Saturday Snippet: The lighter side of secret agents


During World War II, Roger Hall joined the Office of Strategic Services, the forerunner of today’s Central Intelligence Agency.  He spent some time instructing agents in the USA, then underwent agent training himself before deploying to Europe.  There he had the interesting experience of being dropped by parachute behind enemy lines – only to find out that General Patton’s troops had advanced more rapidly than expected, so that he and his team were actually dropped behind Allied lines.  Notwithstanding this farcical introduction to combat, he proceeded to do good work elsewhere in Europe.

In 1957 he published a book about his experiences with the OSS titled “You’re Stepping on my Cloak and Dagger“.

It was (and remains) extremely funny, poking an irreverent middle finger at traditional “military men” and filled with misadventures and the lighter side of military and clandestine operations.  In his foreword to a new edition of the book, Adam Bernstein commented:

I met with Hall and told him that many people admitted his book was the only one they had ever stolen from the library. That cheered him for hours. He had previously heard that young Central Intelligence Agency recruits were warned, book held high, “We don’t want this to ever happen again.” Hall loves that story and anything else that seems to confound convention. His favorite tale of wartime spying occurred in Nazi-occupied France. A colleague in the Office of Strategic Services, the wartime precursor to the CIA, had been asked to destroy a German tank sitting at a key crossroads. No one in the French Resistance could get close enough. Dressed like a French peasant and fluent in German, the OSS man approached the tank and yelled, “Mail!” When the tank lid opened, he tossed in two grenades. Mission accomplished.

OSS founder William “Wild Bill” Donovan had sought just such “glorious amateurs” for clandestine work. He was interested less in formal military expertise than in recruiting agents who could use their wits and find innovative ways, in sticky situations, to win the war. The OSS seemed an ideal match for Roger Wolcott Hall, who joked that he otherwise was destined for execution by firing squad in the regular Army.

The book is howlingly funny in parts, and is one of the most enjoyable memoirs of World War II – or any war – that I’ve had the pleasure of reading.  I’ll probably put up more of it in future editions of “Saturday Morning Snippet”.  Here, to begin with, are some of then-Lieutenant Hall’s early experiences with the OSS, first as an instructor in military matters, and then as a student of clandestine warfare.

MY NEW station, Area “B”—the letter reputedly stood for “By God, it’s a long way from nowhere”—was lost and gone up in the mountains of western Maryland. It could claim proximity to one thing, President Roosevelt’s retreat, “Shangri La” [today known as Camp David], which was farther up the road and considerably less accessible, being surrounded night and day by a battalion of trigger-happy Marines. They seldom fired more than twice before yelling “Halt!”

The Marines were only joshing most of the time. They knew about us and whenever we got close enough to remind them we were all on the same side, the stock answer was, “You ain’t got a thing to worry about, doggie. We fired over your heads.” This hardly improved anyone’s peace of mind, and most of our taller men developed a posture problem.

It all went to make the field problems more realistic, though, giving new meaning to the instructor’s “behind the lines” spiel. It also caused an alarming dearth of applicants for the jobs of scout or observer. I heard some touching farewells after saying, “Sergeant, send a man up that tree to have a look around.” And I saw some rapid and daring descents, including high dives, at the sound of a rifle shot fired by a playful comrade.

What we wanted to do was shoot back at the Marines, firing high of course, which would most certainly have brought civil war back to the Blue Ridge Mountains. Our commanding officers couldn’t quite see their way clear to declaring open season on the President’s bodyguard, so we kept prowling the countryside, the Marines kept throwing lead all over the place whenever we got within an extremely variable distance they called “range,” and the fact no one was sent home in a box bordered on the miraculous.

Then there was the sunny day when the President and his Secretary of State came within an instant of being mock-ambushed by one of our patrols out on a problem. A quick-thinking corporal kept his O.S.S. tigers from swarming out of the bushes and trying to stop that particular car, which is probably just as well. I doubt if the Secret Service would have asked questions first.

* * *

One of the critiques I handled came after two of the groups had made a complete botch of their previous night’s problem. They had been surprised, while setting up an ambush, by two armored cars. They did the right thing by blasting their way out with dummy grenades, but in the excitement only six men out of nineteen remembered to pull the pins out of their grenades. The other thirteen might as well have thrown rocks. I had to make that abundantly clear in a way they’d never forget, but not at the expense of the men who had goofed.

I rearranged the classroom for this particular critique, setting my platform and desk near a side door. On the desk I placed a grenade which had been specially doctored for the occasion. It looked real enough, but actually it was a dummy with the identifying stripes painted over. Its detonator, however, was genuine. What it amounted to was a grenade which looked and acted real until the last instant; then, instead of exploding, it popped like a firecracker.

The Italian Operational Groups marched in and took their seats. They were on edge, officers as well as men, and obviously expecting the worst. I’d gotten along fine with them during their training, but news of what had happened on the problem had spread through the area, and the working over they’d been given by the other groups had them ready to burst into flames.

I stood behind the desk watching them. Their eyes were riveted on the grenade. Then I picked it up and let them have another long look. There wasn’t a sound in the room. Suddenly I pulled the pin and placed the grenade back on the desk. As I let go, the safety handle flipped off, and it started to splutter. I had five seconds.

“That, gentlemen, is how to pull the pin on a hand grenade.” Three seconds. The O.G.’s were frozen in place. I counted “One” to myself, then whirled and stepped through the side door, slamming it behind me. A moment later there was a sharp “crack” in the classroom. I opened the door and stepped back behind the desk. The grenade lay there, smoke curling from the hole in the bottom where the cotton plug had blown out. The O.G.’s looked as though they were starting to breathe again, but it was still deathly quiet.

“Any questions, gentlemen?”

There were no questions, only a sudden wave of applause. They cheered, too.

* * *

By the end of the third day, the staff knew all they wanted to know, which was fortunate, since the class was orry-eyed from all the tests. So they wound things up with a party. Hercules and I were playing a delightful parlor game which involved knocking a small wooden ball into a cage with a series of paddles fastened on twirling sticks. We’d been playing every spare minute we could find, and this was the championship match. Bucephalus insisted on being the referee, a job he fulfilled with stupefying incompetence, all the while reminding us, “I can be bought.”

In the midst of a furious exchange, we heard glasses tinkling and bottles banging. The staff paraded into the recreation room bearing booze, ice, and glasses. While Hercules stood there, stunned, I slammed home the winning shot, and headed for where I thought they’d set up the bar, his howls of protest ringing in my ears.

“This is a farewell party, given by the staff for the class,” said one of the instructors.

“How very nice,” said I, grabbing a fifth of Scotch.

We settled down, the Director made a brief and charming speech, telling us we had been an excellent group, we’d done well, and we’d earned a little relaxation, so go to it. We went, and in less than an hour, a goodly number of my comrades fell slightly drunk. The staff was lapping it up with us, and chatting merrily with everyone. everyone. Then one of the instructors casually asked, “What do you think we should do with the hard-core Nazis after the war?”

This started a general discussion, with the staff leading the way. Then members of the class arose, most of them swaying a bit, and delivered themselves of various opinions. Arguments started, theories were expounded. My friends and I were off in a corner, listening to the alcoholic chatter and keeping quiet for a change. It must have dawned on all three of us at the same time. I nudged Bucephalus.

“This whole deal is as queer as a Chinese flag. Most of the class is fractured, but every man on the staff is cold sober. It’s a fix.”

“I was just noticing that. They’re all drinking out of the same bottles, too, must be tea. Why those foxy bastards,” he said admiringly. “This is no party, it’s as much a test as anything else has been.”

“I been waiting for you guys to realize it,” said Hercules. “They want to know how we handle ourselves after gazing upon the wine while it is red.”

“Then you’d better hurry up and get loaded,” I told him. “You’re a total failure this way.”

The “what to do with the hard-core Nazis” debate was in high gear now. Some of the talk was intelligent, some was largely unintelligible, some showed the liquor had dulled the speaker’s mind to the point where he was likely to say anything. I counted seven cover stories which were blown sky high. The staff took it all in. They also noted the way we were staying out of things, which was highly unusual. One of them asked, “How do you feel about this, Hercules?”

Our boy hauled himself erect, but before he could answer, Bucephalus muttered, “Now for Christ’s sake don’t embarrass us by admitting you don’t know what ‘hard core’ means.” Hercules went right back down, roaring.

Before they could come after us again, a student leaped to his feet shouting, “Castrate ’em all in the morning.” He then fell flat on the floor, evidently gathering strength for his next address. While they were lifting him into a chair, Hercules giggled, “I don’t wanna talk about large-bore Nazis. Let’s sing.”

This seemed a splendid idea, so we launched into “Onward, Christian Soldiers,” substituting freely in the lyrics, “conscript” for “Christian” being particularly well received.

The Director made a final, direct plea. “Aren’t you fellows going to enter into this discussion at all?”

Hercules finished that angle forever by insisting on absolute quiet while he sang something he devoutly described as “my mother’s favorite hymn.”

“I am Jesus’ little lamb.
He has made me what I am.
He will wash me white as snow.
What a dirty little job for Jesus!”

Everyone collapsed, and the staff gave up. The happiness boys had evidently ascertained the liquor reaction of everyone but us, and since ours was apparently not to be had, they broke down and got blind for real.

Later, much later, we adopted the Director, who finally had to be led upstairs happily singing our newest song, “Oh, God bless you and keep you, Mata Machree!”

We tried the paddle game once more, but the contest ended abruptly when the referee fell through the table. It was obviously time for bed, so we ricocheted upstairs to our room, with Hercules bringing along three empty bottles under the mistaken notion that they were dear friends who had gone on to bliss eternal.

“And I was with them when they died,” he announced reverently.

Next day, those of the staff who could navigate came out to wish us Godspeed. We caught a brief glimpse of the Director waving feebly from an upstairs window, and Hercules asked, “Was he that color last night?”

* * *

One Saturday night we had Mock Court. A student would be brought into the room and questioned, in front of the class and staff, by two other students. The object was to break the defendant’s cover. The pair of interrogators could use any and all methods except physical force. We all had a crack at both sides. Each case lasted ten minutes, and the class voted to express their opinion as to who had won the case, prosecutors or defendant.

I had the good fortune to go up against a couple of dim bulbs, Homer and Raymond by name, and didn’t have much trouble. They started off in an eminently predictable manner by asking about my family background, so I claimed I was a bastard, and had absolutely no idea who my father might be. Gordon added to the confusion by roaring, “Bastards all!” every time anyone paused for breath.

Then Ossian and I teamed up to wreak havoc on Student Earl, an obnoxious little bundle of conceit who was Gordon’s pet hate. My partner disclaimed any previous legal training, which may or may not have been the truth, but he would have made one hell of a district attorney. All I had to do was add volume to the proceedings. Ossian had Earl on the ropes in five minutes, and then managed to knock two large holes in his cover. We won the case hands down, our only trouble coming from the irrepressible Gordon, who would start a popular demonstration of approval each time we scored a point. I was about to have him thrown out for obstructing justice when our time expired. Upon investigation, we found that certain light-hearted elements had smuggled three cases of beer into the courtroom.

By the time Gordon’s turn to be questioned came around, one of his prosecutors had the good sense to charge him with being drunk and disorderly. That passed by acclamation, which disappointed the defendant. He had planned to plead guilty. Since the back benches were resounding to the chorus of a well-known drinking song, the staff, which was doing most of the singing, called off further litigation.

There was still time for Gordon to make an eloquent speech demanding death in the gas chamber for Earl. Most of the jury was out on the lawn playing touch football in the moonlight, but one of those remaining took it upon himself to remind the orator, “Fine idea, but we have no gas chamber.”

Gordon’s reply was characteristic: “Then build one—that man has got to go!”

There’s lots more to enjoy in the book.  I’ll put up further snippets from it in due course.



  1. Concur. Blast from the past – I remember reading this book from fif–, er, mumble, mumble years ago.

  2. I first read nd bought the paperback version of the book over 50 years ago…and it is still one of my favorites. My eldest son used it for a biographical book report in middle school and the teacher didn't believe him. He had to bring in the book to prove it existed and the quotes were real…

  3. I never read that one, but I read a similarly themed book, entitled, if I remember right, "Some Birds Don't Fly," about the "lighter" side of missile development. I read the book over 40 years ago, so the only story that I remember is a radar-guidance test where a missile carrying a radar that could detect "a dime turned sideways" was fired at what was believed to be the target, even though the target was flying in smaller circles than an aircraft should have been. A few minutes after the successful test, the base got an angry call from a Fish and Wildlife ranger who asked why they had to blow up the eagle he'd just banded.

  4. It's great that it's still in print. First published 1957, so it's been around for more than 60 years (my copy is the 1964 first paperback edition).

    Of course it makes sense for its publisher. It's in print from Bluejacket Books, which is associated with the US Naval Institute Press.

  5. I read it around 50 years ago, myself. About all I remember is the scene after they leave the school, when Bucephalus started arguing seniority with another student, while the author kept out of it, being of significantly lower rank than the other two.

    I'll have to pick up a copy. While I'm at it, I'll have to pick up as many of Dan Gallery's books as I can. I read them about as long ago.

    If you're looking for a fun fictional spy book, try to find a copy of "The Game of X," by Robert Sheckley. I thought it was hilarious.

  6. During my days at White Sands we liked to call the Sargent Missile the "Civil Service" missile.

    It wouldn't work and you couldn't fire it.

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