WORLD WAR II Behind the Picture: The First Woman to Fly with a U.S. Combat Crew Over Enemy Soil

Photographer Margaret Bourke-White — LIFE Magazine’s first female staff photographer — helped women in her profession reach new heights when she became the first female photographer accredited to cover World War II combat zones.

This 1943 self-portrait shows her decked out in a fleece flight suit in front of the Flying Fortress bomber from which she had photographed, from four miles in the air, an attack on Tunis, soaring above the cloud-banked Mediterranean coast to become “the first woman ever to fly with a U.S. combat crew over enemy soil,” as the magazine declared in its Mar. 1, 1943, issue.

Fighter planes swooped in and attacked, and bombs downed 40 German planes in what was considered a “highly successful raid.”

And this was no cushy gig: It was so cold that LIFE noted that she had to pinch her oxygen mask periodically to “dislodge chunks of frozen breath, which threatened to clog the feed line.”

Her images, the magazine said, “are important, not only for their coverage of a well-executed local operation, but as a record of one typical chapter in the increasing Allied air offensive in Africa,” at a time when that part of the Air Force had “experienced more continuous combat action than any other Army branch in Africa.”

When the magazine asked if she ever got scared during the shoot, she said she felt quite the opposite: “The sound and movement were so rhythmic. It was like music—and so reassuring.”

And this is why her colleagues nicknamed her “Maggie the Indestructible.”



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