Virginia Irwin, the WWII correspondent who broke news, broke rules and broke barriers

When I was in fifth grade, we had a career unit in our social studies class called “J.A. Biztown.” We learned about interview techniques, job applications, financial literacy and business skills and the whole course culminated in a three-day field trip to Biztown itself where each of us would be hired for different jobs.

As someone who was a whiz at both “Life” and “Monopoly,” I figured I would be perfectly fine when it came to the whole money aspect of it but, as a perfectionist, I really struggled with the whole job interview thing. My teacher’s father actually conducted all of the interviews for our class and you couldn’t imagine a sweeter man but I had one thing on my mind: I wanted to be the editor-in-chief/CEO of the newspaper.

I felt I needed to rise above all the other competition and impress with my field experience and so I enlisted the help of my best friend and we spent recess with our spiral notebooks, looking for stories to report. She did an advice column while I looked to expose the seedy underbelly of the elementary school. All I could really find was the fact the milk cartons never effectively opened unless you drove the zipperhead from your lunch box in between where the seam was supposed to split.

Nevertheless, I ended up getting the job and my crew and I founded the ever-popular “Biztown Buzz.” We covered some pretty hard-hitting stuff. I still keep a personal copy in my desk drawer.

For some reason, we placed advertisements for our own paper…in our own paper…

There’s my masterpiece of a letter…right next to the Jokes section.

I’m not really sure what is going on here…

On the way back from the final day of Biztown, one of our chaperones, driving alongside our bus in the pouring rain, hydroplaned into the school bus, punctured a tire and left us stranded on the side of the highway with nothing to do but sing Hannah Montana songs. Thankfully, no one was hurt.

After an hour, several kids started to complain, mainly about needing to pee or wanting snacks, but the whole thing was exhilarating for me. For a kid, experiencing a car/bus accident was huge news and I knew I was just the person to write about it, not for the “Biztown Buzz” that I had just left behind but a stand-alone literary journalistic piece that really captured the full emotion of the incident. Even though I was super proud of it, I was too scared to share it with anyone, afraid they might have had a different perspective of the accident or that I had missed something or made something out to be bigger than it was.

This seems so silly looking back as an actual editor-in-chief but I remember that same feeling of being in the middle of the biggest event of at least my life history so far. It was up to me to capture it and preserve it. It must have been the same feeling Virginia Irwin had when she snuck into Berlin and drove around in a commandeered jeep on April 27, 1945, the day the city fell to Allied Forces and just a couple of days before Adolf Hitler killed himself.

Virginia was born in Quincy, Illinois on June 29, 1908. Her father, Clare, left to fight in World War I when Virginia was young and eventually died due to lung issues he received in battle. Her younger brother, Grant, also died when he drowned in the Mississippi River when he was a teenager.

Despite these early tragedies, Virginia poured her focus into her schoolwork, becoming the class valedictorian of Quincy High School, earning acceptance to Lindenwood College and then attending Gem City Business School.

She started work as a secretary at the Irwin Paper Company where she met her husband, salesman Marcus Thomas. However, both the job and the marriage were brief and Virginia moved to St. Louis by herself in 1932.

She quickly was hired at the St. Louis “Post-Dispatch” as a file clerk, working in the morgue of the newspaper. It wasn’t long after she started that she received a promotion. However, it was more of a demotion for her. She became the newspaper’s new food editor. She hated to cook and it became clear the only reason she had even been given the position was because she was a woman.

Image Credit: Smithsonian Magazine

She had finally made her start in journalism but, as was the case with many other female journalists at the time, instead of seeking out huge stories, she spent most of her time writing recipes, marriage advice and etiquette. In fact, years later when news of Pearl Harbor was gracing front pages worldwide, Virginia was still relegated to publish a holiday shopping feature called “Battle of the Bundles.”

Despite the frustrating assignments, Virginia still gave it her all and proved to the executive staff that she was a good writer and an even better interviewer. She was finally permitted to pursue out-of-town assignments, two of which included giving a woman’s point of view of the major political conventions of 1936 and 1940.

Once the United States entered the war in 1941, Virginia began to write about the mobilization of women on the Homefront, interviewing those working on production lines across the nation. From this, she produced a noteworthy series published in eleven installments in 1942. It was definitely closer to the kinds of stories she was itching to write but she longed for the limitless stories awaiting journalists traveling to the war front.

She asked for an overseas assignment the following year but was refused. She changed tactics and asked for a leave of absence so that she could join the American Red Cross. They agreed but asked that she continue to write human interest stories that they could publish while she was gone.

Soon, she found herself in Britain and spent her first months volunteering at a Red Cross camp where she experienced the “first of the horrors of war,” as wounded soldiers from Normandy came pouring in on D-Day. She began to talk to these men and write stories about their experiences. She wrote about the cold and the food, a topic she was now thrilled to be writing about. Many of the soldiers called her “mom” and she prompted them to imagine going home for five minutes to talk to and about their families and friends.

Image Credit: American Air Museum

In 1944, the “Post” finally decided it would be beneficial to have a correspondent on the ground in Europe. However, they were finding it increasingly difficult to get the necessary War Department accreditation necessary, a process that could take several weeks. Because of this, they turned to Irwin who, by already being overseas, gained accreditation easier.

As exciting as it was to join the fewer than 130 female credentialed correspondents, Virginia soon realized there were even more rules constricting women. They were admitted only as an extension of the Women’s Army Corps, even wearing WAC uniforms, and were told that they could not venture farther towards the front than the nurses, meaning that most women waited in the field hospitals with their typewriters, instead of covering the fighting. When she crossed the English Channel to France with other members of the WAC, she witnessed the beginning of the fall of Paris from the sidelines. This was not the kind of experience she came for.

She and another female reporter snuck away from the press camp for a couple days to get up close to the fighting, so close that they “blundered into a battle” a little south of Paris. However, soon they were confined again in a Paris press hotel during the summer of 1944 but Virginia managed to get permission to visit the 19th Tactical Air Command’s headquarters, part of Patton’s Third Army. She broke rules again staying through Christmas instead of the three days she had been allowed. In September, the Air Command brought her on as their first woman correspondent.

Image Credit: Smithsonian Magazine

While Paris was busy sending out orders to return Virginia to her abandoned station, she was following the Third Army across Belgium, Holland, Luxembourg and Germany, finally experiencing the thrills and the terrors of the war she was so desperate to write about. It was “with the best of the men correspondents, that I’ve been to the front lines.” At one point, she was forced to use a chimney to take cover from “Jerry fire” (German fire). She wrote back to a friend at the “Post” that “when I am not scared to death, I am tickled to death.”

By April 1945, Virginia and another American reporter, Andrew Tully, began to anticipate the fall of Berlin once Russian forces began to pour into the city. They became determined to capture a view of the German capital before its surrender and to see the final fighting of the war. This was much easier said than done. First of all, all foreign reporters had been kicked out of the capital in 1941; no American correspondent had entered since. Secondly, the territory was unknown and the two lacked an adequate map to point them towards a fixed destination, which meant they would have to wander through the streets where exhausted Russians and Germans were still duking it out. Nonetheless, Virginia and Andrew were still determined to catch the surrender of Germany.

They persuaded Johnny Wilson, a young Army Sergeant, to commandeer a jeep and accompany them into the turbulent city. The three didn’t quite know what to expect and hoped that both the Germans and the Russians would leave them alone as they had no protection at all.

Image Credit: Smithsonian Magazine

The thing that struck Virginia the most riding through the broken streets was the jubilation of the Russians. Despite their haggard appearance, “the Russians were happy—with an almost indescribably wild joy. They were in Berlin. In this German capital lies their true revenge for Leningrad and Stalingrad, for Sevastopol and Moscow.” Their troops were singing and laughing their way into their final battle.

A group of Russian officers even welcomed the American trio, who they called “Amerikanskis,” to join the festivities. Everyone raised a toast to Truman, Roosevelt, Stalin and Churchill and where Virginia danced to music from their Victrola until she was “puffing from the exertion.”

What Virginia was able to capture was unlike any other glimpse from other correspondents, not only because she seized on the rare occasion to enter the city two weeks before any other war correspondent would. Other accounts from the war talked about the fighting like it was a distant war, a war overseas, a war for the noble cause. For the Russians, this war was at home. Soldiers had lost loved ones, their cities had been destroyed, their hope nearly lost to despair. (Check out my Night Witches post for more on this.) This final push into Berlin meant so much more to the Russians than simply the noble cause. Virginia was overcome by the way they “[fought] like mad and play with a sort of barbaric abandon,” and she expressed a desire to “join the Russian Army and try to help and take Berlin.”

Conversely, she was able to witness the fear radiating from the Germans, describing one woman with “circles under her eyes so deep and dark they could have been etched there with lamp black.” She described the smell of the air as that of “cordite and the dead” and that “as I write, the Russians’ artillery is pounding the heart of the city with a barrage…the earth shakes.”

It was the moment millions had fought years to get to and she was one of the only people witnessing it. To her, it was “the story of the most exciting thing that could ever happen to a newspaper reporter.”

Despite the magnitude of her story, the Army was not too pleased by her little stunt. The War Department had the only method of technology to get her story back overseas but the Army censors refused to pass it on to the States and pulled her credentials, putting a stop to her reporting for the small but momentous remainder of the war. She was furious after her countless protests were ignored. She called the whole series of events “the greatest exhibition of bungling I ever saw in my life.”

It wasn’t until after V-E Day was declared that the story was published in newspapers around the country, and, by that point, it wasn’t exactly news anymore. Nonetheless, Virginia’s visceral account captivated and impressed readers. “The Seattle Times” called it a “journalistic glory undimmed by the shabby treatment accorded by the Army censors.” She was even awarded a full year’s salary for her work by her editor, Joseph Pulitzer II.

Image Credit: The Historical Society of Quincy & Adams County

Sadly, like many female journalists coming back from the war with hugely successful pieces, the male majority within the newspaper’s staff made it nearly impossible to continue the high-level work she craved. She was back to the same old fluffy assignments that she despised, despite the fact that she was now a nationally-acclaimed star reporter.

She moved to New York where she had more room to write the kinds of features she wanted to, such as art, politics and profiles. However, when she moved back to St. Louis and was assigned an advice column called “Martha Carr” which would feature neighborhood gossip and problematic marriages, she retired from journalism, never writing again.

She moved to Missouri, settled down on a farm and died in 1980 at the age of 72 as one of the most accomplished but now forgotten war correspondents in history.

Obviously war-torn Berlin on the brink of surrender has little to do with a minor car/bus accident and Virginia Irwin is a far more inspiring figure than a fifth-grader who spent all of her hard-earned Biztown Buzz salary on stress balls made out of balloons and rice from the “Health Center,” but I think that there is an important connection there. Seize the moment. Understand that you are the only person with your perspective and your talent and if there is something or someone in your way, screw them. Even if, as in my case, that person is yourself and that voice inside your head telling you that you aren’t good enough. Screw that voice and screw you for believing it. All you have to do is keep reminding yourself that you were the CEO of the Biztown motherf***ing Buzz and that you can do anything.

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