Congressional Gold Medal Act
Female spies who risked their lives during World War II will be recognized with the 75th anniversary of the Office of Strategic Services (OSS), the precursor to the CIA. The OSS Congressional Gold Medal Act will honor around 100 brave individuals who are still alive with an award ceremony. Their bravery and ingenuity is displayed in The Brass Compass, a book being released on May 22, 2017 to coincide with the anniversary.
The Women of the OSS
Sabotage. Seduction. Couture dresses with hidden pockets. All were techniques and tools used by female spies recruited by the Office of Strategic Services (OSS) during World War II. These women were critical to Allied success and audiences have been thrilled by their exploits in novels and on the screen, yet their very real accomplishments have been ignored for generations.
This year the OSS, which was the precursor to the CIA, will celebrate its 75th anniversary. And thanks to the OSS Congressional Gold Medal Act, its agents will finally get the recognition they deserve. Just in time for that celebration The Brass Compass, a book set during WWII, will place one female spy in the spotlight.
The novel reveals the extreme dangers agents faced when Lily St. James parachutes behind enemy lines, destroys rail lines, and infiltrates a high-ranking Nazi household. The Brass Compass is the latest story to celebrate the uncompromising intelligence and composure displayed by real operatives. From Greta Garbo in the film “Mata Hari” to Stephanie Meyer’s modern novel The Chemist, audiences are riveted by the tough-and-tender ways women approach espionage. These fictions reflect reality. By allowing women to utilize their natural talents and their specialized training, the OSS preserved freedom worldwide.
The covert intelligence program didn’t exist before December 7, 1941. The surprise attack on Pearl Harbor spurred President Franklin D. Roosevelt to create one overarching espionage office, formalizing it on June 13, 1942. Scrambling to cobble together an effective system, the OSS recruited without prejudice. Race, religion, gender, or formal education had no impact on ability. Often the people who became field agents were bilingual. They might have spent time living abroad, which gave them a natural familiarity with overseas cultures. That’s how Lily St. James, the heroine of The Brass Compass, becomes an Allied spy. With a diplomat for a father, Lily grew up in various locations throughout Europe. She is therefore fluent in French and German, both of which are invaluable for an operative.
According to CIA historian Linda McCarthy, the war department knew that women excelled at infiltrating enemy networks and organizing resistance movements. Female agents became saboteurs, guerrilla warriors, mapmakers, propagandists, and communications technicians. In The Brass Compass, St. James calls on her training as well as her wits to fulfill a number of these roles. Like many of the agents who parachuted behind enemy lines in France, her life expectancy in the field is about six weeks.
Fortunately, OSS spies had a specially designed arsenal. They used single-shot Liberator pistols, button compasses, and escape maps printed on silk. Espionage equipment tailored for female spies included shoes with hollow heel compartments, codes embedded in compact mirrors, and suicide pills disguised in jewelry. St. James makes use of false documents, hidden compartments and a tiny matchbox style camera invented by the OSS. Even with this specialized equipment, she must be clever. While working as a nanny for a German officer, the tiniest slip might prove fatal. Eventually she is forced to flee with mini-film hidden in a hollow boot heel. Although exposure and fatigue cloud her judgement, she does what she must to survive, and when she stumbles across a dead pilot, St. James takes his Victory Colt pistol and the photo of his lover.
The pistol is a deadly weapon she will not hesitate to use. But she prefers flirtation and persuasion to wiggle out of tough spots, so the photo supports the story she concocts to evade enemy patrols. Seduction and evasion were used by “swallows,” female operatives who were astonishing effective. Betty Pack infiltrated the Vichy Embassy in Washington, DC, through seduction. There she secured the information needed for Operation Torch, the invasion of Vichy French North Africa.
Even though the women of the OSS performed admirably, they struggled against a society that didn’t offer much respect. Doris Bohrer, who analyzed aerial photos and selected troop drop sites, said, “Everyone else was Lieutenant So-and-So, or Captain This. We were The Girls.” Despite the lack of respect, the women of the OSS persevered. Nowadays, female operatives are widely valued. Tamir Pardo, head of Israel’s Mossad, said, “[W]omen’s abilities are superior to men in terms of understanding the territory, reading situations, [and] spatial awareness.” Lindsey Moran, a five-year CIA veteran, believes that the agency’s best-kept secret is that their most talented spies are women. Awareness and assessment are key to survival, and these skills have been valorized in many films and books like The Brass Compass.
On the 75th anniversary of the OSS, agents who risked their lives in WWII will finally receive the recognition they deserve. The program that spawned the CIA, the Navy Seals and the Special Forces will be lauded for the heroism and valor of its employees…whether they were men or women.
On June 13, 2017, the 75th Anniversary, Ellen Butler will be presenting—A Celebration of the OSS 75th Anniversary ~ Highlighting Women’s Contributions, Weapons, and Training—at the Freedom Museum in Manassas, Virginia.
Ellen Butler is an award-winning author whose grandfather was a WWII cryptographer. She is also a member of The OSS Society. The Brass Compass was inspired by the brave women who served in the OSS, the British Special Operations Executive organization, and the French Resistance. Butler will tour multiple states from April through July to present The Brass Compass and other books to readers.