How Martha Gellhorn Became the Only Female Journalist at D-Day

Journalist Martha Gellhorn vacations in Sun Valley, Idaho.
Journalist Martha Gellhorn vacations in Sun Valley, Idaho, on Nov. 26, 1941. (E.L. Chapin/AP Photo)

As a female war correspondent, Martha Gellhorn was not allowed to accompany the Allied invasion force that stormed the beaches of Normandy on D-Day. A less ambitious reporter might have just accepted that edict, but Gellhorn intended to be there -- and nothing was going to stop her.

All Gellhorn needed was a good plan, and so, the night before the invasion, she finagled a spot on a hospital ship by telling military police she was there to interview nurses. Once aboard, Gellhorn found a bathroom, locked the door and hid until the ship was on its way to France on June 6, 1944.

“I followed the war wherever I could reach it,” Gellhorn said years later, according to a 2022 article on the National World War II Museum’s website. “I had been sent to Europe to do my job, which was not to report the rear areas or the woman’s angle.”

The risk that Gellhorn took proved well worth it.

While some might know Gellhorn primarily as Ernest Hemingway's third wife -- they were married for five years until their tempestuous union ended in divorce in 1945 -- she was so much more, and she proved it yet again by her actions on D-Day.

Gellhorn is widely believed to be the only female correspondent to land on the beach that fateful day, and the result of her risk-taking was revealed in a Collier's Weekly magazine article in August 1944 headlined "The Wounded Come Home."

In this Nov. 22, 1941, photo, Ernest Hemingway is shown with his 3rd wife, foreign correspondent Martha Gellhorn.
In this Nov. 22, 1941, photo, Ernest Hemingway is shown with his 3rd wife, foreign correspondent Martha Gellhorn. (AP Photo)

The ship on which Gellhorn surreptitiously secured passage to Normandy made its voyage during the day, and as it drew closer to the French coast, dance music was played on a nearby landing craft tank, or LCT, as mines exploded on the beach. While the music might have provided a slight distraction, it was all too brief.

Over the next 1½ days, Gellhorn bore witness to the extraordinary conditions imposed upon the ship's four doctors, six female nurses and roughly 14 orderlies -- all Americans -- as they scurried to tend to the wounded. Their vessel was equipped with 422 hospital beds and six water ambulances, which could be lowered from and lifted to the ship to transport wounded service members requiring care. Gellhorn claimed a spot on one of those landing crafts to go ashore at Omaha Beach and assist medics as they transported the wounded back to their ship.

Beginning with the first patient -- a German prisoner of war "closer to being a child than a man, dead-white and seemingly dying," Gellhorn wrote -- the flurry of activity was intense. Medics rushed to redress wounds, perform blood transfusions and administer drugs or oxygen. Operations went on throughout the night.

Gellhorn recalled that the wounded Allies troops who came aboard were identified not by their name, but by their face and injuries. Medical personnel did whatever they could to make patients more comfortable, lighting cigarettes for those who could not do it themselves and serving coffee to injured service members, their mouths barely exposed through a slew of bandages.

Despite their circumstances, Gellhorn was impressed by the injured troops.

"They were a magnificent, enduring bunch of men," she related. "Men smiled who were in such pain that all they really [could] have wanted to do was turn their heads away and cry, and men made jokes when they needed their strength just to survive."

Gellhorn discussed meeting two Americans who inquired about the condition of an injured French teenager and told of a severely wounded lieutenant who, after discovering a German was in the bunk behind him, said softly, "I'd kill him if I could move." The war correspondent mentioned a U.S. soldier who never complained despite battling a severe head wound and a POW, concerned he never would see home again, who uttered a rhetorical question.

"Why have we ever fought one another?" the prisoner said, his eyes brimming with tears.

Water ambulances were dispatched to the beach overnight, all the while attempting to avoid sunken vehicles or mines on their journey to the beach. A soldier generously offered Gellhorn's group space in his foxhole whenever the air raid started, and she recalled watching "altogether too much flak for comfort."

On the shore, U.S. soldiers fought with little to no sleep or food as they navigated a path, marked by white tape, to avoid mines. "Everyone agreed that the beach was a stinker, and that it would be a great pleasure to get the hell out of here sometime," Gellhorn wrote.

American assault troops approach Omaha Beach on D-Day on June 6, 1944.
American assault troops approach Omaha Beach on D-Day on June 6, 1944. (U.S. National Archives photo)

As Gellhorn’s ship made its return to England, some moaned in pain in their sleep while those with less severe injuries talked in hushed tones. When the wounded first departed the ship, finally back on English soil, its chief medical officer offered a two-word goodbye: "Made it." Through it all, only one patient died on the ship, and according to Gellhorn, “he had come aboard as a hopeless case.”

After her return, British military police arrested Gellhorn and dispatched her to a training camp for nurses outside London. Never one to accept her fate, Gellhorn went AWOL and continued her coverage of the war, later reporting on the Battle of the Bulge and the liberation of the Dachau concentration camp. By the time that she died on Feb. 15, 1998, at the age of 89, Gellhorn had covered a dozen wars but always maintained a special fondness for the medics she worked alongside on D-Day.

"If I seem to insist too much in my admiration for these people, understand that one cannot insist too much," Gellhorn wrote of the ship’s medical staff in "The Wounded Come Home." "There is a kind of devotion, coupled with competence, which is almost too admirable to talk about; and they had all of it that can be had."

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