Monday’s Photography Inspiration – Dickey Chapelle

Georgette Louise Meyer known as Dickey Chapelle was an American photojournalist born in March 14, 1919 in Milwaukee, Wisconsin was known for her work as a war correspondent from World War II through the Vietnam War.

At the age of sixteen, she attended the aeronautical design classes at MIT. She soon returned home, where she worked at a local airfield, hoping to learn to pilot airplanes instead of designing them. However, when her mother learned that she was also having an affair with one of the pilots, Chapelle was forced to go live with her grandparents in Coral Gables, Florida. There, she wrote press releases for an air show, which led to an assignment in Havana, Cuba.

A story on a Cuban air show disaster that Chapelle submitted to the New York Times got her noticed by an editor at Transcontinental and Western Air (TWA), which prompted her to move to New York City. Working at the TWA publicity bureau, she began to take weekly photography classes with Tony Chapelle, who became her husband in October 1940. She eventually quit her job at TWA to compile a portfolio, which she sold to Lookmagazine in 1941. Later, after fifteen years of marriage, she divorced Tony, and changed her first name to Dickey. She took her nickname from her hero, Arctic explorer Admiral Richard Byrd.

Despite not having much photographic credentials, during World War II Chapelle managed to become a war correspondent photojournalist for National Geographic, and with one of her first assignments, was posted with the Marines during the battle of Iwo Jima. She also covered the battle of Okinawa which cost her, her military accreditation 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.

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.

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.

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. “In 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.”

During the Hungarian Revolution of 1956, Chapelle was captured and jailed for over seven weeks. She later learned to jump with paratroopers, and usually travelled with troops. This led to frequent awards, and earned the respect of both the military and journalistic community. Chapelle “was a tiny woman known for her refusal to kowtow to authority and her signature uniform: fatigues, an Australian bush hat, dramatic Harlequin glasses, and pearl earrings.” Chapelle was one of the bravest female journalists of her time and surely the most experienced. She ventured where other reporters dared not go and insisted on reporting only what she could see firsthand.

Despite early support for Fidel Castro, Chapelle was an outspoken anti-Communist, and loudly expressed these views at the beginning of the Vietnam War. Her stories in the early 1960s extolled the American military advisors who were already fighting and dying in South Vietnam, and the Sea Swallows, the anticommunist militia led by Father Nguyen Lac Hoa.

Chapelle was killed in Vietnam on November 4, 1965 while on patrol with a Marine platoon during Operation Black Ferret, a search and destroy operation 16 km south of Chu Lai, Quang Ngai Province, I Corps. The lieutenant in front of her kicked a tripwire boobytrap, consisting of a mortar shell with a hand grenade attached to the top of it. Chapelle was hit in the neck by a piece of shrapnel which severed her carotid artery, and she died soon afterwards. Her last moments were captured in a photograph by Henri Huet. Her body was repatriated with an honour guard consisting of six Marines, and she was given full Marine burial. 

She became the first female war correspondent to be killed in Vietnam, as well as the first American female reporter to be killed in action.

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