I have a rendevous with Death
At some disputed barricade—
When Spring comes back with rustling
And apple blossoms fill the air.
I met a few over there like her: soft under the jungle fatigues no doubt, hard as the rest of us, ultimately, on the outside. As a young man quite unsure at the time of just what stuff comprised a woman anyway, I would have to say that the female soldiers, physicians, journalists and support personnel that I met in Vietnam informed my view of the opposite sex in a radical way. Back in the glory days of sex, drugs, and rock n roll, girls just didn’t do that.
But the fact is, of course, they did. Though the government never bothered to count them, over 7,500 American women served in the military in Vietnam
. Thousands more saw the war first hand as civilian Service Club personnel, Red Cross workers, and journalists
. Sixty-two women lost their lives.
Dickey Chapelle was an American war correspondent, thrust by fate and persona to the advance guard of the woman’s movement, a battle that continues to be waged across “the bayonet borders of the world” to this day. Her life was an inspiration to the women in Vietnam and to all of us since that confusing time.
She was born Georgette Louise Meyer in 1919 in Shorewood, Wisconsin (an upscale suburb of Milwaukee), to a family that accepted, encouraged, and remained good-naturedly perplexed by her profound intelligence, her imagination, and her stubbornly individualistic ways.
Taking her own diminutive nickname after meeting her favorite Antarctic explorer, Admiral Richard E. Byrd, young Dickey, an odd, hefty, near-sighted girl known to her classmates as “high pockets” or “smarty pants”, was fascinated throughout her childhood by airplanes, machinery, and adventure. Precocious and industrious, by the age of 16 she had graduated as valedictorian of her high school class and won a scholarship in aeronautical engineering to MIT.
She neglected to attend classes in Massachusetts however, preferring rather to visit the Boston Airport, the Boston Navy Yard, and the near-by Coast Guard base. By her second semester, after realizing her classmates were also bright, motivated individuals, and desiring something more than the life of an engineer, Dickey had discovered two bright and shiny new passions—flying and sex. As one of the few females in MIT’s engineering department, it was the latter endeavor that she most indulged. Found among her papers thirty years later was an unpublished and unabashedly rhapsodic article entitled In Defense of Necking, by a Coed Who Has Done It, Aged 16. It may very well have been Dickey Chapelle’s first story, written—as they all were— only after personally “eyeballing” the entirety of its subject.
Dickey moved off-campus, met more boys, and began to write successfully, selling an article on the Coast Guard to the Boston Traveler newspaper. She never got past the first semester of her sophomore year at MIT, however. After losing her scholarship, and with the Depression in full swing, she dropped out of school, totally convinced that she’d rather fly airplanes than build them.
The first rough draft of her adult self had been realized in one short year. Marching up to her high school guidance counselor at a holiday tea back home in Wisconsin, looking glamorous in skirt and high heels, baby fat melting into alluring curves, smoking a cigarette, Dickey Meyer announced with cool assurance born of rigorous research: “The boys at Tech prefer black lingerie.”
She spent some time at a Milwaukee airfield, exchanging secretarial work for flying lessons and the opportunity to rub elbows and more with the rough-and-tumble barnstormers of the day. During the Depression, air shows provided welcome affordable entertainment all across the American heartland. By the summer of 1938 Dickey’s mother, concerned about the girl’s personal relationship with a pilot, sent her to live with her maternal grandparents in Coral Gables, Florida.
Dickey continued to frequent airfields in Florida, finding some work writing stories about air shows and planes. She eventually moved to New York where she worked for Trans World Airlines, preparing press releases. In 1940, at the age of 21, after enrolling in his photography class, she married TWA’s publicity photographer, Tony Chapelle, a world-class philanderer who was twice her age. Dickey had found her Pygmalion.
Tony Chapelle was charming and a cad. In fact, he remained married to the mother of his son for six full years after his wedding to Dickey, a situation, one presumes, that did not color his relationship with Dickey at all.
Chapelle was a veteran of World War I, where he had been a pioneering aerial photographer. He lived and breathed airplanes and cameras, and Dickey was an apt student of both. She later credited her husband with planting the essential seeds of her career in photojournalism: “If you were a real photographer,” insisted Tony Chapelle, “you’d be on the spot where things happened before they happened.” A photographer did not walk to plane crashes, for example. “You’re sitting on the fire truck before the airplane hits and nobody takes time to throw you off, so you get out there ahead of the police. Ahead.”
Out front. The first. Always. No matter the price. The idea informed the rest of Dickey Chapelle’s illustrious career.
When the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor in 1941, Tony Chapelle volunteered for the military and was ordered to teach photography in Panama. Dickey, with her heart set on accompanying her husband to the Canal Zone, wrangled an assignment from Look Magazine to cover U.S. Army Jungle Training there. Biographers surmise that Tony was enjoying the long-distance marriage as only a dedicated adulterer can, but Dickey would not be deterred. She got to Panama, camera and notebook intact. For the first time, her skill at reportage and her love of photography coexisted. She had discovered her métier.
After a few early disastrous missteps, the supremely intelligent bespectacled self-confident young woman whose unfashionable dress and boyish manner made her the butt of jokes in high school began to thrive. Though she was by no means a great photographer, Dickey Chapelle made up for her artistic shortcomings with determination and undeniable courage. As Bill Garrett, her editor at National Geographic after the war put it: “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.”
Dickey developed a special attraction to the U.S. Marine Corps. Gradually distancing herself from her husband’s career (he had been posted to Chungking, China, but ended up working in New York), Dickey, on assignment for Fawcett Publications, flew from Pearl Harbor to U.S. Navy Headquarters on Guam. A public relations officer there, Colonel H.B. Miller, had insisted that female reporters could go no farther than that island in their pursuit of stories. Dickey basically camped out in the colonel’s office, politely insisting that he allow her to go “as far forward as you will let me.” In a fateful act of capitulation, due in no small part no doubt to Dickey’s persuasive enthusiasm, Miller finally placed her on a hospital ship, the Samaritan, bound for Iwo Jima.
And so it was that Dickey Chapelle became the first woman correspondent to experience the bloody battle for that strategic piece of rock in the sea. She was the first female combat photographer in the Pacific Theatre, and the youngest. She befriended countless Marines, listened to their stories, photographed their pain and hope. One Marine gifted her with his eight inch K-Bar fighting knife, a talisman that she carried thereafter to every “bayonet border of the world.”
She divorced Tony Chapelle somewhere along the way and threw herself into the front lines of every armed conflict that erupted after World War II: The Hungarian Revoluton. Algeria. Lebanon. India. Turkey. Cuba. She learned to parachute at the age of forty, the better to remain in front of the competition. If, miraculously, there was no war to cover, Dickey went to places in the world where people nonetheless were in pain. Hungry. Downtrodden. Without hope.
But finally there was Vietnam. Dickey had already won the prestigious George Polk Award from the Overseas Press Club and worked for all the “big” magazines, but her outspoken manner coupled with her gruff no-nonsense personality conspired to deny her a regular paycheck. She entered the lecture circuit as a vociferous critic of communism.
Decrying American complacency, unwelcome, often, because of her uncompromising views, Dickey left the United States for Vietnam in 1961. Out front, as usual. Alone. The first American female journalist in search of the biggest story of her already-memorable career. After a trip to Laos where she observed unacknowledged American CIA operatives in combat there, Dickey came to realize: nobody back home had a clue to what was about to happen in Southeast Asia. And nobody was buying her dispatches.
The American government tried its best to discredit Dickey Chapelle. And let’s face it: the “girl” who’d rather be a combat marine, the “troublemaker” who smoked, drank, jumped out of airplanes, and slept in the mud with men young enough to be her sons was an easy target. Except they couldn’t hit her. Not the way she kept out in front of the crowd. The government adapted a more nefarious approach to controlling their pint-sized time bomb—playing upon Dickey’s unabashed patriotism, they put her to work for the CIA. And 800 of her photographs “disappeared.”
The official, credentialed press corps in Vietnam in the very early 60’s was a bunch of callow kids, for the most part, more interested in scoring good weed and great broads then they were in uncovering a story that officially didn’t exist yet.
It was National Geographic, ironically, that brought the Bad News home. While on assignment for that august magazine in 1962, Dickey photographed a U.S. Marine, in uniform, combat-ready in the door of a helicopter, surrounded by a cadre of South Vietnamese soldiers. It was the first published photograph of an American in combat in Vietnam and it won the 1963 Press Photographer’s Association “Photograph of the Year.”
Her photograph of the execution of a supine “suspected” communist prisoner by a Vietnamese Airborne officer predated Eddie Adams’s Pulitzer Prize-winning photo “Guerrilla Dies” (the famous one of the police chief pulling the trigger of his pistol up against his bound captive’s head) by six full years.
Dickey couldn’t help but be out front. It was the way she was wired.
She was on patrol with her beloved Marines on November 4, 1965 near the Song Tra Bong river south of Chu Lai, my old Vietnam stomping ground. The nylon fishing line was attached to an M-26 hand grenade wedged beneath an 81-mm mortar round. The soldier who tripped the wire, walking point, was not seriously injured. Dickey, right behind him at the front of the squad, was thrown twenty-one feet into the air, her throat slit open by shrapnel.
She lay dying, her rakish Australian campaign hat nearby, a sprig of flowers tucked behind her Marine emblem and her Airborne wings. Her signature pearl earring caught the sun as her life slipped away.
And as Father John Monamara bent over her, administering the last rites, Henri Huet, the Associated Press photographer, snapped the picture that ran worldwide.
“I guess,” said Dickey Chapelle at the end, “it was bound to happen.”
Fire in the Wind, the Life of Dickey Chapelle, Roberta Ostroff, Ballantine Books, New York, 1992.
Requiem: By the Photographers Who Died in Vietnam and Indochina, Horst Faas and Tim Page, Jonathan Cape
Singer-songwriter Nanci Griffith
was inspired to compose the anthemic Pearl’s Eye View (The Life of Dickey Chapelle)
in honor of a great American, the woman who blazed a trail of equality in life and death for every journalist who dared to walk it.
Pearl’s Eye View (The Life of Dickey Chapelle)
Oh, she was high up there in the air,
Caught still by a soldier's stare.
Whenever it was men amongst men down upon the land.
And she followed those mother's sons;
She felt the thunder of their guns.
From a pearl's eye view, just a camera in her hand.
She was born Georgette but the name didn't suit her well.
So, she blew out of Wisconsin as Dickey Chapelle.
Oh, she flew with a pilot's pride,
The first witness to either side.
She carried relief to the lost ones between the bombs.
And we saw it all through her lens,
Well, she knew she'd go back again
When the call rang out once more from Vietnam.
She's been through this before, she'll tell ya war is hell
Her pearl ear-rings caught the light on Dickey Chapelle.
Oh, that's the way it was,
She was the only one to tell,
She blew the whistle loud and clear.
An' now we trace her wings,
In her footsteps without fear,
To the front lines where she fell.
Where she lies still,
But she's still there.
It was 1965,
Over Chu Lai in a free fall dive,
In a dawn patrol to cover the dead zone ground.
She tiptoed through the land mines,
All along the enemy lines,
But she never saw the one that took her down.
Now she captured the bloody pearls of war so well,
That war was bound to steal the end of Dickey Chapelle.
(From a pearl's eye view.)
Of Dickey Chapelle.
(From a pearl's eye view.)
Of Dickey Chapelle.
(From a pearl's eye view.)
Written by Nanci Griffith and Maura Kennedy.
(©Cherry Log Music/Cherry River Music/Ponder Heart Music/Irving Music.)
From "Clock Without Hands", ©2001, Elektra.
- I was a prisoner in a Mexican Whorehouse
- A long time gone
- How to brush your teeth in a combat zone
- Libber and I go to war
- Fate takes a piss
- Thanks For the Memory
- Back in the Shit
- LZ Waterloo
- Saturday Night, Numbah Ten
a long commute
Andy X Kirby True
a tale of two Woodstocks
Buy a Gun
Dawn at The Wall
Feat of Clay
I was a free man once, in Saigon
The Joint Chiefs of Staff
the shit we ate
Combat Infantryman Badge
Firebase Mary Ann
the 1st Cav
The Highest Traditions
Those Who Forget
Under the Southern Cross
Whither the Phoenix?
A Bright Shining Lie
Apocalypse Now Redux
Hearts and Minds
We Were Soldiers
The Johnny Appleseed of LSD
Bud and Travis
Camaron de la Isla
Wild Bill Donovan
Sidney Gottlieb, the real-life "Q"
king of the queens
Paco de Lucia
the Real McCoy
Robert K. Merton
J. Fred Muggs
Bernardino de Sahagun
A. J. Weberman