A Look Back … The Office of Strategic Services: Training in the Forest
As a recruit for a new intelligence organization, you train by creeping along trails laced with booby traps. You learn how to use weapons, radios and codes. Where might such secretive training take place? In the midst of our national forests and parks, of course!
Such tales of intrigue and heroism attracted the interest of Rutgers University history professor John W. Chambers. He was especially interested in the Office of Strategic Services (OSS)—the forerunner of the CIA. When the National Park Service asked him to write a report about the OSS training in their parks during World War II, he was only too happy to oblige.
Chambers believes that teaching the public about the OSS is important.
“Until the declassification of the OSS records during the past three decades, the public did not really know very much about this secret organization,” he said. “Some said the initials OSS really stood for ‘Oh, So, Secret.’ The public should know about what was historically America’s first centralized intelligence and special operations agency.”
The Birth of the OSS
With the United States mobilizing for war, President Franklin Roosevelt recognized the need for an organization to collect and analyze strategic information. On July 11, 1941, he created the Office of the Coordinator of Information (COI) and named war hero William Donovan to head it.
After the attack on Pearl Harbor, President Roosevelt ended the COI and established the OSS with Donovan as its leader. The men and women of the OSS engaged in intelligence and special operations throughout the war.
With the pressing need for intelligence during World War II, the OSS grew very quickly. In part, because of its rapid growth, the OSS had little time to find a place to train its new recruits.
Training in the Forest
The ideal setting for OSS training was a place with a lot of land, isolated from roads and the general public.1 Donovan had a few places in mind—Catoctin Mountain Park in Maryland and Prince William Forest Park in Virginia.
These two parks had everything needed to train OSS recruits:
- Heavily wooded terrain,
- Camp houses where the recruits could sleep and
- Buildings for dining and training.
And the parks were already government property.2
Training typically lasted between two and four weeks, depending on the course.
Although the Special Operations, Operational Groups, and Communications branches did much of their training at these two national parks, the OSS also leased other sites in Maryland for use by other OSS branches. They included:
- Frontage on the Potomac,
- Country estates for use by the intelligence branches, and
- The Congressional Country Club for preliminary training particularly for the Operational Groups.
Catoctin Mountain Park
Catoctin Mountain Park was the first operative training camp for the OSS in the United States. It was the site for basic paramilitary training for the OSS’ Special Operations recruits and some Secret Intelligence personnel.3 Later, it would also serve for advanced training for OSS Operational Groups. Catoctin Mountain Park was also known as Training Area B.
While training at Area B, recruits learned knife-fighting and close-combat techniques. They also were introduced to the “house of horrors,” which imitated the stress of an actual urban combat situation.4 Recruits were awakened in the middle of the night and given a gun with ammunition and sent into the house, where they were told they would find Nazi guards.5
Prince William Forest Park
From 1942 to 1945, at least two branches of the OSS trained on the grounds of Prince William Forest Park—Special Operations (Training Area A) and Communications (Training Area C).
In the security that the forest offered, the Special Operations Branch trained its advanced recruits how to operate behind enemy lines in sabotage, guerilla leadership and other forms of subversion.6 New recruits were tasked with concealing their own identity while trying to learn as much information as possible from fellow trainees. Recruits also were:
- Taught how to use weapons, radios and codes;
- Make and disarm booby traps; and
- Make low-level parachute jumps from aircraft.7
The OSS Communications Branch also trained its recruits in Prince William Forest Park. Recruits in this division learned Morse code and ciphers, covert radio practices and maintenance, as well as the use of weapons and martial arts.8
A few famous faces are among the graduates of these training courses:
- Actor Sterling Hayden (also known as Capt. John Hamilton) trained at Area B.
- Major league baseball catcher Moe Berg also trained in one of the camps held in the national parks.
- Directors of Central Intelligence (DCI) William Colby and William Casey, who trained at Area B.
In particular, Casey is remembered for an incident during his time at Area B. He was training on a “demolition trail”— an obstacle course along a path in the woods that was laced with booby traps. Trainees were ordered to make their way along the trail as quickly and quietly as possible, while looking out for booby traps.9 Casey stumbled off the trail and caught a trip wire, which set off a charge of TNT. The blast sent a tree limb flying through the air. It hit Casey in the face and broke his jaw.
Sharing the Stories
The national parks were instrumental in the success of World War II because they provided the perfect place for OSS recruits to train.
“The OSS was a very important organization in American history,” said Chambers. “It played an important part in the American victory in World War II, and its institutional legacies include the Central Intelligence Agency and the Army’s Special Forces.”
CIA Museum Director Toni Hiley also thinks it is important to share the OSS’ robust history with Agency employees and the public.
“The OSS was the grandfather of today’s unconventional warfare,” she said. “The more things change, the more they stay the same. Lessons from 60 years ago are still valid today.”
Related Stories and Links:
- John Whiteclay Chambers II, OSS Training in the National Parks and Service Abroad in World War II [external link disclaimer]
- A Look Back … Moe Berg: Baseball Player, Linguist, Lawyer, Intel Officer
- A Look Back … Julia Child: Life Before French Cuisine
- A Look Back … Marlene Dietrich: Singing for a Cause
- A Look Back … John Ford: War Movies
- The Office of Strategic Services: The Forerunner of Today’s CIA
- CIA History
- Directors and Deputy Directors of Central Intelligence
1 Maj. Garland H. Williams, “Training,” memorandum, n.d. [January or February 1942], p. 6; located in OSS Records (RG 226), Entry 136, Box 161, Folder 1754, National Archives II, College Park, Md., hereinafter, National Archives II.
2 Lt. Col. H[enson]. L. Robinson to Col. Atherton Richards, OSS Planning Group, subject: Schools and Training Report [a 14-page, historical and geographical overview of the entire OSS training program],” 30 October 1943, p. 1, OSS Records (RG 226), Entry 146, Box 162, Folder 1757, National Archives II.
3 F.J. B., Jr. [Lt. F.J. Ball, Jr.], OSS, to Major [Otto C.] Doering [Donovan’s Executive Officers at OSS HQ], 30 March 1944, subject: Release of Area “B,” OSS Records (RG 226), Entry 137, Box 3, Folder 24, National Archives II.
8 The Training Directorate to All Geographic Desks and Administrative Officers, SI-SO, n.d., [winter 1942-43?], subject: Training Procedures, OSS Records (RG 226), Entry 146, Misc. Washington Files, Security Office Files, Box 223, Folder 3106, Schools and Training, National Archives.