"Last to Know, First
(Motto on the DaNang Press Center beer coasters)
At age 26, after four years active duty in the US Navy and already working as an on-air TV reporter in South Texas, I wanted to see the war of my time. I got an offer to spend a year in South Vietnam as director of Information for Southeast Asia for the American National Red Cross to cover their huge presence there. I produced documentaries and filed stories on their services throughout So. Vietnam, as well as contracting as a 'stringer' for United Press International.
CLICK HERE for a link to my 2009 blog commentary comparing our war in Vietnam to our decade of war in Afghanistan ... and lessons still not learned.
I took this through a bullet hole in a jeep windshield as we raced through a village in I-Corps.
The Saigon press corps was a mixed bag of old time hard-nosed newspapermen like Joe Freid of the New York Daily News, and lots of young bushy-tailed network correspondents like Morley Safer, Bill Plante, and Roger Peterson. Morley was then, as he is now, irreverent and intensely curious. I got to know Morley and many other network regulars at the Caravelle Hotel in downtown Saigon. ABC and CBS had their own floors in the hotel. NBC was across the street in their own location. Everyone helped everyone else. I was constantly peddling Red Cross story angles for stateside network coverage, but mostly we hung out and swapped latest leads and rumors. I went regularly with a group from ABC where we gorged on fantastic food out in Cholon at a great mom and pop restaurant called the 'Eskimo'. Rule was that everything on the huge platters had to be eaten. We never broke the rule.
Morley's initial fame came from one story in particular, which most TV viewers from the 60's will remember. It showed American GI's using Zippo lighters to set thatched roofs afire in a small village. The village was burned as part of the American policy of rooting out Viet Cong and punishing villagers who were "VC sympathizers". (The poor bastards couldn't win either way!) This was right in line with the famous quote from a MACV press briefer who stated, with a straight face, that ". . . we had to destroy the village to save it." Yeah boy.
We called the daily afternoon ground and air briefings at the JUSPAO press auditorium below the Rex Hotel the "Four O'clock Follies". It was at one of these briefings when a teletype operator from UPI came in and whispered to a group of us that there had just been a plane crash at Tan Son Nhut airport. . . in front of a group of boy scouts being hosted by Premier Nguyen Cao Ky.
One of Ky's pilots was hot-dogging in an AD Skyraider for the scouts and plowed it in really making a mess. We piled in a UPI jeep and took off for the main gate of Tan Son Nhut airbase in Saigon.
Roger Peterson of ABC and his cameraman joined our UPI group and the photo, (below at right), tells its own story. We weren't going to be let on the base, even with our permits and press credentials. This was a big-time stonewall attempt by the US as well as Vietnamese military.
The little Vietnamese gate guard, whom you can see in the background standing by the guard house, saw me take this picture. I saw that he saw, turned around and quickly rewound the film, took it out, hid it in the upper corner of my pants pocket and threw a new roll in the camera just before he wound up in my face, waving a loaded .45 screaming, "You give film! No peechurs! NO PEECHURS! You give film!"
Peterson, an accomplished and well known journalist, was raising hell with
the American AP guard. I smiled and acted very contrite while making a big
show of opening my camera and dramatically stripping out the film, pulling
it from its green and yellow TRI-X cassette exposing it forever. This
photo from the reel I hid in my pocket was presented to Prime Minister
Ky's press relations office and was the basis of a real nasty formal
complaint brought by the Foreign Correspondents Club. We gained a lot more
freedom of movement as a result of beating this attempt to stifle
Photo Right- ABC's Roger Peterson defies MP stonewall at Tan Son Nhut airbase gate . . .Viet guard comes after me!
Ho Tho . . . A Five Year Old With No Feet
hundreds of stories I filed in Vietnam having to do with the human
condition and the horrors of war, one in particular remains with me. The story of a
five-year-old boy named Ho Tho. He and
his father were
the only survivors of an explosion right outside their thatched hut in a
small village in the Northern Province of Quang Ngai. Below is the story I
filed which ran in Stars and Stripes and numerous papers
and magazines in the U.S. I have always tried to maintain an
objective distance from the stories I report, but Ho stole my heart.
I did everything I could to try to help him. We even got his father special glasses which allowed him to see for the first time in many years. The story below is as I filed it April 12, 1967.
Headline over my story in "Stars and Stripes" read, "Reds Take his Feet but not his Grin"
Press Release from ARC News Service, So. East Asia Information Office -
Saigon, April 12, 1967
(Saigon) - There is a five-year-old kid in Saigon, South Vietnam, with one of the biggest smiles you have ever seen. He is a little imp. He captures your heart. He has no feet.
The child's name is Ho Tho. His short life has been tragic, but somehow this solid little fellow has kept a bright outlook. Thanks to a group of American teenagers, his life is getting a little brighter all the time. Kids who responded after they heard Ho's story, which is so typical of many of the patients at the South Vietnamese Red Cross Amputee Center in Saigon. Ho's father, who stays with his son at the Amputee Center and cares for him night and day, recounted the horror and tragedy of December 5, 1966.
"We were sitting down to supper in our home in Duc Thuan Hamlet near Quang Ngai City when we heard a commotion outside. I went to the door and cautiously looked out. A unit of Viet Cong had moved into our village and and were rounding everyone up for a 'lecture'. One of the VC was in a loud argument with one of the younger men in the village. The next thing I knew, there was fire all around me and there was a terrible explosion. The VC had set off a bomb behind my house. Several other houses were blown up also. I was thrown to the ground. In front of what was left of my house lay my five-year-old son, Ho Tho. He had been hurt and was bleeding, but he was alive."
Mr. Tau paused for a
moment then continued. "My wife, who was seven months pregnant, and seven
children were dead. Both Ho's feet had been blown off. I was only slightly
Villagers helped Mr. Tau bandage Ho's legs and fashioned a litter in which to carry him to the Province Hospital in Quang Ngai. There, an American doctor spotted Ho and arranged to get him to Saigon and into the Vietnamese Red Cross amputee center.
After his arrival in Saigon, Ho's life started to take a marked turn for the better. His father was given a job as a janitor at Vietnamese Red Cross headquarters. The doctors and specialists at the amputee center kept Ho busy with numerous fittings for the tiny wooden feet and ankles that would be built especially for him. Ho and his father slept in the same bed. Occasionally there were other children to play with. The older patients quickly noticed that Ho never cried or complained. When he wasn't sleeping, he was usually laughing.
Then one day Ho and his father were called to the main office of the Vietnamese Red Cross. There they were met by representatives of the American Red Cross as well as the Vietnamese Red Cross. Through an interpreter, it was explained that an American Red Cross youth group in Fort Knox, Kentucky had heard about the patients at the amputee center. They organized a school dance and sold tickets to raise money to help some Vietnamese child at the center. Officials decided that Ho was indeed deserving since he would be at the center for an extended period and would be returning for new fittings as his little body grew.
A check for $91.50 was presented to the Vietnamese Red Cross by the American Red Cross on behalf of the Junior Red Cross group in Fort Knox. The money was to be credited to the costs of maintaining Ho at the amputee center. Average cost just to feed, lodge and provide transportation for a patient is around 75 piastres or 63 cents a day. Simple math shows that this investment by a group of American youngsters will go a long way toward helping this special five-year-old boy.
Ho, perched in his father's arms reached out for a look at the check. he studied it seriously for a moment then announced in a loud voice, "MY!" (pronounced 'MEE') which means 'American' in Vietnamese. There were several startled looks from the Vietnamese delegation. It was finally decided that the child was just commenting on the fact that there were Americans in the group and the fact that he was holding the check was mere coincidence. Others weren't so sure, however, that Ho doesn't understand a lot more than he may be given credit for.
The McCarthy Hotel, Downtown Saigon
Home of the Happy Hedonists
Original Happy Hedonist's Silver and Purple Badge
In a spirit truly reminiscent of M*A*S*H, those of us who lived in the McCarthy Hotel, also known as the McCarthy BOQ off Le Loi Street in Saigon proudly wore the silver and purple metal badge seen above. We gathered in a loud and crowded hotel bar and sometimes up on a makeshift roof garden to drink, make lots of noise and generally celebrate making it one more day. We were military, civilians, Red Cross workers . . . a mixed bag. Not all made it back home alive.
Saigon was shelled on November 1, 1966, just before the start of a South Vietnamese National Day downtown military parade. Anyone with a dress white uniform had been invited to sit on the reviewing stand to celebrate the third anniversary of the so-called November 1963 revolution. One of our happy hour regulars, Navy Lt. Commander Richard John "Rick" Edris, who lived in the McCarthy, was well liked among our gang and he said he had some dress whites and was going. He asked me to come along with him and I said I would because I wanted to get some shots of the parade.
That next morning a little after eight AM, we left the McCarthy together to walk up to the parade route some ten or so blocks away. There had been loud explosions about an hour earlier but no one seemed concerned. I ducked in the JUSPAO press office near the Rex Hotel to pick up a news release and told Rick I would catch up in a couple of minutes.
He walked on, and as he reached the front of the Catholic Basilica at JFK Square at the head of Tu Do Street, so did the first of several VC mortar rounds. They had been targeted at high ordinance angle at the heart of the city from not too far away on the outskirts. Rick was mortally wounded. A crater was blown into the ground just feet from a statue of the Virgin Mary.
I was a couple of blocks away and heard it incoming. I dove into a tin bicycle parking shed just as the fierce concussion shook the area. This was the first bold direct shelling attack upon Saigon. This second morning mortar attack took place at 0830 and then that was it.
The parade went on as scheduled. A group of us from UPI including Betsy Halstead and Steve VanMeter watched the parade and shot photos. I didn't know at the time that our Rick had been killed.
The Happy Hedonists mustered that evening. It was sad. The head count had not come out right that November evening. Slowly, however, we got louder as we toasted our fallen friend. The booze dulled the pain and distorted reality. As a group we became stronger. It was a surreal passing of time that is still stuck in my mind. It would be incredible if anyone on the list below discovered this Web site and contacted me. Memories and specifics fade . . . I can still put faces with some of the names below, but very few.
UPDATE: Through this posting years ago, and the growth of the internet, I
was contacted by Dr. Ed Sutton, "E.Sutton" on the list below who had found this story. His telephone call was like old home week. Doctor Eddie, the mad and wonderful trauma surgeon, was able to fill in details on Rick
Endris' death as well as to point me to virtualwall.org a wonderful web site
with all the names and details of those to be found on the actual Vietnam
Memorial. in Washington, D.C.. I discovered that the official location and cause
of Rick's death on the site had incorrect information and I was proud to able to help
get it corrected. The updated site tells the whole tale. Go to http://www.virtualwall.org/ and look up Cdr. Richard John Edris.
Left - Saigon residents inspect crater and damage from morning VC mortar attack.
Right - My friend was killed just feet from the base of the statue of the Virgin Mary.
First Day Cover marking 3rd. Anniversary of National Revolution
CIA Trainee Blows Up Red Cross Headquarters!
In 1965-66 the American National Red Cross had more than 6,000 trained specialists in South Vietnam. Working for a pittance, Red Cross Field Directors were just that, civilians out in the field with fighting units. Many were retired military officers who knew how important the services of the Red Cross were to the troops.
Say, for instance, mom gets in a head-on collision in the states and is in intensive care. How does her son find out about it and get home in time . . . or get home at all? The Red Cross in its quasi-military charter for humanitarian services was the way that kid got home; was the way the family even found where their son or daughter were using a special communications network operated by the Red Cross. Field Directors out with the troops cut through all the red tape, made travel arrangements, got emergency leave approval in the middle of a fire-fight, and loaned or gave money to the soldier. Many miracles were worked.
Service to Military Hospitals saw Red Cross nurses and patient aides providing warm and nurturing care in a land where there was little kindness. SRAO girls who still carried the WWII moniker, "Donut Dollies," flew and trucked across horrible and dangerous country to bring entertainment to the troops. Troops who were barely out of high school for the most part. It was a brief contact with life "back in the world".
But another group of devoted Red Cross workers operated up in the Northern part of the country in Quang Ngai Province. Headquartered in Quang Ngai City, they lived in an old walled villa from French colonial days. The team traveled daily into the jungle and up steep mountainous territory to work in some 20 refugee camps they established with their South Vietnamese Red Cross counterparts. The team consisted of a tough bunch of individuals. Eddie Koast, a registered nurse from the East Coast held clinics in the camps. Filth disease was pervasive. The baby above is typical of children whose heads had not been washed from birth. . . local belief was that you did not wash the baby's soft spot on the skull until it hardened. The result was massive scabies with parasites burrowing under the scalp. I often helped Eddie in the camps holding screaming, terrified infants while Eddie abraded the skin and worked in strong soap and antibacterial salve.
Ex-US Marine, Dale Petranech, was a natural clown and the kids loved him. He was called "Ong Mop" or "big guy". And he was a big guy who worked incredibly hard. He was wounded in the leg while rescuing injured townspeople during an attack on Quang Ngai. The Red Cross house was used as a makeshift hospital. Dale was med-evacuated for hospital treatment and recovered. No purple heart for civilians.
Red Cross sanitarian, Conrad VanEngle helped get water wells dug in the refugee camps, taught mother baby care and basic hygiene classes and handed out 'ditty bags' of soap, wash cloths, toothpaste and toothbrushes . . . all items as precious as gold to those who received them. The ditty bags came from Red Cross chapters and Junior Red Cross children across America.
" He Came Rolling Out in a Ball of Flame! "
A story that was never told, and that I could not dispatch for obvious reasons had to do with the covert operations of the CIA in the Quang Ngai area. Mixed in with the U.S. Agency for International Development, USAID, were a group of aloof, crew-cut guys casually dressed in non-regulation gear and usually carrying the lethal and impressive Swedish-K sidearm. They were simply referred to as 'company men', or 'agency guys'. The Red Cross refugee team operations office was in a detached cottage on the USAID complex. I traveled frequently up to Quang Ngai and was to arrive in a couple of days for a documentary shoot on the refugee operation. On previous trips monsoon weather forced us to remain in the team quarters sometimes for days on end, but it was the end of January and the weather was to be favorable. Just before I arrived, the Red Cross headquarters was destroyed in a massive explosion. I got pictures but no official details.
Well, here is what happened. . . Team Business Administrator and accountant, Robert Vessey, looked up from his desk (seen below) just as he saw a blinding light and heard screaming. From a what was supposed to be a tin bicycle shed just a few hundred feet away Bob saw a young Vietnamese man being blown out the door of the shed. "He came rolling out in a ball of flame!", Bob told me. Vessey was sharp and already had more or less figured that the shed was being used for something other than bicycles. The CIA group was storing trip flares, white phosphorus grenades and C-4 plastique explosive in there for use in their clandestine assasination cadre training and raids.
Bob dashed into the large adjoining USAID building screaming for everyone to bail out the windows on the opposite side. No one questioned why, they just jumped. Moments later a stomach-rattling series of explosions rocked the whole area knocking heavy roofing tiles off the two story buildings and caving in walls. Everyone escaped serious injury, but it was later learned that a child a couple of blocks away was killed as it slept in its crib after a roof tile from its house came crashing in, fatally wounding him. The CIA trainee, who had gone into the shed to get gunpowder to make a few firecrackers for the upcoming Tet celebration had set off a trip flare and was seriously burned.
Dale clowns around in the rubble . . . officials just shake their heads !
And finally, High Atop the Rex Hotel, the Saigon Open Officers' Mess - War is Hell!
The memo below has remained in my files somehow since 1967 and I find it as funny and telling about the American psyche today as I did back then. It is a two-sided suggestion sheet taken from complaints and suggestions made at officers clubs in Saigon.
The clubs were set up in various hotels which the American Command had designated as BOQ's. Names like the Rex, the Brink, Splendid, Five Oceans, Hong Kong and of course my very own McCarthy Hotel where officers, some embassy personnel, and Red Cross directors lived.
While many of us spent more time out in the boonies than we did in Saigon, most of those hanging out at the clubs worked in various capacities right in Saigon.
When in Saigon, I hung out in the clubs including the Rex. The brass, as we all know, can really bitch and complain! Take a gander below. This little memo tells its own story about war in a far away place. . . .