The Office of Strategic Services was the product of William Donovan, an imposing man-mountain of a visionary whose propensity for freewheeling activity earned him the nickname of "Wild Bill." Donovan was tough and smart, a veteran of World War I who received the Medal of Honor for heroism on the Western Front in October 1918, and who made a fortune as a Wall Street lawyer during the Twenties and Thirties. When World War II finally erupted in Europe and threatened to engulf the United States, Donovan was able to convince President Franklin D. Roosevelt that a new type of organization would have to be formed, one that would collect intelligence and wage secret operations behind enemy lines.
In 1941, President Roosevelt directed Donovan to form this agency, called the Coordinator of Intelligence (COI), and Donovan, who had been a civilian since World War I, was made a colonel. COI blossomed quickly, forming operational sites in England, North Africa, India, Burma and China. In 1942, the agency was renamed the OSS and Donovan became a major general. The primary operation of the OSS in Europe was called the Jedburgh mission. It consisted of dropping three-man teams into France, Belgium and Holland, where they trained partisan resistance movements and conducted guerrilla operations against the Germans in preparation for the D-Day invasion. Other OSS operations took place in Asia, most spectacularly in Burma, where OSS Detachment 101 organized 11,000 Kachin tribesmen into a force that eventually killed 10,000 Japanese at a loss of only 206 of its own.
After the war, President Harry S. Truman disbanded the OSS, but not before it had left a legacy still felt today. From its intelligence operations came the nucleus of men and techniques that would give birth to the Central Intelligence Agency on September 18, 1947. (Indeed, the first directors of the CIA were veterans of the OSS.) From its guerrilla operations came the nucleus of men and techniques that would give birth to the Special Forces in June 1952.
Colonel Aaron Bank and Colonel Russell Volckmann, two OSS operatives who remained in the military after the war, worked tirelessly to convince the Army to adopt its own unconventional guerrilla-style force. They had an ally in Brigadier General Robert McClure, who headed the Army's psychological warfare staff in the Pentagon. Bank and Volckmann convinced the Army chiefs that there were areas in the world not susceptible to conventional warfare - Soviet-dominated Eastern Europe especially - but that would make ideal targets for unconventional harassment and guerrilla fighting. Special operations as envisioned by the two men, and by Bank in particular, were a force multiplier: a small number of soldiers who could sow a disproportionately large amount of trouble for the enemy. Confusion would reign among enemy ranks and objectives would be accomplished with an extreme economy of manpower. It was a bold idea, one that went against the grain of traditional concepts, but by 1952 the Army was finally ready to embark on a new era of unconventional warfare.