"It's a time for old pals to see one another and dredge up some old stories to embellish them a little, and to say how grand we were in the old days. It's not formal, though we are wearing tuxedos. It's family."
Michael Burke paused.An elderly man with a powerful chest but uncooperative legs limped up to him, exchanged pleasantries, and moved off into the nearby crowd of partygoers. "Quite a fellow, that one," Burke said. "But then, the O.S.S. was filled with his type."
It was just that feeling that wafted through the evening Wednesday at the annual reunion dinner of this nation's cloak-and-dagger pioneers, the men and women of World War II's Office of Stratgeic Services.
These were the hours when 300 of the people - many of whom had once concealed thir identities - could once again share their tales of exploits espionage, sabotage and spy tactics.
Here and there, of course, familiar fighting the Axis with the weapons of faces popped out of the crowd at the Hotel Pierre. Michael Burke, best known to area sports fans at the former president of the New York Yankees and as current president of Madison Square Garden, was easily recognizable. He had been O.S.S., secreted into Italy in 1943 and into France a year later to work with the Resistance.
William E. Colby, former director of the Central Intelligence Agency - a direct decendant of the O.S.S. - was sought out with regularity by former collegues and by those who had followed his trials and tribulations as director of the CIA.
He had been O.S.S., parachuting with a squad into Norway to wreak havoc on German supply trains.
James J Angleton, tall and stooped, was also there. He, too, had been O.S.S., preceding his counterintelligence activities with the CIA with similar work in Italy in the early '40s.
There was other familiar faces, including those of former Ambassador to France Robert Murphy, the evening's guest of honor and reciplent of an award for service "in the interests of the United States and the course of freedom" named in honor of the O.S.S.'s late founder and guiding light, Lt. Gen. William J. "Wild Bill" Donovan. Murphy was not O.S.S.
And John Weitz, the designer, who was, and Charles Collingwood, the CBS correspondent, and Clare Boothe Luce, who weren't, and others who seemed familiar or not, depending upon who you were and what circles you moved in.
And Bill Juchniewicz was also present. He didn't sit on the dais with the more famous people, instead tucking his compact body behind his assigned table far in the rear of the Grand Ballroom.
Thirty-seven years ago, Juchniewicz whose native Poland had been overrun by the Nazi, joined forces with U.S. military authorities and within a few short months was supplying intelligence data to the O.S.S. from scores of locations throughout Eastern Europe.
"I research military and factory movement, and where the supplies are sent," he said with a thick accent. "I go all the time traveling, Sometimes bus, sometimes walking, sometimes I change name. One time, I dress like woman with baby carriage filled with grenades. Nazi soldiers think I have baby, but they very wrong."
Today, Juchniewicz, 65, is retired and lives in Daytona Beach, Fla., with his memories (following the war he worked as a translator for the National Catholic Welfare Board and then for IBM) and with his pension and disability checks.
"You see this?" he asked, pulling aside the left part of his white dinner jacket and pointing to his chest where a large portion of his shirt could be seen pulsating with frightening force. "The Gestapo capture me in 1943, beat me, torture me, kick me with boots and break my ribs. My heart, it becomes enlarge and I spend rest of war in Salag 3-B near Leipzig and then in Buchenwald concentration camps. But I was proud to be O.S.S. Very proud."
Edward G. Wilson was also in attendance, driving down from his home in Connecticut to trade memories and laughs. "You don't want to talk with me," he said to the lone reporter at the dinner. "I was an administrator, not a saboteur or spy . . . You do? Oh, you mean everyone else seems to have seen action. Well, many did, you know."
Wilson saw action of a different sort; of the sort Michael Burke called the "sock washing" the gut work that had to be done to coordinate preparations and later to collate intelligence gathered by people behind the lines.
And so Wilson, who returned after the war to his job at the J. Walter Thompson advertising agency where he retired as executive vice president at age 62 five years ago, spent a large chunk of the war in Caito.
"We had very busy times there because we were responsible for a lot of agents," he said. "Some men, like Gen. Donovan, were afraid of nothing. One day in 1945 when I was with him in Southeast Asia, someone came into our office and suggested the general fly to an island where 30 or so O.S.S. operatives were working. The thing was, the Japanese held half of the island.
"'Sure, we'd love to go, wouldn't we, Ed?' the general said. He was delighted to go. Frankly, I wasn't quite that thrilled. But we made it."
Even more low key was Kennett HInks, 79, whose dry sense of humor prevented those around him Wednesday evening from interrupting his reluctance to reminisce as an effort to hold valuable information from enemy hands.
One of the less recognizables, Hinks served as O.S.S. chief of planning, a key post he earned after keys of unrelated work during the 1920s as a representative in Central Europe for the same J. Walter Thompson agency (he retired from the firm as a director in 1964).
"Those were exciting, very exciting days," he allowed after prodding from some friends. "But, everyday of my life is exciting to me. Actually, I can't think of anything to recount that was very exceptional."
For Francis Coleman, a 54-year-old sports promoter who now "runs shoots in Spain," jumping into France and working with the French Resistance or into Norway to disrupt German supply lines was "a lot more preferable to 45 days with the Third Division in Italy. For a young man, it was quite an experience.
"There are sad memories of some fine people killed in the process but that's the cost of freedom. And funny memories, of stories of the first Chinese paratroopers trained by the O.S.S. who were so light that they frequently were swept upward by the wind instead of dropping to the ground.
Wednesday was just one of those evenings, pleasant, soaked in warmth, and surprisingly muted. There were war stories, but perhaps most had been told a dozen times before to the same people. And perhaps the joy of seeing one another alive for another year was now more important than outdoing one another with tales of grand exploits.
"I was young then, and I Wasn't any different from anyone else," William E. Colby recalled. "We had a cause and we knew precisely who the enemy was and what we were fighting. We had the support we needed and we did our jobs with pride and efficiency."
Something seemed left unspoken and later James. Angleton filled the gap.
"There was no question that everything was clear cut back in those days," observed Angleton, a professorial-looking man whose counter-intelligence activities earned him widespread acclaim among his colleagues but who resigned under fire in 1974 for allegedly directing CIA domestic spying.
"President Ford did the intelligence community a tremendous disservice by not supporting it in every way possible," he said. "He did a great damage. I'm hopeful that President Carter will realize the danger of that course.
"I know he had said he would not get involved in the case of the FBI agent recently indicted (Angleton is in the midst of creating a general defense fund for intelligence personnel), but then, he said he wouldn't change his mind about the $50 rebate, and we all know what happened with that."
Later in the evening, after the speeches were through and the risque and heroic stories had all been told, the aging veterans of the O.S.S. moved out into the night.
"We had a crazy bunch of people, a lot of derring-do," said Ed Hymoff, author of "The O.S.S. in World War II" and himself an O.S.S. veteran - at 53 - of wartime gun-running activities to Marshall Tito.
"There was a lot of seat-of-the-pants intelligence work, and none of the computers of today. It was a different era, a new era. There were men in their 50s and 60s, naturally, who worked with the data, but you had to be young and gutsy with stamina to enter an enemy territory."
The young and gutsy of yesteryear were still there, filing out of the hotel with careful steps.
"These guys did a job," Hymoff said. "Few people knew if at the time, but these guys did a job."