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National Park History: Prince William Forest Park Was a Top Secret Spy Training School
Prince William Forest Park became a national park unit in 1940 and acquired its present name 60 years ago on June 22. Situated about eight miles northwest of Triangle (and Quantico), Virginia, around 35 miles south of Washington, D.C., Prince William Forest is not a high-profile unit like many parks in the vicinity of our nation's capital. But it does have a lot of interesting distinctions.
Encompassing some 15,000 acres, Prince William Forest Park (so-named for the county in which it is situated) is the largest nature-based national park in the Washington metro area. It has more Piedmont forest and more Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) buildings (153) than any other unit in the entire National Park System. It is one of only a few national park units designated simply "Park." And during World War II it was a topsecret training school for OSS spies, saboteurs, resistance leaders, and communications specialists.
The Office of Strategic Services (OSS) was the predecessor of today’s Central Intelligence Agency (CIA). Established via a military order issued by President Franklin D. Roosevelt on June 13, 1942, the OSS was tasked to collect and analyze strategic information required by the Joint Chiefs of Staff. OSS Director General William J. Donovan had direct access to the president.
During World War II the OSS employed as many as 12,000 people, many of whom performed difficult tasks in challenging circumstances – behind the scenes or behind enemy lines -- all over the globe. The agency not only engaged in espionage, subversion, and propaganda, but also helped to arm, train, and supply various resistance movements in China, French Indochina, and other areas occupied by the Axis powers. Many OSS-trained spies were German speaking people sent on vital (and very dangerous) missions inside Germany. Although it was a civilian agency, the OSS employed many military personnel.
The newly formed secret intelligence agency was charged to conduct special operations not assigned to other agencies, and in this connection it took on many unique, situation-specific tasks that required ingenuity, flexibility, and of course, utmost secrecy.
In early 1942, even before it was an officially established government agency, the OSS launched a search for suitable training facilities, particularly for Special Operations agents. The canvassing focused on federal properties that were reasonably close to Washington and offered the privacy essential for top secret training facilities.
The first two sites designated were two isolated, heavily wooded units of the National Park System -- the Catoctin Recreational Demonstration Area (now Catoctin Mountain Park) and the Chopawamsic Recreational Demonstration Area (now Prince William Forest Park).
The agency later created six other training sites in the United States, including facilities at the former Congressional Country Club and at several country estates or rural tracts in Virginia and Maryland.
The OSS maintained facilities at Catoctin RDA/Catoctin Mountain Park and Chopawamsic RDA/Prince William Forest Park from 1942 until just after the war ended in 1945. Although the Interior Department leased the two parks to the War Department, the National Park Service continued to provide superintendents for both.
The two parks served as the primary training facilities for operatives of the Special Operations and Communications Branches of the OSS. These units are considered the forerunners of today's Special Forces.
There were actually two OSS training schools at Prince William Forest Park. They were called Areas A and C. Recruits in Training Area A, which was in the western part of the park, received training in combat skills, sabotage, guerrilla warfare, and commando operations. Later, Area A also helped to provide basic military and weapons training to OSS personnel being sent overseas.
Training Area C, which was in the eastern part of the park, trained Communications Branch radio engineers needed to operate shortwave stations relaying secret messages from agents gathering information behind enemy lines. Area C also provided many Special Operations or Secret Intelligence agents with basic instruction in radio and code skills.
OSS Training Area B, which specialized in paramilitary training, was at Catoctin Mountain Park.
OSS recruits were taught how to gather information efficiently and unobtrusively. To hone their skills, the spies-in-training practiced in nearby communities.
As fighting in the European Theater drew to a close, the OSS focused on the Pacific Theater. Areas A and C helped train American, Chinese, Thai, and Korean recruits as Special Operations and Communications Branch operatives needed for service on mainland China and in Southeast Asia, Korea, and Japan.
There is no question that the Prince William Forest and Catoctin parks played a very significant role in the OSS mission during World War II. Here is what the Prince William Forest Park’s website has to say about some of the more important contributions to the war effort:
Probably the majority of the commandos and guerrilla leaders of Special Operations and certainly most of the short-wave radio operators of the Communications Branch were trained in these parks. Those operatives included most of the American members of the celebrated, multi-national Jedburgh teams that parachuted into France and other German-occupied European countries in 1944. The included members of OSS units in North Africa, Italy, Greece, Yugoslavia, Albania, Hungary, Switzerland, Sweden, Norway, and Germany itself. And they included the famous Detachment 101 teams airdropped in the hills and jungles of Burma (today Myanmar) to lead the guerrilla war there against the Japanese from 1942 to 1945. The park-trained commandos and radio operators also included many members of less famous but also highly important units of the OSS in the Far East: Detachment 202 was engaged against Japanese Forces in China, and Detachment 404 aided the Free Thais fight against the Japanese Army in Thailand.
The parks were returned to their original intended uses very quickly after the war’s end. On 20 September 1945 the OSS was disbanded by order of President Harry Truman. The OSS functions, which officially ceased on 1 October 1945, were allocated to the Department of State and the War Department (now the Department of Defense).
Today Prince William Forest Park hosts nearly 300,000 visitors a year, but is often surprisingly uncrowded. With 37 miles of hiking trails and 21 miles of bicycle-accessible roads and trails, it's a great place for walking and pedaling. Visitors can also enjoy camping (four campgrounds), fishing, birdwatching (some of the best in the region), and other activities.
There are 100 cabins for those who don't like roughing it. Four CCC-built cabin camps are classified as historic districts and listed on the National Register of Historic Places.