Martha Gellhorn — The Hospital Ship: June 6th -7th, 1944

War Correspondent

New York Times

Although she has now been dead for over twenty years, Martha Gellhorn can still be considered one of the most accomplished war correspondents of the 20th century, having covered most of the major conflicts: from the Spanish Civil War up to, and beyond, the Vietnam War.

During World War II she outshone her more high profile husband, Ernest Hemingway, by a long shot, concentrating, as he never did, on more personal stories — as was the case with John Steinbeck and Ernie Pyle — that dealt with serving personnel, and the consequence, both physical and mental, that such personnel suffered.

But, early on the 6th of June, 1944, D-Day, the thirty-six year old, still unaccredited correspondent Martha Gellhorn, had managed to get aboard the first hospital ship to sail with the invasion fleet. Martha had simply walked on board, found a nurses uniform and, when the injured started coming aboard in their thousands, got stuck in. And as the daughter of a doctor, who had trained her well, and a fluent German speaker, Martha more than pulled her weight, as well as writing a splendid dispatch.

That first dispatch, for Collier’s Weekly, of June 1944, doesn’t mentioned her methods of course, but it’s a wonderfully encompassing piece of writing:

“ Our ship was snowy white with a green line running along the sides below the deck rail, and with many bright new red crosses painted on the hull and painted flat on the boat deck. We were to travel alone, and there was not so much as a pistol on board in the way of armament, and neither the English crew and ship’s officers nor the American medical personnel had any notion of what happened to large conspicuous white ships when they appeared at a war, though everyone knew the Geneva agreement concerning such ships and everyone wistfully hoped that the Germans would take the said agreement seriously.”

WW2 US Medical Research Centre

Martha describes the ship’s facilities, including four hundred and twenty-two bunks with new bedding, a bright and clean, well-equipped operating theatre. Great cans of ‘Whole Blood’ stored on the decks, bottles of plasma, boxes of drugs and bales of bandages. There were six nurses aboard, who came:

“ From Texas and Michigan and California and Wisconsin, and three weeks ago they were in the USA completing their training for the overseas assignment. They had been prepared to work on a hospital train…instead of which they found themselves on a ship, and they were about to move across the dark, cold green water of the Channel…”

Gellhorn emphasises that no one on board had ever been on a hospital ship before (on D-Day there nine hospital ships in total) consequently there was no voice of experience or leadership, but then most of the troops waiting to invade Europe had never done that before either. It was to be the largest military undertaking in history, and a young, experienced female war correspondent, who’d covered wars in Spain and China was, in a borrowed nurses uniform, about to be a part of it.

Gellhorn writes:

“ Then we saw the coast of France…first it seemed incredible; there could not be so many ships in the world. Then it seemed incredible as a feat of planning; if there were so many ships, what genius it required to get them here. After the first shock of wonder and admiration, one began to look around and see separate details…a floating city of huge vessels anchored before the green cliffs of Normandy. Occasionally you would see a gun flash or perhaps only hear a distant roar, as naval guns fired [over those cliffs]…Small craft beetled around in a curiously jolly way. It looked like a lot of fun to race from shore to ships in snub-nosed boats beating up the spray. It was no fun at all, considering the mines and obstacles that remained in the water, the sunken tanks with only their radio antennae showing above water, the drowned bodies that still floated past. On an LCT [Landing Craft Transport] near us washing was hung on a line, and between the loud explosions of mines being detonated on the beach dance music could be heard coming from its radio.”

Martha describes barrage balloons looking like comic elephants, aircraft droning above the grey clouds, heavy cement barges, and tanks moving off the beaches.

Then her mood changes and she stops noticing the invasion because the first wounded are arriving. An LCT draws alongside the hospital ship: requests are shouted from below, and what appears to be a lidless coffin is lowered down. Men on the LCT place a stretcher inside the box, which is hauled up onto the deck. The young man, a boy really, is lifted, on his stretcher, from the box. He is the first wounded soldier to come aboard: a wounded German. It became busier by the minute:

“ Everything happened at once. We had six water ambulances, light motor launches, which swung down from the ship’s side and could be raised the same way when full of wounded. They carried six litter [stretcher]cases apiece or as many walking wounded as could be crowded into them.”

It is organised chaos that isn’t really chaos, but a reaction to an ever changing situation, with shouted orders that are more suggestions than anything else, suggestions to avoid the floating mines, to concentrate on a certain section of a certain beach — Easy Red, or Dog Red. The stretcher bearers are doing back breaking work, with blistered hands, helped by the ship’s crew. The number of wounded brought on board grows and grows with each passing half hour, with the wounded passed from launch to ship in anyway possible. The below deck partitions are thrown out creating one huge ward.

Gellhorn’s writing picks up pace as she remembers what was happening just a few hours before:

“ It will be hard to tell you of the wounded, there were so many of them. 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; shoes and clothing had to be cut off; 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; plasma bottles must be watched; cigarettes had to be lighted and held for those who could not use their hands; it seemed to take hours to pour hot coffee, via the spout of a teapot, into a mouth that just showed through bandages.”

By the afternoon the wounded men were settling down as best they could, and as Martha writes:

“ But the wounded talked among themselves and as time went on we got to know them, by their faces and their wounds, not their names. They were a magnificent enduring bunch of men. Men smiled who were in such pain that all they really can have wanted to do was turn their heads away and cry, and men made jokes when they needed their strength just to survive. And all of them looked after each other, 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?’ All through the ship men were asking after other men by name, anxiously, wondering if they were on board and how they were doing.”

That paragraph is a master class in how to describe an almost overwhelming situation, especially when you have become involved physically, actually working as a nurse, getting on with a job, at the same time observing detail, absorbing. It’s in every word and phrase — quite extraordinary.

The central section of Martha Gellhorn’s brilliant dispatch for Collier’s Weekly (published August 1944), concentrates on groups and individuals, including a young man who had:

“…been wounded…[and] had lain out in a field and then crawled back to our lines, sniped at by the Germans. He realized now that a German, badly wounded also in the chest, shoulder and legs, lay in the bunk behind him. The gentle-faced boy said very softly, because it was hard to speak, ‘ I’d kill him if I could move.’ After that he did not speak for a long time; he was given oxygen and later operated on, so he could breathe.

“ The man behind him was a nineteen-year-old Austrian. He had fought for a year in Russia and half a year in France; he had been home for six days during this times. I thought he would die when he first came on board, but he got better. He said, ‘So many wounded men, all wounded, all want to go home. Why have we ever fought each other?’

“ An American soldier on that same deck had a head wound so horrible that he was not moved. Nothing could be done for him and anything, any touch made him worse. The next morning he was drinking coffee. His eyes looked very dark and strange, as if he had been a long way away, so far away that he almost could not get back. His face was set in lines of weariness and pain, but when asked how he felt, he said he was okay. He was never known to say anything more; he asked for nothing and made no complaint, and perhaps he will live too.”

Gellhorn is never heavy handed, always honest — brutally honest at times — and compassionate; never critical of the fighting soldier, of any side, and as she would show when she entered Dachau in 1945 — there could be no tears from her, or the nurses and orderlies. These wounded young men — as with the inmates of the concentration camps — didn’t want tears, not from anyone. They wanted food, cigarettes, good care and, above all else, they wanted love. Even a seventeen-year-old French boy who’d been hit in the back by shrapnel and was very brave, yet frightened for his family who did not know what had happened to him, and were still in the middle of a battle zone, where retreating Germans were burning farms, maybe his family’s farm by now. One American soldier told the young French boy, through Martha, that he was a fine soldier and better than the ‘Heinie’ in the next bunk would ever be. The Heinie, who wanted to be moved, was a very young German who, as Martha realised, was also very frightened. Martha explained to him, in German, that the orderly couldn’t move him because he might bleed to death: it was that simple, and that there were now hundreds of badly wounded young men who could not be moved, and were, although in pain, happy to be alive. Did he understand? He nodded.

When night came on the 6th of June 1944:

“…the water ambulances were still churning in to the beach looking for wounded. Someone on an LCT had shouted out that there were maybe a hundred scattered along there somewhere. It was essential to try to get them aboard before the nightly air raid and before the dangerous dark cold could eat into their hurt bodies.”

The Atlantic

Martha Gellhorn never knowingly held back, always pushing herself to the front, as she did on the night of 6–7th June 1944, volunteering to go with a beach party to pick up wounded before the night took them. Martha writes:

“ Everyone was violently busy on that crowded dangerous shore. The pebbles were the size of melons and we stumbled up a road that a huge road shovel was scooping out. We walked with the utmost care between the narrowly placed white tape that marked the mine-cleared path, and headed for a tent marked with a Red Cross just behind the beach. Ducks [DUKW — amphibious landing craft] and tanks and trucks were moving down this narrow rocky road and one stepped just a little out of their way, but not beyond the tapes. The dust that rose in the gray night light seemed like the fog of war itself. Then we got off on the grass and 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 the sun that had warmed the earth some other time when summer was real.”

That last sentence has now become one of Gellhorn’s most famous, evocative and moving within any of her dispatches, and must have touched the readers of Collier’s Weekly to the heart, as a good many of Steinbeck’s and Pyle’s did, when they wrote of everyday things in relation to extraordinary events. But somehow Gellhorn’s has become a real link, in the way black and white film of World War One, when turned into colour has: suddenly there’s an immediacy about it. Martha’s reference to the smell of summer grass is both comforting and disturbing.

From the smell of summer grass Martha takes us back inside, where work is being done:

“ Inside the Red Cross tent two tired unshaven dirty polite young men said that the trucks were coming in here with the wounded and where did we want to have them unloaded? We explained the problem of the tides and said the best thing was to run the trucks down to the LST [Landing Ship Tank] there and carry the wounded aboard, under the canvas roof covering, and we would get them off as soon as anything floated.”

And although Martha uses the term ‘ we explained…’ I get the impression that she explained things. I may be wrong, but her writing has a fluency that is itself quite commanding and very much to the point.

What follows, to the end of the piece, is Gellhorn at full throttle: describing the loading of the wounded — many wounded — off the beach and onto the ship, and the trip back to England. The last third of her dispatch is in fact a text book of how things should be done, have been done, and need to be done in the future. It is also a paper on how people work together under very dangerous and difficult circumstance.

When the hospital ship docked, and the wounded were off-loaded the chief medical officer let out a sigh of relief and said:

“ Made it.”

With that Martha Gellhorn returned the uniform to where she had found it, and walked off the ship and caught the first train to London, where she was arrested and put in a secure unit from which she escaped during the night, made her way to the home of a RAF pilot she knew who was flying to Italy the following day: she joined him, and once in Italy set out to find the war.

A brilliant writer and human being.

With acknowledgements to Caroline Moorhead’s — Martha Gellhorn: A Life (Chatto & Windus, London,2003), and Martha Gellhorn’s — The Face of War (Virago, London, 1986)

Playwright, Historian, Biographer & Freelance Writer Living and Working in Shakespeare’s Stratford

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