Years before the CIA formed, decades before the spy agency helped hunt down Osama bin Laden, there was something called the Office of Strategic Services. Georgetown Township resident Al Johnson could tell you a tale or two about that. Johnson, 87, was a charter member of this clandestine group in World War II, joining cause with the French underground and then fighting the Japanese occupation of China. But as Johnson sits at his kitchen table, medals and documents from that time spread before him, he said the toughest part might have been keeping a lid on everything he did during the war. “It was such a hush-hush group. We couldn’t talk about it when we got home on furloughs. We were advised not say anything. “I didn‘t say anything about it for 50 years.” Former U.S. Rep. Pete Hoekstra of Holland said the OSS was critical in proving the worth of intelligence, paving the way a few years after the war with establishment of the CIA. “It laid the foundation,” said Hoekstra, who presided as GOP chair of the House Intelligence Committee from 2004 through 2006. Hoekstra said those like Johnson and the agents that followed deserve special notice, since “many of these people serve anonymously. And they die anonymously.” As West Michigan spent the Memorial Day weekend recognizing those who gave their lives for their country, Hoekstra said it’s worth remembering that sacrifice doesn’t always wear a uniform.
He helped Johnson secure his award in 2009 of the French Legion of Honor medal, that nation’s highest civilian award. He also earned a Bronze Star and several other honors. “Very seldom do we hear about their successes at the time they happen. For a lot of these folks you may not hear about the impact they had until 20 or 30 years later.” Secrecy was about the last thing on Johnson’s mind when the Grand Rapids Central High School graduate enlisted in the Army in February 1943. He was disappointed to be assigned duty as a medic, fearing he would sit out the war “on bedpan duty” at some hospital far from the front lines. Then he spotted a notice on a bulletin board. “They were looking for volunteers for dangerous duty with a short life expectancy. That sounded like something that could be interesting,” Johnson recalled. President Franklin Roosevelt established the OSS in June 1942, to collect and analyze strategic information and to conduct special operations not assigned to other agencies. It was the first time a single group encompassed everything from espionage to covert action to counterintelligence. “I had never heard of it,” Johnson said. “I didn’t really know what I was joining.” Johnson and some of the OSS recruits ended up at Congressional Country Club outside Washington for their initial training in weaponry and tactics. The trainees virtually tore up the layout with their weapons and explosive practice. “We ruined the course,” he said. In May 1944, Johnson was shipped to northern Africa for parachute training, completing 11 jumps before he was sent to England for commando training. There he honed his weapons skills and learned a variety of ways to kill another man. In August 1944, he and two dozen other OSS members jumped out of B-24 bombers about 1:20 a.m. into German-held southern France, guided by signal fires set by the French underground. Their first mission: Capture a nearby hydroelectric plant held by a relatively small German force. An OSS colonel got word to the German officer in charge he had a large body of men prepared to seize the plant by force. “He said, ‘You either leave by morning or we’re going to take over,’” Johnson said. The Germans left. “That mission couldn’t have gone any better.” A couple of weeks later, Johnson and his OSS comrades coordinated a hit-and-run ambush by the underground of what turned to be a division-sized column of German troops, tanks and trucks. “We hit them with everything we had,” Johnson said. “There was a lot of lead flying around.” Johnson and two others got separated from the group as it retreated, but they were able to rejoin them after spending a night in the field. There were other such missions. “We blew up bridges, blew holes in roads, anything we could think of to cause havoc.” By the end of September, the invading Allied forces had taken southern France from the Germans. It was time for another mission. “As soon as the Americans had overtaken us, we had to get out,” Johnson said. Johnson was back home for a 30-day furlough, where he gave only vague descriptions of what he had been up to. By January 1945, he was in India and headed over 1,200 miles of the Burma road for China. The OSS group spent several months training Chinese commandos on tactics for resisting the Japanese occupiers. In July 1945, 200 OSS troops parachuted into the rice paddies of central China. Their mission: Disrupt the supply of rice back to Japan. “I never thought we would live through the Chinese operation because we were so easily identified,” Johnson said. They were sent as “advisers,” Johnson said, their orders prohibiting them from taking part in combat. Their role was further complicated by a growing civil war between nationalist forces and communist forces led by Mao Tse-tung. “We carried a lot of Chinese money with us. You bought intelligence. You bought loyalty,” he said. The war ended with the Japanese surrender on Aug. 15, 1945, and Johnson was finally home by the end of the year. By war’s end, the OSS had trained resistance forces across in both the Pacific and European theaters, conducted sabotage operations and even used its operatives to penetrate Nazi Germany. In 1947, President Harry Truman assured that the OSS legacy would continue with creation of the CIA. Given his background, it’s no surprise Johnson took particular satisfaction in the role the CIA played in tracking down bin Laden to the compound in Pakistan where he met his death. “It’s exhilarating to know what we started is still in effect. Of course, things are more sophisticated now. They gave us a handgun and a rifle and said, ‘Here’s a map. Go after them.’”