By Douglas Martin
Published: September 24, 2006
Hélène Deschamps Adams, who as a teenager in France, defied death by spying for groups resisting Nazi occupiers and their collaborators and later for the United States, died on Sept. 16 in Manhattan. She was 85. The cause was congestive heart failure, said her daughter, Karyn Anick Monget, who noted that her mother had a variety of maladies, including pneumonia.
Hélène Deschamps came from a military family, was a tomboy and hated the thought of the Nazis’ taking over her country. This combination propelled her to volunteer to fight with the French Resistance. Her youthful looks, insouciance and an accent German soldiers found delightful helped provide cover.
She reported on airfield locations, German mines and antiaircraft and camouflaged emplacements along the shores of the Mediterranean. She saved American parachutists from capture at drop zones and helped Jewish families escape to Spain.
“Hélène was a very gutsy young woman,” Henry Hyde, the chief of American intelligence in France during World War II, said in an interview in Women in the Resistance by Margaret L. Rossiter. “She went through the lines for us, observing German defense installations and order of battle,” he said. “She took many risks and was a genuinely good operator.”
She was captured by resistance fighters from another resistance group while carrying fake German papers and was almost executed. A close friend she regarded as a sister, whom she had recruited to spy with her, was killed by a sniper while she was in the back seat of a car driven by Ms. Deschamps, who then quickly had to dig the grave.
She hid in a closet full of apples while drunken Germans tormented her French protectors. She watched in silent terror as Nazi soldiers brutalized a pregnant woman at a roadside.
In an interview with CNN in 1996, Mrs. Deschamps Adams said her years of espionage had “no glamour, no romance, no dinner at the embassy in a designer gown.” There was only a necessary job, she said. “You have to forget your own feelings.”
Gratitude was never plentiful. Mrs. Deschamps Adams’s daughter said her mother never got the pension that she said had been promised by someone in the Office of Strategic Services, the wartime spy agency that was the CIA’s precursor. She got no awards from governments until 2000, when the United States gave her the Distinguished Service Medal and France recognized her heroism in a joint ceremony.
She did find love on the battlefield. After a whirlwind weekend with an American first lieutenant, Forest E. Adams, whom she met while he was on furlough, she accepted his marriage proposal and came to the United States with him in 1946. Their daughter said neither knew much of the other’s language, but shared what her mother called “the language of love.”
Mr. Adams died of a heart attack in 1951, and Mrs. Deschamps Adams never remarried. Karyn, a baby at the time of her father’s death, said her mother told her she never met a man as good as the one she lost.
Hélène Marguerite Deschamps was born on Jan. 30, 1921, in the French concession of what was then called Tientsin, China, and was raised in Senegal, Madagascar and Réunion, an island department of France in the Indian Ocean. Her father, a general in the French colonial army, retired to Aix-en-Provence, in the south of France, in the late 1930’s.
She was studying in a convent when Hitler invaded France in 1940. The advice of her mentor, a French colonel who had been a friend of her father’s, was to “join the Red Cross or something,” not the underground. She had no special training when she and the friend she recruited began riding their bicycles to spy on German troops — some of whom gallantly helped with bike repairs.
She was given the code name Anick and posed as a secretary at the headquarters of the Milice, the special police force known as the French Gestapo. She stole the records of people marked for execution, including Jews and resistance fighters, and stuffed them in her brassiere, her daughter said, then flushed them down the toilet.
She suffered a permanent back injury when she was beaten by a French interrogator, and was partly deaf because she walked into a building where she knew a bomb had been planted, and it went off just as she was leaving. When she became disillusioned with the resistance because so many anti-Nazi groups were competing against one another, a resistance leader arranged for her to meet an O.S.S. agent, who accepted her on the strength of the leader’s word.
After her husband’s death, Mrs. Deschamps Adams worked on a Lockheed assembly line and then taught French in many places, including Iran, Hawaii, Germany and Bermuda. She wrote two memoirs, The Secret War (1980) and Spyglass: An Autobiography (1995).
In the introduction to Spyglass, she asked a question: “If you had to renounce family, friends, any kind of a normal lifestyle to fight a fierce enemy, would you?”
In addition to her daughter, who lives in Manhattan, Mrs. Deschamps Adams is survived by a brother, Henri Deschamps of Maraussan, France.