The Secrets of the Office of Strategic Services Personnel Records: Spotlight on Virginia Hall

Today’s post is by Cara Moore Lebonick, Archives Reference Specialist at the National Archives at St. Louis

image of virginia hall

In 1931 Virginia Hall, born this month, was appointed as a “Clerk” for the U.S. Department of State, to be stationed in Warsaw. She failed the “career service” exam twice, once in 1929 and again in 1930, before her appointment. Within the first five years of service she was injured, resulting in the amputation of her leg below the knee – and added a prosthetic – a supposed career ending disability. Instead, her career carried her throughout the world, her journey setting her up to become one of WWII’s most renowned spies. 

Early in her federal service Hall was commended for having little interest in fashion and cosmetics, while also condemned for having little interest in typing and office work. It was recognized that such work was dulling to her intelligence and instead showed keen interests outside of a position “suitable for an American girl” for 1933.

Just months after this efficiency report Hall suffered the loss of one of her legs below the knee. She was out of work for months but continued to receive pay and ultimately, an artificial limb. During this time her office fought for her to be maintained on the payroll and to hold her position. 

Following her fitting for a prosthetic leg and subsequent release to work, Hall became doggedly determined to continue her advance in career service. In efficiency reports from 1936 she is described as having “unbounded ambition, a lack of appreciation for her own limitations, and a most praiseworthy determination” while at the same time “not good material for career service” due to a lack of “discriminatory powers.”

This kind of language continues in her 1937 efficiency report, noting no real change except Hall’s “disappointment upon learning that her physical disability barred her from entry into career service” which may lead to her resignation. Which it did. 

Hall left service with the Department of State. Her Official Personnel Folder (OPF) from our holdings states her records were transferred to the Office of Strategic Services (OSS) in 1944. This is where her record picks up with the OSS Personnel records stored at the National Archives in College Park. Both locations hold military and civilian personnel records related to the OSS. 

The National Archives at St. Louis holds the accessioned (1) personnel records of military personnel and federal employees from the first half of the twentieth century and slightly before. Except, when they are located somewhere else. Information concerning these individuals may be located in alternate records series throughout NARA. This can make understanding where to send requesters very complicated. In an attempt to clear up some of this misunderstanding a brief explanation of the possible locations for Office of Strategic Services (OSS) personnel records follows.

A standard place for researchers to begin their search is on our online Catalog. The National Archives Catalog boasts one file unit & 6 items that pertain to Virginia Hall from 3 series in the Records of the OSS (Record Group 226). The items are digitized and available for viewing via the Catalog. The National Archives at St. Louis also holds accessioned personnel records of the OSS, as well as related intelligence agencies and their precursors, which do not come up in a Catalog search. This is because the file level capacity of all the personnel records is vast and our digitization efforts are just beginning!  

The National Archives at St. Louis are, sometimes, able to find OPFs for employees of the OSS that were not separated into the series held in College Park. A search is conducted of various civilian federal agencies that have known ties to intelligence and OSS work (examples include: Department of State, Department of the Army/Air Force, Office of War Information, Department of the Navy, Office of Emergency Management, among others.). The service related to the OSS may be entirely military based, the individual serving with or alongside OSS personnel, but in a military capacity.

It is also common for a search of suspected OSS service to hit a dead end with the personnel series in College Park, only to find it was actually related intelligence work with the military or a federal agency. 

It has been found that an individual can have a unique service record in the series at College Park or in St. Louis, or both, and, unfortunately, sometimes, neither. The OSS personnel records have an interesting, but disjointed, history! 

As for Hall, she went on to receive the Distinguished Service Cross; one of the only times it was awarded to a civilian in WWII. While she reapplied for service with the Department of State in 1946, she would end up joining the CIA in 1948. She would tell her stories after the threat to national security was lifted. 

Footnote, sources and citations:  

  1. Accessioned means in the legal custody of the National Archives at St. Louis and open to the public as subject to FOIA (b)(6) and Personal Privacy Act. The OSS records at College Park were released to the public under a different order:

Virginia Hall; Official Personnel Folders-Department of State, Record Group 146: Records of the U.S. Civil Service Commission; National Archives, St. Louis, MO

Catalog search for Virginia Hall: one file unit & 6 items

OSS-CIA Index in College Park, MD (Personnel Files of the Office of Strategic Services, National Archives Identifier 1593270); these records have been completely indexed, at the file level, and consist of personnel records maintained by the OSS (1942-1945) which  were transferred to the CIA when it formed and the OSS was deactivated. 

Chadbourne Gilpatric; Official Military Personnel File, Record Group 319: Records of the Army Staff,; National Archives, St. Louis, MO

To begin your search in the OSS records see the National Archives portal:  Office of Strategic Services Personnel Files from World War II

5 thoughts on “The Secrets of the Office of Strategic Services Personnel Records: Spotlight on Virginia Hall

  1. Interesting, thanks. A very good book on Virginia Hall’s OSS career is:

    Hall of Mirrors: Virginia Hall: America’s Greatest Spy of WWII, by Craig Gralley

    Regarding losing part of one leg, after landing an appointment as a Consular Service clerk at the American Embassy in Warsaw, Poland in 1931, Virginia Hall was transferred a few months later to Smyrna, known later as Izmir, Turkey. In 1932, she tripped and accidentally shot herself in the left foot while hunting birds. Her leg was amputated below the knee and replaced with a wooden appendage which she named “Cuthbert”. After losing her leg, she worked again as a consular clerk in Venice and in Tallinn, Estonia.

  2. This is quite the story and shows that finding archival information can be complicated. Great essay, Thank you, Cara.

  3. I recently finished a book on Virginia Hall’s life titled: “A Woman of No Importance: The Untold Story of the American Spy who helped win WW II by Sonya Purnell: Author of Clementine: The LIfe of Mrs. Winston Churchill. Great read!

    1. I just finished “A Woman of No Importance” also. Great book. I also have “Wolves at the Door” which is also about Virginia Hall but I have not started it yet.

  4. Virginia Hall’s story is also told in the National Archives’ “Public Vaults” exhibition at the National Archives Museum in Washington, DC. Check it out when the exhibit hall reopens!

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