ALBANY, NEW YORK – The men and women who spied on Germany and Japan for the U.S. during World War II parachuted behind enemy lines, led guerrilla raids, invented special equipment such as scuba gear and established a counterintelligence network that endured into the Cold War.
Nearly 70 years after its agents played a key role in defeating the Axis powers, the spy organization that later became the Central Intelligence Agency is being proposed to receive the highest civilian honor bestowed by Congress, the Congressional Gold Medal. Legislation introduced recently by Sen. Mark Kirk, and Rep. Robert E. Latta will collectively award the medal to the members of the Office of Strategic Services, known as the OSS.
Along with the Presidential Medal of Freedom, it is the highest award the U.S. gives a civilian. Congressional Gold Medals also have been awarded in recent years to other groups of World War veterans, including Native American “code talkers” and the Tuskegee Airmen.
William Pietsch Jr. was personally recruited for the OSS by its leader, Gen. William “Wild Bill” Donovan, a lawyer and World War I hero. After graduating from West Point in early 1943, the young army officer was introduced to the OSS chief by William Casey, Donovan’s aide who later became CIA director.
“He 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,” said Pietsch, 91, a retired army colonel.
The original OSS members, a mixture of military and civilian employees, numbered about 13,000. Only a few hundred are still believed to survive, according to Charles Pinck, president of the 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 eventually became a “Jedburgh,” the name of the Scottish town where three-man teams of Allied agents trained before being dropped behind German lines after D-Day. Pietsch’s team 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 be helping Jews evade the Nazis. According to Pietsch, the priest was Angelo Roncalli, who later became Pope John XXIII.
“He saved my life,” Pietsch said.