D-Day: Martha Gellhorn goes rogue to get her story
Like everyone else in her line of work, Martha Gellhorn was anxious in the spring of 1944, wondering where the invasion of Western Europe would begin and how she might secure a place near the action.
The veteran war correspondent wrote to her friend Eleanor Roosevelt on April 28, frustrated that she had allowed her husband, Ernest Hemingway, to coax her back from covering the war for Collier’s magazine to spend time with him in Cuba:
I am getting almost sick with fear: the way it looks I am going to lose out on the thing I most care about seeing and writing of in the world, and maybe in my whole life. I was a fool to come back from Europe and I knew it and was miserable about it; but it seemed necessary vis-a-vis Ernest.
Hemingway had decided he wanted in on the action, and she helped arrange passage to England for him … while essentially leaving herself out in the cold. Of all the magazines he could have pitched, Hemingway chose Collier’s, which eagerly snapped up the big-name novelist as a correspondent. That move and the military’s general refusal to allow women reporters anywhere near the front lines seemed to assure Gellhorn would indeed miss out on her dream story — even if she could even make it back to England.
While Hemingway winged across the Atlantic in mid-May, trading pleasantries with movie star Gertrude Lawrence on a leisurely flight, Gellhorn had to beg her way on to a Norwegian freighter transporting dynamite across the sea.
She did make it across, though, and hustled her way onto the big story just like she always had.
Furious at Hemingway for the way he had discarded her in pursuit of his own glory, she checked into a separate room at the Dorchester in London after arriving from Liverpool. According to her biographer, Caroline Moorehead, Gellhorn mostly looked on in disgust the next several days as Hemingway partied with his ever-present retinue of admirers even after being released from the hospital following a series car accident.
When the London-based correspondents got the call early on June 6, Gellhorn reported to the Ministry of Information. Hemingway had been gone for a few days, preparing to storm the beaches of France in a heroic return to the continent. After the initial rush of SHAEF’s release of Communique No. 1, officially announcing the invasion, to a room full of correspondents, Gellhorn headed out into the streets of the capital.
With those steps, she began to assemble a piece that would run on a single page in the July 22, 1944 issue of Collier’s. Compared to Hemingway’s cover story “Voyage to Victory,” it was presented as almost an afterthought. But in terms of pure journalism, Gellhorn’s piece delivers a deeper, broader account of how the day actually felt than Hemingway’s almost comically self-serving tome.
It was very quiet and very funny in London during the first hours of the invasion, when it was neither quiet nor funny on the beaches of Normandy. In Westminster Abbey on that historic morning, a man was cleaning the carpet of the alter with a vacuum cleaner, and there were three groups of American soldiers on a sightseeing tour of the church. They had heard of the invasion, it developed, at the Red Cross where they met to go on this tour, but as one of them said, “When you’ve given up your wife and your children and your house, anything else that happens is just so much dust. We’ll start cheering when we get home.”
June 6th was a gray, cold day. People moved quickly through the streets, and you would never have known that this day was different from any other, though it had been awaited for four and a half years. Only at noon, the regular editions of the noonday papers were quickly sold out.
However powerful Gellhorn’s observational skills, the fact remains there wasn’t much happening in London, and that didn’t sit well with her. So she set off for the south coast, inching closer to the action. Her July 22 piece describes the scene at an unnamed British port on “D-plus-one”, June 7:
The landing ramps at the port were the place to be if you couldn’t be on the other side where it was already happening. But the landing ramps were amazing. Imagine a sloping cobbled surface leading down to the soiled sea of a harbor, and imagine all the strange, new, ugly invasion craft moving in and out, as if these landing ramps were taxi stands.
The story weaves in a few more vignettes from the port, from the towns near the coast, from London. But there was much more to Gellhorn’s invasion experience than this initial taste.
After surveying the port, Gellhorn headed to the docks. A military policeman asked her what she was doing there, and she said she was there to interview nurses for Collier’s. That seemingly inane assignment did the trick, and Gellhorn simply walked on to a hospital ship at anchor nearby and locked herself in a bathroom.
Late that night, the ship pulled out of the harbor and set out for the Channel. It may not have been the front lines, but Gellhorn had herself a story.
It appeared in the August 5 issue of Collier’s, this one a proper magazine piece running a few thousand words. The story makes no mention of Gellhorn’s reporting methods, which would permanently alter the course of her war. Its focus is squarely on the nurses and doctors sailing into harm’s way to collect the wounded from Omaha Beach.
According to Moorehead’s account, Gellhorn blended reporting with various shipboard duties, helping out as an interpreter and helping find water and food for wounded soldiers from multiple countries. But always observing.
An LCT drew alongside our ship, pitching in the waves. A boy in a steel helmet shouted up to the crew at the aft rail, and a wooden box looking like a lidless coffin was lowered on a pulley, and with the greatest difficulty, bracing themselves against the movement of their boat, the men on the LCT laid a stretcher inside the box. The box was raised to our deck, and out of it was lifted a man who was closer to being a child than a man, dead-white and seemingly dying. The first wounded man to be brought to that ship for safety and care was a German prisoner.
Over and over, Gellhorn returns to the endless drive of the six nurses on board, the doctors, the support staff. Of the hundreds of men brought on board that day, she writes, only one of them dies on the ship, “and he had come aboard as a hopeless case.”
It will be hard to tell you of the wounded, there were so many of them. There was no time to talk; there was too much else to do. They had to be fed, as most of them had not eaten for two days; their shoes had to be cut off; they needed help to get out of their jackets; they wanted water; the nurses and orderlies, working like demons, had to be found and called quickly to a bunk where a man suddenly and desperately needed attention; plasma bottles must be watched; cigarettes had to be lighted and held for those who could not use their hands; it seemed to take hours to pour hot coffee, from the spout of a teapot, into a mouth that just showed through bandages.
After a series of fascinating snapshots of the wounded, American and German alike, Gellhorn gets to what would be a key differentiator between her invasion coverage and that of her soon-to-be-ex-husband. While Hemingway’s story was heavy on bluster, he didn’t actually get ashore in France until weeks later. On June 8, though, Gellhorn made it onto Omaha Beach with a small crew from the hospital ship sent to retrieve patients.
We waded ashore, in water to our waists, having agreed that we would assemble the wounded from this area on board a beach LST and wait until the tide allowed the motor ambulance to come back and call for us. It was almost dark by now, and one had a terrible feeling of working against time.
Everyone was violently busy on that crowded, dangerous shore. The pebbles were the size of apples and feet deep, and we stumbled up a road that a huge road shovel was scooping out. We walked with the utmost care between the narrowly placed white tape lines that marked the mine-cleared path and headed for a tent marked with a red cross.
The story continues in extensive detail as the medical personnel complete their duties and eventually sail back to friendlier shores, every bunk in the ship occupied. Sounding exhausted herself, Gellhorn sums up the experience near the end of her piece:
There is very little more to write. The wounded looked much better in the morning. The human machine is the most delicate and rare of all, and it is obviously built to survive, if given half a chance. The ship moved steadily across the Channel, and we could feel England coming nearer. Then the coast came into sight, and the green of England looked quite different from how it had looked only two days ago; it looked cooler and clearer and wonderfully safe.
Upon arrival, Gellhorn returned to London to write those pieces for Collier’s. When word got out about her escapade, though, she was arrested by military police.
Sent to a training camp for nurses outside London as a sort of exile, she eventually went AWOL and found her way to Italy. From there, she ad-libbed as an unaccredited correspondent, scraping by without any of the official assistance afforded to her colleagues.
Writes Moorehead: “She would spend the remaining year of the war i Europe, sometimes in uniform, sometimes out of it, ducking and dodging from front to front, using her energy and charm to win over officers into allowing her to travel with their regiments, scrounging lifts, and filing stories whenever she could cajole wireless operators into giving her a line. Her looks, her obvious courage, and her utter disregard for authority came in very handy. Far fewer doors, she later admitted, would have opened for a man.”
While that may have been true, there’s also no question that a male reporter with Gellhorn’s drive and ability would have had a far easier time covering the war through official channels. Sometimes by necessity, sometimes by choice, Gellhorn had to go her own way, but her wartime output stands with the very best of any other correspondent.
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