Catherine Leroy

War photographer who brought the horror of the Vietnam conflict home to the American public


Catherine Leroy, war photographer: born Paris 1944; died Santa Monica, California 8 July 2006.

Standing five feet tall in her boots, weighing six and a half stone and peeking from between blonde pigtails, Catherine Leroy was surely the most unlikely-looking war photographer you could meet. And yet she made her presence felt at least as much as any of her contemporaries, male or female, and there weren't many of the latter when she started out.

Born in Paris around the time of the city's liberation in 1944, Leroy reckoned war was in her blood. She became one of the most renowned war photographers of the 20th century, alongside such names as Larry Burrows and Don McCullin, bringing the horror of the Vietnam conflict home to the American public.

She was the first newsperson, male or female, to parachute into combat with US forces, and the first to photograph the Vietcong behind their own lines after she was captured during the Tet offensive but charmed her way to freedom. When she was wounded by a mortar round, she believed it would have killed her had her sturdy Nikon F2 not stopped the biggest piece of shrapnel.

Brought up in a convent but moved by images of war she had seen in Paris Match, Leroy decided she wanted to "give war a human face". She had never been outside France when she bought a one-way ticket to Laos in 1966 at the age of 21, with a single Leica M2 in her bag, $100 in her pocket, three words of English - all of them unprintable - and the name of a contact in Saigon. He was the legendary photographer Horst Faas, bureau chief of the Associated Press.

Faas had seen young wannabe war photographers come and go. Or more often than not, die. But he admired this elfin figure's pluck, and her three colourful words in a throaty French accent, so he promised her $15 a picture if she got back from the front lines in one piece. She did, over and over again, her photos appearing in the leading pictorial magazines of the day, Life and Look.

Her most famous pictures were three shot in quick succession, but without a motor-drive, showing a young US marine corpsman (medic), Vernon Wike, crouched in tall grass in 1967 during the battle for Hill 881 near Khe Sanh. He is cradling a comrade who had just been shot by a Vietcong guerrilla.

In the first frame, Wike, still smoking the cigarette he had lit before the shooting, has both hands on his buddy's chest, trying to staunch the wound. In the second, he is trying to detect a heartbeat. In the third, perhaps her most famous, image, known as Corpsman in Anguish, he has just realised his buddy is dead. Leroy later recalled that Wike then ran from cover, shooting and yelling, "I'm gonna kill them all!" He survived.

She covered Vietnam, on and off, until the fall of Saigon and later moved on to other conflicts and revolutions, from Northern Ireland and Cyprus to Iran and Lebanon. Her dramatic pictures in the book God Cried (1983), with a moving text by the British correspondent Tony Clifton of Newsweek, depicted the effects of the 1982 Israeli invasion of Lebanon and the massacre of Palestinians in the Sabra and Shatila camps the same year. It was first published in England by Naim Attallah.

In 1972, Leroy shot a documentary titled Operation Last Patrol, about anti-war Vietnam veterans, notably Ron Kovic. The film inspired Kovic to write his 1976 book Born on the Fourth of July, which in turn became a movie of the same name starring Tom Cruise as Kovic.

Leroy's book Under Fire: great photographers and writers in Vietnam, featuring images taken in Vietnam by herself and other photographers, was published last year.

Over the past decade, Leroy, who had long since cast aside her combat gear and headband in favour of avant-garde fashion, concentrated on a haute couture business in California called Piéce Unique while continuing to sell prints of her classic Vietnam photos with much of the profits going to the US Veterans' Association. Few of her friends knew she had lung cancer.

Admitting she was shell-shocked after Vietnam, Leroy said she used to feel terrible guilt at leaving behind young American soldiers she had "shot" in the field, many of whom would die, while she returned to Saigon to clean sheets, good food and fine French wine. To atone, she became known to the soldiers on the frontlines as "the woman with the wine" whom they went from calling LEE-roy to Lih-WAH, the best French they could manage.

"I never really had any trouble being a woman in Vietnam," she said in the 2002 book Shooting under Fire by Peter Howe:

I was never propositioned or found myself in a difficult situation sexually. When you spend days and nights in the field, you're just as miserable as the men - and you smell so bad anyway.

Basically you're just trying to survive. But I made myself quite popular because I'm tiny. I'm five feet tall and I have no strength, so what I did instead of carrying C rations was bring the wine. I had found a place in Saigon that was importing Beaujolais in a can. I'd take a six-pack and maybe one or two C rations, which was the maximum I could carry, in my poncho liner . . .

We would share everything - you know, you take care of your buddy and your buddy takes care of you. The fact that I was a woman didn't make any difference. I would help them dig a hole, and we would sleep in it, and there was never any problem, ever.

Phil Davison

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