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The Congressional Gold Medal is one of the two highest civilian awards in the United States. It is awarded through an Act of Congress to individuals “who have performed an achievement that has an impact on American history and culture that is likely to be recognized as a major achievement in the recipient’s field long after the achievement”. The first of these medals was awarded to then General George Washington in 1776 by the Continental Congress.
As our population of WWII veterans rapidly passes, there has been a growing trend to recognize the efforts of those men and women through these awards to specific groups for their wartime service and impact beyond. Among these have included the Navajo Code Talkers (and later, all Native American Code Talkers), the Tuskegee Airmen, the Women Airforce Service Pilots (WASPs), the 100th Infantry Battalion, the 442nd Regimental Combat Team, the Military Intelligence Service, the Montford Point Marines, the 65th Infantry Regiment and even the Civil Air Patrol (CAP).
A group who has woefully lacked similar recognition for their own pioneering efforts during WWII are the men and women of the Office of Strategic Services (OSS). In 1942, President Roosevelt established the OSS, built on the previous year’s Coordinator of Information (COI) office, headed by Colonel William Donovan, as the nation’s first true centralized intelligence agency. It existed for just over 3 years, but proved to be the predecessor of several important institutions, including the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA - 1947), the US Army’s Special Forces (SF – 1952, and later US Special Operations Command), and the Department of State’s Bureau of Intelligence and Research (INR).
Throughout those 3 years of service, more than 24,000 men and women served in a variety of capacities supporting the war effort in the US and abroad. It wasn’t until 2008 that the National Archives finally released the names of all those who served in the OSS during WWII. Among these were future Supreme Court Justices, professional athletes, future Nobel Peace Prize recipients and film and television actors.
Not only was the OSS’ legacy carried on by its successor organizations, the OSS pioneered many of the intelligence techniques, tools and sources and methods that would become hallmarks of US intelligence organizations for decades to come. The OSS operated in every combat theater of the war, collecting intelligence and engaging in covert action, including organizing and training local resistance groups, sabotage and propaganda campaigns. OSS officers, both men and women, trained in these techniques, would often parachute behind enemy lines to work with resistance groups prior to the DDay invasions in Europe. OSS officers also began to collect intelligence on our erstwhile allies, the Soviet Union, which would later prove key to uncovering Soviet intelligence activities in the United States.
Virginia Hall, veteran SOE, OSS and CIA Officer as painted by Jeff Bass.
James Bond’s “Q” Branch had nothing on the OSS Research and Development group, tasked with developing the tools needed to accomplish the OSS mission. These tools were both offensive, including weapons such as silenced pistols, disguised explosives, new grenades (the Beano), cameras the size of matchboxes, and defensive, including playing cards with hidden maps, compasses hidden as uniform buttons, counterfeit identification and money and communication devices. Even some of the more outlandish technology developments, including a plot to give Hitler estrogen and various chemical and biological warfare tools were important in continuing the technology development that would be needed to win the war. OSS officers received significant accolades for the efforts, not least of which was Virginia Hall’s receipt of the Distinguished Service Cross, the only civilian woman so recognized in WWII.
The OSS’ legacy continued for decades after the war. Most of the initial senior leadership of the CIA all came from the OSS ranks, including four DCIs. As late as the 1980’s, many of us who served in the CIA had been trained by, served under and were influenced in our operational outlook by OSS veterans. The CIA’s Special Activities Division (SAD) has always clung to its direct lineage from the OSS’ paramilitary activities, and all National Clandestine Service (NCS) officers have received training from SAD directly connecting them to that paramilitary lineage.
Likewise, the US Army’s Special Forces was initially led by and influenced by the men who had served in the war time OSS. In fact, certain OSS veterans, particularly those who served in the Operational Groups, Jedburghs, Maritime Unit and Detachment 101 are all eligible to wear the Special Forces Tab. The US Special Operations Command recognizes its lineage to the OSS through its shoulder sleeve insignia, which includes the spearpoint from the OSS’ wartime insignia.
In both 2014 and 2015, Congressman Robert Latta from Ohio brought forth legislation proposing that the surviving members of the OSS be recognized for their pioneering efforts in WWII, without which, neither the current CIA nor the Army Special Forces would exist as we know them. He continues to solicit co-sponsors for his legislation and there is a growing press recognition for the effort as well. There have recently been efforts to preserve the original OSS Headquarters building in Washington DC as well.
So what can you do? Reach out to your representative or senator asking them to join in supporting the OSS Congressional Gold Medal Act. Forward them these two letters from Congressman Latta here and Congressman Royce here. Contact Charles Pinck at the OSS Society and offer your support. And write to your local newspaper asking them to support the effort. The men and women of the OSS are being lost to us. They are not asking for this recognition. But those of us who benefited from their service desire to honor them. Join us in that effort.