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Bethesda, Maryland

Congressional Country Club

Proto-CIA agents trained with grenades in the sand traps and fired machine guns from the fairways.  

“It’s the birthplace of the American Special Forces. A group like the Navy Seals — the Congressional Country Club is where it all started.” -Charles Pinck, President of the O.S.S. Society

Like any good spy, the Congressional Country Club in Maryland appears at first glance to be a perfectly ordinary golf course, with verdant landscaping and a respectable membership. But slumbering beneath this quiet cover is an explosive history of secret agents, wartime espionage, and the birth of what would go on to become the Central Intelligence Agency.

Congressional is a private club that can trace its lineage back to roaring 1924 and the tail end of the Gilded Age. But within a decade the Great Depression brought near-bankruptcy and the future loomed in uncertainty. World War II proved to be a reversal of fortune for the golf club, as the federal government was in desperate need of training facilities, and willing to pay top dollar.

The Office of Strategic Services (the 1940s forbearer of the CIA) had a particularly unusual need for a sort of proto special forces academy. It wanted a place—hopefully near headquarters—where recruits could practice the skills needed to infiltrate Nazi-occupied France and wreak havoc across the countryside. Congressional Country Club was an obvious candidate.

A deal was hammered out in April 1943 between OSS head William Donovan and Congressional’s management. In exchange for $4,000 a month in rent and promise to pay for future restorations, the government transformed the bucolic Congressional into a garden of war, with explosive testing in the sandtraps and live fire exercises on the fairways.

John Chambers’ interesting history of OSS training in parks recounts how, “an obstacle course was erected from the swimming pool to the first tee. Submachine gun and pistol ranges and a concrete bunker for observing the effect of new weapons and munitions were built across River Road on the north 80 acres. A mock fuselage of a C-47 used for parachute training sat on the putting green in front of the clubhouse … Near the fifteenth tee, machine guns fired live ammunition over the heads of trainees crawling forward.”

War service training took a heavy toll on the club, whose formerly pristine turf was left pockmarked with craters and studded with landmines. An unfortunate Caddyshack was also blown up in an explosives test, and the local milkman terrorized by constant nighttime “practice ambushes.”

The government proved to be a noisy but reliable tenant and made good on its promise to make Congressional whole after the war. It cost nearly $200,000 to repair the grounds and restore the clubhouse to its pre-war condition. To a modern eye the manicured greens lawns offer little outward indication of their explosive war service, but every November an aging cast of former spies takes the place over for the OSS Society annual meeting, and the organization’s president reminds his alumni “not to blow anything up.”