Women's Memorial Exhibit Tells Story of Women Spies
By Rudi Williams
American Forces Press Service
ARLINGTON, Va., May. 2, 2002 The Women's Memorial at Arlington National Cemetery here is featuring a first-of- its-kind exhibit called "Clandestine Women: Untold Stories of Women in Espionage" that honors the work of women spies throughout the nation's history.
The exhibit opened on March 26 and will run through Dec. 31.
Curator Linda McCarthy, a 24-year CIA veteran and the founding curator of the CIA Museum, said the exhibit coincides with the 60th anniversary of the Office of Strategic Services, or OSS, the World War II-era forerunner to the CIA. Exhibit sponsor is the National Women's History Museum organization.
Women played a vital role in all facets of OSS activities, including working as spies, saboteurs, guerrilla warriors, cryptographers, cartographers, propaganda experts, agent recruiters and communication technicians, according to McCarthy.
She said she selected the most recognizable women for the exhibit. "Women from all walks of life have served in an intelligence-gathering capacity," she said. "I threw in a few names of people you would probably recognize, like abolitionist, Union Army scout and espionage agent Harriet Tubman; entertainers Josephine Baker and Marlene Dietrich; and television's "French Chef" Julia McWilliams Child.
"Julia told me that of all the things she did in her 90 years of living, her fondest memories were with the OSS in East Asia during World War II," McCarthy said.
Julia McWilliams wanted to join the Navy during World War II but was turned down because of her height -- six feet, two inches. After accepting a job with the OSS, she started her service in Washington shortly after the United States entered World War II. She was among more than 900 women who were transferred overseas in 1944. She received the Emblem of Meritorious Civilian Service as head of the registry of the OSS Secretariat in China.
McWilliams proved her mettle so well that she was assigned to a special project having to do with creating a shark repellent. Sharks were a big problem for Navy and OSS divers who tried to place bombs on German U-boats in the Atlantic Ocean. Years later, NASA used her shark repellent recipe to protect astronauts in space capsules that landed in shark-infested waters.
After the war she married diplomat Paul Child and lived for six years in Paris, where she attended the world-renowned Le Cordon Bleu culinary academy and acquired a wide knowledge of French cuisine. As Julia Child, she became a cooking expert, author and television personality.
Screen legend Marlene Dietrich was a German citizen until 1937 and was popular on both sides of the Atlantic though a staunch anti-Nazi, McCarthy said. During the war, Dietrich recorded popular American songs and anti-Nazi messages in German that were beamed from London to Germans behind the lines. Where Germans turned off American propaganda before, they stuck around to listen to "Sultry Marlene."
Dietrich reportedly braved icy mud and enemy fire to entertain Allied troops in the battle zones. She was so vigorous an anti-Nazi that the United States, Belgium, Israel and the Netherlands awarded her medals for her work during World War II. America presented her the Medal of Freedom, its highest civilian honor.
Another clandestine World War II heroine was American-born entertainer Josephine Baker, who became a French citizen in 1937, McCarthy noted.
"Oddly enough, people remember Josephine Baker for the costumes she didn't wear -- the fact that she was rather scantily dressed," she said. "It's sad to say, with the civil rights situation being what it was in those days, Josephine found a more hospitable audience in France."
When World War II began, Baker volunteered her services to the French intelligence service. She performed for the troops and was a correspondent for the French Resistance and a sub-lieutenant in the French Women's Auxiliary Air Force.
"One of the neat things they did was to write super-secret information in the margins of her sheet music, and she passed up and down the different concert venues throughout Europe," McCarthy said. "The 'groupies' traveling with her entourage were actually French resistance operatives."
Baker would make copious notes of what she'd heard at parties, go back to her hotel room and write it on little bits of paper and pin the paper to her underwear, according to McCarthy. "And someone said, you're doing what? She said, 'Who would dare search Josephine Baker to the skin?' No one ever did," she said.
For her service during World War II, French President Charles de Gaulle presented her the Legion of Honor, which was France's highest decoration. She was also awarded the Medal of Resistance with rosette, McCarthy said.
When Baker died on April 12, 1975, the French government honored her with a 21-gun salute. She became the first American woman to be buried on French soil with military honors. Her gravesite is in the Cimetire de Monaco, Monaco.
McCarthy moved to the antebellum era and the Underground Railroad, calling it a true intelligence operation. "First of all, they talked in code. The 'conductors' were the people that worked the railroad. 'Cargoes' were the slaves that were fleeing. They used codes and secret handshakes," she said. "Another thing, Negro spirituals were their secret way of communicating among themselves.
"Harriet used disguises when she was coming and going out of the South," McCarthy pointed out. "She escaped, but she went back another 18 times where she was known -- she had a price of $40,000 on her head -- to ferret slaves out and get them up north.
"She actually conducted guerrilla warfare on behalf of the Union Army," McCarthy said. "So she's considered the first African-American woman to serve in the military. She was affectionately called 'General Tubman.'" She received a monthly pension as the widow of a Civil War veteran, her second husband Nelson Davis, but in 1890 was awarded a monthly pension in her own right for her service as a Union spy, guerrilla and combat veteran.
One of the more extraordinary American spies is also among the least known to the public, though nearly revered in the intelligence community. Virginia Hall, McCarthy noted, was "probably the pre-eminent American female spy in OSS."
At its peak, the OSS had more than 17,000 members, 4,500 of whom were women. The women were mainly code clerks, but some, like Hall, were field operatives. She's known as the "Limping Lady of the OSS" because she actually had a wooden left leg, the result of a pre-war hunting accident, McCarthy said.
After being turned down by the Foreign Service because of her gender and disability, Hall went to Europe and joined the French resistance as its first female field officer, McCarthy noted.
"She actually went in there and worked with the French resistance behind the lines and engaged in guerrilla activities, subversive activities," McCarthy said. Hall learned Morse code and how to work a wireless radio, which made her invaluable to the OSS because communication lines were destroyed after D-Day.
"Prior to D-Day, her nom d'espionage was 'Diane,' but her undercover gig was as a French milkmaid," McCarthy said. "She lived and worked on farms and would go into town selling goat cheese to the Germans who were occupying that sector of France. "
McCarthy said the Germans were looking for a one-legged woman hobbling along, but Hall fooled them by teaching herself to walk differently and kind of shuffle along. "She's a tall woman for that age, so she walked with kind of a sloop," she added.
Hall is the only civilian woman during World War II who received the Distinguished Service Cross, the nation's second-highest military valor award. She was honored for her service after the Allied D-Day invasion of Normandy on June 6, 1944. After the war, she became one of the CIA's first female operations officers.
"She's one of the most valued American agents we had in the OSS, and she just happened to be female," McCarthy said. "This woman broke two glass ceilings: the business of being female and the disability issue."