Today marks the 75th anniversary of Operation Neptune, the Allied assault on the beaches of Normandy, France as part of the broader Operation Overlord. Over 130,000 troops were landed, about 3,400 killed on or around the beaches during the assault, and an additional 20,000 paratroopers supported the attack before and during D-Day. In the initial month (roughly), American forces (specifically the VII Corps) suffered just over 22,000 casualties as they moved against the German forces in France.
It is a day worth remembering and there are many stories worth noting but maybe one worth mentioning in particular is that of Virginia Hall. Virginia Hall grew up in Baltimore, Maryland and attended Radcliffe and Barnard. She had a gift for languages and wanted to join the Foreign Service. After pursuing additional education in Europe, she was hired as a clerk at the U.S. embassy in Warsaw. During her next assignment in Turkey, she suffered a hunting accident and had her lower left leg amputated below the knee. She was fitted with a wooden prosthetic leg which she nicknamed, “Cuthbert”. Returning to work at the American consulate in Venice, she applied to take the oral exam for the Foreign Service but was told that the loss of her leg would prevent her from being accepted.
When World War II broken out, Virginia was in France and worked in the ambulance corps until the fall of France. She escaped through Spain and made her way to England where she volunteered to serve with the British Special Operations Executive (SOE). The SOE trained her in weapons, communications, espionage, and other resistance activities. Ms. Hall assisted escaped POWs, recruited locals to run safe houses, and organized agent networks. All while keeping ahead of the Gestapo who were pursuing this “Limping Lady”.
She was awarded the Distinguished Service Cross – the only civilian woman to receive the honor.
After the war, she wanted to remain in the intelligence industry and had a distinguished career in the CIA until her retirement in 1966.
If there is a word that I’d pick to describe the people we think of on this anniversary, it is “persistence”. They faced daunting tasks, great personal peril, and an uncertain future. I’m sure they had doubt and fear but I don’t think the world would have survived a world war like that without their persistence.
Virginia Hall was an intelligence, brave, and a persistent woman – a role model. She didn’t let setbacks in her goals deter her from continuing to pursue her passions. This should be true for all of us, regardless of gender. It is a trait worth remembering today on the 75th anniversary of D-Day.