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NOT TO DISPARAGE THE HEROIC WORK of the Office of Strategic Services during World War II, but several of its false starts make for entertaining reading. My source of this is Ben Macintyre’s “War is Science,” The New York Times, April 2, 2023: “Exploding pens and fluorescent foxes were just two of the schemes the O.S.S. tried in the quest to best Axis powers.”

The article reviews a new book on this subject by John Lisle, The Dirty Tricks Department: Stanley Lowell, the OSS, and the Masterminds of World War II Secret Warfare.

The Dirty Tricks Department: Stanley Lowell, the OSS, and the Masterminds of World War II Secret Warfare, by John Lisle, St. Martin’s Press, 2023.

Science and the American intelligence community are historian John Lisle’s speciality. He has a Ph.D. in history from the University of Texas and has taught there, at Louisiana Tech, and Austin Community College. Here are tidbits (cherry-picked from lighter aspects of Lisle’s book). 

Glowing Kitsune. Foxes are popular animals in Japanese folklore. “The fox ruse,” Macintyre writes, “was the brainchild of Ed Salinger, an importer-exporter who had lived in Tokyo. Salinger maintained that glowing, fox-shaped spirits—kitsune—could be portents of doom in Shintoism. If fluorescent foxes could be introduced into Japan, he argued, this would give their foes the screaming jeemies, thus helping win the war.”

Macintyre says, “Had you taken a midnight stroll in Rock Creek Park in Washington, D.C., one summer night in 1945, you might have seen around 30 foxes, spray-painted with glow-in-the dark radium-based paint, gamboling radioactively in the moonlight.”

Macintyre reports, “The plan, code-named Operation Fantasia, got quite far: Several unfortunate painted foxes were tossed into the middle of Chesapeake Bay to see if they would swim ashore. Most of the paint had washed off those that reached land.”

Stanley Lovell: O.S.S.’s Q. Macintyre says, “William ‘Wild Bill’ Donovan, the bullish founder of the O.S.S., described Lovell as his ‘Professor Moriarty,’ the evil mastermind of the Sherlock Holmes stories. Lovell was an eccentric innovator who took pride in the most outlandish and lethal inventions, and his closest fictional counterpart is really ‘Q’ of James Bond fame.”

Pistol Foolery. Macintyre describes two firearm tales that sound ever so 007ish: “… the ‘En-Pen,’ a single-shot pistol concealed in a fountain pen,” and a particularly effective attempt at a stealth firearm: “To demonstrate the effectiveness of Lovell’s silenced, flashless .22 automatic pistol, Donovan entered Franklin Roosevelt’s office while the president was dictating a letter, crept up behind his wheelchair, and fired the gun 10 times into a bag of sand. The president only looked up when he smelled gunpowder. That, at least, is the story Donovan told.”

Si non è vero, è ben trovato.

Der Führer’s Boobs. Another tale related by Macintyre: “After a report from a Harvard psychologist suggesting that Hitler’s personality included ‘a large feminine component,’ Lovell came up with a plan to inject female sex hormones into Hitler’s food to make his mustache fall out, turn his voice soprano and cause him to grow breasts. A full-breasted Führer, it was predicted, would not have quite the same appeal to the SS.”

Image from The Office of Strategic Services Society. Tidbit: The efforts of Julia Child and Marlene Dietrich are recognized by the Society. 

Bats Outta Hell. The idea was to set Japanese cites ablaze by bombing them with incendiary-equipped bats. Macintyre describes, “Hundreds of bats were captured, weighed, harnessed with small incendiaries, refrigerated to mimic hibernation and render them docile, then dropped from planes.”

“In the first test,” Macintyre writes, “the groggy bats failed to wake, and most died horribly in the slipstream. (The scientists were unaware that the Mexican free-tailed bat does not hibernate when it gets cold; it migrates.)”

The Mexican free-tailed bat, Tadarida braziliensis, is found in the western U.S., south through Mexico, Central America, and into northern South America. Image from Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum

Macintyre reports, “But the kamikaze bats were not entirely ineffective: Several escaped and duly burned down the administrative buildings and control tower at a nearby air base. The plan was abandoned.”

© Dennis Simanaitis,, 2023

One comment on “THE O.S.S. AND RUBE GOLDBERG

  1. Bill U
    April 16, 2023

    I am reminded of a wartime story about a maze complicated arrangements by British Intelligence, Operation Mincemeat.
    The Man Who Never Was (Naval Institute Press), authored by a person intimately involved, Ewen Montagu.

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