This June 13–19, the best golfers in the world will walk the lush green fairways of Bethesda, Maryland’s Congressional Country Club during the 111th U.S. Open. These great athletes are heroes to many, but they aren’t the biggest heroes to stride across the club’s greens. That distinction belongs to a group that didn’t come to the Congressional Country Club to win a cup, but instead came to win a war.
During World War II, the Congressional Country Club faced declining revenues and possible closure. The club patriotically decided to lease its verdant greens and buildings to the Office of Strategic Services (OSS). Renamed “Area F,” the golf club became the training grounds for America’s first Special Operations forces.
President Roosevelt created the OSS shortly after America’s entry into WWII. Headed by the charismatic and heroic “Wild Bill” Donovan, the agency was tasked with building America’s first national intelligence service. However, few people know that Wild Bill’s organization also birthed America’s first Special Operators. Uniformed commandos known as Operational Groups (OGs) that trained on the country club’s greens and fairways were the precursor to the modern Green Berets and the Special Operators who recently led the raid that killed Osama bin Laden.
68 years ago, OSS recruiters combed U.S. Army units for volunteers for hazardous duty behind enemy lines. Hundreds of recruits were selected, but only 10 percent of those volunteered for what was described as a suicide mission. Even fewer made it through the process to weed out the volunteers. All were superior athletes with high intelligence and foreign language skills. An ideal OSS candidate was described as “a PhD who could win a bar fight.”
The entire grounds of the country club became a commando training center. To simulate blowing up enemy bridges and installations, the OGs detonated explosives on the club’s fairways, pockmarking them in the process. Club buildings became barracks, and a portion of the main clubhouse was turned into a theater for watching training films.
A colorful cast of characters trained America’s first commandos. They included Major William Ewart Fairbairn, a wiry, bespectacled man in his mid-50s, who seemed somewhat feeble at first glance. When facing a new group of volunteers, Fairbairn would typically take the largest and most muscular recruit and quickly demonstrate why he was considered one of the most dangerous men in the world. Fairbairn had developed a system of “gutter fighting” which was “the most deadly form of hand-to-hand combat ever devised.” The fearless man had spent years on the Shanghai police force and won hundreds of fights. Fairbairn taught techniques like killing opponents with a single blow and how to turn a simple newspaper into a sharp projectile that could impale an enemy through the throat.
Perhaps the most colorful character that ever walked the greens of the Congressional Country Club was Howard Wheeler Chappell. Blond-haired, six-foot-two inches tall, 230 pounds, and built like Arnold Schwarzenegger, Howard Chappell commanded the German Operational Group. Due to his slicked-back blond hair and bronzed muscles, the recruits dubbed Chappell “Flash Gordon.” The German Operational Group was an eclectic group of desperadoes made up of a former Luftwaffe pilot, renegade Poles, an Olympic-caliber cyclist, a butcher, and Jewish refugees who had barely escaped Nazi death camps. This small group of friends dubbed themselves “The Jewish Five,” and were a real life version of Quentin Tarantino’s Inglorious Basterds. Despite their diverse backgrounds, the OG shared two things in common: they all spoke German, and they all wanted vengeance for the suffering of their families at the hands of the Third Reich. 65 years later, one recruit reflected, “The whole bunch were the craziest people I have ever met in my entire life.”
At Congressional, Flash Gordon forged the German Operational Group into America’s first Special Operators. They were joined by other OGs that would conduct operations in Norway, France, Italy and Greece. In all, over half a dozen specialized 30-man uniformed commando teams were formed that wreaked havoc across Europe.
After months of training and a transportation mishap, elements of Chappell’s team dropped by parachute into northern Italy, deep behind enemy lines. Miraculously, after losing half his team to the SS, shooting his way out of a house that was surrounded by hordes of troopers, being captured twice and killing his guard hand-to-hand, Howard Chappell, along with Italian partisans, sealed off portions of the Brenner Pass where he personally forced the surrender of 3,500 German troops, including the elite 504 Tiger Battalion.
The Jewish Five, which were initially part of the German Operational Group, had similar incredible exploits. After dropping on the side of a glacier in Austria and impersonating German officers, they called in air strikes that destroyed two dozen German trains and later effected the surrender of over 10,000 German troops.
As the world’s top-ranked golfers walk the fairways of Congressional Country Club, they’re walking in the footsteps of America’s first Special Operators, and some of its greatest heroes, whose legacy lives on in today’s American Special Operations Forces.
Patrick K. O’Donnell (www.patrickkodonnell.com) an expert on WWII Special Operations, has written The Brenner Assignment, which captures Howard Chappell’s story and They Dared Return, which captures the exploits of the Jewish Five. He has interviewed over 500 OSS veterans. His most recent book is Give Me Tomorrow: The Korean War’s Greatest Untold Story — The Epic Stand of the Marines of George Company.