From Walking Point
by Denby Fawcett
Those were the days when all of us were young,
very pure, and very sincere.
–Bao NinhThe Sorrow of War
One afternoon in the fall of 1966, I went to the Saigon Zoo. Walking past the cages of lethargic, dusty animals, I was drawn to a group of Vietnamese soldiers standing around a cement pit. They were watching two captive bears dancing on their hind legs, begging for candy and fruit. The soldiers threw the bears peanuts; then one of them casually tossed a lighted cigarette into a bear’s mouth. The soldiers laughed as the bear struggled to cough up the burning cigarette.
In Vietnam, I tried hard not to dwell on the plight of the poor bears or think too long about the dramatic deaths of friends I expected to know forever. There was no forever there . . . just one surprise after another. You had to fortify yourself for what was coming next. Only now, so many years later, do images drift back with mighty and haunting force.
In the night when I can’t sleep, I see the smiling face of my friend Riley Leroy Pitts, the handsome black army captain we called Pittsie Old Boy, a Medal of Honor winner. Pittsie threw himself on a grenade to save his men at Ap Dong, a dud Chinese grenade that failed to explode. After escaping death once, Pittsie got up off the ground and moved forward to kill the Vietcong machine gunners who had trapped his company in a jungle so thick, they could not fire back effectively. Pittsie Old Boy, dead at age thirty, mortally wounded while trying to prevent the Vietcong from shooting more of his men.
On other restless nights, I hear the voices of marines at the Rockpile near the demilitarized zone saying, “They must have paid you a fortune to come here.” The truth is, I paid my own way to the war and initially made so little money, I had to carefully count what I spent for books, clothes, and rent.
Covering the Vietnam War was the pivotal event of my life. Yet in the years afterward, I never mentioned my days on helicopter assaults, my fear of getting shot in the face, or the heady social life in Saigon for the same reason most soldiers kept quiet. It was a “bad war.” Nobody wanted to hear about it, and even if they did, they wouldn’t understand.
I don’t think any of us were prepared for what we would see in Vietnam. I went to the war in May 1966, as a merry explorer, a journalistic kind of person, plagued with a short attention span and an unstoppable curiosity. I was twenty-four years old, the oldest child of an artistic mother and a father in the advertising business, glamorous and brilliant people who loved me dearly. They urged me to always keep one step ahead of comfort, and from them I learned the benefits and perils of making friends with the untamed side of yourself.
I decided I must go to Vietnam when The Honolulu Advertiser sent my then boyfriend, and many years later husband, Bob Jones, to cover the war. The Honolulu morning paper wanted a reporter in Vietnam to do stories on Hawaii’s 25th Infantry Division, a local unit deployed to Cu Chi between Saigon and the Cambodian border, and in Pleiku in the Central Highlands. Hawaii, with its large military population, had a focused interest in the war.
Just out of Columbia University, I was languishing as a reporter on the evening Honolulu Star-Bulletin women’s page, assigned to write features and to help the paper’s star society reporter cover Honolulu social events. I yearned to be part of Vietnam, the biggest news story of my generation. Yet I was stuck wearing a borrowed evening gown to cover the Junior League ball or busy taking endless notes at the Chinese Narcissus Festival. My single goal in heading for Saigon was to remake my destiny.
My Star-Bulletin editors thought I was joking when I asked them to free me from the society pages to cover the Vietnam War. They said it was out of the question, so I quit my $80-a-week job and I was ready to leave for Vietnam as a freelancer when, at the last minute, Honolulu Advertiser managing editor Buck Buchwach took a chance and hired me as one of his reporters. Buchwach told me I would have to pay my own way to Saigon but
promised me a letter of accreditation and $35 for each article I wrote.
When I told my parents I was going to Vietnam, they were worried, but rather than try to discourage me, they kept their concerns to themselves. They were friendly extroverts who loved to throw parties on the lawn of our big Honolulu beach house. But between the parties they could be extremely sensitive. My mother read a book a night during the periods when she could concentrate, momentarily free of her episodes of manic depression, a disease that scared us and sometimes swept her away from us when we were children.
My father, a bookish man himself, loved British mystery stories and his volumes of Walt Whitman, lovingly preserved from his days as a Stanford University student. His own darkness was binge drinking–usually two-day-long spells he referred to as “toots”–confusing my brothers and me as we watched him bounce back from the alcoholic binges, miraculously transformed into the thoughtful and kind father he was before.
Both my mother and father were quietly withdrawn as I prepared to leave for the war. I remember the night before I departed walking into my father’s dressing room on the first floor of our house to find him sitting in the twilight in boxer shorts, staring at the wall, the TV set across from him turned off. He brooded by himself, knowing there was nothing he could do to protect me from the danger ahead. The room was shadowy and silent, the only sound the waves crashing on the beach in front of our house.
I packed my suitcase with sundresses recently shortened to the appropriate 1960s mini length by my mother’s Japanese dressmaker, sandals, pearls, dark glasses, and a bathing suit. I had no idea what to bring to a war.
When I arrived at Saigon’s Tan Son Nhut airport, hundreds of soldiers were pouring out of planes–the American presence in Vietnam would double by the end of the year from two hundred thousand to four hundred thousand troops. The only other women in the airport were Vietnamese customs officials. Everyone stared at me. The American embassy listed 758 American women in South Vietnam at the time. Until then, I had spent my life happily unnoticed in the background. The constant attention was unnerving.
The Honolulu Advertiser’s Saigon bureau was in Bob’s two-room apartment near An Quang Buddhist pagoda, the headquarters of the monk Thich Tri Quang, an outspoken critic of the Saigon government. I bought a Chinese bike for $20 to get around the city; the bike made me feel vulnerable and exposed if I happened to ride home at the same time that government troops were tear gassing our neighborhood to quell the pagoda’s frequent antigovernment demonstrations. During the tear gassings, helpful Vietnamese bicyclists signaled me to follow them down side alleys and lanes to escape the acrid air.
Besides the tear gas, there were also blackouts. In a botched attempt to tame the rebellious monks at the pagoda, South Vietnamese officials cut off electricity to our neighborhood almost every night. The enforced darkness only strengthened the monks’ resolve and, for us, heightened our sense of adventure and romance as we typed our news stories by candlelight.
The Advertiser promoted my presence in Vietnam as a reporter “specializing in color stories on Saigon and its environs.” A story in the paper informed readers I would do “articles on men and women who are lending their teaching, building and medical skills to winning the peace.” I was supposed to remain in the safety of Saigon writing features; Bob was to take care of the dangerous war coverage.
It was easy to find bizarre feature stories. One of my first pieces was on tourism in Vietnam, a report I later sold to the Saturday Review magazine. With a shooting war in full swing, the South Vietnamese government continued to spend money to promote tourism. The Vietnam National Tourist Bureau opened its doors each morning in a musty office next to the Majestic Hotel on the north bank of the Saigon River. Pamphlets on the counter proclaimed Saigon as “the Pearl of the Orient.” My favorite pamphlet urged tourists to come to Vietnam . . . a hunter’s paradise “with game filled areas 50 to 250 miles from Saigon.” A red-lettered stamp across the top cautioned: “Temporarily suspended under the present situation.”
Any American could visit Vietnam without a visa if he stayed for less than seven days. Pan American World Airways offered five flights a week to Saigon from Hawaii and the continental United States. Tourists did come, but not many. They were mostly hippies, druggies, or curiosity seekers such as the Dwight Folletts of Oak Park, Illinois, a couple I interviewed for my piece. Dwight was the president of Follett Publishing Company. “We must be the only tourists here,” he said as he and his wife sipped wine on an American friend’s penthouse terrace. “We came because we wanted to see what was happening in Vietnam ourselves. In the United States everything we read is either black or white.”
The Folletts’ activities included watching Buddhist monks stage an antigovernment protest that broke up after the Saigon police sprayed the monks with tear gas and beat them with sticks. A few days later, the Folletts took a trip to the beach resort of Nha Trang, where they ate fresh lobster in a former French café. Follett told me, “I am coming out of this more a hawk than a dove. We must help these people.”
Two months after I arrived in Saigon, Bob departed to take a new job with KGMB-TV, the CBS News affiliate in Hawaii. At age twenty-four, I became The Honolulu Advertiser’s chief Vietnam reporter. The paper made me a full-time staffer with weekly wages and a living allowance. I moved into the center of Saigon and began to do what I wanted to do in the first place, cover combat. But it wasn’t as easy as I expected.
The main difficulty for women journalists in the early days of the American military escalation was talking your way into combat zones. Military commanders did not like the idea of male reporters getting killed, and they were even more horrified at the thought of a woman reporter getting shot. One of the first officers I asked for permission to go into a combat area turned me down, saying I reminded him of his daughter. I swallowed hard in frustration, knowing the same commander would never say to a male reporter, “You remind me of my son.” Another time in the far north of South Vietnam, I was bumped from a helicopter dropping a long-range reconnaissance team into enemy territory because
there was “too much weight.” I weighed 110 pounds.
When I finally did get permission to go into a forward area, it came unexpectedly from the U.S. Marines, a group I had mistakenly stereotyped as sexist. I was so surprised, I did not even have the proper equipment. A redheaded marine private, Francis “Rani” Martin of San Francisco, had to loan me his boots, which were about three sizes too big. The marines flew me to the Rockpile, just south of the so-called demilitarized zone, at the time one of the bloodiest battlegrounds of the war. I was frightened speechless as I watched body bags filled with dead marines placed on the helicopter that delivered us.
The first words from one of the corporals as I got off the helicopter with Tom Corpora of United Press International and NBC’s George Page were: “Hey, you had better dig yourself a hole. We have been mortared every night, and it usually starts about now.”
When it got dark we could see the lamps of the North Vietnamese on the hill across from us moving fast as they got into position to mortar us. A marine captain told us not to smoke because he didn’t want the North Vietnamese to target our lighted cigarettes. Desperate for a smoke and frightened, we disobeyed. We lighted up and then burned a hole in C ration boxes with the tips of our cigarettes and smoked with the lighted end hidden in the boxes. The taste was terrible, but the effect was calming. I felt slightly less jittery when I spotted the old marine sergeant in the foxhole next to us sneaking cigarettes by covering his head with his rain poncho. We waited, but the enemy mortars the captain expected didn’t come.
That same night at the Rockpile, one of the marine radio operators asked me to call the coordinates for an air strike on the mountain across from us where the North Vietnamese had been firing on the Americans. He handed me a piece of paper: an exactly worded script to radio instructions to A-4 Skyhawks on where to drop the napalm, 250-pound bombs, and antipersonnel bombs on the North Vietnamese. The radio operator and other marines huddled close, waiting to hear the pilots’ amazement when they heard an American woman giving them directions of where to bomb. I read from the paper and awaited an answer. “You are kidding,” crackled the radio reply from the sky. “Hey, listen, the grunts have a girl down there. They are living good.” That cracked up the corporal and his friends.
Today, I am embarrassed to think how readily I agreed to become a participant in a story I was covering. But at the Rockpile, it seemed normal–a favor for the marines who helped me to get my start as a war reporter.From the Hardcover edition.
Excerpted from War Torn by Tad Bartimus, Denby Fawcett, Jurate Kazickas, Edith Lederer, Ann Bryan Mariano, Anne Morrissy Merick, Laura Palmer, Kate Webb, Tracy Wood. Copyright © 2002 by Tad Bartimus, Denby Fawcett, Jurate Kazickas, Edith Lederer, Ann Bryan Mariano, Anne Morrissy Merick, Laura Palmer, Kate Webb, Tracy Wood. Excerpted by permission of Random House, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.