The Fanciful World of OSS Weapons & Equipment
by Les Hughes
©2003 by author
A mystique of sorts surrounds the OSS among collectors of military artifacts; indeed, connecting an item to OSS imparts a cachet that invariably enhances value. As a result, one finds myriad items in the market that are attributed - incorrectly, more often than not it seems - to OSS. The sources of these incorrect attributions to OSS range from individuals who are parroting stories they've heard to erroneous claims made in books that are widely embraced as authoritative. I will try to discuss as many examples of misidentification, misattribution, wishful thinking, and entrepreneurial enterprise as come to mind, in the hope that it will save some reader the misfortune of an ill-advised acquisition.
Those with an interest in weapons and equipment are encouraged to acquire a copy of OSS Weapons II by John W. Brunner, Ph.D. (Phillips Publications, 1994). This book, unlike many others that offer information on OSS weapons and equipment, is based on meticulous research rather than on beliefs widely held by collectors. (Dr. Brunner is a retired college professor and a veteran of OSS.) I consider this book to be the definitive work on the subject. (For information on obtaining a copy, see the Useful References section.)
Where weapons and equipment are concerned, many individuals seem to believe that all such items that were used by OSS personnel were made especially for OSS, and, therefore, they are "OSS weapons" or "OSS equipment." In reality, OSS used, whenever possible, items already in the inventories of the military services. Does OSS's use of an item that was available for use by other services make it an OSS item? Some individuals believe that it does.
Having collected insignia for as long as I have, I have few illusions that I will be able to make much of an impression on those in the hunt for "OSS" weapons, because a number of "experts" have already weighed in, and many of their pronouncements are deeply entrenched. For example, according to John Brunner, most of the edged weapons identified as OSS weapons in volumes 3 and 4 of M. H. Cole's U.S. Military Knives, Bayonets and Machetes, a book that many collectors of edged weapons quote as though it were the Bible, were not issued to OSS, and in some instances were probably not even used by OSS. One of those in the latter category is a machete/bolo made by Cruver that, according to Cole, was used by OSS in the Philippines. A similar claim is made for a so-called 'drop knife' fashioned from a Patton sword. These weapons may have seen use in the Philippines, but not by OSS, because the OSS never conducted operations in the Southwest Pacific Area, General MacArthur's empire. Indeed, the OSS presence in the Philippines was limited to a Civilian Affairs advisor on MacArthur's staff. Nevertheless, these items turn up on eBay from time to time, invariably offered as OSS weapons and with Cole's book cited as proof.
Another source of confusion derives from the books of Keith Melton, which tend to deal with the weapons and equipment of both OSS and SOE. I find that Melton often fails to adequately distinguish between that which originated with OSS and that which originated with SOE. (And I find the level of scholarship of Brunner's books to be far higher than those of Melton.) The result is that many people who rely on Melton as a source claim weapons or equipment to be OSS/SOE items when, in fact, they originated with the latter. (In keeping with its practice of acquiring needed equipment from whatever sources were available, OSS, and its personnel, undoubtedly availed itself of SOE as a source of weapons and specialized equipment. But does this make the items "OSS items" any more than had the item come from the U.S. Navy's equipment inventory? I think not.)
The following are a number of examples of the sorts of misidentification and flights of fancy that accompany the sale of items purported to be "OSS items." The descriptions are those of the sellers; my comments are italicized and in square brackets.
WW II RARE OSS UNMARKED KA-BAR. This is the one everyone has been searching for. As pictured on page 67 of Cole's Book IV. This is completely unmarked, there are ground marks on both sides of the crossguard to eraticate [sic] the names and the leather scabbard has been stamped out where the mfg and date would have been. The red you see on the blade is not rust but traces of red paint which can easily be removed with paint thinner. The finish is 99% of original is exactly as described in the book and the leather handle is perfect. As pictured on page 92 of Cole's book III. [Dr. John Brunner informs me that he found no reference to Ka-Bar edged weapons in OSS records while conducting research for his book "OSS Weapons." Presumably, the fact this knife is unmarked fits well with the popular image of OSS as a spy organization. In fact, OSS mounted a significant paramilitary effort in the form of its Operational Groups, SI and SO teams. These personnel operated in uniform and had no need for unmarked weapons - indeed, if captured, they wanted to be treated as uniformed combatants, not as spies! SOE was much more active than OSS in the use of agents disguised as civilians. Why then the unmarked knife? Sterile weapons were reportedly used in Vietnam, where some special operations troops operated in areas that were politically off-limits, but that was long after OSS had ceased to exist.]
OSS "Frisk" Knife..Real deal no Repro here. Small, thin, double edge blade with a non refective [sic] finsih [sic]. Page 20 of OSS WEAPONS by Keith Melton. The Frisk Knife is designed to be taped flat against the upper arm or lower leg so that it will be over-looked in a preliminary "Frisk" or body search. The double-edged blade is intended for use as a emergency weapon at close range. The knife maybe thrown, or wielded with a slashing or jabbing movement to the expose or vital points of the Anatamy [sic]. The weapon can be very effective when used decisively against an unsuspecting apponent [sic]. Length- 7 3/8" Width- 7/8" Thickness - 3/16". [The index of Keith Melton's Clandestine Warfare: Weapons and Equipment of the SOE and OSS directs one to page 14 for an illustration of a "frisk" knife, but that page contains no mention of such an item, a commentary on the level of editing to which the book was subjected. That aside, there is no evidence of OSS ever having issued such a weapon, leading one to conclude it was probably issued by SOE.]
OSS hose handle bayonet drop knife. These were cut down and had rubber hose handles placed on them for use by the OSS and SOE. Refered to as "drop knife" and are pictured in Silvey's Knives of the United States Military World War II, page 175, measures 13 inches with an 8 1/2 inch blade [There is no evidence that this item was OSS issue. That did not prevent it from selling for over $350.]
OSS drop sword: Made from Patton sword for the OSS, picture in Cole's book 4 pg.172, dropped to Phillopino [sic] ristance [sic] troops. Few recovered, near mint ,22" blade unmarked.
An Original & Authentic WWII OSS Spy Combat 14 Inch Blade With a 5 Inch Grip Knife Cut Down From a Patton Saber. [As stated above, the OSS did not conduct operations in the Philippines or anywhere else in the SW Pacific Area. Neither does this so-called drop sword or knife have any official connection to OSS.]
US WW2 OSS Escape Map of Italy MDR. 591/8715. In excellent condition, a rare example of an unmarked, except for a code, WW2 OSS issued escape map of Italy. Guanranteed [sic] to be genuine and authentic. [Within a span of about two weeks, I saw three such maps offered on eBay, each identified as an OSS map. I queried John Brunner on the subject of OSS escape maps, and he responded thusly: " The OSS did not make or issue escape maps! The OSS had the finest map service in the world. All of the OSS maps that I have seen are clearly marked OSS. They are not escape maps. They were issued to field teams for operations, not for escape. The books he is referring to are all phony. They are not based on original OSS records. Their authors have, in fact, never been to the OSS Archives in Washington/College Park. These books are based on rumors, hear-say, confusion, misunderstanding and wishful thinking, as well as a cynical desire to enhance the value of their collections. There were genuine escape maps. The British and probably also the American MIS-X people did prepare disguised escape maps to be smuggled into POW camps to help prisoners escape. The Air Corps also prepared escape maps to issue to air crews in case they were shot down. These are real escape maps. OSS personnel occasionally obtained these maps from pilots. The one I had came from one of our L-5 pilots. These were not made or issued by OSS. They simply came with the planes or parachute packs we obtained from the Air Corps. The silk map shown on ebay would either be one of these Air Corps maps or one of the ones the British made for issue to their air crews and to be smuggled into POW camps. The OSS had no reason to issue escape maps because it was assumed that if they were captured they would not be sent to POW camps. In actuality some were sent to POW camps but we did not expect this and in any case, unlike air crews and ordinary military POWs, our people were highly trained in the geography they were working in and had no need for escape maps--they knew the area well. Genuine OSS maps are of superb quality and make desirable collectors items. But it is pointless to call them escape maps. That adds nothing to their value. Indeed false attributions like this cast a doubt that, if anything, detracts from their value."]
World War II OSS Pencil Dagger. Plain, common wood lead pencil with blue lead. Pencil is 7 inches long and has not been sharpened. Inside is a blue steel 5 ¾ inch spike dagger. Wrapped with thread to prevent slippage in hand. Purpose of this item was when captured, (assuming captors would not confiscate an unsharpened pencil) the captive would later split open the pencil and use the 5 ¾ inch spike to "dispatch" his enemy. [This item is of British origin and had nothing to do with OSS. In fact, these pencils were often included in Red Cross parcels for POWs in Germany for the purpose of providing the POWs with a tool to assist in their escape.]
WW 2 OSS SOE Escape Military Fighting Knife. Well, you probably wouldn’t have fought with it, but I thought it fit that ebay category best! This is an original WWII OSS and SOE escape knife, exactly the same as in Pererson: American Knives and exactly the same as in Cole, Book III, P. 158, No. 5 and on P. 159. This knife is the issue version, made sterile. Some of the knives were made by Joseph Rodgers, and some by George Ibberson, who also made the British gravity knife. Both makers were located in Sheffield, England, and both are out of business. The knives in Cole’s book all came from Joseph Rodgers. And since they are all unmarked, it’s no easy task to tell the two makers apart. A number of years ago, Mr. Billy Ibberson told me the way to do it. He said: "The Rodgers knives have a pretty sharp point on the backs of the saw blades. We smoothed ours off; ours hava a slight curve". This knife has those characteristics of the Ibberson-made knife. This knife is in good shape; the blade and caplifter are full, the saw blades have all their teeth and are unbroken. There is a little original finish—mostly on the sawblades, cutters and the caplifter, and some traces near the handle rivets. One of the sawblades has loosened from its housing (the part that the knife’s rivet goes through). It should be re-spot welded without a lot of grief. The knife does not appear to have any deep pits—the light "salt&pepper" pitting on the right scale is the deepest. So here it is, a very scarce knife, with a rather reasonable reserve.
Original & Authentic Size 13 OSS China Air Transport CIA Spy Mens Hidden Compartment Silver SS Ring. This is the real deal! This item came from the personal effects of a member of an OSS unit that later became CAT. The ring is unusual in that it appears to only have a sweetheart's photograph inside but in actual fact it hides a secret compartment underneath the photograph to be used for "other" stuff. [What! No decoder?]
Original and Authentic Theater Made 4 x 14 Inch CIC Counter Intelligence Corps Spy OSS CIA General Donovan Multi Piece Cloth WWII Police Arm Band Badge. This is the real deal!! [This armband bore simply the initials CIC, and yet the seller managed to work into the description "OSS," "CIA," and "General Donovan."]
ROBBINS/DUDLEY OSS STYLE CLANDESTINE KNIFE: This was direct OSS Vet purchase piece that the Veteran aquired [sic] in England during his supplemental training and carried throughout WWII. Knife is clean & complete with the original leather sheath. Blade measures approx. 4.75 inches and has a narrow double fuller to each side of the blade. The blade sits sideways in the aluminun [sic] grip and there is a steel finger guard. It is marked Robbins-Dudley to the base of the grip. The leather sheath is complete with NO problems and has a small retaining strap to secure the knife. There is a belt loop to the back. Robbins-Dudley began producing knives during WWI and there were a number of variations. Some of the patterns were commonly know as push-daggers as is this one. Clearly an outstanding original piece for advanced OSS or knife collector. [Here the seller describes the process by which many items have been elevated to the status of an OSS item: the OSS man acquires the item by private purchase or from his SOE colleagues; he brings it home after the war; and later, when a collector finds it in the possession of a veteran of OSS, the item becomes an OSS item. Does such logic make the razor with which the vet shaved during the war an OSS or SOE razor? This knife may be highly collectable in and of itself, but it is not an OSS weapon.]
WWII OSS SOE Spy Grab Balls Stinger Knife. An Original and Authentic World War Two WWII OSS SOE Spy Grab C&Balls Stinger Knife. This is the real deal! The 3 inch stinger is mounted on a finely made brass cock & balls being tightly clutched by a hand. [With this item, we plumb new depths of ridiculousness. I would like to think that no one could actually believe that an item such as this had any official connection to OSS or to SOE, but someone bid $240, though the reserve was not met. (God, and greedy sellers' reserve prices, often spares fools their due.) Note that the seller, perhaps believing that his reputation speaks for itself (and to me it does), makes no effort whatsoever to justify his attribution of this to either OSS or SOE, and for good reason, I think.]