Skulking around in Northern Virginia’s Woodlands

New recruits learned everything from how to shoot small arms to how to blow up a building. (Photo courtesy: National Park Service)

Spies of Yore Sneaked; Today, Skinks Slink

By Glenda C. Booth

November 10, 2018

Julia Child cooked more than boeuf bourguignon. She cooked up secret intelligence. Before becoming a master French chef and television personality, Child worked in secret intelligence research for the Office of Strategic Services (OSS), the forerunner of today’s Central Intelligence Agency (CIA). Julia McWilliams met her husband-to-be, OSS officer Paul Child, while working in Asia. The couple’s employer, the super-secret OSS, got its start in a dense swath of Northern Virginia woodlands in what is today’s Prince William Forest Park. Spy training in a forested compound 30 miles south of Alexandria is but one chapter of this national park’s intriguing history.

Super-secret Spy Training

Mobilizing the country for World War II, President Franklin Roosevelt believed that the federal government had to strengthen its strategic intelligence. After Japan’s 1942 attack on Pearl Harbor in Hawaii, he created the OSS and appointed General William J. Donovan as its director. From 1942 to 1945, aspiring spies trained for the OSS in the dense woods of what was then called Chopawamsic Recreational Demonstration Area, a top-secret operation in a then top-secret place. The OSS training was so clandestine that some people said that OSS stood for “Oh, So Secret.” Most of OSS’s operations were classified until the government opened the records in the 1990s.

Eventually there were 13,000 OSSers worldwide running intelligence networks, training resistance groups in Europe and Asia, and saving thousands of Allied Powers’ prisoners of war. In addition to Julia Child, other notable OSSers were Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., actor Sterling Hayden, and future CIA directors William Colby and William Casey.

The mess hall used by OSS trainees, open to today’s visitors. (Photo: Glenda Booth)

In the 1940s, the Prince William County site, just off today’s frenetic I-95, was ideal because it was 35 miles from the nation’s capital and had 15,000 secluded acres of forests and farm fields. “It is, and was, a beautiful area with its many shade-tolerant oak, hickory, and pine trees. It also had its share of snakes and small animals,” recalled Lawrence L. Hollander, a trainee from Chicago. The facility had five cabin camps, a communal dining hall, and an infirmary, with barbed-wire fencing around the site’s perimeter. Armed guards with dogs and mounted military police patrolled and required everyone to pass through military checkpoints to enter and leave.

At war’s end, the War Department bulldozed much of the infrastructure to preserve the secrecy. Today, visitors can see some of the cabins, the infirmary, storage structures, the water tower, and a few gun mounts from which trainees fired blanks and practiced evasion and guerilla tactics. Trainees used a lake on the South Fork of Quantico Creek to practice amphibious and aquatic exercises like seaborne landings, river crossings, and sinking ship evacuations. Occasionally, people today come upon other tangible evidence of the camp’s OSS heyday, but staffers assure visitors that all undetonated bullets and shells have been removed. During the OSS days, “Demolition areas, where explosives were used against wooden, iron or steel objects, mock bridges, towers, buildings or railroads, were extremely hazardous areas,” wrote Dr. John Whiteclay Chambers, a Rutgers University history professor, in a 2008 article, “OSS Training in the National Parks and Service Abroad in World War II.”

The water tower. (Photo: Glenda Booth)

Museum exhibits describe the hush-hush training programs. The agents-in-training did not use their real names and many spoke a second language. New recruits learned to fire small arms and blow up buildings. They practiced sabotage and guerilla tactics, espionage, and unconventional warfare to use behind enemy lines. They learned to gather intelligence, forge documents, disarm booby traps, and decipher and send secret messages. They mastered operating stealthily in all weather and terrain, creeping surreptitiously and carefully through the woods, all the while dodging hidden booby traps and avoiding detection. At Quantico’s nearby jump school, they learned how to make parachute jumps behind enemy lines. In those days, most people had never been on an airplane. A scant few had jumped out of one. Parachuting was “the most efficient way to infiltrate behind enemy lines,” wrote Chambers.

The museum displays a wireless radio invented in the camp that could communicate with an airplane six miles above sea level. OSSers here also invented an underwater breathing apparatus that did not create bubbles.

The radio invented by OSS trainees at the park. (Photo: Glenda Booth)

CCC and Summer Camp with Eggnog

The OSS was not the first government operation here. In the 1930s, the Roosevelt administration chose 15,000 acres of “agriculturally submarginal” land (today’s park) to be a model recreational demonstration area for inner city children and families to experience the great outdoors and forge “a close communication with nature.” Officials named it for a local creek, the Chopawamsic Recreational Demonstration Area.

Woodworking was just one of many activities at summer camp. (Photo Courtesy: Scurlock Studios, Archives Center, National Museum of American History, Smithsonian Institution)

When unemployment hit 25 percent, President Roosevelt created the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC), which paid men, usually 18 to 25 years old, $30 a month to build outdoor recreation areas in every state. Starting in 1935 at Chopawamsic, the first of 2,000 young men built bridges, dams, lakes, and park roads by crushing local stone. They constructed five cabin camps of local natural materials like handmade shingles, rough-hewn siding, exposed beams, and stone fireplaces. Each camp had four barracks, a recreation hall, mess hall/kitchen, officers’ and foreman’s quarters, and an administration building. Today’s visitors can explore some of those remaining buildings and a parade ground.

By 1936, Chopawamsic ran camps for inner city youngsters. The camps had names like Camp Happyland and Camp Goodwill, but deferring to “local custom,” park managers segregated the camps by race and gender, with separate “white” and “black” entrances. Three camps were for white youth, for example, the white Girl Scouts of Arlington, and another was designated for African American boys from the Negro YMCA of Washington, D.C. Campers learned to swim, make crafts, and play games. Some of the children were so malnourished and lacking in medical attention that the dietician gave them eggnog to fatten them up.

Much Nature to Explore Too

Prince William Forest Park spans two physiographic zones, the coastal plain and the piedmont. The coastal plain is to the east and the higher, rockier piedmont is on the western side of the park. At the fall line, streams form rapids and waterfalls, an example of which can be seen along the Quantico Cascades Trail. Stretching across two geologic provinces means that the park has a rich biodiversity, including 900 plant species.

A gun battery from the OSS days. (Photo: Glenda Booth)

Thirty-seven miles of trails wind through the 15,000 acres that NPS officials bill as “the most extensive hiking trail network in Northern Virginia.” There are tent and RV campgrounds and five group cabin camps for rent, plus 18 miles of streams and lakes for fishing.

While furtive spies are no longer sneaking around in the woods, creatures covert and overt are quite at home. In terms of known species, there are at least 38 mammals, 24 amphibians, 27 reptiles, 23 fish, and more than 100 birds. Visitors might stumble upon what managers call a “healthy population” of black bears. The park’s website advises, “They are extremely shy animals and will usually avoid contact with humans.” Other critters that usually eschew people are coyotes, northern copperhead snakes, and timber rattlesnakes, say park officials. Eastern screech owls camouflage in tree cavities. Skinks and other reptiles hide under logs and rocks.

Like the spies in training, some of today’s critters slink around too, avoiding detection.

More

Prince William Forest Park, 18100 Park Headquarters Road, Triangle, VA 22172; 703-221-7181

The Office of Strategic Services

Civilian Conservation Corps

New Intelligence Museum Underway

The National Museum of Intelligence and Special Operations (http://nationalintelligencemuseum.org/) hopes to open in 2021 on eight acres in western Fairfax County near routes 7 and 28. A project of the OSS Society (www.osssociety.org), it will honor U.S. intelligence and special operations professionals and educate people about the importance of strategic intelligence and special operations. The OSS Society hopes to raise $93 million to build the museum.