“It is not a woman’s place. There’s no question about it. There’s only one other species on earth for whom a war zone is no place, and that’s men. But as long as men continue to fight wars, why I think observers of both sexes will be sent to see what happens.” -Dickey Chapelle

By the time the Vietnam war began for the United States in February 1961, Dickey Chapelle had been covering combat as both a reporter and photographer for almost 20 years. She changed her birth name, Georgette Louise Meyer, to Dickey after the nickname for her hero Arctic explorer Admiral Richard Byrd. Meyer became Chapelle when she married Tony Chapelle.

Iwo Jima, Okinawa

Dickey Chapelle managed to become a correspondent during World War II working for National Geographic. One of her first assignments was being posted with Marines during the battle of Iwo Jima location of the famous flag-raising photo by Joe Rosenthal. She was originally tasked with photographing the use of whole blood along with the work of the nurses on board the USS Samaritan a hospital ship. She was confined to the ship. She was determined to show a woman’s view of the battle so she convinced a press officer that her blood story needed to cover a field hospital close to the front lines on the island. Of course, once she was onshore she convinced a lieutenant to take her to the front lines.

On Photography: Dickey Chapelle, 1918-1965
“Self Portrait, World War II” Dickey Chapelle

She found what looked like sand dunes and since she thought this was the front, she made photographs of the landscape, occasionally swatting wasps that buzzed by her. She returned to her tent, telling her story of the wasps. Her bunkmate laughed telling her the buzzing sound was sniper bullets, not wasps. Iwo Jima is a volcanic island devoid of insects.

The lieutenant was furious screaming at Chapelle, “That was the goddamndest thing I ever saw anybody do in my life! Do you realize – all the artillery and half the snipers on both sides of this f**king war had ten full minutes to make up their mind about you?” She had just finished shooting photos at the top of a ridge at the front. She was excited to have been on the front and immediately wrote a report, “Under Fire on Iwo Jima.”

A month after covering Iwo Jima she was assigned to the invasion fleet as the only female photographer to cover what would become the bloodiest battle of the Pacific, Okinawa. In spite of orders to stay on her ship, Dickey Chapelle went anyway. The first general that saw her told his driver, “Get the broad the hell out of here.” Eventually, Major General Lemuel C. Shepard of the U. S. Marines Sixth Division command gave her permission to travel with a medical unit.

She covered Okinawa for 10 days before a she was pulled off the island by the Navy. Her press credentials were pulled and she was sent home.

After the war

Dickey Chapelle worked as a staff photographer at Seventeen magazine. Then she travelled with her husband Tony Chapelle throughout Europe and the Middle East documenting the rebuilding of the post war world for many relief agencies including CARE.

When her marriage ended, she got contacted General Shepard, by then a four-star general. He helped her get her military press accreditation. It was 1955.

She covered the Hungarian uprising where she was captured, accused of spying and held in solitary confinement for two months in Budapest’s Main Street Prison often called “the house of terror.” She was released unharmed. She photographed the war in Algeria and the Cuban revolution. Fidel Castro called her “the polite little American with all that tiger blood in her veins.”

Tribute to a pioneering woman war correspondent

This 3-minute video tells more of Dickey Chapelle’s adventurous life reporting on wars.

“Dickey Chapelle Under Fire” Kindle book preview by John Garofolo

Chapelle was killed in 1965 while on assignment with the Marines in Viet Nam when a piece of shrapnel from a trap hit her in the throat. Photographer Henri Huet was on assignment with her and photographed her receiving her last rites. She was the first American woman reporter to be killed while on assignment. An award is given by the Marines every year in her honor.

Sources: No Job for a Woman, Charter for Compassion, National Geographic, Wisconsin Historical Society