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