Members of the intelligence and special operations communities celebrated the 75th anniversary of World War II’s Office of Strategic Services in a packed ballroom at Washington’s Ritz-Carlton for the 2017 Donovan Awards held Saturday.
“When presidents turn to CIA to try to achieve through covert action what can’t be achieved any other way, or when we dramatically expand our use of special operations, we say that ‘CIA has never looked more like the OSS,’ or ‘the OSS is back,’” said Michael G. Vickers, the recipient of the 2017 William J. Donovan Award, named for the service’s director.
“Well, the OSS should never have left! Covert action is a core mission of CIA,” said Vickers, whose strategy for American convert action in Afghanistan against the Soviet forces there was chronicled in the book and movie “Charlie Wilson’s War.” In the movie he was the weapons expert played by Christopher Denham.
From 2007 to 2011 as the first assistant secretary of defense for special operations, low-intensity conflict and independent capabilities. From 2011 to 2015, Vickers was the undersecretary of defense for intelligence.
Vickers was chosen for the award in recognition of his long career of clandestine service to the country that blended both legacies of the OSS, the espionage and covert military operations. He began his career as Special Forces weapons and engineer sergeant.
Later, Vickers was commissioned an Army officer and then joined the Central Intelligence Agency as a direct action officer, which began his career with the agency.
“The integration of special operations and intelligence, and indeed the partnership between DoD and CIA, is closer than ever,” Vickers said.
“We are our government’s eyes and ears and its principal action arms. We combine capabilities seamlessly to conduct operations, and we develop many of our most important capabilities jointly,” he said. “The OSS spearhead continues to point the way forward. General Donovan would be extraordinarily pleased with the enduring contribution he continues to make to the security of our great nation three-quarters of a century after the founding of the OSS.”
Charles T. Pinck, the president of the OSS Society said, “General William Donovan chose the spearhead as the OSS’ insignia because he intended it to be at the tip of the spear.”
Pinck, who is the son of OSS officer Dan Pinck, whose book Journey to Peking describes the secret agent’s exploits in Japanese-occupied China during the Second World War.
“CIA and U.S. Special Operations Command chose the spearhead as their insignias, too, to honor their organizations’ OSS roots,” Pinck said.
The OSS Society’s annual awards dinner is more than an awards dinner.
There is dancing, war stories and lots of drinking.
Because the OSS agents were known as Ph.D.’s who could win a bar fight in the mold of their “Wild Bill” founder, each place setting is graced with a commemorative medallion engraved with the year’s Donovan awardee and an OSS logo’s martini glass brimming with a cocktail.
On the stage, there is always a bar for the series of toasts made before dinner. The bar is an homage to the bar at the Paris Ritz Carlton that was liberated Aug. 25, 1944, by a cadre of OSS agents, French Resistance fighters led by Ernest Hemingway.
Normally, the cocktail is the Hemingway recipe for a very dry martini called “The Montgomery” after the English field marshal.
This year, to mark the 75th anniversary, Phillip Greene, author of the A Hemingway Cocktail Companion, first made a Vesper martini in honor of the young Royal Navy officer, who helped Donovan create the OSS, Ian Fleming. In Fleming’s first James Bond novel, Casino Royale, the Vesper is named for the book’s love interest, who turned out to be a double agent.
Standing at the bar on stage, Greene’s Vesper was made with 2 1/4 oz. Ford’s Gin, 3/4 0z. Aylesbury Duck Vodka and 3/8 oz. Lillet Blanc–shaken and served with a lemon peel.
Directing everyone’s attention to the martini glass filled with Champagne at each setting, Greene said that there were also bowls at every table with sugar cubes infused with his Vesper cocktail, which he directed everyone to plop into their glasses for the evening’s toasts.
The music for the night was provided by the Air Force band “The Airmen of Note,” who in their 1940s Army Air Force uniforms performed songs from the Glenn Miller songbook.
OSS veteran Gene Polinsky said he never dreamt that 75 years after the founding of the OSS, it would be celebrated and recognized as it is today.
Polinsky said he was a member of “The Carpetbaggers,” the Army Air Force unit that operated as the OSS’s own air force. Polinsky flew on missions over France and the Low Countries resupplying resistance fighters in those German-occupied lands.
“All I thought about was doing my job and my job was very, very different than this,” he said.
“It is overwhelming,” he said. “It is overwhelming because of the immense amount of power and people, who come here every year—it is staggering—we were just being simple guys.”
Polinsky said another part of the dinner is the chance to see people again and meet new people involved in the OSS or its legacy services, such as the OSS veteran he met at the dinner, who was one of the men in Antwerp he was supplying as a Carpetbagger.
Republican strategist and consultant Dana Hudson told Big League Politics that her father Army Capt. James Hudson was also a veteran of the OSS. “He served in Cairo as a photographic officer and he also served behind enemy lines in Albania.”
Hudson said her father was involved many dangerous missions.
“He captured and brought in Hanna Rietsch, who was Hitler’s favorite pilot and who was a top German helicopter and test pilot,” she said.
“We first came to this gala in 2009,” she said. “It was a really big deal. It was something my father had talked about doing for years. He was in a wheelchair by then, but we brought him and my mom was with us and my brother and sister-in-law. It was such an amazing night.”
Hudson said she has become active with the OSS Society herself and considers it both part of her family traditions and America’s traditions.
“Every year, I come to the event now, I think about that night,” she said. “My dad was here with several of his veteran friends and he was in a community he was so fond and got to remember those stories he never really talked about until the end of his life.”
In 2016, Congress voted to mint a Congressional Gold Medal honoring the OSS as the number of surviving 200 veterans continues to dwindle.
The OSS Society itself is developing the National Museum of Intelligence and Special Operations on land granted to it near Dulles Airport. The museum is designed to handle 100,000 visitors annually and will feature interactive exhibits, artifacts and research facilities.
The museum’s educational partner is Georgetown University’s Security Studies Program.
More information about the museum and how to make a contribution is available at: http://nationalintelligencemuseum.org.