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Catherine Leroy Parachutes into Danger

September 2023
16min read

When the Pentagon wanted a photographer to record the first major airborne assault in the Vietnam War, the most qualified candidate was a women. 

Editor’s Note: Elizabeth Becker is herself a respected war correspondent and award-winning author, having worked for The New York Times, National Public Radio and the Washington Post. Among her books is You Don't Belong Here: How Three Women Rewrote the Story of War, from which the following was adapted.

Catherine Leroy was waiting in her assigned seat on the left side of the C-130 cargo plane, the air thick with the heat of Vietnam’s dry season. She was quiet, trying to blend in. A citizen of France, Leroy was the only journalist on the plane, the only photographer. She had two cameras draped around her neck, and she was the only civilian and the only woman. Her US Army-issued parachute nearly swallowed her. At five feet tall and weighing just 87 pounds, she was less than half the size of the dozens of US Army parachutists sitting alongside her.

In February 1967, Leroy was selected as the best person to capture on film the United States’ first airborne assault in the Vietnam War. The Pentagon hoped to repeat in the tropical jungles of Southeast Asia the success of World War II airborne operations that helped shift the course of that war. After more than a year of mixed results, the US military wanted a big win. 

The day before, Leroy had been called to the Office of Public Information at the Military Assistance Command Vietnam or MACV, the headquarters of the US Armed Forces in Saigon. Not sure if she was in trouble, Leroy was relieved when she was asked just one question: Did she still want to jump? 

For the next 24 hours, she was with the Second Battalion of the 173rd Airborne Brigade and sworn to secrecy until the operation began. She barely slept, rose with the troops before dawn, and climbed onto the truck convoy to Bien Hoa Airport 16 miles northwest of Saigon. She boarded the seventh plane to shouts of “Airborne all the way!” 

The target was a battleground near the border with Cambodia. 

Leroy listened as the plane rose, excitement overwhelming her. Her stomach cramped. 

She had lobbied to jump with the troops ever since she arrived in Vietnam from Paris in 1966. Few other press photographers were remotely qualified. Leroy had earned first- and second-degree parachute licenses in France while still in secondary school, initially egged on by a boyfriend who had dared her to try it. She jumped 84 times over the vineyards and meadows of Burgundy. 

The biggest vulnerability of General Westmoreland’s plan in early 1967 was Vietnam’s western border. During the war against the French, North Vietnam had created a web of paths and roads along that border, used by its soldiers to travel through southern Laos into northeastern Cambodia and then cross over to South Vietnam. During the American war, the paths became highways and waterways that transported millions of troops and supplies to the communists in the South. Named the Ho Chi Minh Trail by the Americans, this route bedeviled America’s top general in the war; destroying it became an obsession. 

The other problem with the plan was the American inability to find the enemy. It was close to impossible for Americans to discern the loyalty of rural South Vietnamese. Militarily, Westmoreland’s conventional strategy underestimated the guerilla nature of much of the war. The Viet Cong had mastered the hit-and-run tactics of the insurgent, hiding in tunnels or blending into villages, waiting for night to mount operations, before disappearing again. 

“There is no front line,” the great French photojournalist Catherine Leroy wrote to her father, trying to explain how the Vietnam War wasn’t like World War II. In Vietnam, you couldn’t plot a march toward victory on a map. General Westmoreland’s strategy did not include front lines, in part because US troops were not charged with capturing and then holding territory. They were trying to capture and kill the illusive enemy. Catherine Leroy hopped from helicopter to helicopter to keep up with these moveable battlefields. 

In Vietnam, the war eventually became known as the American war. 

Ms. Leroy’s photographs told this story better than words. Stunned villagers huddled near their empty huts, ordered out by the towering American soldiers in a search-and-destroy mission. Their faces resigned, the villagers were rounded up and banished from their homes, leaving behind their ancestor altars and pig stys. They cradled bedrolls and cooking pots; they were displaced to refugee camps. 

Elsewhere, B-52 bombers dropped 500-pound bombs on rice paddies where water buffalo pulled plows. Warplanes dropped deadly chemical defoliants and herbicidal agents that overnight destroyed jungles and any animal or person in its path. Vietnam became the battlefield where the United States used the most sophisticated and lethal arsenal in modern history. 
In the village of Co Luu in Quang Ngai Province, Leroy photographed Marines moving several hundred villagers into tents surrounded by barbed wire. She took images of an interrogation, which she later described in a diary. A South Vietnamese officer is asking standard questions to an old man who is wrinkled and trembling: “‘How old are you?’ ‘Where are your sons?’ . . . The soldiers are professional, their faces serious, the background of destruction is menacing.” 

The buildup of journalists paralleled the military buildup. In one year, the number of accredited correspondents in Vietnam ballooned from less than one hundred to over six hundred. Leroy scrambled, wanting to take advantage of her newfound success. She was making a name for herself and believed her colleagues should treat her as a legitimate member of the press corps. She wanted respect. Instead, she was ostracized. 

The reasons given were couched in personal terms. Leroy was pushy, ambitious, shoving to get on a helicopter to the battlefield or back to Saigon with her film. She had no manners. In the field, she could be a hothead. When she didn’t get her way, she would flare up, sometimes using profanity. She swore. 

It made no difference that male reporters and photographers also had tempers, also swore, also threw their weight around to get what they wanted, and also were ambitious. Leroy was expected to be lady-like. She was an interloper who had become an affront to the profession. It came down to her gender: she didn’t belong because she wasn’t a guy. 

Alain Taieb, a French photographer, had briefly befriended her, seeing her as a lost soul, until he realized she was serious and was actually becoming a real war photographer. For him, this was impossible. She was strange and small; she tied her Leica camera around her neck with a shoelace. He told her that being a photographer in Vietnam was a boy’s job, not a girl’s job. In no time, he and other French journalists refused to work with her. “We would tell her—you can’t come with us—you are bothering us—this is for boys.” 

And they insisted that she wasn’t qualified: “She had no money, no job, no manners, no nothing.” This was also absurd. Taieb had arrived in Vietnam with no experience, no money, and no job — exactly like Leroy. 

Catherine Leroy was astounded that her colleagues had betrayed her. She wrote her mother that Taieb and another French photographer were acting like “real bastards.” 

Decades later, Taieb apologized to her and said he was “not very proud of the way we treated her.”

The worst was yet to come. Some reporters decided to lobby the US military for Leroy’s official exclusion. On October 1, 1966, Franc?ois Pelou, bureau chief of Agence France-Presse—the equivalent of the dean of the French press corps—went behind Leroy’s back and denounced her in a complaint to the US military press office. He said her behavior “cast reflections upon the whole press corps to the extent that others are having difficulty winning the cooperation of troops after she leaves an area.” 

Once Pelou broke the ice, others followed. 

Leroy became a target. Peter Arnett, who won a Pulitzer Prize for his Vietnam coverage for the Associated Press, wrote in his memoir that he saw Leroy swear at an aircraft commander at Dang Ha when she was told there was no room for her in his helicopter. Another reporter wrote an anonymous complaint about that incident in Dang Ha to MACV, and it became a second strike against her. A male reporter engaging in such behavior would have generated no protest whatsoever. 

Filed alongside that complaint was a handwritten note from a local American commander at Dang Ha, warning an official in Da Nang that “the unwashed one” was heading his way. 

That “unwashed” slur is a classic and grotesque insult against women as old as the Bible. Unclean and unwashed referred to women who were impure because they were menstruating or were women of loose morals. Unwashed women were isolated and denigrated. Taken literally, the accusation against Leroy didn’t make sense. All journalists covering the battlefield stunk until they got home to Saigon and a hot shower. But it made for an easy insult against her that resonated. It stayed in her file permanently. 

Other military spokesmen piled on. One wrote an unsigned note: “Why can’t we remove one ugly Caucasian from the Far Eastern scene? Isn’t the evidence sufficient to lift accreditation?” 

That became the goal: create a thick secret file, nicknamed “the black book,” that would justify taking away Catherine Leroy’s press credentials so she couldn’t work. 

Another poison dart read: “An unnamed American correspondent reported . . . that Miss Leroy seems to be doing all she can to discredit the efforts that American troops are making to win the war. She criticizes their work, food, and efforts to help her get her material, and twists facts to suit her purpose of discrediting their actions.” 

That accusation against Leroy was outrageous. Her politics were more conservative than were most of her colleagues, and she was one of the biggest boosters of the military. She told anyone who would listen: “I love the Marines.” And she did. 

One of the most serious charges in the secret file came from the Marine media liaison officer who wrote on October 20, 1966, that Leroy was “not welcome” aboard the USS Repose hospital ship because she used “coarse and profane language” and acted in an “arrogant and obnoxious” manner when making demands. T. M. Fields, deputy of information in the Information Office of MACV wrote: “This continues to damage the otherwise-excellent relations in the I Corps area between the military units and members of the press . . . and is unfair to the many sincere and responsible reporters who deport themselves in a proper manner.” 

Her colleagues did not stand up for her. As Peter Arnett wrote: “The Vietnam press corps was a male bastion that women entered only at the risk of being humiliated and patronized; the prevailing view was that the war was being fought by men against men, and women had no place there.”

Instead, Arnett said, the men actively worked against the women. “We reporters tended to disparage the abilities of women and gossip about them and their relationships, and were uninterested in helping them out with the authorities.” 

But, when the military moved to take away her press credentials, they had a problem. Leroy had obeyed the basic rules. She had not violated security considerations endangering troops, written bad checks, assaulted military spokesmen, or fabricated journalistic credentials. They had to make up an offense, and, in a wicked twist, the military said she was being suspended because her obnoxious behavior hurt her fellow journalists. “Her actions were such as to alienate working relationships with military personnel to such an extent as to make it difficult for newsmen to function effectively.” 

On October 24, 1966, Colonel Rodger R. Bankson, chief of information at MACV, officially suspended her press credentials: 

“Miss Le Roy,” he wrote, “Since my last letter to you, we have received additional reports concerning your conduct while associated with military units in the capacity of a correspondent. These incidents are of such a serious nature that a decision has been made not to renew your MACV accreditation. You are requested to turn in your present accreditation card to the Special Projects Division on 30 October. Sincerely yours.” 

Without her press credentials, her photojournalism career in Vietnam would be over. The military even sent letters to her outlets in Paris to tell them that her behavior had led them to suspend her credentials. No stone was unturned to ruin her career just weeks after it had finally blossomed. 

Leroy panicked. She “felt like jumping in the Mekong.” She had been shoved out the door by the military with the assistance of some of her colleagues. She was furious. If the ban was not lifted, she would be forced to return to Paris and work in a dreary “insurance office.” She was so humiliated that, for weeks, she couldn’t write her parents or anyone else. For the first time in her young life, Leroy couldn’t resolve her difficulties by simply running away. 

Instead, she had to learn to stand her ground and fight back, quickly. She was told that the most serious charge of bad behavior was made by officials from the hospital ship Repose. She got in touch with her host on the ship, and three days after MACV revoked her press credentials, Lt. Paul E. Pedisich of the Navy’s Seventh Fleet’s information office sent a short, unequivocal message to MACV that rebutted the charge against Leroy. It read in full: 

“Miss Leroy conducted herself in a complete, charming and lady-like manner while on board the REPOSE. Left with warm invitation to return whenever she could.” 

With this courtly description of Leroy, the top official of the USS Repose hospital ship denied that she had been a nasty, foul-mouthed woman or that she was no longer welcome on his ship.

While some friends in the press were less sympathetic, her strongest supporter was the man whose opinion counted the most: Horst Faas, at AP. He wrote a letter attesting to her professional standing and dispelling any hint that she was an unwelcome colleague or a fraud. Writing on the Associated Press letterhead, Faas used the clear, commercial language of success: Leroy’s photographs were good enough to be published in the highly competitive world market. She had sold spot photographs and photograph series she had taken of combat operations in all of the US military corps areas in Vietnam, earning at least $1,000 (which was the equivalent of $7,900 in 2019) after only seven months in Vietnam.

In other words, Leroy was not the uncouth amateur undermining her colleagues, as portrayed in that black book of complaints; nor was she a vagabond who should be dismissed as a frivolous woman seeking adventure, as her male colleagues called women freelancers. 

Bryce Miller, bureau manager of United Press International, followed Horst Faas with a more perfunctory note “to certify” that UPI had purchased photographs from Leroy and “will consider any pictures in the future she may have to submit.” 

Leroy’s reputation, though, would never recover. From then on, she was branded a spitfire and a troublemaker, an uncouth, foul-mouthed woman. 

The story spread through Saigon. When she went to the Continental Hotel to collect her mail, Mr. Le, the manager, said he had received a letter from her father, who was worried when she hadn’t written home in weeks. He handed her a second letter from her mother. She read it over a drink at the hotel’s terrace bar and wrote her family back. “My problems were serious, and I wasn’t in the mood to not take it seriously,” she wrote. “Things are going better today.” 

She backed away from much of the press corps. She didn’t know who to trust and was slightly punch-drunk from the battle to keep her press card. She sought other people to mix with, including men. In the free atmosphere of Saigon, Leroy was beginning to enjoy casual sex as much as her male colleagues did. As she wrote her mother in her usual frank fashion, she would have fun when she wasn’t working and lead a life “without problems of guys and romance. I take romance where I can get it. I’m keeping my heart for other things. It’s not egoism. I call it experience.” 

She found ways to mix pleasure with work. Whenever possible, she took an extra day from the field to swim at one of the magnificent but largely empty beaches. She turned an assignment for AP into a short vacation at Vung Tau, the old French beach resort known as Cap St. Jacques, sunbathing on the rocks and swimming in the ocean. In Saigon, she swam in hotel pools. At night, she photographed GIs in bars like the San Francisco, Blue Moon, Number One, and Chez Mimi, ending up across the river on a strip called Soul Alley, where the bars played soul music with a heavy emphasis on Aretha Franklin and James Brown. 

She occasionally sought out the younger English-speaking crowd closer to her age and temperament — like the photographer Tim Page and CBS television journalist John Laurence. She could relax around them because they required no apologies from her and made no judgments about her behavior. When she needed a place to crash, their door was open. 
Page, who became one of the most famous photographers of the war, had a special respect for Leroy. He was amazed at how hard she had to work to prove her talent as the first woman on the scene with a camera, made all the more difficult as a French woman in an American war. “She became a loner in the purest sense, broke the mold, defied odds that few others could have faced.”

Since Leroy spent so much time in the field, a lot of her socializing with Laurence was at the Marine Corps press center in Da Nang, where the food was reasonably good and the drinks were cheap. He considered the gossip about her being unclean and unkempt as mean-spirited nonsense. “Of course, you look dirty and smell foul after you’ve spent a few days in the field with the troops . . . To single her out for criticism on that count was wrong.”

A few months after she redeemed her accreditation, Leroy was selected as the only accredited journalist to parachute with the troops in Operation Junction City. Finally, she was back, triumphantly wearing her master jump wings. 

Her photographs of the assault were impressive, dramatically framing the parachutes in the broad sky, illustrating the size and strength of one of the largest US Army offensives of the war. But Operation Junction City itself was a wash, at best. Over six weeks, US aircraft bombed villages, and 25,000 American and South Vietnamese troops were sent to find even a trace of the COSVN (Central Office for South Vietnam), the communist headquarters. 

There was heavy fighting with the Liberation Army of South Vietnam, the official army of the communists of the South known as the Viet Cong. The Americans reported heavy damage to the enemy, bombing communist positions and destroying acres of jungles and fields. During the offensive, nearly 7,000 Vietnamese civilians fled the fighting, becoming part of the refugee exodus filling the slums and suburbs of the cities of the south. Officially, 2,728 enemy soldiers were killed, while 282 American soldiers died. 

The US military declared the mission “inconclusive.” The Vietnamese communists had controlled the tempo, choosing when and where to engage with the Americans. After a few months, the American troops withdrew, recalled to other battles, and the Vietnamese communists quietly returned. The US military concluded from Operation Junction City that airborne assaults were not suitable in the guerilla wars of Vietnam. 

On the ground, they found systems of tunnels under the villages, signaling that the communists had local control, if not support, and could evade conventional tactics, even from a force with such superior firepower. By year’s end, the military was even questioning the value of big operations. 

Instead, Vietnam became the first helicopter war. Army air cavalry units used helicopter formations in combat for the first time to find and attack enemy forces and transport US forces to battle. Helicopters also carried out the wounded, and supplied troops in the field, as they had in the Korean War. 

The disappointing military results of Operation Junction City did not dampen Catherine Leroy’s pride. She wrote to her father: “I’ve always thought I should succeed because I never gave in.” She signed it with “warm kisses, and to Mommy, too, C. Leroy.” 

After that near career-ending episode, she was even more driven to prove her worth. She won awards never before given to women, and changed the look of war photography. 

Leroy’s press credentials were soon jeopardized again. In 1967, all female journalists were put on notice that the US military was planning to reimpose a lighter version of the World War II regulations prohibiting them from reporting on the front line. The military still didn’t believe women belonged in a war zone. 

This ban was triggered by a fluke encounter in April 1967 between Denby Fawcett, a former women’s page reporter for the Honolulu Star-Bulletin newspaper, and General Westmoreland. Fawcett, who had a degree from Columbia University, had left the society pages, paid her own way to Saigon, and become the Honolulu Advertiser newspaper’s stringer in Vietnam. A careful journalist with the looks of the actress Sally Field, Fawcett had had to convince unit commanders that she was sturdy enough to report from combat areas.

 At the beginning, many refused her, some saying that she reminded them of their daughters, and they didn’t want to see her in harm’s way. Finally, the Marines gave her permission, and she accompanied a unit in I Corps, proving her mettle. Then she ran into Westmoreland. 

Fawcett was in the Central Highlands reporting with a unit from Hawaii — the First Battalion, Eighth Infantry of the Fourth Infantry Division — when General Westmoreland made an unannounced visit. After pep talks to improve troop morale after heavy fighting, he continued with inspections and was surprised to see Fawcett with the troops. 

He knew her as the daughter of friends in Honolulu, where the two families were neighbors. His wife played tennis with her mother. After pleasantries, the general asked Fawcett how long she had been at the forward base. “Several days,” she answered, believing it was part of a friendly exchange. 

It was nothing of the sort. Back in Saigon, Westmoreland was furious that any woman would stay days and nights on a forward base. His concern wasn’t cloaked in a denunciation of her character, as it had been with Leroy. He framed it simply as a question of gender. The commander of US forces in Vietnam did not believe that women belonged near the fighting. 

As explained to Fawcett, Westmoreland feared women “might inconvenience or endanger soldiers who would rush to protect us.” He also worried that women correspondents would collapse emotionally when “faced with the horrors of war.” Westmoreland proposed a compromise edict that would prohibit women journalists from spending nights with troops in the field. It wasn’t a complete imposition of the World War II ban, but it might as well have been. 

By requiring a commander to guarantee that any woman journalist would travel to and from a battle in a single day, the top commander was asking the impossible. 

The handful of women journalists in Saigon recognized that their “livelihoods are being destroyed.” Five American women, largely strangers to one another, set up an ad hoc committee to fight the ban. 

With her gritty reputation and recent run-in with MACV, Catherine Leroy was asked to be one of the ten women who signed a letter asking that the edict be nullified. 

The American women then petitioned the Pentagon to drop the proposed Westmoreland ban, as the MACV accreditation was under its auspices. Ann Bryan, editor of Overseas Weekly, an alternative newspaper for GIs, wrote a history of women war correspondents to buttress their position that women were as qualified as men to cover battles ,and were no more likely to cause problems than their male counterparts. They sent their request to Defense Secretary McNamara and invited him to meet them on his next trip to Saigon.
McNamara said he would listen to their argument. On a visit to Saigon, he sent Phil G. Goulding, the deputy assistant secretary of defense for public affairs, to meet with the women. They included Jurate Kazickas, a freelance reporter who went on a quiz-game program to win her airfare to Saigon, and Anne Morrissy, a young but seasoned field producer who had convinced ABC news to send her on a three-month assignment to Vietnam. (She extended her tour to nine months.) 

As the group’s unofficial leader, Morrissy spent an afternoon and an evening of martinis with Goulding, keeping him on topic. Before long, it became clear to her that the ban was unsustainable and that Goulding knew it. 

Goulding told Morrissy that the Westmoreland’s proposed ban “would be lifted and we could go back out in the field.”

MACV officials added one stipulation to demonstrate to Westmoreland that they took his concerns seriously. The ten women journalists in Saigon—either resident or visiting—had to sign a letter addressed to any new female journalist working in Vietnam “asking them not to place the burden on the field commanders on whether it is safe for the girls to stay overnight in battle areas.” In other words, the women had to promise not to ask for special treatment or protection that wasn’t given to male journalists. In fact, the women had made no such requests in the first place. 

All ten women, including Leroy, signed the letter. Women were still on a leash, even though the ban was effectively shelved. 

No one publicized the near expulsion. The women never wrote stories about it or told their male colleagues. Fawcett found it embarrassing. She had been blocked from the field so many times in her early days that she knew better than to bring up the subject. The other women agreed. Too many in the military still felt women didn’t belong there. 

They waited 35 years to tell that story. 

Nonetheless, the impact of their pushback was profound. They had removed the American military’s biggest impediment to women war correspondents. The United States military never again attempted to prohibit women reporters en masse from the battlefield. 

This was the only time the women journalists banded together, let alone as sisters or even friends. Afterward, they went their separate ways, cut off by their work, by the stress of proving their professionalism, and by the pace of war. Jurate Kazickas called it a “very, very lonely time” without the company of other women. 

For Cathy Leroy, her career saved from a second near-collapse, the next step was simple: She informed her parents that, despite her promises to come home, she was staying on. 

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