When Women Cover War

Commentary
By Meg Waite Clayton
Los Angeles Times.

Photojournalist Dickey Chapelle was wearing combat boots, a bush hat and her signature pearl earrings when she was hit by shrapnel from a Viet Cong land mine near Chu Lai Air Base on Nov. 4, 1965. She was the first female American war correspondent to be killed in action. “When I die, I want it to be on patrol with the United States Marines,” she’d once said. Her last words were, reportedly, “I guess it was bound to happen.”

Chapelle was one of the founding generation of female war correspondents in World War II, when women weren’t officially allowed to cover combat, there were no latrines for them at the press camps, they were told.

Undeterred, Chapelle talked her way from a hospital ship to no man’s land on Okinawa, as Marines rescued the wounded during the massive assault. The Navy wasn’t pleased. She was evicted at gunpoint from the war, but she got her photographs. Two of them, of Marine Johnny Hood before and after he received 14 pints of blood, spurred donations of “rivers of blood.”

It took defiance like Chapelle’s to open the doors to women covering war. Martha Gellhorn, who reported on every major international conflict from the Spanish civil war to the U.S. invasion of Panama, was determined to be on the ground for the June 6, 1944, D-day invasion, even though no female correspondents had been assigned to cover it. She stowed away in the loo of a hospital ship and went ashore with an ambulance crew, one of the few reporters of any gender to get off a ship and onto land during the invasion. She was taken into custody when she returned to England, but she escaped and hitched a ride on a plane to Italy to cover the rest of the war.

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