Defense Media Network

Newest Defense Media Network Promotion

William J. Donovan and the Office of Strategic Services

Starting from scratch


“Strategy, without information upon which it can rely, is helpless. Likewise, information is useless unless it is intelligently directed to the strategic purpose.” – June 10, 1941 memo from William J. Donovan to President Franklin D. Roosevelt

In 1941, with a world aflame in war and America´s neutrality becoming increasingly tenuous, the thing President Franklin D. Roosevelt needed the most was the one thing he was getting the least: intelligence about the Axis’ capabilities, intents, and actions. The existing agencies responsible within the Army (G-2), Navy (Office of Naval Intelligence, or ONI), the State Department, and the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) had proved so inadequate and parochial that he had secretly created his own informal network in an attempt to keep himself abreast of the situation abroad. It wasn’t enough. He knew it, and he confessed that fact to his friend William J. Donovan, a member of that informal network, hoping the World War I veteran and lawyer’s vast experience might hold the answer. A few days later, Donovan handed the president his response. The memo was bold – breathtakingly so – and unprecedented. Donovan proposed that America, for the first time in the nation’s history, should have nothing less than an independent, fully functioning espionage agency like those in place with the combatants in Europe and Asia. Roosevelt agreed, but asked Donovan to take the job of establishing it.

Donovan´s challenge was enormous. Not only would he have to start from scratch, it was arguable who would be his greater foe: the Axis or turf-guarding bureaucrats from America´s other intelligence-gathering agencies. But, as he so often was able to do, in William Donovan, President Roosevelt found the right man.

She was so successful that she became the Gestapo’s top target in France; they called her “the most dangerous of all Allied spies.” Only after American troops landed in French North Africa and the Nazis occupied the rest of France did she leave, making a dangerous trek over the Pyrenees mountains into Spain on foot, a grueling experience because of her wooden leg.

Roosevelt’s executive order dated July 11, 1941, created the office of the “Coordinator of Information” (COI), responsible for military intelligence (gathered either independently or in partnership with existing agencies), covert operations, and propaganda. After the United States became a co-belligerent in December 1941, Roosevelt decided to separate the functions of propaganda and espionage. On June 13, 1942, with Executive Order 69, he abolished the COI and replaced it with two agencies: the Office of War Information (OWI) responsible for the former, and the Office of Strategic Services (OSS) responsible for the latter. Donovan was named director of the OSS.

Though all the military branches were playing catch-up with regard to war readiness, Donovan’s table of organization situation was unique. Unlike the military, which had a foundation and infrastructure upon which to build, Donovan’s agency literally began as a one-man operation that needed everything – from office space, typewriters, and pencils on up.

By mid-1942, Donovan had accomplished the miracle of having an infrastructure in place that included training camps and schools with instructors and recruits, laboratories and plants working on everything needed for espionage, and a core of agents and operators in the field. According to the organization’s own booklet Office of Strategic Services (OSS) Organization and Functions, the OSS had two deputy directors, each leading several branches. Under the Deputy Director for Strategic Services Operations fell the Special Operations (SO) branch, which organized and supplied sabotage operations behind enemy lines; Morale Operations, which was responsible for subversion of enemy morale at home and at the front; the Maritime Unit, which would sabotage enemy shipping as well as provide transport for agent infiltrations and the supply of agents and underground groups; Special Projects, which carried out missions of a specialized nature not falling under the jurisdiction of any other branch of SSO; the Field Experimental Unit, included in the SSO division for administration, but under direct control of Donovan; and the Operational Group, which organized and operated guerrilla forces in deep penetration operations.


Maj. Gen. William J. “Wild Bill” Donovan, founder of the OSS, father of the CIA and American intelligence. OSS Society Photo

The Deputy Director for Intelligence Services led the Secret Intelligence (SI) branch, responsible for obtaining secret intelligence through espionage worldwide; X-2, responsible for counterespionage abroad as well as security functions in active theaters; Research and Analysis, which coordinated strategic, political, geographical, and economic intelligence from all sources and produced finished intelligence studies; Foreign Nationalities, which analyzed and reported on the “political temperature” of various nationality groups within the United States in reaction to political events abroad; and Censorship and Documents, with dual functions of securing censorship materials for the organization and monitoring enemy broadcasts for commercial, economic, and political intelligence, as well as researching and supplying personal documents required for undercover operations by other branches.

With the country up to its neck in a global shooting war, Donovan chose to jump-start recruitment by reversing traditional training programs with the credo of hiring on the spot “anyone of great ability,” then “later on we’ll find out what they can do.” In other words, the criteria began with people already possessing the specialized skills the organization needed who then could be trained to agency standards. They became what Donovan called, in admiration, his ¨glorious amateurs.¨

At the high end of the spectrum were people listed in the Social Register (so many, in fact, that wags suggested that OSS actually stood for “Oh So Social”) and such individuals as labor lawyer Arthur Goldberg, Wall Street banker Junius S. Morgan III, historian Arthur Schlesinger, author Stephen Vincent Benét, professional baseball player Moe Berg, Academy Award-winning director John Ford, and actor Sterling Hayden. At the extreme other end were people with prison records: safe crackers, burglars, even Mafia members. And in between were civilians with a love of adventure, like Julia Child, then working in public relations, who would serve overseas in China and after the war would become a famous celebrity chef.


Aaron Bank, an OSS Operations Group leader who went on to found U.S. Army Special Forces. National Archives

Virginia Hall, known as “the Limping Lady” because she had a wooden lower left leg (which she named “Cuthbert”), was perhaps the OSS’ best female field agent. The daughter of a well-to-do family from Baltimore, she had a gift for languages and a love of adventure, and after graduating from college and studying in Europe, she began working as a clerk in the U.S. Embassy in Warsaw. Transferred to Turkey, it was there that she suffered a hunting accident that caused her lower leg to be amputated and put an end to her dream of becoming a diplomat.

She was in Paris when war broke out, and became a volunteer ambulance driver. A chance encounter with a British Special Operations Executive (SOE) agent while on a train to Spain following France´s defeat led her to London, where she was recruited by the SOE, who dispatched her to Lyon in unoccupied Vichy France. Thanks to America´s neutrality, she was initially able to openly work, using as a cover that of a newspaper reporter. When America entered the war, she went underground and operated clandestinely for another 14 months.

She was so successful that she became the Gestapo’s top target in France; they called her “the most dangerous of all Allied spies.” Only after American troops landed in French North Africa and the Nazis occupied the rest of France did she leave, making a dangerous trek over the Pyrenees mountains into Spain on foot, a grueling experience because of her wooden leg.

Though the handwriting was on the wall, the OSS lingered on for months because it was the only agency that had documents and staff needed by the American delegation for the war crimes trials in Nuremberg. Finally, on Thursday, Sept. 20, 1945, President Truman signed the executive order abolishing the OSS and dividing its functions between the War and State departments.

Once back in London, she learned of the OSS and offered her services to the new agency, along with a request to return to France. Despite her notoriety and an all-out effort by the Gestapo, she was never captured. In addition to her radio dispatches, she trained resistance fighters, and her team was responsible for numerous acts of sabotage following D-day, including the killing of at least 150 German soldiers and the capturing of 500 more.

Donovan personally decorated her with the Distinguished Service Cross, making her the first civilian woman to be so honored. She joined the CIA in 1951, working as an intelligence analyst. She retired in 1966, and died on July 8, 1982, aged 76.

Even the military, as distrustful as it was, found Donovan’s organization to be a useful dumping ground for its misfits and other members whose initiative sat uncomfortably with commanders.

One example of the latter was Charles Parkin, Jr., who had served as a lieutenant and demolitions expert in the Army during World War I. Upon America´s entry into World War II, he reenlisted. His transfer occurred during training at the Army´s Engineering School at Fort Belvoir, Virginia. National Guard units were assigned security duty over bridges in the area. Noting how lax they were in their duty, he decided one night to shake things up. Despite an admonition from his commanding officer to leave well enough alone, Parkin went ahead with his unauthorized exercise to “blow up” a bridge. That evening, he took half of his platoon in assault boats up the Occoquan River to a railroad bridge. Rain was falling, and to further distract the guards, Parkin walked up and chatted with the National Guardsmen, who saw nothing unusual in an Army lieutenant visiting them. After a few minutes he left, his men having set their dummy charges.


Donovan (center) with members of the Operational Groups at the Congressional Country Club in Bethesda, Maryland, which served as an OSS training facility. OSS Society photo

The next day he wrote a report of his action and rationale for it. The report rocketed up the ladder to the base commander, who was horrified at the prospect of a public relations disaster in which the Army was “fighting” the National Guard. Next thing he knew, Parkin found himself transferred to COI, where he became a demolitions instructor. He later served in the China-Burma-India Theater with the OSS. He retired from the Army with the rank of lieutenant colonel.

An even more extraordinary individual was Peter J. Ortiz, one of almost 300 Marines to serve in the OSS. At war’s end, he was the most highly decorated member of the OSS, having earned two Navy Crosses, the Legion of Merit with “V” device, and two Purple Hearts, among other decorations. His exploits during the war combined aspects of actor Errol Flynn, fellow Marine Chesty Puller, and fictional spy James Bond.

The son of an American mother and French-Spanish father, Ortiz´s military career began at age 19 with enlistment in the French Foreign Legion in 1932. Discharged in 1937 with the rank of sergeant and having received the Croix de Guerre with two palms as well as other decorations from the French government, he went to Hollywood and became a technical adviser on war films.

When France entered the war in 1939, he reenlisted in the Foreign Legion and was commissioned a lieutenant. Captured in 1940, he eventually escaped his POW camp and returned to the United States. He attempted to enlist in the Army Air Corps, but, impatient with bureaucratic delays, volunteered for the Marines, where he was commissioned a second lieutenant.

Because of his language skills and experience in French North Africa, he was promoted to captain and transferred to Algiers, officially as assistant naval attaché and Marine Corps observer. That was a cover, for in reality, he was now a member of the OSS. Ortiz participated in the Tunisian campaign, fighting in the Battle of Kasserine Pass and conducting several deep penetration reconnaissance missions. Severely wounded in the last of these, he was airlifted back to Washington, D.C. During his recovery, he wrote a report of his experiences in North Africa that landed on Donovan´s desk. After reading it, Donovan wrote across the top of the first page, “Very interesting, please re-employ this man as soon as possible.”

Upon recovery, he received Jedburgh training, and in January 1944, together with his team, was parachuted into the Haute-Savoie department in the French Alps in Operation Union, to assess, supply, and train maquis resistance units and help evacuate downed Allied pilots and aircrews.


Maj. Peter J. Ortiz, center, wearing sunglasses and his Marine Corps uniform and decorations, inspects members of the French maquis near Albertville, France, Aug. 7, 1944. Photo courtesy of Laura Lacey

Wearing his Marine Corps uniform and all his medals (notable for his numerous French decorations) in part to boost maquis morale, he led them on numerous sabotage missions, gaining a reputation for derring-do along the way. His most spectacular incident was something straight out of Hollywood, and has been retold in several different versions. As the story goes, a group of German officers were at a village bar drinking and cursing Ortiz, President Roosevelt, the Marine Corps, the Allies, and other enemies. Unknown to them, Ortiz was at a nearby table dressed in mufti. He paid his bill, returned to his safe house, changed into his uniform, holstered his pistol, put on his trench coat, and returned to the bar. There he doffed his coat, aimed his pistol at the astonished German officers, and ordered them to drink toasts to Roosevelt and the Marine Corps before backing his way out the door.

Ortiz was captured in August 1944 during his second Jedburgh mission. With the remnants of his six-man team surrounded in the village of Centron by a far larger German unit, and knowing the village would be destroyed and its citizens killed in reprisal if the house to house fighting continued, Ortiz negotiated a surrender with the German commander. He remained a POW for the rest of the war. Discharged in 1946, he served in the Marine Corps Reserve until 1955, promoted to colonel on the retired list.

After the war, Ortiz returned to Hollywood and acted in several movies, including some directed by fellow OSS member John Ford. Two movies loosely based on his life were released: 13 Rue Madeline (1947) starring James Cagney, and Operation Secret (1952) starring Cornel Wilde. He died on May 16, 1988, aged 74, and was buried with full military honors at Arlington National Cemetery.

Instructors were just as colorful, none more so than Capt. (later  Lt. Col.) William Ewart Fairbairn of the British Army. A self-taught expert in unconventional hand-to-hand combat that he learned while a police officer in Shanghai fighting organized crime and street thugs, it was there he invented, with Eric Anthony Sykes, the Fairbairn-Sykes stiletto used by British commandos, the OSS, and other special operations units to this day.

For armed combat training, Fairbairn created a “house of horrors,” a building with darkened rooms that contained confusing sounds, flashing lights, and pop-up targets. A trainee had to race through the course firing at the targets. Trainees were graded on their firing accuracy.


Les Marguerites Fleuriront ce Soir, a painting by Jeffrey W. Bass, depicts Virginia Hall as an SOE agent. After fleeing France one step ahead of the Germans, Hall joined the OSS and returned to the occupied country as an agent. CIA image, artwork donated by Richard J. Guggenhime

Donovan tapped the chemist and inventor Stanley P. Lovell, whom he called his ¨Professor Moriarity,¨ to make the countless tricks of the trade his operators would need. Everything from exotic firearms to cameras, radios, and explosives – you name it – came from the fertile minds of he and his geniuses in his Office of Scientific Research and Development.

They included such things as “Aunt Jemima,” an explosive “flour” that could be shaped and cooked to resemble baked goods, “mule turds,” explosives that resembled the ubiquitous droppings that littered the roads and landscape of North Africa, and the “Stinger,” a 3-inch pen that was a single-shot .22-caliber firearm. On the non-deadly, psychological warfare side was an embarrassing weapon called “Who? Me?” It was a toothpaste-sized tube filled with a chemical that smelled like a particularly odious bowel movement. Distributed to children in Japanese-occupied China, Lovell later said, ¨When a Japanese officer, preferably of high rank, came walking down a crowded sidewalk, little Chinese boys and girls would slip up behind him and squirt a shot of ´Who? Me?´ at his trouser seat … it cost the Japanese a world of face.¨

Christian Lambertsen came to OSS attention thanks to his groundbreaking experiments with underwater breathing devices. In April 1942, while still in medical school, he gave a demonstration of his Lambertsen Amphibious Respiratory Unit II to representatives from the Navy, SOE, and the OSS. The Navy passed on it, but SOE and OSS liked what they saw. Upon graduation in 1943, the OSS commissioned him a first lieutenant in the Army Medical Corps and assigned him to its Maritime Unit to refine his prototype and create doctrine.

Teams using his respirator were deployed in all the theaters where the OSS operated, with Lambertsen going to Ceylon (now Sri Lanka) to oversee use of his device and refine doctrine. Discharged in 1946 with the rank of major, Lambertsen would go on to have a distinguished medical career. In 2000, the U.S. Navy SEALs honored him with the accolade “Father of U.S. Combat Swimming.” In 2009, he received the OSS Society´s Distinguished Service Award. He died on Feb. 11, 2011, at the age of 93.

Of all the operations conducted by the OSS, none was as spectacular, or more politically fraught, than the one codenamed Operation Sunrise, the surrender of all German forces in Italy.

Allen Dulles was OSS station chief in Switzerland, based in its capital, Bern. Switzerland had become a magnet for international espionage on both sides thanks to its strategic location; a situation tolerated by Swiss authorities so long as activity remained covert.

From his arrival in Switzerland in late 1942, Dulles would periodically receive peace feelers regarding German surrender. These feelers increased after the Allied landings in France in 1944. In almost every case, Dulles discounted them for one reason or another. But shortly after the Battle of the Bulge in December 1944, he received a feeler reportedly from a member of senior military leadership in Germany regarding an offer to surrender all German forces in Italy. Cautiously convinced it was bona fide, Dulles knew he had to proceed with extreme caution because of Soviet Union suspicions of its Western allies.


Christian Lambertsen models his invention, the Lambertsen Amphibious Respiratory Unit (LARU) Mark I, in 1940. It was the first underwater rebreather device allowing a diver to move about without producing breathing bubbles that could be seen on the water’s surface. USPTO / NSW Publications, LLC

After months of delicate negotiations almost derailed by the Soviet Union, whose leadership bitterly accused the United States and Great Britain of seeking a separate peace with Germany amongst other charges, the surrender document was signed on April 29, 1945, effective on May 2; it ended the war in Italy five days before Germany´s capitulation.

Among those in the Operational Groups (OGs) during the final days of the war in Europe was Aaron Bank. Leader of the proposed Operation Iron Cross to capture or kill Adolf Hitler, Bank found that he was in command of a unit without a mission when Hitler stayed in Berlin and committed suicide in his bunker. It had been thought that Hitler would flee to the “Alpine Redoubt” on the German/Austrian border, where German leadership reportedly planned to make a last stand.  With the European war over, Bank was inserted into what was then Indochina to operate with Ho Chi Minh, who was fighting the Japanese in a guerrilla war. Considerably impressed with Ho and his obvious popularity, Bank recommended to headquarters that Ho be allowed to form a coalition government. He was ignored. Bank would later push for the creation of an Army special operations unit modeled on the OSS OGs. He is known today as the father of U.S. Army Special Forces, and was the first commander of 10th Special Forces Group, itself formed in part by OSS veterans. Ironically, Special Forces would become famous through their early operations during the Vietnam War, fighting Ho Chi Minh.

As World War II entered its final months, Donovan began looking at the likely postwar landscape, and he did not like what he was seeing. Though at that moment an ally, the Communist Soviet Union was politically and philosophically at the opposite pole from the Western democracies, and he knew it was only a matter of time before the United States and the Soviet Union would be opposing each other on the world stage.

He began laying the groundwork with Roosevelt beginning with an April 4 memo outlining his plans for a postwar intelligence agency. Roosevelt ordered it circulated to the State, War, and Navy departments and other agencies for comment.

The beginning of the end of that dream came on April 12, 1945, when Roosevelt, in ill health, died of a cerebral hemorrhage. His successor, Harry Truman, did not share Roosevelt´s love for cloak-and-dagger, and of the 12 agencies on the list to receive the April 4 memo, all but one, the Foreign Economic Administration, had either shot it down or offered no comment. Donovan´s first meeting with Truman came on May 14, a little more than a month after Truman became president, and it was a disaster.


The OSS also operated extensively in the Pacific theater. OSS Deer Team in 1945. Pictured are Lt. Réne Défourneaux (standing, second from left), Viet Minh leader Ho Chi Minh (standing, third from left), team leader Maj. Allison Thomas (center), Vo Nguyen Giap (in suit), Henry Prunier, and Paul Hoagland, far right. Kneeling at left are Lawrence Vogt and Aaron Squires. U.S. Army Center of Military History via Wikimedia Commons

Though the handwriting was on the wall, the OSS lingered on for months because it was the only agency that had documents and staff needed by the American delegation for the war crimes trials in Nuremberg. Finally, on Thursday, Sept. 20, 1945, President Truman signed the executive order abolishing the OSS and dividing its functions between the War and State departments.

Though Donovan´s OSS did not survive the war, his ideas did. Along with the U.S. Army’s Special Forces’ OSS heritage, the U.S. Navy’s SEAL teams descended in part from the OSS Maritime Unit. Lessons learned in the heat of battle were also used in creating the OSS successor as an intelligence agency. On Sept. 18, 1947, Truman authorized the CIA, almost two years to the day after he had disbanded the OSS. Men who cut their teeth in the OSS – Allen Dulles, Richard Helms, William Colby, and Bill Casey – would go on to run the agency, along with other members of the fellowship of “glorious amateurs.”

This article first appeared in the Special Operations Outlook 2018-2019 Edition publication.


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