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A group of unconventional young women groomed for OSS field work take on leeches, exploding toilets, and the finer points of propaganda warfare.

‘It is urgently requested that great care be given in the selection of female personnel for SEAC (Southeast Asia Command),” Lieutenant Commander Edmond Taylor, a young OSS intelligence officer, wrote in a tart 1944 memo to his superiors in Washington. “From now on the women must be healthy, able, and at the same time should have a degree of sophistication and experience that qualifies them for coping with the unusual situations they will find in Ceylon.”

Taylor, an experienced war correspondent fresh from the European front, was no doubt exasperated that the entire contingent of OSS women dispatched to their small camp had spent the better part of a month prostrate with dengue fever. No sooner had the eight female recruits arrived in Kandy, a remote planters’ oasis nestled high in the jungle-covered hills of Ceylon, straight off the boat that had ferried them from California to Bombay—absurdly kitted out in fatigues, with everything from pith helmets and canteens to gas masks strapped to their backs—than they had succumbed to the mosquito-born virus. They presented quite a picture, covered in an angry red rash from head to toe, lined up in a row of cots in the makeshift infirmary that had been set up in an old Franciscan monastery.

There was a degree of irony underlying the OSS commander’s use of the phrase “unusual situations.” Despite their deep tropical tans, nearly all the men in Detachment 404 had been sick as dogs. The whole of India was a bacterial breeding ground, and many of the original members of Taylor’s OSS team, who had spent months in Calcutta and Delhi doing advance work before moving to their new base in Kandy, had suffered from repeated bouts of bacillary dysentery. The ubiquitous ailment, popularly known as “Delhi belly” or “the Kandy canters,” had taken its toll. They were all exhausted, irritable, and had lost a considerable amount of weight. Exacerbating matters, their tropical paradise came replete with huge cockroaches that scampered across their towels each morning, scorpions that hid in their bags and shoes, and six-foot-long cobras that came quietly through the open windows of the bamboo bashas where the team worked and made themselves at home in wastepaper baskets, drawers, and typewriter covers.

In the midst of her first planning meeting at the OSS headquarters in Kandy, located on an old tea plantation, Elizabeth (Betty) MacDonald recalls glancing down to see a fat, sausage-like creature making a meal of her ankle, expanding before her eyes as it filled with bright red blood. When she interrupted the briefing and pointed to the problem, Colonel Carleton Scofield, the head of their OSS detachment and a psychologist in civilian life, sent her to the camp doctor, pausing only long enough to note with academic interest that it was “the first leech” he had seen in those parts.

In the prejudiced view of many professional soldiers and OSS officers at the time, women simply did not belong in the forward areas, regardless of their individual nerve and dedication. Even Detachment 404’s colonel, Richard Heppner, cabled headquarters that he had his hands full with a brilliant but tactless female OSS officer, a Harvard anthropologist named Cora Dubois, adding, “You have the usual problems with army officers being placed under a woman’s command.” As every prudent realist in the OSS was aware, however, they did not have much choice in the matter. There was a man shortage and the new civilian spy service was woefully understaffed as it was.

While the paramilitary and guerrilla aspects of the OSS received the most glory, it was an organization of some 13,000 personnel at its peak, including 4,500 women whose faithful performance of a wide range of duties—from answering phones and filing secret cables to undertaking research, writing reports, and assisting with the detailed planning of field missions—touched nearly every theater of war. Moreover, since many of the OSS’s unorthodox activities could be conducted from behind a desk, women could be just as effective as men. While the vast majority of the women in the OSS remained in Washington and worked in support of the agency’s far-flung operations, scores were sent overseas and carried out their assignments with the same mixture of audacity, self-reliance, and seat-of-the-pants ingenuity that General William “Wild Bill” Donovan inspired in all who served under him.

In the summer of 1941, enormous intelligence gathering operation and administrative bureaucracy virtually overnight, Donovan began by hiring lawyers from his own Wall Street firm, as well as faced with building an prominent attorneys and businessmen of his acquaintance. He recruited a wide variety of PhDs—psychologists, anthropologists, mathematicians, linguists, and ornithologists—as well as an assortment of creative types, including artists, writers, journalists, and inventors. Donovan had a penchant for hiring from the Ivy League and the Junior League, on the theory that the well off were harder to bribe, and developed a reputation for poaching talent wherever he could find it. With time of the essence, it simplified the vetting process if he kept it all in the family: if an officer had a sister or girlfriend with the right temperament and good typing speed, she was brought in with the promise of an “upward move,” and more opportunities to advance than at other agencies. If she had any special skills— was fluent in one or more foreign languages, had lived or traveled extensively abroad, or had intimate local knowledge—she would be whisked off to secret training schools in and around Washington, and put to work mastering cartography, cryptography (coding and decoding messages), producing propaganda and rumor campaigns, and creating convincing aliases and documents for agents being dropped behind enemy lines.

Betty MacDonald, then a 28-year-old reporter who had just graduated from the Honolulu society pages to feature writing at the time of the attack on Pearl Harbor, quickly found her services in demand. She had been studying Japanese, and in spring 1943 her language skills landed her a job in the Morale Operations (MO) branch of the OSS—the psychological warfare division that dealt primarily with “black propaganda,” which consisted of manipulating information, lies, and rumors to undermine the morale and political unity of the enemy.

MacDonald vividly recalls the day she was fingerprinted and sworn in, passing from carefree civilian life to military jurisdiction (under the Joint Chiefs of Staff, to which the OSS reported) and registering with shock that she was under “the rigid authority of a scowling sergeant.” Once ushered into the clandestine club, she quickly saw to it that her husband, a lieutenant with the naval reserves in Honolulu, was also recruited by the OSS. (Because of OSS regulations forbidding married couples to serve in the same theater, they spent the war far apart and eventually divorced.)

Another raw recruit taking the oath alongside MacDonald was Jane Foster, a wild, messy blond from a wealthy San Francisco family, who had run off with a Dutch diplomat after college and spent a few years in Malaya and Bali—she was fluent in four or five languages—before returning home and filing for divorce. Foster was a painter, naturally flamboyant, and irreverent to the bone. “She was always saluting the wrong people, or not saluting anyone at all,” MacDonald recalled. “I liked her straightaway. Everyone did.”

Most of their fellow volunteers, men and women, appeared equally idiosyncratic and undisciplined, seemingly selected at random from the strangest corners of civilian life, giving the OSS the same ivory-tower unreality of a small liberal arts college, with the same tolerance for campus radicals, zealots, and oddballs. This impression was only reinforced by their experience at Station S, the OSS’s secret assessment center, situated on a sprawling 118-acre Virginia estate that had once belonged to the family that owned Washington’s famed Willard Hotel. In these genteel surroundings, they submitted to three days of rigorous tests, a kind of mental fitness clinic pioneered by the British War Office Selection Board, which staged similar examinations in country estates all over England in an effort to screen officer candidates from the pool of eligible young men.

Over the next few days, the two OSS women, along with a dozen young men who would soon be parachuting behind enemy lines, were put through their paces. Their chief instructors were Dr. Henry Murray, director of the Harvard Psychological Clinic, and Dr. Richard S. Lyman, a professor of neuropsychiatry at Duke University.

Over the next few days, these two distinguished doctors and their team of graduate students administered every conceivable test in an effort to determine emotional fitness, stability, integrity, and leadership potential. There were some 32 different exams, beginning with the standard IQ and Rorschach tests, followed by Dr. Murray’s own tricky little invention, the Thematic Apperception Test (TAT)—a picture-interpretation exercise in which the subject is handed a series of provocative yet ambiguous images and asked to furnish his or her own interpretation, with the idea that each individual’s view will reveal hidden thoughts and experiences.

Jane Foster, who trained in art history, recognized all of the images, could identify the painters, and ended up lecturing the doctors on the inappropriateness of the exercise. There were also “live” situation tests designed to measure their observation skills and initiative. In one experimental scenario, they were asked to search a hotel room and evaluate the occupant based on his or her belongings. MacDonald, despite her best efforts, could not summon an image of the man whose room she examined based solely on a half-consumed pint of bourbon, railroad ticket stubs from Cambridge, a suit from Brooks Brothers, neatly darned socks, and a copy of Harper’s. A three-day crash course in small arms and OSS mechanical weapons, conducted on the rolling green fairways of the Congressional Country Club, completed their training.

After their last session on the firing range, Foster and MacDonald giddily made their way to the ladies’ room to repair their makeup before heading back to town. Now that they were graduates of gun school, they felt confident they were ready for their first overseas mission. Moments later, they were rocked back on their heels by a loud explosion, and acrid smoke quickly filled the bathroom. It took them only a few seconds to recover their wits, and another few to work out that the nasty surprise had been triggered by the flush chain of the toilet.“We had been introduced to out first booby trap,” MacDonald recalled, adding dryly that it was just a little OSS reminder that an agent could never be “too prepared.”

When their six- to eight-month sojourn into the “never-never land” of OSS agent finishing schools was finally over—and they had mastered the finer points of forging documents, following people, arranging secret rendezvous, and interrogating suspects—the OSS recruits received their scores. MacDonald and Foster discovered they had done exceedingly well on some tests (Jane, with her artist’s eye, earned by far the highest marks for her ability to observe and evaluate people) and very poorly on others.

MacDonald recalled feeling rather deflated at the end, having been informed that she was “an open-face-sandwich” type and not Mata Hari material. They had both come away convinced their espionage careers were destined to be short lived, when they learned in the spring of 1944 that they would be going abroad as part of the OSS’s expanded operations in India and Southeast Asia. Lord Louis Mountbatten, the supreme commander of SEAC, had consented to the OSS establishing an intelligence gathering base in New Delhi, as well as one in Kandy, Ceylon, where he had recently shifted his own headquarters. MacDonald was headed to Delhi, where she would be setting up a small Morale Operations unit, while Foster would be manning the Indonesia desk at the Kandy station, helping to produce black political warfare material (subversive leaflets, propaganda, posters, and cartoons) bound for Thailand, Malaya, Sumatra, and Burma. Their assignment was twofold: “to undermine the Japanese army and, second, to turn the native populations against the Japanese and their collaborators.”

Since she was a civilian, MacDonald was given the military equivalent rank of second lieutenant and shipped out to India where she analyzed POW statements and captured enemy materiel, and tried to come up with devious ways to undermine the Japanese ideology and morale. After examining a stack of Japanese postcards, salvaged from a muddy leather bag found in the Burma jungles, she hit on a perversely effective idea for an MO campaign. Why not reproduce the postcards exactly as they had found them, hastily scrawled kanji in pencil complete with the stamp and censor’s mark, only replace the contents of the messages with reports of terrible conditions at the front? A sample poison pen message would read: “Obasan, where are the supplies? We are starving in the jungle. How can we fight without bullets?” These cards would run directly counter to the official line stating that the Imperial armies were marching through India, and could inspire anger, dissension, and political unrest on the Japanese home front.

Project Black Mail, as it was dubbed, succeeded beyond their hopes. Shortly after the 400 falsified postcards were slipped into the Japanese postal system, MacDonald received the news that the Tojo cabinet had resigned. The political upset came on the heels of newspaper reports of the plummeting morale of the Japanese 18th Division in Burma, who were said to be suffering from scarce food and provisions.

Meanwhile, in Ceylon, Foster achieved almost instant fame—or infamy—with her scheme to deliver anti-Japanese propaganda, packaged together with locally prized anti-malarial pills, stuffed into waterproof balloons made of SilverTex condoms. “They’re messages to the Indonesian people urging them to resist the Japanese,” Foster told a dubious-looking Donovan when he toured her Morale Operations unit in Colombo, Ceylon. She hastened to explain that the submarines taking OSS agents to Malaya and Indonesia would release thousands of floating condom balloons along the island coasts, bearing the hopeful news that help was on the way and the Japanese would soon be driven from their shores. When not designing subversive material, Jane was busy training native agents—Batak, Malay, Thai, and Karen—used by the OSS in intelligence-gathering missions.

Of the OSS women a small number were ever assigned to actual operational jobs behind enemy lines, and that included Jane Foster. Because of her unusual language who served overseas, only skills—she was fluent in Malay—Foster was tapped to be part of the first OSS field team in Java after Japan’s formal surrender on August 14, 1945. The Japanese had occupied the area since March 1942, and intelligence from that part of the world was thin on the ground. The Indonesians were in full revolt against colonial Dutch rule, and the British and Dutch military leaders had decided to rearm the vanquished Japanese in order to allow them to keep the peace until reinforcements arrived. The situation in the capital of Batavia was confused and potentially volatile. Her commanding officer made it clear she had to “volunteer” for the assignment—OSS code for joining an operation that might be dangerous. Foster accepted the assignment without hesitation; it had been her cherished wish to see the liberation of Paris, but she would happily settle for the liberation of Indonesia.

Foster had three principal missions: first, to help supervise the repatriation of American military and civilian prisoners of war; second, to make a formal record of their war crimes testimony; third, and most important, to file daily intelligence reports on domestic political developments in Indonesia to OSS headquarters in Washington. She was to wear a uniform and carry a pistol. As parting advice, her colonel advised her to brush up on her shooting skills.

Foster was flown into Java on September 16, 1945, one month and a day after the capitulation of the Japanese emperor. The Japanese military was still very much in control. Japanese soldiers at the airport were armed, surly, and menacing, and instructed the OSS personnel that they could not be protected if they ventured beyond the hotel enclosure without being escorted by the Kempeitai, the dreaded Japanese Gestapo. Despite the threat, Foster’s OSS team was determined to get the four to five hundred American POWs—including army, navy, and air force personnel, along with some 200 civilians—out of Java as quickly as possible.

The POWs—many of whom were from the 2nd Battalion, 131 Field Artillery, captured in the invasion of Java, and survivors from sunken cruisers—were in pitiful shape. They were barefoot and filthy, their bodies so emaciated they could scarcely support the ragged shorts that hung from their skeletal frames. The women POWs, housed in a separate but equally squalid camp, were mostly naked—their clothes had long since disintegrated—though some wore primitive underwear pieced together from old sacking. Like the men, they were starving, sick, and covered in lice.

Foster spent two weeks working grueling 20-hour days, taking down the prisoners’ descriptions of forced labor, degrading conditions, meager rations, and poor medical care, along with mental and physical torture, routine beatings, and occasional beheadings. Some had survived 42 months of captivity, and spoke of watching friends slowly die.

Foster transcribed their litany of horrors, and did what she could to make them comfortable, dispensing food, scotch, and cigarettes while they waited for the DC-3s that would airlift them to Singapore. When one Japanese camp commander refused to allow the removal of an ailing 70-year-old female POW, a Protestant missionary who was found semiconscious on the floor with a swollen belly and sores covering her body, Foster brandished her pistol and forced their way out. They made it safely back to the hotel, where Foster got the sister medical attention and snagged her a seat on a plane leaving the next morning. After the humanitarian phase of their mission was completed, and all the internees had been processed and flown to safety, Foster spent the following weeks filing reports on the “explosive” political climate. With the arrival of Dutch troops, violence erupted and the country teetered on the edge of revolution. In late October 1946, Washington sent a cable: “Get Foster out of Java.” The diplomatic situation was tricky enough without the complications that would result if an American woman were to be killed in the crossfire.

Looking back across she and Foster accomplished, along with their female colleagues scattered across the globe, Betty MacDonald recently said she is extremely proud of how well they many decades to what carried out their wartime assignments. No matter what reservations some OSS officers might have had about sending women into the field, both MacDonald and Foster made significant contributions and acquitted themselves with honor.

Foster’s service record notes that she did “an outstanding job on her specialty.” MacDonald, who went on to serve with Heppner behind the lines in Western China, won a theater commendation award. She impressed the skeptical colonel sufficiently that the two were married in 1946. (After his death, she married Frederic B. McIntosh, a former air force fighter pilot, and took his name.) She worked with the CIA until her retirement in 1973 and, in addition to a wartime memoir, has written extensively about the important role of women in the OSS. At age 96, she still helps to edit the OSS Society Newsletter. “We were so young and green when we first set foot in the OSS headquarters on E Street,” she recalled with a laugh. “All we wanted was to get overseas and do our part. We were too determined to let a little thing like inexperience get in our way.”


Originally published in the August 2011 issue of World War II. To subscribe, click here.