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The Fearless Life of the First American Woman War Correspondent Killed In Action

Before her death in 1965, Dickey Chapelle shot for publications such as National Geographic, Life, and even Reader's Digest.

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On March 3, 1945, the 12th day of the campaign for Iwo Jima, Dickey Chapelle climbed a ridge overlooking the front of what was supposed to be one of the fiercest battles of the war so far.

“I stood straight up, planted my feet firmly and raised the camera,” the photographer wrote in her autobiography, What’s a Woman Doing Here? “Three tanks far enough away to look toy-sized moved through the finder; bouncing visibly seconds before the detonation reached my ears.”

But aside from that, nothing happened. “The only sounds were those of my breathing, some wasp-like noises and the crunch of my boots on the gravel. Where were all the people?”

When she returned to the American officer who had escorted her to the area, she found out: They were hidden.

“’That,’ he said, ‘was the god-damnedest thing I ever saw anybody do in my life,’” she recalled in her book. “’Do you realize that all the artillery and half the snipers on both sides of this war had ten full minutes to make up their minds about you? Didn’t anyone ever pound into your head that you do not—Lord in heaven!—stand up on a skyline? And do you realize that if you’d got yourself shot I’d have had to spend the next ten years of my life filling out papers?’”

Chapelle vowed to shoot the rest of her photos lying down, but it wasn’t until days later that she understood the lieutenant’s distress. “The wasp-like noises I had heard were snipers’ bullets whizzing by,” she wrote. (This is how the science of fear makes soldiers stronger.)

It was one of her first lessons as a war correspondent, and an assignment that would lead to some of her most reproduced photos of all time. For the next two decades she would embed with military units around the world, taking photos for publications including National Geographic, Life, and Reader’s Digest, in places such as the Dominican Republic, Lebanon, and Cuba.

It was 1965 when she died on assignment in Vietnam after a nearby marine triggered a tripwire boobytrap on patrol. Shrapnel from the blast severed Chapelle’s carotid artery, killing her shortly after. Chapelle became the first female American war correspondent killed in action. She was given a full marine burial.

A plaque dedicated in 1966 by Wallace M. Greene Jr., commandant of the U.S. Marine Corps, read: “To the memory of Dickey Chapelle. War correspondent killed in action near hear on 4 November 1965. She was one of us and we will miss her.”

The following photos and captions are from the book Dickey Chapelle Under Fire, a retrospective of Chapelle’s work by John Garofolo.

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01_Dickey_Chapelle_Dickey-self-portrait-wwii-WHiImageID-32737Wisconsin Historical Images, Wisconsin Historical Society, Image ID# 32737

Self-portrait, wearing a war correspondent arm band.

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02_Dickey_Chapelle_115195_Copy of 02-12Wisconsin Historical Images, Wisconsin Historical Society, Image ID# 115195

Iwo Jima Airfield #1, as it looked nine days after the initial assault, February 1945

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03_Dickey_Chapelle_dying Marine WHiImageID25954Wisconsin Historical Images, Wisconsin Historical Society, Image ID# 25954

This was Dickey’s most reproduced photo until the Vietnam War and was initially released with the title The Dying Marine. The soldier in the image, Corporal William Fenton, lays badly wounded, awaiting medical treatment. In her autobiography, Dickey described Fenton as “one of the 551 critically wounded Marines brought aboard the USS Samaritan who wanted to live. He did. (I visited him and his family ten months later on Christmas Day at St. Alabans Hospital.)” Iwo Jima 1945

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04_Dickey_Chapelle_kitchen 33291Wisconsin Historical Images, Wisconsin Historical Society, Image ID# 33291

Dickey’s original caption for this image reads, “Hospital Kitchen. From D[Day] plus five almost until Iwo was secure, the sole cooking facilities of the entire kitchen ([where] up to 200 men were treated each day) consisted of the single improvised burner. The grill is the innards of a blood shipping case, and the cases themselves serve as walls and storage space. (Incidentally, I have enjoyed more than one canteen cup of coffee from that pitcher.)” Iwo Jima, 1945

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05_Dickey_Chapelle_USS franklin ID 115125Wisconsin Historical Images, Wisconsin Historical Society, Image ID# 115125

The crew of the USS Franklin watches a vaudeville performance from their hangar deck. The performance occurred just seven days after the ship was hit by a Japanese bomber.

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06_Dickey_Chapelle_Marine-reading-letter-115129Wisconsin Historical Images, Wisconsin Historical Society, Image ID# 115129

Mail from home was a tremendous morale booster for U.S. forces fighting abroad. Dickey originally titled this image Laughing Marine, Okinawa 1945

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07_Dickey_Chapelle_Fidel-and-Raul-WHi-Image-ID-85297Wisconsin Historical Images, Wisconsin Historical Society, Image ID# 85297

Fidel (left) and Raul Castro posing with a bazooka during the Cuban Revolution, Oriente Province, Cuba, 1958

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08_Dickey_Chapelle_Soldier-w-kids-WHiImageID115236Wisconsin Historical Images, Wisconsin Historical Society, Image ID# 115236

Paratrooper Captain E.F. McGushin dances with a class of fourth grade girls at a recess in Santo Domingo. His company organized classes for 720 children and worked to keep children off the streets to avoid the fighting after their teachers fled the city, 1965. (Read about the adorable stray dog that joined the ranks in World War I.)

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09_Dickey_Chapelle_Dickey-Vietnam-WHiImageID33129Wisconsin Historical Images, Wisconsin Historical Society, Image ID# 33129

Dickey wades through a muddy stream with South Vietnamese soldiers in the Ba Xuyen Province, Vietnam, 1961

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10_Dickey_Chapelle_Vietnam WHiImageId 115534Wisconsin Historical Images, Wisconsin Historical Society, Image ID# 115534

South Vietnamese soldiers in a live fire artillery drill, ca. 1961-62

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11_Dickey_Chapelle_Vietnam sunset 115400Wisconsin Historical Images, Wisconsin Historical Society, Image ID# 115400

Vietnamese troops transit up river, ca. 1961-62

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12_Dickey_Chapelle_patrol.jpgWisconsin Historical Images, Wisconsin Historical Society, Image ID# 115608

Marines on a search-and-clear operation near Da Nang, 1965