Thompson receives Congressional Gold Medal after serving in OSS
On Nov. 30, 2016, Congress passed The Office of Strategic Services Congressional Gold Medal Act, allowing 18 original members of the OSS to be recognized in Washington D.C., on Wednesday, March 21, where they received the Congressional Gold Medal.
Jim Thompson, 91, of Marshall, was one of those 18 recipients. The OSS once boasted nearly 13,000 members. Today, more than 70 years after the war was won, fewer than 100 are still alive, including Thompson. The identities of OSS members remained classified information until 2008, when the National Archives released OSS personnel records.
The OSS was the World War II predecessor to the Central Intelligence Agency, the U.S. Special Operations Command and the State Department’s Bureau of Intelligence and Research.
According to www.history.com, after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, President Franklin D. Roosevelt acted swiftly to improve U.S. intelligence capabilities even further.
In 1942, he issued an executive order establishing the OSS, which was charged with collecting and analyzing strategic intelligence, and running special operations outside the other branches of the U.S. military.
“At the time of Pearl Harbor, our intelligence services were practically nil,” Thompson explained. “So Roosevelt decided he wanted his own intelligence service and so he had this friend, General Donovan, and this guy was amazing. He spoke seven languages, and he traveled all over Europe and had friends all over. He was a Republican, and Roosevelt was a Democrat. That was unheard of. Today, you wouldn't have that happen.”
Roosevelt would ultimately appoint General William Donovan as head of the OSS.
“So he (Roosevelt) told this Donovan, 'I’ll give you as much money as you need, and you need to train these people,'” Thompson said. “Instead of going to the intelligence people that were already trained, he went to east coast schools, and basically trained them from scratch.”
Donovan quickly built up the ranks of his organization, training new recruits in national parks in Maryland and Virginia, and establishing full-fledged operations in Europe, Asia and elsewhere, according to www.history.com.
“He trained them. He said he wanted someone who had a Ph.D., and could win a bar fight,” Thompson laughed as he recounted his past. “This was all top-secret until about three years ago. I’ve been keeping it a secret.”
Thompson was drafted out of Columbia, and went on to St. Louis, where he took tests, was issued his uniform and got his shots.
“Then we went down to Camp Crowder,” he said. “They started recruiting people, mainly from the east coast, to go to this training. There was a Camp X in Canada. All the United States parks were closed, and they used them to train. And like I said, it was all very secretive.”
Over the course of 10 months, while training at Camp Crowder, Thompson learned morse code and cryptography.
“We had pole climbing, too, which was scary,” he laughed. “I went to a lot of different schools.”
At the time, Thompson said he didn’t know anyone else in the OSS, but later found out that a friend of his was also serving as a member.
“I didn’t participate in the VFW or the American Legion because I couldn’t say anything,” he said.
For the duration of WWII, the OSS was responsible for conducting multiple activities and missions, including collecting intelligence by spying, performing acts of sabotage, waging propaganda war, organizing and coordinating anti-Nazi resistance groups in Europe, and providing military training for anti-Japanese guerrilla movements in Asia, among other things, according to www.history.com.
After his training at Camp Crowder, Thompson said the OSS had begun cutting back on members, because the German had surrendered.
“They had teams of four,” he said. “One of them was the leader, and he was usually a graduate of an eastern college. The next one was a person who could speak the language, and was preferably a native of the area. The third one was someone who is trained in explosives. And the fourth one – the one I was trained to be – was a communications person.”
Thompson was stationed overseas in 1945.
“I left San Francisco, and we went to the Marshall Islands,” he explained. “A place called Enewetak. He didn’t let us know why we were going there.”
Later, he would find out that the Japanese had built two double hull submarines, which were roaming around the Pacific Ocean, sinking everything they could.
“So we were trying to dodge them, as far as I can understand,” he said. “Then, we went to the Philippines, which had been liberated. But, we still had to climb down as if we were taking over.”
Thompson served as a cryptographer in the Philippines.
On Sept. 2, 1945, aboard the USS Missouri, in Tokyo Bay, Japan formally surrendered to the Allies, bringing an end to WWII.
President Roosevelt died April 12, 1945, and his successor, Harry S. Truman, had no inclination to prolong the existence of the OSS when WWII ended later that year. By executive order, Donovan’s agency was dissolved as of October 1945, according to www.history.com.
"No one really knew why Truman disbanded the OSS," Thompson said. "It was ridiculous. It was two years before they started the CIA."
After the Japanese surrendered, Thompson was one of five members sent to Tokyo to work at General MacArthur's headquarters.
General Douglas MacArthur was an American general who commanded the Southwest Pacific in WWII and oversaw the successful Allied occupation of postwar Japan and led United Nations forces in the Korean War, according to www.history.com.
“In a small room, I worked as a general communications officer,” Thompson explained. “We were suppose to get messages from the Eighth Army to General MacArthur. Then the Eighth Army disbanded.”
On Thanksgiving Day, 1945, Thompson was transferred from the Eighth Army to General Headquarters.
“They put us in a freight car and I don’t know why they did that,” he said. “It had a hole in it … and we went through this tunnel and all the smoke from the coal came up through the hole. We were all coughing. I think that’s the closest I’ve come to death.”
Thompson would ultimately stay in Japan for the next two years.
“I decided to stay because it was so interesting what McArthur was doing,” he said. “And the Japanese – it just boggles my mind – here one day they were killing each other, and then the Japanese surrendered, and you could walk around freely. McArthur, when he landed his plane, he told all of his officers to get rid of their pistols.”
After a year in Japan, working at McArthur's headquarters, and a year living as a civilian, Thompson finally came back to Columbia.
"I went through four years of school there," he added.
Thompson went on to get a degree in psychology at the University of Missouri.
"The last semester, they had just started the Air Force, and they said anyone who was a Sergeant in the Army, they could take one semester for ROTC, and receive a commission. So ... I did that," he said.
Thompson was then stationed in Bangor, Maine, working for the Air Force.
"I was a psychologist," he said. "I gave the tests, all the tests for the draftees."
Eventually, Thompson moved to Orono, Maine, and took courses at the University of Maine.
"That’s when I decided I was interested in women," he laughed while remembering his past. "I met this young lady, her name was Barbara Longfellow."
Longfellow was a student at the University of Maine, and would later become Thompson's wife.
"It was really a wonderful courtship," he said. "I was 29 and she was 22."
The pair are still married today, 62 years later, and have three children together; Mark, who works at Wood & Huston Bank in Marshall, Greig and James Jr.
After working in Maine for a period of time, Thompson was ordered to Tripoli, the capital of Libya.
"I worked for this guy ... he was an ace pilot in World War II," he said. "He and I, and a bunch of other people, were sent to North Africa, instead of going to the war in Korea. What he was doing, was he was training these pilots, because he felt that we could have a smaller atomic bomb, that could be dropped by a fighter plane."
Thompson said he even trained in the Sahara Desert for awhile.
"We would make runs and imagine that they were dropping bombs. You had to get out of there in a hurry," he explained. "So they had special maneuvers. ... Of course they never used anything like that."
Thompson would stay in Libya for three years with his wife, before being assigned to a radar station in Michigan.
"One thing you could pick up on that radar was geese," Thompson laughed. "And all these guys were outdoorsman who were up there. Whoever was on duty would get on the phone and say, 'We have incoming.'"
In 1961, he volunteered to go to the Defense Intelligence School in Washington D.C.
"I arrived there in September 1961," he said. "Two weeks later, they discovered the Soviets were building missiles. So here I was in Washington D.C., and my next door neighbor was a photo interpreter. He told his wife, 'Go out and spend your money and just have a good time. I can't tell you whats going on, but something is going to happen.'"
Thompson said he got the opportunity to look at the photographs when they brought them to school, and everyone thought they were going to fire those missiles.
"So I was making arrangements for Barbara and our three sons to come back to Missouri, because we thought for sure they were going to be able to fire one of them off, and it was right at Washington D.C.," he said. "And they never did."
After Thompson finished Defense Intelligence School, he was sent to Germany.
"Our job was to monitor ... to see if the Russians were coming over," he said. "When I came back from Germany, I went to Arkansas, and I was at the radar station ... for about nine months. I had a year and nine months left before I was able to retire ... at twenty years. So I thought I had it made. But, after nine months ... they sent me to Nha Trang. I got there just in time for the Tet Offensive."
According to www.britannica.com, the Tet Offensive was attacks staged by North Vietnamese forces beginning in the early hours of Jan. 31, 1968, during the Vietnam War. The Tet Offensive consisted of simultaneous attacks by some 85,000 troops under the direction of the North Vietnamese government. The attacks were carried out against five major South Vietnamese cities, dozens of military installations, and scores of towns and villages throughout South Vietnam.
"The Viet Cong used to bring people down through Cambodia," Thompson explained. "It was all top-secret. We did have people over there trying to interject their trails. There are three levels of forest. Top level was trees and bushes down at the bottom ... so I was involved with Agent Orange."
Agent Orange was a powerful herbicide used by U.S. military forces during the Vietnam War to eliminate forest cover and crops for North Vietnamese and Viet Cong troops. The U.S. program, code-named Operation Ranch Hand, sprayed more than 20 million gallons of various herbicides over Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos from 1961 to 1971, according to www.history.com.
"So I was there. Trang, when they had the offensive, they just took over the whole country for a few days," Thompson said. "It was pretty obvious that they were just fighting an entirely different type of warfare than we were."
Thompson said he worked as a targeting officer for the Missile Squad, and was restricted to the base.
"Because I knew the missile targets," he said. "I was a top-secret control officer. That's another reason I couldn't talk about any of this."
Thompson would eventually come back to Missouri, after leaving Nha Trang, and serve nine months at Whiteman Air force Base, before retiring after 20 years of service.
"I was done," he said. "It was pretty exciting. It didn't really seem too long though, looking back on it."