Chapelle, Georgette Meyer

views updated

CHAPELLE, Georgette Meyer

Born 14 March 1918, Milwaukee, Wisconsin; died 4 November 1965, Chu Lai, Vietnam

Wrote under: Dickey Chapelle, Georgette Louise Chapelle, Georgette Louise Meyer

Daughter of Paul and Edna Meyer; married Tony Chapelle, 1940 (divorced 1955)

Georgette Meyer Chapelle was born to Quaker parents and grew up in suburban Milwaukee. She began studying aviation as an adolescent and at sixteen left her family to attend the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. There she worked more on developing writing skills at the Boston Traveler, however, than on completing engineering degree requirements. Returning to Milwaukee at eighteen, she learned to fly while working as a publicist for small barnstorming and air show companies. Moving to New York in 1939, she freelanced and learned photography from Tony Chapelle, whom she married in 1940.

In the early years of World War II, Chapelle was a journalist for Look in the Panama Canal Zone, wrote six books on aviation (two of them for adolescents), and published stories and photographs about women in unusual war jobs. In 1945, as a war correspondent for Fawcett Publications in the Pacific, Chapelle shot some of her most widely distributed photographs of wounded soldiers. Soon after the war ended she joined her husband in Europe to cover stories on refugees for humanitarian agencies. Divorced in 1955, Chapelle accepted an assignment from Life in late 1956 covering the flight of Hungarians into Austria during the Hungarian revolution. In the next nine years, she covered revolutions and combat in Korea, Cuba, the Dominican Republic, Algeria, Lebanon, Kashmir, and Vietnam for publications such as National Geographic, National Observer, and Reader's Digest. She also interviewed revolutionary leaders, including Fidel Castro.

For an account of her imprisonment in Hungary, Chapelle received the Reader's Digest First Person Award in 1957 and, in 1962, she was given the Overseas Press Club's award for "reporting requiring exceptional courage and enterprise." On an assignment for the National Observer, covering Operation Black Ferret with marines near Da Nang, Vietnam, Chapelle was mortally wounded by a land mine fragment which lodged in her neck. Fellow photographer Henry Huet (who was a Vietnam casualty in 1971), along with several wounded marines, observed as Chaplain John McNamara administered last rites. Huet's photograph of the dying Chapelle, along with many of her own, were immortalized in Requiem: By the Photographers Who Died in Vietnam and Indochina (1997). She was forty-seven.

Chapelle's first photojournalism work appeared in Look in the early years of World War II, a six-page article on the "life throughout every hour of one day" of a woman sewing fabric onto the wings of RAF fighter planes in an aircraft plant in New Jersey. She also published books on women in aviation and in government service. The latter included a combination of patriotic propaganda and "dramatic picture" accounts of specific women holding "useful and profitable jobs" during the war.

In the final years of World War II, Chapelle's photographs received major attention, especially her work on wounded soldiers aboard hospital ships in the Pacific where, except for nurses, she was often the only woman aboard. Throughout the war, Chapelle encountered consistent difficulties in "going forward," military officers explaining that there were "no facilities for women" in the field. Chapelle's work followed typical patterns of war reporting, with a heavy emphasis on the human interest story of the individual soldier. Her reportage was widely used in government efforts to involve the civilian back home in the war effort.

Chapelle's major work is her autobiography, What's a Woman Doing Here?: A Combat Reporter's Report on Herself, published in 1961, just as she began to cover the American involvement in Southeast Asia. The autobiography is an important document in regard to understanding the American photojournalist's role as a "chronicler of wars" during World War II and the Cold War which followed.

In the opening pages of the autobiography, Chapelle described herself as a "pacifist by heredity." She developed a "mad passion for the movies" and the adventure they portrayed, however, at the same time as she was "well taught that violence in any form was unthinkable." Violence became for Chapelle "as attractive a mystery…as sex seemed to be to other teenagers." As an adult woman she identified herself as an "interpreter of violence" and a person with a "need for recognition and a place."

Chapelle's autobiography recounts a series of incidents which portray her conflicts between patriotism and a desire to show the truth, and between sympathy for subjects and a need to get a good story. She ended her association with Fawcett Publications when they refused to publish photographs of blood transfusions in battle: "Whatever suffering men could undergo in the name of the folks back home, surely anyone could endure to merely look at!"

Chapelle refused to rely on government press releases, choosing to observe firsthand the "violence and want" which existed in developing nations. Her famous photograph of the execution of a Vietcong soldier in 1962, considered by the military as representative of the American Cold War perspective, was among the earliest published in America displaying the brutality of the Vietnam War. Yet Chapelle remained committed to the idea of American military forces as "freedom fighters" against communism.

Other Works:

Needed—Women in Government Service (1942). Needed—Women in Aviation (1942). How Planes Are Made (1945).

The papers of Georgette Meyer Chapelle are at the Wisconsin State Historical Society in Madison, Wisconsin.


Ellis, F., "D. C.: A Reporter and Her Work" (thesis, 1968). Faas, H. and T. Page, eds., Requiem: By the Photographers Who Died in Vietnam and Indochina (1997). Knightly, P., The First Casualty—From the Crimea to Vietnam: The War Correspondent as Hero, Propagandist, and Myth Maker (1975). Marzolf, M., Up From the Footnote: A History of Women Journalists (1977).

Other reference:

NYT (4 Nov. 1965). Harper's (Sept. 1972).