Stephanie Czech Rader finally got what was rightly hers at the Old Post Chapel at Fort Myer on Wednesday, though the recognition came 70 years late.
A 19-piece band gave fanfare, Rader’s flag-draped coffin was wheeled past the chapel’s stained-glass windows, and the woman who lived to 100 was finally, officially recognized for her dangerous and essential work as a spy at the end of World War II.
Twice she was nominated for the Legion of Merit for her singular intelligence-gathering on Soviet troop movements in Poland. But twice the honor was denied. No one knew why.
“It was because she was a woman, that was part of it,” said Michael Golden, Rader’s longtime Alexandria neighbor, who didn’t know for years that the dog-loving, ukulele-playing senior citizen on his street had been one of only two American spies working in Poland after the war.
“After I found out, I outed her at her 95th birthday party,” Golden said.
Rader, who served as Capt. Stephanie Czech, was born to Polish immigrants and got a full scholarship to Cornell University, where she earned a degree in chemistry. She worked in the cafeteria, and her parents sold their wedding rings to cover her living expenses.
“She was one of the few trailblazing women in the 1930s” in the sciences, said Cornell chemistry professor Barbara Baird.
Though she had excellent grades, there were no jobs for women in this field, Baird said.
After working as a translator, Rader joined the Women’s Army Auxiliary Corps at the start of World War II.
The Office of Strategic Services, an early version of the CIA, recruited her to take advantage of her fluency in Polish. She had the accent, the look and all the mannerisms down solid.
She moved around Poland, tracking troop movements and ferrying sensitive documents. She pretended to be looking for long-lost Polish relatives. She was one of only two operatives in the country, and the only one who was fluent in Polish.
“They gave me a gun, but I never carried a gun,” she said in an interview about her service. “What the heck was I gonna do with a dumb gun?”
Charles Pinck, president of the OSS Society, attributed the decades-long refusal to honor Rader to the secrecy surrounding the espionage agency.
“Like many of those who served so heroically in the OSS, she was never properly recognized for her heroism,” Pinck said.
When OSS personnel records were declassified in 2008, the OSS Society, which honors members’ accomplishments during the war, learned that Rader had been nominated for the Legion of Merit but never received it. So Pinck began his campaign.
He visited her at her Alexandria home and told the society about her. He got her neighbors involved in encouraging her to work with the Army to get the award.
Ken Elder, 80, was friends with Rader and her husband for years, and it blew him away when he learned of her service. She’d retired as a major.
“People in that generation didn’t ask for awards or recognition,” Elder said. “And I know that as a woman, it wasn’t part of the culture for her to ask. It’s just the way it was back then.”
A few years back, he took her to an OSS event at the Smithsonian Institution. She was quiet, hung back, and didn’t brag and tell stories like the others.
“And at the end, they asked everyone who served in the OSS to stand up,” Elder said. Rader reluctantly stood up. “All these other guys — most of them were trying to sell books they had written.”
The speaker asked everyone standing to describe what they did for the OSS. A string of rather mundane tasks performed by some of the 4,500 men and women of the OSS were ticked off.
When it came to Rader, she said, “I was X-2.”
“X-2? I didn’t know what that was,” Elder said.
As she said that, the whole room gasped. And a grizzled man in a wheelchair slowly lifted himself up to his feet and saluted Rader.
“The crowd went wild,” Elder said. “Everyone was asking her to autograph their programs.”
Someone asked her whether she knew Julia Child.
“Julia Child was just a clerk,” Rader snapped back.
And amid the chaos, Rader grabbed Elder’s arm and whispered in his ear, “I’ve got to get the hell out of here.”
Nope, she didn’t seek attention or glory.
But Pinck and Elder and others thought it was an important message to have the service of Rader and other women who served their country recognized.
So they got Sen. Mark R. Warner (D-Va.) to help out.
They worked with the Army, and Rader did a historical interview about her time with the OSS. She received a meritorious service award from the society. But that medal? Nothing.
She was 100, and she was growing frail. She died Jan. 21.
It took the Army five more months to decide, but they announced last week that she would get the medal posthumously.
This is not a new pattern. The family of Elaine Danforth Harmon lobbied to get her a spot in Arlington Cemetery after an exception allowing female World War II pilots to be buried there was reversed.
Harmon and her fellow Women Airforce Service Pilots risked their lives just like their male counterparts did. They ferried planes, tested repaired aircraft, instructed male pilots and towed targets for air-combat training.
In fact, 38 of them died while serving their country.
It took months of lobbying, interviews and campaigns to get Harmon her place in Arlington.
On Wednesday morning, Rader got the full military honors. The horses, the caisson, the guns, the band.
And amid rows of headstones that said “His Wife” with a woman’s name on the back, Stephanie Czech Rader was buried with all the honors and medals she had earned, the exact same number as her husband, a B-17 pilot who died 12 years ago.
At long last, everyone would know she was much, much more than “his wife.”
Read more Petula Dvorak: