In the now-declassified OSS “War Report,” the secret to success during World War II in the spy agency was the “few individuals” who combined guile and guts to get results.
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Virginia Rathbun Stuart, 99, of Providence, was one of them.
She’s among the last surviving members of the elite agency that only existed to help win the war. The Office of Strategic Services morphed into today’s Central Intelligence Agency. But there never would have been a CIA without the OSS. The FBI’s J. Edgar Hoover wanted that assignment, but failed.
“You didn’t make a lot of inquiries dealing with secret intelligence,” Stuart said earlier this month about her whirlwind years in the OSS. “You have to be smart enough to keep your mouth shut.”
She still speaks about the OSS in the present tense, like the two other OSS veterans who spoke to the Herald last year. “Loose lips sink ships” was drilled into their minds. The world was at war and while soldiers, sailors and airmen put their lives on the line, so did these spies.
Stuart is quick to point out she wasn’t an agent. But she got results.
She was assigned to the Cairo Desk where the agency made its first — and historic — foothold.
“North Africa was the testing ground for OSS,” the once-Top Secret “War Report” obtained by the Herald at the national archive points out. If the agency failed, the OSS would be a footnote.
“We managed to bring order out of chaos, to establish categories for information … and classified material from confidential to top secret,” Stuart, then Virginia Rathbun, was quoted as saying in the book “Women of the OSS: Sisterhood of Spies.” Her job was to handle the massive flow of intelligence coming out of North Africa. She was based in Washington, D.C., but soon traveled to Cairo.
“The pyramids and Sphinx I expected,” she is quoted as saying in the book. “But I was bewildered by the confusion: roads filled with lorries, jeeps, mule-drawn carts; the colorful but noisy bazaars; veiled women, sophisticated Egyptians, deposed royalty from the war in Europe.”
Those days are foggy now. Stuart, a trailblazer from the start, was the first female reporter for WPRO-TV in Providence. Her deceased husband, Gilbert Stuart, led a Chinese commando paratroop unit that worked with the OSS in China during the war. That’s where they met when her OSS duties took her from North Africa to Italy and lastly to China.
The Skidmore College grad saw the world while defending our way of life. She was one of 21,642 men and women who worked for the OSS under Gen. William “Wild Bill” Donovan.
“I was told there would be trouble in the Far East, so I wanted to go there next,” Virginia Stuart said. She was 23 years old and hitched a ride with Donovan on his plane heading to China. She was with the boss, she said, because she marched into his office and asked to fill an empty seat.
Virginia Rathbun Stuart
“It was a bold thing to do, but he was sincere and kind,” she said. “I was on the plane with a bunch of Army men. I was the only woman on the plane.”
She said the OSS “was different.” If you were smart, Donovan wanted you. He was a general ahead of his time and women were welcome.
“Gen. Donovan was not a man of prejudice,” Virginia Stuart added. “He was open-minded and intelligent. He set the tone.”
She not only met her husband in China, she also worked with famed chef Julia Child, who worked in the same OSS office. “She was fun, but didn’t care too much about cooking then,” Virginia Stuart said. Child, history tells, caught the cooking bug once she moved to France with her husband.
Stuart said her job was to “keep her mind on the objective.” Sources in China told her the country would turn Communist soon once the Japanese surrendered. That intel proved accurate.
As for turning 100 this July, Stuart said she lives one day at a time. “Funny things happen along the way,” she said. “Life is an adventure.”
She is a hero of a generation the Herald is chronicling. The pandemic has made it difficult for these veterans who again face new challenges. If you have a World War II story to share, email firstname.lastname@example.org.
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