Inside the Daring Life of a Forgotten Female War Photographer

Dickey Chapelle was one of history's most fearless conflict journalists—and the first American woman to die on the job.

Photograph courtesy Nat Geo Image Collection
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Photographer Dickey Chapelle holds her equipment while on assignment in Vietnam. She had already reported on dozens of conflicts by the time she landed in the war-torn nation.
Photograph courtesy Nat Geo Image Collection

The 36 hours before Dickey Chapelle leaped off a tower with the Screaming Eagles were terrifying. She was 41 years old and parachute jumping for the first time. But fear never lasted for the pioneering war correspondent, and she quickly proclaimed it among “the greatest experiences one can have.”

It was 1959 and Chapelle had hooked up with the U.S. Army’s 101st Airborne Division at Fort Campbell, on the border between Tennessee and Kentucky. She’d been working as a war correspondent since 1942 and had reported on dozens of conflicts. She’d been called “the polite little American with all that tiger blood in her veins” by Fidel Castro; held in solitary confinement during the Hungarian uprising; and affirmed as the first correspondent accredited by the Algerian rebels. After learning with the Screaming Eagles, she became the only woman authorized to jump into combat with paratroopers in Vietnam.

In training, Chapelle was told that there’s no reason to close your eyes during a jump, and she likened this philosophy to her style of journalism. Clinging to the motto “Only you can frighten you,” she made a practice jump into Korea the next year and then went off to Vietnam, where the U.S. was fighting a guerilla rebellion that would drag on for 20 years.

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Dickey Chapelle takes a photograph while covering a Marine Corps operation on the shore of Lake Michigan in 1958. In 2017, more than a half century after her death, she was named an honorary marine.

Chapelle was one of the bravest female journalists of her time and surely the most experienced. With Vietnamese paratrooper and U.S. Army wings pinned to an Australian bush hat shading her black-rimmed glasses and pearl earrings, she ventured where other reporters dared not go and insisted on reporting only what she could see firsthand. But her tally of conflict zones would end in Vietnam, where she became the first American woman correspondent to die in action. Years later, other journalists reported that Vietnamese Airborne troops were still reminiscing about the small, foul-mouthed woman who’d jumped with them.

TAKING TO THE SKY

A fast-talking Midwesterner, Dickey Chapelle was born Georgette Meyer. As a child, she took her nickname from her hero, Arctic explorer Admiral Richard Byrd, and dreamed of being a pilot or an aerospace engineer. At age 14, she sold her first article to U.S. Air Service Magazine, titled “Why We Want to Fly,” and at 16 she enrolled in MIT along with six other female students that year. Six years later she married Navy photographer Tony Chapelle—then 40—who soon became her reporting partner.

“Be sure you’re the first woman somewhere,” an editor in New York advised early in her career.

Hear Dickey Chapelle

In this Overseas Press Club broadcast from 1964, Chapelle discusses her experiences documenting some of the "toughest" stories in the world.


And she did. In 1942, Chapelle became one of the first women correspondents accredited by the military in WWII—an accreditation she quickly lost after accompanying the Marines onto Okinawa Island in defiance of a ban on female correspondents going ashore in combat areas. By the end of the war, she’d already written nine books, mostly about women in aviation, and had found work as an editor at Seventeen magazine.

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Vietcong prisoners build defensive mud walls around a village in South Vietnam.

Still, she couldn’t shake the taste for foreign reporting. She and Tony began photographing the after-effects of war and traveled to nearly two dozen countries as volunteer photographers for relief agencies and the State Department. Each time Chapelle began to settle down, she was called back by war. She became a publicist for an airline and a research institute but couldn’t resist covering the Hungarian revolution, where she was held prisoner for a month. After Tony collected funds for her release, she began to hop from conflict to conflict, seemingly undeterred by danger.

A LIFE OF WAR

Chapelle once wrote that the story she reported again and again was of “men brave enough to risk their lives in the defense of freedom against tyranny,” and this frontline perspective made her a legend at a time when there were few female journalists in newsrooms and fewer on battlefields. She was used to being a novelty in the offices of generals and within Marine units. Sometimes being underestimated worked to her favor: She sold a book on military training to her editor by performing the entire Army fitness test in his office.

But Chapelle’s sex didn’t grant her any special treatment as a journalist. “Not once has a general ever offered to trade me a SECRET operations order for my fair white virtue, and if it sounds as if I’m complaining, I guess in a sense I sure am,” she wrote to her publisher while writing her autobiography, first titled The Trouble I’ve Asked for and later published as What’s a Woman Doing Here?, after the refrain she commonly heard on the battlefield.

The Chapelles began doing stories for National Geographic magazine in the 1950s, but Tony suffered two heart attacks during their 15 years of marriage, and, as he later explained to his editor, sought a more sedentary life. When they worked together, Dickey had done the writing and Tony had taken the photographs. After they separated, Dickey took on both roles in Vietnam.

In May 1962, Chapelle celebrated her 20th anniversary as a war correspondent by embedding with the helicopter units waging an aerial battle over Vietnam. One evening, three separate Marines approached her to say that she’d photographed or interviewed their fathers in Iwo Jima and Okinawa two decades earlier. “With a shock,” she wrote, “I realized I was now covering my second generation of combat Marines—covering them, again, on embattled ground half a world away from home.”

That year, Dickey became the second woman awarded the George Polk Memorial Award, the highest award for bravery from the Overseas Press Club of America. She’d seen more fighting in Vietnam than any other American—17 operations in all, the press release boasted, noting: “The importance of the pictures she took in Vietnam lies in the fact that they were made where nobody goes—BEYOND the telegraph lines and jeepible roads.”

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Chapelle wades through mud on patrol with the Sea Swallows, a militia of Chinese refugees who sided with the Vietnamese government. When she died, there were no other female photographers covering the divisive and dangerous war in Vietnam.

VIETNAM’S FINALE

The war in Vietnam had split American public sentiment, and each dispatch from Chapelle prompted a flood of emotional feedback to National Geographic' headquarters in Washington, D.C.. “From Geographic I expect information, not propaganda,” wrote one reader after her story on the American airborne troops. Nuns from the Holy Family Hospital in South Vietnam disagreed, describing it as “one of the most realistic accounts of what is really happening over here that we have read.”

Maybe Chapelle got tired of the slow and selective way National Geographic covered the war. In May 1965, she told editors she was frustrated to see two weeklies had scooped her on a story about the naval wars that she’d filed first. “Anyway I finally figured out something I could do about it,” she wrote. “I just went to work for one of the weeklies.” She was on assignment for the National Observer—and National Geographic was still sitting on her story—when Chapelle died.

On November 4, 1965, Chapelle was covering the second day of Operation Black Ferret, a Marine search-and-destroy mission near the coastal city of Chu Lai. The Associated Press sent a photographer to follow her and the previous day she’d bet him that her unit would be fired on before his. She lost that bet but told him she’d win the next.

It was nearly 8 a.m. when she walked through the camp and fell in line with the patrol group. Moments later, a blast shook the camp. The unit had walked into a trap: a grenade wired to a mortar triggered by a tripwire on the path. Chapelle was hit in the neck by shrapnel and died on the floor of a helicopter evacuating her to the hospital.

LEGACY ON THE FRONT

Memorials were held by enlisted men and foreign correspondents in Saigon. The Marines gave her full military honors. (Just last fall, at the Marine Corps Combat Correspondents Association’s annual dinner, Chapelle was made an honorary marine.) When the news reached Marine Corps headquarters in Washington, one major reported that “everything came to a halt.”

“She ventured where angels and men twice her size and half her age feared to tread, not with any aura of bravado but simply because she felt that if a newspaper or radio chain hired her to cover a war, it deserved war coverage, not a rewrite of a headquarters mimeographed handout,” fellow correspondent Bob Considine wrote in a tribute for the Milwaukee Journal. “Dickey was one heaven of a woman.”

For a year after Chapelle’s death, there were no other female photographers working in Vietnam. But when, in 1967, one general attempted to ban women from the frontlines, it was too late. Young French photographer Catherine Leroy had arrived and soon followed Chapelle’s aerial path by parachuting into combat with the Screaming Eagles. She, too, would win the George Polk Memorial Award for courageous coverage. “There’s no question” that war is no place for a woman, Chapelle once told an interviewer. Then she added: “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.”