Where the Action Was: Women War Correspondents in World War IIby Penny Colman, Penny Coleman
During World War II, 127 women managed to obtain official accreditation from the U.S. War Department as war correspondents. In spite of U.S. military regulations that forbade women to cover combat, Martha Gellhorn, Margaret Bourke-White, Lee Miller, and many others found ways to get “where the action was.” Their tenacity, bravery, and fresh approach to reporting war news broke the gender barrier and opened the way for women journalists of today. This is the exciting story of what they did and how they did it—flying bombing missions, taking photographs inside Buchenwald, stowing away on D day hospital ships, dodging bullets on Iwo Jima, and much more. Penny Colman’s authoritative and exciting text also functions as an overview of the war and is profusely illustrated with up-front photos.
From the Hardcover edition.
Read an Excerpt
PRELUDE TO WORLD WAR II IN EUROPE
With a knapsack and fifty dollars, Martha Gellhorn traveled to Spain to cover her first war, the Spanish civil war. Confident and fearless, Gellhorn was a foreign correspondent for Collier's, a popular weekly magazine. She was twenty-nine years old, and she would spend the next fifty-three years of her life covering wars. When she died in 1998, the London Daily Telegraph honored her as "one of the great war correspondents of the centurybrave, fierce and wholly committed to the truth of the situation."
Martha Gellhorn grew up in St. Louis, Missouri. From an early age she attended protest marches with her mother, a tireless activist, and she decided that her "plan for life was to go everywhere, see everything, and write about it."
The Spanish civil war began in 1936, when Generalissimo Francisco Franco led a revolt against the legally elected government of Spain. Arriving in 1937, Martha Gellhorn toured war-torn
Spain by car, on horseback, and on foot. During her time at the front lines, she learned how to identify types of weapons from their sounds and "to gauge shell burst and know what is dangerous and what is not."
During the siege of Madrid, Gellhorn stayed at the Hotel Florida, where she could walk to the front lines, just ten or fifteen blocks away. One day a shell hit the hotel.
Creating a word picture of sights, sounds, and feelings, Martha Gellhorn described the scene: "Suddenly there came that whistlewhine-scream-roar and the noise was in your throat and you couldn't feel or hear or think and the building shook and seemed to settle. Outside in the hall, themaids were calling to one another like birds, in high excited voices. On the floor above ... there was nothing left in that room, the furniture was kindling wood, the walls were stripped and in places torn open, a great hole led into the next room and the bed was twisted iron and stood upright and silly against the wall."
Gellhorn noticed that the male war correspondents stayed away from hospitals with wounded civilians and soldiers. She, however, did not. "I was a great frequenter of hospitals," she explained, "because that's where you see what war really costs." Throughout her career, she wrote many graphic descriptions of the devastating impact of war on everything it touched-the landscape, buildings, animals, men, women, and children. "I always thought that if I could make anyone who had not seen such suffering begin to imagine the suffering, they would insist on a world which refused to allow such suffering," she wrote.
Martha Gellhorn was not the only American woman correspondent who went to Spain. Virginia Cowles, a correspondent for the Hearst newspapers who was fluent in French and Italian, covered the war in high heels, and became good friends with Martha Gellhorn. "I had no qualifications as a war correspondent except curiosity," Cowles later explained. "Although I had traveled in Europe and the Far East a good deal, and written a number of articles ... my adventures were of a peaceful nature .... When the war broke out in Spain, I saw an opportunity for more vigorous reporting."
Martha Gellhorn and other correspondents were particularly drawn to the Spanish civil war because of the other countries involved in the conflict. Joseph Stalin, leader of the Communist Soviet Union, was sending small amounts of aid to the forces that were fighting to save the government. Adolf Hitler, leader of Nazi Germany, and Benito Mussolini, leader of Fascist Italy, were providing soldiers, supplies, and planes to Generalissimo Franco's forces.
By the time Gellhorn arrived, Italy had also invaded and conquered Ethiopia in Africa. Sonia Tomara, a correspondent for the New York Herald Tribune, covered that story.
The daughter of Russian aristocrats, Tomara was a teenager when the Russian revolution began in 1917. She witnessed fierce fighting and hardship. Once, she and her younger sister got caught in the middle of a battle and were captured; they were accused of spying and sentenced to be executed the next day. "I sat alone in a cell all that afternoon," Tomara later recalled, "trying to imagine how I would behave on the way to death." The sisters were spared when a sympathetic guard helped them escape.
Fluent in many languages and a skilled writer, Tomara supported her family, who had fled to Paris, as a newspaper correspondent. In 1936, she broke the story of the Rome-Berlin Axis, an alliance between Mussolini and Hitler.
That same year, Hitler's troops had reoccupied the Rhineland, an industrial area that Germany had lost to France in World War 1. Two years later, Hitler's troops marched into Austria. A few months after that, he threatened to take over Czechoslovakia.
Margaret Bourke-White, a famous photographer for Life, was in Czechoslovakia during that tense time. A dynamic, daring woman, Bourke-White was a pioneer in photojournalism, stories told through photographs. Crisscrossing Czechoslovakia, she photographed schoolgirls, fieldworkers, Gypsies, and a Nazi storm troopers' training class for little boys who were Sudeten Germans (Germans who lived in Czechoslovakia).
Martha Gellhorn also went to Czechoslovakia, reporting that "they talk a great deal about democracy in Czechoslovakia because they think they may have to fight for it." With their wellequipped army and the belief that Great Britain and France would help them, the Czechs were optimistic, Gellhorn wrote. In her article, she quoted the words of a popular Czech song: "All right, Adolf, come ahead."
The optimism ended in the autumn of 1938, when the leaders of Great Britain and France agreed to let Hitler take part of Czechoslovakia. Six months later, his troops occupied the whole country.
Virginia Cowles covered the takeover of Czechoslovakia for the London Sunday Times. At one point, she and two male reporters were arrested and held for hours by a Sudeten German guard with a machine gun. "We were so afraid that a move would upset him," she wrote, "we scarcely dared to turn our heads."
Finally, after convincing authorities that they were foreign correspondents, Cowles and her colleagues were released.
Before Cowles left Czechoslovakia, she went to Carlsbad to hear Hitler speak. "It was a grey rainy day...," she wrote, and "the town was already overflowing with German troops and S.S. [Schutzstaffel, Hitler's elite guard] men. Hundreds of workmen were erecting triumphal arches across the streets-huge wreaths of flowers entwined which spelt the words 'Wir danken unseren Ffihrer (We thank our Leader)."'
Cowles noted that Hitler's speech was short and without much conviction, except for the moment he raised his voice, hit the microphone, and declared, "That I would be standing here one day, I knew."
From the Hardcover edition.
Meet the Author
Penny Colman is the author of 10 children’s and young adult books, among them Rosie the Riveter, and Girls: A History of Growing Up Female in America.
From the Hardcover edition.
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