Dickey Chapelle, the Lotus Eater

Why photojournalists play only marginal roles in fiction is a question that throughly troubles me. I, for one, believe they live more interesting lives than lawyers, academics or scientists, who are constant staples in books. (Full disclaimer: I don’t read ‘novels’ with a shirtless man on their covers, I don’t know whether muscular photographers play an important and steamy role with their nymphette models in these boudoir novels). So it was with mild astonishment that I opened a gift book last week and discovered a photojournalist as the protagonist. The novel was “The Lotus Eaters” by Tatjana Soli, the title being a not-too-subtle reference to an island-dwelling race in “The Odyssey” who eat the opiate fruit of lotus and share it to those who wash ashore, so they won’t want to leave.

The protagonist is Helen Adams, a young photographer from California who starts out as a freelancer and eventually gets a job with Life magazine. In between, she goes to Vietnam, sees all the horrors of war, falls in love with a Pulitzer-Prize winning photographer Sam Darrow, losses him to the war, takes an iconic photograph, and marries her Vietnamese assistant. By describing Helen’s transformative experience, Soli was comparing addictiveness of war reporting to that of the lotus flower: many journalists who experience the horrors of war ironically refused to go back to their mundane jobs and remained the chroniclers of war, pestilence and famine.

The models for Soli’s characters were real photojournalists of the Vietnam era: Larry Burrows, Sean Flynn, Henri Huet and Catherine Leroy. Even Helen’s last name and iconic photograph she takes, that of a sudden execution of a harmless-looking old man, seems directly borrowed from another famous Vietnam photographer: Eddie Adams. But Helen Adams was clearly based on another photographer, who briefly but spendidly reported on the Vietnam War in the conflict’s early days: Dickey Chapelle.

Dickey Chapelle covered the battles of Iwo Jima and Okinawa for National Geographic, was captured and jailed for seven weeks covering the Hungarian uprising for Life. In the meantime, she learned to fly an airplane and jump with paratroopers. She arrived in Vietnam in the early ’60s, and described her early experiences in her 1962 book “What’s a Woman Doing Here?” On November 4, 1965, when on patrol with a Marine platoon, the soldier in front of Chapelle activated a boobytrap (a mortar shell with a hand grenade). The explosion hurled Chapelle off her feet, and a piece of shrapnel slit her carotid artery, wounding her mortally.

The Associated Press photographer Henri Huet took a photograph of Chapelle as she lay dying, a picture that captured the same life-and-death drama that she herself reported before. In Huet’s photo, Marine Corps chaplain John Monamara administers the last rites to Chapelle, as an American Marine and a South Vietnamese soldier, both carrying M-14 rifles, look on. Blood puddles in the dirt near her head; from her left earlobe, a small pearl earring glistens. The Australian bush hat, which is her signature as much as her pearl earrings are, lies nearby, complete with a tiny bouquet of pink flowers she tucked in its band earlier.

Vietnam proved to be an extremely dangerous war for the journalists. Huet himself would later die in the same helicopter crash that killed Larry Burrows. But Chapelle’s death had a special meaning to it, not least because of the above haunting photograph. Chapelle was the first female war correspondent to be killed in Vietnam, as well as the first American female reporter to be killed in action. Chapelle was so admired by the Marines with which she was embedded that her body was repatriated with an honor guard of six Marines and was given full Marine burial. One of the eulogies read: “”the kind of reporter all women in journalism openly or secretly aspire to be. She was always where the action was.”

19 thoughts on “Dickey Chapelle, the Lotus Eater

  1. It’s a sad picture, but your commentary made it the saddest I’ve ever seen (excepting depictions of cruelty which are another kind of sadness anyway).

    How did Soli’s book end?

    • The awful irony of insane war. To let us witness it’s horror these brave photojournalists become its victims too. Such a heartbreaking image: the delicate flowers, the pearl earring and her signature hat. The lovely feminine sensibility that informed her talent. Her delicate hand emerging at her side, fingers graceful, just did me in. Such tragedy for all the beautiful young lives we lost in that ghastly war. Her record of it is testimony that they mattered.

  2. Some powerful images came out of that war. If you have not seen Under Fire staring Nick Nolte, Gene Hackman, and Joanna Casady, it is just about that. It’s beeen awhile, but I think it was very good.

  3. Hmm. I had never heard of Dickey Chapelle. What an extraordinary woman! I will have to learn more. Such a tragic end, but I’m sure she would have wanted her death captured just exactly so.

    I had read Sean Flynn’s book, Dispatches, in a college course. I do recommend it.

    Meanwhile, I could swear I saw a sappy (is there any other kind?) movie on Lifetime that sounds an awful lot like the Lotus Eaters. But it wasn’t called that. (Oh, dear. It’s ‘Message from Nam,’ based on the book of the same title by Danielle Steel. It really is sort of similar… in broader strokes, of course. Now I’m embarrassed to say I watched it.)

    • ‘Dispatches’ was written by Michael Herr. Sean Flynn did not, unfortunately, live long enough to write any books; he only got to make a couple of cheesy French B-movies & then take some truly excellent photographs. He and his equally talented friend Dana Stone disappeared near the (South) Vietnamese-Cambodian border in the spring of 1970, if I remember correctly. If you would like to know more, read ‘Page After Page’ by Tim Page (a friend of Flynn & Stone and an even better war photographer, in my opinion…), and ‘The Cat From Hue’ by Jack Laurence.

  4. I googled Lara Logan and came across Dickey Chapelle. I have spent the last hour reading her bio and her life story on the net. The photo by Huet is extraordinary. Her photos were extraordinary as was her life. And not just because she was a woman. She was a great photo journalist and a extremely brave human being. I would welcome a movie made of her life but I am sure Hollywood would ruin it. I do not think she would have objected to Huet’s photo of her in death. She would have done the same thing had the tables been turned..that is what photo journalists do. Capture life, and death, in the moment.
    May God hold Dickey Chapelle in the hallow of his hand forever.

  5. I was a Hospital Corpsman at Chu Lai. I was at Bravo Med waiting to catch a flight from Chu Lai to Da Nang VN the morning after Dickey was killed. I was sitting outside a GPM tent when everyone yelled “Corpsman up, incoming casualties. Myselft, Clarence Coffey, “Pat” Patterson were the first t get to her in the triage fly tent. Clarence and Pat were removing her boots, etc., I was at the head and as I recall mumbled, “My God, this is a female”. None of the three of us knew who she was, what she was doing there, what happend. Scuttlebutt was that she is the one that tripped the booby trap, don’t know it to be true. Never really knew anything further until the advent of this computer world. One of my elder brothers told me he’d seen an article in Life Magazine with some names of those at Bravo Med. Have never been able to verify. Been 46 years now.

  6. […] Another Manichean clash was at the center of Del Corso’s Gallery: the friction between the titular photographer who insouciantly photographed mangled corpses and his former mentor P. X. Dunlop who won Pulitzer for his artful portraits of dignity and sacrifice on the battlefields of Beirut and Vietnam.  In the background enfolded a larger picture of photographers’ divorce from reality and atrocities by a thin layer of glass — a theme often explored in novels about war photography, such as The Lotus Eaters, of which this blog had waxed lyrical before. […]

  7. I was given a gas mask when I arrived at Bravo company 7th marines in February 1966. It was too small for me. The name on the mask was ‘Chapelle. Knew nothing about her. Was told she “took photos”. Later discovered her measure of dedication to her craft and the respect she was shown by the Marines. Also, went on a number of patrols with a chaplain who later received the Medal of Honor. KIA while giving last rites in combat. I forget his name, but he was brave and dedicated. He was called the ‘Grunt Chaplain’.

    • Interesting you were with 7th. My eldest brother was with King (now Kilo) company 3/7 in Korea. He was also a hospital corpsman , received the Silver Star, he, like so many others left us in 2006, 79 y/o. He was also at Iwo with 3rdMar. Interesting you’d have the gas mask, I hope you kept ahold of it.
      Semper Fi

    • Fr. Vincent Capodanno, LT USNR, is probably the chaplain to whom you refer. Very well known in Staten Island where he was from. There are a number of memorials throughout the USN and USMC to his memory. The church has also started the sainthood process for Fr, Capodanno.

  8. “A Veteran — whether active duty, discharged, retired, or reserve — is someone who at one point in his life,wrote a blank check made payable to: ‘The United States of America,’ for an amount of ‘up to, and including his life.” – Col. Victor Colsteele.

    This Quote should have also included American Combat Journalists, Photojournalists and Videographers.

    Your Obt. Svt,
    Col Korn,
    Chief o Mayhem, In the Great WW-2 (An tha Cold War)
    Currently Chief O Security an Sanitation,
    OXOjamm Studios.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s