Virginia Hall (1906-1982), World War II Spy for the Allies
Virginia Hall was born in 1906 in Baltimore, Maryland to a well-to-do family. She attended Radcliffe and Barnard Colleges, completing part of her education in Europe. She was fluent in French and German and found jobs at several American embassies, and she became intent on getting a job with the U.S. State Department so she could continue her career in foreign service.
While working at the American embassy in Turkey, she was invited to go along with friends on a hunting expedition. Her gun discharged unexpectedly, and the bullet went through Hall’s left foot. By the time her friends got her to a hospital, her leg below the knee had to be amputated in order to save her life.
Hall did not want this accident to slow her down, so she returned to the U.S. and had a wooden leg created and then set about practicing so that she could do almost everything she had done before. She walked with a limp and could not run as quickly as before but otherwise, she was extremely competent and could do well on her own. She returned to Europe but knew she had to shift her plans…the State Department would not hire someone with a false limb.
At the time of her return, Germany had invaded Poland so Hall went to Paris and enlisted in the French Army as an ambulance driver. As she saw what the Nazis were doing to the Jewish people in Poland, she became convinced that she had to go where she could help. Hall joined the British Resistance, an organization known as the SOE (Special Operations Executive).
Within a few weeks of joining the SOE, she went undercover as a journalist, basing herself in a southern section of France that was occupied by the Nazis. She helped put in place safe drop zones for bringing in new agents, supplies, money, and weapons and proved to be exceedingly good at the work.
By this time, the Germans were aware that a woman they referred to as La Dame Qui Boite, the Limping Lady, was one of the key organizers of the area, and they issued orders to find and capture her.
The SOE ordered the resistance organizers to clear out of Lyon when they learned the Gestapo was moving into southern France. Hall left with the group by train but the escape was dangerous and part of the it involved a 30-mile trek which had to be done on foot. The guide who had agreed to take the resistance fighters had not been pleased when one was a woman, so Hall certainly could not mention her disability, nor could she complain during the arduous trip.
The group made it back to London, and the SOE began training all of their operatives as radio (wireless) operators, knowing that as the war continued, communication was going to be key.
Hall shifted her work to an American espionage organization, the Office of Strategic Services (the OSS). (The OSS also included another famous member, Julia Child, profiled in last year’s women’s history series.) This took her back to France for more undercover work. This time she was disguised as a heavy older farm woman. She was to live with a farmer’s family and tend to the cows. The heavy clothing she wore coupled with her masquerading as being elderly gave better cover to her awkward gait.
In this role, she often took the farmer’s milk and chees to market where the Germans never suspected she could understand their political discussions that she overheard in the marketplace. As soon as she got back to the farm, she pulled out her radio and would wire in any information she obtained.
After the war, President Truman wanted to make public the award she was to be given, but Hall refused. She wanted to remain in her line of work so she did not want her identity revealed. Instead, in a private ceremony at the OSS office on September 27, 1945, Virginia Hall was given the Distinguished Service Cross award, making her the only American woman and the first civilian to be awarded this honor during World War II.
After the war, the OSS disbanded but its operations were folded into a new agency, the Central Intelligence Agency. Hall worked at the CIA offices until mandatory retirement at age 60. She died at the age of 82.