Detachment 101: The OSS In Burma
"Banzai!" The centuries-old chant echoed throughout Asia shortly after the Pearl Harbor attack. The Japanese escalated from regional aggression to a sweeping armed conquest of virtually all of the Asian continent. With bewildering speed, Japanese forces overran the Philippines, occupied French Indo-China and Thailand, fought their way down the Malay Peninsula to overwhelm the British bastion at Singapore, and seized the oil-rich Dutch East Indies.
Japanese armies then thrust into the southern tail of Burma and smashed north. The direct but wide-fronted advance from Thailand was an indirect approach to their major objective on the Asiatic mainland: the reduction of resistance in China by denying it Allied support. Rangoon, the Burmese capital, was the port of entry for Anglo-American supplies to China, by way of the Burma Road.
At the same time, the Japanese move was shrewdly designed to complete the conquest of the western gateway to the Pacific and establish a barrier across the main routes by which any overland British or American offensive might be attempted. On March 8, 1942, Rangoon fell, and within two months British forces were driven out of Burma, over the mountains and back into India. General Joseph Stilwell, chief of staff of Allied forces and Chinese leader Chiang Kai-shek’s right-hand man, put it bluntly. "We got a hell of a beating. We got run out of Burma, and it’s humiliating as hell. We’ve got to go back in there and take it back."
Burma had abundant oil, tungsten, and manganese to fuel the Japanese war machine, and was the world’s leading exporter of rice. The one remaining effective point of contact between China and the Allied world was Burma.
But in the early months of 1942, orthodox military action in Burma was out of the question. The Americans were reeling from Pearl Harbor and the fall of the Philippines. The British were in disarray throughout Asia. The Chinese were rent with dissension and disunity between Nationalists and Communists, between military commanders and outlaw warlords. Thus, it fell to a clandestine operation created by America’s Office of Strategic Services (OSS), code-named Detachment 101, to begin the long struggle to regain Burma.
Forerunner of the modern CIA, the OSS was a new agency on the scene, having become operational on July 11, 1941, as the Coordinator of Information (COI). COI was empowered by President Roosevelt to "collect, and analyze all information and data which may bear upon national security, and to carry out such supplementary activities as may facilitate the securing of information for national security now available to the government." In short, espionage and counterespionage.
COI was a civilian agency in the executive branch reporting directly to the president. It was modeled after England’s Special Operations Executive (SOE), and was headed by a World War I hero and genuine rakehell, the irascible, bombastic, and charismatic "Wild Bill" Donovan.
By June 1942, COI was placed under the direction of the Joint Chiefs of Staff so its activities could be better coordinated with the war effort, and the agency was re-named OSS.
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