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A Civilian in Uniform
by Jean Kohn

  Chapter 1  
  Chapter 2  
  Chapter 3  
  Chapter 4  
  Chapter 5  
  Chapter 6  
  Chapter 7  

A CIVILIAN IN UNIFORM By Jean Kohn (continued)


Chapter Three - The Early OSS Training

In Washington at the OSS office I met an officer who told me:

"OK, can you go home now?"

"Yes sir!"

"Get some civilian clothes and come back Sunday. Go anywhere you want where nobody will see you and then change from your soldier's uniform to civilian clothes. Then present yourself to this address in civilian clothes without any papers. Your bag will be taken care of. We shall take you to a training camp in the section we call SI (Secret Intelligence)."

So I went home to New-York, I took out some civilian clothes. My parents were in Ecuador so they didn't know about it. My younger brother looked at me pack a suit and other civilian clothes. He didn't say anything. I took the train back to Washington dressed as a soldier. I had to, since MPs (Military Police) could have asked me for my pass. I went to a YMCA house to change into the civilian clothes I had brought with me. I went to a washroom and started to undress. There was a soldier in there. He looked at me curiously while I was getting into my civilian suit, probably thinking "this man is going AWOL!" (Absent Without Official Leave—in other words: a deserter!!!)

I took the bag filled with my soldier's uniform to the meeting place I had been told to go to and left it there. Then other fellows in civilian clothes arrived at about the same time I did early in the afternoon. We were all driven to an old CCP camp not far from Quantico, Virginia. We were supposed to be all civilians. We trained for 2 to 3 weeks. The idea was to learn all kinds of military things which a civilian was not supposed to know about, like shooting for example. We were supposed to be just civilians with the instructions to "spy" on each other, to find out who was who and what. And I did try to find out who was who. I was not too good at this either. I presume that all the fellows who came along were soldiers from different services.

I remember in particular one middle aged fellow. He was very distinguished looking, he had a beautiful moustache. I said to myself:

"He must be a colonel in the Air Force," because he talked a lot about planes. He turned out to be a sergeant in the Air Force, and not a flyer at that!! Another fellow looked dreadful. He was miserable. He did not hold himself like a soldier, or so I thought. He turned out to be a colonel in the Marine Corps!!

As far I was concerned, they never found out who I was. They thought I was Dutch! They thought I didn't know what a gun was, because I pretended I didn't know how to use it. Obviously to them I had not been in the Army.

Actually I think we all were in the armed forces from various units, Army, Navy or Air Force. Some could not hide their being good soldiers. I would try to make them talk by asking some questions while we were training. I would ask: "Do you know anything about guns?"

Of course the smart guys would say: "Yeah, yeah, I'll show you...," to show me and teach me that they knew about guns. What they did not know is that I had learned all this in my basic training at Camp Robinson—especially with my Sharp Shooter medal tucked away in my bag.

We tried to learn Morse code for a future SI operation. I was not good at hearing Morse from a perforated tape similar to a telex tape. All I did was to learn to type S.O.S and my name.

We also learned close fighting with a dagger from an elderly British policeman who had served in Hong Kong.

The first thing he told us was that before using a dagger to kill a sentinel, it would be better to shoot him with a rifle, and if we could get close enough with a pistol.

Then he showed us how to hold a dagger between thumb and index. He also taught us how to sharpen a knife and slash at an enemy across the face so that blood would blind him.

He gave us such a good course in getting sharp daggers that to this day I still give my knives a good sharpening before cutting a roast at home. Who said you don't learn practical things in the Army ?

He taught us all kinds of tricks for use in "close combat." He must have learnt and practiced some of these tricks against the Chinese pirates in his hey days in Hong Kong.

We also found out how to break into a house through a window by putting some mud on the window pane to have it fall without noise.

We became experts at opening a safe by moving it and getting in through the thin back plate—or taking a small explosive and blowing up the combination knob. We could also use a sledge hammer to destroy that knob.

At the end of this short SI course, we all sat in a room one evening with drinks and were questioned to find out who was who. I kept sober since I had never had whisky. Some of the fellows drank too much and talked too much. As said before they never found out that I was a soldier and that I was French.

I went back to Headquarters in Washington. I reported to my officer, the one whom I had met on arrival from Syracuse. With him was a captain in a French uniform.

He looked at me and told the American: "You want to send this young fellow behind the enemy line in civilian clothes? He will be picked up the next day after his arrival. He does not look like a starving young French boy." He added "No, no, he can't go as a civilian, he has to go in uniform, he's too young to be a civilian agent." I was young indeed and in good health. I had just turned 19.

The American officer then said :

"OK, we shall put him in uniform in a combat operations group."

So bye bye the civilian clothes, bye bye the beautiful idea of being a heroic and famous spy; now I was going to be in the OGs!!!

This is the way I was assigned to the 2671st Special Recon. Bn. under the command of Col. Livermore and Major Alfred Cox.

And there I went in my buck private uniform, carrying my duffel bag on my back, a good conduct ribbon on my chest, to Chevy Chase, Maryland, at the Congressional Country Club, with a whole bunch of soldiers like me who had volunteered for this work: There were French-speaking groups, Italian-speaking groups, Greek-speaking groups. We trained in that "camp" for about four months.

The initial training was to prepare us to be paratroopers. We learnt how to handle TNT and plastic explosives, fight in close combat, hit-and-run attacks We were actually learning to fight in what is known today as guerilla warfare.

In March 1944 we were ready to go overseas. They gave us our marching papers. We were told: "Don't talk to anybody, don't tell anybody about this. This is TOP SECRET.

We all obeyed, all but one. He was a second lieutenant whose name I forgot. He told his girlfriend that he was leaving for overseas duty. Guess what? They sacked him.

Our commanding officer insisted that we had to be secretive about everything. We were pretty serious about it. Our lives depended on the enemy not finding out what we were up to. We already knew our missions would be to jump behind the lines to help open a second front in Europe.

The French speaking group was made up in part with "conoques" from Maine, New-Hamshire, Vermont and "cajuns" from Louisiana. One fellow was a German Jewish refugee who had lived some years in France. Others, like me, were French. We all spoke or understood French. There was a wide and highly diversified "social" backround . We always made fun of the "cajuns" as they seemed to have had their first pair of shoes upon being drafted in the Army. It is true that one of them was asked during practice to climb up a tree to "observe" the enemy. Without hesitation in a matter of seconds he took his shoes off and he did climb that tree—like a monkey. I could never have done it.

These cajuns were also extremely good at night exercise. I was lost in the dark. I could not see anything nor find my way. They, on the other hand, were just like Indian fighters.

They sang songs that probably dated from 17th century France, It was difficult for a 20th century Parisian to understand both the conoques and the cajuns, since their language was a mix of old French and current American.

I can remember one of them saying about changing gear in a jeep instead of saying "put it in second gear"—"fous la en second"

Another one had a "soare su mon doigt" (a sore on his finger)—the word "sore" pronounced with a typical long southern drawl.

After a while I understood most of it.

Education background was extremely varied. Some were already in some Ivy League colleges, while others could barely read and write—but they could count their money especially on pay day.

While in Chevy Chase, I heard once a fellow say that he had found a "beer garden" with music not far from there. I had gone to Vienna in 1937 and I was thinking of a coffee house with a real garden under the shade of ivy and a small orchestra playing a Strauss waltz. Imagine my disappointment when I entered a cheap diner without a garden, without ivy ofcourse, where modern music came out of a juke box.

I did not go out much in Washington, since whatever free time I had would be spent at home in New York, four hours away by train. The cab fare from Penn Station to my mother's home was just under a dollar. It was great in those days, I gave the taxi driver a nickel tip. On thirty two dollars a month I could not afford going "overboard."

Once or twice before leaving for overseas we decided with some friends to go out and have a last fling in a famous Washington restaurant. As we were eating, a bottle of wine was brought to our table. We had not ordered any, for the good reason our budget did not allow it. But then, our waiter showed us the elderly gentleman who had offered it. We waved and thanked him profusely. He had long wavy white hair and actually looked like a congressman. He might have been one.

One R&A (Research and Analysis) man with a good sense of humour I met once told me how he made fun of a young French restaurant owner from New York (also in the OSS). He was French and had lived in the USA for some years. He might have been a good cook since his restaurant was well known—but he may not have been so smart otherwise.

The American New Yorker had a heavy "Bourbon" type face. Actually he was a good Jewish boy from Brooklyn. He had gone to City college as a French major and was fluent in French. He also knew some German. This is probably why he was in R&A.

The French boy asked the American if he had French ancestry.

- The American answered "No" he thought he was "Italian."

- "From where?"

- "From a little island off the coast of Italy."

- "Sicily? Sardaigna?"

- "No, a name like "Corsica" "

- "But this is France."

- "Oh, yes?"

Then little by little the R&A man brought him to think he had some "aristocratic" origin.

- "Is your family noble?"

- "No, small land owners with some family emblem."

- "Is there a fleur-de-lis emblem in your family?"

- "No, nothing of the sort, just an emblem that looks like a bee."

And there and then the French boy jumped up and down thinking he had a descendant of Napoleon Bonaparte at hand.

I guess he never found out how this R&A made fun of him.

Many of our New York French speaking group were in the restaurant business. I heard a lot about cooking in those days. I also found out that the good "business" in a restaurant is to sell expensive wine where profits are high. But these "cooks" had all sworn not to hold a fork or a knife in a kitchen during their military service. They never mentioned their former trade, until one day, one of our Army cooks (not an OSS OG man) was making a mess of cutting some food—One of our OGs from New York could not stand it anymore. He took the knife our of the cook's hand and started to cut whatever was being prepared with professional gusto. I was astounded to see how fast he could use that knife and how well the food was prepared.

One member of the "Greek" OG Group was also a cook in civilian life. There again, our cook was trying desperately to break eggs for an omelette. He was so slow, so clumsy that this "Greek" OG stepped in and showed him how to break eggs, one in each hand, faster than you could count them.

Continue to Chapter Four




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