Chapelle, Dickey (1919–1972)

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Chapelle, Dickey (1919–1972)

American photojournalist and the first American woman reporter killed in action. Name variations: Dickey Meyer. Born Georgette Louise Meyer in Shorewood, Wisconsin, a suburb of Milwaukee, in 1919; killed at the front near Chu Lai, South Vietnam, on November 4, 1972; daughter of Edna and Paul Gerhard Meyer (a traveling salesman for a steel company); granted full scholarship to Massachusetts Institute of Technology, 1935, but dropped out her second year; married Tony Chapelle, in October 2, 1940 (annulled, July 1956); children: (stepson) Ron Chapelle.

Georgie Lou Meyer, who would jettison the "Georgie Lou" for "Dickey" by her senior year in high school, was raised in Shorewood, an affluent suburb of Milwaukee, Wisconsin, where she was born in 1919. A roustabout with a penchant for getting herself into unlikely places, she found her heroes among the doers of her age: Admiral Byrd hurtling his dogsleds toward the South Pole and Baron von Richthofen performing in air battles over Germany. Two books that profoundly affected her were Yancey's Aerial Navigation and Meteorology, 4th edition, and an account by Richard Harding Davis of his experiences as a combat reporter in World War I. Dickey's father was a patient, quiet man, while her mother was described as a controlling, overprotective woman who went on emotional binges. Edna Meyer , like her daughter, was said to be a nonstop talker.

Dickey loved airplanes, and set her sights early on a career in aeronautical engineering, possibly because she was forbidden by her mother ever to enter a plane. Her first published article, at age 14, was "Why We Want to Fly," which landed in the United States Air Service magazine. In 1935, Dickey graduated from high school, valedictorian of her class at age 16, after skipping a grade; that autumn, she was one of seven girls entering the freshman class of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), Cambridge.

At MIT, "her hair was kept as short as a boy's," Chapelle wrote in a third-person self-assessment. "She dressed in trousers, a man's shirt and tie, and a battered blue raincoat. It was a perfect time for an overprotected girl to bust loose, to shock, to rebel, to be seen living in the manner of a young savage." Admitted on full scholarship, the "young savage" also moonlighted as a "flying girl reporter for the Boston Traveler," but signs of her immaturity soon outstripped her daring; by 1937, she was on the train home to Wisconsin, having flunked out.

With planes still on her mind, Dickey negotiated her services as a secretary in exchange for flying lessons. "I was the least-promising flight student who ever near-crashed a trainer on each circuit of the field," she wrote. Because her parents wanted her away from pilots, she took a job as a typist in the accounting department of the Milwaukee Journal. When they discovered that she was still hanging around the airport, they packed her off to a grandparent in Coral Gables, Florida, which allowed her to maneuver her way into a job as assistant on an air show in Miami and led to her being hired in 1939 as a correspondent for The New York Times and Associated Press (AP) to cover a Cuban air show. This

she parlayed into a position as secretary to the public relations director of the New York branch of the company that was soon to become Trans World Airlines (TWA).

By 1940, Dickey Meyer had also joined the Women Fliers of America (WFA), when she signed up for a photography course run by Tony Chapelle, a WWI navy photographer who directed TWA's publicity photos. Tony was more than 20 years her senior and secretive about his past; it would be six years after their 1940 marriage before she discovered that his second wife was just getting around to divorcing him.

Professionally, Tony took his third wife under his wing, piloting her in flights over the George Washington Bridge while Chapelle hung over the side of the plane taking aerial shots with an eight-pound Speed Graphic camera. She had sold a few photos to newspapers when she made her first major sale, a story on "spec" about a woman in an aircraft plant. When Look magazine published the story in the spring of 1941, Chapelle quit her job to work freelance.

In December 1941, the bombing of Pearl Harbor drew the United States into World War II. Tony was soon sent by the navy to the Canal Zone, Panama, to be an instructor in aerial photography, and the following June, Chapelle parlayed her few sales and a firm magazine assignment into accreditation as a war correspondent. Joining her husband, she completed the assignments but found them rejected. In 1943, she returned to New York, where she began to write for Life Story magazine (known later as Today's Woman). In the spring of 1945, she got the opportunity she had been waiting for: an assignment to cover the Pacific Theater.

At 25, Chapelle was the first woman photographer accredited to the Pacific Fleet and the youngest of all women correspondents. Authorized by the magazine, along with McBride Publishing, she proceeded to Honolulu, where she soon discovered the rules against women on the military front. "No woman correspondent was allowed to spend the night with the troops, unless navy nurses were already there," wrote her biographer Roberta Ostroff . "If she went against these orders, scrupulously drawn to prevent women from covering combat, she would lose her accreditation."

Nevertheless, Chapelle soon hitched a ride in a C-47 troop transport plane to the island of Guam, just as the American flag was being raised on neighboring Iwo Jima. On Guam, she begged Admiral Harold Miller, public relations officer for the Pacific Fleet, to allow her onto Iwo, still under combat, but her pleas were met with a resounding no. He did agree, however, to let her accompany a hospital ship to the island to pick up casualties; en route, the ship came under Japanese air attack. Writes Ostroff:

Racing to a prearranged security station, up three ladders to the ship's flying bridge, [Chapelle] squeezed under the mount of the ship's searchlight. As the public address system blared its instructions to take cover, the zeke [kamikaze] came into focus in her viewfinder.

But she had left behind her telephoto lens. "In short," wrote the humbled Chapelle, "I'd fluffed the coverage of my own baptism by fire." She promised herself that she would never make such a mistake again.

That same day, Chapelle watched the grim work of corpsmen loading 552 casualties onto the hospital ship.

When I first began to work on the welldeck, I tried only to keep out of the way of stretcher bearers and to keep on focusing, framing, lighting, and shooting pictures. The shapeless, dirty, bloody, green bundles being lifted and carried before me were not, repeat, not, human as I was human. … There must be something better that a woman could do with these men than to photograph them. I haven't cringed at their wounds, but at my lens.

The ship returned to Guam with a total of 753 casualties, and Chapelle's photographs reached print in December 1945 in Cosmopolitan.

Guided by her Guam tentmate, Barbara Finch , a correspondent for Reuters, Chapelle managed to board another hospital ship just off Okinawa, which was poised for the invasion of that island. But she "prided herself on not writing up anything she could not personally see and verify. … She called it 'eyeballing.'" With the help of the marines, and despite the warnings of the naysaying admiral, Chapelle managed to maneuver her way off the ship and to the front, where she remained "overnight" for six days. The furious admiral withdrew her accreditation and had her escorted back to Guam, then home.

Stateside, Chapelle became a staff photographer and associate editor for Seventeen, where she quickly grew bored. On November 14, 1947, with the Cold War underway, she and her husband Tony embarked on a Danish freighter for Eastern and Central Europe, hired by the American Friends Service, the Quaker group that was one the major charitable organizations providing aid to Europe's postwar survivors. Gone for six years, the Chapelles made a total of 10,000 pictures used by a dozen agencies—including CARE, Save the Children, the United Nation's Children's Emergency Fund (UNICEF)—to encourage donations.

Photographically, Chapelle does not compare to later women photographers like Susan Meiselas (1948—), Mary Ellen Mark (1940—), and Eve Arnold . "The value of her photos was their authenticity," according to Ostroff, "which meant the world to her. They were quality snapshots of events she eyewitnessed, events few photographers had the courage to seek out. The frames did not yield poetry, but reality. They were I think her way of seeing and then proving to disbelieving editors that she indeed was there. Her writing for publication had the same utilitarian quality. The value of what she wrote was where it originated, in the eye of the storm."

Through the 1950s, Chapelle was where the action was. She was a small birdlike woman with a smoky voice—one of the few voices, as one friend put it, that could be heard under machine-gun fire. In September 1955, back in the States, she spent three months bunked in a marine women's barracks at Camp Pendleton, writing about the women's esprit de corps. In October 1956, when Hungarian freedom fighters rose up against the Russians who controlled their country's communist dictatorship, Chapelle looked for a way to cover the uprising and the aftermath, in which thousands of Hungarians fled their country to escape Russian reprisals. By November 15, Chapelle was in Vienna, on secret assignment for Leo Cherne's International Rescue Committee (IRC) and the editors of Life magazine.

At the Hungarian border, near the small wooden footbridge at Andau, Chapelle became friends with the writer James Michener, who was also there for the story, and his wife Mari . "On the frontier, Dickey and I sometimes went far behind the Russian lines," said Michener. "I was cautious, she was totally fearless. I would draw back from spots of danger, she would always crowd forward. I was older than she, more experienced. It was her first time in the situation, yet she was quite extraordinary in her personal courage." With each expedition, according to Michener, Chapelle would go deeper and deeper into Hungary, to bring out Hungarians. She saved "hundreds, maybe," said the writer. "If she were a man, they would have called her a hero."

On the evening of December 4, Chapelle walked into Hungary illegally, carrying antibiotics for Hungarian patriots under one arm and a Minox camera taped under the other. Arrested that night, she was driven to Budapest, but she managed to toss the Minox out the window before she reached AVO headquarters (Hungarian secret police). Chapelle was held for five weeks at the state prison in solitary confinement before being moved to Marco Street Prison where she was put in a cell with eight other women. Out of diplomatic necessity, she was disowned by everyone. Life had warned her that if the trip did not go smoothly, it would disavow any involvement with her; and though two of her photos had appeared in its December 3rd issue, the magazine kept its word. Overseas press reports of her capture identified her to the American public only as a freelance photographer.

Brought to trial on January 26, 1957, Chapelle was sentenced by the Communists to 50 days in prison; since she had already served 53, she was ordered to leave the country immediately. Crediting the American embassy for her release, she returned to the U.S., recognized as something of a Cold War celebrity. Her exploits became fodder for episodes appearing in the Steve Canyon comic strip into the 1960s.

Chapelle returned to her old job as press liaison at the Research Institute of America (RIA), which was also run by Leo Cherne, but according to Orloff, the captivity had left her humiliated. "She was no longer the bright-eyed, enthusiastic employee." Apart from her wounded pride, she held herself to blame for the imprisonment of two freedom fighters who had accompanied her on the venture. When fellow reporters in the Overseas Press Club suspected her of having gone to Hungary for her own self-aggrandizement, she could not argue her case without exposing the IRC and Life. "I knew the conditions under which I'd been employed," Chapelle wrote later. "I'm proud of taking my medicine and coming back for more. … I made the mis takes; I was punished. End of story." Ironically, in writing his Bridge at Andau, Michener disguised the identity of "a brave and daring photographer whose pictures helped tell the story of Hungary's mass flight to freedom," by referring to the photojournalist as a male. Six years later, Chapelle would finally be honored by the IRC.

Courage is not the absence of fear but the control of fear.

—Dickey Chapelle

For the next four years, Reader's Digest was her main sponsor. In July 1957, she covered the Algerian War from the side of the FLN, who were rebelling against the French. In November 1958, she set out for Cuba to interview Fidel Castro and his insurgents. The Cuban military force was the first in her memory to include women fighters and the first to minimize her restrictions, allowing her to witness five military actions. Chapelle was not blind to the faults of Fidel; she worried about his ego and the Communist tendencies of his brother Raoul, but she also fumed at U.S. indifference to the terrorism of Cuba's ruling dictator, Fulgencio Batista. In a Reader's Digest article, she delineated the U.S. role in arming Batista's forces. According to Ostroff, "She did not fare well in issues falling outside her midwestern morality of black and white, good guy against bad guy, and toward the end of her life, the indistinguishable grays the world had become sent her searching harder, further, for the moral certainty of her youth." By January 1960, when Castro had been in power in Cuba for a year, she would go off him. "While the sky is the limit in attacking the United States," she would grouse, "no Castro leader ever attacks Soviet Russia or Red China."

In 1958, Chapelle covered the Lebanese Civil War, the marine maneuvers on Crete, and the marines' final assault landing in Beirut on July 17, worrying less in each case about getting shot than getting future work. Despite her credentials, scrambling for assignments had always been a chore. "She was a woman, and most photo editors were male," said her agent, Nancy Palmer . "Most of them simply didn't believe she shot half the pictures she did. And I must say that women editors were not much better. So she worked cheaper than the male photographers, because she wanted the assignments." In May 1959, Chapelle was 40 years old when she signed up for parachute training. Two months later, as part of a story, she jumped with the troops of the First Special Forces of the 82nd Airborne.

In 1961, when she first arrived in Vietnam, there were fewer than 12 accredited reporters from the West. Dressed in fatigues, jungle boots, an Australian hat, and black harlequin glasses, with two battered Leica cameras draped around her neck, she liked going into action behind the "point man," the man who led the patrol, the first man the enemy was likely to pick off. Chapelle's only concern was keeping up. "She did not stay in the safety of the rear battalion, as many reporters did when covering conflicts, but kept up with the foot soldier or jumped with the parachutists. Besides, she preferred staying with the troops twenty-four hours a day, sleeping in a foxhole. Unlike the correspondents, who didn't know what to make of her, the marines accepted her as she was. She traveled with enough supplies in her small combat pack for three weeks in the field."

On May 3, 1961, Chapelle landed in Vientiane, Laos, to gather military intelligence for Reader's Digest on a ceasefire. While there, she wrote a piece on the U.S. Green Berets, but it was turned down by the Digest to protect the activities of the CIA. In June, she arrived in Saigon. Parachuting with Vietnamese airborne, she earned her second set of wings, for completing six jumps, one with two cameras and full field gear. "With them," writes Ostroff, "she walked nearly two hundred miles through head-high jungle and knee-deep swamp. She was fired on from ambush, watched the airborne return fire seven times, and slept seventeen nights in the field." Returning to the United States on November 7, 1961, Chapelle reported to the Pentagon in Washington, where she turned in 1,000 photos for clearance, only to have 800 of them manage to get lost by the Defense Department in censorship.

On April 1962, Chapelle was given the highest honor of the Overseas Press Club, the George Polk Award, "for the best reporting in any medium requiring exceptional courage and enterprise abroad." The following year, one of her photos would be chosen Photograph of the Year by the Press Photographers' Association. That year, Chapelle's autobiography, What's a Woman Doing Here? hit the bookstores with a title she hated. For one thing, as she told her publisher, the military's greeting was generally: "What the hell are you doing here?" Writes Ostroff:

Reading the edited version, she discovered that all her hard-earned reporting on war from the grubby perspective of the soldier in a foxhole had been scrupulously disinfected by her editor in New York. She felt burning indignation at being portrayed as a dizzy, if gutsy, broad who just happened to show up whenever she heard the sound of guns. To her, her sex had nothing whatsoever to do with her role as a military observer, and now she felt as though the publisher were making that the only point.

In Chapelle's words, they "feminized the hell out of it."

Meanwhile, though she was in favor of America's role in the war in Vietnam, she was pushing the U.S. government to admit that there actually was a war going on and that the United States was in on it. On November 4, 1965, she was in the field, covering forced resettlement of the country's peasants for the National Observer and New York's WOR Radio. On morning patrol for a search-and-clear mission on the front near Chu Lai, South Vietnam, Chapelle was in her usual spot, directly behind the man on point, when he tripped a booby trap that killed them both. "Guess it was bound to happen," she said, just before she died. As Father John McNamara administered last rites to Dickey Chapelle, fellow journalist Henri Huet shot the AP photo that went out over the wire service around the world.

The body of the first American woman reporter killed in action was brought back to Milwaukee by an honor guard of six marines. The 82nd Airborne named a drop zone after her, and the marines named a hospital in Vietnam in her memory. At her funeral, the Women's National Press Club presented a memorial scroll, asserting that Dickey Chapelle was "the kind of reporter all women in journalism openly or secretly aspire to be. She was always where the action was."


Ostroff, Roberta. Fire in the Wind: The Life of Dickey Chapelle. NY: Ballantine Books, 1992.

suggested reading:

Chapelle, Dickey. What's a Woman Doing Here? (autobiography). NY: Morrow, 1962.

Los Angeles Times (obituary). November 21, 1965.

National Geographic (farewell tribute). February 1966.


Archives of the Wisconsin State Historical Society at the University of Wisconsin, Madison.