Dickey Chapelle was an intrepid, precocious, determined—and brave—reporter and photographer who covered wars, revolutions, and other perilous events all her adult life, starting with World War II in the Pacific. She arrived there in late 1945 at age 26 and was aboard a hospital ship, the USS Samaritan, when it was attacked by Japanese bombers on its way to Iwo Jima. Hers was essentially on-the-job training, as she toted a bulky Speed Graphic and talked her way to the front line on Iwo Jima while the bullets were still flying. Early on, photographing wounded and dying marines, she showed a sense for the most affecting human moment amid the tragedy and terror of combat.
Chapelle was killed by a mine near Chu Lai in Vietnam in 1965, while covering a marine patrol. Her earliest experiences under fire are recounted in this excerpt from her memoir, What’s a Woman Doing Here?
“THIS IS A HOSPITAL?” I asked, horrified.
“In the sight of God and the authorities, it is,” said the doctor, making me ashamed of my question. He dipped his razor into his helmet. “We haven’t been so badly hit as to force us to stop operating for a whole day and night now, the first time that’s happened. Oh, last night we had to work for a time by starshells, but we were able to keep on.”
Wordlessly, I took the camera and went into the nearest tent. It was an operating room by act of human will only. Two stretchers resting across upended crates marked whole human blood keep iced were the operating tables. Half a dozen other stretchers lined the dug-out walls. I sat on my heels in the sand and watched the doctors and corpsmen work. Bearded, red-eyed, in ragged dungarees spattered with blood, they were doing just what I’d seen the doctors in white gowns do on the Samaritan. But there wasn’t a piece of furniture or medical equipment here except a canvas roll of gleaming instruments from which the surgeon occasionally took a fresh one.
I could feel the eyes of the man on the nearest stretcher watching me while I made my pictures. Finally he spoke, his voice low and gentle.
“You don’t have a gun,” he said wonderingly, as if it were the most curious thing in the world.
“Correspondents don’t carry guns, Marine,” I answered, leaning over so he wouldn’t have to strain to hear me. Now I could see why he was here. His leg was turned as an unbroken leg cannot lie, and bloody beside. I started to take his picture, wondering if he were 18 or 35. His nose and jaw were heavy, and his whole face encrusted with dirt and sand.
He volunteered serenely, “Doctor said he’d try to save my leg and tell me right away if he could. I won’t have to wait to find out, I mean. I’m lucky.”
This cracked me up. I looked away but the marine wasn’t letting me off that easy. He was fumbling at his belt, and then he was holding out something in his hands and saying, “Here. You take it. Where I’m going, I won’t need one. And if you ever do, you’ll need it bad.”
He was holding out his trench knife. I tried to say thank you. Then I squatted down next to him while I fastened the leather sheath on my belt. He was satisfied only after I had placed it so the laminated leather handle of the Kabar rose almost under the fingers of my right hand.
Then he said, “I feel better about you now.”
I knew it was time for me to go away until I reclaimed control of myself. I stumbled out of the tent and blindly began to cross the road.…
I TURNED SHAKILY AND FOUND MYSELF LOOKING INTO the faces of two bearded officers. They were a chunky marine captain and a lanky marine lieutenant.
The lieutenant said, “How the hell did you get here? We sure didn’t expect to see a br… I mean, a woman.” I summoned what dignity I could and told them I was a civilian correspondent who had come to Iwo to photograph the marines.…
“Where do you want to go?”
“Far forward as you’ll let me.”
“Well, come on,” said the lieutenant, pointing to a weapons carrier parked ahead on the tank track. “But I’ll tell you right now, girl, don’t try to talk me any farther out than the front.”
Farther forward than the front? Where was that? I had 40 minutes’ ride to think about it.
Finally the lieutenant pulled the truck to one side and cut the motor. “End of the line,” he breathed. “This is it right now.”
What was he almost whispering for? Anyway, I was never more disappointed in my life.
I knew no editor on earth would accept a picture of a truck and a man on a track in the sand as showing a front line. And that was all I could see. All I could hear were scattered rifle shots. Distantly. Or at least muffled.
But, wait a minute. If I climbed up on top of one of the sand ridges, I’d overlook half the island. I began climbing.…
As if he was sure I knew what I was about, [the marine] was leaning back against a fender of the weapons carrier. He lighted a cigarette without taking his eyes off the road ahead.
At last, gasping for breath, I reached the top of the ridge. Now I understood why I hadn’t seen anything below and heard so little. The whole area was honeycombed with sand ridges, their overall pattern like a waffle. From the bottom of one square, of course you couldn’t see what was happening in the next. And each ridge would act as a baffle to absorb sound.
I realized I’d forgotten to ask the lieutenant the most important question of all. In which direction lay the front lines? I thought about going back to find out, but that would mean I’d have to climb up again. No, I knew an easier solution. I’d take four sets of pictures, each in a different direction. One set and probably two was bound to show the front properly. I stood up, planted my feet firmly and raised the camera.
He flung away his cigarette with one furious motion. He fixed me with a steely glare. ‘That was the goddamndest thing I ever saw anybody do in my life!’
The sea of square pits in the sand stretched to the far shore of the island. Three tanks far enough away to look toy-size moved gingerly through the center of the picture. One bounced as I watched. A detonation rolled over the ridgetops a few seconds later. It had fired. I listened hard but nothing else happened. Where were all the people?
I shifted the camera at right angles from where it had been pointing and saw three marines. Digging. As I watched, they disappeared into the earth. So there could be people in every pit, I reasoned, and not one would show.…
BY THE TIME I FINISHED THE LAST SET OF PICTURES, I could hardly steady my hands on the camera. I knew what it meant when people said they felt their skin crawl. I was heart-in-throat glad to leave the ridge.
The lieutenant only flicked his eyes up at me while I skidded on my heels down the sand incline. Not till I’d jumped across the ditch and was standing beside the vehicle did he change his relaxed stance. But then he flung away his cigarette with one furious motion. He fixed me with a steely glare. Under his beard rose a brick-red flush.
“That was the goddamndest thing I ever saw anybody do in my life! Do you realize all the artillery and half the snipers on both sides of this fucking war had 10 full minutes to make up their minds about you?”
I knew my mouth had dropped open but I couldn’t seem to close it.
“Didn’t anyone anywhere ever pound into your little head that you do not stand up stand up good Christ in heaven! on a skyline, let alone stand up for 10 minutes? And do you realize that if you’d gone and gotten yourself shot I’d have had to spend the rest of the war and 10 years after that filling out fucking papers?”
Obviously, the lieutenant was waiting for me to say something. But what? He gestured me back into the weapons carrier and horsed it around in a U-turn. As we began to move some words did occur to me.
“Uh, I’m sorry, Lieutenant.” After I’d said it, I knew it didn’t sound right.…
“Are you trying to tell me that you honestly don’t know any better? I mean, you’re out here, and you don’t know what you should have done?”
I considered that for a minute and said, “You mean, I should have made the pictures lying down?”
“When did you first think of that?”
“Well, that is correct,” he said. “Do you think you could remember it?”
“Oh, I won’t forget,” I said fervently. “It was too lonesome up there!”
This finished it. The lieutenant was chuckling so hard he could hardly drive.
From What’s a Woman Doing Here? by Dickey Meyer Chapelle. Published by William Morrow and Company, New York, 1962. Excerpted by permission of the Meyer family.
Read MHQ’s review of John Garofolo’s new biography of Chapelle, Dickey Chapelle Under Fire Photographs by the First American Female War Correspondent Killed in Action, published by the Wisconsin Historical Society Press.