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The women's angle.

The military tried to keep female journalists behind friendly lines to report on the war's daintier side.

But the gutsiest among them pushed their way into combat zones to get the real story.

ON A FROZEN JANUARY EVENING in 1945, Martha Gellhorn took a risk. The Collier's correspondent climbed into a Northrop P61 Black Widow night fighter to see what it was like to run an air patrol over Germany. Her oxygen mask didn't fit ("They didn't make these for ladies," the pilot said), she was cold, and when the plane climbed from 11,000 to 22,000 feet in a matter of seconds, it nearly did her in. Then, to avoid flak from Cologne's anti-aircraft batteries, the pilot abruptly dropped the plane a few miles. Soon, Gellhorn saw the trail of a German V-2 rocket. The Black Widow's quarry that night, an enemy plane, escaped.

For Gellhorn, the whole experience had been both exhilarating and terrifying. But it was all worth it. Safely back at base in Luxembourg, she had her story.

Gellhorn was one of 1,500 war correspondents accredited by the US War Department during World War II. Of those, less than 10 percent were women. While some of them were content to follow the rules and stay out of trouble, others, like Gellhorn, boldly challenged authority and forged trails of their own.

Female war correspondents faced discrimination and roadblocks on all sides, but they also found allies in the military and among male correspondents. These women reporters didn't demand special treatment. They slept in tents, took baths using their helmets, snuck onto planes, used latrines, and reported World War II from a unique perspective.

It was the female journalists of the 19th and early 20th centuries who had paved the way for women to report on World War II. Groundbreaking female reporters Nellie Bly and Peggy Hull covered World War I, though without accreditation as war correspondents from the US War Department. Only after the war ended in 1918 did Hull reach that pinnacle, and it would be more than 20 years before another American correspondent of either gender was accredited.

World War I put Europe into a tailspin, and many American newspapers and magazines wanted foreign correspondents who could keep tabs on the ongoing political, economic, and social upheaval after the armistice. The success of the women's suffrage movement gave a boost to women bent on living a reporter's life, prompting many to move overseas and start new careers. Some were so successful that they filled positions traditionally held by men.

Almost all the women news correspondents in Europe reported on the continent's biggest developing story: the disturbing situation brewing in Germany. And for sounding the warning about the rise of fascism, they became targets of Nazi displeasure. Dorothy Thompson arrived in Europe in 1920 and five years later was Berlin bureau chief for two newspapers, the Philadelphia Public Ledger and the New York Post. In her article, "I Saw Hitler!" published in Cosmopolitan magazine in 1932, she famously ridiculed Adolf Hitler, ascendant leader of the National Socialist German Workers' Party, and scoffed at the idea of him becoming Germany's leader. Hitler became chancellor the next year. When he became Fuhrer and dictator in 1934, Thompson was the first American reporter to be expelled from Germany. Sigrid Schultz, the Chicago Tribune's Berlin correspondent, had the honor of being Hitler's least favorite reporter. Gestapo founder and Luftwaffe commander Hermann Goring, Hitler's top subordinate, called her "the dragon lady from Chicago." And Josephine Herbst, writing for the New York Post, made no friends in Berlin with her scathing six-part front-page series "Behind the Swastika," documenting life in 1936 Germany.

Clearly, war was coming to Europe, and soon, but several foreign correspondents stayed put. When Hitler invaded Poland on September 1, 1939, Sonia Tomara of the New York Herald Tribune was in a Warsaw hotel room and witnessed the first German bombs falling. In the coming months, Tomara, along with Hearst Publications' Virginia Cowles, Helen Kirkpatrick of the Chicago Daily News, and other female correspondents, continued to cover the war for their anxious readers in America.

With US entry into the war in December 1941, many foreign correspondents, male and female, sought and received official US War Department accreditation as war correspondents. In plain terms, accreditation was a contract between the government and the reporters. In exchange for the armed forces' providing transport, shelter, food, and a means to dispatch their stories, the correspondents agreed to follow military law and allow censorship of their stories.

Every photographer and reporter who wanted to cover the war had to become accredited under a specific service branch, usually the US Army. Each correspondent's employer had to submit a lengthy application and agree to pay the reporter's salary. Then the US Army's intelligence section thoroughly investigated each applicant. Once approved, a correspondent received a uniform and a green armband with a C for correspondent or a P for photographer (later replaced with a rectangular patch, worn over the left jacket pocket, that read "War Correspondent"). He or she also received inoculations and equipment including a spade, bedroll, helmet, gas mask, and two musette bags. All war correspondents received the honorary rank of captain to protect them in case of capture.

With accreditation came a set of restrictions. Perhaps the most irksome was that correspondents, accustomed to great freedom as reporters, could no longer roam wherever they wanted. Instead, they had to obtain permission. For women war correspondents, it was worse. They were required to write their stories from the so-called women's angle, a female perspective most of their readers--and their editors--wanted. The War Department considered this women's angle a powerful tool to raise morale and promote patriotism on the home front. As Associated Press war correspondent Ruth Cowan described it, "A woman's angle would be covering nurses, covering hospitalization, covering whatever civilian things would carry over into the military, covering the food, but not covering the fighting, the battles." Some women reporters kept strictly to the women's angle, but others found a way around it.

Most male reporters easily obtained accreditation for war zone reporting, Meanwhile, the State Department, which issued passports, and the War Department joined forces to keep women from being accredited for combat reporting. Reasons given included that war simply wasn't for women, that women would be a distraction for soldiers, that women weren't strong enough for life in the combat zone, and that they wouldn't have access to separate bathroom facilities.

In the spring of 1942, the War Department reluctantly bent its rule, allowing Life magazine photojournalist Margaret Bourke-White to become the first accredited female war correspondent to cover combat, largely due to her acclaimed photos of the Moscow Kremlin being bombed by the Germans in 1941. And with the help of Helen Rogers Reid, publisher of the Herald Tribune, Sonia Tomara received War Department accreditation to cover combat and headed to the China-Burma-Indian (CBI) theater in August 1942. But both women suffered an important distinction from most male combat correspondents: they didn't travel as official press members of a military unit.

BY 1943, MORE WOMEN CORRESPONDENTS managed to secure accreditation to cover combat with the army. Those who did, wrote Julia Edwards in her 1988 book Women of the World: The Great Foreign Correspondents, did so because they "shouted loudest and proved most adept at breaking [the army's] rules." But their victory wasn't complete. The War Department ruled that female combat correspondents could "go no farther forward than women's services go" and had to be attached to women's military units, such as the WAC (Women's Army Corps).

There was more. The male press corps would have its own headquarters, off limits to women, and the male combat correspondents' stories would go through the censors first. In a combat zone, women correspondents had to be accompanied by an officer. If no officer was available and a female reporter went anyway, she could be punished by eviction from the press camps, loss of her accreditation, or even court-martial. Still, some women risked it.

Cowan of the Associated Press and Inez Robb of the International News Service became the first accredited female war correspondents attached to a military unit. They were assigned to the first two companies of WACs sent overseas. When they arrived in Casablanca, Morocco, in early 1943, however, the AP's Algiers bureau office head, Wess Gallagher, bawled, "Put them on the boat and send them back." Cowan and Robb stayed. Cowan soon learned she couldn't eat in the press corps dining room because she was a woman, but claimed it didn't bother her much.

Making an impression on top military brass made the difference for Cowan. When she attended a reception at the French Embassy in Algiers, Algeria, Lieutenant General George S. Patton, commander of the US II Corps, cons' fronted her. "So, you want to be in the war?" he asked. "What is the first law of war?" Without missing a beat Cowan said, "You kill him before he kills you." Patton replied, "She stays."

Other high-ranking officers were similarly impressed with the female correspondents' grit and determination. In December 1942, Major General James H. "Jimmy" Doolittle, commander of the US Twelfth Air Force in North Africa, broke the rules for Bourkei White, giving her permission to fly on a bombing mission aboard a B-17 Flying Fortress. Bourke-White's impressive photos and article about the mission, published in Life, were terrific publicity for the military, so nothing negative came of it--except for Bourke-White. Because she didn't go through normal channels of permission, she wasn't allowed back in combat zones for a long time.

In the CBI theater, Tomara got similar permission from Major General Claire Chennault, founder and former commander of the American Volunteer Group (the Flying Tigers), to go on a bombing mission in a B-25 Mitchell medium bomber. When she returned, a public relations officer read her the riot act and reported her to Lieutenant General Joseph Stillwell, the theater commander. Terrified she'd lose her credentials, Tomara wrote an apology to Stillwell, who replied in a handwritten note, "Let us forget about it, Sonia. We all think that you are a good newspaperman, and we like you." Being called a newspaper man was high praise indeed.

For war correspondents, male or female, the war's first real proving ground was in Italy, where an Allied invasion began on September 3, 1943. In Italy, the reporters would endure grueling conditions and come face to face with the ugly reality of war.

The Chicago Daily News's Helen Kirkpatrick arrived in Italy in November 1943, joining an American surgical unit near Volturno, around Naples. She lived with the nurses in a tent, enduring rain, cold, and relentless mud. When she wasn't writing, Kirkpatrick helped out in the hospital. By contrast, when Martha Gellhorn, who had covered the Spanish Civil War (1936-1939), decided to jump back into war reporting and arrived in Italy in February 1944, she circumvented the rules and made it to the front lines by hooking up with French forces. She later wrote, "I had been sent to Europe to do my job, which was not to report the rear areas or the woman's angle."

Tomara and Bourke-White also ended up in Italy. Tomara covered the southern front in Cassino, writing about the German positions, the devastation behind Allied lines, and her visits with American, French, British, and New Zealand troops. Bourke-White did a series on the medical corps and took shocking and sobering photos of American wounded in field hospitals.

THE WOMEN CORRESPONDENTS' STORIES from Italy concentrated not on military tactics but on the human aspects of war, and the public took notice. So did editors, wire services, and syndicates. With the invasion of Europe on the horizon, numerous media outlets decided they wanted their own women war correspondents overseas. So, in the months leading up to D-Day for the June 1944 Normandy Invasion, more and more arrived in Europe. But the coming invasion's high command, the Supreme Headquarters Allied Expeditionary Force (SHAEF), refused to let female correspondents report from the front lines. It was simply too dangerous, SHAEF ruled. Meanwhile, male correspondents such as photographer Robert Capa (who would land with the first invasion wave on Omaha Beach on D-Day) and Walter Cronkite, then with United Press, faced no such restrictions.

Two women ignored the order. Lee Carson of the International News Service got an eagle's view of the invasion on June 6, 1944, by snagging a seat on a fighter plane. SHAEF ordered her to be disciplined, but she eluded punishment. Gellhorn snuck her way onto a hospital ship and landed on France's Normandy coast the day after D-Day. She helped evacuate wounded and wrote about it, so when she returned to England she was arrested for not having proper credentials. Neither woman regretted her actions. The other women correspondents would reach Normandy only later, with the first contingent of WACs.

After D-Day, the rules for female correspondents took a step backward. They couldn't advance with the army. In fact, they couldn't go any farther forward than the nurses. This meant they wouldn't be able to attend press briefings, have access to military maps and transport, or be close to teletype and radio transmission facilities. Their stories had to be sent by messenger to London for censorship, while male reporters had access to on-site censorship and transmission.

Some female correspondents rebelled, including the usual suspect, Gellhorn, who escaped her confinement and made her way to Italy to keep covering the war. Kirkpatrick went directly to Eisenhower to plead her case, and he happily assigned her to the French Forces of the Interior. She became the only female correspondent to witness the August 1944 liberation of Rennes, the capital of Brittany in northwest France.

As the Allies made progress toward Germany, women correspondents gained ground of their own. SHAEF allowed Carson and Iris Carpenter, a British reporter working for the Boston Globe, to be attached to the US First Army press corps on a trial basis. In December 1944, they became fully accredited. As a result, Carpenter and Carson covered die entire Battle of the Bulge and wrote on far more than just the women's angle. But they were the exception to the rule and were never officially allowed on the front lines.

On the other side of the world, in Asia and the Pacific, the Allies were battling the Japanese. No accredited female war correspondent got near battle there until 1945. Patricia Lockridge of Woman's Home Companion magazine arrived on the hospital ship USS Solace (AH-5) on February 23, 1945, four days after US marines stormed Iwo Jima, and she wrote harrowing stories about the wounded. And Dickey Chapelle, a Life photojournalist, arrived at Iwo a few days later. She wanted to go as far forward as possible. Instead, she was asked to document the use of whole blood in treating wounded, to help spur blood drives in America.

Dickey kept working at getting to the front. Finally, with the help of a few officers, she found herself on a ridge close to Iwo's highest point, Mount Suribachi, with what she thought were insects buzzing around her. She later found out they were bullets.

By April 1945, women correspondents in Europe were no longer denied entry to press camps and had much more freedom to move about. They covered the Allied crossing of the Rhine and the meeting between the Russians and the Western Allies at Torgau. And they covered the story that shocked and outraged the world: Nazi Germany's concentration camps. On April 10, 1945, US troops liberated the Buchenwald camp in central Germany and Bourke-White, Kirkpatrick, and the New York Herald Tribune's Marguerite Higgins were there. Higgins wrote, "I happened to be the first through the gate, and the first person to rush up to me turned out to be a Polish Catholic Priest...who was not a little startled to discover that the helmeted, uniformed, begoggled individual he had so heartily embraced was not a man."

With the coming of V-E Day and V-J Day--the Allied victories in Europe and over Japan--some female correspondents stayed overseas to report on the war's aftermath. Many others returned to the States, where they went back to writing "women's news" or even quit journalism altogether.

IN THE INEVITABLE CONFLICTS of the post-WWII era, many of the Second World War's female reporters would return to war zones, creating further inroads for women in journalism. Higgins covered the Korean War and became the first women to win a Pulitzer Prize for Foreign Correspondence. Gellhorn, energetic as ever, pursued conflicts all over the globe, from the Netherlands East Indies War to the Vietnam War and beyond. Chapelle covered Korea and Vietnam, losing her life on a marine patrol in 1965 when shrapnel from a booby trap cut her carotid artery.

The women war correspondents of World War II had opened many doors that had long been firmly shut. As May Craig, a WWII correspondent and leader in the Women's National Press Club, said in a 1944 speech, "The war has given women a chance to show what they can do in the news world, and they have done well."

MELISSA A. MARSH is an editorial assistant for the Center for Great Plains Studies at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. She wrote the article "Uncle Sam's Nazi Reform Schools" for the April 2016 issue of America in WWII.


Marguerite Higgins had faced death before. The New York Herald Tribune reporter liked to bend the rules to get her story, even if it meant putting her life on the line. In late April 1945, when she learned of the coming liberation of the Dachau concentration camp near Munich in southeastern Germany, she and Stars and Stripes reporter Peter Furst hopped into a jeep and headed to the town, determined to be the first reporters on the scene.

Nearly seven miles of unsecured road lay ahead, but that didn't deter them. Neither did the German troops crowding the road--who promptly surrendered to them. Higgins and Furst raced on, their jeep now full of confiscated weapons, including grenades. They arrived at Dachau to find that fighting was still going on in the camp's northern perimeter. White flags were supposedly flying on the south side of the camp, so the two reporters figured it would be easy to take a detour around the fighting and head for that location.

Two jeeps from the 42nd Infantry joined Higgins and Furst at the gate, where an SS general waited. Higgins announced in German that they would accept his surrender, but first they wanted an SS officer to accompany them to where the prisoners were being held. The SS general complied, and Furst and Higgins made him sit on the hood of the jeep. Off they went.

Inside the camp, Higgins looked up at one of the watchtowers to see machine guns pointed at them. She simply faced them and said, "Kommen sie hier, bitte. Wir sind Amerikaner." ("Come here, please. We are American.") One can only imagine that she held her breath waiting for the response. After a tense moment, the guards put down their machine guns and surrendered. And Higgins got her story.

Melissa A. Marsh

Caption: Newly arrived in France in July 1944, female war correspondents stop at an army field hospital en route to Cherbourg. They are, from left: Ruth Cowan (Associated Press), Sonia Tomara (New York Herald Tribune), Rosette Hargrove (Newspaper Enterprise Association), Betty Knox (London Evening Standard), Iris Carpenter (London Daily Herald, BBC, and Boston Globe), and Erika Mann (Liberty magazine).

Caption: Above: Accredited as a correspondent by the War Department, photographer Toni Frissell--officially Antionette Frissell Bacon--carried this ID card. Opposite, top: The male press corps gave Ruth Cowan a cool welcome to Morocco in 1943, but she pressed on. Opposite, bottom: Life photographer Margaret Bourke-White got to cover combat, in part because, like Cowan, she impressed officers with her courage.

Caption: Unarmed reporter Marguerite Higgins successfully ordered SS guards at Dachau to surrender.

Caption: Women war correspondents joke around in London on February 1, 1943. From left, they are: Mary Welsh (Time, Life), Dixie Tighe (International News Service), Kathleen Harriman (Newsweek), Helen Kirkpatrick (Chicago Daily News), Lee Miller (Vogue), and Tania Long (New York Times). The C Tighe and Kirkpatrick wear stands for Correspondent. Photographers, such as Miller, wore a P.
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Title Annotation:Martha Gellhorn
Author:Marsh, Melissa A.
Publication:America in WWII
Article Type:Biography
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Feb 1, 2017
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