Dickey Chapelle was an American photojournalist and war photographer. In a career spanning nearly 30 years, she documented conflicts around the globe from World War II to Vietnam. Fearless, defiant and uncompromising, she became hugely successful and revered in a profession which had previously been all but closed to women.
She was born Georgette Meyer in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, in March 1919. Throughout her childhood she was fascinated by air travel and would later use the name of explorer Admiral Richard ‘Dickey’ Bird whom she met whilst at school.
She graduated from high school early and at sixteen was studying aeronautical design at Massachusetts Institute of Technology. She left MIT however, to work at her local air field, writing articles on aeronautics and photographing the planes. For a short time she also lived in Florida where she worked as a publicist for an air show.
Dickey then moved to New York where she met her husband, former naval photographer Tony Chapelle, though the couple would divorce fifteen years later. She became interested in photography and obtained sponsorship from Trans World Airlines in order to pursue her chosen profession.
During World War II, Dickey secured a job as a war correspondent and photojournalist for the National Geographic. She covered the battles of Iwo Jima and Okinawa and spent time with the US Marines on training missions. This was no small achievement given that women were not officially allowed to report combat.
On one occasion, when posted to Iwo Jima, her assignment was to document the work of the nurses onboard the USS Samaritan, a hospital ship anchored in the South Pacific. Despite being under strict instruction not to leave the vessel, Dickey was determined to photograph the frontlines and managed to get onto the shore. She made her way to the sand dunes of the front and, whilst wasps flew around her, photographed the landscape.
On her reaching the safety of her tent, she was told that Iwo Jima is a volcanic island and has no insect population. What she had assumed were wasps buzzing around her were actually Japanese sniper bullets. She filed her report under the byline Under Fire on Iwo Jima.
Following World War II, Dickey spent the next two decades covering major wars and uprisings all over the world, frequently going to extraordinary lengths to report war zone stories. She became known for her refusal to bow down to authority and for her unique ‘uniform’; combat fatigues, Harlequin glasses and pearl earrings. She won a variety of prestigious awards and earned tremendous respect from both the military and the newspaper industry.
In 1956, when covering the Hungarian Revolution, she was arrested as a spy by Russian forces and spent two months in a Hungarian prison. She probably avoided execution by hiding her tiny camera inside a glove and then tossing it out of a window en route to interrogation. She would later write an article detailing her experiences as a Russian prisoner.
When the Vietnam War began, Dickey volunteered to cover the conflict and travelled to Vietnam several times during the early 1960s. She was one of the few journalists to join US troops on search and destroy missions and she documented the war in her honest, visceral and frequently moving photographs. She took the first photograph of a US soldier actively engaged in combat which, when published in the National Geographic, earned her the National Press Photographers Association Photograph of the Year award in 1963.
In November 1965, Dickey was on operations with US Marines near Chu Lai Air Base. The lieutenant walking ahead of her kicked a tripwire rigged to a landmine. In the resultant explosion, Dickey was hit in the neck by a piece of shrapnel which severed her carotid artery. She died aged just 47, the first female reporter to be killed in action.
She was repatriated with a guard of honour and buried with full military honours, a highly unusual tribute for a civilian journalist. The US Marines still honour her memory by presenting the annual Dickey Chapelle Award, given to recognise the women who have contributed most to the morale, welfare and wellbeing of the corps.
Dickey had written an extremely humorous and self-depreciating autobiography, What’s a Woman Doing Here? and during a 1962 radio interview about the book, she was asked if the war zone was really a ‘woman’s place’. She replied, “It is not a woman’s place. There’s no question about it. There’s only one other species on earth for whom the war zone is no place, and that’s men. But as long as men continue to fight wars, I think observers of both sexes will be sent to see what happens.”