Long before the emergence of the CIA and other Cold War spy agencies, a small-but-daring group of Americans became the country’s invisible eyes and ears, helping defeat the Axis powers of WWII.

Now, almost 70 years later, descendants and other supporters of the members of the Office of Strategic Services are asking Congress to award them the Congressional Gold Medal, the highest civilian honor.

The agency was formed in 1942 to coordinate U.S. Armed Forces espionage activity and was the predecessor to America’s intelligence and special-operations communities. It was founded and led by Gen. William "Wild Bill" Donovan, whom President Roosevelt called his "secret legs."

Among the other members were actor and Marine Sterling Hayden; famed chef Julia Child; Ralph Bunche, the first African American to receive the Nobel Peace Prize; fashion designer John Weitz; and eventual CIA Director William Casey.

Donovan vehemently disagreed with Hitler’s assertion that America's racial diversity was its greatest weakness, arguing no other country in the world had more citizens with knowledge of its friends and foes.

In a farewell address, Donovan described his group as “an unusual but ultimately successful experiment” on whether Americans of varying ability, race, temperament and talent could outwit their enemies’ longer-established and better-trained spy agencies.

The House and Senate already have legislation to authorize the awarding of the congressional medal.

On Monday, the effort got a boost from former Defense Secretaries Robert Gates and Leon Panetta, who asked Capitol Hill lawmakers for their support.

“Congress will remind Americans that our intelligence and special-operations communities were created by the ‘greatest generation,’ ” they wrote. “There is little time left to honor the few surviving OSS veterans. We would be very grateful if you would become a cosponsor.”

One medal would go collectively to the hundreds who worked for the spy agency during its brief existence, from 1942 to 1945, with each individual able to get a replica medal.

The effort is being led by the nonprofit group the Office of Strategic Services Society.

That group is run by Charles Pinck, son of Dan Pinck, who joined the spy agency as a 19-year-old and whose memoir “Journey to Peking: A Secret Agent in Wartime China” chronicles how his covert efforts in war-ravaged China provided critical information for Allied forces.

Pinck on Monday recalled his favorite story from his father.

“He had a hand-cranked radio when fighting Japan alongside Chinese Nationalists, whom he would tell he was talking directly to President Roosevelt.”