GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. (WOOD) — A veteran from West Michigan and those he served with in a special World War II intelligence agency will soon be awarded our nation’s highest civilian honor.
More than 70 years ago, Keith Cole was stationed in England during World War II and assigned to the Office of Strategic Services, or OSS. He worked specifically with the agency’s air arm — the 492nd Bomb Group — known as ‘Carpetbaggers.’
Cole was an engineer and also a dispatcher in the unit, which flew under moonlit skies into enemy territory to carry out covert operations.
“It was our job to drop OSS spies and saboteurs,” Cole, a longtime Grand Rapids resident who moved to Florida after retiring, said during a FaceTime interview Monday. “And another part of our mission was to drop supplies to the resistance forces, as well as going in and retrieving some of our guys that got in to difficulty.”
The agency, which as a whole was made up of thousands of civilians and military members, operated in secrecy. It is the predecessor to the modern-day CIA.
“We were not allowed to talk to the OSS agents. They were not allowed to talk to us,” Cole explained. “And we were never allowed to talk outside of the base to anybody about what we were doing.”
It wasn’t until decades later, in the 1980s, that Cole was finally able to discuss their missions. It wasn’t until even later that the OSS starting getting the recognition it deserved.
In late 2016, a law (PDF) was created to strike a single Congressional Gold Medal to collectively honor the members of the OSS. U.S. Rep. Bill Huizenga, R-Zeeland, was among those who spoke in support of the agency that was once shrouded by secrecy.
“One thing is not secret: We owe these men and women an enormous debt of gratitude,” Huizenga said in late 2016 while advocating for the then-proposed legislation. “Not only for their work during the war, but for the groundwork they laid for what is clearly the best intelligence service in the world today.”
“I feel very, very humbled about it because we were just doing our job during the war and nothing sensational,” Cole said. “And now all of the sudden we’ve been singled out for the Congressional Gold Medal and it’s very, very inspiring.”
Cole and living members of the OSS have already received the Legion of Honour, the highest civilian distinction in France.
The Congressional Gold Medal ceremony will be held March 21 at Emancipation Hall in Washington, D.C. Cole plans to bring his family to the ceremony.
It’s unclear how many OSS members will be in D.C. for the ceremony. Thousands of civilian members and military members made up the OSS, but most have since passed away. Cole, who is 93 years old, said there are only nine living members of the 492nd Bomb Group.
Members of the OSS will be allowed to receive duplicates of the medal in bronze.