How many CIA women have died in the line of duty?
~ Fallen Stars
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Dear Fallen Stars,
We have an ivory-white marble wall in our lobby at CIA Headquarters that stands as a silent, simple memorial to honor the women and men who have given their lives in service to our country. As of March 2019, there are 129 stars carved into the marble of the CIA Memorial Wall: 91 are unclassified. Of those, 11 represent women.
Officially, the first female CIA officer to die in the line of duty and receive a star on the Memorial Wall was Barbara Robbins. She was killed only two years after joining the Agency – in March 1965 – when terrorists bombed the US Embassy in South Vietnam. She remains the youngest CIA officer to receive a star, at just 21-years old.
However, what many Agency history buffs don’t know is that the first ever CIA officer to die while working for the Agency was also a woman: her name was Jane Wallis Burrell.
At a time when most women in US intelligence worked in clerical roles, Jane was a CIA counterintelligence officer who served in all of CIA’s predecessor agencies: the Office of Strategic Services, the Strategic Services Unit, and the Central Intelligence Group.
On January 6, 1948, an Air France flight from Brussels crashed on its way to Paris, killing all five crew members and 10 of the 11 passengers. Among the dead was a young woman who the press said was either a clerk or a courier. She was neither. Jane was a CIA officer, and her death—only 110 days after CIA was officially established the previous September—makes her the first CIA officer to die while employed by the Agency.
We know don’t know much about Jane’s activity at the time of her death. She was returning from a trip to Brussels, but there are no records to indicate whether or not she was on vacation or an official operation.
Jane was not a candidate for a star on the Memorial Wall because the wall commemorates Agency employees who died in specific circumstances: deaths from accidental crashes of commercial aircraft have generally not qualified. Still, her service with CIA and its predecessor organizations was honorable and she deserves to be remembered.
When any CIA officer (male or female) dies in the line of duty, their names frequently must be kept secret. Sometimes, the first time that families hear that their loved one worked for the Agency is when that officer has died. However, with the passage of time, we’ve been able to unveil many of the fallen, and share their heroic stories with the public.