At the Dragon's Gate: With the OSS in the Far East

Overview


In the early days of World War II, a young Marine named Charles Fenn was recruited by the Office of Strategic Services (OSS) for undercover operations in the China-Burma-India theatre. Fenn knew exactly what it took to get the job done. His wartime exploits are the stuff of legend, but not even his OSS compatriots knew the full extent of his espionage activities. Fenn's skill as a spy is matched by his talent as a storyteller, and this witty, elegantly written account of his OSS days not only adds to the ...
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At the Dragon's Gate: With the OSS in the Far East

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Overview


In the early days of World War II, a young Marine named Charles Fenn was recruited by the Office of Strategic Services (OSS) for undercover operations in the China-Burma-India theatre. Fenn knew exactly what it took to get the job done. His wartime exploits are the stuff of legend, but not even his OSS compatriots knew the full extent of his espionage activities. Fenn's skill as a spy is matched by his talent as a storyteller, and this witty, elegantly written account of his OSS days not only adds to the historical record, it makes for a compelling read.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9781591142683
  • Publisher: Naval Institute Press
  • Publication date: 11/28/2004
  • Pages: 256
  • Sales rank: 865,874
  • Product dimensions: 5.90 (w) x 9.10 (h) x 0.60 (d)

Meet the Author


Charles Fenn served with the OSS during World War II.
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Read an Excerpt

AT THE DRAGON'S GATE

WITH THE OSS IN THE FAR EAST
By CHARLES FENN

Naval Institute Press

Copyright © 2004 Charles Fenn
All right reserved.

ISBN: 1-59114-268-7


Chapter One

Carlyle summarized the politics of nations thus: "Counsellors of state sit plotting and playing their high game of chess whereof the pawns are men." In the ordinary game of chess, a pawn may sometimes hold the king in check. In the high game of international politics, a human pawn may sometimes hold counselors of state in check. Such was briefly my role in World War II.

The chess pawn, being manipulated by the player, has no will of its own. Whether human pawns have any' will of their own is a question endlessly debated. In my own case I had little or none; from the beginning I was caught up in the "high game of chess" only by chance and was subsequently manipulated only by further irrelevancies.

In writing this book, I shall hope to be discerning, truthful, interesting, and impartial. I may claim to have one advantage in regard to impartiality; having been born, educated, and briefly employed in England, I immigrated to the United States of America and subsequently became an American citizen. My story begins in 1943 when I returned to New York City after a two-year stretch as an Associated Press war correspondent. I had two objectives: to find a publisher or an agent for a war novel I had been working on and to improve my status with the AP as a mere stringer correspondent despite having covered war fronts in China, Burma, Ceylon, Abyssinia, and Djibouti. I had originally (1940) gone to China as a news photographer for a picture magazine called Friday, which rivaled Life but was left wing and had a much smaller circulation.

I might describe myself as theoretically left: Shavian inspired and favoring public ownership, equality for women, and racial equality. Friday magazine endorsed these concepts but went a step further, supporting the Soviet Union, whereas my own critical enthusiasm had been shaken by Stalin's purges of the thirties, not to mention widespread evidence of other tyranny.

Friday's readership thus comprised not only leftists like myself but those still accepting Stalinism, including a substantial number of Communist Party members. For a large cross section of all these readers, the Soviet-Nazi pact of 1941 was a staggering betrayal. And when Friday supported the official Communist Party line of condoning it, they stopped reading the journal. As a result, the paper shortly folded up, leaving me in the middle of China (photographing the Japanese advance) without a job and, as all too often the case, almost broke. Communications were so poor that a couple of months actually went by before I even heard of Friday's demise. It took several more months, first to raise the ante and then to make the very complicated journey, via public bus and Chinese army truck, to get back to Chungking in hopes of picking up another job.

I was still looking and feeling thankful you could get a meal in China, albeit largely rice, for the equivalent of five cents, when there came the news of Pearl Harbor. It so happened I was acquainted with the three Army generals composing the so-called American Military Mission who had arrived a few months earlier to liaise with Chiang Kai-shek (throughout this book I will use the Wade-Giles system of romanizing the Chinese written language) in his war of resistance to the Japanese (a subject I shall deal with later). Hearing they were recruiting personnel, I thought that offering my services would nicely combine patriotism with my need for a job. They seemed pleased to take me on, though the remuneration subsequently offered hardly lived up to their smiling welcome. But it did enable me to eat better meals.

Initially, I was asked a great many questions about China: politics, the Chinese people, the war, the top personalities, the administration, and the past, present, and likely future of China, all of which was taken down in shorthand (tape machines, although embryonically invented, were not yet in use). Suddenly, however, I was transferred to the pay department, which consisted of an Army sergeant who did the figure work and a Chinese assistant who mostly ran errands. It seemed the sergeant was needed elsewhere, and there was no one else they could trust to do his job: a meaningless statement because no cash was involved, only paychecks.

It says much for the patience my close association with Chinese people had impressed into my basically fretful nature that I stood three weeks of this otherwise insufferable boredom, and when I resigned, unable to bear any more, the generals, instead of awarding me a medal for heroic service, scowlingly complained that I was letting them down. Perhaps I was lucky the draft did not yet apply.

So now I was free! But, alas, I was shortly broke again. At just about this point, the Japanese invaded Burma. I will never forget how this news on the stuttering radio suddenly set my thoughts racing and how I promptly hired a rickshaw (usually avoided as cruelly exploitative) to the press hotel where Spencer Moosa, the AP man and fortunately a friend of mine, was there in his niche.

So with Lady Luck still throwing me aces, I talked Spencer Moosa into sending me down to get pictures of the Japanese invasion with immediate expenses paid and subsequent payments dependent on results. (I should perhaps explain here that in those days good new photographs were more valued than they are today. Although the top-class cameras of that era, such as Leica, were beautiful pieces of mechanism, they required far more skill to operate effectively than present-day electronically operated cameras. This was also in the days before television made stills of secondary importance.) Travel expenses would be paid, but additional payment would depend on material submitted and approved.

So I subsequently went through two highly dangerous months in Burma with no contract, no salary, and no insurance of any sort (never heard of it) and was lucky to escape getting caught by the Japanese and locked up in a camp or having my head sliced off as a spy. "Where ignorance is bliss, 'tis folly to be wise" was never more true. Because of there being no wired transmission of material, much of mine arrived too late; some was even lost in transit. Nevertheless, big-hearted AP sufficiently liked some of what they did get to let me cover other war fronts on the same terms.

But finally, enough was enough. In the middle of Africa, held up for weeks by red tape on my way to the war in Algeria, I was offered a ride on a Liberator returning to the United States. Liberator by name and liberator by deed! Ten days later (on the South Atlantic route to avoid U-boats, flights took that long), I was back home: what joy!

I found my wife, Marion Greenwood, entertaining a few friends, mostly fellow artists. Marion, still young and beautiful, had recently, under the aegis of Diego Rivera, shone in the art world by covering huge Mexican walls with highly competent fresco murals. When Marion asked about my interview with the AP I saw no reason not to tell her frankly that it had been a washout, and the talk moved on to other topics.

Among the guests was Buckminster Fuller, the architect-engineer who invented, among other significant work, the geodesic dome. He seemed particularly interested that I had been in China and asked several somewhat probing questions. Then, taking me aside, he asked:

"Do I gather you had some sort of contretemps with AP?"

"You could put it that way."

"So you might be interested in a new job?"

"I might very well be!"

And before he left I had an appointment to meet him in his office at ten o'clock the next morning.

It was that next morning when I learned the following facts: in addition to his usual interests, Bucky was acting as advisor to the Office of Strategic Service, called the OSS (which after the war became the Central Intelligence Agency, or CIA). This clandestine U.S. government agency was the brainchild of William J. Donovan, a millionaire Wall Street lawyer and close friend of President Roosevelt. The agency operated with unlimited funds not accountable to Congress, and its membership was drawn very much from Donovan's lawyer friends and associates, along with politicians, business executives, socialites, and academics in the top bracket. A number of so-called experts or specialists were also brought in, with emphasis on explorers, inventors, linguists, missionaries, observers, overseas businessmen, and journalists.

It was, of course, in this category of "journalist" that Fuller, impressed by my seemingly wide experience in China, thought I might fit. He therefore arranged that I should go down to Washington and meet one of the OSS executives. But before I come to this, it might be useful to consider the origin, purpose, and development of OSS in rather more detail than Fuller revealed at this point.

Wars were originally fought strictly by armies and navies, and the civilian population was affected, if at all, only by the ensuing destruction of property, food, livelihood, and general welfare. This, of course, was at times catastrophically devastating to whole populations, as, for example, during the Napoleonic Wars. But it was only in this century, with the advent of what was originally called the Great War and later World War I, that wars became total, that is, with the whole population regulated in one way or another; if they were not inducted into the armed forces, then they were strictly regulated as to their livelihood, leisure, and subsistence. This extension of warfare was mostly because some European nations, having become increasingly industrialized, overpopulated, expansionist, and competitive, had grabbed off whole chunks of the outside world for their own exploitation ahead of some other European nations who had been initially less organized to grab the spoils worth having.

After a slow start, with the use of methods from the nineteenth century, such as massed infantry attacks whereby men were slaughtered in thousands and whereby cavalry charges slaughtered horses too, war became revolutionized as already described. In addition, the newly invented airplane was utilized, the tank was invented, and with trench warfare becoming the norm, the war was fought largely with shells. Other innovations included the demoralization of the civilian populations by submarines sinking vital food supplies, by slaughter and destruction from air raids, and by propaganda disseminating unpleasant truths as well as lies.

In World War I, both sides adopted certain codes of behavior for propaganda effect, rather than because they approved of such codes, which often interfered with doing the job-that is, either slaughtering the enemy or intimidating him to the point of surrender (a preferred solution because it saved both time and ammunition).

World War II began only eighteen years after the first one ended and was in some respects merely a renewal of it, due largely to the foolish behavior of the Allies in bankrupting Germany with war debts. Out of this disaster had emerged Hitler, a genius with magnetism, energy, and determination, although top-heavily fanatical, which finally led him to overplay his hand to the point of disaster. But meanwhile he inspired his countrymen to subdue the greater part of Europe and to come within an ace of subduing his one surviving opponent, Britain. Parallel with this cataclysm, Japan had achieved an even greater triumph, having shattered the American Navy, overwhelmed all the Allied bases, and occupied most of Asia.

As historian Toynbee emphasized, if an overwhelming challenge does not totally overwhelm, it often inspires the victim to new heights of vigor and success. This was certainly true of America following the Japanese initial onslaught (and even more spectacularly confirmed in German and Japanese postwar recovery). The nation rose to the challenge with an energy, invention, skill, and final success that ultimately made it number one among world powers. All the existing functions in the operation of war were expanded, improved, and speeded up, and some new ones were added.

Among the latter was the Office of Strategic Services, as described earlier. The reasons for the curious mixture in this organization were roughly this: in the USA, equality before the law was not a shibboleth to be lightly dismissed, and the draft then sweeping men below a certain age and physically fit into the military net could not easily be disregarded in favor of wealth, prestige, or political pull. Although OSS was founded for the genuine purpose of serving the war effort, it was inevitable that it would also be used to rescue certain citizens from being drafted into the ranks when it was believed they might be more useful elsewhere, such as in OSS. Although for fear of adverse criticism they must still be drafted, there was no law to say that after some perfunctory training they might not qualify as officers, with rank appropriate to their status in civilian life. This accounted largely for the critical recruitment mentioned above.

I should explain the category of "specialist": explorers would be men of initiative, have traveled alone, be self-reliant, and be able to relate knowledgeably with foreigners. Inventors and technicians would be able to devise gadgets to deceive, frighten, injure, or kill clandestinely. Linguists were necessary not only to coordinate with our allies but to penetrate into and spy upon our enemies. Missionaries would have special knowledge and insight relating to foreign countries as well as personal contact with the inhabitants. Foreign traders and journalists would have similar advantages but in very different environments.

Candidates in all the above-mentioned categories, whether they had been chosen by Donovan and other top figures or had volunteered like myself, were, in these early days, nearly all civilians to start with. They had not yet come up on the draft, they had been found not physically fit for military service, they had been exempted because their occupation was in one way or another useful to the war effort, or simply they had been overseas. (Both these latter exemptions explained my own civilian status.)

OSS candidates about to be drafted might choose to serve in the Army, Navy, or Marines-I myself preferred the more prestigious and selective Marines, not knowing that whereas the Army and Navy required only token training from "specialists," the Marine Corps insisted on a full program for everyone. The strenuous physical regime, augmented by meticulous discipline, was inevitably a challenge to a man aged thirty-six who had not previously been concerned with any physical regime. But I am anticipating the course of events.

Continues...


Excerpted from AT THE DRAGON'S GATE by CHARLES FENN Copyright © 2004 by Charles Fenn. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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  • Posted December 9, 2008

    No Action

    All the author does through the first half of this book is talk about the people he mooched meals from while he was in the China theater. he never tells about any operations he was on as part of the OSS. Not a good read.

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