Catherine Leroy wanted to become a photojournalist and cover the Vietnam war. So in 1966, she left her birthplace in Paris to go to Indochina. She “wanted to give the war a face,” as she put it.
When she left Paris at 21 years old she purchased a one-way ticket and had scarcely $150 in her pocket.
Catherine paid her own way to get to the war, arriving first in Laos without a point of contact or accommodations. She was left to her own devices to get herself embedded into various combat units and observe the lives of soldiers in combat. She only sported a Leica M2 camera.
Celebrating women’s achievements
As aggressive as Catherine was, she managed well in getting accepted into the positions she wanted and quickly gained the respect of her peers.
A year later in 1967, she became the first accredited photojournalist to make an airborne jump onto an enemy contested Drop Zone. The jump took place during an operation called Junction City where Catherine Leroy was embedded with the renowned 173rd Airborne Brigade in the Tay Ninh province of South Vietnam.
Catherine had vaulted through a good-many circus hoops to get permission to make the combat jump with the 173rd.
Qualification could have been the fatal speed bump for her, however, it turned out that she was a parachute aficionado as a kid growing up. She had 84 parachute jumps back home, so she was given permission and jump number 85 became the combat jump with the 173rd Airborne Brigade — bragging rights!
Related: Cowboy: A Legendary Commando in America’s Secret War in Vietnam
Catherine Leroy was saved by a camera
Catherine’s photos began to draw attention, appearing in such publications as Time, Life, and Look magazines.
When the 1968 Têt (New Year’s) Offensive exploded she made her way with U.S. Marines to the violently-contested ancient imperial city of Hué. She perused the front lines, lived in the field, and ate the same field ration food that the Marines ate.
During her time in Hué, she was captured by some North Vietnamese Army (NVA) soldiers and held in captivity for a time until she managed to convince her captors that she was a French citizen and photojournalist. While in captivity she managed to conduct an interview with some of the NVA soldiers guarding her and capture a number of photos thus becoming the first photojournalist to take pictures of NVA troops behind their lines.
At one point in her adventure, Catherine was peppered with splinters from an explosion. She survived, but her wounds put her in a field hospital for a lengthy spell. She credits her camera for saving her life, as it had received a severe Impact from the blast which destroyed it.
By Almighty God and with honor,
Irene B says
Good on her! Sometimes you have to do what it takes to get the pictures that you want to get out into the world and who as a photographer can say they’ve made a combat jump with the 173rd. Good stuff Geo. Thank you!
george E. Hand IV says
Exactly, Ms. Irene… they don’t even make a parachute harness that fits her and it take at least 80lbs to break the pack tray open to release the parachute.
Catherine may have been driven to be a photojournalist that depicted Vietnam warfare in all its glory, but I suspect the many soldiers would have been irritated by her presence. Staying alive would have been top priority along with keeping your colleagues protected. A young female who place ambitions before safety?…Like I said…An irritation.