THE WOMEN WHO WROTE THE WAR
October 11, 1999
DAVID GERGEN: Nancy, your new book is so clearly a labor of love. Nine years in the making, it's the tail-- tale of woman so ready for adventure and ready to buck the system.
NANCY CALDWELL SOREL: Yes, they were. Many of them started out in Europe as freelancers; others came over after America entered the war. Some had never reported from the city room, from the newsroom, had been just in the women's department. Others had reported in the morgue or a little bit of everything. But they all...they were so enamored of the reporting process and of being over there and of finding their way in this war that had spread, after all, over such a large part of the world.
DAVID GERGEN: And this is the first time American women had covered an American war.
NANCY CALDWELL SOREL: Yes, really, getting anywhere near the front. It certainly was. And when the war began, none of the generals wanted them to get anywhere near the front, but that was rearranged as time went on.
DAVID GERGEN: Virginia Irwin, was she representative of the women who went?
NANCY CALDWELL SOREL: She came over in 1943 as a worker with the Red Cross, which had bases all over England. And she came over in that way because the St. Louis Post Dispatch had no war correspondents and certainly did not plan to have a woman war correspondent. So she said, well, she would go over with the Red Cross and she sent back a lot of stories. And as the time went on, the St. Louis Post Dispatch decided, well, maybe they did want a war correspondent and in fact they actually wanted two. And there was Virginia Irwin right over there now already. And so she became a war correspondent in that round-about form.
DAVID GERGEN: So she was the first one to be there, the first woman to cover the capture of Berlin.
NANCY CALDWELL SOREL: Yes, she was. This was, of course, at the end of the war. She had been at the Elb with the other correspondents who covered the Russian-American meeting at the Elb, and there was a large gathering of all the generals, all the press, everybody, with a picnic and dancing and such. Everybody took part. And then she and Andrew Tulley of the "Boston Traveler," kind of sneaked out and took a jeep and went off to Berlin, which was some distance away. And between the Elb and Berlin was the entire Russian army, or so it seemed to her. Of course it wasn't but-- and the Russian army was an extraordinary gathering of all kinds of hay wagons and carts and American-loaned trucks and such and it was like nothing Virginia Irwin had ever seen or experienced. Now, this was...when I say they sneaked out it was because Americans were not allowed in Berlin. So this was quite rebellious of her to have done this.
DAVID GERGEN: Any reader of Ernest Hemingway has also heard of Martha Gelhorn, another one of your correspondents.
NANCY CALDWELL SOREL: Martha Gelhorn was another St. Louis correspondent, that is, she was from St. Louis. She rebelled against St. Louis early in her life. She rebelled against Bryn Mar when she went there - she -- as quickly as she could -- got over to Europe, and started writing and sending back material also to the St. Louis Post Dispatch at the beginning.
DAVID GERGEN: She was the first woman in after D-Day, she got herself then to France.
NANCY CALDWELL SOREL: She was the first one to get to France. That's right. She went over in a hospital ship about a day or two after D-Day, she hid in the hospital boat to manage this. She got over -- but when the hospital ship got there, as close as the ships could get, then they had to get off on to an LSD and go in to shore and such and she did that. She got on to shore and it was kind of the end... the boat was really waiting to go back but they went on and they brought out some more... some more soldiers, wounded soldiers, all of whom happened to be German prisoners. I think she had thought of her story as being for the American soldier wounded -- you know -- bringing him home and this particular group was all German. But it was still a feat for her to do, although, of course, it was very much against the rules. And so she was immediately put behind barbed... maybe not barbed wire but a fence and made to stay there or told to stay there. Actually, she climbed over the fence and flew off to Italy without any credentials, without even her passport as she couldn't get those.
DAVID GERGEN: By the end of the war she'd escaped from Hemingway as well?
NANCY CALDWELL SOREL: She did, yes. She managed to escape from him, which was a good move on her part.
DAVID GERGEN: Margaret Berke White, so many of her pictures have become familiar by now. Was she perhaps the most famous woman photographer of the war?
NANCY CALDWELL SOREL: She certainly was. She covered at the beginning the Air Force and particularly North Africa where she went up in a bomber, which was also against the rules, and Eisenhower was furious when he found out about this. He said, well, now she cannot come back to the war at all. Of course "Life" Magazine persuaded him eventually, but she was not to go in planes anymore. So then she was with the engineers actually in Italy, and she covered that route for a while.
DAVID GERGEN: You have a photograph in your book of Lee Miller that suggested she had a rebellious spirit as well.
NANCY CALDWELL SOREL: Oh, very much so. Very much so. I guess this was a mark of most of the women-- some less so. Lee Miller was, yes, a real rebel. And she also went where she wanted to go and did what she wanted to do. She photographed for "Vogue," which was a little different because before that, "Vogue" had never shown pictures of the war. But her pictures were so wonderful and her stories, she wrote the stories to go with the pictures and they were marvelous, too.
DAVID GERGEN: When she went into Munich and went to Hitler's apartment and she saw the apartment, she found the bath irresistible.
NANCY CALDWELL SOREL: Yes, she did. She found Hitler's bath in his apartment, and she thought, well, all right, have a bath. And she filled it up with water and climbed in, took off her clothes. In the photograph that David Sherman of Life Magazine took of her you see her combat boots right there by the tub and she's smiling out, perfectly happy.
DAVID GERGEN: When you stepped back from the women, themselves, what did you conclude from all of this? These women seemed to be -- have an enormous sense of adventure, they broke a lot of barriers; they helped -- laid the groundwork for other women who followed.
NANCY CALDWELL SOREL: They certainly did. What they wanted to was to cover the war on their own terms, which meant covering it as the men did, more or less. They didn't insist on-- they just wanted to be on the front where they could experience whatever came along. This was hard and didn't happen really very much until the end of the war. The last two to three months of the war most of the women who were over there did get to the front and covered, you know, went where they chose, because it was such a mix-up by that time.
DAVID GERGEN: Labor of love. Nancy Sorel, thank you very much.
NANCY CALDWELL SOREL: Thank you.