Before the CIA, there was the Office of Strategic Services, known as the OSS. Composed of both civilians and military, nationals and foreign correspondents, it constituted an army of men and women dedicated to penetrating the world of foreign intelligence.
It would be impossible to select only one strong woman among all those involved, because the collective females of the OSS were a group of extraordinary women living in extraordinary times. Their niche in history was to play a vital part in America’s war against the major Axis powers of Germany, Italy, and Japan.
The OSS was authorized by President Franklin Roosevelt during June 1942. It would eventually grow to over 21,000 members, hundreds of whom were women serving overseas. The overseas female agents were all trained to engage with local resistance groups, forge documents, slip behind enemy lines, and help with sabotage in any way possible. While many OSS women lived dangerous lives in occupied areas, the majority of the force remained stateside cataloging the immense amount of intelligence information channeled back to America; which needed to be both decoded and forwarded on to proper channels.
All of the OSS female recruits were well educated and many of them were still in their twenties. They all signed an oath of secrecy along with their commitment, understanding that the price of freedom is always wrought with danger. Most of these valiant women are now deceased, but in tribute, here are just a few snippets.
Julia Cuniberti’s job in Washington D.C. was to set up files, transfer them to SI (Secret Intelligence), then promptly forget anything she had just read. Which worked until the day she read intelligence files from a mountainous area of Italy, designating the exact home the Nazis had just commandeered to establish their secret headquarters. The residents had been ordered to live as virtual prisoners in the attic. The home belonged to her aunt and uncle. Julia had to pass this intelligence on to her superiors, but could not contact her family because it would involve an obvious breach in security. Powerless to help, she prayed daily for their survival. The family did survive.
Evangeline Bell, an agent stationed in London, endured the war-torn conditions of living in a city under bombardment. Along with the other members of the OSS stationed there, she dealt with the food rationing of 4 ounces of meat once a week along with 1 ‘reconditioned’ egg, no fruit, but a plentiful supply of potatoes. Existing on this diet, her station became responsible for printing the false documents needed for the new identities of the agents working undercover in Europe. Evangeline and her group also had to help these agents assimilate into the foreign culture. To illustrate how detailed the cover had to be, one agent was discovered by the Germans when he threw away his French cigarette, which had not been smoked all the way down to the stub – as was the local custom. The Germans knew immediately that the man was obviously not French, and the cover was blown.
Virginia Hall operated an underground railroad in rural France for downed Allied pilots to co-ordinate their escape with the French Resistance. Virginia posed as a French peasant. In reality she was arranging drop zones for money and weapons for the Resistance Movement and recruiting certain locals to establish safe houses for the downed pilots. What made her feats all the more heroic is that Virginia only had one fully operating leg; the other one was fitted below the knee with an artificial appendage. She eventually had to flee, on foot to Spain, and was arrested at the border. Contact with the Spanish Consulate in Barcelona was finally arranged, via the kindness of a prostitute with whom she had shared a jail cell. The Consulate procured Virginia’s release.
Amy Elizabeth Thorpe was quick thinking on the job, as all intelligence agents were trained to be. One of her most daring feats was to help arrange an illegal break-in at the Vichy France Embassy in Washington. She was to pose as the lover of one of the French attachés and as such, gain entrance to the inner rooms of the embassy. The assignment was to steal the French Naval Code Books, rush them to a nearby safe site where they could be photocopied, and return the books before any suspicions might be aroused. Everything had to happen within a tight four hour time frame. And perhaps everything would have gone off without a hitch except that the regular night guard was replaced that evening. The new guard did not know her as ‘the lover’, so when he became suspicious and briskly walked the hall toward the room where the documents were stored, Amy quickly disrobed. When the guard broke into the room she was wearing nothing but a string of pearls, feigning surprise that the ‘love nest’ had been compromised. The guard left, the books were photocopied and returned, and after the war Amy actually married the attaché.
There were so many women, and men, whose contributions helped to change the course of World War II. After the war many of the women in the OSS married, and some like Julia McWilliams became remembered more by her married name: Julia Childs.
The 70th anniversary of D-Day, will occur this June 6th, 2014. When it does, please stop for a moment and give a silent salute to the memory of those who fought, so we could all live free.
I am hugely indebted to former OSS operative, Elizabeth P. McIntosh, who served in the western hills of China during the war, came back home, and penned her memoirs. Her book, Sisterhood of Spies is available on Amazon.com. Thank you, too, Jean Farnsworth of Philadelphia, who first showed me the stories in Elizabeth McIntosh’s book.
Every woman deserves to have her story told ~
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