Dickey Chappelle set stage for female war correspondents during WWII and Vietnam

She and Hilda Clayton posthumously recognized

I first heard the name Dickey Chapelle in 2004. Jennifer Aniston was going to play her in a movie, with Aniston’s husband, Brad Pitt, producing.

Reporting on the proposed film, Daily Variety noted that the screenwriter, Margaret Nagle, “will base her script on public-domain documents and photographs Chapelle donated to the Wisconsin Historical Society.”

Chapelle was a Wisconsin native and combat photographer of uncommon brilliance and bravery. She died when hit by shrapnel from a tripwire booby trap in Vietnam in 1965, becoming the first female American war correspondent killed in action. Some 20,000 of Chapelle’s photographs are archived at the historical society in Madison.

The Jennifer Aniston movie was never made, but—better late than never—in the past couple of years both a documentary on Chapelle’s life and a book of her photos have appeared.

It was hard not to think of Dickey Chapelle earlier this month when the extraordinary story of Hilda Clayton’s last photograph surfaced. The New York Times reported on it on May 5.

Clayton was a combat photographer serving in Afghanistan. She was killed during a training exercise in 2013. Her last photograph appears in the May/June issue of the U.S. army’s Military Review magazine.

The Times story noted of the photo: “It shows the moment that a mortar tube accidentally exploded, spraying debris and shrapnel. Somewhere behind that lens was Specialist Clayton, capturing the end of her life.”

The army magazine was planning an issue devoted to gender roles in the military when someone who had served with Clayton mentioned the photo. The last images in Clayton’s camera survived her, and her family agreed to the magazine’s request to publish Clayton’s final shot. That photograph and Clayton’s story have since gone around the world.

More than half a century earlier, Milwaukee-born Dickey Chapelle was in Vietnam, taking photos that also went worldwide. Her 1962 photo spread in National Geographic titled “Helicopters Over South Vietnam” opened people’s eyes—many for the first time—to the fact there was a war going on in Southeast Asia.

The woman the world knew as Dickey Chapelle was born Georgette Meyer. She grew up in the Milwaukee suburb of Shorewood. The gifted singer-songwriter Nanci Griffith visited the Chapelle archive in Madison and wrote a song called “Pearl’s Eye View (The Life of Dickey Chapelle),” that includes this line: “She was born Georgette but the name didn’t suit her well/So she blew out of Wisconsin as Dickey Chapelle.”

Why the name change? She married a photographer named Tony Chapelle, who taught her the craft. After their divorce, Georgette became Dickey—some say the name was borrowed from a grandmother, others suggest it came from her admiration for Admiral Richard Byrd.

Chapelle’s first combat photography came out of the Pacific Theater during World War II . “She earned the respect and trust of the Marines who fought in two of the bloodiest battles,” author John Garofolo said in an interview for the historical society’s website.

She was the first female correspondent allowed to parachute with American troops in Vietnam. And yet by then, Garofolo noted, “She was fighting age and injuries and had been reporting on wars for more than 20 years and still competing with men.”

Garofolo’s book, “Dickey Chapelle Under Fire,” was published by the Wisconsin Historical Society Press in 2015. 

That same year, Milwaukee Public Television produced a documentary, “Behind the Pearl Earrings: The Story of Dickey Chapelle."

The 2015 book and film appeared 50 years after Dickey Chapelle was killed by shrapnel while out on patrol with a Marine platoon in Vietnam. Chapelle was buried a week later—Nov. 12, 1965—in Milwaukee’s Forest Home Cemetery. She was 47.

Doug Moe is a Madison writer. Read his monthly column, Person of Interest, in Madison Magazine.

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