At the end of World War II, most of the operatives for the nation's first omnibus espionage agency simply returned to private life, their work and escapades kept secret for decades.
But earlier this month, the National Archives released the personnel files of the almost 24,000 individuals who served in the Office of Strategic Services (OSS), revealing 750,000 pages that allows descendants of the agency operatives to learn about the service , recruitment, pay, work assignments and more of their family and friends. Among them were a handful of well-known employees such as Sterling Hayden, Arthur Goldberg, John Ford, William Schlesinger, Julia Child, Marlene Dietrich and Margaret Mead.
A short-lived entity — OSS only operated between 1943 to the end of World War II — its intelligence, espionage, research and combat services were "the linchpin to our success in winning the war in Asia and Europe," according to Charles Pinck, president of the OSS Society. While the war's clandestine operations might get more ink, Pinck said that many of the agency's major contributions were derived from "intellectual sweat."
"It's true, of course, that there were very daring operations behind enemy lines, but it was the massive resource of personnel engaged in gathering and analyzing information — much of it pretty unglamorous desk work — that really helped us to understand the people and places we were up against," he said.
Or even the people we were. The 51-page file on future Nobel Peace Prize laureate (and OSS senior social analyst) Ralph Bunche, for example, refers to his value to this government work ("It would be practically impossible to replace him") when applying for a draft deferment, citing his "unique perspective in understanding all things relevant to the Negro race."
All for $5,600 a year.
OSS founder Gen. William "Wild Bill" Donovan was very specific about "getting the best person to do the work that was needed," said author and former OSS agent Elizabeth P. McIntosh of Woodbridge, Va. "People were recruited for their talents and abilities. In my case, I had grown up attending a Japanese school in Hawaii, so my language and cultural understanding was very valuable."
McIntosh, who wrote two books on her experiences — Undercover Girl in 1948 and Sisterhood of Spies in 1998 — has high praises for her former boss.
"You have to remember that at the time of WWII, each military branch had its own intelligence, but there was no unified agency. Donovan had a vision to bring intelligence operations from all the services under one roof, and he sold the idea to Roosevelt."
Unlike other generals, McIntosh says that Donovan — who came with experience that dated back to border battles against Pancho Villa and who earned the Medal of Honor in World War I — fought alongside his troops rather than give orders from some office. She said it was his hands-on participation and commitment to recruiting personnel of any culture, ethnicity or gender that engendered loyalty and admiration.
"He recruited anybody to do the job," McIntosh said. "We didn't have any requirements. We needed a safecracker to open the safe in the French Embassy — we tapped our safecracker to do the job. If we needed economic analysis of a country's finances, we turned to our Wall Street and Ivy League economist operatives."
It wasn't all about cloak-and-dagger midnight meetings. McIntosh described a significant operation of hers involving the crafting of a document so authentic — from paper stock, ink used and special Japanese idioms — to plant new terms of surrender supposedly written by Japanese officials to expedite the Japanese collapse in Burma and elsewhere.
Out in the field, where discovery could mean capture and death, both Pinck and McIntosh said that many of the risky operations behind enemy lines succeeded because the agents were empowered "to take risks to succeed and get the job done."
Pinck recalls one story an OSS agent related where an operative boldly knocked on a German tank saying, "mail call." When the hatch opened, the agent threw in two hand grenades.
McIntosh said that boldness was the backbone of survival, and they were writing the rule book as they went. She laments that when President Truman abolished the OSS in 1945 — with the OSS as an organizational template it was reincarnated as the CIA in 1947 — "a kind of bureaucratic rigor mortis set in." Donovan's original maverick approach was replaced with red-tape and rule books as peace treaties were signed and the era of the Cold War began.