One Helluva Woman
War Correspondent Dickey Chapelle with U.S. Marines
Georgette Louise Meyer was born to German-American parents
in Milwaukee Wisconsin in 1919. Her family was not wealthy, but
solidly middle class, and suffered very little economic hardship
during the Great Depression.
"Georgie Lou" was, in the parlance of the day, a "tomboy",
mainly due to the influence of her father who instilled in her a
love of adventure and the belief that a woman could do anything a
man could do. Most of Georgie Lou's heroes were men, especially
Admiral Richard Byrd, so much a hero in fact that during her teen
years she took to calling herself Dick, which soon became Dickie.
To say that Dickie Meyer went against the grain would be an
understatement. One young man who finally got up the nerve to ask
this aggressive female out, reported his experience. "When I went
to pick her up, I presented her a corsage. She took the flowers
but then walked over to my car and said, 'how fast does this baby
go.'" The boy went on to say that "the date went well but it felt
a little strange because I'd never dated a girl with a crew cut
Dickie was a fine student who often argued with her teachers
and was usually right. She was class Valedictorian and this honor
along with help from a family friend earned her a scholarship to
The Massachusetts Institute of Technology, where it didn't take
her long to flunk out, mainly because she didn't like to attend
class. Most of her class cutting time was spent at the local
airport watching planes take off and land. When she wrangled a
trip with a pilot who was delivering supplies to flood victims,
she became immediately hooked. She also spent a lot of time at
the local Coast Guard base and was so impressed she wrote a story
about her visit and sold it to a local publication for seven
dollars and fifty cents. While she showed and aptitude for
writing, she told her mother she could never be a writer because
it didn't pay enough.
She returned to Milwaukee, because, as she said, "it didn't take
long for me to figure out that I wasn't cut out to be an
engineer, and while I once thought I'd like to design airplanes,
I now knew it would be a lot more fun to fly one." No doubt it
was for this reason she approached the flight instructor of the
local air circus with an offer to be his private secretary, in
exchange for flying lessons.
Dickey fit in perfectly with the free spirit types who
inhabited the air field; stunt pilots, wing walkers, and
parachutists; men who looked death in the eye on a regular basis
and wouldn't live any other way. They loved this young girl who
dressed like a boy, wore her hair short, and had a deep voice,
like a man. She never became a good pilot like them, but that
didn't matter, she was part of the gang. If Dickey took anything
away from her flying circus experience, it was that she wasn't
cut out to be in any office. She needed action and plenty of it.
But if Dickey dressed like a man and talked like a man, she
was definitely all girl, and when her parents found out that some
of the action she was getting at the airfield had nothing to do
with flying, they shipped her off to live with her grandparents
in Coral Gables Florida. What they didn't know was that the
grandparents home was just a few miles away from the oldest and
largest air show in the country.
Dickey could write, and she could type, and she quickly landed
a job as a publicist. Her grandfather initially resisted, knowing
of her experience in Wisconsin, but when he realized it was a
real job he grudgingly assented.
Dickey didn't know it but she was about to begin her career
as a reporter.
Her boss in Florida sent her to cover an air show in Havana,
Cuba, with instructions to file as many air show stories as
possible with the Havana bureaus of the Associated Press and the
New York Times. Dickey was ecstatic. She was now
(theoretically at least) working for the New York
Times. She was also about to learn some valuable lessons
As sometimes happened at air shows, there was a horrible
crash that took the life of the pilot. Shocked at the first
horror she'd witnessed, Dickey was momentarily unable to act.
Then, she realized this was a story and she needed to be on the
phone reporting the incident. A reporter from another publication
connected her with the Havana bureau of the
Times when Dickey couldn't find the number in
her handbag, explaining that he didn't mind since he'd already
scooped her. Dickey had learned very quickly that reporting was a
cut throat business and one had to be tough and talented to
survive. It was a lesson that would serve her well in the years
to come; and this incident, which got her adrenaline pumping,
also told her what her life's work would be, since her bungled
attempt at reporting nevertheless got the attention of the
Aviation Editor for United Press. Her official title was
secretary but the job landed her in New York City, the hub of
everything. And she landed there on the eve of World War Two.
It was here that Dickey met Tony Chapelle, a pilot and
photography instructor when she signed on as one of his students.
Tony was twenty years older than Dickey and a man of the world.
It was he who took the now famous photo of Dickey, dressed in
pilot's gear, wearing a parachute and looking skyward. Even
dressed as she was, it's the photo of a voluptuous young woman
who makes Amelia Earhardt look like a boy.
When the photo appeared in a Milwaukee paper, the home folks
were amazed. Could this be the dowdy, overweight young girl who
never looked or even acted feminine? Some of these same folks
must have inhaled deeply when gazing on that photo, and thought
– you've come a long way baby.
By this time Dickey was madly in love with Tony; so maybe
she was beautiful because he told her she was. She became his
creation. He changed her glasses, her wardrobe and her attitude
– she now saw herself as a desirable woman in addition to a
strong willed one.
By the time of their marriage, in Milwaukee on 2 October
1940, her family was also captivated. Despite the fact that Tony
was Dickey's senior by twenty years, not very handsome at five
feet seven and two-hundred pounds, the family decided he was a
good catch, and just the one to reign in Dickey's impetuousness.
What they didn't see was Tony's violent temper or his penchant
for lying. The marriage to their daughter and sister wasn't even
legal. Tony Chapelle already had a wife he'd forgotten to
But there can be no doubt that Tony is the most important
person in Dickey's life. It was he who made her a photographer
and taught her how to go after a story and how important it is to
get their first. But the better Dickey got at her job, the more
Tony's insecurities surfaced, and would lead to their separation
and the annulment of their marriage; though Tony would always be
part of Dickey's life.
At the time of Tony and Dickey's marriage, the field of
photojournalism was pretty much a man's domain. The only
prominent female was Margaret Bourke-White of
Life magazine. But with Tony's help and her own
determination and ambition, Dickey began the long hard road of
establishing herself. Her photos never equaled White's, but her
willingness to go in harm's way, any where, any time, set her
apart from not only White but many of her male colleagues. It's
for this reason that no reporter of her time understood the
American fighting man more, or loved him more, than Dickey
With Tony's help, Dickey's first big success came when she
sold a story to the New York Times about
American pilots enlisting in the Canadian Air force to fight
against Hitler. The story, published on 27 October 1940, billed
Dickey as the first female correspondent having access to
Canadian Air bases.
But there were failures also. Life turned thumbs
down on several stories submitted by Dickie. Bourke-White was
their female star and they didn't need two.
Come December 7, 1941, and the Chapelles, along with one
hundred and forty million others, found themselves in a state of
shock that the dastardly Japs would dare attack the USA. But any
journalist worth his or her salt would see the war as an
opportunity, and for Dickey, opportunity was definitely knocking.
The country had banded together to "lick the hell out of the Jap
bastards", and Dickey was determined to write about and take
photos of that happening. But she was quite unaware of how
American military commanders viewed women reporters at the front.
Look magazine, to which by now Dickey had sold
three stories, gave her an assignment to the Canal Zone, where
she would cover gun crews on freighters running the Japanese
blockade. But Dickey had to get her own credentials, so she soon
found herself on a bus to Washington D.C.
"I presume you know Mrs. Chapelle, that troops in the field
have no facilities for women." These were the first words out of
the mouth of the Army Public Relations Officer, looking directly
at Dickey. "Well sir, I'm sure the Army has solved more difficult
problems than that," replied Dickey. It was an answer Dickey
would use many times and it always got her where she wanted to
Tony, who was already in Panama teaching Navy photographers
how to shoot combat photos had mixed emotions over his young
bride's coming – she was welcome as a wife, but his male
ego took a hit because job-wise, she was now a competitor. And
also, being the obsessive philanderer that he was, he probably
read Dickey's message that she was on the way to join him, from
another woman's bed.
While en route to Panama, Dickey showed her inexperience by
being a major headache for the ship's captain. She began by
throwing film wrappers from her film packs over the side, making
the ship a magnet for German U-Boats. She also committed a major
no-no, by standing on the anchor chain, and was cautioned that if
the line was let go, she would lose both legs. To make matters
worse, Dickey was infuriated to learn that Tony had enlisted his
pilot friends to fly extra missions, so as to insure air cover
for the ship his wife was on. What was Tony doing! Didn't he know
she was an accredited war correspondent, willing to take the same
risk as everyone else!
While doing her story in the Panamanian jungles on an Army
unit known as the Bushmasters, Dickey ran into tons of mud,
mosquitoes, biting fish, and worst of all – Army
censorship. All film and copy had to be approved before it went
out. Dickey would battle military censorship her entire career,
always being frustrated that only part of the truth, the kind
that would boost morale, could be told. War was hell – but
only so much hell would be tolerated by the folks back home
– or so it was thought.
It was in Panama that the Chapelle marriage began to crumble.
While she practically did back flips to please her husband and
avoided stepping on his toes as much as possible; even making
sure she was never paid more than him, and taking the blame (like
many women of the 1940's) for his infidelities. But Dickey had
her dreams, and a will as strong as Tony's. Conflict was
inevitable and things came to a head when Dickey took a photo of
Secretary of the Navy Frank Knox. The flash bulb went off like a
shot. Knox was amused, but not the Secret Service who confronted
Tony about the incident and insisted that Dickey be sent home.
Tony explained that Dickey wasn't there as a wife but as a
reporter. He had no authority over Dickey. The upshot wasthat
Tony, who had accepted the rank of Chief Petty Officer, was the
one being sent home. From their home in the States, Tony waged a
campaign to get Dickey to join him, promising gallons of fresh
milk for his Wisconsinite wife. Dickey came home, but it was
probably due to the fact that she didn't have her story anyway
and was broke, rather than the milk.
Dickey spent the next two years being a dutiful wife and
freelancing for magazines. A normal day's work was two thousand
One of the magazines, Life Story (now
Today's Woman), gave Dickey a lot of work and
hoped she would continue doing "what you're so good at". But
Dickey, who always felt better when her adrenaline was pumping,
had other ideas.
Come February 19, 1945, as the U.S. Marines were landing on
Iwo Jima, and a fully accredited journalist named Dickey Chapelle
was on her way to the Pacific, having convinced her editor at
Life Story, she would bring back some great
stories. The editor, now fully convinced, told her, "I want you
to be sure you're the first woman somewhere, any of those islands
will do." Meanwhile, Tony was in Chungking, China, probably
unhappily so. He couldn't control his little wife from there and
she was getting too big for her britches.
On the plane with Dickey were Navy nurses. They all felt
like strong independent women, above the ordinary; but neither
Dickey nor they had any inkling of the horrors they were about to
face, nor did they realize that many of them would be coming home
The first stop on the trip was Honolulu and when the Public
Relations Officer asked her where she wanted to go, she said, "as
far forward as you'll let me." She meant it.
When Dickey first approached the Admiral in charge of Public
Relations for the entire Pacific fleet about going ashore on Iwo,
she was sternly rebuffed. "The front is no place for a woman." "I
know that sir," said Dickey. "It's no place for a man either, but
no man reporter can tell the mothers, daughters, wives, and
sisters the story of men dying like a woman reporter." She then
added, "I'm going to keep asking." "And I'll keep saying no,"
said the Admiral. But Dickey would find a way.
The Admiral told her she would be assigned to a hospital
ship where she could visit with the wounded and document the
severe need for whole blood. Blood donations coming from the
States were insufficient and all the medical staff were donating
their own blood to meet demand. This put them at risk if wounded
since they'd start a pint low.
Hospital ships were supposed to be immune from attack but
the Japanese enemy didn't abide by the same rules. Dickey would
screw up one more time by not having her telephoto lens on her
camera when she attempted to capture a diving Jap fighter on
film. She could almost hear Tony berating her from New York. The
Chungking assignment had not materialized.
It was while on the hospital ship that Dickey gained a lot
of respect for the Navy corpsman who cared for the wounded while
being in harms way themselves. "These are brave men."
The carnage coming from Iwo was unimaginable. Horribly
mangled bodies, packed every inch of available space. Dickey
tried to retain her objectivity as she shot photo after photo.
But the more personal encounters she had with these magnificent
American fighting men, the more she realized that total
objectivity would be impossible. As she photographed one severely
wounded man, she asked, "Well soldier, how are you?" "Soldier?
I'm a f---ing Marine," he replied in a whisper. Dickey then used
a word she'd never before used in her life. "Well f---ing Marine,
how are you?" The young Marine told her he was lucky because his
buddies had carried him out. He would survive his wound and
Dickey would spend Christmas eve, 1945 with him and his family in
a stateside hospital.
Another unforgettable moment would occur in a field hospital
where she began a conversation with a Marine whose leg was so
badly mangled it would have to be amputated. He told her she was
nuts to walk around unarmed. He gave her his Kabar (a modified
bowie-style trench knife) and showed her how to fasten it to her
web belt. "Now I feel better about you." He said. Dickey walked
out of the tent and cried.
But always in the back of Dickey's mind was getting to the
front. But where is the front and how do I get there? She asked
herself. She walked out of the field hospital and started
climbing one of the sand ridges that seemingly stretched for
miles, where she ran into a Marine Lieutenant. "Can you take me
to the front?" "You want to see the front huh – okay we'll
take you there." Soon she was sitting beside the young officer in
a weapons carrier, headed for the front. She knew she was
disobeying the Admiral's orders but she'd take her chances.
Besides, Dickey Chapelle liked taking chances – the more
the better. As they neared Mount Suribachi, Dickey was awe struck
by the view. Suddenly, the Lieutenant stopped. "This is the
front." Dickey leaped out, walked to the top of a dune and
started shooting pictures. It seemed peaceful enough, except for
the wasps flying around. When she returned to the carrier, the
Lieutenant looked askance at her. "I've never seen anything like
that. Don't you know better than to stand up like that in a
combat area?" "But it seemed so peaceful," Dickey replied,
"except for all the wasps." The Marine laughed uproariously.
"Wasps? Sister, those weren't wasps – they were bullets.
You nearly got your butt shot off!" Dickey wanted to cry, but she
didn't. Instead she said, "I don't think there's anything sweeter
than being yelled at by a handsome Marine."
The next morning as she was headed to the officers tent for
breakfast, a Marine Sergeant took her arm. "You don't have to eat
brass food Dickey, ours is better." As she sat down to the huge
portions, she realized he was right and ate as much as they did.
Later that day the Sergeant asked Dickey to hang his gear on
him as he got ready to go into combat. It was extremely heavy but
he offered no help. As he walked off he yelled back at his
comrades "take care of our girl". Had he said "our girl"?
Dickey's love affair with the United States Marine Corps was now
complete. It was this kind of scene that would have her saying
many times – "When I die I want it to be on patrol with the
United States Marines."
Later, the Admiral who had ordered Dickey to stay out of
combat areas would say that she had a tenaciousness like no one
he'd ever seen.
Come Easter Sunday, 1945, and the Marines landed on Okinawa,
a landing first known for its peacefulness; but would later mean
twelve-thousand dead Marines in four months time.
Despite the objections of Navy brass, Dickey found her way
ashore, just in time for the Kamikaze (divine wind) attacks that
were unleashed by a now desperate Japanese government. When the
Admiral who commanded the Joint Expeditionary Force got wind of
the fact that Dickey – who was described by a male reporter
as "a petite young woman with glasses and a helmet that covered
nearly half her head and who yawned at the strafing planes"
– was ashore, he literally screamed at the Admiral on the
scene to "get that woman out of there!"
But Dickey did not get out. She was there to get a story,
the real story. So she stayed amongst the horror, the blood, the
screams of agony; even holding a lamp while a surgeon operated on
an eighteen year old Marine. And even though she didn't say so,
she stayed for another reason. These were her guys and she'd
leave when they did.
But Dickey did leave, via a landing craft with a young
Marine holding a .45 pistol on her all the way back to the ship.
He had to because Dickey was now a prisoner. The only way the
Navy could get her off Okinawa was to place her under arrest.
Fifty years later, the Admiral who issued the arrest order would
say – "we were fighting a war and she was in the way."
There were a lot of U.S. Marines who no doubt would have
disagreed with the Admiral.
There was even an argument as to how Dickey would return to
the States. The Navy brass wanted her to return via a slow boat,
perhaps hoping it would be torpedoed. A Marine PFC put her name
on a list of those to be flown back. She told him to erase it,
that she didn't want him to get in trouble on her account. "You
rate it," he replied. "What can they do – bust me?"
Tony was shocked at Dickey's appearance when she stepped off
the plane in San Francisco. Her clothing hung on her, she looked
haggard. They tearfully embraced. Then, Tony reached into a
pocket and handed her a letter. It was notification that her
credentials as a War Correspondent had been revoked.
"Well my little bird, I hope you learned something from
this," said Tony. "Oh I did Tony – wait till you see the
Dickey and Tony labored long and hard to get her credentials
restored. By war's end they still had not succeeded. The final
straw was her firing by Life Story. She had
submitted her photos for publication and they were quickly
rejected by the editor as "too dirty".
But all was not lost. With Tony's encouragement she
submitted her photos to other magazines. In December of '45,
Cosmopolitan published her photos of wounded
Marines on Okinawa; and while Seventeen would
not publish her photos, they were so impressed they offered her a
job as their only photographer. The Red Cross wasn't offended by
her photos either. Two, of a Marine before and after a blood
transfusion would be used for the next ten years in Red Cross
Dickey and the Admiral who'd yanked her credentials would
later become good friends and he'd later, upon her death, write a
complimentary obituary. But in August of 1945, it looked like
Dickey's days as a War Correspondent were over.
Tony Chapelle would later say that he and Dickey's
relationship was never the same after Dickey returned from
Okinawa. Dickey herself would say that after experiencing war and
being part of such a valiant crusade, a relationship between just
two people didn't seem all that important. But for Tony,
considering his own behavior, to blame Okinawa for the
dissolution of his marriage, seems disingenuous at best.
As the Cold War loomed, Dickey was growing restless in her
job as Staff Photographer and Associate Editor for
Seventeen. She had a steady job but she was
always traveling and this put an additional strain on her
crumbling marriage. Tony would write heartfelt letters expressing
his undying love. Yet she knew that what really bothered him was
the fact that his little bird, his own creation, had flown the
nest and he no longer controlled her. Besides, even though he
expressed loneliness, she knew that Tony Chapelle was seldom
Another fly in the ointment came when Tony's wife, the one that
he'd forgotten to divorce, charged him with desertion. At this
point he and Dickey had been together for seven years. They would
never be legally married. But then would come the time when
Dickey would realize she still needed Tony. At least she would if
she wanted to work with the Quakers.
The publisher of Seventeen was a Quaker, and she
sent Dickey on an assignment to a Quaker work camp in Kentucky.
Dickey was so impressed with the way the Friends viewed the world
and the way they accepted everyone without question, that when
she found out they were looking for a photographer to go to
Europe and document their Little Marshall Plan, feeding
and clothing the dispossessed of Europe, she immediately
volunteered. But there was a catch. The moralistic Quakers would
never think of sending a lone woman to such a dangerous place.
Her husband would have to go too.
Tony joined Dickey at the camp and soon they were engaged in
a campaign of trying to convince the Public Relations Director of
the Friends Service Committee that they were the couple for the
job. Neither were pacifist, but Tony turned on the charm –
something he was very good at – "just call us the friends
of the Friends". Soon, he and Dickey were on their way to Europe.
Their first stop in their specially outfitted truck was Warsaw,
where the stench of death was everywhere and horror still showed
in the faces of the population.
The six week assignment was soon extended, much to the
chagrin of Tony, who'd come mainly because of his fear of losing
Dickey. Tony had led a licentious life. He was now in his fifties
and paying the price for his careless life style. Dickey was in
her glory and Tony was depressed over "all this damned misery".
But still, they worked well together. They shared the
photography and Dickey did all the writing. Even self centered
Tony could see they were making a difference, and the New
York Herald Tribune did a story on the couple who were
traveling Europe by truck. That same week, the Christian
Science Monitor did a story about "the husband/wife team
who were photographing Europe's misery from 'a white angel
truck'". The New York World Telegram described
Dickey as "a small lively blonde who, together with her husband,
brought back thousands of photographs of Europe's misery". There
can be no doubt that millions of dollars of aid were generated
for Europe's starving masses because of the work of Tony and
The Chapelle's sojourn in Europe would last two years. They
even talked their way past the Russians and into Berlin. But
rather than bring them closer they became further alienated.
Tony's constant griping about conditions and his various physical
problems grated on Dickey, and her inattention to her physical
appearance irritated Tony. Others found the couple fascinating
but they were unaware of the tension behind the scenes. Tony
yearned to return to his cosmopolitan New York life, which by now
Dickey found completely shallow.
They returned to New York practically broke, though Tony
through honest and barely honest endeavors kept them afloat. By
1950, Dickey found her photos of Europe's suffering had no
market. Americans were dying in Korea, and suffering Europeans,
many now behind the Iron Curtain, held little interest. Dickey
was further frustrated because no magazine had any interest in
sending her to Korea, and she had no standing with the military
since they had not renewed her credentials.
During the next five years, Dickey and Tony held a variety
of positions, some together and some independent of each other.
One position which they held as a couple was as employees of
Harry Truman's Point Four Program, a plan of aid to undeveloped
countries. The program as viewed by the idealistic Dickey, was "a
bright light in a world grown dark with the Cold War". However,
due to the reality of the Cold War, the Plan soon came to have
strings attached – aid in exchange for mutual defense
commitments. Tony loved the Point Four program as it allowed him
to live the opulent life style in the finest hotels in the world;
from where they would venture out to cover a story about Point
Four technicians building bridges and school houses, or digging
wells and eradicating locust hordes.
But their dream job came to an abrupt end when they both
came down with amoebic intestinal infections that would see them
hospitalized for three months. By the time they recovered and
returned to the U.S., they found that no one could work for any
government program without a security clearance. The patriotic
Chapelles didn't get it. The reason was never known but was
perhaps due to their bigamous state or one of Tony's shady deals.
Dickey enlisted the help of her father, a lifelong Republican but
it was to no avail. A letter from Harold Stassen said that the
services of Mr. and Mrs. Chapelle would no longer be needed by
the Point Four Program. The couple couldn't get work any where,
thereby producing added strain on their steadily deteriorating
relationship. In a letter to her mother, Dickey said, "We weren't
lovers or husband and wife anymore". And despite the difference
in their ages, role reversal took place. Dickey became the mother
and Tony the child. In 1955, the marriage ended though the
relationship never really did.
With her new found independence came fear. Dickey knew it
was up to her now – she had to be self supporting. She
needed a story, so why not approach the guys she loved –
the U.S. Marine Corps.
The two Marine generals were less than enthused. Dickey's
proposal to do a story explaining the why and how of Marine
esprit de corps didn't raise any passions because
civilians had never been able to get a feel for just what the
Marine Corps was. But Dickey was undeterred. In her view,
believing a story couldn't be told was just the reason for
telling it. The generals gave her the go-ahead and she
immediately contacted her agent, instructing her to approach any
magazine and tell them she was willing to do a story on
spec (meaning the magazine gives no guarantee of
acceptance) about Marine recruit training at Camp Pendleton,
California. Several months later she got a letter from
a Marine Corps Colonel, giving her permission to do the Pendleton
story. So, she had her story. She didn't have a publisher yet
– but so what. Her real problem was having no money to get
to California. She promised her mother she'd never crawl to Tony
– but she did just that. He loaned her one thousand dollars
and was delighted to do so. She wasn't free of him yet.
It was the resumption of an old love affair – Dickey
Chapelle and the U.S. Marines. "The Marines are one moving
inexorable forward motion. There is a richness and warmth in this
position, that I as a person find in no other." The story didn't
In July of '56, Dickie received the news that she had been
granted an annulment of her marriage to Tony. In her
autobiography she barely mentions the ending of her non-marriage
as if it was the absolute end of the relationship. But marriage
didn't mean anything to Tony – so why should an annulment?
Just why Dickie went to work for the International Rescue
Committee (IRC) may never be known. But in October of '56 when
the Hungarian revolution was in high gear, Dickie no doubt saw an
opportunity for a story and a way to get back to center stage.
The Committee was originally formed by Albert Einstein, John
Dewey, and Reinhold Niebuhr to help Jews escape from Hitler's
Germany. The rumors of its connection to the CIA probably began
when Wild Bill Donovan, joined the group in the 1950's. Whether
Dickey became a willing spy for the group in Hungary has never
been proven. But considering Dickey's non objective approach to
issues before and after, it's certainly possible. At any rate,
going to Hungary would prove to be an experience that scared her
badly, and some said she was never the same afterwards; though
the record doesn't bear this out.
Dickey's boss at the IRC was Leo Cherne. He and Dickey
travelled to Hungary while the freedom fighters had the
upper hand; ostensibly to deliver antibiotics urgently needed to
combat infection from wounds and illness. Dickey's job was to
record the work of the IRC in Hungary, including Cherne's meeting
with Cardinal Mindszenty, the anti-communist priest who was
residing in the American Legation.
The euphoria didn't last long. Come November, Russian troops
and tanks rolled into Budapest. A cry for American troops went
unheeded and the Communists quickly regained control.
Perhaps Dickey didn't understand the danger she was in, or
perhaps she thought her status as an American would protect her.
At any rate she saw the Hungarian situation as a golden
opportunity. Her adrenaline was pumping, this is what she was
meant to do – come to the aid of oppressed people. In her
usual hyperbolic style, she wrote of "the ache of an uncrossed
bridge, I know the Mongol's ride, Joan burns at every stake". No
doubt it was this attitude that found her on the
Austrian/Hungarian border on a cold winter night with a load of
penicillin meant for the freedom fighters. Had she
stayed on the Austrian side of the border, she might have been
okay, but Dickey was too adventurous for that. Soon she was
trekking deep into Hungary and assisting those Hungarians who
wanted to escape to the west. She would later say she knew it was
a suicide mission, but in reality she thought her papers
identifying her as a relief worker would protect her. The
presentation of the papers had no impact on the army patrol that
took her prisoner.
As Dickey sat in the back seat of the car taking her to a
Hungarian jail, she managed to dispose of the tiny camera that
would mark her as a spy. It was the possession of this camera
that convinced some that she was a CIA spy.
Dickey spent the next seven weeks in a cold dank cell with
one small window through which she was constantly observed.
There were daily grillings but she would not give in to the
accusations of spying; insisting she was merely a relief worker
for the IRC, who'd been arrested while bringing much needed
antibiotics to the Hungarian people. Anytime she felt fear or
cold, she would do a series of rolls she learned from the
Marines. She'd show these commies that she was a tough nut to
Unbeknown to her, Tony had injected himself into the
picture. 'Here she goes again, getting herself into trouble', he
no doubt thought. I knew she couldn't make it without me. After
her release he told her he'd considered hiring some commandos and
"coming to break you out." Dickey found it amusing that Tony,
with his myriad of health problems and who was now wearing a
pacemaker, thought he was capable of such a venture.
But through the work of the American legation, Dickey was
released. A New York Tribune article reported on
her release with a 31 January 1957 article. "American woman
photographer, Mrs. Georgette (Dickey) Meyer-Chapelle reached the
free world Sunday after fifty days in Hungarian Communist
prisons. She appeared slightly hysterical with 'relief'. Tears
flowed down her cheeks as she said, 'thank God I'm an American.'"
Leo Cherne said, "it was something of a miracle that we got
her out because she didn't have a legal leg to stand on." But
when did Dickey ever worry about legalities. Besides, she was a
celebrity again. The flashbulbs were popping and she loved it.
She was billed as "America's first Cold War hero".
Dickey's star was never brighter as she continually placed
herself in harms way to get the story. Come July '57 and
she was in Algeria where their brand of freedom fighter
was battling the French. And in 1958, she was in Cuba doing a
story for Reader's Digest on a supposed
freedom fighter named Fidel Castro. Like many others,
Dickey was taken in by Castro – for awhile. But by the time
she left the bearded one and returned to the States, she
was quoted as saying, "I hope this revolution doesn't eat its
Of course the revolution did just that, and soon Dickey was
in Florida with anti- Castro Cubans who were plotting the
overthrow of Fidel. She was there as a reporter but that didn't
stop her from helping make bombs and storing nitro glycerine in
her refrigerator. With Dickey the line was forever blurred
between reporting news and making news. Her brother, something of
a demolitions expert, sent her instructions on handling
explosives, because "I knew she was going to do it whether I
approved or not, and I didn't want her blowing herself up".
Of all the criticisms of Dickey, and most are justified, it
could never be said that she wasn't a Patriot. This made her
relationship with Reader's Digest a match made
in heaven. The magazine was much more conservative than it is now
and Dickey's bias in favor of the USA didn't bother them one bit.
As far as they and Dickey were concerned, there was a slave world
and a free world and they knew which side they came down
Not that Dickey was above criticism of her own country. For
one thing, she didn't think military training in our country was
as tough as it should be – and as someone who served in the
fifties, this writer concurs. She blamed it on "The Moms of
America" who didn't want their sons mistreated. Dickey had seen
the enemy and knew what we were up against. "I can't hope to
change what our enemies do. But if I fail to point out where I
believe we are contributing to their victories, I can't live with
me. I'd call this the only patriotic point of view and any
aberrance from it disloyal. I hope I can live up to it."
Around Christmas of 1957, while Dickey was in the
Mediterranean doing a story for the Digest on
the Sixth Fleet, her brother turned on the radio to hear
Evangelist Billy Graham quoting from one of Dickey's stories.
Surely, his sister was now in the big time.
Being in the big time for Dickey meant anytime she was
stateside was in demand on the lecture circuit. She wowed her
audiences in schools, universities, and VFW and American Legion
halls across the country. At each stop she would reiterate her
stand that American youth were too soft. After one lecture she
was approached by two young men who told her they weren't soft
and challenged Dickey to a twenty mile hike. Thirty eight year
old Dickey made the hike with them.
Dickey toured the lecture circuit in a puke pink 1957
Chevrolet. She didn't have a drivers license but Dickey wasn't
going to let a little thing like that get in her way.
The highlight of one lecture tour occurred when she was
taken to lunch by two handsome Marines. She wrote a friend
– "I can't imagine a nicer thing happening to an American
career girl". Marine green was a sure turn on for Dickey.
In June of '58, Dickey was assigned to Beirut, Lebanon and
the camp of Lebanese rebels who were trying to overthrow the
pro-Western government. The rebel leader asked Dickey to relay a
message to the U.S. Marines. "Tell them if they attack, my entire
force will be unleashed against them." Dickey looked around at
his force of maybe three thousand, which included women and
children, and decided her Marines had little to worry about.
Actually the situation in Lebanon was resolved without the
Marines firing a shot.
Dickey first met William Westmoreland at Fort Campbell in
Kentucky on a May morning in 1959. She'd come to do a story on
the 101st Airborne. She was enraptured of the General.
"He looked just like Hollywood would think a general would look."
She took several flights with the paratroopers, each time wearing
a chute and jump boots – it was regulation. But before she
went up, Westmoreland looked her in the eye and said, "You
understand you will not jump." Dickey didn't jump.
But she did jump later, at a parachute school run by an
ex-Army paratrooper. She was petrified but she always employed
her axiom – courage is not the absence of fear but the
control of fear.
In July of 1959, Dickey returned to Fort Campbell, diploma
in hand. She'd been approved by the Pentagon to be the first
woman to jump with the 101st.
By 1961, Dickey was itching to do a parachute jump while
covering a story. John F. Kennedy was now President and a man
after Dickey's own heart. His view of the world was like hers
– black and white – good and evil. Surely he would
see what was wrong and fix it. Camelot was in full bloom
but the bloom soon faded with the disastrous Bay of Pigs, as
Kennedy's indecisiveness assured failure. Dickey couldn't report
on the Bay of Pigs – nobody could – the press was
asked to sit on the story and they obeyed.
Dickey's next and last stop would also turn into a disaster
– Southeast Asia.
Her first assignment from the Digest was the war
in Laos where American Green Berets were assisting the
Royal Lao Army in their battle with the Russian backed Pathet
Lao. It was in Laos that Dickey met Photo Journalist Clancy Stone
(fictitious name) who took it upon himself to show Dickey the
ropes as to how one gets to the front in Laos. "She was anxious
to go," he said. "I really admired her courage. I was with Maggie
Higgins (Marguerite Higgins, who was a photojournalist that most
considered to be better than Dickey) in Korea and she didn't have
a taste for the front the way Dickey did." Dickey was now past
forty but as Clancy said, "I never saw anybody get off on gunfire
the way she did."
One of the first things Clancy did was change her ideas
about good photography that had been implanted by Tony. The
results would show in a story she did for National
Geographic, "Water War In Vietnam". Basically Clancy
taught her that if she thought it was a good shot it probably
It was Clancy who made Dickey a gift of an Australian bush
hat to protect her from the sun. Thereafter she always wore it on
Dickey's greatest frustration in Laos and Viet Nam was
censorship. Some of her best writing and photos would never see
the light of day. She could see early on that the war in both
countries was being lost but she wasn't allowed to tell the
American people. She believed it was a symptom of her country
losing its greatness. She knew that Americans were not just
advising but actually fighting and dying alongside Laotians and
Vietnamese – and were doing both anonymously.
She wrote the editor of Reader's Digest: "The
little handful of flesh and blood Americans – a few hundred
alive and nineteen dead, wounded, missing, captured – who
I've seen daily 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." She was
heartbroken and a little of her died when the
Digest refused to print her words. Her
relationship with the Reader's Digest would
never be the same again. They cared more about not offending the
government than the young men in harms way.
Dickey arrived in Viet Nam in June of 1961. Things weren't
going well. She couldn't even get the title she'd wanted for her
autobiography. She'd asked for With My Eyes Wide Open,
but they wanted What's a Woman Doing Here? It was a title
that set her teeth on edge. Why couldn't it be a book about a
reporter, instead of a woman reporter?
Another of her greatest frustrations was with the Vietnamese
Army. The young men who were dying were good soldiers, dedicated
to their cause, but their officers were incompetent and corrupt.
She couldn't get this printed either.
Dickey was also frustrated with her male peers. Most
resented her even though she took more risk than them on a
regular basis. She filed her stories based on what she'd seen.
They filed theirs from the bars based on what they'd been told by
the Diem government. Indeed, they feared the government that
could pull their credentials for the smallest infraction.
One of Dickey's Vietnamese heroes was not Vietnamese at all,
but a Catholic Priest and former officer in the Chinese
Nationalist Army, named Father Hoa. He commanded a Vietnamese
unit known as the Sea Swallows, which was featured
prominently in Dickey's story, "Water War In Viet Nam". The
Sea Swallows proved they were a match for the Viet Cong
on a daily basis. Dickey loved the Sea Swallows because,
"this is one of the few places in the world where there is only
good and bad, only right and wrong".
Dickey also trusted the Sea Swallows. When they made
combat jumps, she jumped with them, she was now a veteran
paratrooper. She also went on patrol with the Sea
Swallows, through waist deep mud, while looking out for
booby traps and punji sticks. She dreaded patrols more than jumps
because so many things could go wrong.
Communications from the States concerning her autobiography
left her increasingly frustrated. "They've feminized the hell out
of it. What's a person's gender got to do with the way they do
their job!" The book had been sanitized and disinfected. It would
appear Dickey was right. Her autobiography topped out with sales
at seven thousand copies.
When Dickey got back to New York in late 1961, she typed up
a report for Marine Commandant General Wallace M. Greene Jr.,
entitled, "Course of Action, Laos and Viet Nam". He thanked her
for her report and called her a good Marine.
Dickey's seven months in Laos and Viet Nam, where she saw
more of the war than most reporters, certainly entitled her to
voice her opinions, and she did, long and hard. On the lecture
circuit she would tell audiences that South Viet Nam "is as much
my real estate as my home in Minnesota". She was a true Cold
Warrior who believed the line in the sand was South East Asia.
She of course ran into a lot of doubters, such as Mike Wallace
and Jack Parr. When she repeated her opinion that "South Viet Nam
was as much her real estate as her home in Minnesota", Parr
responded, "But isn't the problem the fact that it isn't our real
estate – aren't these sovereign people?"
Another frustration was the fact that many of the photos
she'd taken were still with the censors. She felt like so much of
her hard work done under trying and deadly circumstances had come
Another problem was editors who failed to share her view of
Southeast Asia. Bill Garrett Of National
Geographic viewed Dickey's opinion as too simplistic.
"She was sort of a commie hater and I'd say that's not why we're
there at all." There was a general chorus of disagreement with
Dickey's opinions. But in her defense, she had been on the ground
and they hadn't. Also, if Dickey was wrong, why was so much of
her work censored?
In April of 1962, The Overseas Press Club presented Dickey
with The George Polk Award, the organizations highest. She was
only the second woman to ever win it. She accepted the award
dressed to the nines. One of her friends remarked, "I wish Tony
could see you now."
It was about this time that Dickey decided to deal with some
of the physical problems that had begun to plague her forty-three
year old body. Shortly after, she went against her Physicians
advice and returned to Viet Nam.
By now, there were thousands more American advisors in
South Viet Nam. Father Hoa and the Sea Swallows had been
having a hard time, mainly because of the jealousy of some South
Vietnamese officers. One of Dickey's first duties upon her return
was to attend the funerals of thirty Sea Swallows. To
add insult to injury, they had been killed by U.S. captured
weapons. The funeral marked the beginning of the end of the
Sea Swallows as a military unit.
That afternoon, she was approached by several young Marines
who excitedly told her that they knew of her from their fathers
on Iwo Jima. She was shocked. Had she really been covering
battles that long?
When she returned to the States from her second trip to Viet
Nam she was informed that National Geographic
was going to run her story, "Helicopter War In South Vietnam". It
would be the cover story and would mark the first time a combat
ready Marine was shown in South Viet Nam.
With the Gulf Of Tonkin resolution in 1964, American
involvement in Viet Nam increased dramatically. Dickey was busy
on the lecture circuit telling America that "this was the right
war at the right time" – a rebuttal to the argument against
U.S. involvement in the Korean War. She made her pitch for thirty
thousand more Green Berets to act as advisors to
Vietnamese units. "They're good soldiers but they need
leadership." It seemed she was ready to do battle with everyone.
She lambasted the American government for censorship of reporting
from Viet Nam and was still criticizing America's mothers for
raising sons that were too soft. It was almost as if she had a
premonition that her time was short and she needed to get her
By August '64, Dickey had another National
Geographic assignment. Fly over the Ho Chi Minh Trail.
At the time Dickey was recovering from surgery on both kneecaps.
She wanted it kept secret lest her jumping privileges be
canceled. Wallace Greene told National
Geographic that Dickey's injuries happened because she
injured her knees jumping with the Army Airborne. Had she
jumped with the Marines, her injuries would never have happened.
In preparation for her next Southeast Asia visit, Dickey
would begin an exercise regimen that would leave much younger
people gasping. She worked out with weights and ran two miles a
day. When she landed in Laos in October of '64, ready for her
visit to the Ho Chi Minh Trail, she felt ready for anything.
It was the time of suicidal monks burning themselves to
death, and her family at home began to worry. Viet Nam seemed so
unstable. Dickey reassured them by downplaying the danger.
It was during this trip to Viet Nam that she met Naval
Lieutenant, Harold Dale Meyerkord, who had become a legend
training the Vietnamese. She spent a lot of time with Meyerkord
in the Mekong Delta province of Vinh Long. They soon became
kindred spirits. Meyerkord gave credit to Dickey for saving his
life when she warned him of a Viet Cong Ambush by firing her
carbine. Of Meyerkord, she would simply say, "He is a man." She
became angry when another reporter was seemingly competing for
the Meyerkord story. The reporter apologized, explaining to
Dickey that he admired her work. "I think she was in love with
the guy (Meyerkord), not in a sexual way but more like hero
worship." Later the young reporter gave Dickey credit for helping
him in his work. "Photographers just didn't help each other
– it was very competitive." He remembered telling Dickey
how he hated traveling in choppers and boats because of the
danger. Dickey reminded him that foot patrols were the most
Lieutenant Meyerkord had forecast his own death. He said it
would be on patrol in the Mekong. Three months later his forecast
came true. Dickey would write, "The audacious, ebullient
Lieutenant Meyerkord – husband, father, leader and teacher
of men – dead of a bullet in the brain on the bank of a
muddy canal." She wrote a letter of condolence to Meyerkord's
widow, the fourteenth such letter she'd written. Meyerkord was
awarded a posthumous Navy Cross.
Dickey came home to Milwaukee in January of 1965 and
immediately took to the lecture circuit, trying to explain Viet
Nam and why we should be there. She further cautioned that the
war was being lost. She ran into her first protesters at the
University of Wisconsin. She was stunned, and in her now raspy
voice, due to too many years of heavy smoking, told them that
Hanoi loved what they were doing. As she was leaving, she said,
"I could turn those kids around, just give me a couple of weeks."
A couple of days later in a Television studio, she was asked what
the country should do about Viet Nam. She yelled out, "Win the
National Geographic turned down her request to
do another story on the Ho Chi Minh Trail. In a seeming backhand
the editor said that "She was never really that good and she
really had to hustle to keep the work coming." But then he
admitted, "She would stick with a story for two or three months
where another reporter wouldn't stick two days, and she would
bring back the facts, no matter what." One wonders how that
editor could say that Dickey Chapelle "wasn't very good".
In September of 1965, Dickey was given an assignment by the
National Observer to follow a group of Marine
recruits from basic training to Viet Nam. All of her problems
suddenly vanished. She was back with her beloved Marines.
No doubt because of her outspokenness about censorship, Dickey
had a problem getting a visa for Viet Nam. So she called on her
friend, General Wallace Greene. She was ushered into his office
neatly dressed and carrying her Australian bush hat. Greene
looked at the hat and shook his head. Dickey was puzzled and
asked, "What is it sir?" "I don't see any Marine insignia there,
aren't we tough enough for you?" "Oh, no sir, it's not that."
Greene removed his Marine insignia from his collar and gave it to
Dickey. She was speechless with a look of wonderment. "You're
giving this to me sir?" Greene smiled, "I don't think anybody
will mind." As Dickey attached the insignia to her hat Greene
asked, "Why are you going back to Viet Nam?" "Well sir, the
Marines are there and I'm looking forward to covering them."
Dickey left Greene's office in the company of a Sergeant
she'd known for years, who said, "I didn't have a good feeling
about this trip and I could tell she didn't either."
Maybe for that reason, Dickey made one last trip home to
Milwaukee, something she didn't always do.
Dickey landed in Saigon in October, 1965, soon to join the
Marines she'd just seen through boot camp. The American presence
was everywhere, things looked so different.
Those who knew Dickey thought she looked different too. She
was more haggard, always had a Pall Mall between her
fingers and had a bad smokers cough. More than one thought "isn't
she getting too old for this?"
On 23 October 1965, Dickey set off with a combined
ARVN/Marine force on Operation Red Snapper, a search and destroy
mission. As she marched, she talked into her tape recorder. "If
there are bogeymen here, I have no fear as long as I'm in this
On 4 November 1965, Dickey was walking behind a Lieutenant
when he hit the trip wire of a booby trap. The blast hit several
people but the only one mortally wounded was Correspondent Dickey
Chapelle, the only woman correspondent ever killed in combat. As
they knelt over her shrapnel riddled body, someone heard her say,
"I guess it was bound to happen".
Dickey Chapelle was cremated and brought home to Milwaukee.
A Marine honor guard performed at her funeral, an unusual tribute
for a civilian and especially for a woman. One of the honor guard
had been on the same patrol as Dickey and would be immediately
returning to Viet Nam.
The Marine Sergeant who had walked out of General Greene's
office with her attended the funeral along with an Editor from
National Geographic. On the grave site was a
bunch of roses in the name of the Hungarian freedom
fighters. One red rose wrapped in a white ribbon said simply
– "Tony". Taps were sounded.
On 4 November 1966, General Lewis Walt came to the village
of Chu Lai, South Viet Nam 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 4 November 1965. She was one of us and we
will miss her.
As General Walt stood there, he remembered Dickey's words:
"When I die, I want it to be on patrol with the
United States Marines."
She'd gotten her wish.
What's A Woman Doing Here by Dickey Chapelle (1961)
Fire In The Wind by Roberta Ostroff (1992)
by Don Haines
... who is a U.S. Army Cold War veteran, American Legion Post 191
chaplain, a retired Registered Nurse, and freelance writer; whose
work has previously appeared in this magazine as well as in
World War Two History, and many other