McLEAN, Va. – Spies don't work for fame or acclaim. But after 75 years, the men and women who served behind the enemy lines in Nazi Germany and the Pacific theater during World War II wouldn't mind some recognition.
Legislation to award the spies the Congressional Gold Medal has passed the Senate and has more than 300 sponsors in the House, yet the bill is being held up by House Republicans, who recently enacted rules that require a special waiver to grant the medal to groups of people.
"I would be extremely proud to get a gold medal for what we did for our country," said Frank Gleason, 96, one of the few remaining veterans of the Office of Strategic Services, the World War II-era forerunner to the CIA. "What we did was a little exciting."
The holdup frustrates a group of veterans whose numbers continue to dwindle as time marches on.
"We're all in our mid 90s," said Irv Refkin, 95, who was recruited by OSS because of his German language abilities, which he used to gather intelligence. "We're not going to be here that long."
Refkin, of Hillcrest, California, said he called the office of House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy, R-California, to lobby for the bill, and talked to "some kid intern."
"I asked him, did he know what OSS was? He didn't know. People haven't heard of us," Refkin said.
Of course, the nature of spy craft is secretive, so for many years the stories of the OSS were classified. It was formed in 1942 and at one point employed almost 13,000 men and women, recruited from all branches of the military. Famous members include actor Sterling Hayden and director John Ford, baseball player Mo Berg, chef Julia Child, future CIA director William Casey.
Estimates of how many OSS members are still alive range from a few dozen to 100.
Refkin recalled a mission to Germany where he had to gain intelligence on the Nazis' plans for defending against what ultimately became the D-Day invasion. Refkin, dressed as a German corporal, rode the train behind enemy lines with forged documents. He posed as an office cleaner at German headquarters in Hamburg.
"Nobody looked at a corporal. You carry a garbage bag, put some smelly stuff in it, and they waive you right through," Refkin said. "Nobody pays any attention to the guy emptying the ashtrays."
Gleason's group was tasked with halting the Japanese advance into China. Gleason, who grew up in Pennsylvania coal country and knew about explosives, helped detonate bridges, railroad tracks and anything else.
"We just blew stuff up left and right," he said.
Patrick O'Donnell, a military historian who has written several books on OSS missions, said he has interviewed hundreds of members. They tell stories that sound almost implausible, and when he verifies them in old mission reports, "You find out that it's completely understated."
O'Donnell said the CIA traces its beginnings to the OSS, and the Navy Seals have their roots in the OSS' Maritime Unit.
"They changed the face of World War II," he said. "You'd be very hard pressed to find a smaller group of individuals who made such a profound difference in the history of modern American warfare."
The recognition being sought, the Congressional Gold Medal, has been awarded to several World War II-era units in recent years, including the Native American Code Talkers, the Doolittle Tokyo Raiders and World War II members of the Civil Air Patrol.
Perhaps in response, the House Republican Conference enacted a rule that prevents awarding the Gold Medal to groups of people, unless House leadership grants a waiver. A spokeswoman for the House Republican Conference did not return a call and email seeking comment on the rule. McCarthy and House Speaker Paul Ryan's office also declined comment.
Since the new rule, a waiver has been granted at least once, to the civil rights marchers in Selma, Alabama, in 1965.
Sen. Mark Warner, a Virginia Democrat, helped sponsor legislation in the Senate. He said he never anticipated that there would be any resistance.
"It just shouldn't be this hard," Warner said.
The House sponsor, Rep. Robert Latta, R-Ohio, is working on a rule change that will allow the bill to be brought to the full House this session, said his spokesman, Drew Griffin.
The House recessed this week without passing the bill. Hopes for passage now rest on pushing the bill through during the lame-duck session after the election. If that doesn't happen, the whole process has to start again in the next Congress.
Charles Pinck, president of the Falls Church-based OSS Society, can't believe the House has balked at the recognition.
"The OSS had to fight for its creation. It had to fight for its existence. It fought the Nazis and the Imperial Japanese Army," he said. "Now it has to fight to be recognized. If there's one thing the OSS knows how to do, it's fight."