Where does the story
begin? Perhaps the best place is Topeka, Kansas, in the year 1963 when
the United Press International wires were carrying the dispatches of
Neil Sheehan from a Saigon dateline, and the New York Times was carrying
the reports of David Halberstam. And there were those photos by Malcolm
Browne of AP of the monks immolating themselves in protest. It struck
my mind that there was going to be war in that place, it would become
an American war, my generation's war, and I wanted to be there and cover
So I began a letter writing campaign, one a week to my bosses in UPI
New York. I begged, pleaded, cajoled and after a time, took it as a
given that they were going to transfer me to Asia. In time, just after
the November 1964 elections, they did. I was home on vacation visiting
my parents in Refugio, Texas, when the call came from my immediate boss,
Jack Fallon, at UPI Southwest Division Headquarters in Dallas. Did I
own a trenchcoat, he asked. Huh? Was my response. Well, if I did not
I should purchase one because effectively immediately I was being transferred
to UPI Asia Headquarters in Tokyo, Japan.
When I got to Tokyo I wasted no time letting my new boss, the infamous
Earnest T. Hoberecht of Watonga, Oklahoma, know that I considered this
a temporary pause on my way to Saigon. He laughed. He had two Americans
based in Saigon, bureau chief Mike Malloy and Texan Ray Herndon. He
could foresee no possible expansion in the next year or two.
From my perch on the Asia Desk I could see Indochina spiraling out of
control, descending inevitably into war. A bloody coup in Laos---and
one in which UPI scored a huge beat when a stringer named Tim Page rode
his motorcycle with film and copy through an artillery barrage, hired
a boat to get him across the Mekong into Thailand and delivered the
goods. The stories were written by another stringer, Martin Stuart-Fox.
In South Vietnam an endless series of coups continued in the wake of
the assassination of President Ngo Dinh Diem, and the Viet Cong grew
ever stronger, moving from one victory to another over the poorly motivated
South Vietnamese Army. I was confident I didn't have long to wait.
In March of 1965 the first battalion of U.S. Marines landed at Red Beach,
Danang---the first American combat forces to land on the Asia mainland
since the Korean War. Within two weeks I was told to get ready. I was
UPI's reinforcements. The last thing I did was buy a camera, a 35mm
Yashica which was cheap but worked. The last thing Ernie Hoberecht told
me was this: Under NO circumstances was I to reveal how much money he
was paying me to Malloy or Herndon. I had been transferred to Asia making
Guild scale, $135 a week. Herndon and Malloy, and everyone else in Asia,
were local hires and most everyone drew less than $100 a week. Some
of them far less.
On arriving in Saigon
my seatmate on the Air France flight, a soft-spoken Buddhist monk in
orange robes, clung tightly to my arm. The white uniformed police who
boarded the flight pried him loose and dragged him away. He was put
back on the same plane when it left. An unwanted exile. In a few minutes
I was stamped through immigration, got my suitcase and was on the way
to the bureau at No. 19 Ngo Duc Khe, just off Tu Do Street, in the heart
of Saigon. I was given quarters over the bureau for my very temporary
stop in Saigon. I was bound for the Marines in Danang just as quickly
as I could obtain my South Vietnamese and American press ID cards. Two
That first evening, plied with some decent French wine and a good meal,
Malloy and Herndon asked THE question: How much are you being paid?
I told them. "Jesus Christ," both of them shouted, composing their angry
letters to Hoberecht in their heads. Several weeks later, in Danang,
I would receive Hoberecht's response, a letter that began: "Dear
Benedict. Malloy and Herndon got their raises."
It should be noted here that Vietnam, from the first day, was the most
openly covered war in America's history. I filled out the forms at a
building called the White Elephant, headquarters of the Military Assistance
Command, Vietnam, (MACV) press operations. I signed a single sheet of
paper with perhaps 5 rules of conduct, agreeing that I would not reveal
troop movements while they were underway; I would not reveal casualty
figures while a battle was underway; I would not reveal information,
generally, that would be of use to the enemy in time for him to use
that information. That was it. If I violated these rules my press card
could be taken away.
The next morning, suitcase in hand, I boarded an Air Force C-123 transport
plane at Tan Son Nhut Airport. It was the "milk run" plane, and made
a daily round-trip from Saigon to Pleiku to Hue-Phu Bai to Danang. It
took about six hours to get to Danang. When I stepped off, ears ringing,
I was grabbed by a husky, handsome half French-half Vietnamese man who
said, "I am Henri Huet of UPI. Come with me. There is big trouble in
Quang Ngai." I said: What about my suitcase? He said: Fook your suitcase!
And threw it in the door of the 8th Aerial Transport Squadron hooch.
Henri pulled me toward a C-130 transport which was already spinning
up its engines on the ramp. We jumped aboard and it took off. The noise
was so loud, and Henri's accent so thick I could make no sense of what
he was trying to tell me about where we were going or what was happening.
When we landed, 20 minutes or so later, it was on a small strip in the
middle of a squalid town. Henri jumped off and ran toward a US Marine
CH-34 helicopter, fondly known as a Shuddering Shithouse, sitting on
the ramp. He spoke briefly with a tall American in green coveralls,
then waved at me. We got aboard. I still didn't know where I was or
what we were doing. The chopper took off, flew out about 10 or 12 minutes
and then began circling a bare hill rising up out of the green rice
paddies. Out the door I could see there were men on that hill, all lying
flat on the ground. When we landed everyone jumped out and there was
silence. A dead silence. I looked at the men closest to me and realized
that they were dead. Every single one of them. Lying flat in shallow
little depressions hastily dug. Some with their arms forward as though
holding rifles; but there were no rifles.
I was told that we were there to find and bring back the bodies of two
American advisers. We went from hole to hole until we found them, then
we and the two crewmen from the chopper got the head and feet and carried
them slowly back to the helicopter.
Until that moment all I had known of war I had learned from books and
the war movies of John Wayne. I had hurried to get to Vietnam because
surely, now that the Marines had landed, the war would be swiftly won.
On the ride back to Quang Ngai City I looked at the faces of those two
young Americans, now cold and dead, and neither of them looked much
like John Wayne.
Back at Quang Ngai airstrip it was getting near the end of the day.
Henri explained that it was very dangerous at night and all the Americans
usually flew back to Danang. But he had an idea: We would stay the night
at the MACV Adviser compound nearby and get a much earlier start than
those day-trippers the next morning. Sounded like a plan. At the gate
of the compound a very tired looking American captain greeted us warmly.
"We have been on 100% alert here for the last five days and nights.
We are exhausted and need some relief. You guys are it." He hooked me
up with Saigon on his old-fashioned telephone switchboard. I was yelling
down a bad line to Herndon in Saigon, telling him what we had seen that
afternoon, when enemy mortar rounds fell on the South Vietnamese compound
next door. I ducked under the switchboard and kept talking. Afterward,
the captain handed us an M2 greasegun submachine gun and a handful of
magazines. He showed us where we would sleep, in an empty bunkroom full
of double-decker bunks. And where we would stand guard, in a sandbagged
bunker facing a barbed-wire fence with a road beyond that. Henri would
stand guard alone, from Midnight to 3 a.m. My turn was 3 a.m. to daybreak.
I lay there in the dark unable to sleep till Henri shook my arm and
gestured at the door. I took the gun and ammo and entered the bunker
for the longest night of my life to that point. Midway through my tour
the Viet Cong pulled a satchel charge attack on the South Vietnamese
compound across the road. No one approached our fence. Finally the eastern
sky began to brighten slightly. The night was nearly over. Thank God.
Just then a Vietnamese on a bicycle with a huge bundle on the handlebars
came into view, pedaling up that road. I leveled the gun, safety off,
and told myself if he made one false move he was dead. About then the
captain slapped me on the shoulder: "Son, if you shoot that man you
are going to have to cook our breakfast. He's the chef." Whew.
How's that for your first day at war? On the plane back to Danang I
thought over what I had seen and heard and decided this war was in no
danger of ending soon. It would be long and hard and there would be
plenty of it for everyone. But I had no idea how long and how hard it
would be, or that there would be enough of it to kill 58,200 Americans
and between one and two million Vietnamese on both sides.
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