“I think of the U.S. Marines like we used to think of the Foreign Legion; as big mouths with big hearts.” — Catherine Leroy

Catherine Leroy was one of two female photojournalists during the Vietnam war. The other, Dickie Chapelle was killed by a grenade in 1965. 21-year-old Catherine Leroy bought a one-way ticket to Vietnam. She arrived there carrying her Leica M2 camera and $150, but had no assignments or paying work so she lived with the soldiers she covered eating rations and sleeping in the countryside. This meant she spent more time in combat than practically any other photojournalist. “I wanted to be a war photographer, but I had never heard a shot fired in anger,” she said.

She went to the Associated Press office where Horst Fass, the legendary photo editor put three rolls of black and white film on the desk in front of her and said, “If you can get anything I can use, I’ll pay you $15 a picture.”

Vietnam’s most daring photographer

On Photography: Catherine Leroy, 1944-2006
Leroy preparing for her combat jump.

Catherine Leroy became the first and only woman photographer to parachute into combat in Vietnam. Some accused her of sleeping with a ranking officer to get permission and that was not the case. She had already completed 84 parachute jumps as a teenager. Her 85th jump with was with the 173rd Airborne Brigade. Catherine Leroy took pictures as she was parachuting into the fray along with hundreds of other troops (opening photo, bottom row, last photo on right).

“I am the first woman to jump in Vietnam during this first operational jump by American parachutists since the war began,” she wrote to her father on Feb. 23, 1967. “I’m very proud to have jumped with the Americans here, it’s a big professional success in every way. I now know that I will be able to work in the United Sates one day without too much problem.” She wrote how she planned to submit her work to major competitions. “I’ve always thought I should succeed because I never gave in,” she continued.

Robert Pledge, co-founder of Contact Press said of Leroy, “If Robert Capa was saying that it’s not good enough because it’s not close enough — she was very close.”

Catherine Leroy’s Vietnam

Photographing along side the Marines she lived among, brought Catherine closer to combat than she had imagined she would be. Her photographs began appearing in magazines like Time, Life and Look. While on a vacation at China Beach in early 1968, the Têt Offensive began. She made her way to Hué, South Vietnam with a French journalist and was captured by the North Vietnamese. They were held in the servants quarters but were released when their captors realized they were French reporters. Catherine Leroy’s cameras were returned to her and she photographed and interview her former captors.

The photograph, titled “A remarkable day in Hué, the enemy lets me take his picture” (opening photo, top row, far right image). In a 2002 interview, Leroy remembered thinking that the soldiers were posing. She said, “but to me this was a big shock. It was the first time I saw the other side as normal human beings.”

One of Leroy’s best known photographs, “Corpsman in anguish, 1967” is a close up of Corpsman Vernon Wilkes with a dying Marine on Hill 881 near Khe Sahn (opening photo, top row, first image). This video reveals more about her photographs of the war on the hills.

Male photojournalists

Leroy’s fellow photojournalists were male and not ready to accept a woman doing what they considered their work. According to her obituary in the Guardian, “Leroy stood just 5ft tall, and when fully loaded with pack, boots and a tangle of cameras, was carrying close to her bodyweight of 85lbs. She was one of the first to prove that women could not only work out of offices in war zones, but could tough it out in the field with the strongest soldier. People like her opened up the field for the stream of women who now write and appear on television from every battlefield in the world.”

In another letter to her father on May 13, 1967 she mentioned her success with having her pictures published in major magazines saying, “I’m getting telegrams from people who I didn’t know existed for years, while at the same time I’m hated more than ever by known and unknown enemies in Saigon, American civilians, as well as servicemen in Saigon.”

One photographer said to Robert Pledge, that the male photographers “were really nasty chauvinistic pigs.” That same photographer, who now is a filmmaker, called her late in life to apologize.

Mortar fire

In 1967, Catherine Leroy went on patrol with a Marine unit in the demilitarized zone and was caught in a mortar blast that tore open her chest. Dozens of pieces of shrapnel hit herk breaking her jaw and destroying her cameras.

She believed that the last words she would hear were, “I think she’s dead, sarge.” Later, she credited her cameras with saving her life. Six weeks later she was back to work with the soldiers.

Other wars

Catherine Leroy covered Vietnam from almost its beginning to the fall of Saigon in April 1975 and to the occupation of South Vietnam by the North the following month. The years there left her shell shocked. In the 2002 book “Shooting under fire” by Peter Howe she described herself, “It took years to get my head back together because I was filled with the sound of death, and the smell of death … I was extremely cool under fire. I didn’t show anything. But when I went back to Saigon … the horror of it would hit me.”

By 1975 she was covering the civil war in Lebanon and in 1976 becomes the first woman to earn the Robert Capa Gold Medal.

For ten years starting in 1977, she traveled all over the world photographing events and conflicts. In 1980 she returned to Vietnam finally at peace with the war that had ended five years earlier. In 1982, she moved to Lebanon to cover the civil war beginning in Beirut. In 1987 she wins The National Press Photographers Association (NPPA) Picture of the Year award for her story on the bombing of Tripoli in Libya.

Sources: New York Times: Greatest war photographer you’ve never heard of, New York Times: In her own words, The Guardian, The Los Angeles Times, Cathrine Leroy.

More inspiring stories of influential photographers are found in On Photography, weekly in Photofocus.