The "Glorious Amateurs" of OSS: A Diverse Group of Characters Who Helped Win a World War
In late September 1945, President Harry Truman signed Executive Order 9621, terminating the Office of Strategic Services (OSS). Shortly after the decision, General William Donovan gave a farewell address to the OSS staff in Washington. With sadness in his eyes, Donovan delivered his speech to a large group of assembled OSS employees:
“We have come to the end of an unusual experiment. This experiment was to determine whether a group of Americans constituting a cross-section of racial origins, of abilities, temperaments and talents, could risk an encounter with the long-established and well-trained enemy organizations.”
The “unusual experiment,” as Donovan called it, formed one of the most eclectic groups of people ever pulled together in American history, with the goal of working together to defeat the enemy.
From the very beginning, General Donovan sought independent thinkers who could advance the mission of the OSS in creative ways, and that’s exactly what he found. These “glorious amateurs” came from all walks of life: authors, artists, intellectuals, sports figures, lawyers, Hollywood actors, Japanese-American soldiers from the 442nd Nisei Regiment, scientists, and even a future Supreme Court justice.
Though disbanded in 1945, the amazing collection of individuals that formed the OSS went forward to achieve great things as you’ll discover in the following stories; proving Donovan’s unusual experiment a success.
When we think about diversity and inclusion, we could say that Donovan was an early trendsetter, and his groundbreaking approach to hiring paid off in many ways.
Graphic Designer: Georg Olden
During a time when the US military was segregated by race, the OSS recruited a number of African-Americans including graphic designer Georg Olden.
Olden dropped out of college in January of 1942 to serve in the OSS as a graphic designer. He designed conservation and rationing posters as part of an art team that included such luminaries as architect Eero Saarinen (more on him later), caricaturist Sam Berman, and illustrator William Arthur Smith.
After the war, CBS television hired him to work as a graphic designer, where he created advertising for shows as diverse as I Love Lucy to Alfred Hitchcock Presents.
One of Olden’s many accomplishments was breaking the color barrier in network television–as well as being the first African-American artist to design a US postage stamp.
Nobel Laureate: Ralph Bunche
Diplomat, educator, political scientist, author, Civil Rights’ leader, Nobel Peace Prize recipient… these are among the many titles used to describe Ralph Bunche. Given his prolific achievements, Bunche has been recognized as one of the most celebrated African-American leaders of his time—both in the US and abroad.
Bunche’s public service career began as a senior social analyst on Colonial Affairs with the OSS, where he served from 1941 – 1943. This opportunity led to him being transferred to the State Department, where he was appointed associate chief of a division of Dependent Area Affairs.
One of Bunche’s most notable achievement took place after the war when he, along with former First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt, played an instrumental role in the creation and adoption of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in 1948.
However, Ralph Bunche is probably best known as the first African American to be awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. He received it for having arranged a cease-fire between Israelis and Arabs during the 1948 war that followed the creation of the state of Israel.
Nisei Soldiers of 442nd
The 442nd Infantry Regiment – the most decorated regiment in US military history – was a fighting unit comprised entirely of second-generation American soldiers of Japanese ancestry. These Nisei soldiers faced incredible discrimination during the war as they fought for their country, while many of their families were held in internment camps; many of these soldiers were primarily sent to fight overseas in the European theater.
Donovan and the OSS saw the potential of these courageous men and recruited more than a dozen Nisei volunteers for service in India and Burma, where they conducted covert operations, translated Japanese intelligence into English, and engaged in interrogations.
Founding Member of CIA: Alfonso Rodriguez
During WWII, between 400,000 and 500,000 Hispanic-Americans served in the US military. The OSS recruited many officers of Hispanic backgrounds into their ranks, including Alfonso Rodriguez, who had spent most of his career with the Army’s G-2.
Rodriguez joined the OSS as a counterintelligence specialist and later became one of the founding members of the Central Intelligence Group (CIG) and CIA.
Children’s Book Artists: Taro and Mitsu Yashima
One of the most intriguing branches of the OSS was the Morale Operations Branch, which recruited writers, cartoonists, artists, journalists, playwrights, and other creatives to create and spread disinformation to the enemy.
One such example is the husband and wife team of Taro and Mitsu Yashima.
Born in Kagoshima, Japan in 1908, Taro and his wife Mitsu moved to the US to study art and, in Taro’s case, to avoid being conscripted into the Japanese army. After Pearl Harbor, Taro joined the US Army and went to work as an artist for the United States Office of War Information (OWI) and, later, the OSS. Mitsu also joined the war effort, working for the OSS by sending American propaganda to the Japanese.
After the war, Taro and Mitsu were granted permanent resident status by an act of Congress. After they settled down in California, the husband and wife team decided to apply their talents in a different way, becoming successful artists and children’s book authors.
Actor, Sailor, Spy: Sterling Hayden
While the Hollywood dream factories were churning out wartime dramas and action pictures starring John Wayne, Gary Cooper and Tyrone Power, many Hollywood icons were stepping up and supporting the OSS.
One classic example is the movie star Sterling Hayden, who took a break from the silver screen to join the Marines. Feeling he could do even more to serve his country, he then wrote to William Donovan directly and offered to use his expert sailing skills to help the OSS. Hayden ended up serving the OSS with distinction in the European theater.
Singing for a Cause: Marlene Dietrich
German-born screen siren Marlene Dietrich, horrified by the actions of Hitler and the Third Reich in her home country, joined the US war effort in 1944.
Working with the OSS’s Morale Operations Branch, Dietrich played a leading role in the Musak Project–a collection of musical propaganda broadcasts designed to demoralize the German military. Dietrich recorded a number of songs in German, including her trademark song “Lili Marleen,” which was a favorite of both German and American audiences.
Donovan personally wrote a letter to Dietrich thanking her for letting the OSS use the recordings.
Hollywood Filmmaker: John Ford
Prolific Hollywood filmmaker John Ford—director of such classics as “Stagecoach,” “The Grapes of Wrath,” and “How Green Was My Valley,”—threw himself and his filmmaking talents into the war effort. He filmed the WWII semi-documentary, “The Battle of Midway.” He was also present on Omaha Beach on D-Day.
Ford’s cinematic efforts came to the attention of General Donovan, who made Ford the head of the OSS’s Photographic Unit. Ford also became one of Donovan’s top advisors.
War Hero and Actor: Peter Ortiz
Pierre (Peter) Julien Ortiz’s true-life story reads like something out of a Hollywood screenplay (Hollywood actually did make a movie about his life, but more on that later…) Peter Ortiz has the distinction of being the most highly decorated member of the OSS.
Born in New York City to an American mother of Swiss descent and a French-born Spanish father, Ortiz was educated at the University of Grenoble in France. A talented linguist, he spoke ten languages including English, Spanish, French, Italian, German, and Arabic.
Ortiz began his military career at the age of 19, joining the French Foreign Legion in 1935. He ended up serving in the Legion for five years and saw action in North Africa. He was awarded the Croix de Guerre for heroism. Ortiz was offered a commission to stay with the Legion, but decided to return to the US after receiving a tempting offer to serve as a technical advisor for war films in Hollywood.
Ortiz, motivated to help the American cause overseas, enlisted in the US Marine Corps and was quickly commissioned as a second lieutenant after only 40 days. With his deep regional knowledge of North Africa, he was sent to Tangier, Morocco, where he first became associated with the OSS as he conducted reconnaissance behind enemy lines.
Ortiz joined the OSS in January of 1944 and parachuted behind German-occupied France.
He rose to the rank of lieutenant colonel in the Marine Corps Reserve and was awarded 24 medals in all from the US, Britain, and France. After he was honorably discharged from active duty in 1946, he returned to Hollywood, hoping to start a successful acting career.
Through his friend (and fellow OSSer) filmmaker John Ford, Ortiz appeared in a number of Ford-directed movies, including “She Wore a Yellow Ribbon,” “Rio Grande,” and “Flying Leathernecks.” Unfortunately his movie career never took off, and he ended up being relegated to bit parts and walk-ons. Have you ever seen, “Abbott and Costello in The Foreign Legion?” Peter plays a small role as a corporal.
In 1952, Hollywood made “Operation Secret,” a film based on Ortiz’s wartime exploits. But much to Peter’s regret, he had no control over the script and casting decisions (actor Cornell Wilde portrayed Ortiz). After seeing the film, his only comment was, “well, that was disappointing.”
Big League Catcher: Moe Berg
Many baseball fans are familiar with the life and career of the famed baseball player Morris (Moe) Berg, who left a successful career as big league catcher to work for the OSS during WWII. In August 1943, Berg accepted a position with the OSS’ Special Operations Branch.
Years earlier, Berg and other ball players toured Japan and played exhibition games against a Japanese all-star team. Berg brought with him a 16mm Bell & Howell movie camera and filmed Tokyo and the surrounding harbor. During the summer of ’42, Berg screened the footage he shot of Tokyo Bay for the OSS and the military.
Pro-Wrestler: “Jumping Joe” Savoldi
A professional wrestler, football player, and Special Ops agent for the OSS. No, we are not talking about a movie plot starring John Cena or The Rock, but the amazing life and career of Joseph Anthony “Jumping Joe” Savoldi.
Italian-American Joe Savoldi kicked off his professional sports career as fullback for the Chicago Bears (the Green Bay Packers wanted him too, but lost out). The world of professional wrestling came calling, and Savoldi left the Bears after just one year to become a pro wrestler.
As a wrestler, Savoldi was known for his finishing move, the flying dropkick. From the early 1930s until the end of his wrestling career, he was credited for inventing the move… although fellow wrestler Abe Coleman has disputed that claim.
In 1942, the OSS approached Savoldi about joining the war effort in an espionage role. The OSS chose him because of his fluency in multiple Italian dialects, his expertise in hand-to-hand combat, and his deep knowledge of Italian geography—including the interior layout of Benito Mussolini’s compound.
Savoldi was assigned to the Special Operations Branch of the OSS with the code name “Sampson.” He took part in missions behind enemy lines in North Africa, Italy, and France during 1943—1945.
World-Renowned Architect: Eero Saarinen
Architects, authors, intellectuals, historians, social critics—even a future Supreme Court Justice—all began their famous careers working for the OSS. The OSS brought in many diverse talents; from Broadway playwright and director Garson Kanin, to future presidential historian Arthur Schlesinger, Jr. to novelist and Academy-award winning screenwriter Budd Schulberg.
Finnish-American architect and designer Eero Saarinen was recruited by a school friend from Yale to join the OSS. Saarinen worked in the same office as Georg Olden drawing illustrations for bomb disassembly manuals and even provided designs for the White House situation room. Saarinen stayed with the OSS through 1944.
In an amazing post-OSS career spanning only 15 years, Saarinen would go on to design a wide array of buildings and monuments including Washington Dulles International Airport, the Gateway Arch in St. Louis, Missouri, and the TWA Flight Center at JFK International Airport.
Sadly, Saarinen died while undergoing an operation for a brain tumor at the relatively young age of 51.
Surgeon and Inventor: Rene Joyeuse
It’s hard to imagine a more inspiring figure than Dr. Rene Joyeuse. Born Rene Veuve in Switzerland to a French carpenter father and Italian housemaid mother, Veuve joined the Free French Forces after the German invasion of France in 1940. He continued working with the French Resistance and joined the OSS—where he would be assigned the codename Joyeuse (joyful) after Charlemagne’s sword.
In April 1944, Joyeuse took part in Operation Sussex, tasked with gathering intelligence on military installations and troop movements in France in preparation for an upcoming Allied invasion.
After the war, he officially changed his name from Veuve to Joyeuse and studied medicine at the University of Paris. After graduation, he and his wife immigrated to the US, where he worked as an emergency and trauma surgeon at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota. He later continued his work at the UCLA medical school and helped pioneer the first biological heart valve replacement.
Supreme Court Justice: Arthur Goldberg
A lawyer by trade, Goldberg joined the US Army at the outbreak of WWII, and his leadership skills didn’t go unnoticed—he quickly moved up the ranks from lieutenant to captain to major. With his background in law and his knowledge of the American labor movement, Goldberg moved to the OSS to serve as chief of the Labor Desk—a group tasked with cultivating contracts and networks within the European underground labor movement.
After the war Goldberg went back to practicing law, becoming a strong defender of labor. By the early 1960s, Goldberg was a prominent figure in the Democratic Party and in labor union politics. President John F. Kennedy appointed him to two key positions: the United States Secretary of Labor, where he served from 1961 to 1962, and an associate justice in the Supreme Court.