Share This Page

Speedboat spy was D.C.-area parks visionary

| Thursday, June 13, 2013, 7:30 p.m.

WASHINGTON — Walter Mess, an American spy who captained a speedboat that ferried agents to and from secret missions in the China-Burma-India theater of World War II, died May 26 in Alexandria, Va. He was 98.

The cause was end-stage chronic renal failure, said his son, Walter Mess Jr.

Mess, who kept mum about his wartime experiences until the 1990s, was better-known to the Washington area for his nearly 30 years as chairman of the Northern Virginia Regional Park Authority.

Under his watch — he stepped down in 2004 — the park authority developed the 45-mile Washington & Old Dominion Trail, acquired the 5,000-acre Occoquan Reservoir shoreline and preserved more than 10,000 acres.

He was a founding member of the authority, established in 1959, and his vision for the organization dated to a wartime visit to San Diego, where he saw a free regional system of parks, golf courses and swimming pools.

He had been an outdoors enthusiast since his childhood in Alexandria, accompanying his father and uncle on boating and hunting expeditions.

During World War II, he was recruited to the Office of Strategic Services, a forerunner of the CIA, based in large part on his boating skills. He served in a maritime unit that performed clandestine missions in enemy waters — a model for the Navy Seals of later decades.

The OSS had sent Mess to Burma by 1944, and he was among an estimated several hundred skippers who dropped off agents and combat swimmers to gather information about enemy targets in anticipation of larger landings.

“Shooting wasn't our mission. Our mission was taxi driver, our mission was not to fight, but we were prepared to do it,” Mess explained to espionage historian Patrick O'Donnell.

He told O'Donnell, whose book “Operatives, Spies and Saboteurs” features Mess, that the boats went 50 to 70 miles up narrow and shallow tributaries, slipping past enemy encampments. He recalled seeing fires set by Japanese soldiers and steering the boat silently past them at night.

He would rendezvous with the soldiers where he dropped them off. “If we were under fire, we would use a bicycle tire to snatch the men,” he said. “They would stick their arms up, and we'd hook them with the bicycle tire and swing them into the boat, using the bicycle tire as a hook.”

Sworn to secrecy, Mess didn't tell his wife about his OSS work for decades. “I was told to keep my mouth shut,” Mess told the Falls Church News-Press in 2008. “She was so angry, she didn't speak to me for a month.”

Walter Lansdale Mess was born in Washington on Dec. 20, 1914. He moved to Alexandria as a child and spent most of his adult life in Falls Church, Va. He graduated in 1933 from St. John's College High School in Washington and later from George Washington University and Catholic University's law school. After the war, he worked in real estate and mortgage lending. He retired in 1983 as senior vice president of the B.F. Saul real estate company.

His wife of 61 years, Jean Ogle Mess, died in 2002.

TribLIVE commenting policy

You are solely responsible for your comments and by using TribLive.com you agree to our Terms of Service.

We moderate comments. Our goal is to provide substantive commentary for a general readership. By screening submissions, we provide a space where readers can share intelligent and informed commentary that enhances the quality of our news and information.

While most comments will be posted if they are on-topic and not abusive, moderating decisions are subjective. We will make them as carefully and consistently as we can. Because of the volume of reader comments, we cannot review individual moderation decisions with readers.

We value thoughtful comments representing a range of views that make their point quickly and politely. We make an effort to protect discussions from repeated comments either by the same reader or different readers

We follow the same standards for taste as the daily newspaper. A few things we won't tolerate: personal attacks, obscenity, vulgarity, profanity (including expletives and letters followed by dashes), commercial promotion, impersonations, incoherence, proselytizing and SHOUTING. Don't include URLs to Web sites.

We do not edit comments. They are either approved or deleted. We reserve the right to edit a comment that is quoted or excerpted in an article. In this case, we may fix spelling and punctuation.

We welcome strong opinions and criticism of our work, but we don't want comments to become bogged down with discussions of our policies and we will moderate accordingly.

We appreciate it when readers and people quoted in articles or blog posts point out errors of fact or emphasis and will investigate all assertions. But these suggestions should be sent via e-mail. To avoid distracting other readers, we won't publish comments that suggest a correction. Instead, corrections will be made in a blog post or in an article.