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With Her Eyes Wide Open

By Don C. Haines
12/5/2018 • Vietnam Magazine

War correspondent Dickey Chapelle once prophetically said, “When I die, I want it to be on patrol with the United States Marines”

The booby trap’s shrapnel had torn through her flesh, doing its deadly deed. “I guess it was bound to happen” gasped Dickey Chapelle, as Marines knelt over her, all of them helpless, except the chaplain, armed with the Last Rites. A photojournalist who had covered war and revolution from the frontlines for two decades—Iwo Jima, Hungary, Algeria, Cuba, Laos and Vietnam—Chapelle seemed fearless. Indeed, on this November day in 1965, walking behind a Marine sergeant while on a search-and-destroy operation called Red Snapper, she was heard to speak into her tape recorder, “If there are bogeymen here I have no fear as long as I’m in this company.”

Dickey Chapelle was one of the first news correspondents to venture into Vietnam, and shared many a foxhole with many a young Marine. She believed the only way to do a story was by “eyeballing it,” being on the scene and in harm’s way. Her nerve and bravado contributed to fierce resentment on the part of some of her male peers in Vietnam, who filed their stories from whatever barstool they happened to be sitting on at the time, based on what they’d been told by Ngo Dinh Diem’s government.

But Chapelle couldn’t do it that way. She loved the American fighting man too much, especially the Marines, whom she’d first met on Iwo Jima in 1945. Over the years her critics questioned her objectivity, claiming her affection for the American military colored her stories. Chapelle never apologized for her feelings or the way she covered a story, or in fact for anything. She didn’t have to. With Chapelle, what you saw was what you got; always up front and never up tight. So what if some of her best photos never got past the censors because they were of dead Americans or other subjects that might fail to boost morale? She was going to tell it like it was—and damn the consequences.

An understanding of Dickey Chapelle, and the attitude that drove her, begins in Milwaukee, Wis. She was born Georgette Louise Meyer in 1919, to German-American parents—an overly protective pacifist mother and a totally opposite, adventurous, risk-taking father who believed a woman could do anything a man could do. The family was solidly middle class and suffered little during the Great Depression.

Under her father’s influence, Georgette became, in the parlance of the time, a “tomboy.” Most of her heroes were men, and she especially admired adventurer Admiral Richard Byrd—so much in fact that the young girl started calling herself Dick, which soon became Dickey.

Most boys were intimidated by this eccentric young girl, but one young man told of his experience after he got up enough nerve to ask her out: “When I went to pick her up, I presented her a corsage. She took the flowers but then went over to my car, patted the fender and said—how fast does this baby go?” The boy went on to say that the date went well, but that it felt a little strange because “I’d never dated a girl with a crew cut before.”

To say that Dickey Meyer went against the grain would be an understatement. Her aggressive and outspoken nature often caused arguments with her teachers, though she was usually right. Her valedictorian status helped earn her a scholarship to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, where it didn’t take her long to flunk out. It wasn’t that she didn’t like school; she just didn’t like attending class, preferring to hang out at the local airfield. “I decided that rather than become an engineer and design airplanes, I’d become a pilot and fly them,” she told her parents. Her only accomplishment in Massachusetts, it seems, was selling a story on airplanes to a local publication. She told her mother that she liked writing but could never make a living at it because it didn’t pay enough.

Returning home to Milwaukee, she began hanging out at the local Air Circus, where she volunteered her secretarial skills in exchange for flying lessons. That was when she knew she’d never fit in an office. She craved action, and plenty of it. When she got her pilot’s license, her family became her first passengers. They were less than impressed, even though, as her brother says, “she never killed any of us.”

Young Dickey dressed like a boy, wore her hair like a boy and even had a deep voice. But she was all girl—and when her parents found out that some of the action she was getting at the Air Circus had nothing to do with flying, they shipped her off to Coral Gables, Fla., to live with her grandparents.

What her parents didn’t know was that the country’s largest airshow just happened to be in Coral Gables. And what she didn’t know was that her career as a reporter was about to begin. The owner of the air show needed a publicist, and when young Dickey Meyer told him she was a writer, she got the job and soon found herself on the way to Havana, Cuba, to cover a show.

It would be her first attempt at covering horror, and she failed miserably. As sometimes happens at airshows, there was a terrible crash—and she froze. By the time she got to a phone, she had been scooped.

She filed her story anyway, and the aviation editor for United Press was impressed enough to offer a job—not as a reporter, but as a secretary. She wasn’t insulted because the job was in New York, the hub of everything. She arrived there in August 1939, on the eve of one of the greatest events in history—World War II. And in New York she would meet the man who would affect her life as no other.

Tony Chapelle was a man of the world and a world-class photographer. He was also a good pilot, and the young Miss Meyer became his student, his lover and, on October 2, 1940, his wife––Mrs. Dickey Chapelle. Tony was 20 years her senior, and he taught her how to dress, how to talk and how to act. A photo of Dickey, taken by Tony, absolutely wowed the folks back in Milwaukee. Could this voluptuous young woman be the dowdy, overweight girl who had left home?

Most important, however, Tony taught her photography. He couldn’t teach courage, but Dickey already had that—in spades. At the time, photojournalism was a man’s profession and the only prominent female in the field was Margaret Bourke-White. While White’s photos may have been better, she lacked Dickey’s spirit and willingness to take any risk to get the story. With her grit and Tony’s contacts, Dickey Chapelle began to carve out a career.

Nowhere would she prove her grit more than on Iwo Jima. The 26-year-old reporter battled generals, admirals and anyone else who tried to keep her from her story. To the higher grade officers she was an irritant; to the junior grade officers and the Marines, she quickly became “Our Girl.” So, when she found herself on an Iwo beach looking for a ride to the front, a Marine lieutenant in a Jeep was willing to take her. She found the front remarkably quiet except “for the bees buzzing around” while she took her shots. When she told that to the lieutenant, he roared with laughter. “Those weren’t bees, honey, they were bullets!”

Later, while on a hospital ship, she stopped to talk with a badly wounded Marine. “How are you doing, soldier?” “Marine,” said the wounded man, “I’m a f— ing Marine.” Then, for the first time in her life, Dickey Chapelle used the most oftused word in the military, replying, “Okay, f—ing Marine, how are you?” Her 20-year love affair with the Corps had just begun, leading her to utter the phrase she would repeat many times: “When I die I want it to be on patrol with the United States Marines.”

Chapelle would finally leave Iwo Jima via a landing craft with a young enlisted man holding a .45 on her. The furious admiral of a hospital ship had ordered her arrest after she went ashore against his orders. He had also decreed she was to return to the states by slow boat, probably hoping it would be torpedoed. But a young Marine private, who scheduled flights to the mainland, would have none of it. “Our Girl” was going to fly. Chapelle protested; she didn’t want him to get in trouble on her account. The private smiled and asked: “What can they do? Bust me?” On Easter Sunday 1945, Chapelle repeated the same offense on Okinawa and the same admiral reported her to the War Department.

Tony met her in San Francisco with the news that her credentials as a war correspondent had been revoked, a revocation that would last through the Korean War. Reunited, their marriage began to crumble. Dickey came to realize, though, that she might still need Tony professionally. She found this out when she approached the Society of Friends about going to Europe and doing a magazine story on their “Little Marshall Plan,” feeding and clothing the dispossessed of Europe.

The moralistic Quakers agreed to sponsor the trip, but wouldn’t think of letting a woman go without a husband. Soon the pair was driving all over Europe in a little “White Angel Truck” supplied by the Friends Service Committee, recording the misery of postwar Europe. Dickey and Tony shared the photography and Dickey did all the writing. While she was in her glory, Tony—now in his 50s and feeling the effects of his licentious lifestyle—was miserable.

The couple continued to work together for several more years, but in 1956 the marriage was annulled. It turned out Tony had another wife he’d neglected to tell her about.

In October 1956, Chapelle was working on the Austrian-Hungarian border for the International Rescue Committee and found herself smack in the middle of the Hungarian Revolution. The IRC was suspected of having ties to the CIA, and some have always maintained—though never proven— that Dickey Chapelle was engaged in espionage when she was taken prisoner by the Hungarian secret police. She claimed she had come to deliver penicillin to Hungarians wounded in combat with the Soviets. Spy or not, Chapelle no doubt saw this as an opportunity to gain center stage. In a letter to home shortly before crossing the Hungarian border, she wrote in her dramatic style, “the ache of an uncrossed bridge, I know the Mongols ride, Joan burns at every stake.”

Chapelle spent seven weeks in solitary confinement, being constantly observed. In the face of daily interrogations, she never cracked, always insisting she was merely a relief worker. When she felt fear during the long cold nights, she did Marine rolls— clasp hands behind head and somersault forward—to keep her courage up. She’d show the Commie bastards.

When she was released through efforts of the American legation on January 31, 1957, she cried out, “Thank God I’m an American!” as the flash bulbs popped. She was billed as America’s First Cold War Hero.

During the next few years Chapelle continued to put herself in harm’s way in order to get the story. Whether with Algerian rebels fighting the French, in Lebanon with her beloved Marines, or with Fidel Castro and his Cuban revolutionaries, she emerged with her star shining ever brighter. As had many others, she’d been embarrassed by her initial opinion of Castro. When she left Havana, she declared, “I hope this revolution doesn’t eat its children.” When the revolution did just that, Chapelle could be found in Miami with anti-Castro guerrillas, even storing their nitro in her refrigerator. She had no problem being part of the story she was covering, and no problem being a patriot/journalist. Neither did her editor at Reader’s Digest.

Her growing popularity meant she was a hot item on the lecture circuit whenever stateside. She impressed her audiences in schools, universities, VFW and American Legion halls. After one lecture, she was taken to dinner by two Marines. She wrote to a friend, “I can’t imagine a nicer thing happening to an American career girl.”

Chapelle had taken parachute training in 1959, and by 1961 she was itching to do a jump while covering a story. President John F. Kennedy was her kind of guy, she said. He viewed the world as she did: right and wrong, black and white, good and evil. He was a guy who could fix things. However, her view of the Kennedy administration dimmed considerably with the Bay of Pigs fiasco.

But the Kennedy administration did one important thing for Chapelle. It enabled her to go to a part of the world where she could make plenty of parachute jumps: Southeast Asia. Her first assignment in that region was Laos, and when she stepped off the plane in Vientiane it was total culture shock. The “Land of a Million Elephants” seemed to be nothing but thick jungle and mountains, and the heat was insufferable. But President Dwight D. Eisenhower had considered Laos critical—and Kennedy agreed. The Domino Theory was in vogue and Laos was considered the first domino ready to fall. It could not be allowed to come under the control of the Communist Pathet Lao. Millions of American dollars had already been poured into the small country to bankroll the entire Royal Lao Army, although corrupt government officials had siphoned off much of that money.

The CIA had sent a secret force of American and Thai special operations personnel into Laos to create an army out of 9,000 Hmong tribesman. This was the story Chapelle wanted to cover, but getting to the action was a formidable task. The small cadre of Western journalists already there did their reporting largely from the bar at Vientiane’s Constellation Hotel. This wasn’t for Dickey Chapelle, and it wasn’t for Reader’s Digest, which was paying her to do the story. Her editor’s instructions were unequivocal: “Cover all aspects of the guerrilla war, theirs and ours.” It was the kind of assignment this renegade reporter relished.

Chapelle’s biggest frustration in Laos, and later Vietnam, was the same as always— censorship. Some of her best work never saw the light of day. She could see early on that both wars were being lost, but she felt she wasn’t allowed to tell the American people. She felt that her country was losing its greatness, and it was heartbreaking. She was an eyewitness to the fact that Americans were not just advising and training the Laotians, but fighting and dying with them. She wrote to her editor: “The little handful of flesh and blood Americans—a few hundred alive and nineteen dead, wounded, missing, captured, who I’ve daily seen risk their lives to carry out policy in Laos. They’re the tough inexorable answer to those who think Americans today seek adventure by only flipping TV channels. There are three groups, all volunteer; the veteran transport pilots, the young helicopter pilots, the U.S. paratroopers of Special Forces, who lead and teach and die beside Lao soldiers.”

A little of Chapelle died when Reader’s Digest refused to run the story, saying that she was too critical of the U.S. government’s policy. What did they want, she wondered—a journalist or a flack? Did they care more about not offending the government than the young men in harm’s way? Her question was never answered, but that was the end of her relationship with Reader’s Digest.

Her first foray into Vietnam came in June 1961, a time when things were not going well in her personal life. She’d lost a favorite aunt to cancer, and felt guilty for not being home when she died. Meanwhile, her autobiography wasn’t turning out the way she wanted; she couldn’t even get the title she’d chosen, “With My Eyes Wide Open.” The editor preferred What’s a Woman Doing Here?—a title that made Chapelle grit her teeth. She wanted a book about a photojournalist, not a woman photojournalist. Did they think she was one of those damned feminists?

The South Vietnamese army officer corps was another source of consternation. The common soldiers were dedicated to their cause but their leaders were incompetent and corrupt. Chapelle couldn’t get that printed either.

The May 21, 1961, issue of the Saturday Evening Post carried a story entitled, “The Report the President Wanted Published,” about a Chinese-born Catholic priest who was the leader of the village of Binh Hung. He went by the name of Father Hoa and had been fighting Communists for years, first as a Chinese Nationalist army officer. In 1958 he had led a band of followers out of China and into South Vietnam, where he was given an area to control against the Viet Cong.

He was known as the Fighting Priest and, unlike the regular Vietnamese army, was demonstrating great success against the communist enemy. He wore a steel helmet and pistol belt over his robes, and his followers became known as the Sea Swallows. With their meager weaponry, including Boy Scout staves and knives, they gave the VC all they could handle.

As the Sea Swallows’ fame spread, Father Hoa and his men were soon carrying AR-15 Armalite rifles and traveling in fiberglass assault boats with outboard motors. They also received air support from the U.S. whenever the VC launched a full-scale attack.

Many reporters flocked to the area, but only Dickey Chapelle stayed for any length of time. She notified her editor at National Geographic of her intention to do the story, saying that if she got no response she’d consider that a yes.

Father Hoa and his Sea Swallows were Chapelle’s kind of people: No hidden agenda, no self-serving behavior, they were about fighting Reds and nothing else. Chapelle’s adrenaline was pumping; all was not lost in Vietnam after all. These guys were fighters and to her this was home. Binh Hung was “a place of decision, irreversible, nonnegotiable, unequivocal, final.” Though she didn’t say it, Binh Hung was a black and white place, a right and wrong place, no gray areas—and that’s the way Chapelle liked it. She even felt guilty that she’d landed in a plane rather than jump.

In the weeks to follow, Chapelle would jump with the Sea Swallows any time she could. Reporter Stan Atkinson, working for a Sacramento TV station, later said: “The first time I saw her she was parachuting out of a plane into Binh Hung. She went on patrol with those guys but I don’t know how she did it. I guess if anybody could call themselves a Marine, it was Dickey.” Chapelle went on nine patrols with the Swallows, struggling through mud and waist high water, but she always kept up. Eventually, when she’d proven herself, they gave her a carbine and let her walk at the front of the patrol. The only thing denied her was night patrol because they were afraid she’d get separated from them.

It wasn’t that Chapelle was oblivious to the dangers. Booby trap mines, punji sticks, and trip wire mines were always on her mind. She dealt with her fear by concentrating on her photo equipment, making sure she was always ready to get “the shot.” As long as she did that, even with bullets whizzing around her, she felt invulnerable. After one battle the Swallows presented her with a captured VC battle flag and a Sea Swallow shoulder patch. She was the first non-Asian to receive it.

Dickey Chapelle returned to the United States in November 1961, partly due to her brother Robert’s request that it was time for her to return home and start to “make some money.” Chapelle had spent seven months in Vietnam. She believed that more than any other reporter, she understood the situation there and proclaimed it loudly. She hit the lecture circuit long and hard, asserting, “South Vietnam is as much my real estate as my home in Minnesota.”

Some derided her opinions, but she never backed down. “She was pretty much a Commie hater,” said one editor. “I told her her ideas were too simplistic.” She always had an answer for her critics. She had been there and they had not.

Not everyone was a critic. General Wallace Greene Jr. thanked her for her report and called her “a good Marine.”

In April 1962 the Overseas Press Club presented her with its most prestigious honor, the George Polk Award, for her reporting on Vietnam as well as her autobiography. Later that year, Chapelle returned to Vietnam to do a story on the helicopter pilots. She found that her Sea Swallows had been having a hard time—as much due to the jealousy of South Vietnamese army officers as to the Viet Cong. Indeed, the whole Vietnam effort was faring badly, in spite of the fact thousands more Americans were involved. Chapelle reported her story from one of 16 Marine helicopters ferrying South Vietnamese troops into battle. She flew five missions in all, and her story, “Helicopter War in Vietnam,” was published in National Geographic that November.

Upon returning from one mission she learned that Binh Hung had been attacked and 30 Sea Swallows had been killed. It was the beginning of the end for Father Hoa and his noble band. On the afternoon of the funeral for the men in the unit, Chapelle was approached by a group of Marines who told her their fathers had been with her on Iwo. She was shocked. Had it been that long?

At the time of the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution in 1964, Chapelle was again stateside on the lecture circuit trying to convince her audiences that this was the right war at the right time. She lambasted the government for its censorship of her criticisms of the South Vietnamese government and officer corps (she considered the average South Vietnamese soldier very competent). Although vindicated by later events, her written views on the subject never saw the light of day. But she was ready to take on anyone who disagreed with her. After all, she had “eyeballed” the situation. Had her critics?

In August 1964, Chapelle had another assignment: fly over the Ho Chi Minh Trail. She was recovering from surgery on her kneecaps, and her family in Milwaukee tried to persuade her not to go. But she couldn’t do that. It was during this trip she met the man who became her hero, Navy Lieutenant Harold Dale Meyerkord. He and his mission became the subject of her last big story, “Water War in Vietnam,” published by National Geographic in 1964.

Meyerkord had forecast his own death. It would be on patrol in the Mekong Delta. When it happened three months later, Chapelle wrote of the “audacious, ebullient Lieutenant Meyerkord, a husband, father, leader and teacher of men, dead of a bullet in the brain on the bank of a muddy canal.” Whenever she was asked about Meyerkord, she would say, “He was a man.”

Chapelle went home to Milwaukee in January 1965, something she hadn’t always done when returning to the States. When she hit the lecture circuit this time, she found antiwar protesters. She blasted the protesters, saying that Hanoi would love what they were doing.

She yearned to return to Vietnam, but due to her outspokenness she met resistance. She called on her Marines. While standing in the office of General Greene, she could sense that something was wrong. “What is it, sir?” she asked. “You’re not wearing a Marine insignia,” the general replied. He removed his insignia and pinned it to her Australian bush hat. She was stunned. “You’re giving this to me sir?” Greene replied, “I don’t think anybody will mind.”

On Chapelle’s return to Vietnam in the fall of 1965, those who knew her sensed something different. Always a heavy smoker, she’d acquired a bad smoker’s cough and looked haggard. They asked each other: Is she getting too old for this?

On November 4, Dickey Chapelle was walking behind a Marine sergeant on the Red Snapper search-and-destroy operation with her tape recorder and camera equipment.

Suddenly, there was an explosion. A patrol member had hit the trip wire of a booby trap. The only person mortally wounded was Chapelle. She was cremated and taken home to Milwaukee. In an unusual tribute for a civilian, a Marine honor guard attended her funeral. Among the flowers on her grave was a bunch of roses in the name of the Hungarian Freedom Fighters and one red rose with a card signed simply: “Tony.”

On the first anniversary of her death, November 4, 1966, General Lewis Walt went to the village of Chu Lai, South Vietnam, to dedicate the Dickey Chapelle Memorial Dispensary. On a marble plaque was this inscription: “To the Memory of Dickey Chapelle, War Correspondent, killed in action near here on November 4, 1965. She was one of us and we will miss her.” As General Walt stood there, he remembered Dickey Chapelle’s words: “When I die, I want it to be on patrol with the United States Marines.”

She got her wish.

 

Don Haines is a freelance writer whose work has appeared in World War II magazine and other publications. For additional reading, see Fire in the Wind, by Roberta Ostroff, and Dickey Chapelle’s own book, What’s a Woman Doing Here?

Originally published in the August 2007 issue of Vietnam Magazine. To subscribe, click here.  

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