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Posted on Dec 2, 2004 in Books and Movies

Operatives, Spies, and Saboteurs – Book Review

By Steven McWilliams

Operatives, Spies, and Saboteurs: The Unknown Story of the Men and Women of WWII’s OSS
Patrick O’Donnell
Free Press, March 2004

Many people are aware of the existence of the Office of Strategic Services (OSS), but likely few have more than superficial knowledge of the actions of the father of today’s Central Intelligence Agency (CIA). Mr. O’Donnell’s work is well equipped to remedy that deficiency of knowledge.

Led by the larger-than-life William "Wild Bill" Donovan, the OSS faced many obstacles in its march toward becoming perhaps the premier intelligence/special operations agency of World War II. Among the most imposing obstacles was the US State Department, who believed in the "gentlemen’s school" of espionage – that is, all espionage, information gathering and other elements of spycraft should be pursued openly. Fortunately, President Roosevelt and his advisors were realistic enough to realize the folly of such a policy, and gave a great deal of latitude to Donovan as he pursued training and operational planning. Addionally, FBI, G-2 (Intelligence) Sections and the Office of Naval Information (ONI) fought a determined turf war to protect what they viewed as their segment of the intelligence community.


On 13 June 1942, the President formally established the OSS, previously known as the Coordinator of Information (COI), which had been created as America’s first peacetime intelligence on 11 July 1941, also headed by Donovan. Even before his leadership of the COI/OSS, Donovan was a renowned and respected character. In WWI, Donovan commanded a battalion of the 165th Infantry Regiment (better known by its Civil War designation, "the fighting 69th). Donovan led by example, once leaping from the trenches, pistol in hand, shouting "They can’t hit me and they won’t hit you." Despite a machine bullet to the knee, Donovan continued to lead his battalion, leading it to victory. For this, he received the Congressional Medal of Honor, later winning also the Distinguished Service Cross, Distinguished Service Medal, and two Purple Hearts. He was also decorated by foreign governments, making him among the most decorated soldiers of the war.

The OSS operated in every nation of Europe during World War II, also in North Africa and, much less, in Asia and the Pacific. Their missions ranged from intelligence collection, organization and support of partisans, sabotage, interdiction of enemy supply lines, overt and covert propaganda and various other activities. The strength of O’Donnell’s narrative is his pursuit of surviving OSS operatives. In this endeavor, he succeeds wonderfully and the first-person accounts of these brave men and women bring the book to life. Many engaged in several operations, frequently escaping death by a hairs-breadth. In fact, some were captured by the SS or Gestapo and escaped torture and death by some unexplained stroke of luck. Several senior commanders, despite some distrust of the OSS initially, admitted that OSS activities shortened the war by six months, to as much as one or two years.

Mr O’Donnell is to be commended for his brilliant, detailed, and highly readable account of this too little known agency’s valiant campaigns against great odds. To those who did not survive the war, we owe a debt of gratitude than can never be repaid.