Pulling on her size 4 1/2 combat boots to meet her driver who sped through wartime Italy’s treacherous streets, Sgt. Myrtle Vacirca had no time to reflect on how her own unlikely history of peril and promise had brought her to this point. That day in 1943, she was just another member of the OSS, Office of Strategic Services, an elite, global force of intelligence agents created by President Franklin Roosevelt, and she had been summoned to the villa of the American head of the OSS in Italy, Raymond Rocca.
Hurtling through those winding streets of Rome, Vacirca had no time to reflect on how meticulously and passionately her team gathered intelligence to protect Allied forces and achieve Allied goals. Nor did she consider the twists and ironies that had brought her, a Massachusetts-born woman, back to her ancestral home — with a role unimagined for the daughter of political activists and journalists, who’d been forced from their beloved Italy by the very fascists she was now tasked to help defeat. Vacirca could only pray that the intelligence they gathered was enough to meet urgent needs: There was no room for error.
Sixty-six years later, just after her 93rd birthday, the former Sgt. Myrtle Vacirca, now Vacirca-Quinn, awaits a different kind of intelligence: news that the new Secretary of the Army, John McHugh, has chosen to award her the Bronze Star, the fourth-highest combat award given in the the U.S. armed forces, “…for meritorious service and sustained superior performance in the line of duty in the European African Middle Eastern Theater of Operations with the Office of Strategic Services.” Back then, such awards were rarely given to women, who were just beginning to play the essential role they do in today’s military. But in 1943, Vacirca wasn’t thinking about awards, or much else besides defeating the Axis.
“I didn’t focus on being the only woman in my OSS unit in Italy,’’ she said. “That’s the way it was then. Everyone was just devoted to the mission. The work demanded great attention to detail, night and day, gathering, interpreting and reporting the most sensitive information.’’
Vacirca said her boss, Rocca, had called his team to his villa for a happy reason: to join him for a few rounds of Switka —the national drink of Romania—to celebrate the success of “Operation Tidal Wave,” the bombing of the Ploesti oilfields. These oil fields, called by Roosevelt “the taproot of German might,” were worth even a mission that cost many American lives, Rocca knew, if it distracted the enemy enough to give the Allies an edge. Thanks to the airmen who swept into Ploesti that day, “Operation Tidal Wave” achieved its goal, and the men and women of OSS Italy stopped long enough to raise a glass.
By 1944, when “Operation Tidal Wave” swept through the oil fields of Ploesti, the OSS was just 13,000 strong. An impressive 4,500 of its agents and staffers were women, though just 900 of those women served overseas. Sgt. Vacirca was a member of a tiny, elite and legendary force that included Julia Child, Elizabeth McIntosh, and many other well-known and unknown women who voluntarily left their work, their lives and their loves to make a difference when the world was at war.
Vacirca’s first storming of an all-male bastion actually happened seven years before she joined the Army, when she graduated Brooklyn College and became a labor organizer with the overwhelmingly male United Mine Workers. Vacirca thus helped drive the fight for worker rights and the development of modern safety standards and protections in the workplace — no easy task during the politically and economically precarious 1930s and early 1940s. She also married her first love, Robert Quinn, a Spanish Civil War veteran wounded from action in Barcelona.
When Japan attacked the United States 68 years ago today, on December 7, 1941, normal life ended — especially for Myrtle, Robert and what would become the more than 16 million American men and women who would fight the Axis powers during the Second World War. Robert, who had joined the Royal Air Force before FDR declared war (the RAF had welcomed young Americans as officers before the U.S. entered the war), was flying airstrikes over the Mediterranean, far from his young wife.
Myrtle left her job with the union and went to work in a factory as a defense worker. General Motors converted an automobile plant in Trenton, N.J., into an airplane plant, and Myrtle joined the women who would be personified by “Rosie the Riveter,” producing a type of fighter called a pursuit plane. Meticulous and prolific, Myrtle soon became the first woman to become an inspector of motors, after which — like any good organizer — she opened the motors department to other women. Still, even that work did not satisfy her, and she soon decided to fulfill a more direct role in the war.
In February 1943, Myrtle went to New York City’s famous Whitehall Street Recruiting Depot and enlisted. Given her diminutive size, 5’1″ and 110 lbs., she needed two waivers to pass her physical and had to wait for a uniform, but she prevailed. She cherished her new identity as a WAC – a member of the Women’s Army Corps— and was ready for duty in the Army Air Forces. Only then did she tell her parents.
“I didn’t tell my family until after I had sworn in, not knowing what reaction to expect,’’ Vacirca recalls. “My father was proud of me, even though I wanted to make my own path in the military. He was already with the OSS, and wanted me to follow him in his fight against fascism. I had different ideas, and he was all right with that.’’
Vacirca Quinn wanted to be in the motor pool or the kitchen, she recalls now, “not because I loved the mechanical aspects of cars, but because I loved to drive…. Cooking was also good, and I could learn both in uniform. Of course, I use the term ‘uniform’ loosely, since I didn’t have one for a long time.” When she left New York, a cotton skirt and a blouse would have to do until she got to base. “Weeks later, after I finished basic training, I was still washing and wearing that same skirt and blouse until a captain saw me marching in civilian clothes and threw a fit,” she said. That’s when I finally got my uniform, and it fit perfectly.”
She found that the military itself was a perfect fit for her. Though Vacirca Quinn imagined she would learn motor vehicle repair or cooking while in the Army, the Army had different plans. After completing basic and advanced training as an administrative specialist, she was back on a train—this time bound for San Antonio, Tex., where she was assigned as an administrative specialist for a training flight in the Army Air Corps.
In that overwhelmingly male and high-pressure environment, Vacirca Quinn impressed her superiors so thoroughly that she was reassigned to the headquarters section of the base, where she managed daily operations. Though she did not know it at the time, the OSS was looking for Americans who spoke European languages and who had lived abroad. Soon Myrtle was on yet another plane, this time to Daytona, Fla., to undergo OSS training.
Vacirca Quinn’s training involved everything in the Army’s pre-deployment training for combat troops and more. She learned drill and ceremonies, marched miles with a pack on her back, and climbed rope ladders simulating action needed to climb off of a troopship and go right onto the pitching deck of a Landing Ship Tank. Chemical and biological warfare was part of her curriculum, and all OSS personnel learned judo.
“The only time I ever needed to use my martial arts skill was on U.S. Marines who tried to get fresh with me,” she said. Though it defied logic to every female recruit, there was one part of the curriculum reserved for men only: rifle and pistol training. The higher echelons of the Army who designed this learning experience thought women would be best served if they fought an enemy hand-to-hand, or with a billy club.
The Germans had already showed they could land on American soil, and in June 1942 they used a U-Boat to land saboteurs on the beaches of Ponte Vedra, a few miles south of Jacksonville, Fla. All were caught because one turned the others in to the authorities, but things could have unfolded very differently. “What if the Germans landed in Florida and found a bunch of WACs with billy clubs?” said Myrtle.
After completing what she felt was a truncated OSS training (she feared it would leave female recruits more vulnerable than their male counterparts), Vacirca Quinn was headed to OSS’ new wartime planning headquarters in Washington, D.C. Thousands of soldiers, sailors, airmen and Marines staffed the new HQ, created just after Pearl Harbor.
Vacirca Quinn would spend just 60 days working alongside civilian members of the agency, assigned to often cramped civilian offices that were completely occupied by military activities. Just two months from the day she started, she was assigned to an OSS group that would deploy to North Africa via ship. Despite her initial goals, it seemed, the Army agreed with her father: Her sharp mind, multilingual skills, knowledge of multiple European countries, meticulous attention to detail, devotion to duty, and ability to both exert and respond to commands made her a perfect candidate for OSS activity overseas.
“I felt good about being assigned to the OSS,” said Vacirca. “War was being fought in my father’s country, and I wanted to participate in it directly.” In July 1943, she also had a more visceral motivation: Her husband, Robert Quinn had just been shot down over the Mediterranean.
The young widow was issued a portable typewriter — a weapon in its own right, one that would remain with her for the entire war. Off by troop train once again to Newport News, Va., Vacirca Quinn was headed back to her family’s nation of origin. In January 1944, just 11 months after enlisting and six months after becoming a widow, she was on a troop ship passing the British base of Gibraltar in the Mediterranean Sea.
“It really did look like it was blazing in the middle of the sea, just as the sun was setting and the light was bouncing off,’’ she said. “The colors didn’t seem to begin or end…they just ran into the sea, like molten rock from a volcano…”
When the OSS unit landed at the Algerian port of Oran, smoke from the ruins still smoldered from the bombs that fell the day before. Vacirca Quinn said the two weeks her unit spent in Oran felt more like months.
“The water was so bad I used to brush my teeth with coffee,’’ she said. She contracted whooping cough and said she hurt her ribs so badly she had to be taped up to function. “The barracks were bad on a good day, but with my ribs I couldn’t get any sleep,’’ she said. She said she considered herself lucky to have good friends who raided a whorehouse and secured a good mattress. “With my married name of Quinn, they nicknamed me “Queenie,” and the camaraderie got us all through,” she said.
Just two weeks after landing, Vacirca was back on a troop train to OSS North African Headquarters in Algiers. Here, she was advised to settle in: The OSS would be included in planning the invasion of Italy.
Pushing back memories of her recent sojourn in her ancestral home, with its idyllic summers and lovely winters, she plunged into her work, translating, interviewing and preparing briefings. Her language ability and personal knowledge of Italian geography, politics and personalities became important assets to the OSS. Sharing headquarters with Charles de Gaulle’s staff seems like heady stuff, but for Vacirca Quinn it was all about the work. Everyone was immersed in the mission, even as they struggled to adjust to the African heat and sun, which would burn her lips and sometimes force her to catch her breath but never interfered with the mission.
Besides collecting intelligence as an OSS analyst, Myrtle was asked to do a significant amount of “field work,” such as setting up Italian “shadow” corporations, which were needed to fund Partisans and other friends of the Allies. She got safe-houses for field agents and mingled with Italian socialites. All of these duties helped the OSS operational groups, including the 13-man group that worked with the Partisans who ultimately captured Mussolini and his mistress near the Swiss border on April 27, 1945.
To help pay each Partisan, Vacirca Quinn was given duffle bags of cash. With an OSS sergeant as her driver, she drove throughout the countryside finding widows and orphans and collecting releases for payments, overcoming what others felt might be insurmountable barriers in culture, terrain and safety.
“I had a duffle bag between my legs and a sub-machine gun in my lap,” Vacirca Quinn chuckled. “It was no easy task.”
On August 10, 1945, Vacirca Quinn was discharged from the U.S. Army and reassigned to work as a civilian for the OSS in Italy. “I was assigned with an assimilated rank of Captain, but General Jacob Devers, who succeeded General Eisenhower as European Commander, did not approve of this because I was a WAC,” she recalls. Even though the status of assimilated rank was designed to establish status commensurate with a service member’s credentials, education, contribution, skills and experience, it was not to be given Myrtle, because she was woman.
Still, Vacirca Quinn stayed in Rome and helped close down the OSS’s operations in Italy in 1947. Finding opportunity in the country she helped liberate, she decided to use her G.I. Bill benefits to go to law school in Italy and earned a juris doctorate from the University of Palermo in 1951.
She met and fell in love with Francesco Alliata, a prominent Italian newspaperman and filmmaker with whom she had two children, Dillon and Kim. Alliata did not want to move to the U.S., so Myrtle took her children and returned to the United States in 1956. When she returned to the United States, she spent two years at the Italian consulate before commencing a long career with the New York City Department of Social Services, Division of Employment and Rehabilitation, where she retired in 1987 as the director of a division supervising distribution of services to poor New Yorkers.
The letter of recommendation for a Bronze Star, submitted earlier this year, declares: “It is often said that Ginger Rogers did everything that Fred Astaire did, only backwards and in high heels. In the same way, Myrtle and the overwhelming majority of other women whose service in the OSS during WWII included everything the men were expected to do, performed their duties only under the extra pressure of sexism, sarcasm, harassment and inadequate weapons training, ultimately making them more instead of less vulnerable to dangers from ostensible friend as well as foe.”
It remains to be seen if or when Secretary McHugh — having just survived a long confirmation process in the U.S. Senate — will bestow the honor on this 93-year-old veteran. Even if he does not, her example is enough to remind us that long before the world changed for women in the 1960s, our own military featured women that crashed through any barrier presented to them.