She worked behind enemy lines—and was captured by the Soviets. But the U.S. never properly gave her full credit for her heroism. After seven decades, that may be about to change.
Capt. Stephanie Czech arrived at the U.S. embassy in Berlin wearing civilian clothes, as always, and delivered the report she’d been carrying to the intelligence section. The war may have ended, but Czech was still working, undercover.
Berlin was not her home base. Czech had arrived in Poland in October 1945, and spent the next four months driving around the countryside. She claimed to be a clerk at the U.S. embassy in Warsaw, searching for distant relatives in her spare time. In fact, Czech was an officer in the Women’s Army Corps and one of only two members of the Office of Strategic Services stationed in the country.
The OSS, the precursor to the contemporary CIA, was America’s first central intelligence service, and only three years old. Its recruits weren’t working from an espionage playbook, they were writing it as they went. The OSS founder, Gen. William Donovan, called the carefully selected members of his new tribe his “glorious amateurs,” men and women who were educated, who spoke languages fluently, and might never have imagined a wartime career, much less a clandestine one. Donovan would later credit the OSS amateurs with “some of the bravest acts of the war,” though most of their exploits were never told.
Czech, a Cornell graduate, the child of immigrants, and who spoke Polish fluently, was a natural candidate for the budding spy service. She went to work for the counterintelligence section, known as X2, which was so secretive that some who served in the group didn’t even know its name.
Czech roamed the Polish countryside, spying on Soviet troop movements and gathering information on their own intelligence services. In post-Nazi Europe, the Americans and the Soviets, once ostensible allies, were now rivals in the nascent days of the Cold War, each trying to outwit and out-position the other.
The 30-year-old captain blended easily into Polish society. But she worked, and lived, under constant fear of arrest by the Soviets, who were rounding up people with information on the Americans’ post-war plans. Only a few weeks earlier, the American naval attaché had gone missing in southern Poland, where Czech had also spied, and hadn’t been heard from since.
Wearing a military uniform would have given Czech some measure of reassurance that, were she ever captured, she’d be returned to the Americans. But a spy caught traveling in civilian clothes was as good as gone. The Soviets would have no incentive to alert the Americans to her capture. The Americans might well disavow any knowledge of a woman spy counting Soviet tanks and troop divisions.
So it was understandable that Czech’s heart sank when, while stopping off at the OSS operations headquarters at the Berlin embassy for what she thought was a brief visit, she learned of her next assignment.
The chief of mission in Berlin had classified documents he needed hand-delivered at once to the embassy in Warsaw. It wasn’t Czech’s job to know what was in the documents. But she knew that if the Soviets stopped her and found she was carrying classified U.S. government intelligence, they would immediately conclude she was a spy. Czech had already gotten word that the Soviets might have penetrated her cover. She’d been so cautious about her spy work that she refused to tell even her friends in Warsaw what she really did, fearful someone she trusted might be working for Moscow.
“I don’t want to carry that stuff!” Czech said when the documents were presented to her, as if they were toxic.
But there was no one else going to Warsaw. Either she took the documents, or they stayed in Berlin.
It had been like this for months in Poland: Czech, the only person for the essential job at hand, had to go where others couldn’t. Of the two OSS operatives in the country, she was the only one who spoke the language. Probably most of what U.S. intelligence knew about Soviet movements in Poland at the time came from Czech’s eyewitness reports and her network of sources. No wonder Berlin station thought she could handle this courier task.
Most of what U.S. intelligence knew about Soviet movements in Poland at the time came from her reports. But as she approached the checkpoint, and saw the Soviet security agents, she knew this could be her last mission.
But as she approached the checkpoint, and saw the Soviet security agents, Czech knew this could be her last mission.
She couldn’t run. They’d chase her. She couldn’t keep the documents hidden under her clothes. They’d find them. And when they did, Czech was certain she’d be bound for the gulag.
Czech kept walking toward the border crossing, her eyes on the Soviets agents. She calmly took out the papers, and turned to the man walking next to her, someone she was confident would alert no suspicion. “Take these,” she said, handing him the documents bound for Warsaw. She gave a name to whom they should be delivered.
As Czech feared, she was detained. But when the Soviets found no incriminating evidence, they had no grounds to keep her. She walked free, and as far as she knew, the secret papers that had nearly sealed her fate her were safely en route to the embassy.
For almost 70 years, Czech, now Rader, seems to have kept that story a secret. Along with this epilogue: Her senior OSS officers were so impressed with what one described as Czech’s “unusual coolness and clear thinking” that they recommended the War Department give her the Legion of Merit, a high honor that recognizes “exceptionally meritorious” work.
As she recalled being arrested, her voice tensed. She sounded short of breath, as if she were reliving the moment. “I said, ‘Oh, my God.’ The Russians said they were on our side, but it was very cagey. You were afraid somebody was going to whisk you off to Siberia.”
The recommendation, which was sitting in a classified personnel file until only a few years ago, praises Rader not just for that risky border crossing, but for the months of dangerous work she performed in Poland, where, it notes, female employees were generally prohibited from working because “the living conditions were not suitable…”
That Rader would be put off by less than comfortable lodgings seems laughable considering she was prepared to disappear into a Soviet prison. There was something else about her, more than her fluency with Polish, that impressed the men around her and inspired their unqualified confidence. Her “outstanding qualifications were such, that the American Ambassador himself concurred and indorsed [sic] her assignment,” the recommendation for her medal reads.
Since she was the only OSS member who spoke Polish, “it was necessary…that she undertake all direct contacts with the Polish speaking individuals.” In other words, the OSS’s burgeoning spy network in Poland—a country that would figure centrally in the decades of spy games to come—was being built by Rader.
Rader was among the first Americans into several remote towns in Poland, obtaining firsthand information on the Soviets and the Polish security police “where the American Embassy had no channel of information.”
Rader actually found distant relatives while on her mission, and spent time visiting with them. But then she got back to work. She was never caught. She was never wounded. The OSS later determined that prior to being stopped at the border crossing, her cover had been blown “through no fault of her own.”
For all her work, on October 10,1946, the OSS Chief of Secret Intelligence approved Rader’s recommendation for the Legion of Merit.
She never got it. Only as Rader approached her 100th birthday did a group of friends and neighbors discover that the gentle, quiet woman who they took out for dinners or to doctors appointments was one of the most heralded American intelligence officers in post-war Poland. And once they knew that, they had a mission of their own: Get Rader her award.
When Rader was first put up for the Legion of Merit, she had two strikes against her.
First, she was a member of the OSS. The U.S. had no professional, dedicated intelligence corps, and the exploits of Rader and her colleagues were not always comparable to a soldier or a fighter pilot’s. There were outsiders. Exotics. And the OSS didn’t have nearly the bureaucratic clout then of the organization to which it gave rise—the Central Intelligence Agency.
Second, Rader was a woman. While the first American recipient of the Legion of Merit, which was historically given to foreign officers, was a woman, the honor roll is overwhelmingly filled by men. One of the honorees, Brig. Gen. William S. Rader, a storied bomber commander who survived being shot down over the Pacific and led one of the most famous raids into Nazi Germany, was Stephanie Rader’s husband for 57 years. He died in 2003.
Rader had some big fans during her service with the OSS, for which she was selected from a highly competitive group of fellow soldiers—men and women. But they weren’t particularly adept at writing award recommendations. One request, by one of Rader’s superiors, was turned back “for considerable further information”—the nominator had failed to convey the daring and the risk of Rader’s actions, both at the border crossing and throughout her time in Poland, and had more or less just said she was very brave and good at her job.
In a written response to the nomination, dated June 7, 1946, a captain who worked on awards cases suggested that Rader might be more cut out for the Bronze Star, a lesser honor that ranks just above the Purple Heart. (The Legion of Merit is sixth in the order of precedence of U.S. military awards and ranks above the Distinguished Flying Cross and two below the Silver Star, which is awarded for “gallantry in action.” It’s also one of two military awards designed to be worn around the neck. The other is the Medal of Honor, the highest military award of all.)
A back and forth ensued, with Rader’s supporters in the OSS pushing for the maximal recognition.
Four months after she was provisionally turned down for the Legion of Merit, a fuller and more detailed account of the border-crossing mission was sent to the War Department. And according to records in Rader’s file, which her friends shared with me, it was approved at the highest levels of U.S. intelligence.
But the War Department rejected the nomination again, and, in a letter to Czech in February 1947, said she would receive the Army Commendation Ribbon, a mid-level award that ranks below the Bronze Star. (It’s now known as the Army Commendation Medal.)
For Czech’s advocates, it would have been a stinging rebuke. The woman they thought deserved a hero’s accolade had essentially received an “attagirl!”
If this irked Rader, she seems to have kept her feelings to herself. Her personnel file wasn’t declassified until 2008. And Rader’s friends didn’t learn until some years later that she’d been recommended for an award. A friend, Ken Elder, had contacted the OSS Society, a charitable organization that honors the historic accomplishments of the OSS and its successor organizations, the CIA and the U.S. Special Operations Command, thinking Rader might have some items she’d like to donate. Charles Pinck, the group’s president, pulled her file and found the series of awards letters.
Pinck and Rader’s friends aimed to do finish her bosses had started. They called the staff of Sen. Mark Warner of Virginia, where Rader lives, and asked that he examine her case. Under U.S. law, the senator can recommend that the military bestow the Legion of Merit. All that’s left to document is that the officers who were in Rader’s chain of command are dead.
Rader’s friends told me that they’re very close to getting the forms in order. Seven decades later, her case is hung up on paperwork. The beast of military bureaucracy is not easily slain.
Rader may soon be able to wear the Legion of Merit around her neck. But time is not her ally. Rader suffers from Parkinson’s disease and is mostly unable to speak. (She can sing, though, her friend Mike Golden told me. Some Parkinson’s sufferers find that while the disease robs them of speech, the part of the brain that lets them carry a tune is not affected.)
I met Rader in November at the OSS Society’s annual gala, where her friends had bought a table. It’s a boisterous evening, full of speeches and awards, meant to honor the legacy of America’s first spy service. Rader was essentially incommunicative, so I couldn’t ask her, “What do you make of all this fuss about the Legion of Merit?”
Three years earlier, the society had given Rader an award for her intelligence work. She could still speak then, but in a video interview never mentioned the dispute over the award.
Like so many World War II veterans, Rader was at turns modest about her service and clearly shaken by her experience. She recalled her bosses ordering her to take the secret documents across the Polish border. “I don’t want to carry that stuff!” she told them. She knew how dangerous they were, and had feared the Soviets were on to her.
As she recalled being arrested, her voice tensed. She sounded short of breath, as if she were reliving the moment. “I said, ‘Oh, my God.’ The Russians said they were on our side, but it was very cagey. You were afraid somebody was going to pick something up on you and then whisk you off to Siberia.”
“I lost a lot of friends,” Rader continued. “They’d take them away and you’d never see them again.”
Golden had been with Rader for the interview. “She broke down in quiet tears and we took a break,” he told me.
Maybe the award wasn’t so important to Rader. Many others had suffered more than her in the war. Many hadn’t made it back. Maybe she just wanted to forget all about those days.
“Stephanie was always modest about her achievements, feeling that she did what had to be done,” Golden told me. “It is my sense that she personally was never focused on not receiving the Legion of Merit.”
If you’ve had a WWII veteran in your life, you know it’s not unusual for their children, or their grandchildren, to try to rekindle a flame that has long since burned out. I spent years looking for my grandfather’s service records—he was a cargo pilot who flew in Europe and South America, and died two years before I was born. My grandmother always seemed mystified by my relentless search.
“You have to understand,” she told me, “when he came back, he just wanted to forget about the war and get on his with life. They all did.” He had told her almost nothing of his time in the service.
So many of our own sacrifices and achievements pale when compared to the Greatest Generation’s. Maybe that’s why we seek out their stories and celebrate them. We crave recognition in our own right, and can’t imagine they wouldn’t want the same.
“We may in some respect be motivated by her own modesty regarding her OSS service, to pursue the recognition she was so wrongly denied,” Golden acknowledged.
When I met Rader at the gala, she was surrounded by the people closest to her—Golden, Elder, their wives, and other friends and neighbors. Rader and her husband had no children of their own, so these people had become her adopted family. They spoke on her behalf her, recounting her experiences in the OSS, the risky crossing at the border. And they told me about their mission to get the Legion of Merit.
Rader seemed exhausted. Did she really want to be here? The loud, overflowing ballroom would strain even the youngest nerves. But was this, all of this, just too much? She was staring down at the table. Nearly motionless.
“Would you like to meet her?” Golden asked me.
We walked around the table, and Golden pulled out Rader’s wheelchair and turned her toward me. I knelt down beside her and tried to speak loudly without screaming. Her face was turned down, her body stopped, her eyes lost in the middle distance. Figuring this was neither the time nor place to attempt a conversation, I placed my hand on her arm and said, “Thank you for what you did for the country.” I immediately felt foolish. How many times must she have heard that? Could she hear me at all?
Rader picked up her head, just a few inches, and turned her eyes to meet mine. She locked me in a stare, and held it.
U.S. law states that the Legion of Merit may be awarded to any member of the U.S. armed forces who “has distinguished himself by exceptionally meritorious conduct in performing outstanding services.” That’s a broad, and subjective, description. Rader’s conduct was undoubtedly “meritorious.” Was it “exceptionally” so?
To a certain extent, you have to defer to Rader’s peers to answer that. The men who served with her certainly thought so. The War Department thought otherwise. The award was only established in 1942. The letters in her file suggest the military was careful not to hand out this new honor too easily.
What’s clear, though, is that in hindsight many people, including a U.S. senator, do think Rader performed exceptionally. Nothing in the law says the military can’t reconsider Rader’s case and conclude, this time around, that she really did meet the criteria.
“Stephanie Rader emblemizes the important and unheralded role that women have played in the United States intelligence community since its inception,” Pinck, the head of the OSS Society, told me. “Despite being nominated for the Legion of Merit, her bravery was never acknowledged. There is no doubt that she met the criteria for this award ‘by exceptionally meritorious conduct in the performance of outstanding services.’”
Yet with time, the spirit of the award has changed. There is a decent chance Rader will receive the Legion of Merit posthumously. And even if she earns it before she dies, it will have longer-lasting meaning for Golden, Elder, and her other friends. That’s not to say they want the award for themselves. But what began 70 years ago as an act of recognition, by Rader’s OSS colleagues, has become an act of devotion, by the men and women who will outlive her.
There is another reason, though, to finally give Rader her due. Awarding her the Legion of Merit would be an act of professional redemption.
The Army Commendation Ribbon, the consolation prize that Rader received in 1947, undermines the significance of what she did in the war. At the time the ribbon was established, it was meant for “meritorious service” rendered “not in sustained operational activities against an enemy nor in direct support of such operation.”
Rader hadn’t been working against the Nazis, but her work spying on the Soviets was certainly “operational.” Try telling her, or her friends who disappeared, otherwise.
Also, by downgrading Rader’s award, the War Department created the impression that the contributions of spies—and particularly women—were less significant or worthy of note than uniformed soldiers’. It would arguably have been better to just give her the Bronze Star. But to take her down several more notches seems punitive.
Curiously, the final written citation that accompanied Rader’s Army Commendation Ribbon credits her with “exceptionally meritorious conduct.” Did the citation’s author add that adverb, “exceptionally,” as a dig at the Army brass? A subtle thumbs up to Rader? “I know that you did, even if they won’t say it?”
We’ll probably never know. But as I searched for clues about how this now-silent woman would want to be remembered, I recalled the recent OSS gala. From the podium, Pinck singled Rader out, noting that she had just celebrated her birthday, and said he hoped her friends would soon be able to get her the award that she was denied 70 years earlier.
It was the first that most in the audience had heard of the dispute, and they jumped to their feet in applause, urging her on.
I looked at Rader, sitting in her wheelchair. A friend helped to raise her arm, as if to wave to the crowd. But then Rader, of her own accord, drew her fingers together and made what looked like a fist. Ever so slightly, she pumped it in the air.