Under strict instructions not to leave the ship docked in Okinawa, Dickey Chapelle was determined to photograph the frontlines.
She slipped ashore quietly, making her way to the sand dunes anticipating the horrors of war.
What Chapelle didn’t know earlier was the first time she had taken photos in Iwo Jima she heard the sound of wasps flying overhead. Turns out those wasps were really the buzzing sound from Japanese sniper bullets! Of course, this drastically changed Chapelle’s report back home to America, which read: Under Fire on Iwo Jima. (Note the photos below are from the WI Historical Society.
Chapelle instinctively knew the power of her photos and used every opportunity to convey what was really happening in war zones around the world.
After her war coverage in the Pacific, it would be 10 years before her press pass was restored. She continued to showcase her work, taking writing assignments and even working for Seventeen magazine as an editor, but none of these jobs felt fulfilling.
Chapelle probably enjoyed the excitement of war, knowing she was blazing a trail for women and fulfilling an important role. And as global conflicts escalated, Chapelle found herself back on the frontlines using whatever creative means she could to get interviews with military men like Fidel Castro and revolutionary militants fighting in countries like the Dominican Republic and Hungary.
In Cuba, Chapelle used her charm to get past customs official who were denying entry to any Americans.
In the Korean and Vietnam war zones, Chapelle willingly jumped from planes to get to the fighting and see the effect of war on the people and the American soldiers.
Chapelle learned in these situations that the only real thing to fear was fear itself. She firmly believed, after witnessing so much carnage, that she had become an interpreter of violence. She made it her mission to show the world the price of war and the cause that failed to made sense.
What was interesting about Chapelle however, was her work with Tony, her husband Tony. They seemed to have a good partnership, sending stories and compelling photos back to America each detailing the after-effects of war.
And, Chapelle’s reputation grew as National Geographic Magazine sent them around the world to met leaders of relief agencies. In fact, the picture of Chapelle who was often photographed wearing the American Army wings on her signature Australian bush hat became a familiar image.
Later, in her 1962 biography, What’s a Woman Doing Here? A Reporter’s Report on Herself, Chapelle shared some of her personal struggles and also mentioned a few details about her marriage to Tony that seemed troubling. When asked by Mike Wallace in a radio interview about how she juggled marriage and work, she said she did it one at a time and never together.
This must have been challenging for Chapelle but she remarked it was easier not to upset Tony by making a bigger income or competing for the same job. If the assignment was something Tony would want, Chapelle never applied. And if the job paid more, she was careful to weigh their overall income streams.
While Chapelle doesn’t say any more, she may have felt she was already dealing with enough sexism and didn’t want to fight the battle at home. Chapelle encountered sexism throughout her career and in 1953, she divorced Tony when she discovered he had taken a mistress.
This actually freed Chapelle to take any assignments and in what was likely a symbolic gesture of this freedom, Georgette Chapelle changed her name to Dickey Chapelle. She did this as well to honor Richard E. ‘Dickey’ Byrd, an American pioneering aviator who she admired and met years earlier at her high school.
In her downtime, Chapelle got to work writing several books about women in aviation and even though she tried to walk away from assignments in conflict zones, she found herself always going back because the work was so unsatisfying.
The work was both exciting and depressing and allowed Chapelle to see the worst part of our human condition. For her, men inflicting pain on each other never justified the cause of war.
Six months before Chapelle’s death, the foreign correspondent field was tightening. National Geographic had started to slow their coverage of the Vietnam war. It was a political hot button and Americans were really divided on the issue. Because of this, Chapelle worried about getting her work in front of the American people.
She had also lost stories to other reporters who published before she did simply because her editor had let them sit idle, That’s why Chapelle accepted an assignment with a new outlet – the National Observer. It was on this last tour with the Observer that Dickey Chapelle was killed.
Chapelle had spent most of her life sharing personal stories about what was really happening in combat and about the brutality of war. She hoped it would be a deterrence. Chapelle was well liked by the soldiers who considered her one of them. Even though she didn’t want to be treated any differently from the others, Chapelle wore a pair of pearl earrings to ensure she wasn’t mistaken for a Marine.
As the first female war correspondent killed in combat, many posthumous awards were bestowed on Dickey like the Marine Corp and Brigadier General Robert L. Denig Sr. Memorial Distinguished Service Awards. There’s been a recent rash of books, movies, and even a documentary film by the Public Broadcasting Corporation (PBS) about Chapelle. Other Hall of Fame awards congratulating her for a life of service and legendary commitment to keep her memory alive.
But these few lines written by Dickey Chapelle also provide some wonderful insight into Dickey’s character and strength. They speak to WomanScape’s revisionist attitude and efforts to consistently reframe how we see and live life:
HOME TO ME is a small apartment in a row of old buildings that face across Manhattan’s First Avenue in the direction of the East River.
My view of the water, though, is blocked by Bellevue Hospital, a symbol which some people call depressing but which I find is a reminder of compassion and challenge, too.
To learn more about Dickey Chapelle, you can shop our WS Boutique for her biography and books about her life.
You can also hear Dickey Chapelle speaking to the Overseas Press Club broadcast in 1964. She discusses her experiences documenting some of the most difficult stories.