The women who fought to report WWII

Martha Gellhorn was sitting in a bar

on the Mexican border with her husband ,novelist Ernest Hemingway, when a paper-boy ran in yelling “La Guerra, la Guerra.” Pearl Harbor had been bombed. The United States would quickly and finally enter the fray of WWII. By this time, Gellhorn had reported on the Civil War in Spain, the Russian invasion of Finland, and the Japanese invasion of China.

Her career as a war reporter began after meeting Hemingway in Key West in 1936 while she was on vacation with her family celebrating the success of her book The Troubles I’ve Seen (1936) — written for the Roosevelt Administration about the effects of the Depression on ordinary Americans. Gellhorn was intrigued by the famous author and flattered by his attentions. Hemingway was still married to his second wife, Pauline. Gellhorn, meanwhile, was eager to move on to the next phase of her life. Hemingway invited her to join him in Spain.

Gellhorn arrived in Spain, after hiking over the French border. She met up with Hemingway and novelist John Dos Passos to witness first-hand the Spanish Civil War. Gellhorn lacked knowledge about artillery or battle manouevers and therefore felt ill-equipped to be a war reporter . Hemingway encouraged her to write about what she did know about: people. Thus began, Gellhorn’s style of war reporting: the effects of war on ordinary people.

After hearing the news of the Pearl Harbor attacks, Gellhorn and Hemingway returned to their home The Finca in Cuba. Each were working on novels, but she listened intently to news of the war on the radio and was unable to remain on the sidelines of the war. Hemingway wanted to stay in Cuba and work on his novel; he urged her to contact her Collier’s editor about an assignment. She was surprised to learn that, despite her years reporting war, she would not be accredited because female reporters were not being permitted into war zones by the U.S. government.

Never one to take “no” for an answer, she created her own assignment in the spring of 1942 and sailed around the Caribbean to see how war was affecting the people in these areas. She went armed with a copy of Proust; she returned with an 11,000-word description of life during war in the Caribbean and her travails getting from one island to another.

Meanwhile, Dickey Chapelle was in Panama at the same time reporting on the training exercises of the Bushmasters. Chapelle was a novice photographer at this point in her career, yet both the novice and the veteran war reporter, Gellhorn, were excluded from the war zone because they were women.

In the fall of 1943, female reporters were finally accredited to report the war from war zones, but with specific restrictions. They could not go to the frontlines nor have access to press briefings or Jeeps, and they were to report on the activities of female military personnel only. Gellhorn agreed to abide by the restrictions and received accreditation to Collier’s magazine.

For her reports from the so-called “rear-area” of the war zone in London, she covered the effects of the war by visiting hospitals and wounded soldiers, refugee camps, and she wrote about ordinary people living their lives during wartime.

Finally, she decided to abandon the relative safety of London and forge ahead on her own to get to the frontlines. From North Africa, Italy, the D-Day

Landing Beaches in Normandy, France, to the horrors of Dachau, she wrote about the war while her own personal life deteriorated: her marriage to Hemingway ended and she said the freedom of spirit in her soul was lost forever.

Gellhorn’s career as a war reporter spanned six decades.

Buy or Rent the Film

Women reporters during WWII were told war reporting was No Job For a Woman. Buy the DVD, available for purchase from Women Make Movies, to find out how these women over came the restrictions and created a new way of telling the story of war.

2011, 61 minutes, Color, DVD, English