the Office of Strategic Services in Operation Torch,” Army Major Thomas W. Dorrel, Jr., noted that in its debut mission the OSS did make some mistakes. But working together with the vice consuls and Agency Africa, the OSS successfully “provided more than enough intelligence information to conduct combat operations [in Torch].”


DWIGHT JON ZIMMERMAN is a bestselling and award-winning author, radio host, and president of the...

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    It is always amazing how much can get done by a few highly qualified and motivated personnel.