Dickey Chapelle, American photojournalist

Dickey Chapelle was in her early 20s when she gained accreditation as a photographer, designated by the “C” on her armband, in World War II. The photo was taken in her New York City apartment in 1942. The inset of Chapelle dates to Milwaukee, 1959. “This is the photograph of me at work I like better than any other. It was taken covering the Marines on Operation Inland Seas across the same beach where I learned to swim as a little girl,” the caption says in “Fire in the Wind.”

By Betty Gordon

© 2016 text. All rights reserved.

The name Dickey Chapelle was not on my radar until I saw a photograph of her, barely clinging to life, as part of the “Requiem” exhibit at the War Remnants Museum in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam.

On Nov. 4, 1965, Chapelle was the first American female war correspondent to be killed in action. She was with a Marine unit on patrol near a village called Chu Lai in South Vietnam when a lieutenant in front of her accidentally tripped a mine and shrapnel struck her in the neck. Four Marines were also wounded. Chapelle was air-lifted by helicopter, but she died en route to the hospital. She was 46.

In the black-and-white photograph, she is lying face down, with her left profile exposed. Dirt, prickly vegetation and what looks like a pool of blood surround her. Her left arm is bent at the elbow, she’s wearing a wristwatch and her curled fingers obscure the middle part of her face. She’s fallen on her right arm. Her palm-up right hand peeks out from under her body. Part of her kit and a knife are fastened at the waist.

Her hair is tied back. Her treasured Australian bush hat has come to rest right side up a few inches from her head. The upper parts of her fatigues are discolored, probably from her own blood, which also looks to be on her forehead. A trickle zigzags down her cheek, emanating from below her earlobe, one of the pearl earrings that she always wore clearly visible.

Squatting over her is Chaplain John McNamara of Boston. His cap is hiding his face, and perhaps his emotions. He’s making the sign of the cross and administering the last rites. Two helmeted soldiers stand behind McNamara, rifles slung over their right shoulders, with the weapon’s business end pointing skyward. In the background, among denser plant life, another soldier sits with his rifle resting diagonally across his right knee.

The image was taken by Henri Huet, a Vietnamese-born photographer working for The Associated Press.

When I got home, I did a bit of online research and found a biography of the photojournalist, “Fire in the Wind: The Life of Dickey Chapelle” by Roberta Ostroff (Ballantine Books, 1992, $21).

(The photograph described above is included in “Vietnam: The Real War, A Photographic History” by The Associated Press [Abrams, 2013; $40; see my June 18 blog post], but oddly not in “Fire in the Wind.” It can also be found elsewhere online.)

The author says her project began as a screenplay, but by the time she’d finished writing the first draft, the commissioning company was out of business. But she remained fascinated by Chapelle’s life, so decided to turn her project into a book.

Luckily, as Ostroff says, Chapelle was a pack rat. Ostroff drew on Chapelle’s 99 notebooks, reams of correspondence — Chapelle made copies of every letter she wrote — unpublished versions of Chapelle’s autobiography, another unpublished manuscript, articles Chapelle wrote for various publications and news clippings. All these and hundreds of photographs comprise the Chapelle archive at the Wisconsin Historical Society, Ostroff says.

Wading through this amount of information must have been a formidable task. In the end, Ostroff seems confounded by Chapelle’s contradictions, while equally admiring her courage and her subject’s obsessive need to “eyeball” the story.

By turns, Ostroff portrays Chapelle as a feisty, tough-talking, chain-smoking woman driven to prove she was as good as or better than her male counterparts. At the same time, Chapelle was a wildly naive, foolhardy risk-taker, who by the end of her life had lost nearly all semblance of journalistic objectivity.

Chapelle had a vivid imagination as a child, a hunger to be “someone” and perhaps an overinflated picture of her abilities. She had what fictional TV news editor Lou Grant would have called spunk, and she apparently rarely let “no” derail her plans. While Chapelle was busy building and polishing her own legend, Ostroff says, the truth did not always win out.

Born Georgette Louise Meyer in the middle-class Milwaukee suburb of Shorewood, Chapelle longed for an exciting life. She so fervently worshiped explorer Richard E. Byrd that as a teenager she adopted “Dick” and then “Dickey” as her first name in tribute to him.

A studious, intelligent girl, she was burdened by a controlling “helicopter” mother — before there was such a term. This was in direct conflict with the subtler messages she was getting from her father about exerting her independence. He fed her early quest for achievement through a steady diet of films and lectures about the celebrities of the day, including aviators Charles Lindbergh and Amelia Earhart.

So it’s not surprising that Dickey was among the Depression-era masses swept up in the excitement of the developing field of aviation. Her first published article, at 14 years old, was “Why We Want to Fly,” showcasing her infatuation with the budding industry.

In 1935, she took her first steps to becoming part of it, when at 16, she graduated as class valedictorian, and earned a full scholarship to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. One of only seven women among incoming freshman, her goal was to be an aeronautical engineer, designing commercial airliners, the more radical in look the better.

A combination of factors quickly derailed the plan. The freedom of being away from her mother’s influence, too many hours spent watching airplanes, too much time squandered with her boyfriend and not enough studying caused her to flunk out in her sophomore year.

Embarrassed at her failure and back in Milwaukee, she landed a summer job as a secretary to one of the pilots who clustered around Curtiss Wright airfield. She briefly took flying lessons, showing great enthusiasm but no innate aptitude.

Her mother, appalled at the amount of time Dickey was spending with the roguish barnstormers, sent Dickey, now 18, to south Florida to live with her grandparents. This ultimately backfired, as Dickey landed a job handling publicity for a well-known air show, only fueling her adoration of all things aviation.

She parlayed that into a trip to Cuba for another air show, and the promise of filing copy directly to the American press. When one of the pilots died in a crash, she was badly shaken, and she was beaten on the story. But she’d caught the eye of the United Press aviation reporter, who hired her to be his secretary, when he accepted a job with the fledgling Transcontinental and Western Air, later known as TWA.

The key was that the position brought Dickey to New York, where she would meet Tony Chapelle, who was directing TWA’s publicity pictures. Chapelle, a former World War I photographer, was also a pilot and taught photography. Dickey was an eager student, dazzled by this “charming” man, 20 years her senior, and his perceived talents. In October of 1940, they were married.

What Dickey didn’t know was that her new husband was an unrepentant womanizer — in fact married to someone else on the day he wed Dickey — with an invented resume, a master manipulator, and often deeply in debt.

But he also was the conduit to Dickey putting together the elements that would fuel her career: a new-found devotion to photography, her writing skills and blinding determination that ultimately took her to far-flung destinations, sometimes working as a team with Tony.

Some of the campaigns Dickey would take pictures of and report on:

  • infantry training in the jungles of Panama in 1942 (simulating conditions that Allied troops would face in the Pacific Theater of Operations in World War II);
  • Iwo Jima (photographs of the wounded aboard a hospital ship anchored offshore, and an unauthorized visit to the front);
  • Okinawa in April 1945 (she disobeyed orders, left a hospital ship and spent several days “far forward” on the island, which caused her accreditation to be revoked);
  • Marines training in San Diego in 1955 (among her favorite assignments);
  • rebels in Algeria in 1957, as their forces fought to win independence from France;
  • 53 days spent in a Budapest prison, detained while purportedly on a humanitarian mission to deliver medicine during the 1956 Hungarian uprising (where she may or may not had some sort of loose Cold War collaboration with the CIA);
  • the Marines’ landing in Beirut, Lebanon, in 1958;
  • the Castro revolution in Cuba, in 1958-59;
  • U.S. Special Forces in the “secret war”  in Laos in 1961;
  • and five tours in Vietnam, 1961-1965 (where she was at least 10 years older than the Young Turks, reporters such as Neil Sheehan [United Press, later The New York Times] and David Halberstam [NYT], who made their reputations there).

In his memoir, “Muddy Boots and Red Socks,” Malcolm Browne, who covered Vietnam for UPI and later The New York Times, remembered Chapelle as a “kind of Ernie Pyle [famed World War II reporter] who marched with the U.S. Marines in every conflict from World War II to Viet Nam.”

In 1959, at age 40, while researching a story about military preparedness, she enrolled in a privately run “jump” school in Massachusetts. With clearance from the Pentagon, she proved her competency at Fort Campbell, Kentucky, and earned a paratrooper certificate, something few of her male colleagues could claim.

While she did gain acclaim and honors for some of her work, Dickey never seemed to have reached the level of fame which she had envisioned as a child. She went on U.S. lecture tours, appeared on TV shows such as “What’s My Line” and “To Tell the Truth,” and won the prestigious George Polk Award from the Overseas Press Club.

Most important to Dickey was the special bond she formed with the Marines, writing pro-military accounts of their training Stateside, and covering their patrols under combat conditions in several countries.

Though never on staff at a newspaper or magazine, Dickey’s work appeared in Argosy magazine, Cosmopolitan, Life Story magazine, Look magazine, Reader’s Digest, and National Geographic, among others. She was on assignment for the National Observer the day she died.

One year to the day after her death, the Marines dedicated a hospital dispensary named for Chapelle in the village near where she died. The marble plaque says in part: “She was one of us and we will miss her.”

As interesting and informative as I found the book, there are swaths of dialog and passages that read like they had sprung from the author’s imagination — or her screenplay. I had in mind to contact Ostroff, but an online search indicated that she died in 2004. She was mentioned in an obituary that said she was the third wife of Icelandic guitarist Jon Pall Bjarnason, who died in August 2015.

Ostroff says she conducted interviews, but only a partial list of participants is included in her acknowledgements, nor is there a notes section. She did track down a Marine captain who was among the last people Dickey had contact with, and relies heavily on his recollections in the 22-page prologue, where Ostroff reconstructs the final two days of Chapelle’s life in considerable detail. But I still had the feeling that Ostroff may have been taking some literary license.

Unfortunately, glaring errors and editing and spelling lapses mar the book. For example, in the introduction the author refers to the “Michigan” Institute of Technology, and while there is such a place in Lapeer, Mich., it is not Massachusetts Institute of Technology, which is where Chapelle flunked out of. Also in the introduction, the author tells us she had access to Chapelle’s 99 reporter’s notebooks, spells out ninety correctly, then repeats it in the same sentence and spells it ninty.

The author is just plain wrong when she says the United States dropped two bombs on Hiroshima in August 1945. Maybe in a draft she referenced Hiroshima and Nagasaki separately, then rewrote some sentences, eliminating Nagasaki, and wasn’t as precise as she needed to be.

Among other oddities: The author never divulges Chapelle’s birthdate — I tracked it down as March 14, 1919 — and the narrative begins when Chapelle is 10.

All that said, I think Ostroff achieved what she intended: To bring to light for a post-Vietnam War generation the exploits of a somewhat controversial, complicated professional, whose name and reputation have mostly receded into the annals of history.

Addendum: A brief mention is made of Chapelle’s death in Peter Arnett’s “Live From the Battlefield: From Vietnam to Baghdad, 35 Years in the World’s War Zones” (see my Aug. 1 post for that review). In Arnett’s book, Associated Press features writer Hugh Mulligan quotes a corps commander: “Whenever any other girl reporter came up here, we always had to run a colonel out of his room because it had a private toilet. But not Dickie [sic] Chapelle. She never asked for the slightest concession because of her sex. She’d spread her poncho in the mud like the rest of them and eat out of tin cans like she hated it, the way we do, and not because it was something cute. In fatigues and helmet you couldn’t tell her from the troops and she could keep up front with the best of them.”

Arnett gets the year of Chapelle’s death wrong, putting it in 1966. Otherwise, he confirms that the presence of female reporters and photographers in Vietnam was barely tolerated by their male counterparts, rarely giving them the professional — or personal — respect they deserved.

Additional background: “What’s a Woman Doing Here?: A Reporter’s Report on Herself” by Dickey Chapelle (William Morrow and Co., 1962) According to Ostroff, Chapelle was unhappy with her publisher’s editing of her autobiography, softening it to appeal to a mostly female audience.

Wisconsin Historical Society: http://www.wisconsinhistory.org Its collection has more than 20,000 of Chapelle’s images, more than 450 of which are online.

“Behind the Pearl Earrings: The Story of Dickey Chapelle, Combat Photojournalist” This documentary ran in November 2015 on Milwaukee Public Television, to coincide with the 50th anniversary of Dickey’s death.

“Dickey Chapelle Under Fire: Photographs by the First American Female War Correspondent Killed in Action” by John Garofolo (Wisconsin Historical Society Press, 2015, $25)


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