A World War II veteran from Vermont received the highest award Congress can bestow upon a civilian.
Al Besser of Morrisville was praised for his dangerous duty overseas during the war, which included spy missions behind enemy lines.
“My wife’s done a lot of things, but she really pulled this one off,” Besser remarked, describing how his wife, Gretchen, kept the news of the honor a secret until Monday.
Besser received the elite Congressional Gold Medal, which other members of his WWII unit were also honored with.
The 94-year-old retired attorney was part of a unit called the Office of Strategic Services, or OSS. It was a precursor to the CIA.
He was still a teenager during the war when he volunteered for hazardous duty.
Besser’s language skills meant he was sent to Asia, to gather intelligence behind enemy lines and work with local forces in China to undermine Japan.
“I’m in awe,” Rep. Peter Welch, D-Vermont, said of Besser’s bravery during World War II.
Welch was part of an effort in Washington to have the OSS recognized collectively with a Congressional Gold Medal. The unit long went without fanfare, because of its secret work, the Democrat said.
Now, Besser is one of just a hundred or so surviving members, Welch noted and received a replica of the OSS’s collective medal for him and his family to keep.
“Today, Vermont was able to honor one of our great people,” the congressman told necn and NBC10 Boston.
“It brings back a lot of memories, and it makes me feel how very, very, very lucky I am to be here,” Al Besser said of the Congressional Gold Medal he and his unit received. “There were so many others who deserved honors—who were in much greater peril than I was.”
Besser’s honor was met with a standing ovation inside Montpelier City Hall, from friends and neighbors who gathered to celebrate his accomplishments.
“The way he’s received this honor is the real lesson—his humility,” observed Rabbi David Fainsilber of the Jewish Community of Greater Stowe, which counts Besser as a member. “He sees his life as a blessing. And we are so indebted to his service.”
As a state and country said thank you, the former spy joked he will stay much more alert to any potential tricks his proud wife may try pulling on him.