Hidden History

The Parachuting Female Photojournalist Who Dove Into War Headfirst

Dickey Chapelle jumped out of planes, marched through the jungle and survived enemy prison—redefining what it meant to be a woman on the front lines.

The Parachuting Female Photojournalist Who Dove Into War Headfirst

Dickey Chapelle took the pliers from her guard’s hand, applied the tongs to her own index fingernail, and twisted until it stung.

“You do it like that, huh?” she goaded him.

She had seen enough mangled hands of refugees fleeing Hungary’s brutal Communist regime to know how they did it. But back then she had been a reporter interviewing those lucky enough to escape capture in Vienna. Now she was a prisoner in Budapest’s infamous Fö Street Prison.

How she got there is a complicated story.

Born in 1919 as Georgette Louise Meyer, Dickey Chapelle had two great loves as a child: America and airplanes. Both came together in her hero from whom she derived her nickname: Admiral Richard E. Byrd, the first person to fly over the South Pole. On the day he accomplished this feat in 1929, Dickey paraded around her grammar school flagpole — much to the bemusement of her classmates and the consternation of her mother, writes biographer Roberta Ostroff in Fire in the Wind: The Life of Dickey Chapelle.

In her own autobiography, What’s a Woman Doing Here?, Dickey remembered her mother erupting, “No daughter of mine will ever set foot in an airplane!” when she mentioned her dreams of flying.

Dickey promised she wouldn’t, and for the time being, she settled on the next best thing, a career in aeronautical engineering. She graduated high school as valedictorian at 16 with a full scholarship to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), one of only three women admitted to the engineering program. But books were no substitute for the genuine article. Dickey regularly ditched class to hang out at airfields, where she learned the pilots and their planes by name. She also began to cultivate the beginnings of a journalistic career.

When she heard that a cataclysmic flood had cut off all road access to Worcester, Massachusetts, with only planes able to deliver much-needed supplies, Dickey rushed to the airstrip once more. She wanted to see for herself how these “silver winged angels of mercy,” as she called them, could be the difference between life and death for so many.

Young Dickey Chapelle getting into a small airplane.

“Captain Wincapaw!” she shouted over the engine to the pilot of a transport plane. “I’m an MIT student trying to sell a story to Boston Traveler. Have you room for me?” 

“If you can find room aboard once the bread is loaded,” he replied. Dickey wedged herself between the crates. As the plane taxied toward the runway, her mother’s voice echoed in her thoughts. Then, as she wrote in her biography, “Green rolling earth, white concrete highways, gray sky and a black raincloud for a horizon back Boston-way.” She was airborne for the first time.

Circling toward the flooded landscape of Worcester, Dickey had no idea how the plane was going to land to deliver its supplies. The co-pilot motioned for her to trade places with him, and she saw the answer: It wasn’t going to touch down. The co-pilot pushed the crates out of the aircraft, and she watched them spiral end over end, a classic airdrop delivery.

She sold her story to the Boston Traveler, and from that moment, it appeared her fate was sealed. She would be a journalist, and a daredevil, too.

But no story is so simple, nor any life that linear. Especially Dickey’s, whose career was characterized by false starts and sudden dead ends. Soon after getting her scoop, Dickey flunked out of MIT, on account of too many days at the airfield. From there her path seemed more like that of an itinerant teenager than a whiz kid from an affluent suburb. But Dickey never did follow the straight and narrow.

She got a job as the secretary of a flying circus, where stunt pilots defied death doing barrel rolls, and wing walkers performed acrobatics 1,000 feet in the air. While off duty, they took her up in their planes, spinning, looping and sweeping the sky, where Dickey felt most alive. Disapproving of her life choices, her parents sent her to live with her grandparents in Florida. But Dickey found the action there as well, working as the publicity agent for a local air show. Soon after, she landed an assistant role at an airline headquartered in New York City, the heart of it all.

When Dickey arrived in New York in 1939, Germany had just invaded Poland. Talk of war was everywhere, though no one could yet guess the scale. Looking to be more than just an assistant, in what were sure to be heady times, Dickey started taking photojournalism lessons from Anthony Chapelle, a veteran Navy photographer with a deep, sonorous voice and a notorious reputation for womanizing.

He took to Dickey immediately.

More than twice her age, Tony viewed this daydreaming tomboy as the Galatea to his Pygmalion, just waiting to be molded into the woman of his dreams. Unmoored, young and desirous of a career in a male-dominated field, Dickey was like putty in his hands. As she wrote in her autobiography, “I was awe-struck by Tony.”

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He put her on a diet and into curve-hugging clothes, framed her in his photographs as the girl he’d always wanted, writes Ostroff. When they got married in her hometown soon after meeting, even her own family hardly recognized the new Dickey Chapelle.

He also taught her everything he knew about photography. Dickey lapped it up.

And it was through Tony’s connections that Dickey got her first major magazine assignment, in World War II’s Pacific theater. Dickey crossed the ocean on a hospital ship, the USS Samaritan, where she learned to sleep with a loaded camera on the floor beside her boots. She also learned to focus her camera on a moving target, when Japanese fighters came in on strafing runs.

Photographing the wounded Marines evacuated from Okinawa and Iwo Jima, Dickey got her first glimpse of war. But it wasn’t enough. She needed to show the world the front lines.

One problem: Women weren’t allowed in combat zones. But such details didn’t stop Dickey, who talked her way onto a boat headed to Okinawa, then into a jeep on its way to the front lines, where she documented some of the war’s last battles.

She focused her lens not on war’s victories, but on the hard moments that led to them. Her film is full of Marines fording rivers with rifles held over their heads, pushing artillery through the mud, and sprawled on stretchers on their way to field hospitals where surgeons operated by fading flashlights.

Touched by their patriotism, moved by their bravery, and brought to tears by their sacrifice, she formed what would be a lifelong admiration of the Marines. In turn, the Marines took to this brassy reporter who never asked concessions for her sex; she only requested that she be allowed to go as “far forward as you’ll let me.”

By the time Dickey left, Ostroff writes, the Marines had taken to calling her “our girl,” a compliment she would never forget.

Civilian life was not as accepting. Her assignment editors, Ostroff writes, thought that many of her grisly depictions of battle were “too dirty” to print. Others didn’t even think she had taken them, since they believed no woman was capable of getting photos of firefights.

Meanwhile, Tony couldn’t stand even her small successes, and he began to unleash what Dickey called his “Homeric rage.” It also emerged that his first marriage had never been fully dissolved and that he had not been at all faithful while she was risking her life in the service of a free press and a free world. 

Despite all of this, Dickey didn’t leave him. Though far from the typical housewife, she couldn’t escape her era altogether either. She blamed herself for his behavior, writing to her mother, in personal papers cited by Ostroff, that “he might not have stayed that kind of guy if I hadn’t been so tolerant and so kind and so forth.”

Worst of all, perhaps, she couldn’t get another overseas assignment. While female correspondents were at least tolerated in wartime, when the men returned, women were again relegated to the home. Pitch after pitch got rejected. Down to her last dime, Dickey took a job as Seventeen magazine’s photo editor.

But after her time reporting on the front lines, she found the superficial glitz and glam of a fashion magazine suffocating. Even though it meant a significant pay cut, she jumped at the chance for more meaningful work as soon as it came around.

In the aftermath of the war, charity and government agencies worked double time to rebuild the world, with the often-complementary goals of alleviating suffering and curtailing Soviet expansion. As a humanitarian and a patriot, both causes appealed to Dickey. So when first the Society of Friends and then the U.S. State Department asked Dickey to document the countries decimated by the war, she wholeheartedly agreed.

One catch: Tony.

Whether out of love or the need to control her, the result was the same. Tony tagged along. Nearing 50, ever more vile, and in worsening health, he was hardly the ideal traveling companion. For four years, the increasingly estranged coupled traveled across Europe, the Middle East and India in a refitted ambulance that Dickey called “the Angel.” She soaked it all in while taking some of her best photographs, writing her most elegant prose, and developing a singular hatred for Communism.

Chapelle sits and drinks coffee with the FLN Scorpion Battalion Rebels in the Atlas Mountains in Algeria, 1957.

In the bombed-out capitals of Eastern Europe behind the Iron Curtain, she observed, Communism only exacerbated people’s suffering. In the Middle East and India, it seemed that only U.S. intervention kept the looming threat of a Communist takeover at bay. But unlike the vast majority of her contemporaries, Dickey’s anti-Communist views were tempered by a radical sense of justice and equality.

While most laid the fault of poverty at the feet of the poor and oppression at the feet of the oppressed, Dickey understood otherwise. As she wrote for a piece in the Evening Post, “We ask, ‘Why don’t they revolt? Are they afraid?’ of the oppressed; or ‘Why don’t they grow more food? They must be ignorant’ of the hungry. But this kind of thinking is based on false perspective; we need to look for a new one.”

She wrote an article for National Geographic on a foreign aid program working to teach more effective farming methods to the Muria Gond, indigenous peoples of the Bhirlinga, India, region. But, rather than credit the American scientists, she attributed the program’s success to the Muria Gond’s long-held traditions of sharing material goods and knowledge, writing “we heard, simply and directly from the people of Bhirlinga, a fine definition of the US technical assistance program.”

In another article for National Geographic, Dickey followed a team of U.S. and Iraqi scientists battling swarms of locusts that threatened the region’s food security. Again, she prioritized the accomplishments of those who did the work day after day and whose lives depended on their success. She highlighted the Iraqis’ doctorates from American universities and wrote that one Iraqi researcher “shortly became something of a hero to his American colleagues” because of his unwavering dedication to his task.

Unfortunately, her voice was virtually alone. A shifting political landscape back home meant fewer outlets were interested in stories about the Cold War’s softer side and that State Department security clearances were harder to come by. With few prospects left for them in “the Angel,” Dickey and Tony headed home in 1953.

Though Tony hadn’t done much on their trip other than complain about his ailing health, back in New York he found the strength to resume his near Olympic philandering. As a friend of the couple recalled to Ostroff, “Dickey would go to work at eight-thirty in the morning and Tony would have somebody in bed with him by nine o’clock.”

After walking in on one of his trysts, Dickey finally packed her things. Though for the remainder of his life Tony tried to win her back by alternately promising eternal love and reminding her that she was a failure without him, Dickey never looked back.

With her career at an impasse and her marriage destroyed, Dickey desperately tried to find her footing. The only place that came to mind was the only place she’d ever truly been accepted: with the Marines.

In 1955, she pitched a story about their training regimen to every publication she could think of, to no avail. Regardless, her reputation as a tough-as-nails broad preceded her. Even without an outlet, the Marines welcomed her to Camp Pendleton in San Diego, certain she’d find a publisher for her story soon enough.

For the next month, Dickey kept up with the best-trained fighting force in the world, photographing their field maneuvers and staged war games. Impressed by her grit and appreciative of her admiration, the Marines adopted her as one of their own once more, even putting her up in the women’s barracks when she could no longer afford her motel room. Dickey started regaining her confidence.

But she couldn’t stay forever, and she never did manage to sell the story. In New York, bills waited that she couldn’t pay, along with Tony, who, more jealous than ever, started showing up at her building to scream at her from the stairwell. Dickey hired a lawyer to file a restraining order and veered toward a nervous breakdown.

Broke and without any freelancing prospects on the horizon, Dickey accepted a job as public relations director for the Research Institute of America, an anti-Communist nonprofit with close ties to the U.S. intelligence community. Well paid, secure and meaningful, it seemed like the perfect desk job for Dickey who, at 36, was certainly old enough to settle down and quit chasing adventure halfway around the world.

She didn’t last six months before the road called again.

In November of 1957, when the Soviet-installed Hungarian government violently crushed a democratic uprising, Dickey convinced her boss to let her document the waves of refugees fleeing across the Austrian border.

Night after night, she photographed scores of refugees skirting Soviet patrols on their way toward the Austrian border, where farmers lit bonfires to serve as beacons of freedom. But not all were out of danger even once in Austria. Many of the children were diagnosed with life-threatening pneumonia that could have been prevented with a dose of penicillin before they started their journey.

Dickey Chapelle at a Milwaukee beach covering “Operation Inland Seas,” celebrating the opening of the St. Lawrence Seaway, 1959.

Documenting was no longer enough. Dickey felt she had to do something more. On the night of December 5, 1956, with her camera, two guides and a backpack full of penicillin, Dickey crossed into Hungary. Ten miles beyond the border, she was arrested at gunpoint and taken to Fö Street Prison.

Few took notice of Dickey’s disappearance. Her colleagues more or less said that she had been asking for it. According to Ostroff, a few of her male colleagues commented, that “she knew it was a risk” and “If she just went for the sake of thrills, I hope she got them.” The U.S. Embassy made no initial inquiries. It wasn’t until nine days after she’d vanished that a newspaper ran a story on her disappearance.

Meanwhile, Dickey paced the floor of her cell and marked her days in solitary confinement by scratching hashes in the wall with her fingernail. Denied any kind of comfort, since being arrested she’d lost 20 pounds and been threatened with rape, torture and hanging. She had no reason to believe she would ever escape the Iron Curtain.

At home, friends pressured the State Department to lean on the Hungarian government until finally the grindstone budged, just a little. On January 14, 1957, her guards handcuffed her in the back of a windowless truck, transferred her to a different prison, and threw her in a cell with eight other women. Dickey spent the night “weeping soundlessly with joy to be with other human beings,” as she wrote in her autobiography.

Twenty days later, she stood before a judge, fearing the worst. Miraculously, her sentence came down as 50 days in prison, already served. Back in the United States, her undying patriotism erupted in front of the throng of journalists reporting on her release. “Thank God I’m an American!” was the only thing she could think to say.

She had been committed to her cause before, but now Dickey had a score to settle. Injustice anywhere wasn’t safe from her camera or her pen.

In 1957, the same year as her release, she marched through the deserts of Algeria with the National Liberation Front (FLN), fighting for independence from France. Nearly every other report on the conflict dismissed the FLN as either foolish ideologues or dangerous extremists. One article in The New York Times Magazine even wondered “whether African countries are equal to the responsibilities of independence.” On the other hand, as Sheila Webb notes in a scholarly article about Dickey’s reporting of the Algerian fight for independence, Dickey described the FLN as “nearly Jeffersonian in their dreams of free government” while unflinchingly photographing the atrocities the French committed against Algerian civilians and even children.

In Cuba, she marched through the Sierra Maestra with Fidel Castro, took cover from B-26s, and raced to escape a mortar attack in a jeep without brakes. After Castro took Havana, Dickey wrote that he “personified the victory of audacity and virtue over terror and graft.” When the Castro regime turned oppressive, she embedded herself with anti-Communists in Miami as they prepared to go on night raids in Havana, even helping to shine their bullets.

She went on night patrols with Turkish forces along the Russian border and accompanied the Marines into Lebanon, where they prevented a Communist coup without firing a shot. When the Marines were deployed to Southeast Asia, Dickey learned to paratroop so that she could follow them once more.

Then, Vietnam. In 1961, Dickey followed the South Vietnamese army on six paratrooping missions, walked nearly 200 miles through the jungle, took cover from enemy fire in foxholes, and spent 17 days in the field, all with her camera gear.

She returned in 1962 to write “Helicopter War in South Viet Nam” for National Geographic. As ever, Dickey focused on the everyday sacrifices of war, photographing South Vietnamese troops poised to jump out of a helicopter and a wife grieving the loss of her husband.

South Vietnamese soldiers pause during a speed march through a rice field, 1961.

While on maneuvers with South Vietnamese Corporal Nguyen, she noted that the men ran “forward, evenly spaced, from far right and left, letter-perfect by U.S. Infantry standards.” Running after them, “I had no choice but to become a member of Corporal Nguyen’s unit,” she wrote.

Race, religion, location didn’t matter. She was in. She was with them. All the way.

National Geographic ran her story on the cover.

Even with her success, editors often rejected Dickey’s work for being too “romantic” or “emotional,” as Ostroff writes. By the late 1960s, this style of reporting, dubbed New Journalism by her male colleagues, gained popular credibility. Ahead of a time that discriminated against her, Dickey didn’t get credit for her innovative style.

And, when she got to Vietnam again in 1965, she was 47 years old. Years of marching hard and sleeping rough had taken its toll. Keeping up wasn’t as easy as it used to be.

Despite all this, she was where she wanted to be, on patrol with the Marines.

On November 4, 1965, Dickey followed the Marines out on Operation Black Ferret, a search and clear mission in the mountainous jungles 20 miles north of Da Nang, a heavily contested area in central Vietnam. The Marine in front of her tripped a fishing wire attached to a hand grenade beneath an 81-millimeter mortar round. The blast lifted her 21 feet in the air. Ostroff writes that while the platoon’s chaplain administered her last rites, someone heard her say, “I guess it was bound to happen.”

A Marine guard performed at her funeral. The U.S. Army’s 82nd Airborne division staged a mass paratroop jump in her honor. In the South Vietnamese village of Chu Lai, the Marines dedicated a marble plaque to her, which read:

To the Memory of Dickey Chapelle, War Correspondent, killed in action near here on 4 November 1965. She was one of us, and we will miss her.

But perhaps most honoring of her memory was Brigadier General S.L.A. Marshall’s obituary for her in the Los Angeles Times, “Death, Too, Slighted Dickey Chapelle,” in which he wrote, “No male war correspondent in our time has a comparable record. Most of the time, the men got the glory and the bylines, while she was doing it the hard way.”

At least in this, the truth came out, which is all Dickey ever really wanted.