For nearly six decades she was the wife of a famed military aviator. Nobody knew she was a hero in her own right, a spy who reported on Soviet troop movements from behind what came to be called the Iron Curtain.
Now Stephanie Czech Rader is finally being recognized for her work.
Rader received the Legion of Merit on Wednesday. It was awarded posthumously during funeral services with full military honors at Arlington National Cemetery. She died in January at the age of 100, a longtime resident of Alexandria and native of Poughkeepsie, New York.
The daughter of Polish immigrants, Rader’s fluent Polish caught the attention of the Office of Strategic Services, a forerunner of the CIA. The office recruited her and put her in Poland from October 1945 to February 1946.
She was employed as a clerk at the U.S. embassy in Warsaw, but her real job was to report on Soviet troop movements. She was offered a gun but she refused it, saying “What was I going to do with a dumb gun?” Carrying a gun, after all, could blow her cover.
In January 1946, Rader was carrying sensitive documents when she was arrested by Polish security, but she was able to dispose of the papers before she was taken into custody. She remained under 24-hour surveillance for the rest of her tour, Pinck said.
Her bosses recommended her for the Legion of Merit in 1946, but the recommendation was never acted upon. She went on to marry William S. Rader, a decorated World War II commander who became an Air Force brigadier general and himself received the Legion of Merit. They were married for 57 years when he died in 2003.
In 2008, when records of the OSS were declassified, the OSS Society and other historians learned of Rader’s work and began to lobby for her to receive the award. Last week the Army announced that Rader would receive the award posthumously.
For years her family knew nothing of her spy craft. Niece Kathy Roxby said she didn’t learn her aunt had been a spy until Rader’s 100th birthday, well after her service had been declassified.
But Rader wasn’t able to keep her secret from everyone. They became good friends with Ken and Judie Elder, often traveling together. Once, about 30 years ago, they traveled to Poland together, Ken Elder recalled Wednesday. As they toured the old town square in Warsaw, she told a story about Eisenhower touring the rubble in the immediate aftermath of the war.
The next day, on a guided tour, the tour guide talked about some of the exact same things, casually mentioning that few people remembered the details of Eisenhower’s visit.
That piqued Elder’s curiosity, and he started questioning Rader about the source of her knowledge. He eventually asked: “Were you a spy?”
“I guess that might be what you call it,” she replied.