Stephanie Rader, Heroic U.S. Spy at Dawn of Cold War, Dies at Age 100

A woman who risked capture for reporting on Soviet designs inside Poland after World War II was recommended for the Legion of Merit but denied. Now she may finally be honored.

01.21.16 6:34 PM ET

Stephanie Rader, a 100-year-old woman who worked as an undercover spy in Poland at the end of World War II, may still get the Legion of Merit that eluded her for nearly 70 years—but it will be a posthumous honor. Rader died Thursday, after fighting Parkinson’s disease, a family friend told me.

I wrote about Rader in a long profile last month. At the time, a group of neighborhood friends who were caring for her every day—taking Rader to doctors appointments, out to dinner, reading to her—had also taken up the cause of pushing through a Legion of Merit recommendation that was approved by Rader’s senior officers in 1946. The War Department, though, thought she should get a lesser award.

Rader perhaps had two strikes against her. First, she was a woman. Second, she was a member of the newly formed Office of Strategic Services, the United States’ first central intelligence service and the precursor to the CIA. The OSS didn’t have the clout of today’s spy agency. It seems that though her service was undeniably heroic, the military bureaucracy that decides who gets awards wasn’t on her side.

Rader, then Czech, was just one of two OSS members serving in Poland in 1945 and the only one who spoke Polish fluently. That meant she was given the most important assignments and the most dangerous ones. She monitored Russian troop movements and gathered information from a network of agents. In one harrowing operation, she evaded capture by Russian security forces, who, she was sure, would have sent her to a prison in Siberia, never to be heard from again.

Rader, like so many men and women of her generation, didn’t talk much about her wartime service. Her husband, a celebrated WWII aviator, went onto an illustrious career as an Air Force general and himself won the Legion of Merit. But Rader kept her story mostly to herself. One friend recently told me that he wondered if Rader thought many of the details of her work were still classified and that she shouldn't talk about it even seven decades later.

"When OSS founder General William Donovan said that OSS personnel performed ‘some of the bravest acts of the war,’ he must have had Major Stephanie Czech Rader in mind,” Charles Pinck, the president of the OSS Society, told me Thursday morning. The group throws an annual gala, where Czech was recently honored.

“Like many of those who served so heroically in the OSS...she was never properly recognized for her heroism during her lifetime. I hope the Army will award the Legion of Merit to her posthumously,” Pinck said.

And it looks like they just might. A spokeswoman for Sen. Mark Warner’s office told me that he “was terribly saddened to learn about Stephanie Rader’s passing. She was an exceptionally courageous American who served her country with honor and distinction, and he will continue to push for the recognition that she deserves.”

Though she won’t be here to see that award, I’m left thinking that Rader wanted it and believed she would get it. When I met her at the recent OSS gala, she was too frail to speak. But as Pinck recognized her from the podium, and the crowd of hundreds came to their feet to applaud her and urge her on in the medal campaign, Rader raised up her hand, with the help of a friend, and ever so slightly made the shape of a fist, pumping it in the air.