American intelligence-gathering and analysis before World War II was a function performed by four separate departments: the Navy Department, War Department, Treasury Department, and the State Department. In the Navy, for example, the Office of Naval Intelligence (established in 1882) fell under the Bureau of Navigation. ONI’s mission was to collect and record such information as may be useful to the Department of the Navy in both war and peace. It was a mission that remained unchanged for sixty-two years. Over time, ONI would expand their activities to include both foreign and domestic espionage whenever such operations were beneficial to the mission of the Navy. Similarly, the State Department had its cipher bureau (MI-8) (which was shut down in 1929), and the Army had its Signal Intelligence Service. None of these activities were coordinated, and seldom did the agencies share information between them.
Out of concern for this lack of coordination, President Franklin Roosevelt appointed his friend of many years, William J. Donovan, to devise a plan for a coordinated intelligence service modeled on the British Intelligence Service (MI-6) and the British Special Operations Executive (SOE). Donovan called his organization the Office of Strategic Services (OSS). Eventually, OSS would manage 24,000 intelligence agents, 13,000 of which were American employees, between 1941-1945.
Donovan was looking for a unique sort of individual — a person with a doctorate who could win in a bar fight. Some were academics, some were military officers and enlisted men, some were athletes, filmmakers, and a few were convicts. Donovan employed them as spies, saboteurs, code breakers, analysts, map makers, forgers, and propagandists. They became expert in penetrating enemy territory by parachute and from the sea. They kidnapped people, blew up bridges and railroad yards, stole secrets, and put together the networks that did all of those things.
One-third of these people were women. One of them was an actress named Marlene Dietrich; another was a woman named Margaret Mead, a pioneering anthropologist. Julia McWilliams developed a shark repellent. Julia is more famously known as Julia Childs. Another, Jean Wallace, was the daughter of the Vice President of the United States. Several of these women were killed in the line of duty, such as Jane Wallis Burrell in 1948.
Virginia Stuart served the OSS in Egypt, Italy, and China. At first, Virginia wasn’t sure what the OSS did, but she wanted to serve her country, and someone directed her to the “Q Building” (OSS headquarters in Washington where the Kennedy Center now stands). Armed with a bachelor’s degree from Skidmore College, Virginia applied to the OSS in November 1943. She was naturally adventurous, but there was a war on and most of her friends were participating in it in one form or another. Her older sister, Edith, had joined the Navy as a chemist. Virginia thought she might do that as well, but in 1943 the Navy was looking for scientists and medical personnel, not liberal arts majors. Ultimately, the OSS hired Miss Stuart. She was simply told, “Work hard, get the job done no matter what it takes, and keep your mouth shut.”
Stuart later recalled that the work in the Secret Intelligence Branch was grueling, the environment uncomfortable, the hours long, and that everyone became addicted to the caffeine in Coca Cola. Initially, her job included assembling and making sense of hundreds of reports submitted in abbreviated form from secret agents in Europe, Asia, Africa, and the Middle East. Everyone had a sense of urgency, and everyone realized that the information they were receiving was important, no matter how insignificant it may have seemed when it first arrived — everything from troop movements and decoded radio messages to logistics issues and plans for secret penetrations of enemy held territory. The longer the war went on, the more information there was to analyze and categorize. What stood out in Virginia’s memory from those days was that there were no “men’s jobs and women’s jobs.” There was only the one job, and everyone did it.
All the information was classified, of course, but some of it was more secret than other. She recalled that “Eyes Alone” material was quickly delivered to Colonel Donovan’s desk. It was the “most important” because of its sensitivity or timing.
When an opportunity presented itself, Virginia requested overseas service. After eight months of waiting, she was sent to work in Cairo. She and three other women dressed in khaki uniforms boarded a ship, along with Red Cross workers and war correspondents. No one was to know who they were, what they did, or where they were going. Virginia was going to Cairo because that was the OSS forward headquarters for Middle Eastern operations.
Cairo was a place where one could hear dozens of languages: English, Italian, French, Yugoslav, and Turkish among them. In addition to military personnel, there were politicians, academics with expertise in the economy, logisticians, and yes — even German spies. OSS headquarters in Cairo was a converted villa with a secure code room in the basement. It was a place where newspapers and magazines from around the world were read and analyzed. The analysis required men and women who were not only fluent in several languages but also familiar with cultural nuances, which made the work even more challenging. This unusual library of information had a wide range of uses, from people who needed to manufacture official-looking fake documents, to others who were looking for a slip of the teletype (so to speak). Sometimes, OSS received information coded in classified advertisements.
A year later, the OSS dispatched Virginia Stuart to China. A week later, Virginia learned that the United States had dropped the first atomic bomb on Japan. There was no detailed information about the event, of course, and no one was sure what an atomic bomb was. But while the world was focused on the bomb, secret agents parachuted into Manchuria dressed as Chinese Nationalist officers to conduct guerrilla raids against Japanese occupation forces there, and to help plan for the liberation of Japanese POW camps. Eventually, Virginia married one of these men, a British-Australian colonel attached to MI-6. Virginia Stuart, after her stint with OSS, married and raised a family in such places as the Philippine Islands, Honduras, and later became a news anchor in Rhode Island.
The end of the war signaled the end of OSS. Few of the uniformed services chiefs appreciated Roosevelt’s OSS (General MacArthur and others) who felt that intelligence gathering, and analysis, belonged within their purview. President Truman, an old Army hand from World War II, agreed with his generals. Of course, none of these generals (or even Truman) seemed to understand that the OSS provided vital intelligence from a vast network of sources they could not have managed on their own. Despite the fact that OSS technically worked for the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Truman wanted the OSS to disappear. He made that happen in July 1945.
But not even Truman on his silliest day was stupid enough to do away with the assets created by OSS over nearly five years. At the end of World War II, the OSS continued to collect valuable intelligence information about the Soviet Union, which almost immediately began working against the interests of the free world. Over a period of two years, what was once the OSS , transitioned into the CIA, and many of the people who worked for OSS found themselves doing essentially the same tasks for the renamed spy agency.
The contribution of our women to America’s secret service didn’t begin or end with World War II. During the Revolutionary War, a woman known only to history as Agent 355, served as part of the Culper Spy Ring, and played a pivotal role in the arrest of British spy, Major John Andrew and the infamous traitor, Benedict Arnold. Anna Smith, living in Long Island, helped communicate information to General Washington through a code system that depended on the way she hung her laundry to dry. It may not seem like much of an effort, but that is the nature of the clandestine service: vital information in drips and drabs, funneled to the people best positioned to make sense of it.
Women made ideal spies simply because men didn’t think they were capable of it. Most of these women are unknown to us today precisely because they were very good at what they did, and also because once they had achieved such remarkable results, men simply forgot about them.
During the Civil War, Pauline Cushman, an actress, was a Union spy discovered by the Confederacy. She was saved from hanging by the arrival of the Union Army mere days before her execution. Sarah Emma Edmonds also served the Union cause, disguising herself as a male soldier, sometimes as a black man, at other times as an old woman, to spy on the Confederacy. Harriet Tubman, in addition to helping to free enslaved blacks, served the Union Army in South Carolina by organizing a spy network and occasionally leading raids and spying expeditions. Elizabeth Van Lew was an anti-slavery Virginian who smuggled food and clothing to Union prisoners and provided information about Confederate activities to Union officials. It was this woman who cleverly placed Mary Elizabeth Bowser as a spy in the home of Confederate President Jefferson Davis.
Not all the ladies were in the trenches during World War II, but this one was. Virginia Hall was an American spy with the British SOE and about as tough as they come. While on a hunting trip in Turkey, a gun accident caused her to lose her leg. She named her prosthetic device “Cuthbert.” In connection with the SOE and OSS, Hall led networks of agents in various specialized missions, rescued prisoners of war, and recruited hundreds of spies to work against the Nazis. Her quick wit kept her two paces ahead of the Gestapo, who spent a lot of time and effort trying to find out who she was. Hall was able to outpace the Gestapo because she was a master of disguise, and Germany lost the war knowing that whoever this woman was, she was the most dangerous of all Allied spies. Virginia Hall is the only civilian woman to receive the Distinguished Service Cross.
Marion Frieswyk was a cartographer, who along with others in the OSS, produced three dimensional topographic maps of such places as Sicily in advance of the allied landings there in 1943. Marion was a country girl with a knack for numbers. At the age of 21 years, her ambition was to become a school teacher after graduating from Potsdam Teacher’s College in 1942, but the Japanese attack at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii changed her plans. A college geography professor encouraged her to apply to a summer graduate school course in cartography at Clark University; he told her that the war effort would demand trained map makers. Out of her class of thirty students, the OSS recruited only two: Marion and a fellow named Henry. The OSS offered to pay her $1,800 a year and she was soon off to the nation’s capital.
Customized map making was a new innovation in 1942. The OSS spared no expense sending civilian employees around the world to procure existing maps; geographic researchers and draftsmen transformed these maps into detailed representations of places where the Allies would fight their battles. As in the case of Sicily, Marion and others produced a number of topographic models — it was a combination between artists’ studios and woodworking shops, where jigsaws were employed to produce precise 3-dimensional changes in elevation beginning at sea level. The Sicily map was the first custom made topographic map ever made in the United States.
In 1943, Marion married her classmate from Clark University, Henry, the other student hired by OSS. She and Henry were married for 64 years. After the war, when Truman disbanded the OSS, Marion and Henry transferred to the State Department where they worked until the creation of the CIA. Marion stayed with the CIA until 1952, resigning so that Henry could accept an assignment in London. In recognition of Henry’s 25 years of government service in cartography, the CIA presented him with the Sicily Map that he had helped produce in 1943.
Most of these stalwart women from World War II have passed on, but courageous, hardworking, thoroughly dedicated women continue to serve the United States in the Central Intelligence Agency. Gina Barrett, for example, is a 25-year veteran intelligence analyst with the CIA, who wrote the first report warning US officials about Osama bin Laden in the early 1990s — she was one of a team of six other women focused on the Middle East’s merchants of death, but Ms. Barrett is quick to point out that women have always played a role in America’s clandestine services. Maja Lehnus is another woman, who in over twenty-nine years of CIA service, held six different leadership positions in the field of chemical, biological, and nuclear armaments. Lehnus is the woman at CIA who does the worrying for things that most people don’t even know about — or even want to know about.
The CIA’s clandestine mission for women include a wide range of projects, from counter-terrorism to field operations, the technical aspects of bombs, and space weapons developments. Most of these women are married with children and none of them look anything like an Albert R. Broccoli spy. But the clandestine service is a tough row to hoe and the work can wear anyone down. One such clandestine professional, whose identity is secret, is an explosives expert. The job, she says, is unrelenting, and if someone working in this field doesn’t find a way to step away from it, it will eventually kill them.
There are no seductresses at the CIA, reports one woman. That’s all Hollywood stuff. There is no erratic behavior. What there is, and has always been in the American secret services, are women like Virginia Hall, who are prepared to do whatever it takes to accomplish their vital (to the United States) missions.
Eloise Page was one of 4,500 women employed by the OSS. She began her career as a secretary; she retired as the third-highest ranking officer in the CIA’s operations directorate. In the operations section, she had responsibility for planning and directing covert operations and recruiting foreign spies. Page was the CIA’s first female station chief. Suzanne Matthews followed Page’s pathway. She joined the CIA as a secretary in 1975 and worked her way up to case officer.
Janine Brookner was another of the CIA’s shining stars. She joined the agency in 1968. The CIA offered her an analytical position, but she was adamant about wanting an assignment in operations. Ultimately, as a senior case officer, Brookner infiltrated the Communist Party and recruited a highly placed Soviet bloc agent. Today, Brookner is a Washington, D. C. lawyer.
Female employees of the CIA continue saving American lives every day. Completing this daunting task requires constant vigilance and attention to detail. The demand associated with this work requires compartmentalization, checking one’s emotions, and keeping a cool head under intense pressure. Currently, women make up around 45% of the CIA’s workforce and 34% of the agency’s senior leadership. The third and fourth most senior positions in the CIA are held by women.
Currently, there are 137 gold stars affixed to the CIA’s Memorial Wall, signifying CIA personnel killed in the line of duty. Thirty-seven of these stars do not identify the name of the veterans because their names remain classified. Eleven of those stars are for women, such as Barbara Robbins who died in Vietnam in 1963, Monique Lewis who was killed in Beirut in 1983 and Jennifer Matthews who was killed in Afghanistan in 2009. Some of the women who lost their lives (as with their male counterparts) had a spouse and children at home. Working insane hours protecting the homeland is one kind of sacrifice — giving up their life for the homeland is the ultimate sacrifice.
 The British had their spies, as well. Anna Bates disguised herself as a peddler of knives, needles, and other dry goods to the Continental army. While she was doing that, she took careful note of the soldiers weapons, which the British believed was useful information.