Brimming with life, nature, and scenery, Catoctin Mountain Park embodies the vast beauty Frederick County has to offer. Take a look beyond this initial allure, however, and you will discover the park’s hidden past—one with a sizable impact on American history.
In 1942, soon after American entry into World War II, the Catoctin Recreational Demonstration Area, now Catoctin Mountain Park, was selected as a training site for a new United States intelligence agency. This was the Office of Strategic Services, or the OSS, a precursor to the CIA that organized wartime planning and espionage. The park was selected because of three key factors: its closeness to the capital, its access to railways, and its seclusion from the public. Originally located at Camp Greentop, the OSS quickly moved in its personnel and equipment, separating their territory into five new areas for training and trainee life.
Even prior to the United States’ official entry into the war, Catoctin had long maintained a significant military presence. During the summer of 1941, the Lend-Lease Act called for American support of Allied powers financially and politically. As such, British soldiers came to Catoctin seeking shelter and respite while their ships were docked in Baltimore. They stayed at the camps of High Catoctin and Greentop, as well as the Bessie Darling House.
Later in 1942, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt recognized the potential in the park’s land and converted the area now known as Camp David into a presidential retreat. In turn, the OSS stopped using some of its designated training areas in the CRDA in favor of those in Prince William Forest of Northern Virginia, where presidential security would not be an issue.
Nevertheless, training still went on in some parts of the CRDA. Trainees were stripped of their identities, given fake names and new clothes. They then learned basic military survival tactics, like how to avoid detection as a spy or militant. Kasey Clay, a veteran who served sixteen years with the United States Air Force and Army and a historian at Catoctin Mountain Park, describes the park’s further specifics. She says that OSS spies learned “condensed” skillsets. They were taught “how to blow up buildings, how to break and enter into houses, how to crack safes and [even how to] forge documents.” All were trained by the best in their fields—many of which came from prisons.
At a facility known as the “Trainazium,” personnel practiced their response to prisoner of war conditions. The course was intense, leading to frequent injuries, including the broken jaw of future CIA Director Wiliam Casey. This was built without permission of the park, using many park trees and leaving holes in their places, to the dismay of park superintendent Mike Williams.
After initial training was complete, trainees had to enter the ‘House of Horrors,’ a final testing area where their skills were assessed by their response to simulated war situations. Once they passed, they disappeared from the facilities entirely, with no word given to other trainees regarding their departure. If they failed, they were transferred to different locations to preserve the site’s secrecy. No current trainees knew about these tests; they were surprised with them when deemed ready.
The training of OSS operatives changed as World War II waged on. To help with the transition to different environments abroad, training centers were established in new locations that better matched wartime conditions. This limited the use of Catoctin to an initial-stage training facility. Additionally, the Marine Corps began to send marines to Catoctin to recover from the pangs of fighting abroad and to prepare for their next steps in the war effort. They lived and trained at Camp Misty Mount.
In 1947, two years after the end of World War II, the OSS transferred full use of Catoctin back to the National Park Service. The official OSS personnel files, however, were not released until 2008, leaving the history of the program defined solely by personal interviews and word of mouth. No official photographs of the training facilities were made public, save seldom training videos filmed for OSS use, making the history of the OSS at Catoctin all the more elusive. After World War II, trainees signed agreements ensuring that they would keep the events of their training secret. The impact of OSS training resided with trainees for long after the war. Psychological trauma and trust issues followed them, and fear for their own safety led many to live in secrecy for the rest of their lives.
The history of Catoctin Mountain National Park and its affiliation in World War II is still investigated today. Catoctin Mountain Park’s Chief of Interpretation and Visitor Services Peggie Gaul says that the park is “working on a new exhibit for the visitor center” using assistance of Kasey Clay and other staff to help review documents. “Our hope is that people will get interested from the exhibit and want to do more research,” Gaul explains. “We want to better tell the history of the park.”
“History always matters because we can’t know where we’re going if we don’t know where we’ve been,” says Clay. “I think it’s really important for Catoctin Mountain Park and the people who love her because we get so lost in the big monuments [that we don’t realize] we’ve had a lot of stuff take place right here.” Clay wants people to walk the trails and see the history beneath their feet. She continues, “they can go ‘wow, somebody who walked the same trail was training to go fight, or became a prisoner, or was a Hollywood star.’ You can really connect to Catoctin that way.”
The beauty of Catoctin Mountain Park is that its roots run deep into the course of the past, and that there is more to discover with every visit. The role that the park played in wartime efforts is still being researched by the likes of Clay to help those who come to the park better understand the specifics of its role in American history. Clay loves the work she does and hopes that newcomers to the park can find the same novelty in discovery that she does every day. “After all,” Clay beams, “a bad day here is better than a good day anywhere else!”.
An instructor teaching a shoot-from-the-hip technique, “Instinctive shooting” they called it.
Blowing up a structure during explosives training.
The OSS symbol at end of the OSS Ford training film.