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One Super Sleuth Lady

August 27, 2021

Some time ago, I reached the conclusion that women do make the best spies. I have known four such ladies over my period, three of whom worked as recognized agents for the CIA and another who is an undercover Asian government agent working for an Asian news agency.  The Russian spies I encountered working on the other side were all men and often somewhat disagreeable. However, one Russian KGB colonel was kind enough to inform me that I was on the list of CIA collaborators given to the KGB by FBI Agent Robert Hanssen.  When asked whether we had a problem, he said no as we were working well together on our oil and gas project in Libya.  My favorite lady spook was my incredible free-wheeling CIA handler during the Russian era who retired before her time.  

The super sleuth lady in the title was featured in a Time article entitled Virginia Hall Beat Odds to Be America’s Top Female WWII Spy. Other stories have placed her in the top five of all-time espionage figures. No matter what, she is on the spy leaderboard, but had great difficulty entering that line of work. Certainly in the U.S. at that time, it was a “men only” profession.  On the other hand, as I wrapped up my MBA program at the University of Texas, I was recruited to go to Southeast Asia to manage fuel supplies and logistics in an illegal war in Laos under the direction of the CIA. I doubt that anyone would have considered a woman for that position at that time. 

When Gina Haspel became the first female director of the CIA in 2018, she said she was indebted to women who served in the Office of Strategic Services (OSS) during WWII and broke down barriers for women. Virginia Hall, a one-legged socialite from Boston made it happen and was acclaimed as the most successful American female spy of the Second World War. She forced her way into that position and continued to suffer from prejudice and misunderstanding until she retired in 1966. 

Virginia Hall was born to a wealthy banking family in 1906. She lost her left leg in a hunting accident at the age of 27 which did not slow her down one bit as her wooden prosthetic leg, named Cuthbert, propelled her along anywhere she wanted to go. She desperately sought to enter the U.S. Foreign Service at a time it was a “men only” club. When the Nazi’s invaded France in 1940, she volunteered to drive ambulances for the French army on the fronts. She quickly moved on to work for the UK’s Special Operations Executive (SOE) and ultimately the American Office of Special Operations (OSS) operating under the cover of a New York Post reporter. Her grit and determination are evident in the photograph shown below which was taken some time in 1943.  

She based herself in Lyon, France where she established a successful network of other agents to assist downed British airmen to escape to Spain and back to England. Her agent network was named Heckler and included the owner of a prominent brothel who would pass on information gleaned from German officers who came to visit.  On November 2, 1942, the American Consulate in Lyon told Hall that an allied invasion of North Africa was about to occur. The following day the Germans moved to occupy Vichy France which led to Hall’s hike over the mountains to Spain which was an ordeal given her wooden leg. She ultimately found her way back to London where she was made an honorary Member of the Order of the British Empire.  

The British felt she had been compromised and declined to send her back to France.  However, she took a wireless course and contacted the OSS for a job.  She was hired by them at a low level and smuggled back into France. Her task was to assist in the arming and training of the French resistance groups called, Maquis, to gain their support for the planned allied invasion of France. Hall is shown in a painted image below as a clandestine radio operator.  

In recognition of Virginia Hall’s efforts in France, General William Joseph Donovan, founder of the OSS which preceded the CIA, presented her a Distinguished Service Cross as shown below. President Truman wanted a ceremony to openly make the award presentation but Hall insisted publicity was out of the question in that she was “still operational and most anxious to get busy.”  

Hall did join the CIA in 1947 as one of the first women hired by the new agency. In 1951, she worked with Paul Goillot to support undercover activities to prevent the spread of communism in Europe though she was not well-received in the new agency. E. Howard Hunt, of Watergate fame, said “No one knew what to do with her…She was a sort of embarrassment to the non-combat CIA types, by which I mean bureaucrats.”  She retired in 1966 to a Maryland farm with her husband Goillot.  

The boys club of CIA bureaucrats could never accept someone like Hall during that era. She was brilliant on her own initiative. In a much smaller microcosm, my stalwart mature woman handler in years gone by was replaced by a young bureaucrat who was a stickler to the rules and even failed to inform her network that everyone’s cover with the Russians had been blown.  I quickly lost interest and faded into the foliage.

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