Before 1940, the U.S. State Department, FBI and the different branches of the military all had their own security and counterintelligence operations, which did not easily share information with each other. With another war raging in Europe, however, President Franklin D. Roosevelt wanted greater coordination when it came to gathering and acting on intelligence. In July 1941, he tapped Colonel William J. Donovan, known as “Wild Bill,” for a newly created office, Coordinator of Information (COI).

Donovan, who served as a battalion commander in the 165th Infantry Regiment during World War I, was one of the nation’s most decorated war heroes. As he began laying the groundwork for a coordinated intelligence network, based partially on the example of the British Secret Intelligence Service (MI6), the new COI office provoked suspicion and hostility from other U.S. agencies, including J. Edgar Hoover’s FBI and the War Department’s Military Intelligence Division, better known as the G-2.

During World War II, Major General William "Wild Bill" Donovan was the head of the Office of Strategic Services. (Credit: CORBIS/Corbis/Getty Images)
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During World War II, Major General William “Wild Bill” Donovan was the head of the Office of Strategic Services.

After the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, Roosevelt acted swiftly to improve U.S. intelligence capabilities even further. In June 1942, he issued an executive order establishing the OSS, which replaced the COI and was charged with collecting and analyzing strategic intelligence and running special operations outside the other branches of the U.S. military, under the control of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. As head of the OSS, Donovan was frustrated when his rival agencies effectively blocked access to intercepted Axis communication, the most vital source of wartime intelligence.

Despite such obstacles, Donovan quickly built up the ranks of his organization, training new recruits in national parks in Maryland and Virginia and establishing full-fledged operations in Europe, Asia and elsewhere. In addition to gathering intelligence, fostering resistance and spreading disinformation behind enemy lines, OSS operatives carried out soldier rescues, guerilla warfare and sabotage, among other missions. The organization also developed its own counterintelligence operation, known as the X-2 branch, which could operate overseas but had no jurisdiction in the Western Hemisphere.

Before Operation TORCH, the Allied invasion of North Africa in late 1942, a dozen OSS officers traveled to the region and worked as “vice consuls” in several ports, establishing local networks and gathering information that would prove vital to the successful Allied landings. In advance of the D-Day landings in Normandy in 1944, paratroopers in the Special Operations (SO) branch of the OSS parachuted into Nazi-occupied France, Belgium and the Netherlands to coordinate air drops of supplies, meet up with local resistance forces and make guerrilla attacks on German troops. As Dwight D. Eisenhower once said of the OSS: “If (it) had done nothing else, the intelligence gathered alone before D-Day justified its existence.”

Roosevelt died in April 1945, and his successor Harry S. Truman had no inclination to prolong the existence of the OSS when World War II ended later that year. By executive order, Donovan’s agency was dissolved as of October 1945, but its secret Intelligence (SI) and X-2 branches would become the nucleus of a new peacetime intelligence service, the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), created in 1947.

At its peak, in late 1944, nearly 13,000 men and women had worked for the OSS, with some 7,500 of these deployed overseas. Their identities remained classified until 2008 when the National Archives released OSS personnel records. In addition to four CIA directors—Allen Dulles, Richard Helms, William Colby and William Casey—the ranks of the OSS had included U.S. Supreme Court Justice Arthur Goldberg, Pulitzer Prize-winning historian Arthur Schlesinger Jr., film director John Ford, actor Sterling Hayden, Harvard scholar Ralph Bunche (the first African-American recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize) and baseball player and coach Moe Berg.

One of the 4,500 women to serve in the OSS was Julia Child, who moved to Paris after the war and became a famous chef and cookbook author. Child started out as a research assistant at the OSS headquarters in Washington, D.C., where she worked directly with Donovan, and moved on to the agency’s Emergency Sea Rescue Equipment Section. In that role, she helped develop the shark repellent that would be coated on explosives targeting German U-boats. (Sharks were known to set off the underwater explosives by bumping into them.) From 1944-45, Child worked overseas in Ceylon (now Sri Lanka) and Kunming, China, where she handled highly classified papers that dealt with the invasion of the Malay Peninsula. Her husband, Paul, was also an OSS officer.

Each year, the OSS Society—which includes former OSS members and members of the U.S. intelligence, military and Special Operations communities—holds a dinner ceremony to honor members of its ranks for their wartime service. Last November, several members of Congress introduced a bill that would award the Congressional Gold Medal to surviving OSS veterans “in recognition of their superior service and major contributions during World War II.” Though the U.S. Senate unanimously voted in favor of the legislation, and 320 representatives have signed on as co-sponsors, the measure has stalled in the House, due to a rule stating that a congressional medal bill needs a waiver by the House Leadership Executive Committee.