Vietnam -- A reporter's reluctance to return
Like many veterans of the Vietnam War, journalists who covered the war carry memories of that time, both good and bad. For me, it was the best of times and the worst of times. The best of times because I was a young reporter covering the biggest news story in the world, and the worst of times because of the friends, colleagues and servicemen I came to know who were lost there.
And though it's been some 42 years since I left Vietnam in November 1968, the memories I stored away during the two years that I covered the war remain as fresh and often painful as if they happened yesterday. So it was with some reluctance that I decided to return to Vietnam, in part to satisfy my reporter's curiosity about the changes that have occurred there, economically and politically, but also to close the circle on those ghosts that have haunted me ever since I left.
This year marks the 35th anniversary of the end of the war with the fall of Saigon, and a three-day reunion of journalists who covered the war. While there have been several previous reunions of reporters in Ho Chi Minh City (formerly Saigon), this one is special. Journalists are coming together, motivated by the memory of Hugh Van Es, a Dutch photographer and colleague, who took the iconic photograph of a CIA helicopter rescuing the last, escaping Vietnamese and American civilians from a Saigon rooftop on April 30, 1975, as the city fell to North Vietnamese troops. It was a photo that would bring him international fame, but not fortune; only a $150 bonus from UPI who owned the photo.
In May 2009 at age 67, Van Es suffered a brain hemorrhage and lay unconscious for a week before he died in a Hong Kong hospital. His friend, Derek Williams, a former CBS sound man during the war, contacted old colleagues on the Internet and condolences rolled in to Hugh's wife, Annie. The list of Van Es' friends has since expanded into a members-only Google discussion group called "Vietnam Old Hacks" that now numbers 257 members. Anyone can view the group correspondence, but only members can post. About six to 10 postings appear each day on a wide variety of subjects mostly sharing nostalgia for the Vietnam war years and inquiring about old friends -- both dead and alive. Sometimes long forgotten controversies will crop up and tempers flare, but are controlled by the steady hand of Carl Robinson, a former AP reporter who serves as group mediator and coordinator of the reunions.
The reunions -- one in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, on April 21 and in Ho Chi Minh City a week later -- will bring together old friends and colleagues for the first time in decades. But remembering the 73 journalists and 135 photographers who were killed covering the war will be an underlying theme of the get together.
Beyond the reunion, I will revisit memories of battles covered, friends lost, and other experiences that left a permanent mark on my psyche. Some of those include:
"¢ Being wounded three weeks after arriving in-country covering a Marine Medevac helicopter unit going into a "hot" LZ (landing zone) to evacuate wounded Marines.
"¢ During my recuperation, observing critically wounded Marines losing their personal battles for survival at the Navy field hospital at Marble Mountain. The Intensive Care Unit there was known as the "Ward of White Lies": "You hold their hand and tell them they're going to make it," said a corpsman, "when the odds are 10-to-1 they won't."
"¢ My four-day odyssey near the Cambodian Border with a 4th Infantry Division LURP (Long Range Reconnaissance Patrol) that was nearly discovered by a platoon of Viet Cong who passed within 6 feet of our night ambush site during a monsoon rain storm..
"¢ Covering the start of the Tet Offensive from atop a Marine bunker at Khe Sanh in February 1968 while dodging incoming NVA rockets from the surrounding hills.
"¢ The body bags of dead Marines lying side-by-side like cordwood beside the Perfume River opposite the Citadel waiting for transfer to Graves Registration. Some 216 Marines and soldiers were killed and 1,609 wounded in the month-long battle to recapture the city of Hue from the North Vietnamese Army. The South Vietnamese Army suffered more than 400 dead and 2500 wounded in the battle.
"¢ Observing the decapitation of a Vietnamese street peddler killed by a VC rocket in downtown Saigon in May 1968.
I still have a problem coming to terms with the deaths of friends and colleagues who died there doing their jobs. Why them and not me? After all, we each rolled the dice every time we stepped onto a chopper headed for a hot LZ, hoping the dice didn't come up snake eyes.
If I have one treasured memory from that time in my life, it was the bravery and discipline under enemy fire demonstrated by the young Marines, soldiers, and airmen I met there who never received a proper appreciation or salute for their service. Many of them were draftees who didn't want to be there, but they did their duty and protected the back of the man beside them. They were all heroes in my book -- those who survived and those who didn't.
One scene remains starkly imbedded in my mind: a sign on a Marine Command Post at Khe Sanh during the siege at Tet. It read, "For those who fight for it, life has a flavor the protected will never know."
Robert Stokes, a Westport resident, covered the war in Vietnam for nearly two years in l967 and l968, first as a freelance journalist, and then as permanent staff for Newsweek magazine He later joined Life magazine, where he served as an associate editor and covered the Attica State Prison riot in 1971. In 1980, Dell published Stokes' first novel, Walking Wounded, which was based on his war experiences.