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Incredible Photos by the First American Female War Correspondent Killed in Action

At 26, Dickey Chapelle was photographing on the front lines, covering global rebellions and countries at war.
November 29, 2015, 1:00pm
Self-portrait, wearing a war correspondent armband, 1942 (Caption from "Dickey Chapelle Under Fire," photo courtesy Wisconsin Historical Society Historic Images Collection)

Long before the days of citizen journalism, where shaky smartphone videos and glib tweets serve as dubious reportage, intrepid individuals such as Dickey Chapelle (1919-1965) deliberately put themselves in risky situations for the sake of bringing people the news. In Chapelle's case, she died for it, too.

In the book, Dickey Chapelle Under Fire: Photographs by the First American Female War Correspondent Killed in Action, author John Garofalo presents Chapelle's work as it has never been seen before, the result of culling an extensive archive of the combat reporter’s journals, published writings, negatives, and photographic prints at the Wisconsin Historical Society. Garofalo began working on the project in 1991, and now, 50 years after Chapelle's death, people finally have the chance to learn about her life's work.

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Former Baghdad Bureau Chief for the Washington Post, Jackie Spinner reported on wars in Iraq and Afghanistan between 2004 to 2011. In the book's foreword, she writes, "I wonder what Chapelle would have thought about the new dangers of war reporting: the fear of being kidnapped and beheaded … And yet, we still write. We still document. We still go." Skinner continues to describe how photographers capture similar subjects, actions, and backdrops that reappear in images of different wars, despite the decades and miles that separate them—beginning with Dickey Chapelle's.

The aim of Dickey Chapelle Under Fire is to unearth Chapelle's work from the rubbles of history, to present and acknowledge not just her documentary contributions, but those of all others whose names and faces we don't recognize, but who risked their lives to keep us informed. Those interested in Chapelle's own story can read it in her 1962 autobiography, What's a Woman Doing Here?: A combat reporter's report on herself. Rather than strictly providing a history of Chapelle's life, Dickey Chapelle Under Fire acts as a visual representation of her life's work. It's impossible to discuss Chapelle's photos without placing them within the context of her life, as it's obvious the two were not mutually exclusive. Chapelle's photography was her life, which makes her death in combat all the more salient.

Chapelle was born Georgette Louise, a.k.a, "Georgie Lou" Meyer in the Milwaukee suburb of Shorewood, Wisconsin in 1919. The daughter of pacifists, she had an early fascination with aviation and exploration, and soon began going by "Dickey" in honor of her idol, aviator and Rear Admiral Richard E. Byrd, who explored the South Pole.

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She received a scholarship to study aeronautical engineering at MIT, but her ever-growing fascination with the military won out over college, and she dropped out. She began writing about air shows, selling her stories to local outlets and eventually landing a job in publicity working in New York at TWA. That's where she met Tony Chapelle, a photographer 20 years her senior, who taught Chapelle the basics of photography before the two were married in 1940. After leaving her job at TWA and developing a photography portfolio, Chapelle became a war correspondent as the US declared war on Japan following the bombing of Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941.

Chapelle's first assignment was in Panama in 1942, covering US Army combat training for Look magazine. By 1944, she had written eight books, and by 1945, she became the Navy's first accredited female war photographer. She sailed to Iwo Jima and defied orders to stay onboard the USS Relief hospital ship, capturing images of the wounded both at sea and ashore, which encouraged people to donate blood back in the States. At 26, she was photographing on the front line. However, once news got out that Chapelle defied orders to stay on the ship, the Navy terminated her press credentials. But that didn't stop the tenacious photographer.

After the Navy, Chapelle found work documenting international relief work for magazines and charitable organizations, even co-founding her own relief effort with her husband: the American Voluntary Information Services Overseas (AVISO). Their images of humanitarian efforts in Europe, the Middle East, and Asia led to a pair of photographic series that appeared in National Geographic. Soon the couple separated. But it was for the best, as it liberated Chapelle to go wherever her work took her without having to ask her husband's permission. She eventually regained her Navy press credentials and resumed covering wars and internal conflicts across the globe.

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On assignment for Life magazine, Dickey found herself smuggling penicillin into Austria for Hungarian refugees escaping the war between Hungarian freedom fighters and the Soviet military. She also found herself imprisoned in Hungary for two months after Russians captured her and turned her over to Hungarian nationalists who hoped to execute her. Once the US caught wind of this, though, Chapelle was mercifully released. Yet the idea of documenting rebellions stayed with her, and Chapelle traveled to Algeria and then Cuba, where she managed to snap rare photos of Fidel Castro on the cusp of a revolution. In 1961, she was assigned to Vietnam, going on to earn the Overseas Press Club’s George Polk Award and the National Press Photographers Association's Photograph of the Year. On November 4, 1965, Chapelle died from shrapnel in her neck from mortar and a grenade when a Marine inadvertently stepped on a nylon fishing line, setting off a booby trap.

According to Garofalo, after Chapelle’s death, Commandant of the Marine Corps General Wallace M. Greene Jr. declared the following: "All U.S. Marines the world over mourn the death of Dickey Chapelle who died of wounds received while covering combat operations by Marines in South Vietnam on November 4, 1965. She was not only a skilled, dedicated newspaperwoman, but she was an exemplary patriot whose great love for her country was an inspiration to all who knew her and worked with her. It has been said by her media colleagues that she died with the men she loved. It must also be said that affection, admiration and respect was mutual. She was one of us, and we will miss her."

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Chapelle was just 47, but if her own life and career serves as any indication, she died doing what she cared about most.

Dickey Chapelle Under Fire: Photographs by the First American Female War Correspondent Killed in Action is available now from Wisconsin Historical Society Press.

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