On Dec. 6, 1956, after midnight, three figures methodically traversed a frost-encrusted field in Austria. Guided by a compass and saddled with a million dollars’ worth of penicillin, they were on a humanitarian mission to deliver aid to Hungarian refugees.
But the figure in the middle — at a diminutive 5 feet tall — had an additional purpose. It was the reason why she had stowed a Minox camera under her coat and wool shirt, stuck to her flesh by four bandages. The woman was Dickey Chapelle, a female photojournalist on assignment for Life magazine. Moments later the man in front of her muttered, “I’m lost,” and an enemy flare blew out the Big Dipper above. A machine gun and three rifles surrounded them, capturing her and one of her companions.
Chapelle wound up in the custody of the Hungarian secret police and was imprisoned mostly in solitary for two months, according to Chappelle’s “What’s a Woman Doing Here? A Reporter’s Report on Herself.” Though the incident jolted her, being on the front lines was in her blood. That same year she returned to work, photographing Algerian rebels and, the year after that, Fidel Castro.
At 23, Chapelle got her first taste of war, covering army combat training for Look magazine in Panama. She spent much of her career photographing historic events from the Battle of Iwo Jima to the Vietnam War.
In between wars, Chapelle and her husband, Tony, criss-crossed the Middle East and Asia as a newly formed relief agency, AVISO (American Voluntary Information Services Overseas). They lived and worked out of a small, squarish truck for five years.
“You can do anything you want to do if you want to do it so badly you’ll give up everything else to do it,” she said, according to her biography “Fire in the Wind.” In the end, she gave every last thing she had — including her life.
On her final trip to Vietnam, Chapelle was with a patrol when a Marine triggered a tripwire that sent shrapnel flying. A fragment sliced her carotid artery.
In a role reversal, the woman behind the camera became the photograph. Associated Press photographer Henri Huet, who was also there, captured Chaplain John McNamara as he signed the cross over her curled body. Her unmistakable pearl earring nestled in her earlobe. Her bush hat was flung in the grass. Marines — some closer than others, perhaps unsure of whether she would want privacy or comfort — witnessed her final moment. But surely they knew one thing: that she died doing what she was born to do.
A retrospective of Dickey Chapelle’s work is featured in “Dickey Chapelle Under Fire: Photographs by the First American Female War Correspondent Killed in Action.” To see more photos from the Wisconsin Historical Images collection, click here.
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