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Reporting Under Fire
16 Daring Women War Correspondents and Photojournalists
By Kerrie Logan Hollihan
Chicago Review Press IncorporatedCopyright © 2014 Kerrie L. Hollihan
All rights reserved.
World War I 1914-1918
In the early hours of June 29, 1914, transatlantic cable traffic from Europe buzzed with reports from the tiny nation of Serbia, far away in the Balkans. Editors on the foreign desks of big American newspapers rolled up their sleeves and got to work to rush the news onto their front pages: the Austrian archduke Franz Ferdinand and his wife, the duchess Sophie, had been assassinated during a state visit to Sarajevo, Serbia's capital.
On July 28, exactly one month after the assassination, Austria-Hungary declared war on Serbia. That single declaration triggered all-out war across Europe as a complex set of treaties lunged into motion. Nine days later, most of Europe was at war — Germany and Austria-Hungary (the Central powers) battling France, Great Britain, Italy, and Russia (the Allied powers). Both sides expected the fighting to be short and glorious, but on August 22, when 27,000 French soldiers died on a single day in the opening battles, reality began to hit home.
Under President Woodrow Wilson's isolationist policies, the United States tried to stay out of Europe's Great War, but in April 1917, Americans were finally sucked into the bloody conflict. Untried and idealistic, American youths left cities and farms to fight "the war to end all wars." The American Expeditionary Force, commanded by General John "Black Jack" Pershing, arrived in France that summer. Pershing came fresh from his previous command a year earlier when he had led American soldiers into Mexico to capture the bandit Pancho Villa.
American reporters secured credentials from the US government and followed troops into France. All were men. A war was no place for a woman, went the thinking of the time. After all, few women had broken through the invisible wall that blockaded "girl reporters" from the tobacco-spitting environs of the city desk. Although it was the era of the "New Woman" in the United States and American women had made some progress in filling professional jobs since 1900, in 1917 they still did not even have the right to vote.
Only a handful of women made their way into war zones as battles raged in France. With the backing of the Saturday Evening Post, Mary Roberts Rinehart, a popular mystery writer, went to the front early in the war and was appalled at the dreadful medical care available for wounded soldiers. Another, a photographer named Helen Johns Kirtland, went to France on her honeymoon, got to the trenches, and took memorable photographs. Peggy Hull, who had mistakenly upstaged Pershing in Texas, sidestepped the ban on women reporters and went to France as well.
Henrietta Goodnough, aka Peggy Hull
REPORTING FROM EL PASO, PARIS, AND VLADIVOSTOK
It was July 4, 1917. ... I was in Paris [sitting in a sidewalk café with two Frenchwomen. Suddenly] ... a low murmur reached our ears ... It grew louder and louder ... and we heard the rhythm of marching feet, the military rhythm of marching feet ... the musical shuffle of the precise ... left ... right ... left ... right ... the heartening sound of youthful marching feet ... the murmur grew into a roar! ... Down the boulevard came the familiar khaki ... the broad sombreros of the American army! ... PARIS WENT MAD!
— Peggy Hull, "The Last Crusade, 1918, A.D.," The Pointer
She paced the platform back and forth, waiting for the railroad to bring passengers from Kansas City to the east and Denver to the west. As trains came and went, she approached the travelers to ask for tidbits of news and gossip. Where had they been? Where were they going? What events were changing their lives? When the platform was empty and folks had gone their way, this girl reporter wrote up her findings and filed them with the editor of her small town newspaper, the Junction City Sentinel. The passengers might have noticed the ink stains on her fingers — not that she minded. Henrietta Eleanor Goodnough was plenty happy to typeset the articles she wrote.
Henrietta quit high school when she was 16, ready to do what it took to become a newspaper reporter. When she'd gleaned enough experience at home, she moved on. In two years' time, Henrietta lived in five states: Kansas, Colorado, California, Hawaii, and Minnesota. In Denver, she married George Hull, a newspaperman, and took his name. The marriage lasted only four years; Hull was a drunk, and when he stripped and tried to climb a flagpole naked (a fad that lasted long into the 1920s), Henrietta decided she'd had enough.
In Denver, Henrietta met and fell in love with another reporter, Harvey Duell. Harvey fell for Henrietta too; but he had his mother to think of, and she didn't approve of her son marrying a divorcée. Henrietta decided that absence might make Harvey's heart grow fonder, so true to style, she moved to Minnesota to work at the Minneapolis Daily News. There her editor insisted she change her name, saying he "wouldn't be caught dead putting at the head of any column in his newspaper a name such as Henrietta Goodnough Hull." Henrietta changed her name to Peggy. And when Harvey didn't propose and a better job appeared in Ohio, she moved to Cleveland.
In the course of her many jobs, Peggy had worked in both public relations and advertising. Reporters looked down on this kind of writing, but amid a growing market of department store shoppers, newspaper owners counted on advertising to sell papers. Women might not have the vote, but savvy editors hired them to write both ad copy and features from the "woman's angle."
Product placement was a typical component of these stories, and Peggy Hull, girl reporter, was assigned to write an advertising column at the Cleveland Plain Dealer. Peggy supposedly went "a-shopping" and made up stories featuring products and services her readers could buy in downtown Cleveland. Her copy was so good she was featured in a pair of trade magazines, Editor & Publisher and the Journalist, which explained that Peggy's
chief stunt ... is to "have things happen to her" as she puts it, in order make the interest keen. ... An example of one of her "happenings" was to have herself held up by a masked bandit, which story was used to advertise a bank.
Though she blatantly sold advertising as real news, Peggy tacked disclaimers at the end of her columns, a "P.S." to clarify that prices and locations she mentioned were purely advertising. Readers didn't seem to mind, and she kept her bosses and their advertisers happy.
Peggy grew up near Fort Riley, Kansas, and had always idolized the soldier's life. When Cleveland became the first American city to sponsor a National Guard Training Course for Citizens, she signed up for its Women's Auxiliary. "I'm going to learn to shoot a rifle and to do Red Cross work," she wrote in the Plain Dealer. "The drills and exercise are splendid from a health standpoint, and the military training teaches self-control, a good thing for the majority of us because we are so apt to lose our heads in an emergency." She wrote a description of her uniform and went on to mention the frilly Easter outfit she'd wear off duty. Her Easter finery, of course, was available for purchase at a Cleveland store.
In 1916, Peggy began wearing a uniform full time. That year, the Mexican bandit Pancho Villa began a series of terrorist raids on American towns along the US-Mexican border, terrorizing and killing American citizens. On March 15, 1916, troops led by army general John J. Pershing were ordered to cross from Texas into Mexico to chase down Villa. The Ohio National Guard was sent to patrol the border, and Peggy decided to go along.
In true fashion, she got a head start. She boarded a train for El Paso, Texas, took a room in a hotel, and went to work as a freelancer. She had the Plain Dealer's promise to pay her for anything she wrote that could promote its advertisers. She stopped at home in Kansas on her way south.
"Wherever the army was there was Peggy," the El Paso Morning Times said later. "When reviews [parades] were held at Fort Bliss, Peggy was there on the friskiest mount in the corrals. ... When General Murgia [Mexican General Francisco Murgía] entertained General [J. Franklin] Bell in the hippodrome in Juarez toasts were drunk to Señorita Peggy, the pride of the Americans present. She was the friend of every soldier in the American army."
Peggy adored the pomp and circumstance of army life, but she wrote about its sordid side as well. As with all armies, Pershing's forces had its share of camp followers, prostitutes who found willing customers among the soldiers. In time, Peggy grew to understand the despair these scorned women shared, and when they were thrown out of town she wrote a sympathetic article about eight "little girls in red satin middy blouses ... with a stigma that marks them 'undesirables.'"
Peggy joined 20,000 of Pershing's men on a 15-day march from Texas into New Mexico. She set off wide-eyed and excited, daydreaming of the entrance she'd make one day meeting an editor at the biggest New York newspaper, only to stumble over a rock and fall into a mesquite bush. The boots she'd bought hurt her feet so badly she fell behind and limped into camp with a pair of straggling soldiers. She was so sore the next morning she thought of turning back, until the sound of a bugle gave her the boost she needed.
Though the march was short that day, a sudden sandstorm created chaos all along the line of soldiers.
Units became separated. Minor commands were lost. Water wagons were overturned in the desert or else lost their way and wandered from the main column. The wind raged and blinded us all with fine white sand. We had no luncheon and no dinner. About 1 o'clock in the morning after the storm had spent itself, our weary field kitchen staggered into camp and the First Kentucky Field Hospital — I was traveling with them — turned out for food — and such food. Sanded bacon — sanded bread — sanded coffee sweetened with sanded sugar.
I felt as though I had never had a bath. ... My hair was bristling and hard to sleep on. I didn't want a military career then, but I had convinced the general I did want one and I couldn't quit.
"Private" Peggy Hull was a tough young woman, and she hung on for four more days. She stood in chow lines with enlisted men to get her meals and slept on the ground in a small tent. Then, at the halfway point of the march, she was ordered to appear at the officers' mess tent. She'd received a "promotion," and as "Lieutenant Hull," Peggy was welcome to dine with the officers. Her toughness had won their admiration. What was more, Peggy Hull became the first American woman to "embed" with American forces, a term that didn't show up in the English language for another 80 years.
But Peggy's days with the Plain Dealer were numbered. There was only so much advertising a girl in Texas could sell for a department store in Cleveland, plus the paper had sent a male reporter to cover army news. When her editor asked her to come home, she sent her answer, which appeared in a feature article several years later:
"Won't come back; fire me if you like," she wired.
Plucky as ever, Peggy got a new job with the El Paso Morning Times. She decided to blend in with the men she covered and put together an outfit to wear in the field. Years later, her close friend, another newspaperwoman named Irene Corbally Kuhn, wrote about Peggy's days along the Texas-Mexican border:
Peggy always dressed for the role. She wore a trim officer's tunic, short skirt, boots, Sam Browne belt [a wide leather belt with a strap that ran over the shoulder], and a campaign hat. She went right along on the marches with the boys, never complained that her feet hurt, nor interrupted things to powder her nose. Nighttime, she rolled up in her poncho and slept on the ground with the rest of them.
Peggy may have dressed to fit in, but the fact was that any girl reporter would cause a ruckus among thousands of soldiers. Even General Pershing knew her name. Peggy had ridden out to greet the general as he led his soldiers back from Mexico, and their picture ran the next day in the Morning Times. Pershing was not pleased to see himself upstaged by Peggy, whose place in the photo made it seem she'd led the parade.
Nothing was going to stop Peggy Hull from getting a story. When the United States entered World War I in April 1917, the Morning Times agreed to sponsor her, provided that Peggy pay for her voyage and her expenses herself. If she were lucky enough to get some stories, then her editors would be happy to pay for them.
Peggy almost beat Pershing's soldiers to Paris, arriving just as the first troops from the American Expeditionary Force appeared. Unlike her male counterparts, who held credentials from the War Department, Peggy was completely on her own. She filed her early stories, How Peggy Got to Paris, with the El Paso paper, and they caught the eye of Floyd Gibbons, who reported for the Chicago Tribune. With Gibbons' approval, Peggy tweaked her words for the soldiers who read the Tribune's army edition. Always the innovator, Peggy offered her shopping services for the "boys" in the Expeditionary Force. She also found a friend in the older, elegant Anne McCormick, wife of an American businessman working abroad, who was to become a respected — and the first female — member of the New York Times editorial board after starting as a freelancer in Europe.
Peggy longed to get inside an army training site, but she lacked official credentials. Sympathetic officers managed to get her into an American artillery camp with a group of YMCA canteen workers, the only women besides nurses allowed anywhere near fighting men. She lived with the eight YMCA workers in a barracks heated by stoves and was up at 5:45 AM to wash her face in a basin of water and comb her hair in front of a tiny mirror. Peggy watched as soldiers learned how to fire trench mortars, which she likened to "gray devils" that could kill her if they went off course. When it came time to send the trainees to the battle line, Peggy rode 28 miles in the rain to see them off.
For the most part, male correspondents in France were slow to write war news. Waiting for the "real" fighting to start, they hadn't bothered with the human-interest stories that were Peggy's specialty. Peggy both entertained and informed the folks back home, and her woman's take on a soldier's life worked so well that other editors took notice and asked their reporters why they didn't produce the same stuff. The angry newsmen ganged up on Peggy, complaining to army brass that her work as an uncredentialed correspondent was "undignified." They forced the issue with Pershing, who admired Peggy and her gutsy reporting but refused to give her credentials.
Faced with leaving France, Peggy made plans to return to El Paso, where she was popular with the locals. When she departed, she made a dig at the men who'd forced her out of France.
When we've won the war and all you brilliant writers are out of jobs, come back to El Paso, Texas, and if you crowd my stuff off the front page there will still be two persons who'll look for it inside — mother and me. And I promise I won't fuss with the managing editor about it — or tell him you should be sent to Mexico or even ask him to put you in jail — I learned to be a good loser long before I came to France.
I cannot leave France without publicly announcing my gratitude and appreciation of the hospitality of Maj. Gen. Peyton C. March and his staff — of the YMCA men and women workers when my colleagues were seeking my blonde scalp ...
Peggy went home but wasn't there for long. By the New Year in 1919, she was on the move and making headlines herself:
PEGGY HULL, NERVY WAR CORRESPONDENT, BRAVES SIBERIA'S TERRORS TO GET NEWS
* * *
First Covered Trains for Kansas Paper; She Reported Movements of Pershing's Army in Mexico and Then in France
* * *
She's Gathered News in Honolulu, and Now She's in Far East in Search of Facts About Mysterious Russia and Siberia
The world war was over, but the Russian Revolution still raged, and Peggy made plans to report from Vladivostok. First she needed credentials; there was no way she could get all the way across the Pacific to eastern Russia without money and the all-important paperwork.
Her task didn't come easy. Peggy moved to Washington, DC, where she sent letters and telegrams to every editor she could name. She had to get approval from the army too and made an appointment with the very General March she'd known in France. Broader-minded than most men in his position (he was army chief of staff), March guaranteed he'd supply credentials to Peggy — if she could find an editor to pay her way to Siberia.
Excerpted from Reporting Under Fire by Kerrie Logan Hollihan. Copyright © 2014 Kerrie L. Hollihan. Excerpted by permission of Chicago Review Press Incorporated.
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Table of Contents
ContentsA Note to Readers,
Introduction: The Race to Be First,
1: World War I, 1914–1918,
2: Between World Wars, 1920–1939,
3: A Second World War, 1939–1945,
4: A Cold War, 1945–1989,
5: Ancient Peoples, Modern Wars, 1955–1985,
6: A Challenge That Never Ends, 1990–Present,