This week marked the 70th anniversary of the creation of the OSS, the Office of Strategic Services, barely six months after the attack on Pearl Harbor. OSS Society President Charles Pinck has penned this article in the Tampa Tribune, "General Donovan's Glorious Amateurs," whose title provides a glimpse of the kind of recruits Donovan gathered to face a global war:
[Y]ou needed more than guts to be in the OSS. You needed brains, too. An ideal OSS candidate was described as a "Ph.D. who can win a barfight." OSS recruited both from all parts of American society. Its members were drawn from Wall Street, academia, journalism, the arts, high society (earning OSS the sobriquet "Oh So Social") and the military. Donovan called them his "glorious amateurs" and the OSS an "unusual experiment."
The American Legation in Tangier in 1942 was the headquarters of the first OSS foray into a major theatre of war, when it helped prepare the way for Operation Torch, the November 1942 landings in Vichy French North Africa. One of these "glorious amateurs" was Gordon Browne, who carried this innocuous looking document with him on a mission to Algeria.
Look at the date: 3 November, 1942. Browne is to carry "4 diplomatic pouches" from the American Legation in Tangier to the American Consulate General in Algiers.
Only Browne didn't make it as far as Algiers. His mission was to carry "Rebecca" – code name for a radio beacon that would guide paratroopers to a drop zone near Oran – and install it on the eve of the Operation Torch landings. The incident is dramatically retold in Hal Vaughan's FDR's 12 Apostles: The Spies Who Paved the Way for the Invasion of North Africa:
Browne warned: "For God's sake, take it easy, our cargo is delicate… The set is sealed. If it is thrown out of whack, there is nothing we can do about it. I have orders not to let it be captured intact. It is fitted with a self-destruct explosive charge which I can set off at a moment's notice."
Finally, on D-Day for Torch, November 7, when the overdue airborne operation suffered a series of disasters, Browne "dragged Rebecca a few yards into the brush, flipped a switch, ran like hell, and watched the lady blow to pieces."
For his role in this piece of Operation Torch, Gordon Browne of Tangier was awarded the Medal of Merit. The citation reads:
… for exceptionally meritorious acts on the night of November 7-8, 1942. Gordon Browne, a civilian… volunteered to render this service for the landing of the American paratroop force near Tafaraoui, Algeria. Realizing the consequences if apprehended, disregarding his own safety, he remained with the instrument for four hours under fire, and then upon completion of his mission, assisted in its disposal. The heroic and fearless loyalty of Gordon Browne, who voluntarily jeopardized his life for the success of his country's cause in battle, reflects great credit and glory upon the whole nation.
Not bad for a glorious amateur. His later award of a Silver Star is listed with a spare bio, noting his profession as "anthropologist." After postwar service in the CIA, Gordon Browne settled in Tangier, where he lived his last years.