America’s armed forces accredited 127 women correspondents in World War II. Accreditation acted as contract: The Army or Navy transported correspondents into war zones, fed and sheltered them, and sent their dispatches home. In return, correspondents followed military law and censorship.
Reporters such as Ruth Cowan and Martha Gellhorn asked the War Department’s Bureau of Public Relations for permission to cover particular field forces. All were thoroughly screened.
“By the time you are accredited you have no secrets from the War Department and neither do your ancestors,” wrote Life photojournalist Margaret Bourke-White.
They received a pocket-sized “Basic Field Manual” of accreditation rules. It included a waiver of liability for injury or death.
Correspondents carried a green accreditation card and wore uniforms without symbols of rank, to indicate they would neither give nor take salutes. War correspondents wore green “WC” armbands, which evolved into “U.S. War Correspondent” patches. They were treated as captains, a rank that allowed them to mess with officers and facilitated POW exchanges if taken prisoner. Women correspondents wore skirts with male uniform blouses.
The armed forces refused to allow women near combat. They feared women breaking under pressure (a fate that befell many men), balking at lack of women’s latrines, or influencing soldiers to take risks to protect them.
Still, accredited women saw combat. Sometimes the front shifted, catching women in the thick of action, as was the case with Cowan in North Africa. Some asked officers to write letters of introduction to combat zones, as did Bourke-White in Italy.
Correspondents who defied rules lost credentials. Such was the fate of Gellhorn after she sneaked aboard a hospital ship to report on the D-Day invasion.
Naval accreditation was similar, but streamlined. Correspondents applied to the Navy Department’s Bureau of Public Relations to sail on a warship. Approval was wired to port. Before sailing, the correspondent was briefed on naval discipline and censorship.
Dickey Chapelle received accreditation to the Pacific Fleet and given the nominal rank of lieutenant commander. Her assignment was to photograph use of whole blood in saving lives. Chapelle saw action after she talked her way into land-based hospitals, following the blood. She was found, arrested, and evicted – after having gotten her story.