William Becker was 18 years old in 1945 during World War II when he became part of a crew that ran clandestine missions deep inside German-occupied territories.
Now 92, he was presented the Congressional Gold Medal on Wednesday, Aug. 1, the highest civilian honor bestowed by Congress.
The medallion was presented by Rep. Raul Ruiz, D-Palm Desert, at the American Legion Post in Hemet, where Becker resides.
WWII veteran, Sgt. William Becker, of Hemet, speaks on stage after receiving the Congressional Gold Medal during a ceremony at the Hemet American Legion Post 53 in Hemet on Wednesday, August 1, 2018. (Photo by Stan Lim, The Press-Enterprise/SCNG)
“Our country is forever indebted to you for your courage and service,” Ruiz said in presenting the medal.
The crew supported the Office of Strategic Services, a forerunner to the CIA and a top-secret agency that played a pivotal role in destabilizing Nazi Germany.
Becker, a sergeant and a gunner in the U.S. Army Air Corps, was part of an operation, codenamed Carpetbagger, whose mission was to fly into enemy lines in the black of night to parachute in agents, weapons, ammunition, explosives and other military supplies to resistance groups.
“Sgt. Becker and fellow OSS members risked their lives in service to this country,” Ruiz said.
Becker told the crowd that he was not allowed to speak about what he did until the 1980s.
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He said troops were taken to a room and asked if they were willing to participate in the campaign. The invitation came with a caveat.
“We were told ‘if you mention anything you heard here you will be taken back and shot,’” he said.
That secrecy remained after he left the service in 1946.
“I couldn’t say a word to my family,” Becker said. “We were sworn to secrecy.”
Becker’s daughter, Sandi Herman of Indio, said she and her two brothers wondered what their father did while in the Army.
“As kids, we would always ask our dad, ‘What did you do in the service,’ like other kids would, and he’d never tell us,” she said.
“It’s amazing. I’m so proud of him,” Herman said. “You can’t even imagine.”
Once the Carpetbaggers became unclassified, Becker became involved with alumni groups as reunion director, treasurer and newsletter editor of the 801st/492nd Bombardment Group Veterans Association.
“He’s a fulltime Carpetbagger,” said Jean Shelton, Becker’s companion of 13 years.
Becker said it is important to let people know what his squad accomplished.
“We gave the resistance the ammunition to stop the Germans,” he said. “We were told that if we didn’t do what we did, the war would have lasted another two years.”
Becker, a native New Yorker and one of fewer than 100 OSS members alive today, moved to Hemet in February from Menifee.
“Sgt. Becker is a walking embodiment of American values and heroism,” Ruiz said after the ceremony. “It was such an honor and a privilege to be able to share this honor with him.”
In July 2017, Don Simpson of Hemet was awarded the Silver Star for his service in Vietnam at the same Legion post.
The Silver Star — awarded for gallantry in action — is the third-highest military combat decoration that can be awarded to a member of the United States military.
Since the American Revolution, Congress has commissioned gold medals as its highest expression of national appreciation for distinguished achievements and contributions. Each medal honors a particular individual, institution, or event. Although the first recipients included citizens who participated in the American Revolution, the War of 1812 and the Mexican War, Congress broadened the scope of the medal to include actors, authors, entertainers, musicians, pioneers in aeronautics and space, explorers, lifesavers, notables in science and medicine, athletes, humanitarians, public servants, and foreign recipients.
George Washington was the first Congressional Gold Medal recipient, with other honorees including the Wright Brothers, Thomas Edison, Walt Disney, and the American Red Cross. On Dec. 14, 2016, Congress passed legislation awarding the Congressional Gold Medal to members of the Office of Strategic Services for their superior service and major contributions during World War II.