Although Catherine Leroy may not be a household name, her work covering the Vietnam War really deserves to be better known. Leroy arrived in Vietnam with no experience as a photojournalist but her tenacity and bravery soon found her work making the covers of major publications like Life Magazine. Here is her story.
Catherine Leroy was born in Sannois in the Paris suburbs on August 27, 1944. After high school, Leroy briefly studied music at the Conservatory of Music and considered a career as a classical pianist. She ultimately dropped out of college and began working to save enough money to pursue her real passion in life, which was to work as a photojournalist. Leroy said in an interview that as a child “photojournalists were my heroes. When I looked at Paris Match as a girl, to me that was an extraordinary window to the world.”
So, infused with a spirit of adventure and her passion for photojournalism Leroy bought a one-way ticket to Vietnam in February 1966 aged just 21 and having with her only $200 and a Leica M2 camera. Leroy arrived in Vietnam with no professional experience as a photojournalist and as she put it herself, “she had never heard a shot in anger.”
Leroy somewhat, fortunately, met a friend of Life magazine photojournalist Charles Bonnay on her flight to Vietnam, who then introduced her to Bonnay who was in Vietnam covering the war. Bonnay helped Leroy to obtain her press credentials and she began working for a French picture agency before freelancing for both United Press International and Associated Press. At that time Leroy was earning just $15 per published picture.
Leroy entered a male-dominated environment and at the time she was the only female war photographer in Vietnam following the death of Dickey Chapelle, who had been killed by a grenade in 1965. Despite her diminutive stature, (Leroy was just five feet tall and weighed about 85 pounds) she quickly immersed herself in this hostile new world and spent the majority of her time in Vietnam alongside the soldiers in battle. Leroy captured some iconic images of the Vietnam War, but she did not promote herself or her work, so she remained virtually anonymous to the general public.
In 1967, Leroy became the only accredited photojournalist in Vietnam to make a combat jump when she jumped alongside the 173rd Airborne Brigade during Operation Junction City. Although false rumours were circulated at the time that Leroy had only been given permission to jump alongside the paratroopers because she had slept with a colonel, the truth was that Leroy was an accomplished parachutist. Leroy had gained her parachuting licence as a teenager and had completed 84 jumps prior to her combat jump alongside the 173rd. The following morning after her jump, Brig. General John R. Dean pinned on her fatigues the paratrooper wings and a gold star signifying a combat jump.