The Office of Strategic Services (OSS) was finally recognized by the U.S. Congress when the Congressional Gold Medal Act (S. 2234) was passed by the House of Representatives back in December and the Medal was officially presented on Wednesday. OSS was the World War II predecessor to CIA, the US Special Operations Command and the State Department’s Bureau of Intelligence and Research.
It was created in 1942 by President Roosevelt who appointed Gen. William Donovan, a World War I Medal of Honor recipient, as its director. Donovan was the founding father of the US intelligence and special operations communities. Leaning heavily on the British, the Americans quickly learned their craft and by war’s end had over 13,000 men and women under their umbrella.
Known as “Glorious Amateurs” by Donovan, he was initially looking for “PHDs That Can Win a Bar Fight”, but they soon became much more than that. Donovan recruited native language speakers and built an eclectic organization that included people from every walk of life. As force multipliers, OSS Detachment 101 in Burma had no more than 120 at any one time, but at its peak had 11,000 Kachins fighting the Japanese.
Of the 13,000 personnel, about 7500 of them served overseas and over 4500 OSS personnel were women with 900 of them overseas. Several women played key roles including Julia Child, Marlene Dietrich, and Virginia Hall. Hall had lost part of her leg before the war but still deployed to occupied France where the Germans were hunting for her. Hall would be the only civilian to be awarded the Distinguished Service Cross.
OSS played a critical role in America’s victory in World War II. It gathered critical intelligence that led to the success of D-Day. And the men and women that forged it would be the jumping off point for CIA, and the Special Operations Command. And the friendships and experiences shared during the WWII years would be used to great effect when these operatives moved on to the next phase of their lives.
OSS was the predecessor of CIA and many of the members of the wartime organization became members including some directors of the agency such as Allen Dulles, William Casey, William Colby and Richard Helms. The Operational Groups and Jedburgh Teams became the modern day Green Berets of the Army’s Special Forces. Members of OSS Maritime Unit along with the UDTs of the Navy were the forerunners of the U.S. Navy SEAL teams.
The 801st/492nd Bombardment Group (“Carpetbaggers”), and other elements of the US Army Air Corps, the air arm of OSS, were predecessors to the Air Force Special Operations Command. The Marines who served in the OSS were predecessors along with Marine Raiders to the Marine Corps Special Operations Command.
Congress with bipartisan support has acknowledged the bravery, hard work, and dedication that the OSS men and women put forth during World War II. The bill was co-sponsored by a Democrat and a Republican Sen. Mark Warner (D-VA) and Sen. Roy Blunt (R-MO).
“For many years, the heroic contributions of the OSS – which included some of the most daring covert operations of World War II — remained shrouded in secrecy, their contributions largely unknown to the American public. Today, Congress is able to publicly recognize the members of the OSS for their remarkable heroism and many sacrifices,” said Warner.
“As the predecessor to the modern CIA, other elements of the U.S. intelligence community, and U.S. special operations forces, the OSS once boasted nearly 13,000 members, but more than 70 years after they won the war, fewer than 100 are still with us. I know how much it means to the veterans of the OSS, as well as their families, that this legislation is finally making its way to the President’s desk to be signed into law. Today, Congress has ensured that their courage of spirit and their love of country will long live on in our nation’s memory.”
Blunt added, “From establishing intelligence networks deep behind enemy lines to bolstering resistance organizations throughout Europe and Asia, the members of the OSS saved thousands of lives and played a critical role in securing the Allied victory in World War II.”
House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence Ranking Member Adam Schiff (D-CA) said: “The men and women who served our country in the Office of the Strategic Service are among the most deserving of the Congressional Gold Medal. The OSS, members of our “Greatest Generation,” were the faces and minds behind our modern intelligence community and helped vanquish some of the most malevolent enemies that our country, and indeed the world, has ever faced. We owe them a debt of gratitude that can never be repaid, and I am pleased the bill has finally been passed by the House.”
At the ceremony on Wednesday, Speaker of the House Paul Ryan acknowledged that OSS was finally being recognized “by a grateful nation,” and offered the following.
“Nothing like this has ever been tried before … and it worked. It worked brilliantly,” Speaker 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?”
OSS Society President Charles Pinck, whose father served behind the lines in China with the agency in World War II spoke to the assembled Congressmen. “General Donovan said his personnel performed some the bravest acts of the war,” Pinck said. “We are very grateful their bravery is being recognized with Congress’ highest civilian honor.”
The OSS society is now attempting to build 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.’”
Only about 100 members of OSS are alive. And only 20 were able to make the trip to Washington for the ceremony. Members of OSS will receive a duplicate of the Gold Medal in bronze. Members of the agency were already awarded the Legion of Honour, the highest civilian distinction in France.
Photos: US Archives/Wikipedia