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Retired women spies push for predecessor to get highest military medal

Why don't Americans know who Virginia Hall is? An American woman behind German lines in France in the 1940s made for an unlikely spy.
Posted at 11:18 AM, Apr 03, 2023

She made for an unlikely spy — an American woman behind German lines in France in the 1940s. But Maryland native Virginia Hall proved so good at intelligence the Nazis gave her nicknames.  

"She was referred to by Klaus Barbie, who was one of the evilest, the meanest Nazis there were, as 'the limping b**ch,'" says Ellen McCarthy, the former Assistant Secretary of State for the U.S. State Department's Bureau of Intelligence and Research.  

Hall only became a spy after losing part of her leg in a hunting accident. She had wanted to be a diplomat, but the State Department used the disability to deny her that career path. With a prosthetic limb she named Cuthbert, she went on to sabotage German operations in advance of the D-Day Invasion.  

Brad Catling, Hall’s great nephew, says he found an old postcard she wrote buried in a box. "And she writes, ‘And so the catastrophe has come. I can't begin to express the horror I feel at the useless slaughter being embarked upon, caused by the usual enemies of the civilized world. Everything here is quiet. I am staying.’" 

Catling says Hall hid fake passports in that hollow leg while spying for the British Special Operations Executive, and then the Americans with the Office of Strategic Services, the predecessor to the CIA. Researchers say she posed as a journalist and later a milkmaid, getting her teeth filed down to pass as an older woman.  

"I met her when I was 16, and she arrived still in her spy uniform, which was puffy clothes to make her look fat. And they were lumpy. And [she had] old white hair because she was supposed to look like an old woman. And I was not impressed," Lorna Catling, Hall’s niece, says. She would learn later in life about Hall's bravery and accomplishments. 

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Her life reads like a novel: In France, Hall stayed for a time in a nunnery, recruited people in the woods, and gathered intelligence from unusual sources — farmers, manufacturers, and a woman in a brothel. To avoid German capture, she trekked 50 miles over the Pyrenees mountains, with her wood and aluminum leg. Then she did something exposed spies never do: She went back. Hall organized, armed and trained 1,500 French resistance fighters for sabotage and ambush missions. When the war was over, she returned once more to find her agents petitioning the U.S. government for their restitution. 

Why don't Americans know who Virginia Hall is?

"The intelligence community hasn't told its story very well," says Sue Gordon, Former Principal Deputy Director of National Intelligence. "And part of the reason is that's our story, that we don't shine a light on ourselves because that anonymity allows us to act."

Since 2021, Gordon and McCarthy have been working with other retired female spies to get Hall the highest military award in the country: the Medal of Honor. They are also working with Hall’s family and the chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, Sen. Mark Warner. Last summer, Sen. Warner sent a letter to Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin, asking him to upgrade a Distinguished Service Cross Hall received. Secretary Austin declined.  "I'm not going to lie," says McCarthy. "I was very disappointed. You know, we had worked very hard on this. And it just seems so clear to me." 

The Defense Department said Hall was ineligible because she was a civilian. But declassified intelligence shows Hall received combat credit for an operation in France. Now, they’re trying again — with a Department of Army historian.  "Virginia Hall couldn't have operated in the military, the Office of Strategic Services was a pseudo-military organization within the Department of Defense. It was aligned to the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs, a Department of Army element," says McCarthy. "If we can get the historian from the Department of Army to draw that line, that she was operating in a military capacity, maybe that will be another data point that will compel the secretary to maybe reconsider his decision." 

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Hall had shied away from recognition and said little about her time in France. But Brad Catling says, "If 'Aunt Dindy' were to be awarded the Medal of Honor, our goal would be for it to be seen by as many people as possible."  

Her family and these retired spies say Hall wouldn't care about the medal. But it isn’t just about her. The medal is a way to show that “conspicuous gallantry,” a criterion for the award, takes many forms.  

"Our history was not made by people who looked all the same. They were not all West Point Civil War generals, or descendants of those, who were making a difference in the security of our nation," says Gordon. She and McCarthy say the U.S. needs more Virginia Halls for the problems the country is facing.  

They don’t plan to give up. "Maybe it's also an opportunity to really look at the whole Medal of Honor process,” McCarthy says. “Do those requirements still apply today?"