`We must find and destroy her'
Escaping France by crossing the Pyrenees on foot in November 1942, Allied agent Virginia Hall cabled headquarters: "Cuthbert is giving me trouble, but I can cope." So hungry for Hall's capture was the Gestapo that even her wooden leg--dubbed Cuthbert--needed a code name. In the 15 months prior to France's fall, Hall's undercover work securing Resistance safe houses, finding weapon drop zones, and spiriting downed airmen to safety had earned her the enemy's ire. "The woman who limps is one of the most dangerous Allied agents in France," proclaimed Gestapo fliers, depicting a high-cheekboned brunet. "We must find and destroy her." As she fled to Spain, Hall's London-based compatriots misunderstood her cryptic communique. "If Cuthbert is giving you trouble," London cabled back, "have him eliminated."
Born in Baltimore in 1906 and educated at Radcliffe and Barnard colleges, Hall initially aspired to more traditional forms of foreign service and clerked for the U.S. Embassy in Warsaw in 1931. Though fluent in French, German, and Italian, Hall hit the State Department's glass ceiling for women, and she quit in 1939. In Paris at the outbreak of World War II, Hall trekked to London and volunteered for Britain's intelligence.
Code-named Marie Monin and posing as a New York Post reporter, Hall put her training to use organizing Vichy resistance networks. But after her mountain escape, she grew restless and began looking for new adventures. In March 1944, after mastering Morse code and wireless radio operation, Hall returned to France--this time as an agent of the U.S. Office of Strategic Services.
Milkmaid. During Hall's second French tour, the German hunt for "the limping lady," as she had come to be known, called for more elaborate disguise. Dressed as a hearty milkmaid, the 38-year-old Hall wore thick skirts and layered woolen shirts to hide her trim frame; she walked with a slow, swinging gait to conceal her telltale gimp, the result of a hunting accident. Summers on her family's farm paid off, as Hall made goat cheese, then cycled into town to peddle her wares. "There the Germans are talking, not realizing they have the most wanted American agent listening at their feet," says Linda McCarthy, founding curator of the CIA's museum.
After the war, President Truman awarded Hall the Distinguished Service Cross--the Army's second-highest military honor--and wanted a public party. But Hall demurred: "Still operational," she replied, "and most anxious to get busy." -Joellen Perry
This story appears in the January 27, 2003 print edition of U.S. News & World Report.