"Gal Reporters": Breaking Barriers in World War II

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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.

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