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When The OSS Used Catalina Island During WWII

CATALINA ISLAND— From 1942-1945, Catalina Island was closed to visitors and used solely as a military training base. The Office of Strategic Services (OSS), the U.S. Coast Guard, and the U.S. Army Signal Corps had bases here. Avalon was a base for the U.S. Maritime Service, training the men who would operate the ships carrying war supplies.

According to the Catalina Islander, between 1943 and 1945, the island was used by the OSS for covert training and top-secret operations. Then, in response to the ever-changing face of war in the Pacific, the Special Operations Branch of the OSS created the Maritime Unit.

The Maritime Unit brought on Dr. Christian Lambertsen to perfect his revolutionary re-breathing device, the “Lambertsen Amphibious Respirator Unit” or “Lambertsen Lung,” and to train combat swimmers on how to operate it.

The Maritime Unit trained in small craft handling, underwater explosive devices, and specialized boats such as collapsible kayaks and inflatable surfboards that could be launched from submarines.

The oceans no longer protected oneself from distant enemies. The OSS would specialize in surveillance, sabotage, and covert warfare under the direct command of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff.

Toyon Bay, two and a half miles northwest of Avalon, and a smaller cove nearby called Gallagher’s Beach were selected for the use of the OSS for several reasons.

Steep mountains hem in the beaches at Toyon and Gallagher’s, and no road had been built into the area yet.

The isolation was ideal for the kind of training that would take place. In addition, several buildings were already in place at the bottom of Swain’s Canyon, inland from Toyon’s beach. The Catalina Island School had used the facilities for boys before its closure in December of 1941.

The site at Toyon Bay was leased by the OSS in December 1943, and the training center began operations in June 1944. However, the base was top secret. Most Merchant Marine, Coast Guard, and Army personnel stationed at other Catalina locations knew nothing of its presence.

Men who trained and prepared at Toyon Bay became experts with weapons, including carbines, M-1 rifles, 45 caliber pistols, the Fairbairn-Skyes dagger, and explosives.

These men also trained in martial arts-styled methods of “silent killing.” Much of the training applied to jungle combat. The brutal physical conditioning regimen included calisthenics on the beach and strenuous runs up the mountains and along the ridges of Catalina Island.

Toyon Bay served as a secretive training area for American spies and guerrilla warfare specialists from 1943 to 1945. While on the Island, the men learned survival, hand-to-hand combat with knives and other silent weapons, unarmed combat, demolitions, map reading, cryptography, and clandestine radio operations.

Each training class conducted mock raids on the U.S. Coast Guard base at Two Harbors and other “enemy” targets around the Island. In addition, agents were landed by submarine and rubber boats at other “enemy-held” strongholds.

From Toyon Bay, the trainees were transferred to Burma and China, where they did behind-the-lines intelligence work for the British and Indian armies fighting to recapture Burma.

They recruited, trained, and led a guerrilla force of native Kachin fighters whose exploits have never been equaled in the history of guerrilla warfare and who were primarily responsible for opening the Burma Road to China and retaking Northern Burma.

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