Home / CIA Files: WWII Heroine Virginia Hall Remembered

CIA Files: WWII Heroine Virginia Hall Remembered

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The Gestapo put the name and face of Virginia Hall on a "Wanted" poster. The United States gave her the Distinguished Service Cross (DSS) "…for extraordinary heroism in connection with military operations against the enemy.” She was the only woman awarded the DSS during WWII.

Finally there is a new book of her life and a renewed interest in her Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) career, The Wolves at the Door: The True Story of America’s Greatest Female Spy by Judith L. Pearson. Most of my information comes from an excellent review by Hayden B. Peake in the "unclassified" case studies of the CIA.

This is the quintessential female hero and the kind of CIA agent — as she became after the Special Operations Executive (SOE) and the Office of Strategic Services (OSS) — that the Agency needs to show off in these years following 9/11 and the legacy of too many scandals through the last half of the century.

In the years after the ‘80s and ‘90s, when the archives of US and British intelligence services became more accessible, the history of this remarkable woman began to be more widely known and the facts (as well as the legends) began to be separated. Ms. Pearson's biography further clarifies and illuminates the facts. The facts are at least good enough to be fiction. Virginia Hall makes it, according to this biography and the records, as well fitted for a role model for girls, women, and not just a few men.

She was born in Baltimore and made it known rather early that she did not plan a life as a proper hausfrau. She went to Barnard and Radcliffe (we can assume she was not a dunce) and then continued at the Sorbonne and finally at the Konsularakademie in Vienna.

She was intent on being in the Foreign Service but did not do well in her first exam. She then decided to take a job as a clerk in an embassy overseas. She thought this would gain her experience and "the foot in the door." In 1933 in Turkey, while a clerk in the embassy, she lost her foot in a hunting accident. A prosthesis was made of wood and she returned to the Foreign Service in Venice. There she met not only with anti-feminist feelings but "…She was told that Department regulations prohibited hiring anyone without the necessary number of appendages."

She was bored in an embassy job and quit in '39. In 1940 she volunteered as an ambulance driver for the French Army. In 1940 the Germans were taking Europe. Hall escaped to England. Working in the US embassy, she met Vera Atkins and her future was changed. The legendary Atkins, in the SOE:

…had well-placed friends, learned quickly, and was soon helping with recruitment, monitoring agent training, and looking after agent needs while behind the lines in France. F Section supported the resistance in matters of training, logistics, and sabotage. Getting suitable agents to work with the French was a constant problem and Atkins developed a knack for finding good ones.

Hall seemed like a good one. She was bright, a defender of freedom against the German enemy, and knew French and German (albeit with an American accent). In 1941 she entered Vichy France as an American reporter:

For the next 14 months, using various aliases — Bridgette LeContre, Marie, Philomène, Germaine — she worked to organize the resistance, help downed fliers escape, provide courier service for other agents, and obtain supplies for the clandestine presses and the forgers — all this while managing to write articles for the Post and avoid the Gestapo that had penetrated many of the resistance networks.

In late 1942, we are told, she had to flee France when the Germans took all of it following the allied invasion of North Africa. Her only way out was, with her one leg and prosthesis (she called it Cuthbert), to walk through the snow across the Pyrenee Mountains to Spain.

According to the legends, Hall parachuted into France with her prosthesis in her knapsack. The Wolves At The Door shows instead that she took a "motorboat" to France where, in 1944:

…Working in disguise as an old woman farmhand, she organized sabotage operations, supported resistance groups as a radio operator and courier, located drop zones for the RAF, and eventually worked with a Jedburgh team to sabotage German military movements. Once again she managed to avoid capture, despite some close calls.

She changed from OSS to CIA in the late 40's and continued to serve (in the "clandestine services") until mandatory retirement in 1966 put her to pasture. She had never been allowed to work in a Foreign Service job "in a peacetime station overseas."

After the war, Hall’s achievements were to be publicly recognized with the presentation of the Distinguished Service Cross by President Harry Truman. She declined the honor, however, preferring to receive the award without publicity from OSS chief Gen. William Donovan, and thus preserve her cover for clandestine work in the postwar era.

I was fascinated by this CIA site with its unclassified material and good Public Relations (even including a CIA Kids' Homepage and, to really top it off, the CIA Museum).

The Journal and a PDF download are located at the CIA site.

More seriously, there is with a plethora of information for the curious, students and, I guess, budding spies.

Why, I wondered, would finding a CIA site, a well-written book review, and the story of a forgotten, woman heroine entrance me so much? After all, the CIA has not gotten great press since Viet Nam, the assassination of President Allende (supporting Gen. Pinochet's mass murders), questions surrounding the Bay of Pigs, President Kennedy's murder plot, and all the other conspiracy theories and facts of the last half of the 20th century.

However, here is the kind of academic Intelligence Community of which Jack Ryan and Tom Clancy wove their stories of the mythical Agency. Here you can visit an unclassified edition of Historical Perspectives with articles like these:

Building an “Intelligence Literature”
Fifty Years of Studies in Intelligence

Nicholas Dujmovic

Politics and Intelligence
The “Photo Gap” that Delayed Discovery of Missiles in Cuba
Max Holland

CIA in the Classroom
Twenty Years of Officers in Residence

John Hollister Hedley

Intelligence Today and Tomorrow

Collection and Analysis on Iraq
A Critical look at Britain's Spy Machinery

Philip H. J. Davies

A PDF version is available for download. It is a glimpse of the workings of real spies and, perhaps, a new way, sorely needed, to look at the Agency in a world gone mad yet again. We don't need domestic spying prevalent under the present administration; but we do need the legacy of Virginia Hall and the OSS who fought the German attempt to destroy civilization. Today, new barbarians are at the gates.

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  • I am pleased to tell you this article is being featured in the Culture Focus today, June 29.

    Diana Hartman
    Culture Editor