Clouds of dust swirled and filled the night air as Martha Gellhorn walked up a rocky road on Omaha Beach. At the end of the path, the American war correspondent paused for a moment. Suddenly, her senses were overwhelmed by the pleasant reminder of another time.

“It was perhaps the most surprising of all the day’s surprises to smell the sweet smell of summer grass, a smell of cattle and peace and sun that had warmed the earth some other time when summer was real,” she later wrote for Collier’s magazine.

That moment stood in stark contrast to what Gellhorn had witnessed earlier: destroyed and smoldering vehicles, broken and bloodied bodies, gaping holes in the soft sand. The vestiges of battle from the day before—D-Day, June 6, 1944—lined the beach, where soldiers from the United States Army had fought their way ashore as part of the Allied invasion of France during World War II.

American troops disembark at Omaha Beach on June 6, 1944.
American troops disembark at Omaha Beach on June 6, 1944.  Public domain via Wikimedia Commons

Gellhorn was one of the first journalists—and the only female correspondent—to view that hellish scene 80 years ago. Lacking proper credentials, she lied her way onto a hospital ship traveling from England to France, then rode in a water ambulance to the still-dangerous Normandy shore as artillery shells from battleships roared overhead. Among other hazards, she endured snipers, landmines and strafing by German warplanes, all to get the story.

“Double and triple clap of gunfire,” Gellhorn wrote in her diary. “Unseen planes roar. Barrage balloons. Gun flashes. One close shell burst. … Explosions jar the ship.”

“The fighting went on for several days, and the landing craft were under attack,” says Caroline Moorehead, author of Gellhorn: A 20th-Century Life. “People were still being killed as she was landing.”

Gellhorn was a veteran war correspondent who covered multiple conflicts over her six-decade career. Leading up to D-Day, she reported on the Spanish Civil War, the rise of Nazi leader Adolf Hitler and the German annexation of Czechoslovakia in 1938, the Winter War between Finland and the Soviet Union in 1939, and the Japanese invasion of China in 1941. She would later go on to report on the Vietnam War, the Six-Day War in 1967 and other world crises.

Born in St. Louis in 1908, the future journalist was the only daughter of George Gellhorn, a German-born doctor, and Edna Fischel Gellhorn, a suffragist who helped found the League of Women Voters. Gellhorn’s father and maternal grandfather were Jewish, while her maternal grandmother was Protestant. Though Gellhorn wasn’t religious, this dual background had a lasting influence on her, particularly when she became one of the first journalists to view the Dachau concentration camp in 1945.

As a child, Gellhorn joined her mother, Edna Fischel Gellhorn, in a protest for women's suffrage at the 1916 Democratic National Convention.
As a child, Gellhorn joined her mother, Edna Fischel Gellhorn, in a protest for women's suffrage at the 1916 Democratic National Convention. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons

Through her vocal support of pressing social issues, Edna helped shape the social consciousness that later pervaded her daughter’s writing. In 1916, Edna and 7-year-old Gellhorn marched in a rally for women’s suffrage at the Democratic National Convention in St. Louis.

“For Gellhorn, I think it was all about making the world a better place,” says Maggie Hartley, director of public engagement at the National WWII Museum in New Orleans. “Whenever I give a talk, I like to include this quote by her: ‘There has to be a better way to run the world, and we had better see that we get it.’”

Gellhorn attended Bryn Mawr College in Pennsylvania but did not graduate, instead leaving to pursue a career as a journalist. She wrote for several publications, including the New Republic and the Albany Times Union, then joined the United Press news agency in France. She was later fired from the bureau for reporting sexual harassment by a businessman with ties to the agency. In the mid-1930s, she worked as a field investigator for the Federal Emergency Relief Administration and assisted first lady Eleanor Roosevelt with correspondence and her magazine column. In 1937, she traveled to Madrid to report on the Spanish Civil War for Collier’s, a now-defunct weekly magazine that featured the bylines of the U.S.’s top journalists and writers.

Where Gellhorn distinguished herself from other reporters was the focus of her articles. Rather than writing about generals or details of the fighting, she chronicled the stories of civilians unable to escape the violence of war: children, women, the elderly and others threatened by flying bullets and exploding shrapnel.

Martha Gellhorn (second from left), Ernest Hemingway (third from right) and Chinese military officers in 1941
Martha Gellhorn (second from left), Ernest Hemingway (third from right) and Chinese military officers in 1941 Public domain via Wikimedia Commons

“Gellhorn was willing to put herself in positions where some journalists wouldn’t and then tell the stories that weren’t the traditional ‘what’s going on with a battle?’ or troop movements,” Hartley says. “It resonated, especially back home, where people were waiting on news about their loved ones. That personal take really did impact her audience.”

For D-Day, Gellhorn was again working with Collier’s. She had hoped to be the publication’s lead reporter for the invasion, but her husband of four years, the novelist and writer Ernest Hemingway, stole the assignment. By the spring of 1944, the couple’s relationship was on the rocks, and Gellhorn believed her husband had taken the job out of spite.

“It was clear to her that the marriage was over,” says Moorehead, whose mother was friends with Gellhorn. “Looking at the letters she wrote to her friends on the boat on the way over [to England], they’re very sad in a way. They’re sort of an epitaph on their marriage.” (Gellhorn had used her connections to secure Hemingway a spot on a flight to London, but her trans-Atlantic journey proved more perilous: She spent more than two weeks traveling on board a Norwegian freighter packed with dynamite.)

Once in London, Hemingway arranged for transport to Normandy on the USS Dorothea L. Dix. Gellhorn, meanwhile, didn’t have military approval to continue to France. In fact, the military denied all female journalists permission to cover the Allied landings. But that wasn’t going to stop her.

Ernest Hemingway and Colonel Charles T. Lanham in Europe on September 18, 1944
Ernest Hemingway and Colonel Charles T. Lanham in Europe on September 18, 1944 Public domain via Wikimedia Commons

Contrary to several sources, Gellhorn was not on Omaha Beach on June 6. According to Moorehead, when the reporter learned D-Day was underway that morning, she was in London attending a Ministry of Information briefing. Soon after, she made her way to Southampton, where the HMHS Prague was docked. To get on board the hospital carrier, she lied to a military policeman about wanting to interview nurses, then locked herself in a bathroom until the ship was safely en route.

Complete with a surgical operating room and 422 beds, the Prague was the first hospital ship to reach Normandy, arriving at Omaha Beach early on the morning of June 7. Gellhorn spent most of the daylight hours watching as injured soldiers were moved from Higgins boats converted into water ambulances onto the hospital ship. She comforted the men as best she could.

“It will be hard to tell you of the wounded, there were so many of them,” she wrote in her Collier’s article, which was published on August 5, 1944, and later reprinted in one of her anthologies, The Face of War. “There was no time to talk; there was too much else to do. They had to be fed, as most of them had not eaten for two days. … They wanted water; the nurses and orderlies, working like demons, had to be found and called quickly to a bunk where a man suddenly and desperately needed attention.”

Gellhorn also described the stoicism of the American soldier:

Men smiled who were in such pain that all they can really have wanted to do was turn their heads away and cry, and men made jokes when they needed their strength just to survive. All of them looked after one another, saying, “Give that boy a drink of water,” or “Miss, see that Ranger over there; he’s in bad shape. Could you go to him?”

Martha Gellhorn: The War Correspondent who Covered D-Day

Because she spoke several languages, Gellhorn assisted doctors and nurses by translating for injured German prisoners of war and French civilians. When the enemy wounded made too much noise, she wrote in her diary, she told them “ruhig”—German for “quiet”—“on doctor’s orders, and they were all instantly silent.”

As night fell, word came back to the hospital ship that wounded men were still on the beach. Gellhorn jumped into a water ambulance and headed to land to help. Despite the dangers, she waded through the cold surf to search for the injured.

“Everyone was violently busy on that crowded, dangerous shore,” Gellhorn wrote for Collier’s. “We walked with the utmost care between the narrowly placed white tape lines that marked the mine-cleared path and headed for a tent marked with a red cross.”

Gellhorn helped load and tend to the wounded on a beached landing ship, tank, or LST. Because of extreme tides, the vessel could not return to the hospital carrier until the wee hours of June 8. The soldiers were then taken on board the Prague, where the sickbeds were filled, and preparations were made for the return trip to England. Describing the scene in her article, Gellhorn wrote, “Piles of bloody clothing had been cut off and dumped out of the way in corners; coffee cups and cigarette stubs littered the decks, plasma bottles hung from cords, and all the fearful surgical apparatus for holding broken bones made shadows on the walls.”

A large landing craft convoy crosses the English Channel on June 6, 1944
A large landing craft convoy crosses the English Channel on June 6, 1944 Public domain via Wikimedia Commons

Despite the high numbers of injuries, only one man died on the hospital ship. The rest made it across the English Channel, where they were transferred to military hospitals for surgery and rehabilitation.

Upon her return to London, Gellhorn was arrested by military police for traveling to Normandy without permission. As punishment, she was sent to a training camp for American nurses and told she could go back to France when they did. By then, it was too late: She had already filed her story with Collier’s.

Unlike his wife, Hemingway never went ashore at Normandy. On June 6, all he could do was watch from a landing craft as American soldiers fought their way onto Omaha Beach.

Even though Gellhorn scooped Hemingway, his story ran first. “Voyage to Victory,” proclaimed the cover of Collier’s July 22, 1944, issue. The article identified Hemingway as “Collier’s famed war correspondent” and included a photo of the whiskered writer with Allied soldiers. Gellhorn’s story ran in the August 5 issue with the headline “The Wounded Come Home.” No mention was made of the fact that she was the only female journalist on the ground at Omaha Beach.

A 1946 photo of Gellhorn
A 1946 photo of Gellhorn FPG / Archive Photos / Getty Images

Gellhorn’s success rankled Hemingway, resulting in a further fracturing of their already faltering marriage. Gellhorn, too, was unhappy with her husband’s abuse, alcoholism and infidelity. The couple divorced in 1945.

After D-Day, Gellhorn continued to cover the war in Europe. For months, word had filtered out about the horrors unfolding at Dachau and other Nazi concentration camps. Gellhorn, one of the first journalists to tour Dachau following its liberation in April 1945, thought she was prepared for the experience but quickly realized otherwise.

In her Collier’s article, titled “Dachau: Experimental Murder,” Gellhorn described the shock of what she had witnessed: “There suddenly but never to be believed were the bodies of the dead. They were everywhere. There were piles of them inside the oven room, outside the door and alongside the building. They were all naked, and behind the crematorium, the ragged clothing of the dead was neatly stacked.”

As Moorehead writes in her biography of Gellhorn, “Something changed for [Gellhorn] that day; something to do with what she felt about memory and the past, and her own sense of optimism, and perhaps even about being Jewish. It was in Dachau, she said, that she really understood for the first time the true evil of man.”

Gellhorn and Virginia Cowles attend the opening night of their play
Gellhorn (third from left) later co-wrote a play about her wartime experiences. Bettman via Getty Images

Despite seeing so much death and destruction, Gellhorn continued to pursue her career as a war correspondent. She covered conflicts around the globe, including the U.S. invasion of Panama in 1989. With both her health and her vision failing, she retired to her apartment in London. Stricken with ovarian cancer and unable to perform even simple tasks, she swallowed a cyanide pill and died at age 89 in February 1998.

Moorehead revered Gellhorn and even named her daughter after the legendary journalist, who also wrote both fiction and nonfiction books. But the biographer acknowledges that Gellhorn could be a difficult person.

“I admired her hugely,” Moorehead says. “I was a bit scared of her, though. She was very formidable. I thought she was a terrific reporter, and she was really brave. She could be quite tough, quite cruel, quite hard. She was very impatient with people not taking responsibility for themselves. She felt you had to face up to life and get on with it. She was old school and tough on herself.”

Gellhorn remained a reporter until the very last, squeezing in a final reporting trip to Brazil at age 85. She always wanted to know the story and how it affected those who were part of it.

“At the end of her life, she would invite people—mostly young journalists—over,” Moorehead says. “You’d go there for a drink. You’d take the lift up to her flat, and she would be leaning against the door. She’d give you a drink and ask you about yourself.”

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