Inside Story

War stories

Women reporters showed they could report alongside men during the second world war

Jeannine Baker 15 April 2015 3158 words

Tenacious correspondent: Lorraine Stumm interviewing on board a hospital ship in Tokyo Bay in 1945. Private collection

Just six weeks after the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki triggered the end of the second world war, Australian newspaper reporter Lorraine Stumm was in a small party of journalists taken by airplane over the destroyed Japanese cities. Like other Western journalists in Japan, Stumm had written of her pleasure at seeing signs of the Allies’ supremacy and of Japanese weakness and inferiority, and she was keen to witness the processes of war. But the flight had an unexpectedly traumatic impact on her.

In her memoir I Saw Too Much, Stumm recalled that she had “expected the rubble and the devastation,” but had been unprepared for the horror of seeing “the piles of bodies, clearly recognisable.” American reporter Gwen Dew of the Detroit News was also shocked into silence: “Never could you imagine such death, such fearful death… I literally could not speak for days.” The desolate scenes haunted Stumm for decades. In 1989, she told ABC radio producer Sharon Davis:

It was just a vast wilderness with heaps of rubble here and there – absolutely devastated. Dreadful sight… And we just couldn’t believe that one bomb could possibly do so much terrible damage. It was as if you’d just wiped it out with a huge hand – wiped everything out in sight. Shocking thing. When I came back I wrote that it was the most terrible disaster the world had ever faced and who knew what the after-effects would be.

Stumm was the only Australian woman to be given the Asiatic-Pacific Campaign Ribbon, awarded by US General Douglas MacArthur to war correspondents who had “shared the hardships and dangers of combat with United States troops and whose presence has contributed to the welfare and effectiveness of our troops.” Interestingly, MacArthur’s description did not distinguish between men and women war correspondents. Within Australia, however, women journalists who have reported war, sometimes at great personal risk and long-term cost, are still not celebrated or remembered in the same way as male war correspondents.

The fascination with Australian war correspondents and war photographers such as Damien Parer, Neil Davis, Charles Bean and Alan Moorehead continues to grow with each retelling of their exploits. But it is perhaps hard to see where women fit into the picture of the daring, heroic combat war reporter, who shares all the risks and dangers of the troops alongside him. Can a woman journalist, confined to the margins of the battlefield and engaged predominantly in writing non-combat news, rightly be called a war correspondent, even if she was officially accredited as one?

Australian women correspondents have reported on conflict since 1900, when Sydney nurse and journalist Agnes Macready covered the South African war for the Catholic Press. During the second world war, twenty-one Australasian women worked as war reporters in the southwest Pacific and in Europe. The Australian army accredited sixteen women as war correspondents in 1942 and 1943 for the express purpose of publicising women’s war work on the home front. Two Australian women, Elizabeth Riddell and Anne Matheson, were accredited with the Allied forces in Europe in 1944. Other women reported from overseas without official accreditation but often with the permission of the Australian or New Zealand military or government. At the end of war in the Pacific, a further group of non-accredited women journalists reported from Asia on the cessation of hostilities and the transition to peace.

In both theatres, the military defined a “war correspondent” as a reporter of frontline conflict and a “woman war correspondent” as a reporter of non-combat war news, or what was often referred to as the “woman’s angle.” Arguments about women’s vulnerability, their need for male protection, their inability to understand or cope with war conditions and their lack of understanding of military hardware were used to support the exclusion of women reporters from military areas. Australian military authorities, in particular, categorised women reporters as untrustworthy, shallow “sob sisters” and argued that their visible difference from the troops could jeopardise military operations.

In late 1942, the Australian army’s director of public relations, Brigadier Errol Knox – a former journalist – established a limited accreditation scheme for Australian women war correspondents. The newly minted correspondents were provided with a uniform, green-and-gold War Correspondent shoulder flashes and a war correspondent’s licence stamped Lines of Communication Only, meaning they were not permitted in operational areas. Australian military authorities, along with their counterparts in the European theatre, attempted to control the movements and the writing of women reporters by confining them to the periphery of the military zone, where they were mainly limited to covering stories perceived to be of interest to women, such as the work of women’s auxiliary services. While some women reporters were relatively acquiescent, others openly resisted the military’s rigid definition of their role.

One woman reporter in particular stuck in the craw of the Australian military. Ambitious and competitive, Lorraine Stumm relied on both her femininity and her tenacity in the pursuit of stories. In the mid 1930s, she had proven herself in the man’s world of Fleet Street, chasing hard news stories for the London Daily Mirror. She travelled to Singapore after her husband, RAF wing-commander Harley Stumm, was posted there in 1939, and began working at the Malaya Tribune as a general reporter. In late 1941, she contacted her former employer, the Daily Mirror, and confidently offered to represent them as an accredited British war correspondent in Singapore, a role she performed until she was forced to evacuate ahead of the Japanese advance.

From 1942 to 1943, Stumm was based at MacArthur’s Brisbane headquarters as an accredited war correspondent, again for the London Daily Mirror. She ceaselessly needled the Australian military authorities to be allowed to report from operational areas but was refused every time with the excuse that there were “no facilities,” which meant no women’s lavatories. In October 1943, MacArthur invited Stumm to visit the operational area of New Guinea to cover an aerial attack on Rabaul. While eleven male war correspondents accompanied the Allied air forces on the mission, Stumm was forced to remain behind on the base, interviewing Red Cross workers and other support staff. The Australian army’s new director of public relations, Colonel John Rasmussen, was nonetheless incensed by Stumm’s transgression into the military zone. Within a month, he had abolished the Australian accreditation system for women war correspondents.

At the end of the war, Stumm was working as a general reporter for the Sydney Daily Telegraph and Sunday Telegraph. She had returned to Australia in May 1944 from India, where she had been working for the British Ministry of Information until the death of her husband Harley in an aircraft accident in Calcutta. When peace was declared, Stumm saw an opportunity to report another big overseas news story, and again approached the Daily Mirror, which agreed she could represent them in Japan. The Telegraph’s editor, Cyril Pearl, supported Stumm’s trip, partly because she organised her own transport and covered her own expenses.

There was no civilian air transport at the time, so Stumm approached the Royal Air Force Command, who offered her a flight to Tokyo out of respect for her deceased airman husband. Over eight weeks, Stumm visited Okinawa, Hong Kong, Singapore, Manila, Borneo and Darwin, and spent a month in Tokyo. As she walked through Tokyo, Stumm felt “a heady joy” in the part that Australian troops had played in defeating “this nation of fanatics that had been bent on over-running our country.”

In late September, soon after her flight over Hiroshima, Stumm obtained an important scoop: an interview with the first known European survivor of Hiroshima, Jesuit priest Wilhelm Kleinsorge. In her despatch to the Daily Mirror, Stumm reported Kleinsorge’s description of the horrific scenes on the afternoon of the bombing:

People were wandering about with their whole faces one large blister from the searing effect of the bomb. Only forty out of six hundred schoolgirls at the Methodist College survived. Three hundred little girls at the government school were killed instantly. Thousands of young soldiers in training at barracks were slaughtered. I walked for two hours and only saw two hundred people alive.

Stumm’s dispatch is significant because by this time virtually all discussion of the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki was strictly censored under the Allies’ Press Code, established soon after the publication of Australian Wilfred Burchett’s exposé of the lingering effects of radiation in the London Daily Express. The US authorities in Japan tended to approve only those news reports that focused on the initial blast and the immediate impact on buildings, and that described Hiroshima and Nagasaki as military targets.

Stumm later wrote that observing “the bitter desolation of a once prosperous community” and the scale of the human suffering in Hiroshima gave her no pleasure. Stumm’s daughter Sheridan Stumm, also a long-time journalist, told me that while her mother was in Japan she did not openly discuss her feelings, because she could not afford to be seen as weak by the male reporters. Women journalists often had to suppress their emotions lest they be accused of not being mentally tough enough to cope with war conditions. But towards the end of her mother’s life, Sheridan Stumm said that “as dementia was creeping in, the two traumatic events of the war came flooding back – the death of her husband and the horror of Hiroshima.”

Just like their male colleagues, many women reporters found proximity to danger exciting, and they could be just as fiercely competitive in the pursuit of a scoop. In her memoir, No Woman’s World (Houghton Mifflin, 1946), British war correspondent Iris Carpenter described the precariousness of women reporters’ existence. While women felt pressured to file news other than routine “hospital stories” to keep their jobs, “trying to get anything else meant breaking rules,” which in turn jeopardised their positions.

Elizabeth Riddell, an intrepid and fearless general reporter and accredited war correspondent in Europe for the Sydney Daily Mirror, recalled that women reporters desired more than “the nice little trips” they were offered. Proving that women were prepared to take “just as many risks as anybody else if they wanted to,” Riddell set off without permission from her party of women war correspondents in Brussels and travelled with fellow Australian reporter Sam White to Metz in France, which was still under German fire. Riddell claimed that she felt no concern for her own safety, just “inquisitive and curious and detached.”

This attitude of “intrepid insouciance” is common to both men and women war correspondents, as observed by Anthony Feinstein and Mark Sinyor in their study of the psychology of war journalists. Despite this, ABC’s former Afghanistan correspondent Sally Sara recently shared her experience of post-traumatic stress disorder, a result of bearing witness to scenes that were “not just physically confronting” but “morally wrong.”

Even during the second world war, when Australian women reporters were supposedly excluded from frontline areas, they encountered the devastating human cost of conflict. In Riddell’s case, the realisation that she had been just “a spectator, an observer” of the war eventually disgusted her and she decided to return to Australia before it ended. “When you’re a war correspondent you are, whether you like it or not, part of a great organisation, a machine for war,” she told ABC broadcaster Tim Bowden in 1978.

While the majority of women had little choice but to write non-military stories because they had limited or no access to the frontline, others chose to do so because they recognised their importance for understanding war. Riddell, for example, wrote incisive political stories about the impact of war on French civilians and did not see this as taking the “soft” option. Writing about civilians was at the time considered just a “superficial sidebar” to the main story of war, as American media historian Maurine Beasley explains in the documentary No Job for a Woman.

But this kind of reporting soon became the norm, and twenty-first-century war journalism typically focuses on the human story: the flight of refugees, the plight of child victims, the struggle for daily life in a conflict zone. Most of the contemporary conflict journalists who were interviewed by Howard Tumber and Frank Webster for their book Journalists Under Fire reject the label “war correspondent,” finding it self-important, restrictive and outmoded. They see their role as “telling stories about people’s lives and the effects of government decisions on ordinary folk.” Yet instead of being admired as path-breakers, the Australian women who covered the human side of the second world war have often been disparaged as writers of merely “domestic” articles of limited interest.

Adventurous New Zealand journalist Dorothy Cranstone demonstrated on more than one occasion that she did not regard her sex as a barrier. According to family friends, her independent and defiant nature had been forged in childhood: one recalled that Cranstone was expelled from her private girls’ school after bringing in a stockwhip, which she had learned to crack expertly. In 1937 she agreed to accompany four men on a big-game hunting trip to Central Africa, partly because she knew she would be the first white woman to make the journey, later documented in her memoir Africa Calling 1937.

In January 1942, Cranstone reported from Singapore for New Zealand and Australian newspapers just before the country fell to the Japanese. She then made her way to India, where her husband, Royal New Zealand Air Force fighter pilot Jim Cranstone, was stationed with the RAF, and where she was to report on the war situation for the Australian and Natal press. She was seconded to the RNZAF as a service observer and public relations officer based in Ceylon, where she wrote press releases and news stories about the RNZAF and was entitled to accompany aerial operations, a rare privilege for a woman.

Cranstone self-identified as a war correspondent despite having no official status or accreditation as such. An article in the Wellington Evening Post in November 1945 claimed she participated in “submarine hunts in the Indian ocean, dropped supplies into camps hidden in the heart of Burma, and was flown over Rangoon with supplies for the prisoner-of-war camps there after the capitulation.” After the reconquest of Burma by the British in May 1945, Cranstone was responsible for identifying New Zealand prisoners of war in camps in Calcutta, Thailand, Burma, Malaysia and Singapore. In Singapore she broadcast news via radio about New Zealand prisoners, took photographs and helped to organise their aerial evacuation.

Cranstone’s lack of bylines, her status as an observer rather than a war correspondent and her postwar career as a farmer (she named her property “Burma”) have all contributed to her virtual obscurity in the historical record, but this pioneering woman journalist deserves to be better known.

During wartime, women reporters were constantly reminded of their difference from the troops and were kept quarantined from them. In the immediate postwar period, Australian women journalists in Asia benefited from a softening of the lines of demarcation between the civilian and military domains, but their gender remained a strong point of focus for authorities and was often foregrounded in their journalism. In late September 1945, Woman journalist Iris Dexter reported from Southeast Asia on the restoration of peace and the circumstances of newly released Australian prisoners of war. In 1942–43, she had been an accredited war correspondent with the Australian army on the home front, but she now referred to herself “apologetically” as a “peace or postwar correspondent.”

Dexter’s ambiguous status – neither part of the military nor completely protected from the perils of war – was soon brought home to her. Holed up in Java for over two weeks because of regional conflict stemming from Indonesia’s nascent independence movement, Dexter found herself “hemmed in by [guns] in the hands of English, Indian, Indonesian and Dutch soldiers.” Dexter’s heightened vulnerability was inextricably tied to her gender and race. “Being the only correspondent in Java with lacquered toenails has disadvantages,” she wryly observed. On the eve of her departure from Batavia (now Jakarta) to Bandoeng (Bandung), where rioting was taking place, local authorities requested she cancel the trip and warned her, “One slight incident there… and as a white woman you’d be a liability.”

Although Australian women had proved they could be “very solid conscientious correspondents” during the war, as Riddell observed, afterwards there was a return to the status quo for some decades. Riddell nonetheless believed that she and other women war reporters had paved the way for later female foreign correspondents such as the celebrated Margaret Jones, who in 1973 became the first Sydney Morning Herald journalist to be based in Beijing since the war’s end.

“That’s a great thing that’s happened to women,” Riddell remarked to Tim Bowden, “that they can be trusted to be sent out, to do the work, go everywhere and run their job properly. So one can only say that if that arose from the war then that’s a good thing. And I think probably it did arise from the war.” The extraordinary New Zealand–born journalist Kate Webb, who covered the Vietnam war from 1967 to 1975 and many subsequent conflicts, was also rightly hailed as a pioneering woman reporter.

I wonder how much Webb and Jones knew about the Australasian women who preceded them as reporters in Asia? The individualistic practice of claiming to be the “first” or “only” reporter to witness an event, which was embraced by Australian women war reporters, did not encourage acknowledgement of those who came before them or who stood alongside them. Women general news reporters such as Cranstone and Stumm are also harder to trace in the historical record than feature writers because they were often denied bylines. The stories they wrote were intended for immediate consumption rather than future study – and then used to wrap fish. And it’s a truism that nobody cares about yesterday’s news.

In 1989, former Melbourne journalist Pat Jarrett was interviewed about her wartime experiences. Jarrett was an accredited war correspondent in Australia for the Herald in 1942–43 and also travelled briefly to the Burma front in January 1945 at the request of Lord Louis Mountbatten, Supreme Commander of the South-East Asia Command. She observed that the work of Australian women war correspondents was little known, let alone celebrated. “I’ve never been asked to march in an Anzac Day march. Men war correspondents have marched – but I think they’ve forgotten that there were women.” Jarrett and her colleagues had not been content to observe war only from the sidelines. Seventy years after Stumm reported on the horrors of Hiroshima, it is surely time to take the work of Australian women reporters seriously – not merely as the “woman’s angle” on war, but as part of the main story. •

This essay appears in Griffith Review 48: Enduring Legacies, edited by Julianne Schultz and Peter Cochrane, where a fully referenced version is available.