The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Congressional Gold Medal sought for the OSS, the CIA forerunner

Office of Strategic Services founder Maj. Gen. William Donovan, center, is shown here with members of the OSS Operational Groups, forerunners of the U.S. Special Operations Forces, at Congressional Country Club in Bethesda, Md., which was used as a primary OSS training facility. (Photo courtesy the OSS Society)

During some of the bloodiest days of World War II, the United States established a new, secretive intelligence agency to spy on enemy forces, sabotage them, and report their findings back to top U.S. commanders. Its operatives did everything, from recovering prisoners of war in Japan to coordinating hit-and-run attacks on Nazi forces in Europe, and sometimes dying in the process.

More than 70 years later, a growing number of Capitol Hill lawmakers have thrown their support behind recognizing those who served in the Office of Strategic Services with the Congressional Gold Medal. Along with the Presidential Medal of Freedom, it is considered the highest award that a U.S. civilian can receive.

Rep. Robert E. Latta (R-Ohio) introduced legislation last year for the award, and has done so again in the new congressional term. It currently has at least 14 co-sponsors, and he is soliciting more. In a phone interview, he said he wants the surviving members of the OSS to be recognized while they are still alive for paving the way for the military’s modern Special Operations Command and the CIA.

“It is time for members of the OSS to be collectively recognized for their extraordinary efforts,” Latta said in a letter to other members of Congress circulated last month.

The effort comes at a time when a number of other World War II-era organizations have been recognized by Congress in recent years. They include members of the Civil Air Patrol, which defended the United States against Nazi attacks in the Atlantic, and the Montford Point Marines, who became the first African Americans to serve in the Marine Corps beginning in 1942.

“There are very few surviving OSS veterans,” said Charles Pinck, president of the OSS Society, which highlights the spy agency’s history. “They have never been recognized collectively for their valor or for laying the foundation for the present day intelligence and special operations communities, including the U.S. Navy SEALs. Given the critical role that intelligence and special operations have played defending the United States since 9/11, it is imperative to honor the remaining men and women of the OSS.”

The OSS also had a history of experimenting with technology that became commonplace in the intelligence world. In one example, they used an early version scuba gear known as the Lambertsen Amphibious Respirator Unit (LARU), named after its inventor OSS member Christian J. Lambertsen. They were eventually used by SEAL-like maritime units.

The OSS’s influence on modern organizations can be seen in the logos of both the military’s Special Operations Command and the National Clandestine Service, which handles secret intelligence missions for the CIA, Pinck said. The logos for both use the spearhead from the original OSS logo.