The Spy Who Loved St. Kate's
A year ago in September, Elizabeth Sudmeier ’33 posthumously received the Trailblazer Award from the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA). Her nieces, nephew and two grand nieces accepted the medallion — reserved for “CIA officers whose leadership, achievements, and dedication to mission had a significant impact on the agency’s history and legacy.” Yet, no one could tell them anything more.
“My siblings and I were told that her files were still classified and all details of her missions could not be revealed,” explains niece Ginny Benson. “But the agency was working to declassify her records so her story could be told.”
The declassifying of Sudmeier’s files began in February 2014, nearly 25 years after her death.
Sudmeier was born in the tiny town of Timber Lake, South Dakota in 1912. After finishing high school at St. Joseph’s Catholic School, she enrolled at St. Kate’s and graduated with a bachelor’s degree in English. She then went on to teach in Trail City and Eagle Butte, South Dakota. Five years later, she was a secretary for the First Bancredit Corporation in St. Paul. In 1943, Sudmeier applied to the U.S. Naval Reserve (Women’s Reserve), a fairly new division of the U.S. Navy. She was refused acceptance because of poor eyesight, but she didn’t give up on a military career.
With different entrance standards, the Women’s Army Corps (a branch of the U.S. Army) accepted Sudmeier in 1944. She served as a stenographer during World War II. While army leadership and much of the general public were opposed to women serving in uniform, the shortage of men made the inclusion of women necessary. Sudmeier and her peers were the first women, other than nurses, to serve in the U.S. Army.
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In 1947, Sudmeier moved to Washington, D.C. She landed a job as a stenographer for the Central Intelligence Group (CIG), the predecessor to the CIA. When the CIA replaced the CIG, she became a charter member. Women were a rarity in the agency back then. They didn’t serve in operational or senior positions, nor did they have undercover roles. When the Junior Officer Training program started in 1950, the classes had very few females.
Sudmeier completed training in 1954. As a reports officer, she managed the CIA’s foreign intelligence gathering and oversaw data collection on the “highest priority” targets. While her family didn’t know the details of her work, they knew she was employed by the CIA. Sudmeier’s standard response when asked about her job: “I work for the government; my job is classified.”
In 1956, Sudmeier told her family she had left the CIA for the State Department. When, in fact, she had transitioned to covert duty.
As a clandestine agent, she served in the Middle East for nine years, including time in Beirut, Cairo, Damascus, Baghdad and New Delhi.
During a Middle East assignment in 1960, Sudmeier recruited a source with access to Soviet military equipment. That source ended up supplying dozens of volumes of technical manuals, including information on Soviet MiG-19 and MiG-21 jet-engine fighter aircraft. Sudmeier’s station chief nominated her for the Intelligence Medal of Merit. She received the award in 1 It is now known that Sudmeier is the first female CIA agent to do all three of the following: handle assets in a foreign field, conduct a full-cycle recruitment and earn recognition for an operational act. A former Near East Division officer who knew Sudmeier told the Center for the Study of Intelligence: “I can tell you that hers was a monumental struggle as the NE Division was dead set against the idea and concept of a female ops officer.”
“When we were invited to CIA headquarters to receive the prestigious Trailblazer award for my aunt, we were told that what she did was so remarkable for a woman at that time in history,” recalls Benson. “Women were simply not treated the same as men.”
Promotions for Sudmeier came less frequently than for her male counterparts and usually came with strong objections despite exemplary work. According to one manager: “She seems to eat, sleep and breathe the intelligence business.”
She was finally promoted to the rank of GS-13 in 1966, after being GS-12 for over eight years. Sudmeier’s dedication to her career was also evident in her decision to remain unmarried. She ended an engagement with an Italian man because, in those days, women in the CIA were not permitted to marry foreign citizens. The men did not have the same restriction.
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Sudmeier retired from the CIA in 1972, at age 60. She became an active volunteer in the Washington, D.C., area. She served two days per week at the Christ Child Opportunity Shop and weekly at the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts, and she was a historical researcher at the Washington Theater Club.
In retirement, Sudmeier rekindled ties to her alma mater. She hosted staff members, including then-president Catherine McNamee, CSJ, in her home. She helped launch an alumnae chapter in her city and hosted chapter gatherings, which are still active today. She corresponded regularly with friends from St. Kate’s. In 1981, she added St. Catherine to her will, leaving one-third of her estate to the University. An endowed scholarship was created in her name after her death in 1989.
Today, Sudmeier’s Trailblazer medallion and other awards reside with her nephew. They are pieces of pride for the entire family and inspiration for them to continue sharing her remarkable story.
Elizabeth Sudmeier ’33 receiving her second medal of honor from the CIA.
Sudmeier in a recruiting ad for the Women’s Army Corps.
Images courtesy of her family.