Saturday, June 17, 2006

Virginia Hall: WW2 Hero with A Wooden Leg

In the tradition of Alexandra Billings' blog, I thought I'd write about a great WW2 hero whose exploits are only becoming known about. This brave woman not only worked constantly behind enemy lines with the French resistance, even though her face was on a Nazi Wanted poster, but everytime they tried to shuttle her into a desk job, she would quit and go find someone else -- either with the British army or the American army -- who would put her back into service.

The legendary image that remains is one of Virginia Hall parachuting behind enemy lines with her wooden leg in her knapsack. But her story is much more varied and heroic than even that as a new book, "Wolves At The Door" by Judith Pearson details based on new papers only recently declassified. Clearly, this was a woman of not only honor, but relentless restlessness in her refusal to be sidelined as a woman and as an amputee.

She also was a very humble woman who refused to be commended at the White House after the war because she didn't want her "cover" blown. So she received the Distinguished Service Cross in a private ceremony away from the spotlights and publicity. (In this day of media whoredom where someone breaking a toenail has agents coming out of the woodwork for a TV Movie Of The Week, Virginia Hall is the essence of true heroism.)

For more details, read this article, but in short, Virginia was born in Baltimore and was frustrated that her attempts to join the Foreign Service never worked out, so she became a clerk in Turkey working for the State Department. That's where she lost her lower leg and was fitted with an wooden leg with a rubber sole. This, however, meant she could not continue her work since they required people with two legs, so she moved to Tallin, Estonia (one of my favorite places on earth) and then finally to Paris. That's when the war broke out and that's when her remarkable story began to take shape and this "greatest female spy" found her calling.
She volunteered as an ambulance driver for the French army (private second class), serving at the front until France surrendered in May 1940. Out of a job again, she made her way to London, where she found a clerical position with the military attaché in the American embassy. A short time later, she met Vera Atkins and her life changed forever.
Vera worked for Special Operations in London and "had a knack" for finding special people. Virginia received training and then was sent back to France during the occupation to work undercover as a reporter for the NY Post, since Americans, not yet in the war, were allowed to travel freely.
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 November 1942, when the Allies invaded North Africa and the Nazis occupied all of France, Hall had to flee—she knew too much to risk capture. Her only means of escape was to walk across the Pyrenees through winter snow to Spain, where she was jailed for a few weeks before being allowed to continue to London.
In prepartion for D-Day, she learned radio operations and then went back into France in disguise as an old woman farmhand where "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."

The story is absolutely thrilling to read about. Again, there's more here and it's worth looking at.

For instance:
The Wolves at the Door does more than chronicle Hall’s extraordinary career. Pearson gives vivid detail about Hall driving a crude ambulance loaded with wounded while under fire; how she twice escaped the continent; how she got through SOE training with her artificial leg (which she called Cuthbert); the agent problems she dealt with, including the discovery of a Gestapo double-agent; her disguises and her cover work as a milkmaid and farmer’s helper; and how she arranged the escape of several of her agents from a Gestapo prison. We also see something of this remarkable woman’s managerial abilities when Pearson tells how she overcame the reluctance of the French resistance to follow orders from a woman. 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.
Definitely a book worth reading. Definitely a life worth emulating.

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