The Vietnam War had to be the most accessible, ongoing trauma in history. From the late 1950s to 1975 literally hundreds of journalists from all over the world poked their heads in at one time or another to check out the war, do a little dance with death and pop out again. But many stayed for months and years at a time, taking only brief "R&R's" to Hong Kong, Jakarta, Bangkok and other exotic ports of call to recharge their batteries, pick up the latest stereo and camera gear and head back to Saigon. Vietnam was a photographer's dream. With your Military Assistance Command Vietnam ID card you could hitch rides on anything that flew. It was your ticket to combat, GI food, a place to sleep, comrades in arms and PX privileges. There was also a downside. A lot of people in Vietnam were trying to kill one another. Getting too close to the point of impact could be fatal. There were no referees in stripped shirts to whistle you back to the sidelines or cops telling you to get behind the yellow tape. You could push fate as far as you wanted. "Shooters" who got the best pictures played it like a rubber band and sometimes it snapped.
In October 1967, I was minding my own business, running a photo department at the Wilmington News-Journal in Delaware. I was 29 and in my third year of experiencing life outside of Kansas. The phone rang and Charlie McCarty, the No. 2 guy in UPI Newspictures in New York, asked me how things were going in Wilmington. That was followed by, "How would you like to run the UPI Photo Bureau in Saigon?" Money certainly wasn't the attraction. It was actually a cut in pay, but I thought it had to be one of the hottest jobs in journalism. Five weeks later I was in Philadelphia's International Airport waiting for a flight to Tokyo. Kent Potter, a UPI photographer in Philadelphia, joined me at the airport.
"Snead, you gotta get me over there," he said. It became his mantra. He'd repeat it and grab me by my shoulders to drive his point home. He'd pound on me and then apologize. Potter could be very excitable. He was built like a defensive end, 20 years old, piercing blue eyes and a heck of a shooter. I'd covered news stories with him in Philadelphia and respected his abilities — and enthusiasm. As a one-man UPI Photo Bureau he gave AP's three-photographer bureau fits. McCarty liked to hire his bureau people "young and hungry" — young enough to work 20-hour days and hungry enough to kick AP's butt.
When the plane was leaving I could see Potter at the airport window wildly waving his arms as my plane taxied away. I'd discovered in New York that I'd been asked to fill the Saigon job because nearly half of UPI's photo staff had applied for it. McCarty thought by bringing in someone who'd never worked for them — for the first time ever — they wouldn't be accused of playing favorites. I could tell right away this was going to be another "growth experience." I arrived in Saigon Dec. 8 and walked unannounced into the UPI Photo Bureau. Two young men in fatigues, one with his back to the door, were talking.
"Has the smart ass from New York gotten here yet?" asked Dana Stone. "I think he's standing behind you right now," choked out a convulsing Charlie Eggleston.
This was exactly what I'd been concerned about all the way to Saigon. The closest call I'd had photographing people with guns was covering the Philadelphia riots. How was I going to handle a stable of combat photographers? In reality my big them. Shattering the peace In mid-December 1967, Vietnam was very quiet. So we photographed GIs decorating Christmas trees on their tanks, writing letters home or plastering slogans like "Christmas in Vietnam … Never happen" on their helmet liners. We'd mix that with trips to the U.S. Navy's Seventh Fleet to shoot sailors playing Santa Claus or writing "Merry Christmas Ho Chi Minh" on bombs.
It was hardly the stuff that foreign correspondents' portfolios are made of. My wife and two children were living in Bangkok. Saigon was so peaceful and civilized I was thinking of bringing them to Saigon to live. There were a number of American civilian families living there. Tet, the Chinese Lunar New Year, was coming up and Saigon residents were already shooting firecrackers supplemented by gunfire. There had been "captured North Vietnamese documents" indicating possible Tet attacks by the North Vietnamese so our staff was placed strategically around the country from north to south.
At 3 a.m. Jan. 31, I was awakened in my windowless bedroom by explosions that were strong enough to make me feel like I was inside a moving bass drum. I ran down the glass littered hallway to my third-floor balcony. Rocket shells were hitting the buildings across the street. Fire was pouring out of the Vietnamese Navy Yard a half-block away. Shadows and footsteps along with rockets and tracer rounds were zipping down the streets below. It was the beginning of the Tet offensive and the North Vietnamese were having their way with Saigon. I was the only photo staffer in Saigon so I got my gear together and waited for the first light of day before sticking my nose outside.
When the pre-dawn finally arrived I worked my way across town to the American Embassy. It was still under fire. The sound of gunfire was coming from inside the enormous complex that covered nearly a city block and was surrounded by a 10-foot-high concrete wall. Automatic gunfire was coming from apartment buildings across the street directed at the embassy. The white, pristine structure was now smudged with powder burns and bullet holes. Bodies could be seen in the courtyard through openings in the wall. A group of news types gathered at the corner of the wall and started crawling single file toward the front entrance. We moved about 30 yards or so when automatic gunfire raked the tree limbs above our heads. We all stopped without saying a word. I can still hear the gentle rain of dry leaves as they fell on us and the sidewalk. The hands-and-knees convoy started moving again. A Newsweek photographer in front of me suddenly turned around and began crawling back the way he'd come. I asked him where he was going. "I've got a wife, two kids and a telephoto lens," he said, and I never saw him again.
The Tet offensive was the beginning of the most intense fighting of the Vietnam war. There wouldn't be any more feature pictures for a while. Playing the game Covering a war with photographers was like playing a board game. Your staff could move around the country at will but you had to at least have a clue for picking a staging area. Many times various elements of the military would tip us to upcoming operations. You learned quickly that the 1st Air Calvary had more than 60 percent of the helicopters in the country and they were a quick way to get in and, most importantly, get out with your film.
Both the AP and UPI photo transmitters were side-by-side on the top floor of an apartment building about two miles from our bureau. Mr. Tru, who worked for Vietnam's telephone and telegraph system operated both machines. I finally figured out that, when AP's pictures were getting through and ours weren't, some extra out-of-pocket cash would suddenly make our radio signal readable in Tokyo.
One day when we had exclusive pictures that weren't going anywhere and I was out of cash and patience I dangled Mr. Tru out a third-story window until he assured me he would make our signal work. The guy who could figure out where the action was going to be was Japanese photographer Kyoichi Sawada. He was UPI's premier Pulitzer Prize-winning shooter.
In 1965 Sawada was working on the UPI picture desk in Tokyo. He kept bugging his boss to send him to Vietnam with no luck. So, on his own, he went there on his vacation and produced an impressive set of combat pictures. His boss relented and assigned him to Vietnam, and in that same year — 1965, at age 29 — Sawada won a Pulitzer Prize in photography. Instant fame was on the minds of hundreds of photographers and just plain people with cameras who descended on Vietnam. They came by the UPI Bureau on a regular basis.
The latter-day Dodge City atmosphere of Saigon was as much of an attraction as the war. Prostitution was widespread. Heroin and marijuana were easy to find. A tiny Chinese gentleman dubbed the "Good Humor Man" was available for house calls to set up his portable opium den. Many would-be photographers, dressed in T-shirts, sneakers and Bermuda shorts, would declare that they had just arrived in town and could I please direct them to the hottest combat area in-country. Some were the real thing but most you never saw again.
Editing Sawada's negatives was effortless. I remember one time he had 15 usable, different pictures on one 36-exposure roll of Tri-X. One day in 1969, Sawada came to my apartment and asked if we could talk. Over a cup of tea (he neither smoked or drank) and after a lot of beating around the bush, Sawada asked for a raise. As a combat photographer he was making $215 a week. He was the highest paid UPI photographer in Vietnam. My heart sank when he told me Life Magazine had offered him a job for a lot more money. But, he said, his loyalties were with UPI. I agreed that he deserved more money and suggested we go downstairs to Gene Risher's apartment. He was the UPI Bureau manager and requests for more money required a joint effort.
Risher let us in and the three of us stood in the living room. Sawada stood silent. I explained in detail that I thought Sawada deserved a raise and was wondering just how we would put the paperwork through to Tokyo. With his cigarette clinched in his teeth FDR style, Risher asked Sawada how much money he made. I could hear Sawada hiss. He was disturbed. Barely audible he said, "$215 a week." Risher looked at him with a big grin and said, "That's pretty good for a Japanese isn't it?"
The noise from Sawada, inhaling air through his teeth, filled the room as he walked out the door. I shamed Risher into getting Sawada's raise but things were never the same between them after that.
Since Sawada's leap into Vietnam had worked out so well, Japanese photographers and editors in Tokyo were on a regular rotation to Vietnam. In February 1968, 28-year-old Hiromichi Mine arrived in Saigon. He was quiet, aimed to please and was never without his camera. In 1964 on his first "visit" to Vietnam, he shot an incredible picture of a U.S. Caribou transport plane a second after it was hit by artillery as it came in for a landing, frozen in the air in two pieces. He was killed barely a month later — March 5, 1968 — after a U.S. Marine armored personnel carrier he was riding in ran over a 500-pound bomb that had been booby trapped. He suffered burns over 75 percent of his body.
In a letter I wrote to his parents, I said, " … When Mine-san arrived here one of the first things he did was to get all of the military fatigues Imajo-san (the photographer he replaced) had left. He spent over two hours looking them over and trying them on. He told me he'd be ready to go out the next day. He left for Da Nang the following morning." Mine was the first Japanese correspondent killed in Vietnam. Sawada accompanied his body back to Tokyo where it lay in state in downtown Tokyo. Mine's death created an opening for Potter who arrived shortly after sorting through a lot of red tape to get out of a Pennsylvania Marine Corps Reserve unit. Since he knew the ins and outs of running a photo desk he moved in with me in my apartment over the UPI Bureau at 19 Ngo Duc Ke.
Eggleston took Potter under his wing and to the Saigon black market to buy his fatigues, combat boots, back pack and change money. After an afternoon, next door at the Melody Bar, they came into the photo office and announced they were headed to the Mekong Delta the next morning. Eggleston was going to show Potter how it was done. Combat Photography 101. Eggleston was fearless. One night in the Melody Bar, he was arguing with a Vietnamese officer who pulled out his .45 caliber pistol and pointed it at Eggleston's chest. There was that awful metal clicking sound when he cocked his weapon. In the sudden silence you could hear Eggleston say, "That thing doesn't scare me," as he brushed it aside with the back of his hand. I watched from the floor on all fours as the two ended up laughing.
Eggleston loved the Delta. He knew a lot of the "dust-off" pilots there. They were the guys driving the medevac helicopters who went in to pick up wounded. You were almost always guaranteed good pictures with the whirling helicopter blades blowing grass and people around as they climbed in the chopper. It also meant sleeping in a base camp instead of out in the boonies with the troops.
After the two of them returned, I told Eggleston that he'd have to think about going north in the future because his helicopter photos were beginning to look alike. The fighting was now going on in Saigon and in three directions around it. Many times, dressed in street clothes, we were able to get into a jeep, drive two or three miles, take pictures of people shooting at one another and steady streams of refugees and be back in the office within a couple of hours. Potter was all over it and shot good photos from day one.
Part of the action
On May 5, 1968, Potter was somewhere north of Saigon and Charlie Eggleston had asked if he could spend the night on the couch. He was champing at the bit because the bad guys were all around Tan Son Nhut Airport, five miles from the office, and he wanted to drive out the next morning for pictures. He was meeting "Radio" Roger Norum, our UPI radio correspondent and a film cameraman and they'd leave early from the UPI Bureau.
Over his beer he kept saying, "I know they'll be gone by the time we get there in the morning. I just know we'll miss them." He was upset and had taken it personally when four journalists had been ambushed and killed in a jeep earlier that week in Cholon.
Eggleston was gone by the time I surfaced the next morning to go downstairs to work. That afternoon the door of the photo office opened with a crash. It was Radio Roger. "Charlie's dead. Shot in the back of the head. I was standing right next to him." That's all he said and was gone faster than he'd appeared.
Radio had been interviewing Eggleston while he was taking pictures of Vietnamese Rangers flushing out Viet Cong near the airport. Eggleston was also carrying a semi-automatic carbine and between pictures was shooting at the enemy. Not a good thing for a civilian photographer to be doing. It was an awful thing to listen to on tape. Radio asks a question, you hear a shot and then a noise that sounds like a gunnysack of heavy pots and pans rattling to the ground as Eggleston and his gear went down.
According to Mr. Green, the kindly soul who ran the mortuary facility at Tan Son Nhut, there were nearly 100 GIs killed the day Eggleston died. His giant freezer facility at the airport was full. New York kept calling and sending messages asking when the body would be shipped. Finally Mr. Green called and told me to come out to the mortuary. He said outsiders weren't normally allowed inside but since this was an unusual situation involving a civilian he led me inside a giant walk-in freezer. It was nearly filled with frozen corpses, direct from the battlefield. They were mostly fully clothed, some had arms outstretched, some stacked, some leaning.
We found Charlie Eggleston looking different
without his ever-present eye glasses but wearing his usual unbelieving
expression. I signed some papers and got an estimated time for his arrival
in Antwerp, N.Y., where he'd be met by his grandmother.
After months of dispatching photographers into battle, I figured if I was going to have any credibility with them I'd better go out into the field myself.
I'd heard nothing but good things about the 101st Airborne so I went up to its headquarters at Camp Eagle in the Da Nang area. From there we went to firebase T-Bone and then into the A Shau Valley.
The short version: It was a simple air assault, we made contact with the enemy, shots were exchanged, no American casualties, we found two dead Viet Cong soldiers the next morning and I was back at Camp Eagle the following afternoon and in Saigon the next day.
And … it was very scary.
I did manage to get a picture worth transmitting. After that I was dealt into conversations with photographers about things like the best model of backpacks and surviving life in the field. After 674 days in Vietnam I told my leaders in New York and Tokyo I was ready to go home.
Sawada would die in 1970 in Cambodia when he drove a new UPI bureau manager to the outskirts of Phnom Phen. They were ambushed by Khmer Rouge troops. In December 1970, Potter returned to the States on an R&R and stayed with us in Alexandria, Va. I was working at the National Geographic. The night before he returned to Bangkok and points east, he tried his best to convince me there was plenty of time to be a picture editor at the National Geographic. He talked about the excitement and the good old days in Southeast Asia and told me I should get back to where the action was. He had two apartments — one in Cambodia and the other in Thailand — and said I was welcome to live in either of them and knew I'd have no trouble shooting for someone over there. It was very tempting.
I remember his good-natured laughter when he saw me the next morning, dressed for work in my sport coat and tie and carrying an attaché case. When I dropped him off at the airport, it was a reversal of a scene three years earlier when he'd been begging me to get him to Vietnam. Now he was all but ready to drag me on his flight.
Early in the morning on Feb. 11, I had just gotten into the office at National Geographic and the phone rang. It was someone I didn't know at UPI in New York.
"Hey," he said, "did you know Kent Potter in Vietnam."
I said I did.
"Well, he was killed yesterday. We can't
find his middle name and we thought you might know it." I couldn't believe
it. Potter, 23 years old. Dead. I was the guy who got him to Vietnam in
the first place.
"Yeah," I said looking at my blurred attaché case on the floor. "It's Biddle."
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