Retired Maj. Gen. John Singlaub vividly recalls the day he helped liberate nearly 400 Allied prisoners during World War II. They'd been held for months, beaten and starved by their Japanese captors, and were close to execution when Singlaub and his team freed them.
"It was a great way to end a war," Singlaub says.
Singlaub was one of many veterans of the Office of Strategic Services who gathered last week to share stories of wartime heroism, espionage and covert operations.
"Tales From the OSS, America's First Intelligence Agency" also featured OSS veterans Fisher Howe, assistant to the OSS leader, Gen. William J. Donovan, and Elizabeth McIntosh, author of "Sisterhood of Spies."
"There are so many heroes in this room," said moderator Patrick O'Donnell, author of "Operatives, Spies, and Saboteurs: The Unknown Story of the Men and Women of World War II's OSS."
The predecessor of the Central Intelligence Agency and U.S. Special Forces, the OSS marked the United States' first government-wide coordination of strategic intelligence activities.
President Roosevelt established the OSS on June 13, 1942, six months after the Dec. 7, 1941, attack on Pearl Harbor and America's entry into World War II.
OSS members gathered intelligence against the enemy by working with resistance groups in occupied foreign territories. The OSS also intercepted Axis communications and used psychological warfare against the enemy.
Howe recalled Donovan as an "engaging" and "powerful" leader: "If you define leadership as having a vision for an organization, and the ability to attract, motivate and guide followers to fulfill that mission, you have Donovan in spades."
Singlaub said the spirit of the OSS was one of cooperation for the greater good. The team he led to liberate POWs from Hainan Island, off the coast of China, included two interpreters, one of them Chinese and the other Japanese.
"Countries, boundaries, nationalities didn't make any difference," he said. "We had a mission to accomplish. The need broke down those social barriers that had been so destructive of our country for so many generations."
McIntosh, one of about 4,500 women to serve the OSS, said she left her job as a White House correspondent covering first lady Eleanor Roosevelt to join the OSS. McIntosh helped perform morale operations against Japanese forces in Burma.
The OSS workforce was made up of both civilians and members of the armed forces. At its peak in late 1944, the agency employed nearly 13,000 people, according to the CIA's OSS Web site. More than half served at posts overseas, from Europe to Africa to the Far East.
OSS ranks included future directors of central intelligence William Casey, William Colby, Richard Helms and Allen Dulles. Other notable members included Julia Child; Col. Aaron Bank, founder of the Green Berets; Arthur Schlesinger Jr., assistant to President John F. Kennedy; Sterling Hayden; Paul Mellon; and S. Dillon Ripley.
Despite its pivotal role in World War II's Allied victory, the OSS was dissolved on Oct. 1, 1945, in the wake of postwar demobilization efforts. Two years later, the CIA was established. It continued to perform intelligence functions once undertaken by the OSS.
The OSS veterans met at the International Spy Museum in the District, the only public museum in the country dedicated to the craft and history of espionage.
Singlaub has been a controversial figure over the years. President Jimmy Carter, early in his term, recalled Singlaub as chief of staff for U.S. Forces/Korea after the general voiced objections to Carter's plan to phase out U.S. troops from South Korea.