Margaret Bourke-White: The First Woman to Fly on a Combat Mission with the US Air force
Margaret Bourke-White has the unique distinction of not only being the first woman to fly aboard a US bombing mission but more importantly of being the first female war correspondent and combat photographer.
By the outbreak of World War Two Margaret was already a well established photojournalist, becoming LIFE magazine’s first female photographer in 1935, having documented Depression-era America during the 1930s. She produced one of the most iconic photographs of the period while covering the impact of floods in Kentucky with her photograph ‘Kentucky Flood’. Which showed a breadline juxtaposed against a billboard boasting America’s high living standard becoming one of the period’s most powerful images.
'Kentucky Flood' victims, 1937 (source)
During the late 1930s she had travelled Europe extensively documenting Nazi Germany and Soviet Russia. It was in Russia that Bourke-White took her first combat photographs - of a German air-raid on Moscow on 22nd June 1941. The US Government was reluctant to allow a woman to act as a war correspondent covering US military operations, however she persevered, lobbying tirelessly to cover combat operations, and was eventually allowed to join US forces in Europe.
In 1942, Bourke-White began covering US bomber crews stationed in England during their day-time raids on Nazi Germany. On the 22nd January 1943, she became the first woman to fly on board a US combat mission. Some of the photographs she took can be seen above (images #3, 4 & 5). A month later she boarded the Africa-bound troopship SS Strathallan to cover the Allied campaign in North Africa however, the ship was torpedoed on the 22nd February - she continued to photograph as the ship was evacuated and sank. When the Allies invaded Europe Margaret accompanied US forces during the Spring 1945 campaign and was one of the first journalists to reach the Buchenwald concentration camp, documenting the horror on film (see image #6), she later described “using a camera was almost a relief. It interposed a slight barrier between myself and the horror in front of me.”
Bourke-White preparing to photograph a wagon load of Concentration Camp victims at Buchenwald, april 1945 (source)
Her work was widely published and featured heavily in LIFE magazine, during the late 1940s she travelled to India and captured an iconic photograph of Gandhi reading during the partition of India.
Gandhi & His Spinning Wheel (source)
Sadly, in 1953 she was diagnosed with Parkinson’s Disease which eventually ended her photography career, although she went on to become a successful author writing half a dozen books before she passed away at the age of 67 in 1971. Margaret Bourke-White was undoubtedly one of the most groundbreaking female journalists of the 20th century paving the way for many women who would follow her. Her skill as a photographer and the iconic images she captured, many of which remain instantly recognisable today, mean that she has an almost unparalleled legacy.
Image One Source
Image Two Source
Image 3-5 Source
Image Six Source
Glass Warriors: The Camera at War, Duncan Anderson, 2005
You can view more of Margaret Bourke-White’s brilliant work on LIFE’s website here.