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.