As a former Special Forces soldier, I love reading books about the Special Operations Forces of not only the United States but other countries as well. But after devouring everything I could get my hands on about Special Forces during the Vietnam war especially those men from SOG some of whom trained me when I was a young pup, I went in search of the beginnings of SF.
Both Special Forces and the Central Intelligence Agency owe their direct lineage to the OSS, (Office of Strategic Services) that was started from scratch just before the United States entered World War II and by war’s end had over 10,000 men and women in their ranks. They became the war’s intelligence gathering, espionage, unconventional warfare, sabotage and subversion experts in just a few short years.
Working in close cooperation with the British, OSS patterned their organization from the British Special Operations Executive (SOE) and many of the later leaders of both Special Forces and CIA came from the OSS ranks.
After graduating and teaching in-house from the Special Warfare Center’s Advanced Special Operations Techniques course, I tried to learn everything possible about our predecessors “the Glorious Amateurs” as they were called who comprised the Jedburgh Teams and the Operational Groups that were textbook definitions of what our UW training called for. But what about the leader of the OSS? Who was William Donovan?
Douglas Waller’s intensive biography of William “Wild Bill” Donovan who rose from humble beginnings to be a successful lawyer, a World War I hero with the 42nd ‘Rainbow’ Division and later became the head of the OSS (Office of Strategic Services)is a fantastic read.
Donovan was born to poor Irish-American parents and worked his way from poor beginnings to a law degree from Columbia Law School where one of his classmates was the future President of the US Franklin Delano Roosevelt and married into a wealthy Protestant family.
During World War I, Donovan served mainly with the storied New York “Fighting 69th” mainly Irish Regiment. He was a cool customer under fire and his men loved him and that is where he got the nickname “Wild Bill” for his courage under fire. His closest friend in the Regiment, Father Francis Duffy, was his chaplain and the poet Joyce Kilmer his adjutant. He was awarded the Medal of Honor and the French Croix de Guerre for his heroism in France.
When he finally received his Medal of Honor, he immediately took it off and presented it to his regiment. “It doesn’t belong to me,” he said. “It belongs to the boys who are not here, the boys who are resting under the white crosses in France or in the cemeteries of New York.” He left the medal in the 69th’s New York armory and never retrieved it.
After the war he went into the law business and was very successful, building political connections on the way. He traveled extensively to Europe, building up more contacts along the way. Despite being very much an anti-FDR Republican, the President respected Donovan and asked him to travel to London and gauge whether the English would hold up under the German attacks of early WWII. The American Ambassador Joseph Kennedy was a firm defeatist and thought Britain doomed.
Donovan met with Winston Churchill and the two were of the same mind. Hitler needed to be defeated and to do so would require attacking the ‘soft underbelly’ of Europe. He returned to tell FDR that Britain would fight on that America needed to end its isolationism and join the British.
Donovan started the war-time intelligence and special operations organization from scratch and built it into the premier organization that deserved much better than to be disbanded at war’s end.
Just before the US entered the war several of the aides of FDR as well as Donovan were lobbying the Roosevelt administration on the need for a coordinated American intelligence service partnered with the United Kingdom. This was echoed by Admiral Godfrey, Britain’s Naval Intelligence chief, and his aide, Commander Ian Fleming. Fleming as many of you will recall was the author of the James Bond books. Donovan spelled out his feelings on how the organization should be run and organized was sent to Roosevelt in a memo.
“Strategy, without information upon which it can rely, is helpless,” Donovan’s memo said. “Likewise, information is useless unless it is intelligently directed to the strategic purpose.”
Like any other new or upstart organization, Donovan made several enemies in the highly politicized seas of Washington. The new unit and the commander of OSS had the ear of the President and besides the service intelligence chiefs who never cooperated with one another and always jockeying for position, Donovan and OSS made enemies with the FBI and especially the Director J. Edgar Hoover.
Hoover hated Donovan with a passion and kept files on all of his comings and goings and tried to discredit everything he did as well as accusing him of some outlandish things, all of which were proven false. When Donovan passed away in 1959 of dementia, Hoover tried to spread the rumor that it was from syphilis.
Through Donovan’s leadership and ability to get things done, in just two short years, Donovan along the British SOE had infiltrated several teams into occupied France before the D-Day landings and they supplied, trained and advised French Resistance groups that proved invaluable for the war effort. Just prior to the invasion, the Resistance and OSS/SOE had planned on cutting the French rails in the Normandy area in 1050 places. The accomplished the mission in 950 of them. This operation was Donovan and the OSS’ finest hour. Led by extraordinary agents such as Virginia Hall, the missions were an unqualified success. The book is filled with the many successes and the few failures of the organization.
The men who served Donovan during the war years as he called them “PhDs who can win a bar fight turned into a veritable who’s who in the later years of both CIA and the US Army Special Forces. Allen Dulles, William Colby were OSS operatives who became the Directors of National Intelligence. Aaron Bank was an OSS veteran who conducted successful missions in Europe. He went to Vietnam, then French-Indo China and met with the Viet Minh guerrilla chief Ho Chi Minh. He tried unsuccessfully to get the US to support Ho despite his Communist leanings over the return of French colonial rule which he saw as an upcoming failure.
Eventually, Donovan’s enemies got the ear of Harry Truman who took over from FDR after the President died in the latter days of WWII. Truman recognized that the US needed a professional intelligence service but not one with Donovan at its head. He had OSS disbanded after the war and then two years later created CIA with many of the same people that Donovan employed.
For the aspiring Special Operators out there, this should be required reading. It gives the background on where the units are today and how they got there. I would also encourage our readers to check out the novels of W.E.B. Griffin on the OSS as well. They were fantastic. We’ll review other books on OSS in the future.
The detail of Waller’s work is extraordinary and it is will quickly become a book that the reader can’t put down. It is a tremendous biography of a great, courageous but still flawed man who unfortunately didn’t live to see how large his former organization had become or the influence it would have around the world. His legacy is alive and well today.
Photos Courtesy: CIA, Wikipedia, and the US Army
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