Four Photojournalists Killed Over Laos Come Home
May 2008

by Dirck Halstead

The Band of Brothers came together on April 3 to put to final rest the remains of four of their own, killed more than 37 years ago when the helicopter carrying them into Laos was downed by North Vietnamese gunfire.

© Dirck Halstead
Horst Faas pays tribute to four news photographers shot down over Laos in 1971 during a dedication ceremony at the Newseum in Washington, D.C., April 3, 2008. Their remains, sealed in a capsule, lie beneath the flowers in the center of the picture. They have now found their final resting place, housed in the Newseum's Journalists Memorial gallery, at the foot of a towering glass wall bearing the names of 1,843 journalists killed on assignment since 1837.
Larry Burrows of Life magazine, Henri Huet of The Associated Press, Kent Potter of United Press International and Keisaburo Shimamoto of Newsweek were flying into combat to cover the U.S.-led incursion into Laos when a 37-mm anti-aircraft shell blew apart their South Vietnamese Air Force UH-1 Huey.

It was probably the hardest single blow suffered by the tight-knit group of correspondents and photographers that worked out of Saigon for the long years of the Vietnam War.

These were not ordinary photographers in any sense of the word. They were simply the best to cover that war. Two of them, Henri Huet and Larry Burrows, had been honored with the prestigious Robert Capa Gold Medal "for superlative photography requiring exceptional courage and enterprise." They were "old hands" at covering Vietnam, having been there since the start of the U.S. advisory role in 1963. Kent Potter, on the other hand, was only 23. I hired Kent while he was a student in Philadelphia in the early '60s, and I was UPI's picture bureau chief. He took over my job when I was sent to Vietnam in 1965, and five years later followed me to Saigon.

When I think back on Kent in Philadelphia he was "the kid." He accepted the assignment from UPI to go to Vietnam against the wishes of his family, who were Quakers. From then on, his parents refused to talk to him. On a brief home-leave in late 1970 he visited me in New York, and I was surprised by how he had changed. He was older, more mature, his body had filled out and toughened and he was movie star handsome. He couldn't wait to get back to Vietnam.

© Dirck Halstead
Russell Burrows, the son of Larry Burrows, is consoled by his daughter Sarah and wife Bobbi Baker Burrows after making remarks at the Newseum's emotional memorial service for four photographers killed over Laos in 1971: Larry Burrows, Henri Huet, Kent Potter and Keisaburo Shimamoto. April 3, 2008, Washington, D.C.
That was the common bond that these men all had. They LOVED Vietnam. They loved being out in "the boonies" with the soldiers and Marines. But most of all, they loved each other.

Photographers and reporters did not go to Vietnam against their will. They competed to get the assignment. For a whole generation of journalists, their careers were forged by the war.

On Feb. 10, 1971, the four comrades were trying to catch up with the forces that had led an assault across the border between Vietnam and Laos. Due to the dubious international laws regarding violation of another country's space, the U.S. military banned all press from riding on American helicopters into the battle zone. A South Vietnamese colonel invited Burrows, Huet, Potter and Shimamoto aboard his command aircraft. Soon afterwards, they were all dead when the pilot got lost over the Ho Chi Minh Trail in Laos and wandered into the sights of a North Vietnamese gunner.

"It wasn't the first multiple loss for the Saigon press corps, but the deaths at one time of four photojournalists so well-known and respected was a staggering blow," Associated Press correspondent Richard Pyle said. "At that time the list of dead and missing Vietnam war correspondents stood at 50, and would eventually reach 74 at war's end in 1975 - the most news media casualties of any war in the 20th century.

© Dirck Halstead
Richard Pyle, the veteran AP writer who helped to recover the remains of the four photographers killed over Laos in 1971, with Lisa Farmer, the niece of one of them, Kent Potter.
"For nearly three decades there was only faint hope that this story might be finished some day. But in 1996, the jungle crash site was rediscovered, and two years later … a team from the Hawaii-based Joint POW/MIA Accounting Command (JPAC) recovered camera parts, film, and other items, along with traces of organic material not yet obliterated by time and climate," said Pyle.

In 2003 Pyle offered the remains to the Newseum, which was in the process of being built on Pennsylvania Avenue in Washington. "This was an exception . . . for an exceptional case," said Susan Bennett, the Newseum's deputy director.

The photographers' remains have found their final resting place in a stainless-steel box beneath a metal nameplate set in the floor of the Newseum's memorial gallery at the foot of a towering glass wall bearing the names of 1,843 journalists who have died doing their jobs since 1837.

They came from everywhere. Tad Bartimus brought flowers from her garden in Hawaii; Horst Faas, in his wheelchair, came from Munich. He has been paralyzed from the chest down as a result of a viral infection suffered while teaching a workshop in Vietnam in 2005. They were nearly all there, older and greyer, but still with that same special light in their eyes. One of them couldn't be there; he was greatly missed: David Halberstam, the Pulitzer Prize-winning author who was killed in a car crash last year.

© 2008 David Burnett / Contact
Following a dedication ceremony, friends and colleagues of four photographers lost over Laos in February 1971 (Larry Burrows, Henri Huet, Kent Potter and Keisaburo Shimamoto) gather for a "class reunion" photograph on the steps of the Newseum in Washington, D.C., April 3, 2008. The interment of the photographers' remains not only reunited the legendary Vietnam War press corps, but also brought "closure" to one of photojournalism's most tragic events. This photo was shot by David Burnett, using his Speed Graphic.
Edie Lederer, who was the first woman correspondent to cover the war for The Associated Press, said, "This is an incredibly important day for the family of Vietnam war correspondents and photographers, because it brings to a closure one of the tragic events for some of the best-known and finest photographers of the war, who really risked their lives to tell the American people, especially, and the rest of the world what was really happening."

Thirty-seven years after that fateful day in 1971, the emotional scar tissue remains for the photographers' families and friends. "When you lose somebody close to you, it doesn't scab over and heal," said Sherry Potter Walker, Kent Potter's sister, who cried inconsolably during the interment ceremony. "A zipper is installed. And anytime you come across the memory, it opens up and all of your sadness falls out."

"All these years, we've never forgotten them," former AP correspondent George Esper, who covered Vietnam for 10 years, said of his four friends. "We talk about them all the time. And we remember them all the time … "

There were a lot of tears in that elegant new rotunda, a lot of memories of a time long ago, but also a sense of pride and closure that they were together again.

"It's wonderful to see so many aged faces of the good and bad days of old Saigon," Horst Faas said. He spoke about his visit by helicopter to the crash site with Pyle. "It almost felt like a combat assignment," he said. "The old adrenaline in me rose . . ."

Dirck Halstead covered the Vietnam War in 1965 and 1966 for United Press International, and returned in 1972 and 1975 for Time magazine. In 1975 he was awarded the Robert Capa Gold Medal for his coverage of the fall of Saigon.

[With reporting by Michael E. Ruane, The Washington Post and Donald Winslow, News Photographer magazine]

For More on the Photographers Killed in Vietnam Go To: has posted Richard Pyle's original story, "Saigon Quartet," written in 1999 for Vanity.

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© Dirck Halstead
Editor and Publisher of The Digital Journalist

Dirck Halstead was Time magazine's Senior White House Photographer for 29 years. He now is the Publisher and Editor of The Digital Journalist, the monthly online magazine for visual journalism, and a Senior Fellow at the Center For American History at the University of Texas in Austin. His new book, MOMENTS IN TIME, published by Harry N. Abrams, is in bookstores, and available from