America’s Most Decorated Female Spy Finally Gets the Recognition She Deserves

There are many great heroes of WWII who have become household names by now, their exploits immortalized in movies, TV shows, and books. One name most people haven’t heard, however, is Virginia Hall.

Today, that changes, though Virginia herself might not be too happy about becoming a household name. As she liked to say, “Many of my friends were killed for talking too much.”

Since it’s been over 70 years since she worked as a wartime spy, and she’s no longer living, it’s probably safe – and high time – to talk about her contributions.

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Unsung Hero of #DDay , #virginiahall , the only American woman to win the Distinguished Service Cross 🎖 : “for extraordinary heroism in connection with military operations against an armed enemy while serving as an American Civilian Intelligence Officer in the employ of the Special Operations Branch, Office of Strategic Services, who entered voluntarily and served in enemy-occupied France from March to September 1944. Despite the fact that she was well known to the Gestapo because of previous activities, Miss Hall established and maintained radio communications with London headquarters, supplying valuable operational and intelligence information. With the help of a Jedburgh team, she organized, armed, and trained three battalions of French resistance forces in the Department of the Haute Loire. Working in a region infested with enemy troops and continually at the risk of capture, torture, and death, she directed the resistance forces with extraordinary success in acts of sabotage and guerrilla warfare against enemy troops, installations, and communications. Miss Hall displayed rare courage, perseverance, and ingenuity. Her efforts contributed materially to the successful operations of the resistance forces in support of the Allied Expeditionary Forces in the liberation of France.” 🎖

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Hall was born in 1906 to a wealthy Baltimore family who expected her to educate herself and then marry into more money. She had other ideas, wearing bracelets of (live) snakes to school, becoming an avid hunter, and taking pride in being “capricious and cantankerous.”

She was educated at Radcliffe and Barnard before traveling to Paris and falling in love with France, a love that would change the course of her life. Once she’d gone overseas, Hall became set on becoming a diplomat, said Sonia Purnell, the author of a forthcoming book on Hall.

“She wanted to be an ambassador. She got pushed back by the State Department. She applied several times.”

While working in a secretarial capacity at a U.S. consulate in Turkey, Hall had a hunting accident that cost her her left leg below the knee. She persevered through a long and painful recovery, and learned to maneuver on a wooden leg.

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With the anniversary of D-Day (officially known as Operation Overlord) approaching, we at the MI Library would like to acknowledge Virginia Hall. Virginia Hall established the Cosne resistance in the weeks preceeding D-Day overcoming reluctance from others to work for a woman! She had overseen coordination of airdrops that supplied explosives, weapons and other forms of support equipment. This resistance set about destroying railroad lines, bridges and disrupting communications. Virginia's force grew to more than 1,500 men by the 4th of June 1944 and after D-Day. Hall died at the age of 77 in July 1982. She committed to the cause, placed the mission above accolades, practiced sound operational security and effectively used the resources available. Hall routinely overcame hurdles, often in the face of life threatening circumstances. —————– To receive or renew a remote user account: Navigate to our website at https://www.ikn.army.mil/apps/milibrary Click on the ‘Remote Registration’ button in the left column Open the form and enter all requested information Using your Enterprise Email account, send the completed registration form to us at the address provided on the bottom of the form. You can also come into the MI Library at Building 62723, Hatfield St, Fort Huachuca, AZ 85613 and our phone number is (520)-533-4100! —————– Christopher G. Nason Military Intelligence Library and Museum where, "Intelligent action leads to peak performance and proper planning!" —————— #dday #operationoverlord #virginiahall

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Another Hall biographer and ex-CIA officer, Craig Gralley, believes that losing her leg was a turning point in her life.

“She had been given a second chance at life and wasn’t going to waste it. And her injury, in fact, might have kind of bolstered her or reawakened her resilience so that she was in fact able to do great things.”

She was living in France when WWII broke out, and immediately jumped into the fray, volunteering to drive a French ambulance. As her beloved France was overrun, Hall fled to Britain and quickly fell in with British intelligence. After a bit of training, she found herself back on French soil and working as a British spy in 1941.

Hall posed as a reporter for The New York Post and saw many in her network arrested and even killed. The Gestapo had her number and knew they were in search of a woman with a limp, but Hall was a natural at the spy game – like many women who were an active part of the resistance, she exploited her female-ness and her “cripple-ness” to fly under the radar.

“Virginia Hall, to a certain extent, was invisible,” says Gralley. “She was able to play on the chauvinism of the Gestapo at the time. None of the Germans early in the war necessarily thought that a woman was capable of being a spy.”

Hall operated largely in Lyon, which put her in the path of Klaus Barbie, otherwise known as “the Butcher of Lyon,” but thankfully she was never counted among the thousands tortured and killed by his forces. He was aware of her, however, posting signs around the city that featured a drawing of her and the words “The Enemy’s Most Dangerous Spy – We Must Find And Destroy Her!”

While there, she recruited everyone she could, from nuns at the convent where she was staying to a local brothel owner who helped by passing along information the prostitutes gathered from German troops. She organized the resistance in Lyon, providing safe houses and intelligence that altered the course of the war on French soil.

Even though she constantly changed her appearance, the Nazis got close enough in 1942 to send her into hiding in Spain. To get there, she walked 50 miles a day for 3 days in heavy snow, over the Pyrenees Mountains.

With a wooden leg. Remember?

Gralley, who considers himself in good shape, tried making the trek and found it exhausting.

“I could only imagine the kind of will and the kind of perseverance that Virginia Hall had by making this trek. Not on a beautiful day, but in the dead of winter and with a prosthetic leg she had to drag behind her.”

A snafu with her passport had her wasting 6 weeks in a Spanish jail before being released back to Britain. All Virginia wanted to do was to return to her work in France but the British refused her request, fearing her life.

The American OSS, however, had no such qualms – though Purnell points out that Hall did take precautions before returning to occupied soil.

“She got some makeup artist to teach her how to draw wrinkles on her face. She also got a fierce, a rather sort of scary London dentist to grind down her lovely, white American teeth so that she looked like a French milkmaid.”

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Observances of the 75th anniversary of D-Day are properly focusing on the troops and the architect of Operation Overlord, Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower, who freed Europe from Hitler and his Nazi hordes. One person—a woman—has not received the credit she deserves for her efforts with the French Resistance. Without her daring and heroism, the war would most assuredly have been prolonged and many more lives would have been lost. Her name was Virginia Hall and her story is told in a new book by Sonia Purnell titled “A Woman of No Importance: The Untold Story of the American Spy Who Helped Win World War II.” The title does not exaggerate Virginia’s contributions to the Allied victory. Never have I read anything like it. Every page is compelling and demands not just to be read, but absorbed. Every act reflects incredible bravery. This is what heroism looks like. Virginia’s actions, along with the men who gave their lives for the freedoms that France, the rest of Europe, and America enjoy today, should never be forgotten. Sonia Purnell has ensured Virginia Hall’s place in that great pantheon. Tap our stories to see more stories from #DDAY75 and read Cal Thomas’ full book review.

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Back in France, she worked with resistance fighters to blow up bridges, sabotage trains, and reclaim villages ahead of advancing Allied troops.

The war ended and Virginia Hall, like all of the fighters abroad, returned home. She brought with her a French-American soldier (now her husband) and a penchant for keeping her mouth shut.

Her niece, Lorna Catling, recalled meeting her aunt after the war in a conversation with NPR.

“She came home when I was 16, and she was pale and had white hair and crappy clothes.”

And as for the war?

“She never talked about it.”

Both the British and the French recognize Hall’s contributions, though only in private. She declined public accolades in the States, too, claiming she’d rather remain undercover.

William Donovan, the OSS chief, bestowed the Distinguished Service Cross on Hall – the only civilian to receive such an honor during WWII – and only her mother witnessed the ceremony.

She joined the CIA and worked there for 15 years, though she did not thrive and wasn’t happy being stuck behind a desk, CIA historian Randy Burkett tells NPR.

“As you get higher in rank, now it’s all about money and personnel and plans and policy and that sort of bureaucratic stuff. …Was she treated properly? Well, by today’s standards, absolutely not.”

She retired in 1966 without ever having spoken publicly about her experiences as a WWII spy, and died in 1982 without the public realizing who she was or what she had contributed to the successful war effort.

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🕵🏻‍♀️ A Woman of No Importance. 🕵🏻‍♀️ . . 🕵🏻‍♀️ Here's the thing. Virginia Hall deserves WAY more credit than what she received. . . 🕵🏻‍♀️ This woman pretty much single handedly dove into enemy territory, built a resistance empire, and TORE SHIT UP on the Nazis. All the while being disregarded and disrespected by many of her male counterparts (shocker). That didn't stop her though, she refused to give a crap about any of them. She disregarded them right back, straight up left them and refused to work with them. Why put herself and others in danger because of chauvinistic nonsense? . . 🕵🏻‍♀️ This woman was a badass in the most incredible way and I'm disappointed that I haven't read more about her before now. A beautiful person, changing her name and appearance numerous times (see what I did there), an amputee, crossed the Pyrenees during winter and survived!? She was THE most wanted woman in Europe by the Nazis AND NEVER GOT CAUGHT! . . 🕵🏻‍♀️ After all that, she came back and joined the CIA (no small feat despite her experience) and was STILL underutilized. — "In its own secret report on her career, the CIA admitted that her fellow officers 'felt she had been sidelined — shunted into backwater accounts — because she had so much experience that she overshadowed her male colleagues, who felt threatened by her.'" 🙄😡😑 . . 🕵🏻‍♀️ So much more to say but I'll let you pick it up and read it. Sonia Purnell has done incredible research and truly put together this fascinating and eye-opening book about one of the most important women in history. Virginia paved the way for so many others that came after her, even in indirect ways. Not only for women, but the government, the CIA, secret service and more should all be eternally grateful. . . 🕵🏻‍♀️ Anyway, this week's #sundaywiththeselftimer is my appreciation for this book and me wishing and dreaming I was half the badass Virginia was. 💪 #powerfulwomenrepresent . . #awomanofnoimportance #soniapurnell #virginiahall #bookreview #bookrecommendation #readingwanderwoman #readingww2019 #readingwanderreviews #badasswomen #womeninhistory #sundayselfieshelfie

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Recently, her public moment has arrived: three books have been published and two movies are in the works, so Americans are finally going to know Virginia Hall in the way she deserves (if not the way she would have wanted).

As Sonia Purnell muses, “Through a lot of her life, the early life, she was constantly rejected and belittled. She was constantly just being dismissed as someone not very important of of no importance.”

Just one more example of “a woman of no importance” putting her head down and managing to change the world for the better, anyway.

Nevertheless, she persisted.

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During World War II, Steinway…

During World War II, Steinway & Sons airdropped pianos with large parachutes and complete tuning instructions into the battle for the American troops. Called the Victory Vertical or G.I. Steinways, the pianos were to provide a bit of relaxation. The pianos came in olive, blue, and gray drab.

Theodore Roosevelt Jr was the oldest…

Theodore Roosevelt Jr was the oldest man in the D-Day invasion at 56. Initially denied to attend D-Day, Ted petitioned as he personally knew the men of these units and believed his presence would steady them. Despite arthritis and a heart condition, he stormed the beach with a cane and survived.

During WW2 German prisoners…

During WW2 German prisoners were so well treated in Canada that they didn’t want to leave the country when released. Thousands of them eventually stayed or came back to Canada with one saying that the time in Canadian prison was “the best thing that happened to me.”

During the siege of Leningrad…

During the siege of Leningrad, a Russian girl named Tanya Savicheva cronicled in her diary the deaths of all her family members during the siege of Leningrad, ending with “Everyone is dead. Only Tanya is left”.

During WW2, Ernest Hemingway led a….

During WW2, Ernest Hemingway led a small Militia in a village outside Paris, and this caused him to be brought up on formal charges for violating the Geneva Convention “because a correspondent is not supposed to lead troops, even if he does it well.”

During WWII, Russian soldiers…

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During WWII US Navy seamen…

During WWII US Navy seamen would drain the fuel from torpedos (180-proof grain alcohol) then filter it though bread to make a cocktail called torpedo juice.

The Incredible Story of Elizebeth Friedman, One of America’s Best Codebreakers

Elizebeth Smith Friedman (spelled that way by her mother, who reportedly disliked the name ‘Eliza’) was born the youngest of 9 children in 1892. From a young age it was clear the girl was bright, displaying an impressive talent for languages. She wanted to go to college, so badly that she borrowed the money from her father at a 6% interest rate when he refused to pay for her schooling outright.

She finished school at Hillsdale College in Michigan, earning a degree in English Literature while also studying German, Greek, and Latin and discovering a love for Shakespeare that would last the rest of her life. It turned out that a career in education wasn’t for Elizebeth, who grew bored and quit her job as a principal before traveling to Chicago in 1916.

Photo Credit: Public Domain

While there, she visited the Newberry Library, where Shakespeare’s First Folio was on display, and she ended up with a job at a nearby research facility, Riverbank. It was run by eccentric George Fabyan and already employed Shakespeare scholar Elizabeth Wells Gallup, who was working to prove that Sir Francis Bacon actually wrote Shakespeare’s plays.

Gallup was in need of a research assistant, and our Elizebeth was happy to take the job. She worked on a cipher that Gallup claimed was hidden in Shakespeare’s sonnets that proved they were written by Bacon, but perhaps more auspiciously, she met, fell in love with, and married geneticist William Friedman while there. A month later, the United States entered World War I.

Riverbank was one of the first institutes in the country to focus on codebreaking, or cryptology, and was essential in the early days of the war. It would transform both of the Friedman’s lives, with William becoming one of the biggest names in cryptanalysis (a word he coined himself) while his equally-as-talented wife was often deliberately kept from the spotlight.

Photo Credit: Public Domain

“So little was known in this country of codes and ciphers when the United States entered World War I, that we ourselves had to be the learners, the workers, and the teachers all at the same time,” wrote Elizebeth in her memoir.

One of their more famous wartime accomplishments actually involved cracking a code for Scotland Yard – a trunk of mysterious, coded messages turned out to contain the secrets behind the Hindu-German Conspiracy, in which Hindu activists living in the United States were shipping weapons to India with German assistance.

The resulting trial was one of the largest in U.S. history (at the time) and ended sensationally as a gunman who believed one of the defendants had snitched opened fire in the courtroom.

After the war, the Friedmans moved to Washington D.C. and continued working for the military full-time. Elizebeth stayed home for a time to focus on raising the couple’s two children, but she returned to work for the Coast Guard in 1925 when they asked for help on Prohibition-related cases. There, she proved to be an invaluable asset, and was called to testify in a 1933 trial following the bust of a million-dollar rum running operation in the Gulf of Mexico and on the West coast.

Photo Credit: Marshall Foundation

During the trial, attorneys asked her to prove how a jumble of letters could possibly be determined to mean “anchored in harbor where and when are you sending fuel?” Elizebeth asked for a chalkboard and proceeded to give the court a lesson on simple cipher charts, mono-alphabetic ciphers, and polysyllabic ciphers, then reviewed how she had spent two years intercepting and deciphering the radio broadcasts of four illicit New Orleans distilleries.

Special Assistant to the Attorney General Colonel Amos W. Woodcock wrote that Elizebeth’s proficiency “made an unusual impression.”

A year later, Elizebeth used her skills to avert a court case between Canada and the United States when her codebreaking abilities proved that a “Canadian” ship sunk by the U.S. Coast Guard was actually a ship owned by an American bootlegger and simply flew the Canadian flag to avert suspicion. The Canadians were so impressed with her that they hired her to help catch a ring of Chinese opium smugglers, and her testimony in that case led to five convictions.

When WWII began, Elizebeth was recruited by the Coordinator of Information, an intelligence service that preceded both the OSS (Office of Strategic Services) and the CIA. While her husband, William, was lauded for leading the team that cracked Japan’s Purple Encryption Machine, Elizebeth’s accomplishments breaking German codes and working closely with British intelligence to disrupt Axis spy rings all across Europe. For years, researchers hit brick wall after brick wall trying to uncover her contributions, largely because J. Edgar Hoover wrote her out of history (or tried to) by classifying her files as top-secret and taking the credit for himself.

Photo Credit: Public Domain

We do know, however, that she was instrumental in solving the “Doll Woman Case” in 1944, in which Velvalee Dickinson, a New York City antique doll dealer, was found guilty of spying on behalf of the Japanese government. Her work helped prove that the letters the woman had written about the condition of antique dolls were actually describing the positions of U.S. ships and other war-related matters. In the newspaper accounts of the day, however, Elizebeth’s name was never mentioned.

She retired in 1946, a year after the war ended, and her husband followed suit a decade later. Their relationship was uniquely bonded by their shared fascination for codes and codebreaking, which they brought into their person life as well – they used ciphers playing family games with their children and would even encode menus at dinner parties, encouraging their guests to solve them in order to earn the next course.

Together, they published The Shakespearean Ciphers Examined, a masterwork that won awards from several Shakespeare research facilities, and believed that they disproved the theory that Sir Francis Bacon was the real author of the plays.

Photo Credit: Public Domain

William passed away in 1969 and Elizebeth spent her remaining years compiling and documenting her husband’s work in cryptology instead of going back over her own extraordinary achievements. Her writings are now part of the George C. Marshall Research Library.

Elizebeth died in 1980 and is buried next to her husband. On their double gravestone is a quote commonly attributed to Sir Francis Bacon, “KNOWLEDGE IS POWER.”

Photo Credit: Find A Grave

The quote is, of course, a cipher that, when decrypted, reads “WFF,” William’s initials.

There’s no doubt that the field of codebreaking wouldn’t have come as far as fast as it did without William’s efforts, but Elizebeth’s deserve equal, if not more, credit.

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