Virginia Hall of the Special Operations Branch receiving the Distinguished Service Cross from
General William J. Donovan, September 1945. Courtesy of World Wide Photos.
On her application to Barnard College in 1925, Virginia Hall wrote that she was interested in a career with the diplomatic service and in foreign trade. "Both vocations would bring me into contact with many interesting persons and give me the opportunity to make use of foreign languages," she wrote. What she could not have known then was that her interest would lead her to become one of the Allies' most valuable and courageous spies in occupied France during World War II, and the only American civilian woman to receive the Distinguished Service Cross during the war.
Born April 6, 1906, in Baltimore, Maryland, Hall was the fifth and youngest daughter of Edwin and Barbara Hall. Her father was an adventurer who, as a young man, ran away to sea on one of his father's clipper ships. Later, he married, settled in Baltimore, and continued to travel with his family. According to Hall's college application, she had visited Belgium, France, Switzerland, and Italy by the time she was a teenager.
Her trips abroad and her father's influence instilled in her a love for languages and cultures, and she excelled in French, German, and Latin while a student at Roland Park Country Day School in Maryland. She was also involved in high school dramatics, athletics, and student government. She began her college education at Radcliffe and transferred to Barnard in 1925 (the same year famed writer Zora Neale Hurston transferred to Barnard from Howard University).
Although Hall would demonstrate her intelligence, language skills, and courage later in life while working as a spy for the Office of Strategic Services (the forerunner of the Central Intelligence Agency), she was only a C student at Barnard, even in the courses she called her favorites: French and math. She failed physical education because she didn't bother to show up for class.
In her first semester at Barnard, Hall took a course on government with Professor Raymond Moley, a political science expert who had prepared studies on criminal justice for New York Governor Franklin D. Roosevelt in the 1920s. Hall clearly enjoyed Moley's teaching, because she enrolled in two more of his government courses in the spring of 1926. (Moley went on to become Roosevelt's national adviser and speechwriter during Roosevelt's presidency, and it was he who coined the term "The New Deal.")
Despite her middling grades, Hall maintained her love of languages and her interest in foreign affairs. After a year on the Barnard campus, she persuaded her family to allow her to study abroad, first in Paris and then in Vienna. When she returned to the U.S. in 1929, she moved to Washington, D.C., and took courses in French and economics at George Washington University. During her's time in the nation's capital, her future began to take form.
In 1931, Hall began what she hoped would be a long career in international relations by working as a clerk for the American embassy in Warsaw, earning a salary of $2,500 a year. She spent the next few years serving in Estonia, Austria, and Turkey. In Turkey, however, she endured a personal tragedy that almost ended her dreams. While on a hunting expedition, a shotgun slipped from her grasp and discharged. A bullet struck her in the foot, and by the time medical help arrived, gangrene had already developed. Hall's leg was amputated to save her life, and she was fitted with an artificial limb. As a result, her future friends in the French underground would refer to her as "La Dame Qui Boite," or "The Limping Lady."
The accident cut Hall's career in the State Department short. Secretary of State Cordell Hull noted that she would be a "fine career girl in the Consular Service," but rejected her appeal to become a career Foreign Service Officer because of her artificial limb. Hall left the State Department in 1939, and she was already in Paris when World War II broke out. She joined the French Ambulance Service Unit as a private second class, and when France fell to Germany, she fled to England and began working as a code clerk at the U.S. Embassy.
The British Special Operations Executive (SOE) recognized her talent for languages and recruited her, training her in communications, security, and weaponry. Her first SOE assignment was to help set up resistance networks in unoccupied France, where she posed as a reporter for the New York Post and sent reports freely, describing the small town's shortages and deteriorating living conditions.
Soon after, she began espionage work. From an apartment in Lyon, she established contact with the French underground and began to facilitate the return to England of downed American air crews and escaped prisoners. She continued to write as a "reporter." When the United States entered the war, she became an enemy alien in Nazi-occupied France and was forced to conduct her business from bistros and restaurants while eluding Vichy and Gestapo officers.
When Germany invaded North Africa in November 1942, the sudden presence of countless Nazi troops in Vichy forced Hall to leave the country. According to Dr. Dennis Casey of the Air Intelligence Agency, "She crossed the Pyrenees mountains in the dead of winter on foot with help from a Belgian Army captain, two Frenchmen, and a Spanish guide. Following a brief incarceration in the border town of San Juan de Las Abadesas by Spanish authorities, she was soon released at the behest of the American consul."
Hall spent "a dulling few months in Madrid," operating once again under the guise of a reporter, this time for the Chicago Times. She then asked SOE to transfer her back to France, where she could better assist the war effort. She returned instead to England for training as a wireless operator, and moved to the American Office of Strategic Services (OSS). (The office was founded and headed by Major General "Wild Bill" Donovan, a World War I hero who earned his nickname as a star quarterback on the Columbia University football team and graduated from Columbia Law School in the same class as FDR.)
Before long, Hall began her second tour as a spy in France under one of her many code names, "Diane," setting up sabotage and guerrilla groups and supplying each with arms, money, and rations. In the weeks preceding D-Day, in order to avoid being identified by Nazi radio direction finders, Hall and her team changed locations regularly, sometimes even sending reports from the attic of the home of the local police chief. Then, in a most daring action, she disguised herself as a peasant woman, donning heavy woolen clothes and filling her dresses to make her look much larger than she was. She herded goats up and down the roads near the village of Le Chambon-sur-Lignon to spy on German troop movements and activities. The danger she faced cannot be overstated. The Gestapo was intent on capturing the Limping Lady, whom they regarded as "the most dangerous of the Allies' agents in France."
Between July 14 and August 14, 1944, despite increasing efforts by the Germans to find her, "Diane" transmitted 37 messages to London with information on German troop movement and activities. She was the first to report that the German General Staff was relocating its headquarters from Lyon to Le Puy. During this same period, she met another OSS agent whose code name was "Henri." He was Lt. Paul Goillot, and 13 years later, at the age of 51, Hall married him.
In the final days of the German occupation, her teams destroyed bridges, derailed freight trains returning to Germany, downed key telephone lines, and took more than 500 prisoners. "The German retreat was anything but smooth and without incident thanks to Hall's groups and others like them," Casey says.
For her heroic efforts, Hall was the only female American civilian to be awarded the Distinguished Service Cross by President Harry S. Truman for actions taken during World War II. Donovan had asked the president to present the award personally at the White House, but Hall declined the offer, suggesting that it would make future intelligence work impossible since she was "still operational and most anxious to get busy." Donovan himself thus presented the award—the nation's second highest military decoration for bravery after the Medal of Honor—on September 27, 1945, in his office at the OSS in Washington. Today, the cross, along with her passports and telephone suitcase, can be found in the CIA Museum in Washington.
A Military Times citation reads in part, "With utter disregard for her safety 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."
After the war, Hall accepted numerous overseas assignments with the CIA. Following her marriage to Goillot in 1957, the two of them worked together at CIA headquarters. She handed in her agency badge when she turned 60, the mandatory retirement age, in 1966.
She died 16 years later in Baltimore, where she was born. In the National Women's History Museum's 2002 exhibit, "Clandestine Women: The Untold Stories of Women in Espionage," which honored all of the female intelligence officers who have served the U.S., Virginia Hall's story was among the most prominent.
"What comes to mind when I think of Virginia? Her ability to organize and get people to do things," says Elizabeth McIntosh, who worked at the CIA at the same time as Hall and wrote Sisterhood of Spies. "She had several people working under her during the war and was able to accomplish a lot in spite of her leg. I've always admired that ability in her to get things done, as well as how her language skills worked for her throughout her life."
Countless officials have praised Hall's work in similar terms.
"Although well known to the Gestapo and under constant threat of capture, she organized, armed, and trained three battalions of French Resistance forces. She directed them in sabotage operations against the German army. At great personal risk, Hall also transmitted radio messages to Allied troops in the critical weeks after the invasion of Normandy," said Nora Slatkin, former executive director of the Central Intelligence Agency, in a speech to the Chicago Council on Foreign Relations in 1996.
"Outstanding among SOE's first agents in France was an American newspaperwoman from Baltimore, whose cover as the accredited correspondent of the New York Post was a valuable one," Patrick Howarth, who worked for the SOE during World War II, wrote in his 1980 book Undercover. "Her name was Virginia Hall. She was a tall woman with bright red hair, an artificial foot, which she named Cuthbert, and a remarkable ability to improvise."
SOE agent Denis Rake added quite simply, "Virginia Hall, in my opinion—and there are many others who share it—was one of the greatest women agents of the war."
Casey, Dennis. "Limping Lady Begins Spy Career In Early 1940s": HQ AIA/HO Kelly AFB, Texas; Air Intelligence Agency, HQ United States Air Force Air Intelligence Agency at Kelly Air Force base Public Affairs Office, 102 Hall Blvd, Suite 234, San Antonio, TX, 78243-7036; DSN 969-2166 or (210) 972-2166.
Central Intelligence Agency Museum. "Virginia Hall's Distinguished Service Cross WWII (Courtesy of Lorna Catling)." Retrieved December 21, 2004 from the World Wide Web: <http://www.odci.gov/cia/publications/facttell/textonly.htm>.
"Clandestine Women: The Untold Stories of Women in Espionage." National Women's History Museum. Retrieved December 21, 2004 from the World Wide Web: <www.nwhm.org/home/spyexhibit.htm>.
Haines, Gerald K. "Virginia Hall Goillot: Career Intelligence Officer." Prologue 26 (Winter 1994).
McIntosh, Elizabeth. Sisterhood of Spies. New York: Dell Publishing, 1999.
"The Other Agents: Virginia Hall." Women of the Special Operations Executive. Retrieved December 21, 2004 from the World Wide Web: <http://www.64-baker-street.org/agents/agent_others_virginia_hall.html>.
"The Other Agents: Virginia Hall: CIA Speech." Women of the Special Operations Executive. Retrieved December 21, 2004 from the World Wide Web: <http://www.64-baker-street.org/agents/agent_others_virginia_hall_cia_spe....
Slatkin, Nora. "Women in CIA." Speech to Chicago Council on Foreign Relations, May 15, 1996.
Yellin, Emily. "Hero and Villain: Contrasting Wartime Roles for Women." International Herald Tribune, June 10, 2004.
Yellin, Emily. Our Mothers' War: American Women at Home and at the Front During World War II. New York: Free Press, 2004.
Freshman interest form and academic transcript of Virginia Hall on microfilm, and The Mortarboard 1927 (Barnard College Archives).
— Contributed by Jo Kadlecek