DERRY — His work in the military remained hidden for years due to its secretive nature, but now one local veteran is receiving recognition for his service in the U.S. Army as a member of the Office of Strategic Services (OSS) during World War II.
In a ceremony held Monday at the Derry Municipal Center, Capt. Martin Gelb was presented with the Congressional Gold Medal, awarded by U.S. Sen. Jeanne Shaheen (D-N.H.).
"Martin Gelb is an American hero and I'm honored to have the opportunity to stand with our community and his family to present him with this long overdue recognition for his service to our country," Shaheen said.
Gelb was part of a critical intelligence unit that shaped the course of World War II, Shaheen noted, saying that the veteran's service and sacrifice was kept secret for decades, adding it was only recently the level of Gelb's OSS service was known.
The OSS formed the framework of what became the nation's intelligence services, including the CIA.
"I am so thrilled that he is finally receiving the acknowledgement and commendation for his extraordinary service and I join with our community in thanking him for his bravery and service to the United States, and to the world," Shaheen said. "Martin Gelb is a true American hero."
Gelb, 99, was born in Brooklyn, New York and joined the Army at 22 as a tool inspector.
He then served in England, France, and behind enemy lines in Nazi Germany, serving as a field radio officer, communications officer and military intelligence officer and completed a myriad of missions including providing support to U.S. and British operations while also assisting with the liberation of the Buchenwald concentration camp, the largest of the Nazi camps that imprisoned about 250,000 people between 1937 and 1945.
OSS records were not declassified until 2008 and Gelb only recently began sharing his military stories about his missions with family and others.
Author and family friend Bill Graser said he first met Gelb at a Veterans Day event in Londonderry in 2011 and eventually interviewed him for a book that chronicles the lives and experiences of those who served.
Graser said it continues to be a pleasure knowing Gelb.
"It's such a privilege to be in this room with this man," Graser said.
CIA historian Brent Geary said the OSS began when President Franklin Roosevelt organized the military organization to support America after it entered World War II, with thousands of the specialized soldiers being integrated into combat theaters abroad.
After Roosevelt's death, President Harry Truman decided to focus on a more civilian department based on the OSS legacy.
"And the CIA thanks you (Mr. Gelb) for all you and your fellow OSS officers did to blaze that trail," Geary said.
Gelb said he was "speechless, ovewhelmed" and receiving the honor was unbelievable.
The humble soldier took a moment after the ceremony to answer questions from those attending, saying he wasn't sure why this was such a big deal, but to those in the room, it was.
Some just wanted a story.
"I could tell you the story, talk about bias, I believe I was the only guy who has ever been fired from a job for being left-handed," Gelb said.
He also said serving in the Army forged many great friendships.
Gelb also told a young Boy Scout in the audience that he, too, was a Scout.
"The strongest lesson I learned was how to be a good guy," Gelb said.
For Gelb, being honored and receiving the medal has brought back memories of his service — and he will never forgot those years.
"I think of them all the time," Gelb said. "This occasion has opened up a lot of memories stored in my mind which I chose to forget about. It brings up good and bad memories.
The Derry veteran loves America and said he did the job he was asked to do.
"I love the country we have and I don't care what anybody says, this is one great country," Gelb said. "We were called up, guys like me, to perform a task and we did the best we could."