Someone asked her what a woman was doing there. Her answer: “There’s no question” that war is no place for a woman,” adding, “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, I think observers of both sexes will be sent to see what happens.”
Dickey Chapelle was smart and fearless until the morning of November 4th, 1965. At 8 a.m., Chapelle and the marine platoon she was with had just left camp in South Vietnam’s Chu Lai when they tripped a wire tied to a grenade. It exploded, the shrapnel hitting Chapelle in the neck. She died shortly after, on route to the hospital.
(Note: The photos in this article are from the Wisconsin Historical Society)
What drove this photojournalist to willingly risk her life on the battlefield for a story? As a foreign correspondent, Dickey repeatedly put herself in extreme situations of danger, adding to the social rebuke for stepping outside the prescribes notions about a woman’s place.
But Dickey Chapelle, born Georgette Louise Meyer, understood the meaning of freedom from tyranny. She had a frontline perspective on life. For her, every assignment rested on hardcore journalism. Her idealistic perspective on her job marks what is missing in today’s world of journalism, and speaks to the difference between writers who follow a story to writers invested in the truth.
Meyer worked when there were few women in the newsrooms and even fewer females working as foreign correspondents. But Meyer was concerned with the most fundamental issues shaping America. The world conflicts in the 1940s to the 1960s were off limits to women but anyone who wanted to understand what was really happening in the world needed to be in the conflict zones to see it for themselves.
Meyer was this kind of woman. Born in 1919 in Shorewood, Wisconson, she had an insatiable desire to understand the motivations and machinations of war.
At sixteen, she attended aeronautical design classes at MIT and returned home hoping to pilot planes. But a move to Florida and an article she wrote about witnessing a Cuban air pilot’s death in a show changed her life when it landed on the desk of a New York Times editor.
There was no going back for Meyer, who moved to New York and accepted a job in the TWA (Transcontinental and Western Air) department.
She enrolled in weekly classes to learn photography from Tony Chapelle who got more than a student. Meyer and Tony married, and within a year Meyers had sold her first photo in 1941. With the entry of the U.S. into the war in 1941, Meyers (I’ll refer to her as Chapelle from now on) jumped at the chance to go overseas with Tony to really test her new photography skills.
Believing she could do anything, Chapelle convinced the Navy to send her into a region that saw two of the bloodiest battlefields for Americans in the Second World War: Iwo Jima and Okinawa. When Chapelle was only offered an assignment covering the training program for nurses stationed at the Alameda Naval Air Station in Iwa Jima, she left New York set out for Guam. There she boarded a hospital ship, the USS Samaritan, taking her to the first of two stops.
When the ship arrived on the island of Iwo Jima, Chapelle immediately got to work taking photos of wounded and dying Marines on the beach. She wanted to be close to the action and knew her work would be meaningful if she could demonstrate her skill and willingness to go into dangerous circumstances.
What followed was the second assignment in Okinawa that was as graphic as the one at Iwo Jima except that Chapelle was ordered to stay on board the ship. Knowing this would limit her work, Chapelle disobeyed the order and took hundreds of compelling pictures on the beach, showing the devastation and desperate hopes of wounded men.
One particular photo – Chapelle’s The Dying Marine – is too graphic to show but it became one of the most circulated photos from the Japanese attacks. It showed Corporal William Fenton, one of 551 critically injured soldiers, badly injured. He didn’t survive and like many of the men photographed by Chapelle, it put a face on the war.
As for Chapelle and her behavior, she was put under house arrest and had her press accreditation revoked.
So how did Chapelle fight through this and go on to fight sexism in the 1950s and earn the respect of fellow journalists? Check back tomorrow for Part 2 on Dickey Chapelle.