Combat Photographers & Correspondents

Dickey Chapelle was a woman of action. With a Leica hanging from her neck, cigarette in hand, dressed in her signature custom-tailored fatigues, harlequin glasses and pearl earrings, she was an inspiration for all women. Dicky was driven by the need to prove herself in the "boys club" world of photojournalism and an increasingly obsessive need for the truth, as she saw it. A combat photographer who strove to be the first on a story, for Dickey it wasn't enough to be near the action. She had to be in the center of it.





Her determination was seen as pushy by some, self-serving by others. But no one could deny the passion with which she applied herself to her work. Part romantic, part patriot, part marine, Dickey was never one to let anything like gender stand in her way. Born Georgette Meyer in 1919 in Shorewood, Wisc., "Dickey" (self-named after her favorite explorer, Admiral Richard Evelyn Byrd) was led to believe by her father and two aunts that whatever she dreamed was within her reach. Dickey learned early how to persist in order to get what she wanted.

At 16, the valedictorian of her high school class earned a full scholarship to MIT for aeronautical design studies. She returned home a few months later knowing she'd rather fly a plane than design one. Upon her return, unbeknownst to her overprotective mother, Dickey took a secretarial job at a Milwaukee airfield in exchange for flying lessons. In July of 1938, after an undisclosed incident involving a pilot, Dickey's mother sent her to live with her grandparents in Florida. A series of jobs related to the airstrip near her grandparents' house led her to a job with TWA in New York City. There she enrolled in a photo class taught by TWA's publicity photographer and her future husband, Tony Chapelle.



Through his guidance and support, Dickey worked toward becoming a full-fledged photographer. This support gradually gave way to resentment as Dickey overshadowed Tony. He wanted all the attention and eventually began to take on lovers, partly blaming her. Dickey struggled with guilt and then her own resentment until after 15 years of marriage they divorced and she was free to follow her passion unencumbered. Not known as a great photographer, Dickey fought her personal demons of inadequacy and of not being a "Margaret Burke-White. "She pushed herself, through her photography and reporting, as a means to relay what she witnessed-- her "truth"--to the people back home. As Bill Garrett, her editor at National Geographic, said, "She wasn't that good, and she had to hustle to keep the work coming. But she would stick with a story two or three months while another reporter would stay two days. And she would bring back the facts, no matter how long it would take." Not only that, Dickey would do whatever it took to get the story. She was "adopted" into many different nations' fighting units, beginning with the U.S. Marines (with whom she became enamored on her first foreign assignment during World War II), because of her tenacity in going to extremes to get to the truth. These units included rebel outfits in Algeria, Cuba, Hungary and South Vietnam. She took up parachuting at the age of 40 since the guerrilla conflicts she wanted to cover were mostly in inhospitable terrain. She knew she would be competing against journalists much younger, but she could get there first by jumping. She earned the first approval in years from the Pentagon for a reporter, the first ever for a woman, to jump with the troops.

That she was not a good photographer was a sentiment shared by many of her male colleagues, undoubtedly biased by bruised egos. And yet she won numerous awards, including the 1963 Press Photographer's Association "Photograph of the Year" award for her 1962 shot of a combat-ready marine in Vietnam. This came at a time when the U.S. government was censoring most reports of its involvement in the region. Dickey felt such showings were crucial to helping the fight against communism. On her annual lecture tours throughout the Midwest, she constantly championed U.S. involvement in helping countries fight communist insurrections. She thought if she could show the struggle up close, then the American public couldn't help but get involved.






Unfortunately, a vast majority of what she photographed and reported on in the last years of her life was deemed too sensitive to be printed. According to some of her editors, Dickey's passion for her stories began to cloud her objectivity. In the fall of 1965, Dickey convinced the editors of the National Observer to send her back to Vietnam. Dickey must have known this trip would end differently. Before shipping out, she arranged for the State Historical Society of Wisconsin at the University of Wisconsin-Madison to archive her vast collection of personal and assigned writings, letters, photographs and reports. The people dear to her noted that this time out did indeed feel different. Her assignment began with three weeks stateside photographing young Marine recruits. Dickey then headed back to the front lines of Vietnam.



On the morning of Nov. 4, 1965, Dickey, on patrol with a platoon, stood second in line behind the platoon leader, Lt. Mauriski. Making their way out of camp, the lieutenant tripped a hidden wire triggering a grenade and mortar that sent shrapnel flying. Dickey was thrown 20 feet and caught a piece of shrapnel in her neck. She died minutes later. Dickey once told a general, "When my time comes, I want it to be on a patrol with the Marines." She was the first member of the press killed during Vietnam and the first American woman reporter killed in battle. One can't help wonder, with her love of the Marines and having spent her career striving to be the first, if she couldn't have written a better epitaph.


A note of thanks to Andy Kraushaar, Visual Materials Reference Archivist for the State Historical Society of Wisconsin.


All images copyright Wisconsin Historical Society.


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Combat Photographers & Correspondents - by Irishmaam - 01-23-2006, 02:20 PM

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