Dunham House loomed out of the English countryside that November evening in 1943, a dark shape in a dark setting. Marine Platoon Sergeant Jack Risler stepped up to the heavy front door, knocked and watched it swing open to reveal a colleague, Major Bruce Cheever, in Marine-issue trousers and shirt, a white silk scarf wrapped around his neck. Framed by a massive fireplace, Cheever pulled a cord dangling next to it, summoning an aide to take their drink orders. “Welcome, we’ve been expecting you,” he told the small group of men before him.
The air of mystery was fitting given the mission Risler was about to undertake, even if Cheever’s welcome seemed like something straight out of a B movie. Risler and seven other Marine paratroopers had arrived in England that night to report for duty with the Office of Strategic Services, the wartime precursor to the Central Intelligence Agency. The OSS was involved in a series of clandestine missions in support of resistance movements in occupied Europe, and Cheever had recruited the eight men to serve as instructors at a newly created British-American parachute school that was a key part of the effort.