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.
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
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.
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
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
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
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.
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.
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
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
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.
Ready to go
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.
"Well, do you know his middle name?"
the voice asked.
"Yeah," I said looking
at my blurred attaché case on the floor. "It's Biddle."