Dickey Chapelle (1918 – 1965)
American war correspondent
Born in Milwaukee in 1919 into a German immigrant family, the rebellious Georgie Lou Meyer was one of the first women war correspondents. She covered World War II, the Korean War, and conflict in Vietnam.
A would-be aviator and engineer, she graduated as valedictorian from her high school art the age of sixteen. She headed to MIT on a full scholarship, but dropped out to cover aviation stories for TWA/photojournalism. Here, she met and married her colleague and fellow photographer Tony Chapelle.
In 1940, Dickey joined LOOK magazine to cover combat training for two years in Panama. Although she lacked press credentials, she soon managed to join the frontline action in field hospitals and covered the battles of Iwo Jima and Okinawa, taking incredible personal risks and in defiance of a ban on women correspondents going ashore in combat areas.
After WW2 and a stint on Seventeen magazine, she did humanitarian relief work for AVISO, ending up in solitary confinement for 38 days during the Hungarian revolt of 1956. She covered the war zones of Algeria and Cuba, for magazines such as LIFE and Readers Digest, often working with her husband.
Her first solo work in Vietnam after her 1956 divorce was for National Geographic and she was the first woman to parachute with the military into the Vietnamese war zone. She won a Photographers Press Association award for her 1963 National Geographic cover, following on from winning the George Polk Award of the Overseas Press Club in 1961 – the highest award for bravery and courage given to war correspondents.
She battled military censorship her whole career. If one magazine rejected her photos as too graphic, as LIFE did, she sold them to another magazine instead.
In her 1961 autobiography What‘s a woman doing here? – she reported on herself as ‘one of the guys’, a fierce patriot and an anti-communist. Hers were the images that brought the reality of the war to the world; hers were the images referenced in films like ‘Apocalypse Now’ and ‘Platoon’. She framed soldiers patrolling in rice paddies, having a smoke break, landing helicopters.
Known for her Leica M2, bush hat and fatigues, glasses and pearl earrings, which she wore to distinguish herself from soldiers, Dickey became a master of combining a casual intimacy with audacious timing in the field.
‘I want to be on patrol with the US Marines if I die,’ she said. This sadly happened on assignment for the National Observer on 4th November 1965; she was 47. She was the first American woman war photographer to be killed in action.
Her notebooks and archive of nearly 600 photos are held by the Wisconsin State Historical Society.