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Catherine Leroy Parachutes into Danger

When the Pentagon wanted a photographer to record the largest airborne assault in the Vietnam War, the most qualified candidate was a young French woman.

He told her as much. “I’m not used to a young woman photographer,” he said. “I don’t know how you’ll be perceived out there. Maybe you should concentrate on the Vietnamese and life in Saigon — pictures that war photographers normally wouldn’t like to take.”

Leroy would have none of it. “No, no,” she answered back. “I am a paratrooper.”

Faas laughed: “You — a paratrooper — I can’t believe it.”

Luckily for her, beneath his daunting facade, Faas had a distinctly open-minded attitude within his profession. A German born in Berlin in 1933 who had grown up with war’s sorrows, he worked easily with photographers from around the world. They all respected him, not only for his evident talent, but because he was fair, decisive, and exceedingly hardworking. And he gave them a chance to prove themselves.

During the battle at Khe Sanh, Leroy was wounded by mortar fire while embedded with the Marines near Hill 881, but her Nikon F2 stopped the largest piece of shrapnel.

But women? Faas’s policy as photo editor, then a rarity, was to buy good photographs, no matter who took them. Even, now, from a woman. During that first meeting, they spoke in French. Leroy barely remembered English from her party days in London, although she had already started to Americanize her name, introducing herself as Cathy.

Faas gave her several rolls of film, an essential gift, since freelancers couldn’t afford to buy their own. Then he delivered his routine conditions leavened with his dry humor. Once you’ve taken your photographs, bring back the film and AP will develop it in the bureau’s darkroom. Photographers receive $15 for every photo purchased by AP, and AP retains the copyright on all these photos. No discussion.

With Faas’s implicit encouragement, Leroy won a degree of legitimacy denied to other young women who had to spend months proving they were good enough to even be considered for freelance work.

Her first time under fire, Leroy instinctively ran for cover and joined a group of Vietnamese who had been chased from their homes. They gave her a bowl of soup and chopsticks. “This is delicious,” she said in French, and then ran further to avoid the fighting as it closed in.

“I ended up near a shop making headstones.” She took more pictures of Vietnamese civilians—children as well as adults “huddled under sniper fire behind gravestones in the stone mason’s yard.” It was a chaotic insurrection with no sign of communist propagandists or provocation.