GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. (WOOD) — The Congressional Gold Medal has been awarded to members of the Office of Strategic Services, an intelligence agency that operated during World War II and preceded the CIA.
Speaker of the House Paul Ryan presented the medal, the highest civilian honor Congress can bestow, "on behalf of a very grateful nation" in a Wednesday ceremony at Emancipation Hall in Washington, D.C.
>>Watch live: The medal presentation ceremony
Two West Michigan men who were OSS members and their families were at the ceremony:
- Ellsworth “Al” Johnson, 95, who lives in Hudsonville. Johnson worked as a spy for the OSS during World War II. He worked with the French Resistance and was part of covert operations in Germany and China.
- Keith Cole, 93. Cole was an engineer and dispatcher for the agency's air arm, the 492nd Bomb Group. He lived in Grand Rapids for years before moving to Florida following his retirement.
In late 2016, a law (PDF) was created to strike a single Congressional Gold Medal to collectively honor the thousands of civilians and military members of the OSS.
One former member who spoke Wednesday said estimates put the number of surviving OSS members around 100. Around 20 of them were at the ceremony.
The OSS was an agency of analysts, spies, saboteurs, pilots and dramatic, dangerous covert operations around the world. Lawmakers who spoke noted the agency was instrumental in intelligence gathering leading up to the invasion at Normandy on D-Day. Its missions, lawmakers said, were often larger than life.
"Nothing like this has ever been tried before … and it worked. It worked brilliantly," Speaker Ryan said. "The OSS may seem like something out of the movies — and yes, as you have heard, some of its members were — but there are certain roles that only history can cast. What else could have brought together such far-fetched ideas and so many far-flung people?"
U.S. Sen. Angus S. King Jr., I-Maine, invoked former British Prime Minister Winston Churchill's words about the Royal Air Force in reference to the OSS: "Rarely in human history have so many owed so much to so few."
He offered all of them, living and dead, "profound and sincere thanks."
OSS members will be allowed to receive duplicates of the Congressional Gold Medal in bronze.
They were previously awarded the Legion of Honour, the highest civilian distinction in France.