The women who fought to report WWII

“That was the goddamnedest thing I ever saw anybody do in my life! Do you realize – all the artillery and half the snipers on both sides of this f**king war had ten full minutes to make up their mind about you?”
– the furious lieutenant screamed at Dickey

Chapelle had just finished taking a series of photographs from the top of a ridge at the frontline on the island of Iwo Jima. Her actual assignment was to photograph the use of whole blood and the activities of nurses onboard the USS Samaritan, the hospital ship to which her assignment confined her. But Chapelle was determined to use her “woman’s angle” assignment to fulfill her professional dream – photographing combat from the frontlines.

Despite repeatedly being told not to leave the ship, she persisted in asking to go ashore and finally convinced a press officer that the logical conclusion to her blood story was to go to a field hospital – well behind the front lines. Once ashore, she convinced the lieutenant to take her to the frontlines.

Instead of the frontline she imagined, she found a windswept sand dune. Unimpressed, she nevertheless made a serious study of the frontline by taking photographs of each quadrant surrounding her, all the while swatting at the wasps buzzing her.

Back in the safety of her tent, Chapelle’s bunkmate laughed at her description of swatting the wasps. “Those weren’t wasps,” her bunkmate told her. “Those were sniper bullets. Iwo Jima is a volcanic island. There are no insects.”

Chapelle, immediately thrilled, wrote her report with the byline “Under Fire on Iwo Jima”.

Her humorous and self-deprecating autobiography, What’s a Woman Doing Here? A Combat Reporter’s Report on Herself, describes her trial by fire to become a war correspondent.

Dickey Chapelle came from a new generation of women, more ambitious and less self-effacing than those who came before her. Attracted to adventure and risk since childhood, her career as a photographer was driven by the classic war correspondent’s fascination with combat. She observed or ignored restrictions when necessary in her single-minded pursuit to cover war from the frontlines, using her assignments from women’s magazines as a vehicle for her own ambition.

Born Georgette Louise Meyer in 1919, she grew up in a well-protected middle-class environment in Shorewood, a suburb of Milwaukee, Wisconsin. Despite the conventional environment surrounding her, she was determined to live by her own rules.

Like many of her generation, she was captivated by aeronautics. At age 14, she wrote an article “Why We Want to Fly” for the United States Air Service magazine. The editor published it believing it was written by a boy named G.L. Meyer. A year later, after meeting Admiral Richard Byrd – Dickey Byrd — when he spoke at her high school, she changed her name to Dickey.

An excellent student, she graduated high school early and at age 16 she was one of only three women admitted to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) to study engineering. But she spent more time at the local airfields hitching rides in planes than studying. She wrote articles about flying and took photographs from the planes. She dropped out of MIT and made her way to New York, where she studied photography, married her photography teacher, Tony Chapelle, a former WWI Navy photographer, and began pursuing a career as a reporter and photographer.

Her career as a war reporter spanned nearly three decades. She received awards from the Women’s National Press Club and the Overseas Press Club. In 1962 when her autobiography was published, she was interviewed by a young Mike Wallace on his radio show. He questioned whether jumping out of planes, being at the front, or going on assignment with Marines was a “woman’s place”, indeed, was it a “woman’s job”? to which she responded:

“It is not a woman’s place. There’s no question about it. There’s only one other species on earth for whom a war zone is no place, and that’s men. But as long as men continue to fight wars, why I think observers of both sexes will be sent to see what happens.”

Chapelle was killed in 1965 while on assignment with the Marines in Viet Nam when a piece of shrapnel from a trap hit her in the throat. Photographer Henri Huet was on assignment with her and photographed her receiving her last rites. She was the first American woman reporter to be killed while on assignment. An award is given by the Marines every year in her honor.

Buy or Rent the Film

Women reporters during WWII were told war reporting was No Job For a Woman. Buy the DVD, available for purchase from Women Make Movies, to find out how these women over came the restrictions and created a new way of telling the story of war.

2011, 61 minutes, Color, DVD, English