Just a few short months after Pearl Harbor, the United States was locked in a global war with both the empire of Japan and Nazi Germany. And the country had no formal intelligence gathering apparatus.
So, in July 1942, President Franklin D. Roosevelt created the Office of Strategic Services (OSS) and appointed BG William “Wild Bill” Donovan as its head. It was an agency that fell under the auspices of the Joint Chiefs of Staff to coordinate espionage activities behind enemy lines, conduct special operations, propaganda, subversion, and sabotage.
Prior to the OSS, the business of American intelligence had been done on an ad-hoc basis conducted by various elements of the State Department, Navy, Treasury, and War Departments. There was no joint interaction, control, and no direction. Both the Army and Navy had separate code-breaking units that reported only to the individual services.
Donovan was an interesting choice to lead this ground-breaking unit. To begin with, he was a Republican and Roosevelt a Democrat and the two had many disagreements and political battles in New York prior to the war. One must wonder if a sitting US president today would appoint a political foe in the political morass that plagues Washington.
But Roosevelt had befriended his political foe in the ensuing years and respected his vision of foreign affairs. Donovan had traveled extensively thru Europe and had even been allowed by Benito Mussolini, the dictator of Italy to visit the front line during Italy’s war with Ethiopia. Donovan was sent to inspect US defenses in the Pacific during the time before the war and found them wanting. Roosevelt also sent him on fact-finding missions to the Middle East and the Mediterranean. Donovan had many close contacts with the British and he urged FDR to support Winston Churchill.
Thus, when FDR appointed Donovan the head of the OSS in July 1942 he had already been laying the groundwork from the previous year to build a centralized intelligence program. But they were starting with only their imagination to guide them. Donovan immediately based OSS on the British model of intelligence with their Secret Intelligence Service (MI6) and the Executive (SOE). This would prove to be the groundwork for the future.
There was considerable push-back from the FBI, as Director J. Edgar Hoover was openly hostile to Donovan and because of that, operations in Latin America were virtually non-existent as Hoover kept that part of the intelligence area for himself and the FBI. Consequently, the level of sharing of intelligence between the two organizations was zero. Several high-ranking generals held the fledgling organization and Donovan in low esteem, including Douglas MacArthur. It would later keep OSS from helping the liberation of the Philippines, an area that was tailor made for OSS.
Donovan built OSS from nothing to over 10,000 operatives by the end of the war in just three short years. They trained spies, commandos, saboteurs, propagandists and had support personnel to conduct operations all over the globe. At war’s end, Donovan had a plan in mind to bring OSS to the next level and build a post-conflict national intelligence service. But with Roosevelt’s death, President Harry S. Truman disbanded OSS and parceled out its functions to the different services. He then created the Central Intelligence Agency in 1947, but Donovan was not to be its head.
Many of Donovan’s OSS operatives became the face of CIA including Allen Dulles, Richard Helms, William Colby, and William Casey.
Dulles was the agency’s first head and ran a very successful espionage operation against Germany from Switzerland during World War II. Helms, who succeeded Dulles, had run post-war intelligence operations in Berlin against the Russians. Colby who ran the CIA later was an OSS operative who led commando raids in France and Norway. And Casey who was head of CIA during the Reagan administration worked during the war at the Secret Intelligence Branch in Europe under Donovan.
The Special Operations side of OSS later morphed into the CIA’s paramilitary Special Activities Division but it became the backbone of the US Special Operations Command of today. The Special Operations branch of OSS was the basis for many of the Unconventional Warfare (UW), Counter-Insurgency (COIN), and Foreign Internal Defense (FID) tactics and techniques used by today’s U.S. Army Special Operations Forces.
During the war, OSS’ Special Operations Branch fielded units called Operational Groups (OGs) that conducted raids, ambushes, sabotage, and armed resistance groups. These OGs were active in Yugoslavia with the partisans, in Burma as well as France, Italy, and Norway. The most well-known were the Jedburgh OGs which carried out operations in Europe.
Col. Aaron Bank created the 10th Special Forces Group in 1952, he was a Jedburgh assigned to Europe and recruited other paratroopers, OSS operators, and the 1st Special Service Force. Using the training and tactics he learned with OSS, Bank created the Special Forces groups that we know today.
The Navy SEALs are well known to have evolved from the famous frogmen and UDTs of World War II. But they also trace part of their lineage to OSS, although they don’t claim it. The Maritime Unit (MU) of OSS was created to conduct special operations, espionage and to develop special equipment, tactics, techniques, and procedures for other special units. This describes closely to what the Navy’s SEAL Team 6 officially known as Developmental Group (DEVGRU) is tasked with today.
One of the most famous of the MU’s operators was Walter Mess. He had conducted sensitive missions in Poland and Czechoslovakia before heading to the MU. He conducted over 100 secret missions, rescued 220 downed pilots using scout swimmers and PT boats and had 15 jumps into Thailand and Burma.
Although an Army officer, and an honorary Green Beret, Mess fits the bill for a quintessential example of a Navy SEAL. He should be recognized as such by USSOCOM.
While many of Donovan’s intelligence operatives became the backbone of the CIA, the special operations side of OSS became the beginning of the Special Operations Command and the units assigned to it.
And to show the lineage to the OSS, the U.S. Special Operations Command (USSOCOM) wears an adaptation of the unofficial OSS spearhead insignia as its shoulder patch.
From humble beginnings 75 years ago, the United States Special Operations Command and the CIA owe its legacy to a group of free thinking, “glorious amateurs” as General Donovan liked to call them.
Photo courtesy CIA