Meet 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.”
Miss Bourke-White in regalia of air photographer.
Flying Fortress is photographed by Margaret Bourke-White as it heads east along cloud-banked Mediterranean coast to bomb Axis airport near Tunis.
Casino: Bomber Wing Headquarters
Planning the mission at Bomber Wing Headquarters, operations and intelligence officers carefully study maps of the proposed target, El Auina airfield near Tunis. The gaming table on which the charts are spread belonged to occupants of pre-war days.
"Little Bill" B-17 Bomber Crew
Ball turret gunner Sgt. James M. Abbott, holding onto one of the 50-cal. waist machine guns as he takes off his warm high altitude clothing upon return from a successful bombing mission.
B17 bomber crew sharing bombing raid details of target in Tunis in North Africa with intelligence officers, during WWII.
Bomber Wing HQ in North Africa
12th Air Force Commanding officers standing at blackboard as they brief pilots, crews & maintenance ground crews at Bomber Wing HQ in an old Dutch palace, an hour before their B-17 Flying Fortress bombers head for their targets in Tunisia.