Reporter's Journal From Hell
Part Two: Feet on the Ground
in Danang I was introduced to the man I was replacing, Hongkong bureau
chief Charlie Smith who had been on temporary assignment covering the
newly arrived Marines. My quarters would be in the Marine Press Center,
a shabby compound on the banks of the Danang River which in a former
life had been a whorehouse for visiting merchant seamen. There were
two rows of high-ceilinged whitewashed rooms, no air-conditioning, just
ceiling fans that stirred the damp air, a bar and restaurant, and offices
for the Marine Information officers. UPI, AP, Reuters and the three
networks all kept permanent rooms there. There were rooms for visiting
firemen, as well. We all rented battered old jeeps from an enterprising
Chinese jewelry store owner named Kim Chee.
By the time I arrived there were two battalions of Marines assigned
to guard against attacks on Danang Airbase where American Air Force
planes were now flying daily raids against targets in North Vietnam.
More were on the way. Lots more. The battalion commanders were guys
like Lt. Col. P.X. Kelly, who would later become commandant of the Marine
Corps. One of the artillery battalion commanders was Bud McFarlane who
would become an ill-fated adviser to President Ronald Reagan.
My competition in those early days were guys like John Wheeler and Eddie
Adams and Bob Poos of AP. Simon Dring of Reuters. Others who arrived
in due course: UPI photographers Kyoichi Sawada and Steve Northup. Dickie
Chapelle. Col. Bob Heinl, a Marine historian. The Marines contributed
folks like Maj. Mike Stiles, who on one notable evening in his cups
decided to try out a new experimental Browning 9mm pistol in the press
bar and fired off an entire magazine. As bullets richocheted around
the room one intrepid correspondent took shelter beneath the quarter
slot machine. Later he explained, "That machine hasn't been hit yet."
Poos sat calmly at the bar and never moved. There were no casualties.
covered every Marine operation in I Corps, including a combat amphibious
assault landing on the Batangan Peninsula to clear the way for establishment
of a Marine airbase at Chu Lai.
On one Marine operation south of Danang a new AP reporter made his debut.
George Esper had arrived from Philadelphia. The operation was already
underway when he landed and he was trying desperately to catch up with
everyone else. We were at the point of the operation, had pulled off
the trail and were sprawled on top of a low hill at the edge of a broad
rice paddy. There were no Americans in front of us. Suddenly a Marine
sergeant yelled, "Who the hell is that?" We looked to see this dark-haired
American splashing out in the paddy scooting across it. We hollered.
He couldn't hear and just kept going. George was now the point man of
the whole operation. He hit the far edge of the paddy and disappeared
into the jungle. Our hearts sank. The Marines began saddling up to go
rescue him or retrieve his body. Two or three minutes later George reappeared
and jumped back into the rice paddy, pursued by an old Vietnamese peasant
woman wielding a hoe. She stopped at the edge, satisfied that she had
repelled the foreign invader. George hooked up with us and when he caught
his breath exclaimed: "That crazy old woman tried to kill me, even after
I told her I was with AP."
My assignment to Danang was almost permanent. I was up there for such
long stretches that the Saigon bureau would send up packages of Vietnamese
piastres to pay the rent and expenses, and bundles of my personal mail,
some of it two or three months old by the time it reached me.
There were firefights, brief violent eruptions of gunfire, mortar and
artillery, air strikes from hovering Marine fighter planes. Occasionally,
but only occasionally, did the Viet Cong hang around. The Marines were
frustrated. The enemy was everywhere and nowhere. In the best traditions
of Muhammed Ali, they danced like a butterfly and stung like a bee.
And then they were gone and very hard to find among the population.
In August of 1965 I had been back in Saigon for a brief visit and was
back on the C-123 bound for Danang. During the first stop, in Pleiku,
I looked out the back hatch and saw South Vietnamese soldiers flinging
dead bodies off a helicopter. I grabbed my pack and camera bag---by
now I had earned enough money, at $10 per picture used by UPI, to buy
myself a Nikonos 35mm underwater camera and two Nikon F black bodies
and a small assortment of lenses---and bailed out.
A South Vietnamese column had been ambushed and chewed up trying to
go to the relief of the Duc Co Special Forces Camp. Another South Vietnamese
Airborne column was marching out of Duc Co bound for Pleiku. I hooked
up with some American 101st Airborne troops who planned to meet up with
the South Vietnamese force. Eventually that meeting took place. I snapped
a few shots of the tiny Vietnamese soldiers led by a huge American major.
Shook hands with the major and introduced myself. His name was Norm
Schwarzkopf. That meeting would come in handy 25 years later in Saudi
Arabia during the Persian Gulf War when Gen. H. Norman Schwarzkopf was
commander in chief.
I spent a week or two around Pleiku and got acquainted with the American
provincial adviser, Col. Ted Metaxis, and his people. There were rumors
of a new, experimental U.S. Army division coming to the Central Highlands
in a few days. There seemed to be a quickening of the pace in this area
and I had a feeling I would be back before long. I headed on back to
Danang and the Marines. For now.
Those new Americans, the 1st Cavalry Division (Airmobile) arrived in
An Khe, the new base they would have to carve out of the jungle, in
early September. I shifted from Danang to An Khe in late September.
The Cav had 435 helicopters in their inventory. They RODE to war. The
Marines walked. They walked so much that I had worn out two pair of
combat boots going along with them in those months. There was a press
tent at An Khe and a jovial major named J. D. Coleman and a Specialist
4 named Marv Wolf who manned it. Another Specialist 4 named Joe Treaster
also worked there. He would later take his discharge in Vietnam and
join The New York Times as a reporter. The Cav also brought along with
them their hometown reporter, a grizzled and, to we 20-somethings, ancient
World War II veteran Marine named Charlie Black of The Columbus (Ga.)
Ledger-Enquirer. We would all go to school on Charlie Black who lived
with the Cav 24/7 and loved what he was doing. Charlie would go out
with a battalion on operations and stay for a week or ten days or two
weeks. When he came back to An Khe he would sit down at a battered old
typewriter and write endless dispatches, single spaced, on onion skin
paper. His stories were full of names and hometowns. He would find a
friendly GI who would frank the letter so it went home airmail for free.
His editor would run every line, because his readers included the wives
and kids of many of the troops. Charlie was supposed to stay two or
three weeks; he ended up staying more than a year that tour. Traded
in his return air ticket for pocket money, slept on the ground or in
the press tent for free and ate a steady diet of C-rations, also for
free. The Cav troops would have happily passed the hat for donations
if Charlie had gone totally broke. They loved him, and the love affair
mid-October the word passed that trouble was brewing up in Pleiku Province.
The Special Forces Camp at Plei Me had come under siege. We headed that
way in a hurry. By the time we arrived the airspace over the camp had
been shut down. The enemy, this time a regiment of North Vietnamese
Army regulars, had ringed the camp with Chinese-made 12.7mm antiaircraft
machine guns and they had shot down two Air Force fighter-bombers and
one Army Huey helicopter. The Army dispatched a team of Special Forces
B-52 Detachment fighters commanded by Maj. Charlie Beckwith to land
a mile or two outside the camp and infiltrate to stiffen the resistance.
A few reporters and photographers, and one very unlucky UPI television
camera stringer, had gone in with Beckwith. On the final dash into Plei
Me Camp the UPITN stringer raised up to shoot some film and was shot
through the head by an enemy machine gun round. He had literally been
killed before he shot a foot of film. If he had gotten a story UPITN
would have paid him $100. UPI, in its inimitable cheap fashion, later
refused to accept any responsibility for paying to send his body back
to the U.S. for burial.
I had missed that jump and was furiously stalking up and down the flight
line at Camp Holloway outside Pleiku. Who should suddenly appear but
Capt. Ray Burns of Ganado, Texas. He like many of the pilots of the
119th Aviation Company at Holloway was a Texas Aggie. A homeboy. I had
played poker and drunk copius quantities of Jim Beam with them all.
Ray inquired as to my distress. I explained that I wanted to get into
Plei Me Camp and couldn't find a ride. He said hang on; went and checked
the clipboard at Flight Ops. Came back and told me what I already knew:
the airspace was closed. Then he grinned and said he would like to see
the place himself and if I wanted a ride he would take me. Just like
I have a photo I snapped from the helicopter door. The camp, a triangular
shaped affair carved out of the red dirt of the Highlands, fills that
doorway, puffs of smoke from impacting mortar rounds visible in several
places. Ray dropped the Huey in rather precipitously to avoid the machine
guns. I bailed out, the camp defenders flung some wounded aboard, and
Ray was gone, shooting me the bird through the plexiglass. A sergeant
ran up and said, "I don't know who you are, Sir, but Maj. Beckwith wants
to see you right now." I inquired as to which one was the good major.
"He is that big guy over there jumping up and down on his hat," the
sergeant replied. In short order I was standing before a man who would
become a legend in Special Operations Warfare as the founder of the
Delta Forces anti-terrorist teams. The dialogue went something like
this: Him: Who the hell are you? Me: A reporter, Sir. Him: I need everything
in the goddam world; I need reinforcements; I need medical evacuation
helicopters; I need ammunition; I need food; I would love a bottle of
Jim Beam whiskey and some cigars. And what has the Army in its wisdom
sent me? A reporter. Well, son, I got news for you. I have no vacancy
for a reporter but I do have one for a corner machine gunner---and YOU
ARE IT! Me: Yes, Sir.
Beckwith took me to a sandbagged corner of a trench and gave me a short
lesson in the care and loading and firing of the .30 caliber air-cooled
machine gun which sat there, dark, ugly and menacing. He showed me how
to unjam it in case of need. How to arm it. His instructions then were
simple and direct: You can shoot the little brown men outside the wire;
they are the enemy. You may not shoot the little brown men inside the
wire; they are mine. For the next two or three days and nights I lived
in that corner of the trench, beside the gun. What sleep there was was
caught in lulls during the day. One day the Air Force finally managed
to air-drop supplies in the right place; in fact right on top of the
right place. Huge pallets of crates of ammo and c-rations drifted right
down onto the camp, demolishing at least one tin-roofed building and
smashing other defensive emplacements. I reached out and grabbed a Newsweek
reporter, Bill Cook, and yanked him into my trench right before he was
about to be squished by a descending pallet. The snaps of the parachutes
billowing all over the camp were pretty good, even if I say so myself.
Finally a South Vietnamese armored column arrived to the rescue. Bob
Poos of AP and another old friend, Jack Laurence of CBS, were riding
atop the Armored Personnel Carriers. I waved at Poos and asked him where
the hell he had been. He gave me the one-finger salute. The North Vietnamese
had left by then and the hills were silent for the first time in a week.
The air stank with that never-to-be-forgotten smell of rotting human
flesh. The hills were ripped apart by the airstrikes brought down on
the machine gunners, a stark, shattered landscape. We spent one more
night in the camp. Poos was assigned to my machine gun. The next morning
the sky filled with helicopters, U.S. Army helicopters, as a battalion
of the 1st Air Cav arrived to sweep those hills. I went to Maj. Beckwith
to say my goodbyes. He allowed as how I had "done good" as a machine
gunners and he thanked me for the help. Then he said: You have no weapon.
I said that, despite the use he had made of me these last days, I was
still technically speaking a non-combatant. He had a sergeant bring
an M-16 rifle and a sack full of loaded magazines. Beckwith said: "Ain't
no such thing in these mountains, boy. Take the rifle." I took it, slung
it over my back, and marched out to hook up with the Cav on their sweep
through the hills. There we found more than a shattered landscape. We
found shattered machine guns---some of them with the remains of their
gunners still chained to the weapons they manned. But the North Vietnamese
had gone as suddenly as they had arrived. Only the dead remained.
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