Friday, June 9, 2017

Dickey Chapelle



"I want to go as far forward as you will let me."

As it turned out, that was pretty far; as far an anyone could have gone, given the circumstances.

I've been amused of late of Hollywood's surprising lack of creativity when it comes to movie ideas.  I know that there are some really inventive, clever, and literate screenplays lying around producers' offices on the West Coast, but if they leave the desks, I suspect it's for the trash bin.  Creativity and originality require courage, and it is much, much easier to dust off an old idea and pretend, through some prosaic casting, that it's cutting edge and transgressive.  Thus, we wind up with a re-make of Ghostbusters, but with an all-female cast, or Ocean's 11, a re-make of a re-make of a re-make, with an all-female cast, etc.

This is a pity, because there are some true, compelling stories about women that remain largely un-told and, as is surprising in a feminized culture, largely unknown.  One such story is that of Dickey Chapelle's, a photographer who decided, through happenstance and determination, to become a war correspondent.  Ironically, Gender Studies majors in contemporary colleges have not heard of her, but any Marine who has made it through basic knows her story, as she has become part of Corps legend.

She was born one year after the end of World War I as Georgette Louise Meyer, the name that adorns just her birth certificate and her gravestone, as she preferred to be called "Dickey" for reasons she never explained.  After showing herself both intelligent and independent, especially after studying aeronautical engineering at MIT when she was just sixteen, the Milwaukee native was determined to be a professional pilot and aircraft designer.  However, a flirtation with a flyer alarmed her mother, so Dickey was sent to Florida to "live with relatives" for..oh, about nine months or so.  It was around that time that she started experimenting with a camera and discovered a whole new manner in which to be creative.

She moved to New York City to work as a photographer for Trans World Airlines, met Tony Chapelle [of whom history notes little], to whom she was married for fifteen years, and perfected her art.  At the outbreak of the U.S. involvement in World War II, and despite the fact that her photographic portfolio was rather ordinary, Chapelle was hired by National Geographic to be a war correspondent/photographer, mostly with the Marines in Iwo Jima and Okinawa, where she managed to sneak off of a Navy hospital ship with a collection of medics and film the bloodiest fighting of the battle.  While not the only women journalist in the Pacific Theater, she became the most memorable for her desire always to be in the midst of the action.

It was during this period that she composed a wardrobe that would become familiar in war zones and other places of geo-political upheaval:  An Australian slouch [or bush] hat, either olive drab [standard mid-century military green] or leopard print camouflage fatigues, harlequin-style glasses, pearl earrings, and, of course, a variety of cameras. 


After the war, her professional credentials firmly set, Chapelle traveled the world on a variety of assignments.  She met with Fidel Castro in Cuba during the early revolution, traveling with him and his company as they evaded Batista's forces, was captured and held prisoner by the Russians for several weeks during the Hungarian Revolution of 1956 and, in the early days of America's involvement in Vietnam, in order to better cover this new style of warfare, trained with the paratroopers and added the "jump wings" insignia of both the U.S. and South Vietnamese armies to her hat.

It was in Vietnam that Chapelle, often of a conflicted political ideology, discovered the totalitarian brutality that exists behind the facade of Communism's mandated equality.  Thus, she came to appreciate the work of the early American advisors [mostly Special Forces members] and the Franco-Vietnamese resistance led by the Roman Catholic priest, Fr. Nguyễn Lạc Hoa.  Many of the U.S. media's earliest stories of the Vietnam conflict were illustrated by Chapelle's photos, making her the sentinel of what would be a decade's worth of historic memory. 

Ever one to be in the midst of it all, in 1965, while accompanying a Marine platoon on a reconnaissance mission, a booby trap set off by one of the Marines in front of Chapelle sent a piece of shrapnel through her neck, severing her carotid.  Henri Huet, a French news photographer who was Chapelle's protege in the field, remembered the deliberation with which she approached battlefield events and, with great difficulty, steadied his shaking hands and took a photograph of Chapelle's final moments as she was receiving "last rites" from the Navy chaplain assigned to the company.  She would become the first woman combat reporter to die in action.


Chapelle's remains were returned to the United States, accompanied by a six-member honor guard, and she was given a full Marine Corps burial worthy of the highest ranking general.  As mentioned above, her commitment to her job and her willingness to serve in the midst of the blood earned her a place of reverence in one of the world's most traditional martial organizations.  Her story, and her courage, are still taught to the poolies and butter bars* who wish to display even a portion of that battlefield moxie.

Dickey Chapelle is referenced in a large number of histories and memoirs about Vietnam.  The U.S. Naval Institute's press issued a biography of her, entitled Fire in the Wind, in 2001.  It remains the definitive biography and, while out-of-print, can easily be located in used editions.  Stray copies of her autobiography, What's A Woman Doing Here?, which is also out-of-print, may be found, too.  However, a bound edition of her war photographs, Dickey Chapelle Under Fire, is still available and worth a study.

While she remains virtually unknown in universities and Hollywood, each year the Marine Corps League presents to one woman the Dickey Chapelle Award, which was established "to extend recognition to a woman who has contributed substantially to the morale, welfare and well-being of the officers and men and women of the United States Marine Corps." Within a rather close community of warriors and their families, Chapelle is regarded as something beyond a gender pioneer, photographic artist, or battlefield character.  To quote a bellowing drill instructor whose voice echoes in my memory, "You will revere her name.  She was one of us."


*"Poolies" are those receiving basic training who have not yet ascended to the title of  Marine. "Butter bars" are newly commissioned officers, so named as the insignia for a second lieutenant is a single gold bar.