Remembering ‘fearless’ war photographer Dickey Chapelle

Dickey Chapelle in 1958. Photo by Marine Master Sgt. Lew Lowery from Wisconsin Historical Images ID 1942.

Terry Koper stood off to the side, a few feet from the grave, scribbling in his notebook as the wind swirled the leaves at his feet in gigantic gusts. 

Maybe because it was November in Wisconsin. Or maybe because the heavens knew, as some mourners suggested. But the wind was the same, and the sky was the same, and there was a storm in the distance—just like Nov. 12, 1965. That was the day photojournalist Dickey Chapelle came home from war to be buried in a family plot at Forest Home cemetery in Milwaukee. She was killed Nov. 4, 1965, while on a patrol with a US Marine platoon, the first American woman correspondent to die in combat.

On the day Chapelle died, Koper was with a Marine artillery battalion in Vietnam less than a mile away. Though he didn’t know her personally, Koper was a Marine before he became a journalist—he spent 15 years as outdoor editor at the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel—so he knows how a Marine thinks, Koper told me, and Chappelle “was one of us.”

“She was fearless,” Koper said. “That was in the days that correspondents would do what they wanted to do. If you could make it to the convoy, you got on. If you had a camera or a notebook you’d go. That’s what she did.”

Dickey Chapelle Memorial

  • The memorial marker for Dickey Chapelle, the first American female correspondent killed in combat, at Forest Home Cemetery in Milwaukee. Chapelle, a photojournalist, died Nov. 4, 1965, in Vietnam while on patrol with the US Marines. The Milwaukee Press Club held a memorial service in her honor on Nov. 12, the 50th anniversary of her funeral. Photo by Jackie Spinner.

  • Family members of Dickey Chapelle displayed some of her personal belongings at the memorial service in Milwaukee. Photo by Jackie Spinner.

  • A Marine Guard files past the family of Dickey Chapelle during a memorial service for the fallen war correspondent. Photo by Jackie Spinner.

  • Robert Meyer Jr., a nephew of Dickey Chapelle, holds a single red rose at her graveside memorial service. Photo by Jackie Spinner.

  • Gary Porter and Terry Koper, retired staffers from the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, at the memorial service for Dickey Chapelle. Photo by Jackie Spinner.

  • Dickey Chapelle in 1958. Photo by Marine Master Sgt. Lew Lowery from Wisconsin Historical Images ID 1942.

Chapelle was buried with full military honors, an unusual tribute for a civilian journalist. Last week, 50 years later to the day, veterans, journalists and family members gathered to salute her once more at a memorial service sponsored by the Milwaukee Press Club.

“She’s got a lot of bona fides that we didn’t want to slide away,” said Martin Hintz, a member of the Milwaukee Press Club Endowment governing board, who attended the memorial.

Eight days earlier, on the anniversary of her death, Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker declared it to be “Wisconsin Combat Journalists Day,” a tribute to Chapelle and to more recent journalists connected to Wisconsin who were killed covering war, including James Foley, a graduate of Marquette University, and Luke Somers, a graduate of Beloit College. Foley was executed by the Islamic State in 2014 in Syria, and Somers was killed by Al Qaeda militants last year in Yemen.

In 1965, Chapelle’s death was national news. National Geographic and the National Observer sent reporters to cover her funeral. Chapelle had been reporting for the Observer at the time of her death. A Marine at the front of the patrol she was on tripped a mortal shell rigged to a grenade; Chapelle was struck in the neck by shrapnel and later died. Photographer Henri Huet of The Associated Press, who also died in Vietnam, captured the image of a Navy chaplain delivering last rites to Chapelle.

Chapelle spent two decades covering conflict at a time when most editors did not send women to war. She reported from Japan, India, Jordan, Iran, Iraq, Cuba, Algeria, the Dominican Republic, Lebanon, Korea, Laos, and Vietnam. Chapelle was imprisoned for two months in 1956 in Hungary, captured by Russia as a spy. She avoided probable execution by stuffing her tiny camera into a glove and tossing it out the window on her way to interrogation.

And yet her trailblazing career has faded into a footnote if she’s remembered at all.

Although the Marine Corps League continues to honor her with the presentation of an annual award, there has been scant attention paid outside of her home state to the 50th anniversary of her death. Gary Porter, a retired Journal Sentinel photographer and 2011 Pulitzer Prize winner, documented her memorial last week as a favor to the press club. I asked him if Chapelle was a big figure in Milwaukee journalism, at least among the local press photographers. He shook his head.

“I don’t think a lot of people knew about her unless they lived here at the time,” he said.

That was in the days that correspondents would do what they wanted to do. If you could make it to the convoy, you got on. If you had a camera or a notebook you’d go. That’s what she did.

Now, her home state is trying to pull her out of the archives.

The Milwaukee Press Club, the oldest continuously operating press club in the nation, inducted her into its Hall of Fame last year and helped to fund a documentary that aired this month on Milwaukee Public Television. The Wisconsin Historical Society also published a photo book this month that features 153 photographs from Chapelle. The title of the book, Dickey Chapelle Under Fire, comes from a dateline she wrote from the battlefield of Iwo Jima. (As a former war correspondent for The Washington Post, I was asked to write the foreword to the book, connecting Chapelle to my generation of women who have covered conflict.)

“We need to make a big deal out of people like her,” said Maryann Lazarski, who produced the public TV documentary. “She’s definitely part of journalism history.”

The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel has had some of the most extensive recent coverage of Chapelle. The paper featured Chapelle when she was inducted into the Press Club Hall of Fame last year and again last week on the anniversary of her death and funeral.

Meg Jones, who reports on veteran issues for the Journal Sentinel, is the closest the paper has to a modern-day Chapelle, a woman journalist who voluntarily follows soldiers into battle. Since 2003, Jones has gone to war eight times, four trips each to Iraq and Afghanistan to cover Wisconsin troops. The Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting paid for her last trip in June of 2014.

As a reporter who has embedded with US troops, Jones understands Chapelle’s story in a way that others might not. She knows what it means that the Marines considered Chapelle one of their own, because journalists can be distraction, particularly in the middle of a battle when troops are trying to stay focused on their own mission. “The Marines do not suffer fools gladly,” Jones said. “They know who’s humping their own gear, who doesn’t have an agenda.”

Jones, who researched Chapelle’s life for her story in the Journal Sentinel and also for an upcoming book on World War II and Wisconsin natives, said Chapelle didn’t cover war for recognition. “She wasn’t doing this for greater glory,” Jones said. “She felt fervently people needed to know what was going on.”

That’s something Jones can relate to.

“For me whenever I was embedded, whenever I was writing my stories, I’d be okay if my name wasn’t on this,” she said. “I would hope people didn’t notice the byline. Maybe she felt that same way as well.”

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Jackie Spinner is CJR’s correspondent for Illinois and Indiana. She is an assistant journalism professor at Columbia College Chicago and a former staff writer for The Washington Post. Follow her on Twitter @jackiespinner.