The Digital Journalist
To War with Eddie Adams
October 2004

by Peter Arnett

I first heard about Eddie Adams in November 1962, when the AP wire ran a story about him being kicked while photographing a Cuban being arrested for conspiracy in New York City. I figured that here was a guy who liked getting close to the action. This was an opinion borne out by our AP bureau chief in Saigon, Malcolm Browne, who knew Eddie and said, "He's one of the best we've got."

Browne told me Eddie had been a U.S. Marine in the Korean War, and to expect him to join our staff in South Vietnam sooner or later. And Eddie eventually did, in 1965, arriving with his beloved U.S. Marines and camping out with them in Danang. He complained that his Marine unit in Korea had missed the action, and he wanted to "catch up" in Vietnam. Eddie's gung ho attitude fitted in well with his AP and other wire-service colleagues, most of whom had served some time with the military draft but had not seen previous action, either.

Vietnam was on the verge of becoming a very controversial war at that time, with the press in the firing line, literally and figuratively, but that was all ahead of us. Unlike in earlier wars, the Johnson Administration had decided against press censorship in Vietnam. So in 1965, the ever-growing press corps flowed across the war like a tropical storm over the Florida Keys.

I was right in figuring that Eddie was a man who got close to the action. He threw himself into war coverage, his pictures matching the dramatic photographs of the other members of the AP's crack Saigon team that included Horst Faas and Henri Huet.

Eddie was often on assignment in Danang with AP correspondent John Wheeler, and I sometimes went out on military operations with him, as did other reporters.

In Vietnam, wire-service photographers often doubled as reporters because the war stretched across the whole country and was usually characterized by relatively small but nonetheless significant actions. I helped Eddie write some of the stories that he covered when reporters were not along, debriefing him as he sat in his mud-stained fatigues, his face unshaven and strained from days without sleep. These were first-person accounts, often as dramatic as his pictures, and I list them from the AP story index of that period:

  • The last patrol of Lt. John Schwartz (Cam Lo), 15/3/65.
  • With U.S. Marine unit under Vietcong fire, 22/4/65.
  • U.S. Marines near end of third month in Vietnam, 30/5/65.
  • Describes night patrol in Cong-infested swampland near Danang, 26/6/65.
  • Reports of being with force ambushed by Cong north of Cheo Reo, 1/7/65.
  • Reports of Ba Gia under siege by Vietcong, 5/7/65.
  • Captain killed 30 feet behind him at Ea K'Kea, 8/7/65.
  • Describes Marines assaulting An Hoa island,10/7/65.
  • Marines reoccupy Cam Ne village, 18/8/65.
  • Marines pulled out of Van Tuong complex today, 20/8/65.
  • Memorial services for men who died in Van Tuong complex today, 20/8/65.
  • USS Henderson in South China Sea, 27/8/65.
  • Batangan Peninsula fighting in Vietnam, 9/9/65.
  • Talks with defenders of Plei Me, 23/10/65.
  • 12-year-old Montagnard boy with South Vietnam army (Plei Me), 30/10/65.
  • U.S. troops capture and burn four Vietcong camps only 100 feet from Cambodian border, 10/1/66
  • Adams describes 85th evacuation hospital in Qui Nhon, 21/2/66.
  • Adams' account of fighting northwest of Quang Ngai, 5/3/66.
  • Seven Marine combined-action squads train local village militiamen (Thuy Luong), 20/4/66.
  • Anti-American demonstrations by 2,000 in Danang set off by a traffic accident, 30/3/66.
  • Adams assaulted by rioting in Saigon, 2/4/66.
  • The "Little Alamo," Dong Ha, 13/4/66.

After his "Little Alamo" assignment in May 1966, Eddie decided he had had enough of Vietnam, and you can see from the stories listed above he had done more than his share of battle coverage. But he agonized for weeks over his decision. He came down to Saigon and pulled me aside one day, and asked me to help him write another story, but this one was a letter to Wes Gallagher, the AP president, asking if he could be reassigned back to New York.

May 1966: Near Xa Loi Pagoda. Peter Arnett right, Bob Schieffer left.

Photo by Eddie Adams
Eddie was emotionally torn. He said, "I don't want to desert you guys, you know, I don't want to be seen like a chicken, but man, I've had it here ... I don't want to be killed here." These deep feelings might seem strange to today's mainstream news photographers who are used to dangerous assignments of usually short duration. Eddie had been in the thick of the fighting in Vietnam for a full year, and yet here he was feeling like a loser because he wanted out.

I told him, "Eddie, you don't have to ask Gallagher for permission to leave. You've done your job."

Eddie could look more pained than anyone else I know. He replied, "But you guys aren't going anywhere!" And he was right. Horst Faas, George Esper, Henri Huet, Ed White, myself and, of course, our Vietnamese staff were staying for the duration.

I told Eddie," But we live here. We have kids, families here. Your wife and kids are back in New York, It's time for you to go home."

He wanted the letter to Gallagher anyway, so I wrote it, and, of course, the AP president approved his return, thanking him profusely for his work.

But before Eddie left Saigon, he went on some last assignments with me to cover a resurgence of Buddhist demonstrations in the city that threatened the Vietnamese government. One early evening near the Xa Loi pagoda, a crowd of rioters were converging on a U.S. billet. This brought out the American MPs who, in taking control of the street, attempted to move us away from the crowd. I objected, arguing that as reporters we had the right to be there. I was backed up by Bob Schieffer, then a reporter for the Dallas Morning News and now a CBS anchor. One young MP backed us up with his .45 pistol pointed at my stomach. Eddie was hovering nearby, taking pictures.

As the standoff continued, Eddie got impatient. He called out to the nervous MP, "Come on, shoot the fucker. It'll make a better picture." Eddie's comment broke the ice. The MP relaxed, and we hung around until the demonstration was over.

I was somewhat rankled by Eddie's challenge to the MP. Eddie later laughed it off. "I was just practicing for a real execution," he joked. But two years later, it was no joke. History well knows that Eddie Adams did return to Vietnam. And he photographed a real execution on the streets of Saigon.

By the time Eddie came back to Danang late in 1967, relations between the press corps and the military had deteriorated to an alarming degree. The war was going badly, and the headlines and photographs reflected that reality.

Marine officers were talking nostalgically about the "cooperation" they consistently received from the press in World War II and Korea, forgetting maybe that both of those wars were under censorship.

Outside the AP and NBC offices near Lam Son Square, Vo Huynh and Ron Nessen of NBC, Eddie Adams, Peter Arnett and two Vietnamese soldiers that NBC was using to guide them around the city. Taken early in the Tet offensive a day or so before Eddie took the execution shot.

Eddie undertook to help break the ice, revealing another side to his personality that all his friends knew about. He was a social animal who revelled in organizing offbeat entertainment for his buddies. I quote the following passage directly from my 1994 autobiography, "Live from the Battlefield":

"Eddie tried his best to smooth the roiling waters at the Danang press center by including the Marines in a goofy club he formed called the TWAPS: the terrified writers and photographers. He collected five-dollar fees from scores of colleagues, wore a GI can opener around his neck engraved with the words 'Head Twap,' and demanded secret signs and catch phrases from members.

"He decided to swear in as an honorary member, the Marine commander, Major General Lewis Walt, who was known as a good sport. Eddie organized a steak dinner on the banks of the Han River, with tables from the press center restaurant forming a large U shape and set with white linen cloth.

"General Walt was late, and by the time he arrived with two lower-ranking officers, it was dark, most of the media were drunk and disorderly, and the sky over the Marble Mountain in the middle distance was ablaze with streaking white light as helicopter gunships fired on Vietcong guerrillas.

"Eddie was wearing a red satin happy coat pinned with four dozen cheap medals purchased on the Danang black market. His helmet was pushed down over his ears. He asked General Walt to rise and repeat with him, 'When under fire, I must shout Bao Chi' (Vietnamese for journalist) and the general obliged.

"Eddie continued, 'When I contract a social disease, I must inform all other TWAPS the name of the carrier .' The general laughed at this point but Eddie, with a straight face, declared, 'This is serious' and the officer cleared his throat and repeated the line.

"Eddie then presented him with a gold tie bar engraved with the TWAP emblem, which he promised to wear with pride. We all got to shake the general's hand that night, and even though there was no immediate improvement in our relations with the press center staff, we all did enjoy the free steak dinner."

Eddie decided to check out other military regions in Vietnam and left his Marines to work out of the Saigon AP bureau for awhile. As the Vietcong secretly planned for the Tet Offensive in January of 1968, Eddie travelled to Cambodia to cover stories along the border and at Kompong Trabek.

Then came Tet, Jan. 30, 1968. The biggest actions of the war. Forty South Vietnamese cities and towns occupied or attacked by the Vietcong. Eddie was in the thick of it with the rest of us.

I have a picture with Eddie taken outside our Saigon bureau on the morning of Feb. 2 that year. He wears a flak vest and a confident smile and his thinning hair is brushed back. Eddie was 35 at the time and at the peak of his career. He had already won every news photo award that existed in the U.S. except the Pulitzer Prize. That would soon change.

I quote again from my book:

"I was in the office when Eddie rushed in, his flak vest flapping. 'Goddamn it,' he said, 'General Loan shot a man right in front of my eyes,' he gasped. He held up a roll of film. 'I think I may have got it right here. Hey, I hope so.'

"Brigadier General Nguyen Ngoc Loan was the commander of the Vietnamese National Police, a feared man running a feared organization, with a flamboyant manner and a hair-trigger temper. As we waited for his film to be developed, Eddie told us that he had been travelling with an NBC crew in Cholon. They were at an intersection near the An Quang pagoda when they saw Vietnamese marines escorting a dishevelled prisoner with his hands tied behind his back toward General Loan. The journalists approached the police chief. As they got near, he raised his revolver to shoulder level and shot the captive in the head. As he lowered his gun, Loan turned to the journalists and commented with a thin smile, 'They killed many Americans and many of my people,' and walked away.

"A few minutes later the darkroom attendant emerged and handed the strip of film to Horst, who inspected the frames with a magnifying glass. There was a professional rivalry between Horst and Eddie, but it was not apparent this day. Horst muttered 'damn' and handed the film to Eddie who looked at it and let out a 'whoop.'

"It was there, the moment of death, the cruel expression on the general's face, his extended arm and revolver at the moment of firing, and just inches away the victim's face, twisting in the impact, his shoulder turning as he began to collapse.

"NBC cameraman Vo Suu had captured the whole sequence on color film, but it was Eddie Adams' picture that was published on the front pages of the most important newspapers in the world."

We are all aware that Eddie was never entirely comfortable with the fame of the picture that won him a Pulitzer Prize. His reservations about it were highlighted in his obituaries. He felt he had betrayed his country's war effort and had ruined the reputation of the Vietnamese police chief, who he felt had been pushed into his impetuous action by the pressures of the Tet Offensive. I disagreed. His picture captured the brutality that was common to General Loan and the war.

Eddie left Vietnam in August 1968, never to return. But I caught up with him at AP headquarters in New York, where I was assigned for much of the 1970s as a Special Correspondent, a title also held by Eddie. He was always a pal and helpful at a time when my relations with the AP began to deteriorate after the retirement of Wes Gallagher and his management team who had championed our coverage in Vietnam.

We had one wonderful last journey together, an assignment that took us around the world covering the world's homeless, including the pathetic Vietnamese boat people trapped along the Malaysian coast. From Southeast Asia to South Africa and Botswana, from Argentina to Vienna and on to the Horn of Africa. My stories on the homeless were entered for the Pulitzer Prize that year and I was runner-up to Joel Brinkley, who won the international reporting award for his stories on Cambodian refugees. Eddie's sensitive pictures were widely published and are said to have helped convince the U.S. Congress to allow Vietnamese boat people to immigrate to the United States.

So there you have it. My spin on Eddie Adams. Many others will have much more to say much more eloquently. I could have said it all in one phrase: He was my kind of guy.

© Peter Arnett

Peter Arnett covered the Vietnam War from 1962 to 1975, where he won a Pulitzer Prize for international reporting. He later worked for CNN, and covered both Gulf Wars from the Iraqi capital, Baghdad. Arnett is now writing a book about the collapse of the Saddam Hussein regime.