Guts and Pearls – The Story of Dickey Chapelle

by Emily Stewart

Born Georgette Louise Meyer in Wisconsin on 14th March 1919, Dickey Chapelle was breaking boundaries from an early age. Having graduated from high school as valedictorian, she won a scholarship to study aeronautical engineering at Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) at the age of sixteen, as one of only a handful of women admitted. After only two years on the course, Chapelle dropped out, proclaiming that she would rather fly aircrafts than design them. After working several jobs, and studying photography in New York, she went on to work for Trans World Airlines where she met Tony Chapelle, a photographer, who became her tutor and who she would later marry in 1940. 

Soon after Pearl Harbor, Tony reenlisted in the Navy, having fought in World War One, and was assigned overseas. Although Chapelle could not go as his wife, she was able to get an assignment as a war correspondent for National Geographic, with one of her first postings being with the United States Marine Corps during the battle of Iwo Jima, 1945. Her actual assignment was to photograph the activities onboard the hospital ship USS Samaritan, as female reporters were banned from frontline reporting. However, Chapelle was determined to photograph real action. Despite repeatedly being told not to leave the ship, she finally convinced a press officer to take her to a field hospital. Once ashore, she convinced him to take her to the frontlines. Taking pictures of the ‘unimpressive’ sand dunes, Chapelle later commented to her bunkmate of the persistent wasps that had bugged her all day. Reminding Chapelle that Iwo Jima was a volcanic island and therefore did not have insects, Chapelle realised she had in fact been swatting away Japanese sniper bullets.

USS Samaritan, late 1945/ early 1946 – public domain image via Wikipedia

Shortly after covering Iwo Jima, Chapelle became the only female photographer assigned to the invasion fleet at Okinawa – which was to become one of the bloodiest battles of the war in the Pacific. Despite orders not to go ashore, Chapelle went anyway. Eventually she made her way to the US Marines command post, where she was given permission totravel with a medical unit. Chapelle covered combat operations for ten days before she was caught. Her military press credentials were withdrawn – having been the first woman to gain these in 1942.

US Marines on Wana Ridge, Okinawa, May 1945 – public domain image via Wikipedia 

For the decade following the war, Chapelle continued to photograph the aftermath of war in Europe and ongoing conflicts throughout the world, including the Hungarian uprising, the war in Algeria, and the Cuban revolution. On assignment she was arrested as a spy, because she helped deliver antibiotics to Hungarian refugees, spending two months in prison before being released. Chapelle’s cover of the Cuban revolution fuelled her anti-communist sentiments and led her to cover the Vietnam War. 

This was Chapelle’s final war, which she covered from its early days, taking the first photograph of a US soldier actively engaged in combat. After learning with the 101st Airborne, she became the only woman authorised to jump into combat and one of a few reporters allowed on search and destroy missions. On 4th November 1965, Chapelle was covering the second day of Operation Black Ferret, when the patrol walked into a tripwire. Chapelle was hit in the neck by shrapnel and died in the helicopter evacuating her. Chapelle became the first female war correspondent to be killed in action, and at the time of her death she had seen more fighting in Vietnam than any other American – seventeen operations in total. An award-winning and highly respected war correspondent, Chapelle broke down gender barriers for future journalists in a profession which had previously been all but closed to women. Her autobiography, titled ‘What’s A Woman Doing Here?’, after the words she commonly heard on the battlefield, remains a lasting reminder of the ground breaking work she undertook. When asked whether a woman’s place was on a battlefield, she replied:

“There’s only one other species on earth for whom a war zone is no place, and that’s men.”

Chapelle was buried with full military honours, unusual for a civilian journalist. The year after her death the US Marines named a field hospital in Vietnam after her and annually present the Dickey Chapelle Award to recognise the woman who has contributed the most to the US Marines. 


Recommended Reading:

  • Inside the Daring Life of a Forgotten Female War Photographer, National Geographic:

https://www.nationalgeographic.com/culture/article/world-photography-day-dickey-chapelle-female-war-photographer-combat-vietnam

  • The Frontline Reported, MIT Technology Review: 

https://www.technologyreview.com/2016/12/20/155119/the-frontline-reporter/

  • Behind The Pearl Earrings: The Story of Dickey Chapelle, Combat Photojournalist:

https://petapixel.com/2015/12/29/dickey-chapelle-the-life-and-work-of-the-legendary-female-war-photographer/


About the Author:

My name is Emily and I am a military history enthusiast from the South West. I graduated from the University of Birmingham with a BA in War Studies in 2016, before starting a graduate programme at an investment bank. I am keen to rekindle my love of history and am interested in combining this with my other love; the great outdoors 

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