Rural Missouri - April 2018 - 28
Virginia Irwin broke rules and conventions to cover Berlin's fall
by David McCormick | email@example.com
s Virginia Irwin jostled about in the jeep rambling toward Berlin on
April 27, 1945, visions of unseen perils should have given her pause.
But she expressed no hesitation when Andrew Tully, a correspondent
for the Boston Traveler, suggested they go to the embattled German
city in hopes of getting the scoop on the Russian invasion of Berlin.
As it turned out, Irwin would be in the right place at the right time. She
and Andrew corralled their driver, Sgt. Johnny Wilson, and the trio was off to
Torgau, Germany. Bent on covering the inside story of the last days of World
War II, Virginia, a reporter for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, made a gutsy move.
She slipped across the Elbe River and trekked another 80 miles to reach Berlin
ahead of the American forces. The U.S Army had delayed entering the German
city, according that prize to the Russians.
Virginia paid the price for her courage. In retaliation, American military
authorities rescinded her press credentials. Although her dispatches were heldup, on May 8 the ﬁrst installment of the "Fall of Berlin" splashed across the
front page of the Post-Dispatch as well as several newspapers throughout the
country. Her stories carried such headlines as, "Russians Play, Fight, Die with
Barbaric Abandon" and "Reds Danced In Berlin Streets During War's Bloodiest Battle." But following closely on the heels of these headlines were those
announcing her punishment: "SHAEF Orders Two Reporters Back To States"
and "2 More Yank Reporters Suspended."
Virginia didn't sugarcoat the Russian rout of Berlin. Her dispatches opened
readers' eyes to the brutality of the Russians, writing, "The Russians have
shown no mercy. They have done to Berlin what the German Army did to Leningrad and Stalingrad." Virginia became embedded with the Red Army. In covering bloody street battles, she witnessed the animosity that the Russians held
for the Germans. Virginia tells of one Russian major who chose ofﬁcers for his
staff based on one qualiﬁcation - that their families had been wiped out by the
Germans, just as his had. It's no wonder Germans scrambled to surrender to
the British and Americans.
Virginia joined the Post-Dispatch in 1932 as a clerk in the clippings library,
traditionally dubbed the "morgue." This was followed by a number of years
writing features. When the war broke out, she was assigned to cover it from
an American woman's point of view and document the role of women during
the war. She joined other female reporters in visiting war plants throughout
the United States. This left her chomping at the bit - she wanted to report the
war. The paper had no intention of being saddled with the expense of sending a
reporter overseas, rather relying on wire service copy for news.
At this point, Virginia came up with a plan. In 1943, she requested a leave of
absence from the paper, allowing her to join the American Red Cross overseas.
This brought her in close proximity to the war effort in England and afforded
RURAL MISSOURI | APRIL 2018
her access to interview U.S. military personnel stationed in that country.
While in England fair winds blew her way. Just before D-Day the paper
reversed their decision. As Virginia was already on the other side of the Atlantic, she became the paper's accredited war correspondent. She followed the
U.S. Army through France and Belgium, where her accounts of the prisoners'
slaughter opened the world's eyes to Nazi atrocities. It was then on to Holland
and Luxemburg as the Army pushed through to Germany and victory.
In the heavily male realm of war correspondents, Virginia had pulled off
quite the coup, being one of only two Americans to make it to Berlin before
the city fell. Irwin feared she and her cohorts might be considered the enemy
or even worse, spies, and be shot on sight by Russian soldiers or become fodder for a German sniper. To alert the Russians that they were Americans, Sgt.
Wilson attached a crudely made American ﬂag to their jeep, all the while calling
out "Amerikanaski" as the trio made their way through the chaos. They were
cheerfully welcomed by the Russians, who were taken that Virginia was a woman. Somehow they pulled face powder and eau de cologne out of a hat, presenting them to her. Their faces lit up when she traded shots of vodka with them.
Entering the city, Virginia was overwhelmed by the destruction she encountered. The bodies of dead Germans, horse carcasses and rubble impeded travel.
Horse-drawn wagons ﬁlled with Russian infantry rumbled alongside Studebaker trucks. Virginia's nostrils picked up the odorous scent of war, later writing,
"The air stinks of cordite and death." The fact that she was a woman covering
the strife unfolding in Berlin was not lost on Virginia. Women faced stricter
regulations than their male counterparts as they were not allowed in war zones,
and they faced more stringent censorship.
When Virginia's credentials were revoked, the order had come from the top
- Allied Supreme Commander Gen. Dwight D Eisenhower. Joseph Pulitzer II,
who owned the paper, stepped in to help Virginia, but even he couldn't prevent
her from being sent back to the states. In a reversal in 1947, her credentials
were returned and she even won praise for her "outstanding and conspicuous
service." Pulitzer certainly was not upset by Virginia's illicit foray into Berlin -
far from it. Instead, he rewarded his correspondent with a large bonus equaling
one year's salary. Once home, she was allowed more important assignments,
but nothing matched the thrill of the battleﬁeld.
Virginia worked for the paper for 32 years and according to her, she enjoyed
30 of them. After the war, most of her time was spent at the Post-Dispatch's
New York bureau, returning to the St. Louis ofﬁce for her last two years. There,
she was delegated to writing an advice column under the pseudonym "Martha
Carr." To her, it was a "stultifying task" - a sad commentary for a news- and
mold-breaking reporter. She retired in 1963 and died in Mount Vernon, Missouri in 1980.
McCormick is a freelance writer from Springﬁeld, Massachusetts.