OSS founder Gen. William Donovan with members of the OSS Operational Groups, forerunners of U.S. Special Operations Forces, at Congressional Country Club in Bethesda, Md., which served as an OSS training facility.

OSS founder Gen. William Donovan with members of the OSS Operational Groups, forerunners of U.S. Special Operations Forces, at Congressional Country Club in Bethesda, Md., which served as an OSS training facility. Photo provided by OSS Society

Give Thanks for the OSS

As today’s security depends increasingly on intelligence and special operators, Congress should act to honor those who paved their way.

What do attorney James Donovan (portrayed by Tom Hanks in “Bridge of Spies”), the “French Chef” Julia Child, Virginia Hall (the only American civilian woman to receive the Distinguished Service Cross during World War II), Nobel Peace Prize recipient Ralph Bunche, Pulitzer Prize recipient Arthur Schlesinger Jr., Hollywood director John Ford, and architect Eero Saarinen (who designed Dulles Airport) have in common? They all served in the Office of Strategic Services, or OSS, the World War II predecessor to the CIA and the U.S. Special Operations Command.

As we commemorate the 70th anniversary of the end of World War II this year - and increasingly rely on our intelligence and special operations communities to defend the United States - we should remember that they were born in the crucible of World War II.

In June 1942, President Franklin Roosevelt created the OSS. Roosevelt appointed as its director the legendary General William “Wild Bill” Donovan, the only American to receive our nation’s four highest decorations, including the Medal of Honor. Donovan dedicated his entire life to serving the United States, starting in World War I as part of the “Fighting 69th” Infantry Regiment. One of our nation’s leading attorneys, he served as an assistant United States attorney general and as the U.S. attorney for the Western District of New York. President Roosevelt sent him to Great Britain in 1940 as one of his personal emissaries. Following World War II, he served as ambassador to Thailand during the height of the Cold War.

Fisher Howe, who served as a special assistant to Donovan, said that “if you define leadership as having a vision for an organization, and the ability to attract, motivate and guide followers to fulfill that vision, you have Bill Donovan in spades.” Roosevelt called Donovan his “secret legs.” Donovan led by example, going behind enemy lines and taking part in several invasions, including D-Day.

Professor E. Bruce Reynolds said the “OSS was an organization designed to do great things.” It did great things. The OSS was the most remarkable organization ever created by the U.S. government, from building resistance movements behind enemy lines in Europe and Asia, to gathering intelligence in advance of Operations Overlord (Normandy) and Torch (North Africa); waging unconventional warfare against the Japanese in Burma by OSS Detachment 101 (the most effective fighting force in the OSS and the recipient of a Presidential Unit Citation); inventing and implementing innovative technologies (including the first underwater rebreathing device that was used by the OSS Maritime Unit, the predecessor to the U.S. Navy SEALs); carrying out the greatest rescue mission of World War II, Operation Halyard; and its recruitment of leading academics.

At the core of the OSS were the incredible group of Americans whom Donovan recruited to serve from every military branch and the civilian population. They included the actor and Marine Sterling Hayden, who won a Silver Star; Supreme Court Justice Arthur Goldberg; Col. Aaron Bank, a founder of U.S. Special Forces; Col. William Eddy, who was described as the “Lawrence of America”; Fred Mayer, the “real inglorious basterd,” who, after being tortured by the Gestapo for several days, convinced his torturers to surrender Innsbruck, Austria, and was nominated for a Medal of Honor; and members of the Jedburghs and Operational Groups, forerunners of today’s U.S. Special Operations Forces, who went behind enemy lines as did many other members of the OSS. Donovan said they performed “some of the bravest acts of the war.”

Senators Roy Blunt, R- Mo., and Mark Warner, D-Va., and Rep. Bob Latta, R-Ohio, have introduced legislation to award the Congressional Gold Medal to the members of the Office of Strategic Services “in recognition of their superior service and major contributions during World War II.” The Senate bill has the support of the entire Senate Select Committee on Intelligence. When Donovan died in 1959, President Eisenhower called him the "last hero." It is time to honor the “last hero” and all the heroes of the OSS, who are dwindling in number, with a Congressional Gold Medal. Congress should pass this bill. 

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