The Lucky Ones: Dickey Chapelle and Iwo Jima

Dickey Chapelle got her story by any means necessary. Sometimes that involved being in the very thick of war. The following is a harrowing excerpt from First to the Front by Lorissa Rinehart, covering Chapelle’s time aboard the Samaritan, a hospital ship bound for Iwo Jima. “We could see first a single blossom of black […]

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Dickey Chapelle got her story by any means necessary. Sometimes that involved being in the very thick of war. The following is a harrowing excerpt from First to the Front by Lorissa Rinehart, covering Chapelle’s time aboard the Samaritan, a hospital ship bound for Iwo Jima.

“We could see first a single blossom of black smoke among the weaving dive bombers,” wrote Dickey. “There was a flash of silver against the sky a hundred yards ahead of it, then the crippled plane spun down beyond the ridge and a thick spreading column of black smoke.” The Samaritan steamed closer. Around the island’s northern tip, the US Navy fleet became visible in all its enormity. Dickey watched as destroyers pounded the position of the Japanese gunner who had taken out the American plane. A cloud of volcanic ash followed and firing from that position ceased.

She was at last at war, and those for whom all the acres of empty beds were intended began to arrive.

In a speech for the Red Cross Dickey wrote, “When you read of a landing operation, you always think of the appalling D-Day morning when our men charge and stumble out of the landing craft onto the beach. After that, you rarely hear again about the boats and crews that put them there.” But for the sailors operating these amphibious crafts, the initial landing was only the beginning of their mission. Every bullet, tin of food, and bandage that arrived on the shore of Iwo arrived in one of these boats. And every wounded soldier lucky enough to make it off the beach rode in one of them. Loaded to capacity and beyond, the small crafts had left shore as soon as they spotted the Samaritan’s bright white hull. The ship had not yet anchored when they began to arrive.

In a ballet of unfathomable proportions, the small boats circled the Samaritan still under steam while her crew lowered dozens of gangways into the churning sea. Dickey edged closer to the side, careful not to get in the way, and leaned over with her camera. The sound of the chop beating against the small boats’ bows echoed up the Samaritan’s steel sides. Through her viewfinder she could see the agony of the wounded as they stared up at the readying gangways, waiting.

Dickey ran to the side of the first stretcher hoisted on deck. Like all of the wounded men she would see that day he was young and in pain. A nurse injected him with morphine. His writhing ceased. Dickey grabbed her pad and pen from her back pocket.

“Hey, who are you?” she asked, awkward with nerves.

Struggling for breath he answered, “Just call me Mac,” then asked, “Who, who are you spyin’ for?”

“The folks back home,” she managed to reply, thinking the idea of Americans interested in his well-being might comfort him.

Wounded with an abdominal injury on Iwo Jima, this Marine was one of thousands to be treated on the hospital ships stationed offshore to aid the campaign. Wisconsin Historical Society, Dickey Chapelle, 1945, Image ID:76600

Blood and saliva foamed at the corners of his mouth. “Fuck the folks back home,” he spat. He turned his bitter stare away from her back toward the island he had just been evacuated from, but would not escape. As Dickey learned, he died cursing those he died for. His words haunted her for years. She backed away.

Stretchers heaved over the side like waves in a storm. Nurses transfused the most critical patients on deck. Bags of blood swayed with the roll of the sea. Dickey kept focusing her lens, adjusting her light meter, and snapping her shutter. Behind her viewfinder, she could pretend she wasn’t really there, wasn’t really witnessing this carnage in person. She could make believe that like anyone looking at the newspapers back home, she was shielded behind the black-and-white veil of print.

“Some part of my mind,” she wrote in her autobiography, “warned me that if I thought of them as people, just once, I’d be unable to take any more pictures and the story of their anguish would never be told since there was no one else here to tell it.”

She didn’t maintain this detachment for long. Pausing to reload her camera next to the stretcher of a man she presumed to already be expired, she saw his hand move and looked up. His eyes opened. The deep lines of volcanic ash on his face began to stretch. She realized he was trying to smile.

She stuttered, “Uh, soldier—how are you?”

His smile faded. The destroyer next to them fired off a deafening round. He waited for the reverberations to subside. Then, as Dickey wrote it, “he said carefully, syllable by syllable, ‘Ma-rine. I’m a fucking Ma-rine.’”

Another salvo thundered. Dickey desperately wanted to return his half smile. Suddenly she knew how.

“Okay, you fucking Ma-rine,” she said, imitating his intonation, “I asked you how you felt.”

It worked. “I feel lucky,” he said, smiling again.

Dickey quickly glanced down at his shrapnel-torn legs, then up to the large “M” written across his forehead, indicating he had been injected with morphine.

“Because,” he answered her unasked question, “I’m here. Off the beach. I never knew the guys cared enough to get me the hell out of there. But they did. Three miles they carried me. Makes a guy feel lucky.”

Two corpsmen came for his stretcher. Dickey quickly jotted his dog tag number in her notebook. “What’s your name?”

“Johnny,” he said as he was lifted.

Dickey watched as they set him down again in a corner of the deck reserved for those who had arrived too late, who had lost too much blood, who had little chance.

From then on she looked each man squarely in the eyes before she photographed him, acknowledging his anguish and fear, but also his hope. Rather than break her, it only strengthened her resolve to capture as many stories as she could. She wove between the endless streams of stretchers borne by corpsmen on the way to surgeries and wards. From the forecastle she took a panoramic photo of the deck as nurses triaged one patient after another. She climbed down the side of the ship into one of the small boats where a corpsman unfalteringly held a bag of blood above a wounded Marine as the sea slammed them against the Samaritan’s hull again and again.

“There was hardly a wound that did not bleed on our welldeck that day,” wrote Dickey, “and a pool of blood ceased to be a symbol; it was just something a man left behind him on the deck like his helmet or his gun.” She understood now what Sonny had meant when he said giving blood before arriving was much easier than running out in the midst of their mission.

The Samaritan raised her anchor as the sun began to set. Her gleaming white hull and blazing lights would be a magnet for enemy planes in the dark of night if she stayed. Over seven hundred Marines had been loaded onto the ship, two hundred beyond its capacity. “Every corridor had become a ward,” Dickey wrote. “Men couldn’t be moved from the stretchers on which they had come aboard because there was no vacant bed to lift them into. Some who needed surgery were packed in ice so they would not die of infection before they could have their turn in the operating room.”

But even away from the pitch of battle, the Samaritan’s odyssey was nowhere near over. It was eight days to Saipan, the nearest port with the capacity to absorb her load. That night Dickey returned to her quarters. The soles of her boots were soaked to the insoles with blood. She was exhausted in mind, heart, and body. And she was frightened for her own life in a way she had not been before.

Johnny, the young man who thought himself lucky to be off the beach and whom Dickey thought would never see the States again, found her a few days into their trip to Saipan. She didn’t recognize him at first, his skin no longer ashen gray but again full of life.

“Honest, Johnny,” she said when he pointed to his name and number in her notebook, “I didn’t know you. One shave can’t make all the difference. What did they do to you?”

“Blood,” said Johnny. “Ten pints of it. Cripes,” he said, “I didn’t know I was worth ten pints.”

But this was war, and although displays of hope and camaraderie offered glimpses of humanity, horror reigned supreme. Nor did Dickey shy from its worst, found in the hospital’s operating rooms.

“I remember those rooms,” she wrote. “To photograph in it, the camera and I were both tied with rope by the bos’n to the pipes overhead, so if I fainted, I wouldn’t fall into the incision.” For three days and nights, an amputation of an arm or a leg was performed every thirty minutes without interruption. “The refuse bucket in here was a 50 gallon oil drum without a top. It filled up every three hours.” Part of her never left that room, though she never did faint. Not once.

The post The Lucky Ones: Dickey Chapelle and Iwo Jima appeared first on The History Reader.

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