(OSS headquarters during World War II, Congressional Country Club)

World War Two produced many larger than life figures.  Perhaps no one fits this category more than Colonel William “Wild Bill” Donovan who built the Office of Strategic Services (OSS) the precursor to the CIA.  Donovan, a Republican was a law school classmate of Franklin D. Roosevelt and after traveling in Europe and speaking with a Nazi general he urged the president to create a centralized intelligence organization to oversee the collection of intelligence abroad.  Further, he wanted this organization to engage in espionage, sabotage, propaganda, and disinformation against America’s enemies.  This would lead to his appointment as Coordinator of Information in July 1941, which by June 1942 had over 600 employees at the time when Roosevelt signed an order establishing the OSS with Donovan as its head. 

Once Donovan got the OSS off the ground he approached a well-known industrial chemist, Stanley Lovell to oversee the development of dirty tricks by a group of scientists which forms the core of John Lisle’s first book, THE DIRTY TRICKS DEPARTMENT: STANLEY LOWELL, THE OSS, AND THE MASTERMINDS OF WORLD WAR II SECRET WARFARE

Lisle, a historian of science and the American intelligence community tells a fascinating story of how Lovell and his colleagues invented many items including Bat Bombs, suicide pills, fighting knives, silent pistols, camouflaged explosives, in addition to many other interesting items.  They would also forge documents for undercover agents, plotted assassinations of foreign leaders, and conducted truth drug experiments on unsuspecting subjects.  Lisle’s account is based on impeccable research including newly released materials, archives, and interviews.  The subject itself is important as Lisle delves into the dark legacy of one of the CIA’s most infamous programs; MKULTRA.  However, despite the fascinating subject matter, at times Lisle’s account comes across as a mundane listing of one invention after another.  Though there are a number of interesting vignettes, overall, the topic was not developed to its potential.

 William Joseph “Wild Bill” Donovan

(General Willam “Wild Bill” Donovan, OSS head during WWII)

Lovell and many scientists faced a moral dilemma in the conduct of their work.  It became a conflict between a Hippocratic obligation and patriotism to defend one’s country.  What made Lovell an important contributor to Donovan’s programs was his unique combination of business and scientific acumen.  Soon Lovell would become Vannevar Bush’s aid.  Bush, headed the U.S. Office of Scientific Research and Development during World War II would convince FDR to create the National Defense Research Committee (NDRC) which would coordinate scientific research and devise new weapons under the auspices of Harvard president James Conant.  Further, Bush convinced FDR to develop the atomic bomb. 

Soon, Donovan convinced Lovell to join the OSS as Director of the embryonic OSS Research and Development Branch with a mandate “for the invention, development, and testing of all secret and other devices, material and equipment.”  Lovell would travel to England to glean “dirty tricks” from the British Special Operations Executive (SOE).  Upon his return Lovell, with the help of Bush’s scientists created a secret division to develop all of the weapons that a spy or saboteur could possibly need in their line of work called Division 19, known as the “Sandeman Club.”  Lovell would appoint Harris Chadwell, a chemistry professor at Tufts University to head Division 19.  Little has been written about the R & D Branch or Division 19, a void that Lisle attempts to fill.

(Stanley Lovell)

Lisle’s narrative is loaded with interesting characters and at times bizarre suggestions for “Dirty Tricks.”  Quirky and bright inventors abound.  William Fairbairn, a spritely individual who weighed about 160 lbs. but was an expert at “gutter fighting” developed in Asia worked with the SOE and American agents who he taught to defeat opponents applying any means necessary.  Ernest Crocker, the so-called “million dollar nose” developed all types of “smells” from perfume to fecal matter in order to embarrass and defeat the Japanese.  Ed Salinger applied psychological warfare to scare Japanese villagers and developed items included in “Operation Fantasia” taking advantage of Shinto religious superstitions to foster fear among Japanese soldiers by painting foxes white and drop them in areas soldiers frequented.  “Jim, the Penman,” a federal prisoner convicted of forgery was released to assist in developing documents for secret agents, flooding markets with forged currencies etc.  Another large than life figure was Carl Eifler, the head of Detachment 101, a group of men who would be used behind enemy lines.  At one time General “Vinegar Joe” Stillwell, Commander of US forces in China asked him if he could assassinate Chiang Kai-Shek, the Kuomintang leader.  Later he was asked if he could kidnap German scientist Werner Heisenberg.  Of course, Eifler answered in the affirmative for both requests.  Not all suggestions were implemented, but the people behind them were committed to their implementation.  Lovell did support many eccentric ideas, but some went even too far for him.  One interesting example finds Lovell entering the Oval Office and firing a suppressed .22 pistol into a sandbox while an unsuspecting FDR was at his desk to demonstrate the weapon suppressor’s effectiveness.

There are other interesting pieces of information.  For example, Donovan would use the Congressional Country Club in Maryland, outside Washington as his headquarters and research facility.  The golf course complex was retrofitted to bring in the necessary equipment to foster research and experiments.  Laboratories and other facilities were developed to assist scientists, inventors, and various gadflies in their research from weapons, accoutrements needed by secret agents, misinformation, etc.  The Research and Development Department was responsible for dreaming up covert ways to baffle, terrify, destabilize and destroy the enemy: poison pills, silent guns, gizmos to derail trains, invisible inks, truth serums, forgeries, exploding dough, disguises and camouflage were all developed for the use of O.S.S. agents operating behind the lines.  Further, they would develop psychological ploys to get inside the heads of Axis decision makers.

Reluctant to shelve Eifler after he suffered a serious head injury, "Wild Bill" Donovan (right) steered him toward new and challenging missions, culminating in Project Napko and an effort to insert Korean agents into Japan. (Office of Strategic Services/U.S. Army)

(Colonel Carl Eifler and General William “Wild Bill” Donovan)

At the outset Lovell had moral qualms concerning the types of weapons and strategies that were suggested or being developed.  However, as the war continued his doubts gradually diminished.  For him everything was dependent on whether a new device would end the war sooner and prevent allied casualties.  The development of diverse types of pills to induce suicide, assassination, sickness, and other results interested Lovell and he strongly supported their use to protect secret agents.  Lovell ran into opposition when it came to the development of biological and chemical weapons.  FDR and Donovan, at first opposed their advancement arguing they did not want to be the first to deploy such weapons.  Lovell argued against them, and they would finally come around as it appeared the Germans and the Japanese had no qualms developing them.  Admiral William D. Leahy, the most senior American military officer, who had tremendous influence on policy remained adamant against their use until the end of the war, even rejecting the dropping of poisonous gas on Iwo Jima to save the military from storming the island and saving the over 24,000 casualties and 8,000 American deaths when the island was finally stormed by US troops.  The US would develop and stockpile the weapons but did not use them.

Ben Macintyre, the author of many books on World War II espionage and other topics is correct in his April 9, 2023 New York Times book review, writing; “A grim legacy of the wartime research into truth serums was the C.I.A.’s 1950s mind-control program, MK-Ultra, in which dangerous and sometimes deadly experiments were conducted on prisoners, mental patients and non-consenting citizens.”

This somewhat enjoyable book is alarming as it offers good reasons for maintaining careful oversight in dealing with intelligence services: “Spy-scientists tend to go rogue when left to invent their own devices.”

The OSS buildings, labeled as they were referred to during World War II

(OSS headquarters during World War II, Congressional Country Club)


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