Photo Essays

The Striking Photographs of the First Female American War Correspondent Killed in Action

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Dickey Chapelle, self-portrait wearing a war correspondent armband in WWII, 1942 (image from ‘Dickey Chapelle Under Fire,’ all photos courtesy Wisconsin Historical Society Historic Images Collection)

Editor’s Note: A previous version stated that Dickey Chapelle was the first female war correspondent killed in action, but in fact Gerda Taro was the first. Chapelle was the first female American war photographer killed in action.

“You can do anything you want to do if you want to do it so badly you’ll give up everything else to do it,” the Wisconsin-born photojournalist Dickey Chapelle said, according to her biography, Fire in the Wind

They were words she lived and died by. After getting her first taste of war reporting at age 23, photographing army combat training for Look Magazine in Panama, she would go on to photograph some of the 21st centuries most devastating conflicts, from the World War II battles of Iwo Jima and Okinawa to the Vietnam War. She followed Fidel Castro into the jungles of Cuba, was imprisoned for seven weeks during the Hungarian Revolution, made parachute jumps into Korea and the Dominican Republic, and was smuggled into Algeria after promising rebels she’d tell their side of the story in the war with France. For five years, she lived out of a truck with her husband, Tony, traveling the Middle East and forming a new relief agency.

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Dickey in camouflage, photographing US Marines at work, Lebanon, 1958

And then, on November 4th, 1965, while Chapelle was traveling with a patrol in Vietnam, a marine accidentally stepped on a tripwire, triggering a grenade. Schrapnel severed her carotid artery. A photograph by Henri Huet, of a Navy chaplain bent over Chapelle’s curled body, administering last rites, would become one of the most iconic images of the Vietnam War. Chapelle became the first female US war correspondent killed in action.

In her time, Dickey Chapelle was one of the best. Her photographs appeared in Life, The National Observer, National Geographic, and others. But after her death, her name was lost among those of better-known journalists who covered Vietnam, most of them men. When author John Garofalo learned that a 40,000-item archive of Chapelle’s photographs was sitting filed away in the Wisconsin Historical Society, he embarked on a 24-year project to make her most powerful images more accessible to the public. Garofalo’s new book, Dickey Chapelle Under Fire: Photographs by the First American Female War Correspondent Killed in Action, tells her remarkable story.

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US Army Bushmasters training in Panama, 1942

At five feet tall, Chapelle “was a tiny woman known for her refusal to kowtow to authority and her signature uniform: fatigues, an Australian bush hat, dramatic Harlequin glasses, and pearl earrings,” according to her biography. Chapelle broke down gender barriers, fighting to be taken seriously as a correspondent in her own right. And Garofalo doesn’t put undue focus on Chapelle’s gender here, expressing no surprise that a woman was able to accomplish what she did. Still, there’s no pretending her gender didn’t affect her treatment while immersed in the “man’s game” of war, as Chapelle made clear in the title of her 1962 autobiography, What’s a Woman Doing Here? “They taught me bone-deep the difference between a war correspondent and a girl reporter,” Chapelle said, describing why she favored covering conflict with marines.

Looked at today, in the context of the Iraq War, these images show how history repeats itself, and how, “at the bottom, all wars are the same,” as novelist Tim O’Brien wrote, “because they involve death and maiming and wounding, and grieving mothers, fathers, sons and daughters.” Contemporary photographers have unintentionally created what look like eerily similar updates of several of Chapelle’s images. One 1957 photo depicts three Algerian children standing in dirty dress, staring at the cameras. “I have similar photos of Iraqi children, some fifty years later,” Jackie Spinner, former Baghdad Bureau Chief for the Washington Post, writes in the book’s preface. “In another frame, Chapelle captures a Marine smoking a cigarette in Lebanon in 1958. Andrea Bruce and Chris Hondros captured the same moment, different Marine, different war, different decade.”

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Fidel Castro with his companion, Celia Sanchez, at far left, seated next to Vilma Espin, later Mrs. Raul Castro, c. 1958–59
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Wounded soldiers, sailors, and marines are transferred by landing craft to the USS Samaritan anchored just offshore, Iwo Jima, 1945.
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Vietnamese children respond to mortar fire, c. 1961–62. This image originally appeared in ‘National Geographic’ in 1962.
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South Vietnamese soldiers in a live fire artillery drill, c. 1961–62
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Paratrooper Captain E. F. McGushin dances with a class of fourth grade girls at a recess in Santo Domingo. His company organized classes for 720 children and worked to keep children off the streets to avoid the fighting after their teachers fled the city, 1965.
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Marine crew chief Nelson West and South Vietnamese soldiers patrol an area near Vinh Quoi. This photograph originally appeared in ‘National Geographic’ in 1962 and was awarded the 1963 Photograph of the Year Award by the National Press Photographers Association.
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This was Dickey’s most reproduced photo until the Vietnam War and was initially released with the title “The Dying Marine.” The soldier in the image, Corporal William Fenton, lays badly wounded, awaiting medical treatment. In her autobiography, Dickey described Fenton as “one of the 551 critically wounded marines brought aboard the USS Samaritan who wanted to live. He did. (I visited him and his family ten months later on Christmas Day at St. Albans Hospital.)” Iwo Jima, 1945.
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