For former military pilot John Billings, the commendation he received on Capitol Hill last week was welcome but late. Seventy-three years late, to be exact.
In February 1945, Billings, flying on behalf of the Office of Strategic Services (OSS), the World War II-era precursor to the CIA, signed up for what seemed like a suicide mission. Fly deep behind Nazi lines, high in the wintry Alps, his superiors asked, to drop a group of covert operatives on a frozen lake. The operation was so perilous the Royal Air Force refused it.
But Billings said yes, and the mission was a success, helping to provide critical information on enemy movements during the war’s final period.
Last week, Billings was among about 20 OSS veterans who gathered in Washington as lawmakers including House Speaker Paul D. Ryan (R-Wis.) and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) awarded the OSS with the Congressional Gold Medal, the highest civilian honor given by Congress.
The ceremony capped a years-long campaign to secure congressional recognition for the wartime spies who risked their lives to secure an Allied victory. Since at least 2013, advocates of the OSS veterans have been seeking to ensure the service would be recognized as a keystone of the modern U.S. intelligence operation. A bill to that effect, originally introduced in 2013, was stalled for several years in the House. It was introduced again in 2015, and passed in the fall of 2016.
Some 100 to 200 former members of the OSS, which employed about 13,000 civilians and service members at its height, are believed to be alive, but the ranks of surviving veterans are dwindling.
“I’m happy that the OSS got recognized,” said Billings, who remains an avid pilot at 94. But, he added: “So many people, deserving people, are not here anymore. It would have been nice to have them know about it, as well.”
The OSS was founded in 1942 by William “Wild Bill” Donovan, a distinguished World War I veteran and politician, to help the United States boost its espionage efforts against the Axis powers. Until its dissolution in 1945, it employed thousands of research analysts and dispatched guerrilla operatives on dangerous missions overseas.
The service’s Special Operations Branch activities included parachuting into France to support the assault on Normandy and working with Kachin tribesmen in modern-day Burma to gather intelligence on Japanese forces.
At the ceremony last week, Rep. Marcy Kaptur (D-Ohio) spoke with emotion as she recalled the OSS service of her uncle, Cpl. Anthony Rogowski of Toledo. She read from partially censored letters that her Uncle Tony had written while conducting secret operations from an unidentified location in Asia, describing the “pure hell” he encountered as he ferried military assets over remote and mountainous roads.
Marion Frieswyk joined the OSS after geographer Arthur Robinson identified her and another young graduate student, her future husband Henry Frieswyk, during a summer course. The pair moved to Washington and began helping the service build maps and topographic models used by military and government leaders. After the OSS was shut down, both joined the CIA. Marion Frieswyk left the agency in the 1950s while her husband retired in 1980 after becoming head of the cartography division.
“It was a very hush-hush time,” Frieswyk, 96, said of her years working in intelligence. “My children didn’t even know where we worked.”
In a statement, CIA spokeswoman Heather Fritz Horniak said the medal was “fitting recognition for the exceptionally talented, courageous, and resourceful OSS officers who rose to the challenge” during World War II.
“The officers of the CIA are proud to follow in their footsteps,” she said.
The OSS legacy can be seen not only in the mission of the CIA but also that of the military’s Special Operations Command (SOCOM) and the State Department’s intelligence bureau.
“It’s taken 75 years for the OSS to receive a warm welcome in our nation’s capital where its founder, General William Donovan, said he had greater enemies than Hitler had in Europe,” said Charles Pinck, president of the OSS Society, which seeks to promote the achievements of the OSS and honor intelligence professionals. Pinck’s father, Dan, served with the OSS behind enemy lines in China.
On one side, the new medal shows three OSS operatives: a woman, a man and a person in a parachute. On the other side, it lists code words and ID numbers for the OSS and related intelligence agents and operations, and shows a spearhead, the unofficial insignia of the OSS, which was later adopted by SOCOM.