The Congressional Gold Medal, the nation’s highest civilian distinction, was awarded on Wednesday to veterans of the Office of Strategic Services, the World War II intelligence agency and CIA predecessor.
In a ceremony at the U.S. Capitol’s Emancipation Hall stressing realism, idealism and above all else patriotism, House Speaker Paul Ryan, Wisconsin Republican, presented the medal “on behalf of a very grateful nation.”
“It is the spirit of these veterans that endures,” Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, Kentucky Republican, added. “Their pluck and patriotism proved that any American could rise to defeat the foes of freedom. How fortunate we are that these heroes answered the call.”
Created in 1942 by the legendary General William ‘Wild Bill’ Donovan to coordinate American intelligence efforts, in its heyday the OSS deployed more than 13,000 operatives, a third of them women, in addition to four future CIA directors.
Pioneers of sabotage, intelligence gathering, supplying resistance movements, capturing high-value targets and infiltrating enemy strongholds, OSS agents were in Gen. Donovan’s words “glorious amateurs” who undertook “some of the bravest acts of the war.”
Mr. Donovan’s statue now stands outside CIA headquarters in Virginia and the OSS is widely recognized for playing a major role in the creation of the CIA and formation of the Army Green Berets and Navy Seals.
During Wednesday’s ceremony, OSS veteran William Clarke, who also served in the CIA, noted that around 100 OSS members are still alive.
Roughly 20 vets attended to help receive the single Congressional Gold Medal struck to collectively honor them. It will soon be on display at the Smithsonian. OSS members on Wednesday received bronze duplicates.
Mythical not only for its derring-do but also its celebrity, the OSS included entertainment luminaries director John Ford, actor Sterling Hayden, chef Julia Child and actress Marlene Dietrich.
“Nothing like this had ever been tried before, and it worked, it worked brilliantly,” Mr. Ryan said. “The OSS may seem like something out of the movies — and yes, as you have heard, some of its members were — but there are certain roles that only history can cast. What else could have brought together such far-fetched ideas and so many far-flung people?”
Legendary political satirist Mark Russell, himself a Korean War Marine vet, brought the house down with an old-fashioned parody song of the unit’s exploits.
Lawmakers also noted family connection, including Rep. Nancy Kaptur, Ohio Democrat, who proudly choked up when recounting how her uncle Anthony “Tony” Rogowski heroically served but was never recognized because of the clandestine nature of his missions.
Sen. Angus King, Maine Independent, added that wife’s uncle served in Burma and offered all OSS veterans, living and dead, “a profound and sincere thanks.”
While the OSS had previously been awarded the Legion of Honour, France’s highest civilian honor, the unit had never been recognized collectively in America.
It took until 1987, 42 years after the war ended, for the government to start lifting the secrecy laws surrounding the OSS.
Securing the Congressional Gold Medal, which President Obama signed into law in Dec. 2016, took a major push by several lawmakers including Ms. Kaptur, Rep. Bob Latta, Ohio Republican, and Sen. Mark Warner, Virginia Democrat. Additional work was done by OSS Society president Charles Pinck, whose father served during WWII behind enemy lines in China.
“General Donavan said his personnel performed some the bravest acts of the war,” Mr. Pinck said. “We are very grateful their bravery is being recognized with Congress’ highest civilian honor.”
The OSS society is now building a National Museum of Intelligence and Special Operations in Northern Virginia to educate the public on the importance of strategic intelligence and “honor Americans who serve at the ‘tip of the spear.’”