War correspondents have a difficult job, the days are long, and the accommodations are lacking familiar comforts. When one dies while reporting from the battlefield, it is especially sad. Dickey Chapelle was a female photojournalist killed when shrapnel stuck her neck on Nov. 4, 1965. She was the first woman war reporter to die in action while on patrol with Marine troops.
Chapelle, whose birth name was Georgette Louise Meyer, was born in Milwaukee, Wisconsin on March 14, 1918. At the age of 15, she met an admiral named Richard “Dickey” Byrd, who spoke at her school. Taken with the man, she chose to change her name to Dickey.
While in high school, she wrote “Why We Want to Fly,” for the United States Air Service magazine.
Road to Becoming a Photojournalist
When the young woman began looking toward her future, becoming a photojournalist was not the career she envisioned. Chapelle was enamored with aeronautics and was accepted to attend Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) to study aeronautical engineering, not only was she only 16 years old but in the 1930s, women at the technical college were not typical.
While attending college, she wrote an article about the Coast Guard, for the Boston Traveler. By this time Chapelle found she was quite infatuated with writing.
She was not, however, successful at MIT and dropped out after her second year. Instead of studying, the budding photojournalist spent all of her time at the Coast Guard and Naval bases taking pictures of planes and hitching rides from pilots. As she began moving toward the photojournalist world, she wrote several articles and took photos during her in-flight adventures.
After, failing out of college, her parents sent her to live with her grandparents in Florida. Chapelle secured a job with a local air show and wrote its press releases.
In Havana, with her employer, she witnessed the death of a Cuban pilot during an exhibition. She ran to a pay phone and called The New York Times, to give a full report. This may have been one of her first major stories.
Cub-Reporter Becomes a Photojournalist
The next step of the journey was moving to New York when she began working for Transcontinental and Western Air (TWA). While working there, she met, started dating, and in 1941, married Tony Chapelle. He was a coworker who took her under his wing, helped her develop her photography skills, and encouraged her to perfect her portfolio.
Her photography and accompanying essay were published in a 1941 edition of Look magazine. Shortly thereafter, Chapelle formally launched her career as a photojournalist.
The U.S. Joins WWII Giving Birth to a War Correspondent and Photojournalist
After joining the press corps during WWII, Chapelle’s career as a war correspondent and photojournalist spanned more than 30 years. Before her death, she wrote an autobiography entitled, “What’s a Woman Doing Here?: A Reporter’s Report on Herself.”
Chapelle’s book was published in 1961, and, in it, the photojournalist shared her experiences traipsing through the war with her camera and typewriter.
Mike Wallace interviewed Chapelle about her book and experiences. He asked if she believed it was a woman’s place to accompanying Marines on assignment, jumping out of planes, and reporting from the front. Further questions included asking the photojournalist if reporting about war was a woman’s job.
She told Wallace there was no doubt that being a war correspondent and photojournalist was no place for a woman. Chapelle added that the battlefield was not a place for men either.
But as long as men continue to fight wars, why I think observers of both sexes will be sent to see what happens.
A Goodreads member, John Nondorf reviewed the photojournalist’s autobiography:
Dickey was a remarkable person and she tells her own story here without bravado. I am intimately familiar with her [photojournalist history] from working in the visual materials archive at the Wisconsin Historical Society. Many of the tales in this book breathe life into the images I know so well.
In 1992, “Fire In the Wind,” was published. An author/biographer, Roberta Ostroff, wrote about Chapelle’s life as a photojournalist and war reporter.
Another book written about her experiences, “Dickey Chapelle Under Fire: Photographs by the First American Female War Correspondent Killed in Action,” by James Garafolo. Some sources report it is the ultimate tribute to a photojournalist.
Capt Jack T. Paxton, USMC (Ret.) wrote this about Garafolo’s book in the November 2015 edition of Leatherneck Magazine:
John Garofolo’s work is not only a fine read, it is a must for any who have experienced combat, especially those of us who continue to tell the Marine Corps story.
Chapelle’s attitude about which story to write was, as Don Haines wrote for Combat Magazine, undeterrable. If told an angle would not work, she fought harder to use her dynamic skills as a photojournalist to document all sides of the war.
Her work includes shots of civilians, grunts, magnificent scenery, and the destructiveness of battle. The U.S. Marine Corps representative explained, “She was one of us.”
By Cathy Milne
COMBAT Magazine: One Helluva Woman; War Correspondent Dickey Chapelle with U.S. Marines
Goodreads: ‘What’s A Woman Doing Here? A Combat Reporter’s Report On Herself’
QUARTZ: The first American female war correspondent killed in action battled sexism through her life
Hurry Up Sister Productions: Dickey Chapelle
Featured Image Courtesy of Jean-Pierre Dalbéra’s Flickr Page – Creative Commons License
Top Image by US National Archives Courtesy of Wikimedia – Creative Commons License
Inset Image Courtesy manhhai’s Flickr Page – Creative Commons License