The WWII-era spy organization that later became the Central Intelligence Agency may receive the highest civilian honor bestowed by Congress, the Congressional Gold Medal. Legislation introduced last week by Sen. Mark Kirk, R-Ill., and Rep. Robert E. Latta, R-Ohio, would award the medal collectively to the members of the Office of Strategic Services (OSS).
The men and women of the OSS played a key role in defeating the Axis powers by spying on Germany and Japan for the United States, parachuting behind enemy lines, leading guerrilla raids, inventing special equipment such as scuba gear, and establishing a counterintelligence network that endured into the Cold War.
Along with the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the Congressional Gold Medal is the highest award the United States gives a civilian. Other groups of World War veterans, including Native American “code talkers” and the Tuskegee Airmen, also have received Congressional Gold Medals.
William Pietsch Jr., 91, remembers the day OSS leader, World War I hero Gen. William “Wild Bill” Donovan, recruited him for the organization. He said William Casey, Donovan’s aide who would later become CIA director, introduced the young Army officer to the OSS chief. “[Donovan] turned to Bill Casey and said, ‘tell this young man what his job will be,’ and that was it. He didn't waste any time on superfluous conversation,” Pietsch said.
Donovan was known for leading from the front, a trait that earned him the Medal of Honor–and his nickname–during World War I. He left the administrative duties of running the OSS to others, Pietsch said. That tendency may explain why many OSS operatives, considered the forerunners of today’s U.S. special-operations troops, never received the recognition they deserved during World War II.
The original OSS members, a mix of military and civilian employees, numbered about 13,000. Only a few hundred are still believed to be alive, says to Charles Pinck, president of the Falls Church, Va.-based OSS Society, whose membership includes about 150 OSS veterans.
“We just think it’s terribly important to recognize their service while they’re still here,” Pinck said.
Pietsch was a member of an OSS team that parachuted into Burgundy in central France in August 1944 and fought alongside the French Resistance. At one point, while the Gestapo was “hunting me down like an animal,” Pietsch sought sanctuary from an Italian Catholic priest known to help Jews evade the Nazis. According to Pietsch, the priest was Angelo Roncalli, who later became Pope John XXIII.
“He saved my life,” Pietsch said.