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The woman who chased D-Day

Writer and correspondent Martha Gellhorn is shown in this undated photo. Associated Press file photo

How did a young woman from the Midwest find her way to the bloodiest and fiercest fought battle on D-Day? Her name is not often associated with the beaches of Normandy, yet Martha Gellhorn was there at Omaha Beach on June 6, 1944.

Gellhorn was from an influential family in St. Louis. Her father emigrated from Germany to start a medical practice. Her maternal grandfather was a physician as well.

Her mother was active in the local community and very well known for her work as a suffragette. Gellhorn was raised to be independent in personality and intellect.

After high school, she attended Bryn Mawr College, as had her mother. She learned to speak French in high school and college. The family spent summers traveling in Europe, where she could practice this language.

Gellhorn left college before graduating to work as a journalist in New York City. After several years she headed to Europe.

There she wrote for magazines and newspapers. She started writing her first novel while living in Paris and wrote “I do not know of any city so beautiful …”

On a short visit to Germany, she met young people who enthusiastically shared their beliefs in the Nazi regime. She did not like the rhetoric and found it concerning. She would later call Hitler a “criminal lunatic.”

Gellhorn was romantically associated with a Frenchmen during this time. When the relationship ended, she returned to America.

The Great Depression had created poverty and despair. Gellhorn began work as a field investigator with the Federal Emergency Relief Administration, or FERA.

She was invited by her mother’s friend, Eleanor Roosevelt, to stay at the White House. While there, Gellhorn assisted the first lady with correspondence and “My Day,” a syndicated daily column.

She stayed in the Lincoln Bedroom for two months. Gellhorn published her second book, “The Trouble I’ve Seen,” based on her experiences with the FERA.

Heeding the call of wanderlust, Gellhorn returned to Germany and gathered background information for her next novel while she learned some of the German language. The politics were unsettling and getting worse. She did not like the rise of antisemitism nor the German peoples’ adulation for frenzied speeches given by Hitler. Gellhorn’s family was Jewish by heritage; however, they did not practice the faith.

Ever confident, Gellhorn set off to cover the Spanish Civil War as an accredited war correspondent for Collier’s magazine. She wrote about the war firsthand, seeing death and destruction.

She was so close to the fighting that she was in her hotel as it was hit by artillery. When not writing, she would assist the Red Cross providing comfort to wounded civilians and soldiers.

Gellhorn returned to America and married another writer and journalist, Ernest Hemingway.

They moved to Cuba, living near Havana. Gellhorn remained active as a war correspondent, traveling to other countries wherever there was conflict.

After five years, however, Gellhorn ended the marriage. Hemingway never forgave her for divorcing him.

Martha Gellhorn, center, with her then-husband, author Ernest Hemingway, left, and Elicio Arguelles in Havana, Cuba, in 1942. Associated Press file photo

Gellhorn did not like to be linked to Hemingway, saying, “I was a writer before I met him, and I have been a writer since.” She forbade his name to be spoken in her presence.

Leaving Cuba and Hemingway behind, she headed to England to cover the impending invasion of France by Allied forces. She wrote about the effects of war on children, the hardship of rationing, and she interviewed pilots and soldiers.

‘Operation Overlord’

Tension and excitement filled the air. Troops, equipment and military machines jammed harbor towns as the assemblage readied for Operation Overlord.

Gellhorn, anxious to cover the action, went to the ship docks but was stopped by a British soldier. She identified herself as a war correspondent, despite knowing her credentials were not approved. No women were given credentials or permission to go to Normandy during active battle.

Undeterred, Gellhorn boarded a hospital ship with the pretense of interviewing the medical staff. Instead, she hid in a bathroom until the ship was well away from land.

As dawn broke over the horizon on June 6, a flotilla of 5,000 ships, the largest ever assembled, headed toward the beaches of Normandy.

Gellhorn made history on D-Day as the only female wartime correspondent at Omaha Beach.

American ships approached Utah and Omaha beaches along the crescent-shaped coastline. The US 1st and 29th Divisions missed the planned landing sites due to heavy currents, which pushed the landing ships toward the north end. Omaha Beach was a 4-mile stretch divided into eight sectors.

Those on the hospital ship did not have to wait long. Bloody Omaha is where the fiercest fighting and highest loss of life happened. Casualties occurred before the first troops hit the sand. Heavy amphibious tanks sank along with the crews, with only one working Sherman tank making it to shore.

Small landing crafts were swamped by 6- to 8-foot waves, and 80-pound packs of equipment took men under the water, where they drowned. Before men even stepped onto the beach, they were cut down by German guns high on the bluff. As twilight began, the sand and surf on Omaha Beach ran red with the blood of 2,400 Americans.

Casualties were brought onto the hospital ship. Gellhorn assisted with giving care to the wounded as she had done in Spain. She provided translation when German prisoners of war were treated on board. After nightfall, she jumped into the waist deep surf to help rescue wounded troops from the beach and bring them onto the ship. No one questioned her credentials.

American bombardment from battleships USS Texas and USS Arkansas missed the mark. Artillery shells intended to weaken German pill boxes fell short into the water without any damage. Aerial bombardment also was not effective. Bombs dropped far inland and did not hit the German fortifications.

Troops had to cross 300 feet of exposed sand to reach the cliff and scale 100 feet to the top, which was booby-trapped with mines and barbed wire. Once there, the fighting intensified.

Col. George A. Taylor encouraged his men in the heat of battle, “… two kinds of people are staying on this beach, the dead and those who are going to die — now let’s get the hell out of here.”

German defenses were highly effective. Obstacles made the beach approach dangerous for small landing crafts. To prevent gliders from landing, Rommel’s Asparagus, 16-foot-tall wooden poles protruded from the sand. The beachhead was defended by the German 352nd Infantry, a well-trained, well-armed battle-hardened force.

The Germans fought fiercely to defend this section of the Atlantic Wall. The Allies had to fight just as fiercely to win and secure every inch of Normandy sand at a high cost of human life.

The legendary “Desert Fox,” Field Marshall Erwin Rommel was tasked with fortifying the defenses along the French coast. Rommel was not present at the front on June 6, but at home celebrating his wife’s birthday. He gave her shoes handmade in Paris.

Additional Allied Forces attacked Gold, Juno, and Sword beaches. By the end of the day Allied casualties were 10,300 killed, wounded or missing. Operation Overlord was the largest combined naval, aerial and land operation in history and is referred to as the beginning of the end of World War II.

Post-Normandy

After the invasion, Gellhorn returned to England, where she was arrested and held at a training camp for nurses. She promptly escaped the light security by breaching a fence.

She arranged for a friend to take her to an airfield where she was able to hop a ride back to the fighting and continued to report on the war.

She was present at Dachau and saw the skeletons, the ovens, the tortured ones, and the evil of it all. Years later she wrote, “For surely this war was made to abolish Dachau, and all other places like Dachau, and everything that Dachau stood for, and to abolish it forever.”

After the war, she was present for the Nuremberg Trials and later the Eichmann trial. She reported on both.

Gellhorn’s career as a novelist and war correspondent spanned six decades. She married another time, which also ended in divorce.

She also adopted a young Italian orphan, George Alexander, nicknamed “Sandy.” Gellhorn died Feb. 15, 1998, age 89, at her home in London.

The New York Times obituary quoted Gellhorn “I am overprivileged. I had a wonderful life. I didn’t deserve it, but I’ve had it.”

Deborah E. Holden, M.Ed., has loved history since a teenager. The book, “The Hiding Place,” a gift from her mother, started a lifelong interest in WWII history and the Christian faith. Martha Gellhorn is one of the historical figures Holden portrays at reenactments across the country and presentations for schools and civic groups. She lives in Cranberry Township with her husband, Richard.

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