Among the thousands of brave men who stormed the beaches of Normandy 75 years ago this week, there was one woman. It led to her divorce.
The marriage between Martha Gellhorn and Ernest Hemingway was actually already pretty much over, but that invasion was the final cut.
Among rivalries in journalism, none burned much hotter than that between Gellhorn and Hemingway. The writers met at a Florida bar in 1936, ignited an affair while covering the Spanish Civil War but fell out of love before landing with troops on the French shores.
They arrived separately.
Gellhorn’s presence at the D-Day invasion was part of a different kind of freedom fight; one that forged a path for women to be treated equally in the workplace, even on battlefields.
Among the hundreds of government-approved credentials for that day, all women were denied. More than 1,600 American journalists went into the European and Pacific theaters to document the war; only 127 were women.
Gellhorn was not a cub reporter by D-Day. She got her start writing about the devastating poverty of the Great Depression as part of a Federal Emergency Relief Administration project.
She arrived in Spain to cover its unrest with $50 and a knapsack. She later wrote about Adolph Hitler’s rise to power in Germany.
A sidenote: It was a woman who broke the story about the outbreak of the war. Clare Hollingworth of The Daily Telegraph wrote on Aug. 29, 1939, how Germany had “large numbers of troops, literally hundreds of tanks, armored cars and field guns” concealed in a valley just outside Poland. Hitler invaded the country two days later, touching off his global crusade.
During the war, Gellhorn worked for Collier’s Weekly Magazine and was sent to London after the Blitz. She traveled to Burma, Singapore, Hong Kong, Finland and England pursuing different angles.
Hemingway remained living on his boat off the coast of Cuba to patrol for wayward German U-boats. He complained in a cable to Gellhorn when she left for the Italian front, “Are you a war correspondent or wife in my bed?”
Getting restless and fed up, Hemingway offered Collier’s his byline. Editors jumped to hire a famous writer and handed him his wife’s war correspondent credential.
Despite attempts by her husband to block travel plans on D-Day, Gellhorn stowed away in the bathroom of a hospital ship. She made her way onto Omaha Beach with the stretcher carriers and became the first woman to report on the invasion.
She wrote in first person, using a trademark approach of focusing on people:
“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 had to 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.
“But the wounded talked among themselves, and as time went on you got to know them, by their faces and their wounds, not by their names. They were a magnificent, enduring bunch of men. Men smiled who were in such pain that all they really can have wanted to do was turn their heads away and cry, and men made jokes when they needed their strength just to survive.”
The military wasn’t happy, later arresting Gellhorn. But she arrived before Hemingway, getting the scoop.
They divorced in 1945.
Gellhorn wasn’t the only woman fighting misogyny on the war front.
Ruth Cowan had been a reporter for 19 years before landing in North Africa in 1943. Photographer Lee Miller from Vogue documented Dachau as it was being liberated by U.S. forces. Catherine Coyne of the Boston Herald covered the Nuremberg trial.
Margaret Bourke White of LIFE magazine, who survived a transport ship being sunk by a torpedo, followed George Patton’s Third Army into Germany. She documented concentration camp horrors. There was Dot Avery of the Detroit Free Press, Virginia Irwin of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch and others.
Many women have followed. They risked their lives along with men to inform the public of the toll war takes.
Photographer Dickey Chapelle was the first U.S. female journalist killed in action when hit by shrapnel from a Viet Cong land mine on Nov. 4, 1965, near Chu Lai Air Base.
She got her start by talking her way onto Okinawa just as Marines were rescuing wounded soldiers. Two of the photos showed a soldier before and after receiving blood.
Though the Navy evicted her at gunpoint, those photos prompted an outpouring of blood donations.
When Chapelle died, she became part of the story. An image of a clergyman in camouflage giving last rites over her body became a well-known photo, and nearly every obituary had a description of her dying in her “signature pearl earrings.”
Journalism remains deadly. Last year, 53 journalists around the world were killed on duty; three were women.
Gellhorn lived a long life, dying at 89. She was present at nearly every major conflict in the 20th century, retiring in 1989 after covering the U.S. invasion of Panama. In her book “The Face of War,” among many astute observations, one remains good advice.
“On the night of New Year’s Day, I thought of a wonderful New Year’s resolution for the men who run the world: get to know the people who only live in it.”