When someone asked what a woman was doing here, Dickey didn’t mince words:
“There’s no question that war is no place for a woman. There’s only one other species on earth for whom a war zone is no place, and that’s men. [So] as long as men continue to fight wars, I think observers of both sexes will be sent to see what happens.”(National Geographic)
Dickey Chapelle was smart and fearless until 8 a.m. on the morning of November 4th, 1965. She stopped breathing that day, after the marine platoon she was with left camp in South Vietnam’s Chu Lai and tripped a wire tied to a grenade. The exploded shrapnel hit Dickey in the neck and she died on route to the hospital.
What drove this photojournalist to risk her life on the battlefield for a story? As a foreign correspondent, Dickey raced into dangerous war zones to report the truth. She wanted to understand the meaning of freedom from tyranny during the 1940’s to the 1960’s, arguably three decades of some of the greatest global warfare and political unrest.
This frontline perspective on life created a thirst for hardcore journalism that had nothing to do with selling papers or satisfying political agendas. An admirable quality in today’s sensationalized news world, not to mention Dickey’s determination to travel to the war front when critics believed she was stepping outside of a woman’s place.
Dickey was born Georgette Louise Meyer. Nicknamed after a childhood aviation hero, Dickey fast-tracked to aeronautical design classes at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) when she was just sixteen. Her plan to become a pilot changed after she moved to Florida and witnessed the death of a Cuban air pilot during an air show. She penned a story in her local paper that caught the attention of the New York Times editor.
This led to a job offer in New York City (NYC) in the TWA (Transcontinental and Western Air) department. Dickey’s insatiable curiosity about the issues that shaped America, at a time when few women were welcomed in newsrooms, made being a foreign correspondent a lofty dream.
But Dickey was undaunted and enrolled in photography classes, where she met her future husband and the classroom teacher, Tony Chapelle. Within a year after moving to NYC, she sold her first photo in 1941 on the cusp of World War II.
Jumping at the chance to be overseas with Tony and test her skills, Dickey 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.
This wasn’t the newspaper’s intention, but Dickey hatched a plan after she learned her assignment was to cover the training program for nurses stationed at the Alameda Naval Air Station in Iwa Jima. Determined to photograph the frontlines, Dickey made her move while the boat she was traveling on to Guam (the USS Samaritan) landed in Iwo Jima. Dickey was told to take shots of the nurse on the hospital boat but she quietly slipped ashore and ran onto the beaches looking for action.
When Dickey heard buzzing that sounded like bees flying overhead, she soon realized it was the noise from Japanese sniper bullets. Her first report back home to America captured horrific photos of the wounded and dying Marines on the beach with an exciting byline that read: Under Fire on Iwo Jima.
Dickey was immediately reprimanded for disobeying orders. Undaunted, she continued to take photos of injured men after she landed at her second stop in Okinawa. These images were an equally powerful revelation for Americans who saw more graphic photos like the ones from Iwo Jima. This time her press accreditation was revoked and she would fight for ten years to have it reinstated.
Dickey’s bravery and persistence under fire meant the wounded men in battle could not be ignored. One of her photos, The Dying Marine, became one of the most circulated photos from the Japanese attacks. The soldier, Corporal William Fenton, was one of 551 critically injured soldiers whose sacrifice put a face to the war.
Despite the sexism Dickey faced on the front, she continued to showcase her work and took any opportunity to write and showcase her work, including an editorial position at Seventeen magazine. While she hated work that felt meaningless and was anxious to get back on the frontlines, she was ready to do whatever it took when global conflicts began to escalate once more.
Dickey did anything she could to interview military leaders like Fidel Castro and revolutionary militants fighting in countries like the Dominican Republic and Hungary. As her reputation grew, National Geographic Magazine continued to her assignments that exposed the worst in our human condition. In Cuba, Dickey charmed her way past customs officials denying entry to Americans. In the Korean and Vietnam war zones, Dickey willingly jumped from planes to get to the fighting and witness the effect of war firsthand on people and the American soldiers.
Dickey knew in these tight situations that the only real thing to fear was fear itself.
Commonly photographed in the field with the American Army wings on her signature Australian bush hat, Dickey was known to also wear her pearl earrings. She often said they were a signal to men that she wasn’t a Marine even though the men treated her like one. But as the conflict in Vietnam, grew, the field for foreign correspondents started to change. The war had become a political hot button and people wanted the war to end.
Six months before Chapelle’s death, when the war was coming to a close, Americans were divided. Dickey felt the sting on the home front as well, having made work concessions to appease her husband Tony’s jealousy during their marriage. In a radio interview with Mike Wallace, Dickey admitted job assignments were challenging if she earned a bigger income or competed for the same job as her husband. Dickey battled the war on two fronts – at home and on the battlefield.
Dickey fought sexism her entire career and in 1953, she finally divorced Tony after learning about his mistress. Despite these challenges, Dickey wrote several books about women in aviation and drew attention to discrimination in a 1962 interview for a biography about her entitled, What’s a Woman Doing Here? A Reporter’s Report on Herself.
Dickey Chapelle became the first female war correspondent to die in combat and blazed a trail for women in the field. Thanks to books like Fire in the Wind and Dickey Chapelle Under Fire, her legacy continues to remind us of the atrocities of war.