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Virginia Hall: The True Story of America's Greatest Female Spy

Our American Stories / Lee Habeeb
The Truth Network Radio
February 23, 2024 3:03 am

Virginia Hall: The True Story of America's Greatest Female Spy

Our American Stories / Lee Habeeb

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February 23, 2024 3:03 am

On this episode of Our American Stories, meet the woman the Gestapo once considered "the most dangerous of all Allied spies." Judy Pearson tells the tale of a woman whose bravery was greater than the collapsing world around her.

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To shop now go to This is Lee Habib and this is our American Stories and we tell stories about everything here on this show from the arts to sports and from history to business and everything in between and we tell your stories too because some of our very best have been from the people who listen to this show from you. And this next story well it's the story of Virginia Hall and she's a World War II spy who overcame both physical and societal ills during a time when the world seemed to be tearing itself apart literally. Now for her story as told by Judy Pearson. Virginia Hall was once asked why she never told her story. She replied that no one had ever asked her.

In 2003 I began asking. My quest took me to her niece in Baltimore, newly declassified intelligence records in the National Archives, then to London, Paris and across the French countryside. I conducted countless interviews in English and in French and read dozens of personal accounts. What ultimately unfolded was the story of an incredible woman. She was intelligent, brave and outspoken. She was loyal, daring and stubborn. But as a young woman, all of Virginia Hall's energies were directed at becoming a Foreign Service Officer. At high school graduation, while her chums were thinking of marriage and families, Virginia announced that the only way for a woman to get ahead in the world was with an education.

After several undistinguished years at Radcliffe and Barnard, she went to the Sorbonne in Paris and then the Consolert Académie in Vienna, from which she graduated in 1929. Back in the States, now fluent in French and German, she applied to take the Foreign Service Exam. The exam consisted of three parts.

The first was written, covering all manner of topics, including world history, geography and sociology. The second tested the applicant's knowledge of a foreign language. Virginia opted for French.

And the third part of the exam, far more subjective, gave the examiner the power to judge what kind of officer the applicant would make. Virginia failed the exam, took it again and was failed again. It was 1930. Women had only had the right to vote for 10 years, and the number of female Foreign Service Officers could be counted on one hand.

Gender discrimination was hard at work. She told a family friend that if she couldn't get into the Foreign Service through the front door, she'd try going in through the back door, and landed a job as clerk at the American Embassy in Poland. She once again applied for the exam, but before she completed it, she was transferred to the American Consulate in Smyrna, now Izmir, Turkey.

Here, her life changed forever. On a December Saturday afternoon hunting expedition with some friends in 1933, Virginia's gun accidentally discharged into her left foot. Despite doctors best efforts, gangrene set in, and to save her life, they removed her leg from the knee down. What might have been considered by some as a life-ending event, Virginia saw as merely a delay in plans.

When she was well enough to travel, she returned home to Baltimore to recuperate and be fitted with a seven-pound wooden prosthesis. And a year later, she was back at work, this time at the American Consulate in Venice, from which she requested to take the Foreign Service exam yet again. But this time, rather than test questions, a letter arrived informing her that according to an obscure statute, amputees were not accepted in the Foreign Service.

The letter concluded by politely asking Virginia not to apply again. She simply wouldn't fit in. As Hitler began blazing across Europe, a discouraged Virginia Hall left her consular job and went to France.

Here, her leg was not an issue. She was gratefully accepted as a volunteer ambulance driver for the French Army. Nor was her leg an issue several months later, when in London, she was approached by a Special Operations Executive employee, the SOE. This undercover paramilitary organization had been created by Winston Churchill to, as he said, set Europe ablaze. The current war was unlike any other. The Allies needed extraordinary warfare in the form of espionage and sabotage. Escaping French military had told the British that there were many in France who would be willing to rise up against the Nazis, given enough organization and arms.

Leaders who could be infiltrated into the country were needed, and Virginia fit the bill. The Brits didn't give a hoot about her gender. In fact, it was believed that women would make the best spies. This doesn't surprise those of us who are women, but it was a revelation to the men.

Furthermore, men were being whisked to Germany as laborers. A man on the streets in France needed reasons for being there, but a woman didn't and could travel about more easily. Nor did the Brits care how many limbs Virginia had lost. Her disability was unknown to most.

She walked only with a slight limp. At the SOE's training camps, Virginia learned things her Baltimore contemporaries would never have imagined. I had the good fortune to interview one of the instructors while I was in London. Leslie Fernandez taught SOE recruits, including Virginia, physical combat.

In other words, how to kill. And Virginia wasn't shown any favoritism because of her missing leg. She wouldn't have accepted it anyway. The only training she didn't receive was in parachuting, the primary means by which agents were infiltrated. It was 1941 and America had not yet entered the war. Virginia would be free to enter France as a non-combatant, which she did using journalism as her cover. And when we come back, we'll continue this story, Virginia Hall's story, The Spy with a Wooden Leg, and to hear about her grit, her perseverance, and rising above the odds. Well, we love stories like this.

The Spy with a Wooden Leg continues after these messages. Folks, if you love the stories we tell about this great country and especially the stories of America's rich past, know that all of our stories about American history from war to innovation, culture, and faith are brought to us by the great folks at Hillsdale College, a place where students study all the things that are beautiful in life and all the things that are good in life. And if you can't get to Hillsdale, Hillsdale will come to you with their free and terrific online courses.

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Head to today and score the 4k TV you've been waiting for. as a journalist to act as a British intelligence operative. Let's return to the author, Judy Pearson. I spent hours digging through the British National Archives at Kew and the Imperial War Museum archives in London, both of which were rich in material. I heard the oral histories of those recruited agents who had daringly dropped into occupied France where Virginia and others awaited them. When I arrived in France after spending several days digging through the archives in Paris, I rented a car and took off across the country to visit firsthand all of the cities Virginia had worked from. She was ultimately sent to Lyon, the center of resistance activities in unoccupied France.

So I went to Lyon as well. There under her journalism cover, while ostensibly collecting information for newspaper articles, Virginia was also collecting information about Nazi activities. Her flat innocently appearing as that of a hard-working writer was the clearing house for every British agent who was sent to central France in 1941. Through Virginia, they were able to connect with fellow agents and contact others to help them.

They collected counterfeited money and wireless radios needed to perform their work. When they were captured and imprisoned, Virginia worked on their escapes. She organized her own group of resistance members in Lyon and had contacts in Marseille and at the Spanish border, two places from which people could disappear should the need arise. She and her group saved innumerable lives of both downed allied pilots needing passage out of France and agents who were being hunted by the Gestapo. But it wasn't long before Virginia herself became hunted. Klaus Barbie, later known as the Butcher of Lyon, spread the word that a lady with a limp, an Englishman or a Canadian, was wanted in connection with espionage activities.

His posters announced that Virginia was the most dangerous of all allied spies and that everyone should help him find and destroy her. Virginia's exodus across the Pyrenees Mountains, the rugged chain that separates France from Spain, was in November 1942. The cold and rigorous march would have been exhausting for anyone, but dragging a seven-pound wooden leg through the snow made it all the more difficult for Virginia. She hadn't dared tell the guide about her leg. He was already grumbling because she was a woman. At one point, she was able to radio London to tell them she was on her way out of France. She mentioned that Cuthbert, her clever nickname for her leg, had become quite tiresome.

The recipient of the message, ignorant of the leg's name, wired back that if Cuthbert had become tiresome, she should have him eliminated. At the end of the grueling 30-mile journey, Virginia was arrested in Spain for not having papers. She was imprisoned for six weeks, released only after her former cellmate, a Barcelona prostitute, was able to get word to the British consulate that she was being held. By the time Virginia had returned to England in early 1943, a new intelligence organization had been born. Its name was the Office of Strategic Services, the OSS. It was patterned after the SOE, with one exception.

It was purebred American, led by a hero from World War I named General Wild Bill Donovan. Virginia was desperate to get back into the fight, and transferring to the OSS made sense since she was an American. But there was a concern. She was now a hunted woman whose sketched picture had been spread throughout France. A return could only be facilitated if she were disguised.

That of an old peasant woman fit the bill. On her second trip to occupied France, Virginia's intelligence and ingenuity served her and saved her many times. This time, she acted as her own radio operator, setting up numerous resistance cells. Three months after returning to France, the greatest armada the world had ever seen crossed the channel for the D-Day landings. When the signal was given, her resistance cell went into action, cutting off Nazi supply lines and disrupting their communications all in a successful effort to aid the Allied invasion of Europe.

By the fall of 1944, all of France was liberated. During Virginia's second stint in the country, she had had the pleasure of leading 1,500 resistance volunteers who killed 150 Nazis and captured 500 more. Her team had sabotaged numerous transportation and communication links. Virginia's leadership and sign flaw was not only admired, it became legendary.

They called her La Madone, the Madonna. Virginia was awarded the Member of the British Empire, the French Croix de Guerre avec Palm, and the American Distinguished Service Cross, the only woman in World War II to receive that American distinction. But Virginia wasn't interested in accolades. She wanted to continue her work in espionage. Although the OSS had been dissolved, Virginia was one of the first women on board the new intelligence agency known as the Central Intelligence Group.

It became the Central Intelligence Agency in December 1947. But the new world of intelligence was very different from the one Virginia had previously been a part of. Communism was the enemy now, and as one observer put it, Joseph Stalin made Hitler look like a boy scout.

Virginia wanted desperately to become an operative again, willing to undergo whatever training was necessary. But at the advanced age of 41, she was looked upon as old school. Her skills were outdated, and her aggressiveness was offensive to the younger men who were her superiors.

Her experience was dismissed as not pertinent. After all she'd been through and all the sacrifices she gladly made, once again Virginia Hall didn't fit in. Virginia had married Paul Goyot in 1950, a French-American she had met toward the end of the war. She accepted mandatory retirement from the CIA in 1966, and she and Paul moved to a farm in Barnstown, Maryland.

They raised poodles, gardened, and grew all together. Virginia died in 1982 and Goyot followed five years later. She was never bitter about the fact that her career hadn't begun or ended as she would have liked. Rather, Virginia chose to remember the magnificent days in the middle, the days when her clever mind and brave heart helped defeat fascists bent down world domination. And a special thanks to Judy Pearson. And by the way, her book about Virginia Hall was called Wolves at the Door, the true story of America's greatest female spy. And I had never heard that story, and I'm a big World War II buff, and it doesn't get better than a story like that.

I mean, the woman accidentally shoots her foot off, and for most people that's it. She gets turned down once, twice, but is determined to be a member of the Foreign Service, eases her way into France when most people will be running from France as the Nazis come to occupy the country, and ultimately Klaus Barbie, the butcher, has her as the most wanted person in the Nazi regime when it comes to spies. Certainly, what an impact she had her life, what an example. And by the way, to be the only woman to win the American Distinguished Service Cross. I don't know why more of us don't know this story, but that's what we do here on Our American Stories. And my goodness, what Judy Pearson did here, the author, I mean, she literally walked in Virginia Hall's shoes, traveled all over Europe just to honor her story. And these are the kind of writers and researchers we love to put on the show.

Virginia Hall's story, The Spy with a Wooden Leg, here on Our American Stories. With so many streaming devices out there today, what sets Roku apart? Roku players are made for one thing, to get you the entertainment you want quick and easy. That means a simple home screen with your favorites front and center, channels like iHeartRadio that launch in a snap, and curated selections of TV for when you only sort of know what to watch. Not to mention all the free TV you can stream, including over 300 free live channels on the Roku channel. Find the perfect Roku player for you today at

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Whisper: medium.en / 2024-02-23 04:49:00 / 2024-02-23 04:56:37 / 8

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