There were very few women photojournalists covering the Vietnam War, but there were some, and one of them was Catherine Leroy, whom the New York Times dubs “the greatest war photographer you’ve never heard of.”
The Times is currently running a series of pieces about the Vietnam War in 1967, and one of them highlights Leroy’s work, which required not just skill but unbelievable daring:
Leroy faced no shortage of sexism. After she parachuted into combat during Operation Junction City, in early 1967, rumors circulated that she had slept with a colonel in exchange for permission. In fact, she had earned her parachutist license as a teenager, and had already jumped 84 times. Still, she developed a reputation as a photographer quickly, selling photos to The Associated Press and U.P.I.
She was in her early 20s at the time; she had just gotten on a plane with barely any money and taken off to cover the conflict as a freelancer. According to her Guardian obituary:
Leroy stood just 5ft tall, and when fully loaded with pack, boots and a tangle of cameras, was carrying close to her bodyweight of 85lbs. She was one of the first to prove that women could not only work out of offices in war zones, but could tough it out in the field with the strongest soldier. People like her opened up the field for the stream of women who now write and appear on television from every battlefield in the world.
Leroy fought with, and abused, her editors. She always sympathised with the men in the field because she had been in battle alongside them - and had the scars to prove it. She was hit by a mortar burst while with the US marines in 1967; her chest was ripped open, and the piece of shrapnel that should have killed her was only stopped by her Nikon. She said that she thought the last words she would hear were, “I think she’s dead, sarge.” Her notoriously obscene English was learned from the same marines.
This clip from the documentary Cathy at War (via Boing Boing) features some of her work, as well as capturing the environment she was reporting from during the war. Ultimately, she died in 2006—of lung cancer.