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Glorious Amateurs: The Spies of World War II’s OSS Celebrate a Birthday

WOODSTOCK, Va. — The orders were marked "Top Secret." The mission for Army Lieutenant John Billings — fly three U.S. spies over Nazi-held territory so they could drop by parachute into the Austrian Alps. The winds were fierce enough to send his plane into the mountainside.

"They had told us that the wind was probably going to be exceeding 200 miles an hour," he said.

British pilots had refused to go. Not Billings.

"I'd fly anyplace," he said.

Honoring America's bravest: WWII veteran shares his daring mission 2:23

Now 93, Billings is one of the few surviving veterans of the Office of Strategic Services, the World War II-era spy agency that gave birth to the modern CIA. He vividly recalls his role in what became one of the most successful covert operations against the Nazis. The mission would later be fictionalized in the 2009 movie, "Inglourious Basterds."

Image: John Billings
John Billings was a pilot for the OSS, the forerunner of the CIA. Courtesy John Billings

Nicknamed the Glorious Amateurs, the OSS employed once and future celebrities, including Hollywood actress Marlene Dietrich, celebrity chef Julia Child — and four future CIA directors. At its peak, the OSS deployed more than 13,000 operatives, a third of them women.

In addition to being the forerunner of the CIA, the OSS was also the progenitor of the military's special operations branches, including the Army Green Berets and the Navy SEALs. The man who invented SCUBA gear worked for the OSS.

Billings traveled to Washington in June to help celebrate the OSS's 75th anniversary. There he met CIA Director Mike Pompeo in an historic State Department office once occupied by the OSS founder, William "Wild Bill" Donovan.

Image: The B-24 flown by John Billings during Operation Greenup
A B-24 like the one flown by John Billings during Operation Greenup. Courtesy OSS Society

"I have heard the tales of daring," Pompeo told Billings as the men shook hands. "Thank you for your service to the country."

Sitting down with NBC News, Pompeo said the spirit of the OSS animates the CIA.

"The targets are different today, the technology is different today," he said, "but the mission — to go do the most difficult task on behalf of America's national security — remains the same."

A statue of Donavan stands at CIA headquarters in Virginia, and OSS personnel are represented among the stars on the lobby wall honoring fallen officers.

In 2016, after years of lobbying by the OSS Society, Congress awarded OSS veterans a Congressional Gold Medal.

Image: John Billings sits in front of his Cessna
John Billings sits in front of his Cessna. He is still flying at age 93. Courtesy John Billings

Billings was the pilot for what was known as Operation Greenup, a plan to drop three spies — two of them Jewish-Americans — into Austria in February 1945.

The nighttime flight, in a glossy black B-24 bomber, almost ended in disaster.

Related: Peek Inside the CIA's Museum

As he approached the drop zone, the high winds forced his plane into a gut-churning descent.

"We had lost 6,000 feet in 18 seconds," he said.

He managed to pull out of it by giving the B-24 more power than the manufacturer suggested was safe.

He dropped the spies safely on an Austrian glacier. They went on to gather vital intelligence that accelerated the Nazi surrender in Austria.

Image: William Donovan outside the OSS headquarters in Washington
Director of Office of Strategic Services William Donovan pins a medal on a soldier outside the OSS headquarters in Washington in 1945. Courtesy OSS Society

Billings later became friends with one of the operatives, Frederick Mayer, who died last year. Mayer, who headed a squad of U.S. spies that grew to include four Jewish immigrants, posed as a German officer and even took command of a unit of Nazi engineers. Captured and tortured by the Gestapo, he never cracked, surviving his captivity and even accepting the surrender of a large contingent of German troops.

The high-stakes operation inspired Quentin Tarantino's movie "Inglourious Basterds," a fantasy in which a team of American Jews kills Hitler.

Related: Don't Call Us Girls: Two Veteran Spies on Bombs, Forgery and Julia Child

The mission earned Billings a medal for heroism — the Distinguished Flying Cross. It's displayed on a wall in his Woodstock, Virginia, home.

Now a great grandfather, he retired in the 1980s from a long career as an Eastern Airlines pilot. But he's still flying his own Cessna, mainly on so-called "Angel Flights," volunteer missions to transport rural patients for medical treatment.

"At the end of the trip we get paid with big smiles and many times big hugs," Billings said.

Image: John Billings
John Billings in 1944. Courtesy John Billings

Pompeo says Billings is a living example of the grit and perseverance that drives today's American operatives.

"People like Mr. Billings are amazing," he said. "This history that Mr. Billings and those after him have built upon are at the very center of what the CIA does today."

As he watches the news, Billings sometimes wishes the country could take a page from the World War II generation.

Related: Sisterhood of Spies: Women Crack the Code at the CIA

"If we hadn't worked together, we would have lost," he said. "I think that's the worst thing going on now, if you don't belong to this, then you're wrong. And this one over here says the same thing!

"No, we don't want to do that. We've got to get together for a common cause."