As you read this short column, ask yourself how you happen to have the time, peace, freedom, confidence, and security to be sitting and reading … here in a free America, bound to a free Europe, trading freely with free countries in the Far and Middle East, Africa and South America. Ask yourself how you happen to be honored, without hearing their many silent voices, by those who lie quiet in places like Arlington and Normandy, Anzio and Lorraine, Belgium to Manila, who died to make all this possible.
Ask yourself what you can do to honor those who honored you. And if, by some odd chance, you are tied to Congress, ask someone near you – as you read this – if they have ever heard of the “Office of Strategic Services.” In fact, whether you are in Washington or a thousand of miles from the US Capitol, ask a nearby person if they have ever heard of the “OSS.”
Why? Because this small group of aging Americans – perhaps a hundred left – are among the bravest, most selfless and daring, accomplished and important veterans that this Nation has ever fielded. While much of their work behind enemy lines remains classified, the OSS came to life in 1942, brainchild of William “Wild Bill” Donovan, soldier, diplomat, lawyer, intelligence officer, visionary.
In founding the OSS, Donovan – and that brave first generation of OSS operators – formed the basis for what are today’s Central Intelligence Agency, United States Navy SEALs, Special Operations and service intelligence professionals. Among the elite first generation are names you would recognize, and those you will never know, who by choice and circumstance are known only to God and the few OSS members who remain.
What OSS names might you recognize? Who came out from the shadows years later, having done extraordinary things in World War II? Among those names, actor Sterling Hayden, famous for his roles in Dr. Strangelove, The Godfather and The Long Goodbye. Hayden was a real life hero – a man who reached beyond himself, at great personal risk and cost, to do what even he thought he could not, for a country he loved. He sailed supplies through enemy lines from Italy to Yugoslavia, parachuted into fascist Croatia, was a key part of the Naples-Foggia campaign, rescued air crews in seemingly impossible missions deep into enemy territory, received the Silver Cross and Bronze Arrowhead. He was one of the originals.
To that name, add others – film director John Ford, baseball player Moe Berg, renowned chef Julia Child, future CIA Director William Casey. Their missions, like Hayden’s and thousands of others, were defiant and defined by inordinate courage, resolve to prevail against insurmountable odds, and something simpler –love of country. None of them had to go, but all did; there was no assurance they would get back, and many did not.
So, now we come to today. Recently, I sat at a quiet dinner with William Casey’s daughter, who had watched her father serve our Nation’s unbending principles, and led many of those to whom we owe a debt neither you nor I will ever repay. I listened as she told me about how her father taught her to ride horses, was game for anything, and was a great dad. This was a man who also risked his everything for what he believed in, like his mentor and his OSS peers. Casey went on to become Ronald Reagan’s Campaign Manager, and then to head the CIA.
More stories than a library could hold, many that can never be told – all lived by men and women who asked nothing of us, nothing of those whom they saved. We have only to look back and remember, give thanks for their brave hearts, these daring, once-young Americans. They are among the special people who make possible your reading and mine, in our free country.
Just one last thing, but an important one. America may be divided at this moment, over things and along lines that will pass. We are united – or should be – in our gratitude for those who made our lives possible, and who kept them free. This small group, founding fathers and mothers of the current Intelligence Community and Special Operations, made inconceivable sacrifices – in silence.
We should no longer be silent about what they did. Volunteers for the OSS threw themselves into the teeth of the dragon, an unforgiving enemy, with no desire for recognition. Yet it is high time we recognized what they did. We cannot in good conscience fail to give them the salute they earned, those still alive and among us.
So, the time is now for responsible action, since their time is short. The US Senate passed legislation awarding these selfless Americans the Congressional Gold Medal, but that same bill is hung up in the US House, apparently over a technicality. Please, let us act for those who did not let a technicality block their commitment to us. The bill has more than 300 sponsors in a 435-member House.
My guess is that President Obama and President-elect Trump would like to see this become law – now. Speaker Ryan, Congressman McCarthy, and Chairman Hensarling, is it not time to make peace and make this overdue Congressional Gold Medal for the OSS law? Can we not get this done in the lame-duck session? If not you, who? If not now, when? Many of these Americans will not later you’re your excuses, rhetoric and apologies. Nor did they default to excuses, rhetoric and apologies. So, let us do the right thing by the OSS, and the sooner the better… here in free America.
Robert Charles is a former US Navy Intelligence Officer, served in the Reagan and Bush 41 White Houses, led congressional oversight investigations of the Defense Department 1995-1999, is a former litigator and served as Assistant Secretary of State under George W Bush and Colin Powell. He writes widely on national security and legal issues.