“We were given cyanide capsules… we were to place under our tongues. If things looked bad, we were to swallow them.” — OSS veteran David Kenney
by Randy Angel
The road traveled by David Kenney has had more turns in it than his original desire of becoming a bus driver when he was a 6-year-old boy growing up in Wyoming in 1931.
Now 94 years old, Kenney was recognized on April 17 for his service in World War II when he was honored with a replica of the Office of Strategic Services (OSS) Congressional Gold Medal at his residence at The Canterbury in Rancho Palos Verdes.
The award was given, collectively, to the men and women who comprised America’s first spy agency for their superior service and major contributions during World War II.
Kenney grew up on a ranch in Encampment, a rural village high in the Rocky Mountains in southern Wyoming. He was drafted after his high school graduation in 1943 and, upon completion of basic training and becoming a Radio Operator High Speed 777, he became one of the youngest recruits for the OSS at the age of 19.
“I saw a notice on the Battalion bulletin board asking for volunteers for dangerous overseas assignment,” Kenney recalled. “I asked the Captain about the danger and he said he couldn’t tell me anything about it but that I wouldn’t regret it.”
Kenney signed up for the project and went to Washington D.C. where he met up with the other members of the all-volunteer group. They were then sent to a former youth camp in Virginia for additional training.
The members of the OSS were volunteers from every branch of the military as well as civilian scientists and scholars. Years before her notoriety as a famous chef, Julia Child served as a file clerk for Gen. Donovan.
Although the OSS involved daring feats and rescues behind enemy lines, much of the OSS work was not as newsworthy but just as necessary. They invented new weapons and technology. They studied aerial photographs to track enemy movements. They translated intercepted messages.
Kenney’s job included spending long and tedious hours monitoring enemy radio transmissions. His first assignment was as a radio operator in Hurley, 40 miles west of London. Hurley is a small village and large, rural civil parish in Berkshire, England.
“I worked the night shift and listened as three-man teams relayed information about troop movements and various resistance groups,” Kenney said. “We were given cyanide capsules that, in case of us being captured, we were to place it under our tongues. If things looked bad, we were to swallow them.”
Kenney spent three months in England before returning to the states. He then spent eight months in Hunan Province, a mountainous province in southern China.
“We used different frequencies because the Japanese were always trying to intercept our transmissions. They were a brave bunch,” Kenney acknowledged. “We were all on duty when the atom bomb was dropped. We’d listen to Tokyo Rose on the radio.”
Kenney’s duties for the OSS were over and he was dismissed on Christmas Eve of 1945.
“In 2002, we had a 60th reunion of the OSS in Washington D.C. It was a big event and a lot of the guys were still around,” Kenney recalled. “In 2003, we had a Communications reunion in Myrtle Beach, South Carolina.”
A Passion for Flying
Prior to growing up on a ranch in Encampment, Wyoming, the Kenney family lived in nearby Rawlins where young David’s desire to become a bus driver quickly changed.
In June of 1931, the famous aviatrix Amelia Earhart was heading west piloting an autogyro and had scheduled a brief stop at the local airport.
She was attempting to set another record as being the first person to fly an autogyro coast to coast. The autogyro was a precursor of the helicopter with a four-bladed rotor swirling the air.
Although too far away to see Earhart at the controls, Kenney was inspired by the sight. Earhart’s venture was diminished when a man flying the same type of autogyro beat her by 10 days, but Kenney’s passion for flying had begun.
After World War II, Kenney learned to fly Piper Cubs on the GI Bill at that same Rawlins airport. He received a degree in aeronautical engineering, and worked in the aircraft industry until he retired. He continued to fly until 1991.
Kenney’s latest passion is writing, a talent he has nurtured for many years.
“It’s in the family,” Kenney said. “My sister, Alice went to the University of Wyoming and received a degree in journalism. I eventually became a country reporter for the newspaper in Encampment.”
In 1944, there were over 13,000 members of OSS. Today there are fewer than 100. In December 2016, Congress passed the Office of Strategic Services Congressional Gold Medal Act to acknowledge them.
“The men and women who served our country in the OSS are among the most deserving of the Congressional Gold Medal,” remarked House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence Ranking Member Adam Schiff when the bill was passed by the House of Representatives in November 2016. “The OSS, members of our ‘Greatest Generation,’ helped vanquish some of the most malevolent enemies that our country, and indeed the world, has ever faced. We owe them a debt of gratitude that can never be repaid.”
The OSS Congressional Gold Medal Act states that the OSS was America’s first effort to implement a system of strategic intelligence during World War II and provided the basis for the modern-day American intelligence and special operations communities.
Its founder, General William “Wild Bill” Donovan, is the only person in American history to receive our Nation’s four highest decorations, including the Medal of Honor.
The present-day Special Operations Forces trace their lineage to the OSS. Its Maritime Unit was a precursor to the US Navy SEALs. The OSS Operational Groups and Jedburghs were forerunners to US Army Special Forces. The 801st/492nd Bombardment Group led to the Air Force Special Operations Command. The Marines who served in the OSS were predecessors to the Marine Special Operations Command. US Coast Guard personnel were recruited for the Maritime Unit and its Operational Simmer Group. Ultimately, the OSS spawned the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA).
by Randy Angel