Though the wooded hamlet of Prince William Forest Park was far from the front lines, the park did play a significant role in World War II. In early 1942, President Franklin D. Roosevelt appointed lawyer and World War I Medal of Honor recipient William “Wild Bill” Donovan as the head of the Office of Strategic Servicers (OSS), America’s first centralized intelligence agency. Donovan faced the task of training the thousands of spies who would be dropped behind enemy lines to aid in winning the war. Prince William Forest Park, with its close proximity to Washington, D.C. and already existent cabin camps, was a logical choice. The OSS occupied Prince William Forest Park from mid-1942 to 1945, erecting barbed wire fencing and patrolling the perimeter with guard dogs.
Recruits were mostly under 30 years of age and many held college degrees. They lived in the cabins that had been constructed in the park by the Civilian Conservation Corps in the 1930s. Recruits could not gather in groups larger than four; they used assumed names and could not discuss assignments. The cabins were bugged, and psychological profiles were created on each of the recruits. More...
They learned many skills in the park, such as marksmanship, forgery, explosives training, close combat, and parachuting from airplanes into the forest. They also practiced spying techniques on the nearby communities of Dumfries and Fredericksburg.
After the war, the OSS was disbanded; however, as the Cold War became evident, President Truman recognized the need for a spy organization. He retained Donovan’s idea of merging Secret Intelligence with Special Operations to create the Central Intelligence Agency. Then, in 1945, Prince William Forest Park was returned to the American people for the public use and enjoyment. For half a century the OSS-connection to the park was almost lost as records of this secret organization were classified. The records were opened by the National Archives and Records Administration in 1992 for research. It is now a proud chapter in the history of this remarkable forest.
Communication activities were performed in Cabin Camps 1 and 4, known as Area C. Recruits spent numerous hours in the classroom learning Morse Code. They practiced sending and receiving messages, even under the most severe conditions. They would later set up and work base stations throughout the world.
Special Operations Training
Advanced Espionage and Covert Operations were conducted in Cabin Camps 2, 3 and 5, known as Area A. Here agents learned close combat, sabotage of enemy activities using explosives, police methods and interrogations and recruits learned to pick locks. The forest offered an ideal training ground for cover and camouflage as recruits learned to move silently and conceal themselves in the thick cover of the forest.
Codes and Ciphers
In Area C, OSS agents used classroom time to become skilled at codes and ciphers. Each cipher, though individual, could be memorized. This made it unnecessary for agents to carry around cipher machines and code books which could become incriminating evidence if captured. Agents also became experts at forgery and black propaganda. Black propaganda was information that appeared to come from the Germans or Japanese who were unhappy with the progress of the war. This was intended to lower morale within the country.