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Sen. Shaheen awards World War II spy highest Congressional honor

Union Leader Correspondent

June 25. 2018 10:56PM
Congressional Gold Medal recipient Martin Gelb of Derry received a standing ovation for his service Monday. Behind Gelb, at left, is his daughter, Nancy Sag. (Ryan Lessard/Union Leader Correspondent)

DERRY — Martin Gelb, 98, of Derry was given the Congressional Gold Medal by Sen. Jeanne Shaheen at a town hall ceremony Monday morning for his service in World War II.

During the ceremony, an audience of about 100 people, many who are veterans, learned about the intelligence branch he served in, the Office of Strategic Services (OSS), and the kind of man he is.

Gelb sat in the front row with many of his family in attendance, with three generations represented. He has two children, five grandchildren and six great-grandchildren, according to his grandson Joshua Sag.

Author and family friend Bill Graser described Gelb as a “wise guy kid from Brooklyn” who was “not well suited for the military” at first given his tendency to get in trouble. Indeed, he was punished with KP duty (peeling potatoes, etc.) on several occasions in the Army before finishing his officer training and earning the rank of captain.

Gelb’s daughter, Nancy Sag, described him as “a left-handed man in a right-handed world.”

He was always technically savvy, she said. When he was seven or eight, he dismantled his family’s radio, much to the consternation of his mother. Gelb assured his mother at the time he would reassemble it, and he did.

After the war, he did something similar with his first personal computer, and taught himself computer programming. He continued with that hobby his whole life.

During the war, his tech savvy earned him a role in a small village in England, teaching new recruits there how to use spy equipment. He was also a field radio officer and communications officer.

U.S. Army Brig. Gen. Bill Conway represented the Army during the ceremony. He said the most unique part of Gelb’s service record was the clandestine nature of it. His membership of the OSS, the precursor to the CIA, was not declassified until 2008.

“I’m not sure he’s received much of that recognition because of the nature of his job,” Conway said.

After Allied forces stormed the beaches of Normandy, it was Gelb’s task to infiltrate behind enemy lines and make contact with French Resistance forces.

Once there, Conway said he conducted operations to disrupt German communications and troop movements by blowing up railways or blocking roads with felled trees. He would recruit new Resistance soldiers, and provide intelligence to Allied command through shortwave radio to England.

Conway said World War II veterans are becoming increasingly scarce, especially the “shadow warriors” like Gelb, who until now have not been recognized for their service.

“We’re in danger of forgetting their momentous achievement,” Conway said.

Shaheen said there were more than 13,000 veterans who were members of the OSS; there are only about 100 left. Gelb is the only remaining New Hampshire veteran from the OSS that Shaheen’s office is aware of.

Shaheen said she’s performed many medal ceremonies for World War II vets, but this is the first one for an OSS member.

Near the end of the ceremony, after Shaheen handed Gelb a gold medallion with the letters “OSS” molded into it, Gelb fielded questions from the crowd.

When asked what his reaction was to the event, Gelb said, “I’m speechless. I’m overwhelmed. I don’t believe it.”

His daughter, Nancy Sag, said he’s always been humble, and before the ceremony would say he didn’t understand what the big deal was. Gelb said he often thinks of his lifelong friends from his service, all of whom are gone now.

“This occasion has opened up a lot of memories I had stored in my mind,” he said.

Many of Gelb’s memories of his service are recorded in Graser’s book, “Veterans’ Reflections: History Preserved”.

CIA historian Brent Geary read a brief history of the OSS to the audience. He said before the OSS was formed by President Franklin Roosevelt, American intelligence was amateurish and organizationally fragmented.

It became a de facto fourth arm of the military and produced most of the Allied intelligence during the war. The OSS was disbanded by President Harry Truman but it laid the foundation for the CIA.

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