Martha Gellhorn: the first woman on Normandy beach, June 7, 1944

March 3, 2021 | By Jim Stovall | Filed in: journalism, Women writers and journalists, writers, writing.

Martha Gellhorn had more than just her gender working against her when you wanted to cover the D-Day invasion for Collier’s Weekly magazine in 1944. She had her husband, Ernest Hemingway.

Gellhorn and Hemingway had been together, off and on, since 1936 when they left America to cover the Spanish Civil War. Gelhorn was a dedicated journalist; Hemingway was, well, Hemingway. The two were married in 1940, but the events in Europe kept Gelhorn moving.

Gellhorn had witnessed the rise of Hitler in Germany, the Munich pact with Great Britain, and the fighting in Finland, Hong Kong, Singapore, and Germany.

When the time grew close for the D-Day invasion, Gellhorn tried to get accredited, but by then Hemingway had convinced the editors at Collier’s to make him their correspondent. It was a rotten act of betrayal — one of many that led to the breakup of their marriage in 1945.

But in the spring of 1944, the invasion was about to happen, and Gellhorn didn’t have time for anger or revenge. She had a story to cover, and she had a passion to be an eye-witness to any story that she wrote.

Her mantra of “being there” is still written in stone for those who follow the path she did so much to clear. “The only way I can write with any authority with the hope of influencing even a very few people is to write from firsthand knowledge.” Source: Yours, for Probably Always: Martha Gellhorn’s Letters of Love and War 1930-1949 – review

Gellhorn found out about a hospital ship that was being fitted out for the invasion, and she boarded without permission and locked herself in the toilet, remaining there until the ship was sailing toward Normandy. She then volunteered to go ashore to be a stretcher-bearer, a difficult and dangerous task. But it got her on the beach, the only woman to be there on June 7, the day after the invasion had begun.

Here’s an excerpt from the story she wrote for Collier’s Weekly. She’s on the beach waiting for the wounded to be brought in:

Then there was our favourite American conversation: “Where’re you from?” An American always has time to look for someone who knows his home town. We talked about Pittsburgh and Rosemont, Pennsylvania, Chicago and Cheyenne, not saying much except that they were swell places and had this beach licked every way for Sunday. Then one of the soldiers remarked that they had a nice foxhole about 50 yards inland and we were very welcome there, when the air raid started, if we didn’t mind eating sand.

My companion, one of the stretcher-bearers from the ship, thanked them for their kind invitation and said that, on the other hand, we had guests aboard the LCT and we would have to stay home this evening. I wish I had known his name, because I would like to write it down here. He was one of the best and jolliest boys I’ve met any place, any time. He joked, no matter what happened, and toward the end of that night, we really began to enjoy ourselves. There is a point where you feel yourself so small and helpless in such an enormous, insane nightmare of a world, that you cease to give a hoot about anything and you renounce care and start laughing. He was lovely company, that boy was, and he was brave and competent, and I wish I had known his name. Source: ‘There is a point where you feel so small’ | World news | The Guardian

Gellhorn continued reporting for 40 years after D-Day. She covered the war in Vietnam, the Arab-Israeli conflicts, and civil wars in Central America. She always resented being identified only as Ernest Hemingway’s third wife. Her life was far more than that.

Get a FREE copy of Kill the Quarterback

Get a free digital copy of Jim Stovall's mystery novel, Kill the Quarterback. You will also get Jim's newsletter and advanced notice of publications, free downloads and a variety of information about what he is working on. Jim likes to stay in touch, so sign up today.

Powered by ConvertKit

2 comments on “Martha Gellhorn: the first woman on Normandy beach, June 7, 1944

  1. Great article. I admired Gellhorn’s long-form reporting on the aftermath of the U.S. invasion of Panama in 1989. But, one quibble: Gellhorn was Hemingway’s third wife

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *