Back in World War II, the United States was woefully prepared to enter the war, especially in the field of intelligence operations where they didn’t have a national, professional intelligence service. But that would change very quickly.

After President Franklin Delano Roosevelt appointed General William “Wild Bill” Donovan to head up the fledgling Office of Strategic Services (OSS), he quickly used his British contacts with getting the Americans the training and experience they would need in the coming months.

After OSS grew from their original COI (Coordinator of Information) roots, the U.S. copied the British program of psychological/psychiatric assessment similar to that in the English War Office Selection Boards (WOSBs).

OSS was searching for what personal makeup would be for assessing the perfect applicant for paramilitary operations (Guerrilla warfare, sabotage, assassination), intelligence operations (espionage), propaganda operations and select skills such as radio operators. They were starting from scratch. No one really knew what would make a perfect candidate for any of those.

So Donovan and his staff assembled a team of psychologists headed up by Dr. Henry Murray, a Harvard-trained psychologist who was a pioneer in personality assessment. He would head up the Assessment and Selection committee. They would screen nearly 5400 candidates to weed out the unfit for the dangerous job of being involved in the U.S.’ first foray into the intelligence and Special Operations business.

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The candidates, military and civilian, men and women would be brought to Station S. (Schools and Training) at the prior Willard Estate in Fairfax, Virginia. The initial problem that arose was that there were no job descriptions for the candidates and therefore the psychologists had a difficult time in assessing candidates because they didn’t know what they were actually assessing for.

But what the Training School cadre of doctors came up with is a basic tool that is still used today, not only in Selection and Assessment for Special Operations Forces but in the civilian world in assessing managers.

Candidates would be required to build and maintain as completely as possible a cover
story for himself, claiming to have been born somewhere he wasn’t, to have gone to to school and educated in an institution other than those he had attended, to have been engaged in work or profession different to his own, and to live now in a place that was not his true residence. The cover story was to be maintained with staff and students alike at all times except under when speaking to cadre members for the purposes of assessment. The candidates could reveal anything about themselves except their names and true identities.

During the assessment cycle, this was the first test of what would become the real world test of living undercover abroad in a foreign country that may be under enemy control. The candidates were rated on several key factors which included:
Motivation, Practical Intelligence, Emotional, Stability, Social Relations, Leadership, Physical Ability, Observation and Reporting, Propaganda Skills, and Maintaining Cover.

Each factor was rated on a six-point scale: Very Inferior, Inferior, Low Average, High Average, Superior, Very Superior.

In addition, candidat were assessed in other factors as well:

  • Motivation: energy, effort, initiative, morale,
  • Practical Intelligence: speed and accuracy of judgment, resourcefulness in solving problems
  • Emotional Stability: emotional control and maturity, the absence of neurotic symptoms
  • Social Relations: social awareness, goodwill, teamwork, tact, the absence of annoying traits
  • Leadership: social initiative, organizing ability, ability to evoke cooperation
  • Physical Ability: agility, daring, ruggedness, stamina
  • Observation and Reporting: ability to search, question, observe and recall,
    Infer, report
  • Propaganda Skills: the ability to affect others through acts, words, or displays
  • Maintaining Cover: caution, ability to remain inconspicuous, bluff, mislead, keep a secret

One of the more intriguing tasks given to the candidates was the Map Memory Test. in this test, the candidate had to assume that he is an operative in the field and that he has just made a secret face-to-face meeting with a courier who has a map of the territory that the agent will be operating in.

After a few minutes the courier must leave with the map and since it would be dangerous for the agent to have it, he must memorize it. After eight minutes to examine the map, it is taken away and the candidate answers a set of multiple-choice statements about the terrain shown on the map.

Back when I was a cadre in Selection, we came across this and several of the cadre members as well as candidates took the test in one of our first Selection courses in SFAS.

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Other tests given to OSS candidates included:

The Brook Situation: This is similar to many of the tasks that SFAS candidates face in today’s course during what is now termed “Team Week”. This leaderless situation is now more apt to current Selection tasks than when the courses first began in the 1980s.

There a group of candidates were asked to cross a 15 foot wide stream, that the candidates were told to be a canyon. The are given a log which is said to be a delicate piece of equipment that they must carry over the canyon and return with a rock. The rock was to be considered to be explosives. The must carry log across, return with rock and all members of the group.

They were not permitted to jump but were asked to solve the problem as a group. They were given 10 minutes to generate a plan. No one was named the leader so there was the opportunity to take leadership and interact as a member of a team.

The candidates were assessed on the following criteria:

  • number of different suggestions offered
  • working as a member of a team
  • volunteering for unpleasant tasks
  • insight into the problems
  • evaluation of proposed suggestions
  • tact in responding to suggestions by other team members
  • sense of humor
  • guiding of others to a solution
  • organizing the workers into a team
  • combining ideas from others

The Wall Situation:

This was another leaderless evaluation candidates were led to a wall 10′ high,15′ long. Behind the wall which the candidates could see was another wall of the same height
and length, parallel to it, the two walls being 8′ apart. On the candidates’ side of the wall
there were a heavy log, an old board a few inches longer than the log, and a couple of
two-by-fours, two feet and three feet in length.

The candidates were told this wall was a barrier they could not go around or see around. Furthermore, behind this wall was a canyon and on the other side was another wall. The situation is that they were trying to escape from Japanese soldiers and must figure out how to get the entire team to the other side, carrying their bazooka which was an oversized log.. Any item or person that fell between the walls was lost. Solving the problem required getting quickly to the top of the wall to assess the situation and determining a way to measure the gap with the tools that were available in order to decide what could be used to cross it.

Smart leaders quickly realized the best wall climbers had to go first and last to assist the other team members up and across the wall and any apparatus built. The Wall was assessed the same as the Brook.

The Construction Situation: This was a test of emotional stability as well as a test of working with others, outside of the team. In this scenario, a candidate was given the task of constructing a basic wooden structure within ten minutes. The candidate was to serve as the leader and given two “helpers” who were anything but. This was also known as the “Behind the Barn” test.

One was lazy and wanted to do as little as possible the other was more aggressive and criticized everything the leader did. The task was to measure how a candidate handled stress and working with less than ideal “others” who were assigned. The candidate had to explain the task and give specific instructions to each of the “helpers” while maintaining a cool composure and keeping the helpers on task, without resorting to doing it himself.

The Stress Interview: This assessment was one of the most important of all of their tests. OSS operatives faced the danger of being arrested and interrogated by members of the Gestapo in occupied Europe. This small, short test was designed to see who could possibly withstand the emotional and intellectual strain of being interrogated.

Candidates were given 12 minutes to develop a cover story for why the candidate was found going through secret papers in a government office building. They would have no identification papers and could not pretend to be an employee. They were not permitted to answer either”I don’t know” or “I am not permitted to disclose” and had to answer every question. They had to avoid revealing prior personal occupations, residence, etc.

The stress interview lasted only 10 minutes and had the candidate sitting in a hard, uncomfortable chair in a dark room with a light shining in his eyes. The candidate would be subjected to multiple interrogators shouting rapid fire questions at him

At the end of this specific assessment, the cadre would whisper among themselves that the candidate failed the test to watch for any telltale signs. He or she would then be led out of the room and a cadre member would in a relaxed tone try to pry any more information out of him.

The cadre performed other assessments as well and then asked candidates to run an obstacle course at the end of the 2nd day to test their physical attributes. The cadre were looking for an ideal candidate who was a “PHd. who can win a bar fight.” Before they could sharpen the assessment program, the war ended and OSS was disbanded.

However, the same people who founded CIA and the US Army Special Forces dusted off their assessment programs for OSS and used many of the same assessment programs that continue to this day in different forms but essentially still looking for the ideal candidates to continue the mission of the unit and weed out the unsuitable.

So, how would you fare in the Selection and Assessment of OSS back in World War II?

Photos: US Archives