A Determined D-Day Dame
Updated: Dec 28, 2021
D-Day in WWI is commemorated every June 6th. An unknown number of thousands of men died that day when U.S. soldiers with other allied forces stormed the beaches of Normandy to help liberate France from the stranglehold of Nazi Germany and the Axis powers. Many journalists covered the war, but a few of those journalists were women reporting from the front in a time when many opportunities didn't exist for women--especially in such a high-risk job like war correspondence.
The first bold woman to cover D-Day was the beautiful and glamorous Martha Gellhorn. At first, she was denied access, so she sneaked onto a hospital ship and locked herself in the bathroom until the ship departed. She then disguised herself as a stretcher-bearer, waded into waist-deep water, helped the wounded, and wrote down her observances. Her primary focus was the toll that war takes on the average soldier and the burdens the civilians carry in soldiers' absence.
Prior to this, in 1936, during a family trip to Key West, Florida, she met Ernest Hemingway and the two traveled to Spain together to cover the Spanish Civil War. She wrote about the rise of Hitler in the spring of 1938 and wrote about the outbreak of WWII in a novel The Stricken Field (1940). She was among the first journalists to report from the Dachau concentration camp after it was liberated by U.S. troops on April 29, 1945.
Gellhorn and Hemingway lived together off and on for four years before marrying in November 1940. But their marriage was doomed to fail since her job called her away from home for long periods of time and he was incapable of long-term domestic commitment.
By the time D-Day approached, their marriage was falling apart. Gellhorn wanted to go to the Normandy front and Hemingway tried to block her efforts by attempting to get his own war accreditation for Colliers, which was a magazine that she had long worked for. This is when she sneaked onto the ship and tucked away in the toilet. She soon made it into Colliers with her first dispatch from Normandy, marking a huge turning point for women reporting directly from war zones.
In addition to penning around twenty books, Gellhorn went on to cover the Vietnam War, the Six-Day War in the Middle East, murders in El Salvador, and much more in her 60-year journalism career. Though she was married to one of the most famous American writers in the literary canon, she refused to be defined by her marriage to Hemingway. She said, "I was a writer before I met him, and I have been a writer for 45 years since. Why should I be a footnote in someone else's life?" The brave and bold Martha Gellhorn left an incredible legacy in journalism and made it possible for other "D-Day Dames" and future women to pursue a path in journalism.
Her fascinating, adventurous life came to an end in 1998 when, nearly blind and dying of ovarian cancer, she ended her life. In 1999, the Martha Gellhorn Prize for Journalism was established in her honor.