When we hear CIA – it’s impossible for this acronym to not conjure up an image – but how many of us know what the OSS was? During WWII, the Office of Strategic Services became America’s first central intelligence agency, with offices in Washington DC, which expanded to London, Spain, North Africa, Scandinavia and more, as the war theater expanded yet into the China/Burma/Japan theater. And many of the most important figures in its mission to espionage were women.
Sisterhood of Spies: The Women of the OSS by Elizabeth McIntosh, herself a woman of the OSS, gives us a look at that this dangerous enterprise that spanned continents. It is written as a combination history book, and memoir – but a memoir of hundreds of women who risked it all for freedom. Not only did the author, herself a member of the OSS in the Pacific theater and charged with “black propaganda,” do her scholarly research, but she visited those women who had survived and who were still alive many years later, interviewing them and piecing together the heroic stories of their daring exploits, and their after-story, always one of pride in what they had done as members of the OSS.
Some readers (such as on Goodreads, etc.) have complained at the litany of women whose exploits were described. For sure, some women’s stories are told in vivid detail, while others’ exploits are mentioned but briefly. It was wearing at times, particularly toward the end of the book when the topic turned to the China/Japan/Burma front. But there’s still so much more ahead: How many of us are surprised to learn that Julia McWilliams, who later married Paul Child and became our French Chef, Julia Child, was an OSS agent and stationed on in the Pacific front (See her recipe for sharp protection, below:)? But I think that’s the point. McIntosh wants us to know, although perhaps there is sometimes too much detail, that each woman was an integral part of the effort, each working efficiently, creatively, and utilizing her own talents, and each took risks. As the history of WWII fades in the minds of Americans alive today, as espionage is performed more by drones, satellites and computer hacking, we understand less and less what it took to defeat the Axis powers and Nazi Germany during the 1940’s. Some women packed parachutes, some encoded, some turned Nazis and German POWs into spies for the Allies forces, some traced Nazi gold as far as South America, some forged documents, some monitored the manufacture of weapons and other war supplies, and some rose to heroic stature.
We also must marvel because any detail overlooked might cause death to one and to many: Women of the OSS often kept counterfeit money in their brassieres to soften it up, to make it look old and used. Women of the OSS COI (Cover and Documentation) research, and provided clothing for those going undercover so as not to alert a Nazi soldier to the irregularity. Women of the OSS trained men to smoke cigarettes down to the butt, as European men did. Nothing was too small to notice. Details meant lives saved.
There is no typical profile but for a woman who had skills, education, and a sense of mission. Many who we read about were Americans educated, at least for a while, in Europe, and so were multilingual, speaking English, French, German, Russian, Italian, Japanese, Czechoslovakian, and more. Many were not even Americans, but were dedicated to the Allied cause.
Among those who were awarded the Distinguished Service Cross, the Bronze Star or the Career Intelligence Medal, or other honors. Cordelia Dodson, among her many other exploits, became a driver, which required driving in war-torn London, and relayed men to planes that were airlifting and dropping them off behind the lines in France, to join the men and women of the resistance. Marked by an artificial limb, “The Limping Lady,” Virginia Hall, entered occupied France and organized, armed and trained three units consisting of 300 agents who took part in sabotage operations against the Germans; she located drop zones for supplies and money for the resistance, and recruited French citizens who would establish safe houses for agents and supplies, often carrying her detachable brass foot in a bag. Gertrude Legendre, a debutante who was initially supposed to supervise the routing, delivery and verification of intelligence in London, ended up on a mission in Germany with several others that found her in a prisoner of war camp in France, interrogated by the Gestapo, and later made a daring escape into neutral Switzerland by jumping off a train. Maria Gulovich, from Czechoslovakia, translated front-line intelligence from Slovak or German into Russian, and was eventually recruited by the OSS to lead a group of resistance fighters through occupying troops to the Russian front, acting as interpreter and foraging for food in the villages while on route. Chased for months by Germans and braving snowstorms, starvation, enemy fire, gangrene, betrayal and ultimately capture, she and her two companions made a final daring escape and were rescued by British and American OSS authorities.
What I also found unique about this book is that it also gives voice to the these women’s scorn toward the Nazi’s treatment of the Jews. OSS women cared not just about Germany’s military takeover of land and territory in its quest for global domination, but about how Nazi’s treated other humans, including the Jews and Nazi attempts to exterminate them.
Wrote Cornelia Dodson, a graduate of Reed College in Oregon who was studying in Vienna in 1938 when Hitler’s troops marched in: “I learned to hate the Nazis from that time on. They were so arrogant, so merciless, rounding up anti-Nazis all over town, even during opera performances. Their persecution of the Jews was inhuman.” (p. 172) Dodson returned to the U.S., but became a member of the OSS X-2 (Counter-terrorism Unit) later, then went on an undercover mission to Bern to obtain the complete set of diaries written by Mussolini’s son-in-law, Count Galeazzo Ciano.
Maria Gulovich began her anti-Nazi covert operations and resistance in her native village of Hrinova, Czechoslovakia, when she hid a young Jewish woman and her five-year-old son whom her sister had brought to her in her home.
In the first part of the book, the author mentions discrimination (such as the State Department being closed-minded about women), but in the epilogue she strongly advocates for equality of advancement when the CIA becomes America’s intelligence organization. She questions not just where women would be allowed to be in combat, notes advancements, but also advocates for rising within the organization, even for a woman to one day be head of the CIA.
Still, overall, McIntosh’s focus is on honoring these brave thousands of women, some named, many nameless, the choices they made and the sacrifices they made in the name of freedom and against tyranny, totalitarianism, and madness. As the conversation these days shifts to questions about women in combat and sexual assault in the military, this is the story of the brave women who, during World War II, were dropped behind enemy lines to defeat a “well-trained enemy” bent on world domination and genocide.
*The one historical inaccuracy I found was this, in reference to the Enigma machine, the German cipher machine which GB had in its possession: “Later, code manuals and additional apparatus were captured.” (p. 146) After the truth about Enigma was declassified, it was revealed that Alan Turing devised the electromechanical machine that allowed the British to crack the Nazi code. Turing was later arrested, prosecuted and publicly humiliated for homosexual acts, and died young (either of poisoning or suicide) and thus during his lifetime was never able to be acknowledged for his singular role in winning the war. See also Joan Clark, the only woman who was on Turing’s code-breaking team. See “The Imitation Game,” screenplay by Graham Moore loosely based on the biography Alan Turing: The Enigma by Andrew Hodges