Unlike other news weeklies, the National Geographic was very slow in their editorial and printing schedule. Dickey Chapelle’s May 1962 story on helicopter units waging an aerial battle over South Vietnam only appeared in November 1962 issue of the magazine. The magazine asked her for a follow-up story later, and she decided to cover ‘Water War in Vietnam’, on the South Vietnamese Army gunboats being often shot from the Mekong river banks by Vietcong machine guns and snipers.
This story was put together in 1964/5 but would not appear in the magazine until after Chapelle’s death, in February 1966 issue of the magazine. Earlier, Chapelle had complained to her editors that weeklies had already scooped her on the story about the river fighting that she’d filed first.
Dickey Chapelle covered the battles of Iwo Jima and Okinawa for National Geographic, and after smuggling aid to refugees fleeing Hungary, she spent almost two months in a Hungarian prison while covering the Hungarian uprising for LIFE. In the meantime, she learned to fly an airplane and jump with paratroopers. She first arrived in Vietnam in the early ’60s, and described her early experiences in her 1962 book “What’s a Woman Doing Here?” Marines in Vietnam told her that she’d covered their fathers in Iwo Jima and Okinawa two decades earlier. “With a shock, I realized I was now covering my second generation of combat Marines—covering them, again, on embattled ground half a world away from home,” she wrote.
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). 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 whom she was embedded that her body was repatriated with an honor guard of six Marines and was given full Marine burial. Her obituary (below) appeared in the same issue of the National Geographic that ‘Water War’ was featured in.