And we only barely had done so, even though he was, by rights, a legend in our small world. Until he passed away at 100 Sunday, and a retired Special Forces officer who was an acquaintance of his spread the word in our small community. (Thanks, Tom). Walter was something very, very rare: a genuine honorary Green Beret, a man who earned his Special Forces Tab not only long before there was a Tab (1984 or so?) but long before there was Special Forces (1952). You see, he was an Office of Strategic Services (OSS) veteran.
The OSS is claimed as an ancestor by both the US Army Special Forces (Green Berets) and the Central Intelligence Agency. (The Maritime Unit of the OSS also was a forerunner of the SEALs and SBUs, but the Navy doesn’t claim the lineage as far as we know). Like the successor organizations, OSS conducted the entire range of special operations from guerilla warfare to personnel recovery, and also conducted espionage. It got around, and so did Walter Mess.
After his wartime service in clandestine warfare (he actually started out volunteering for MI6, and they took him, before the US was in the war; when the US joined he transferred to the Coordinatror of Information, later the OSS). Here’s a bit from a bio, but you ought to Read The Whole Thing™:
Walter L. Mess, who established the Northern Virginia Regional Park Authority and was a member of its Board for more than 45 years, passed away on Sunday, May 26, at the age of 100. During his more than four decades on the NVRPA Board, the agency preserved over 10,000 acres of land.
Mr. Mess grew up in Alexandria with a passion for outdoor adventures like hunting, fishing, hiking and boating, which he did throughout the region. In 1939, before the U.S. had entered World War II, he was recruited by a professor at Georgetown Law School to join the British Secret Service. His mission was to parachute into Nazi-controlled areas of Poland and Czechoslovakia to organize and train resistance fighters. When the U.S. entered the war, he joined the Office of Strategic Services (OSS; predecessor to the CIA) and conducted commando missions into North Africa prior to the Allied invasion. He later was sent to Asia where he commanded a speed boat (similar to a PT Boat) in operations in and around Burma. Decades later, he was given an honorary Green Beret status for his bravery and innovation in special operations.
Interestingly, it was via his military service that Mr. Mess was inspired to create a future park agency in his home state. While stationed in San Diego, California, he visited Balboa Park, a 1,200-acre urban park that was used as a Navy base during the war. Seeing this great park influenced his actions for years to come.
The OSS Maritime Unit in the CBI was one of the best-kept secrets of the war. (Note: there is more information on Walter L. Mess at that link). Unfortunately, a definitive series of articles about the OSS MU in Veritas: the Journal of Special Operations History can’t be made available online due to copyright law restrictions.
After the war, Walter Mess did more than just start the regional parks in Virginia. He was a developer who built some one hundred buildings, including The Watergate and many other DC landmarks. All of the many Virginians who worked with him on his business and philanthropic projects over the next five decades were startled to hear about his World War II exploits when information about them was finally released in the 1990s: like so many of his generation, he’d put that behind him and never talked about it. He was married once, until death separated them in 2002. Along with his network of parks and his many developments, he left to posterity four children and 10 grandchildren.
Walter fell in February and broke his hip, which landed him in the hospital. He was lucid to the last, and frustrated by his body’s failure to keep pace with his ever-sharp mind.
Walter L. Mess, OSS Veteran, a life well lived in all its particulars. Rest in peace.