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.
Mr. Mess 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 US Navy SEALs of later decades.
The OSS had sent Mr. Mess to Burma by 1944, and he was among an estimated several hundred skippers who dropped off agents and combat swimmers to gather infor- mation about enemy targets in anticipation of larger strategic landings.
‘‘Shooting wasn’t our mission. Our mission was taxi driver; our mission was not to fight, but we were prepared to do it,’’ Mr. Mess explained to espionage historian Patrick O’Donnell, who wrote ‘‘Operatives, Spies and Saboteurs.”
Mr. Mess said 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 US soldiers where he had left 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, Mr. Mess did not tell his wife about his OSS work for decades. ‘‘I was told to keep my mouth shut,’’ he told the Falls Church News-Press in 2008. ‘‘She was so angry, she didn’t speak to me for a month.’’
Until he began to speak about his wartime experiences in the 1990s, Mr. Mess 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.
His wife of 61 years, Jean Ogle Mess, died in 2002. Mr. Mess leaves four children, Walter of Keene, N.H., Jean Lewis of Falls Church, Va., Patricia Urick of Sarasota, Fla., and Margaret Vidumsky of Chadds Ford, Pa.; 11 grand-children; and 20 great-grandchildren.
A half-century after his wartime service, Mr. Mess re- portedly received an honorary green beret for his cont- ributions to military intelligence.
‘‘Somewhere along the way, I got some Bronze Stars and a lot of other fancy things, but none of that really matters,’’ Mr. Mess told the Washington Times in 2007.
‘‘I had a good time,” he added.
“The reason I had a good time was because I lived on the edge for a while. I was not young when I left for the war, I was 28. I got lucky; I survived.’’