As I said earlier in this blog...I was scared just a few times in southeast Asia.
Most of my time was spent in the relative safety of Saigon. I say relatively safe because I was eating a steak at the officers mess high atop MAC-V headquarters one evening when I heard a bomb blast at the press center where we had been assembled for our afternoon briefing only an hour earlier.
I rushed down to the street and across to my office...grabbed my tape recorder and headed to the bombed building. Apparently it was just some kind of a warning by the Viet Cong as little damage was done. As I recall...we actually had our morning briefing there the next day. Nobody was injuried...the place is usually vacant between briefings.
I taped a couple of ad-libbed “on the scene” type stories...which the new bureau chief hated as he had no control over content...and rushed to the MacV building and raised New York on the line and fed them out and on the air before ABC and CBS and the rest got around to even writing their reports. We scooped everyone, but of course when I returned to the office the boss scolded me for not being at the scene when he got there. I embarrassed him, I’m sure, by telling him I was already feeding the story to New York and they were running it on the network as a special report while he was walking around wondering where I was.
He was really miffed the next day when the boss of NBC Radio sent the bureau a congratulator twix naming my reports as scooping the whole press corps.
I accepted the praise from NYC but knew I’d not heard the last from the bureau chief about stories going out without editing approval (i.e. his say-so). Another bomb blast about a week later destroyed a favorite movie theater right across from our building. I wandered through the dust and debris while doing another ad-libbed report and fed it again quickly to NBC New York for still another scoop and still another twix of praise. Just more trouble from the local boss for doing what they wanted done in New York.
However, my boss in New York followed up the twix with a personal letter in which he quoted the head of ABC Radio News, Tom O’Brien, as saying “that guy Major in Saigon is beating the hell out of all of us!”
As I said, I was only shook up a couple of times and the first was in Danang. That lovely city is about 200 miles or so north and I arranged to get out of Saigon to cover a great story there for both TV and radio news. A Marine was going to get married to his sweetheart back home...with the ceremony done by ham radio in Danang.
There was only one hitch. Our end had to be done at night so the ceremony could be during the daytime back home. So my cameraman, soundman and I had to take a jeep from the Danang Press Center (a nice place by the way) about six or so miles up through the hills to base camp where the Marine patiently waited to tie the not.
Just before we were to leave the Sergeant in charge of the press center came out and told me the NBC jeep had no lights. This was not good. I mean...driving around Danang in the dead of night in a vehicle making plenty of noise and having no lights and no top...no protection...no nothing!
Well, I thought it over and talked to the crew...while the Sergeant gave us assurances that he had informed all along the way of our impending arrival.
We set off...not at all assured ourselves and I’ve got to say...the next half hour going around curves...up hills on a narrow dirt road was not the most pleasant experience of my life. Then I thought “hell...we’ve got to come back down too!.”
Knowing that at any moment we could be slam-dunked by either side...our guys or the Cong was indeed scary.
But...we made it up the mountain in the dark and got a great story that got lots of network play both TV and radio...especially on our famous “Monitor” program on the weekend on NBC Radio.
As we didn’t have any way of feeding the stuff back to Saigon that night...I made my best decision of the whole tour. We camped out with the marines...drank and smoked a lot and told stories of our weddings and slept soundly.
And after some eggs and bacon the next morning...and lots of coffee...we headed back down the hill. They got the headlights on the jeep fixed within a week of our trip. Whee!
“Major, you’ve got Agnew!”
President Nixon sent his Vice President, Spiro Agnew, over to check things out. Since I was the only one available (TV guys up country) and NBC got the pool assignment for his arrival...I set myself up at the airport with my handy Sony tape recorder and did my ad-lib thing (which WAS expected and accepted this time) describing Agnew getting off the plane in Saigon.
Being the pool reporter meant I was the only one allowed to cover the event. So...I couldn’t use the usual close “Stan Major NBC News Saigon”. I did the report lasting about a minute and then another shorter one and ended...”Stan Major reporting...from Saigon”. That was heard on all the radio networks and maybe even used under TV footage of Agnew’s arrival.
Live on NBC TV!
Early in 1970 when the pressure back home was getting to the White House...Nixon and the Pentagon brass conceived a program called Vietnamazation. It was an effort to turn the war over to the South Vietnamese military...and begin withdrawal of our troops.
The President was to announce this important change in policy the evening of November 3, 1969 and I was assigned to go out to the civilian transmitter sight and to sit and listen to the president speak and then respond to John Chancellor’s questions at the end.
I would not just be on radio...I was on the whole NBC TV network with Chancellor. John asked me what the reaction to the President’s speech would be in Saigon...among the American troops especially. I did my best...again...ad-libbing which was much more my style than sitting down and writing a story. We went back and forth for about five minutes and that was it.
I made the front page of the New York Times a few weeks later when I was arrested...along with a South Korean cameraman from one of the other networks while covering the story of a South Vietnamese legislator who had turned against the war and locked himself inside his office in the Parliament building. We got a tip that the Saigon secret police...plain clothes thugs mostly...hired to do President Thieu’s dirty work were going to invade the building and physically remove the legislator.
The cops didn’t like it when a few of the press folks showed up and they grabbed me and the cameraman and hauled us off to a police station.
We pulled up outside what appeared to be a police station somewhere in Saigon and were taken to a courtyard where I was ordered to sit on a bench. Then the toughest cop began screaming at the Korean cameraman and pushing and beating him. I still had my small cassette recorder so I calmly pressed the record button and got the whole scene on tape. I mush admit I was somewhat nervous while the tape rolled. I was wondering if I’d get the same treatment...but in my mind I felt they wouldn’t have nerve to do that kind of stuff to an American reporter. With another oriental it was different. There’s always been a lot of ethnic hostility between Asians.
When the cop tired of beating up the Korean...he turned toward me and saw I had the cassette recorder going so he grabbed that and before he could retaliate for what I had done... another cop came into the courtyard and started yelling at him and pointing toward me. The American Ambassador had called demanding my immediate release. Apparently one of the other newsmen had tipped my office that I had been grabbed.
They kept the recorder, much to my chagrin, knowing what was on it. Later after I returned to the NBC News office...this same cop who did the beating showed up to return the recorder.
Surprisingly the actual cassette was still in the recorder and not erased...so we fed the whole thing to NYC and made news in addition to just reporting it.
This incident, in a small way may have helped feed the fires of the anti-war movement back in the states. The idea that a prominent network correspondent could be arrested for simply doing his job probably did not sit well for either the Nixon folks or the average American.
Getting all this publicity didn’t hurt my reputation for news coverage...being on the New York Times front page. Also... I got word later that David Brinkley loved every second it!
A couple of other small notes about my experience covering the war from the trenches of Saigon.
Soon after I arrived I noted that several of the staffers were having problems with the local food...eating in the Saigon restaurants even the so called “higher class” establishments hadn’t agreed with them. Accredited news folk had excess to the MacV officers mess a just across the boulevard from our office...so I took most of my meals there. Had steak and potatoes every day and some pretty great desserts.....and never got sick from something I ate.
I couldn’t fight the flu bug, however. It hit everyone and when my time came I walked into a small pharmacy in our building and told the Vietnam druggist of my symptoms. All prescription drugs are sold over the counter there...no doctor needed. The medications come from Paris and most are owned and bottled by the major U.S. drug firms so they are safe.
The druggist nodded his head...quickly selected a small bottle from the shelf and told me to follow the instructions.
That night when I returned to my hotel I took one pill and hit the sack. I awoke early the next morning...completely refreshed and all symptoms of my flu/cold were gone and stayed gone. I was amazed. I kept that bottle and when I returned to the states later, I checked it with a doctor and also a druggist and was told it was a sleeping medication. I told them “it may just be for sleep but it cured either the cold or flu I had...overnight!”
Perry Mason the war tourist!
While transversing the streets in downtown Saigon I had noticed a gentleman whose face I could not place on several occasions. I think I even nodded a “hello” on occasion. After I returned to the states, I read where actor Raymond Burr was a war “freak” and spent a lot of time hanging out in Saigon. To bad...I would liked to have lunched with Perry Mason!
Bob Hope comes to ‘Nam...again
Hope and troop were in country for his 1969 Christmas Show
I got to Cu Chi...home to the US 25th Division, just in time to see the last half of his show and to do some interviews backstage with Neil Armstrong...first man on the Moon...singer Connie Stevens...who flattered me by following me around...and others.
After the show I met Bob Hope just outside the big Army hospital at Cu Chi and did a ten minute interview for NBC Radio’s Monitor...our long form news program heard weekends. He then invited me to follow him into the hospital and I recorded another long segment of Bob chatting with injured soldiers and the medical staffers. It was quite extraordinary. Little did I know that I would see this portion on almost every special dedicated to Bob Hope. It obviously became a favorite of the Hope producers...and was used many times over the years since 1969.
The Candy Stripe
In early 1970 President Nixon’s “Vietnamazation” program was well underway and New York assigned me to do a bunch and do mean a bunch of short interviews...about 50 total... on the progress of this campaign. Of course I had to get out of Saigon so I took a two day trip down to the Delta section of the country...home of some of the most beautiful and productive rice fields in Asia and some of the toughest fights...especially over near the border with Cambodia.
As I was interviewing an Army Colonel...the North Vietnamese began firing mortar rounds from across the border. Luckily there aim was bad...the officer said it was mostly just a nuisance... but the interview with the background noise was fairly dramatic.
As I was bidding the Colonel farewell...one of his officers arrived to ask him if they were going back “across the candy stripe” that night. As I was wearing my army fatigues and had my back to the Captain ..he couldn’t see the “NBC News “ i.d. on the front of my shirt...so the Colonel was a bit put off by the question in front of a newsman. Army units weren’t supposed to cross the border into Cambodia! They both quickly recovered ...bid me goodbye...and I moved out to a waiting helicopter knowing one of the military’s biggest secrets about the war. Little did I know that the CIA was already plotting a government takeover in Cambodia...and that I would be one of only two american reporters in that country when it happened!
Christmas in Vietnam...1969
The honchos back in New York dropped all pretense of neutrality and ordered Saigon to come up with a blood and guts story to lead the Huntley-Brinkley Report for Christmas night....1969.
The bureau chief assigned a cameraman to every correspondent including me, and sent us out two days before Christmas with orders to come back with the lead story for the evening news.
Off went Bob Hager...Kenley Jones...Wells Hangen and yours truly for parts in South Vietnam known and unknown.
My cameraman was a Vietnamese who was fast becoming the best NBC News had. MAC-V had arranged specific areas for each correspondent to cover and because I still had radio circuits on Christmas Eve and Christmas day I only went about thirty to forty miles from Saigon...but the distance usually doesn’t make any difference. Battles could be raging that close to the city at anytime day or night. Or the VC could bomb you five miles outside the city limits of Saigon...with little problem.
Nothing much went on in my area the first day...but that night the Army escort we had received a radio communication about jeep being blown up in a small village a few miles down the road. Seems a couple of Vietcong women had planted a bomb on the road and the jeep crashed upon impact killing three GI’s.
We drove to the small village and pulled to a stop where some Arvn (South Vietnamese) soldiers were questioning two women.
My cameraman started rolling film the minute we stopped and held his camera arm level away from him but with the lens pointed at the commotion which was beginning to get rough. The soldiers started beating on the women with rifle butts and knocking them to the ground. We couldn’t get close and actually...we didn’t want to...for fear we might cause the soldiers to react to our presence.
Our escort stood back but was ready to interfere with our mission if necessary but my cameraman nodded to me and shut his camera off and I motioned to the officer that we wanted to leave the scene.
We didn’t talk much on the trip back to base but I did say we had to return to Saigon and hope for something better the next day.
But both my cameraman and I knew we had made it with that footage...and that chances were good....if we could get it on satellite to New York in time...it would lead the Christmas news.
It did. The other guys couldn’t best it.
The disappointing thing for me was I didn’t have time to do a
script...get it approved and record it to send along.
So I had to settle with writing notes for Chet Huntley who would do the script from those and read the voice over in the studio in New York.
My tour was ending so I decided I needed some film footage to take back home for future use. I grabbed NBC News cameraman Peter Bellendorf...a rough and tough little German who was about the most skilled guy we had filming stories...and who would later be killed while on assignment in Cambodia... and told him to just bring the camera...we’d film silent. So we set up downstairs on the main drag of Saigon with the South Vietnam Congress building in the background.
I had a microphone and a cord...but it was just hanging down..not connected to anything and lo and behold...Peter Arnette comes walking by.
Yes...THE Peter Arnette....who later became the most famous newsman in the world with his live reports on CNN during the first bombing of Baghdad. (See the movie...”Live From Baghdad” to get just a taste of what it’s like to be on the spot in a real war zone.)
Arnette saw the cord hanging down...unconnected...and did the most wonderful doubletake you can imagine! “Hey Major”...he shouted “you forgot something!” Peter and I were on the ground laughing.