"Gal Reporters": Breaking Barriers in World War II

Mark Jenkins
for National Geographic News
December 10, 2003
"Get that broad the hell out of here!"

That unchivalrous comment was leveled by a United States Marine Corps general at Dickey Chapelle, a woman photographer who had made her way to his front during the bloody battle of Okinawa, toward the end of World War II.

It was still a man's world, in which being a woman was never more challenging than on the battlefield. During the First World War women war correspondents were simply nonexistent; the U.S. military accredited only one, then sent her off to Siberia, far from the main fighting fronts. But after Pearl Harbor, of the 1,600 reporters permitted to wear the armband emblazoned with a "C" that meant war correspondent, 127 were women.

World War II opened doors for American women in a number of ways. Some would close again; others remain barely ajar. But those 127 flung one door wide open and emerged from those muddy, bloody campaigns having proved that in reporting war, women were the equal of men.

It wasn't easy. Wherever they went, these "gal correspondents" had to hustle harder than their male colleagues. For theirs was a double war: the war against the enemy, and the war against the system. They had to fight red tape, condescension, disdain, outright hostility, and downright lewdness.

And always, everywhere, the bathroom excuse: No facilities for women—permission denied. One enraged general barked at Chapelle that he didn't want one hundred thousand Marines pulling up their pants because she was around. But Dickey could outstare any general. She countered with an answer that spoke for all her female colleagues, wherever in this far-flung conflict they tried to work. "That won't bother me one bit,"' she replied. "My object is to cover the war."

Covering the War

One of those equally determined colleagues was Life magazine's Margaret Bourke-White, the best-known American woman photographer of the day. As the only foreign photojournalist in Moscow when the Germans invaded Russia, her pictures of flares and searchlights and anti-aircraft tracers streaking the night sky over the Kremlin were published around the world. She made them from her hotel balcony or the roof of the American embassy, flaunting a Soviet edict that anyone caught taking pictures would be shot.

Despite her fame and reputation, Bourke-White faced many difficulties. She was denied access to cover the Allied invasion of North Africa, the excuse being that it was too dangerous for a woman to fly there from England. She took a ship instead—which was promptly torpedoed en route. Carrying only her cameras into the lifeboat, Bourke-White then produced a riveting coverage on the dangers of wartime travel at sea. In January 1943 she finally won permission to become the first woman ever to fly on an American air combat mission. And during the Italian campaign, admiring soldiers watched her drag her camera and tripod through sniper fire to exposed ridge tops and make panoramic shots of the fighting.

The tall, strikingly beautiful Martha Gellhorn was a talented writer whose philandering husband, Ernest Hemingway, claimed she secretly loved war and was happiest there. She vehemently disagreed, writing powerful anti-war pieces for Collier's magazine. Always chafing at U.S. Army restrictions, Gellhorn traveled in Italy with Free French troops—more accommodating, unsurprisingly, to women reporters—then bucked the system by arriving on the D-Day invasion beaches as a stowaway. Stripped of her accreditation, she nevertheless used charm and wit, courage and quick feet to keep up with the armies. She accompanied a night combat mission in the skies over Germany, flak bursting around the airplane, and as her marriage dissolved, had a torrid affair with General James Gavin of 82nd Airborne. Her work was fiercely uncompromising. For many, Gellhorn's dispatches set new standards for narrative frontline journalism. Her volume The Face of War remains as strong an indictment as any penned by the Hemingways of the world.

Battlefield Chic

No one had battlefield chic like Lee Miller. An ex-model and avant-garde bohemian, she had been friends with Picasso, Cocteau, and Man Ray before becoming a fashion photographer for Vogue magazine. Stylish even in wartime, she wore a helmet of her own design featuring a visor like those worn by medieval knights. That never blinkered her photographic eye, and her pictures of shattered cities, blood-spattered field hospitals, and surrendering German officers were made with the same professional detachment as her shots of U.S. servicewomen at Paris fashion shows. But the Nazi death camps were different. Her searing images of bodies piled at Dachau were simple and direct, full of emotional impact and conviction. She simply cajoled Vogue into publishing them under the title, "BELIEVE IT!"

There were many others. Janet Flanner of the New Yorker magazine broke a major story on Nazi atrocities. Helen Kirkpatrick's dispatches for the Chicago Daily News were enormously popular. Marguerite Higgins of the New York Herald Tribune claimed no one needed to protect her; when the shooting started she could hit the ditch as fast as the boys. And Lee Carson of International News Service worked so close to the front that she inadvertently captured six German soldiers.

These women covered the war in Europe. On the other side of the globe, covering the war in the Pacific, there worked one photographer many today consider the epitome of the woman combat reporter.

"She Was Always Where the Action Was…"

Tiny, nearsighted Georgette Louise Meyers had scored the highest grade point average ever attained at her high school and was studying aeronautical engineering at MIT when she fell for journalism and married an older man. Always called by her childhood nickname, she then became known as Dickey Chapelle.

"I want to go as far forward as you will let me," was the unwavering request that in early 1945 eventually got her to a field hospital on Iwo Jima. On that hellish volcanic island one of the bloodiest battles of the Pacific war was raging. Fighting was so fierce that 27 Medals of Honor would be awarded, but Chapelle doggedly made her way to the front, exposing herself to enemy fire as she worked.

Then came Okinawa, an even bloodier affair, and as the Japanese launched waves of kamikaze attacks Chapelle eluded restrictions placed specifically on her and again reached the combat zone. At one point she was hundreds of yards in front of the line. Authorities decided to chase her down. When found weeks later, the tiny figure in helmet and filthy fatigues and shouldering a heavy pack looked indistinguishable from other Marines.

Many "gal correspondents" of World War II went on to report on subsequent wars, including Bourke-White and Gellhorn. While covering Korea, Marguerite Higgins became the first woman ever to win a Pulitzer Prize for combat reporting. But none formed closer or longer-lasting links with frontline troops than did Dickey Chapelle.

Eventually that led to Vietnam, and a November morning in 1965 when, accompanying a dawn patrol, her attention must have momentarily wandered. Perhaps she was fiddling with her cameras; perhaps something caught her eye. Whatever it was, she walked into a Vietcong booby trap. Torn by shrapnel, she died minutes later, the first American woman correspondent ever killed in action.

In paying the ultimate price, she won the ultimate respect. Her remains returned to the United States accompanied by a Marine Corps honor guard. No less than the Commandant of the Marine Corps himself then wrote, "She was one of us, and we shall miss her." And the Women's Press Club declared her to be "the kind of reporter all women in journalism openly or secretly aspire to be. She was always where the action was…"

Today women report from embedded positions wherever the action is, and no one is telling them, at least openly, that they don't belong. For that, they can thank the pioneers of World War II, those women who 60 years ago fought the truly difficult fight and won the really important battle, the right to wear with respect the words stitched over the uniform's left breast pocket, "War Correspondent."

Mark Jenkins is a National Geographic Society historian and archivist.

© 1996-2008 National Geographic Society. All rights reserved.