"How many of us...would like to play catch...with our Dad just one more time?"
Field of Dreams
Some left over bits and pieces about Vietnam etc...
|Dan Rather Vietnam 1966 |
I actually went to Nam three times...twice as a freelance reporter
and the third time for NBC News in 69-70. The first trip was to do what
are called “home-towners” or short interviews with military types which
were sold to radio/tv stations in their hometowns.
My second trip was more interesting albeit unfruitful money wise.
I initiated the first one hour daily program from a war zone in history.
took my handy Uher portable recorder where none had gone before and
taped a couple of hours a day until I realized the so called
“syndicator” back in Miami wasn’t placing any of the shows. So...nobody
got to hear these fascinating hours at all but it was fun doing them.
the way over I stopped off in London and stayed at the Savoy Hotel.
Over priced and unimpressive for me...despite its reputation.
next day I took my tape recorder down to Trafalger Square...famous for a
lot of speakers and pigeons. As I began interviewing Britishers about
the Vietnam War for my first program I was interrupted by a London
bobbie. The Cop wouldn’t let me continue. So much for free speech in
Trafalger Sqaure...for Americans anyway.
next day I landed in Rome and stayed at the Hilton (much more to my
liking). That night...with an early flight to Vietnam the next day...I
decided to “see” Rome via taxi. I took the first cab in front of the
hotel and offered the driver a hundred bucks to give me the grand tour
for a couple of hours. He spoke good english which was a plus and I got
the check everything out...without the daytime crowd problem. It was
different...but enjoyable. And nobody picked my pocket!
the next morning I boarded a German Lufthansa flight leaving Rome and
bound for Bangkok, Thailand. We landed to refuel in a couple of
interesting places...only one of which we were allowed to deplane and
check out the airport gift shop. The first stop was Dar Es Salaam deep
in the middle east and as we walked from the plane to the door of the
terminal...there were fatigued clad soldiers with big guns watching us.
The attractive stewardess walking beside me whispered: “We’ve never
landed her before...My god I think they’re going to shoot us!”.
Eventually they did let us back on the plane.
Our next stop, just as daybreak arrived, was in Calcutta, India.
was a fast refueling stop so I only saw India from the sky. And from
high in the sky it was most appealing but very misleading. You saw lush
green fields...lots of rivers and water...but you couldn’t see the
multitude of humanity for which that country is famous.
in Saigon was interesting. I had been warned by some experienced
Vietnam travelers that I must be prepared to ‘grease palms” to even get
through customs. Turned out to be true as I had some radio equipment
with me which was subject to much discussion. So I took the official
aside and slipped a couple of twenties into his hand. It worked.
Rather had just arrived for CBS news and he sat for one of my shows.
We did it high atop the Caravelle Hotel in downtown Saigon but about
halfway thru the interview the reel to reel tape began
sticking....because of the heat. So Dan calmly took his finger and
helped me keep the tape going while we finished off the hour. So just
envision Dan Rather doing that...it’s pretty hilarious! Of all the
correspondents famous and not yet famous I met while in Nam, Dan was one
of the nicest. I ’m sure to this day he probably remembers that
interview...not for what was said but for the magic “tape saving” he
recorded another hour show in the very busy control tower at Tan Son
Nhut airport....actually the busiest airport in the world during the
Vietnam war. As I was interviewing the air traffic controllers I
noticed they were having trouble communicating with income planes.
Later when I listened to the playback I found the reason.
Germans made those little Uher recorders so powerful that my tape
recorder was the culprit. In fact the pilot’s conversations were so
strong on the tape I had to dump the show. Thank heavens I didn’t cause
any planes to crash!
taping a show up north in Danang...I caught a late flight that arrived
in Saigon after the nightly curfew was in effect. A couple of MP’s were
kind enough to drive me into the downtown area but I still had to walk
about ten blocks to my hotel. as I turned off one of the main roads to
get to my hotel I heard some strange animal-like noises. A light from
one of the buildings revealed that just in front of where I had to walk were hundreds...maybe thousands of rats. It seems they like to take over the city after the curfew starts. well...this is a scene right out of Hollywood.
clapped my hands...yelled as loud as possible and stomped my feet for
sure...to scare off enough of the little buggers so I could finish the
last block to the hotel. Something one never forgets!
Ok...so how does a guy from Stillman Valley, Illinois...or thereabouts get with NBC news?
Well...I got beat running for Congress by John B. Anderson of Doonesberry(sp) fame....and then I burned my folks house down!
mean literally. We lived in an old stone house on one of my Dad’s three
small farms in Northwest Illinois...and I was alone there in the winter
of 68 after I lost the Congressional race.
needed to stoke up a fire to keep warm and made the mistake of using
some flammable fluid which spilled out onto the floor and whosh...up it
a firm believer in the “bad luck-good luck” syndrome and a couple of
weeks after all that bad news...I got a call from NBC News
Chicago...drove over to the Loop and went to work as a writer/editor for
Floyd Kalber, Jim Ruddle, Bud Dancy and a bunch of others at NBC News
in the Merchandise Mart. The highlight (or low light) of my few months
with NBC News in Chicago were the riots of ‘69 on the west and south
sides. We could watch the fires from the windows of the Merchandise
Mart. Also...I got a real education about the liberal media...watching
writers editing film to make Mayor Dick Daley look bad! But that’s a
whole ‘nother book.
30 Rock calls
It didn’t take long for the honchos in New York to call me in because
of the two earlier freelance trips on my own to Vietnam. I auditioned
for the main NBC News radio correspondent slot by writing a five minute
newscast and reading it into a mike as they listened in NYC.
had burned down the house...got beat by Anderson...and within six
months I was an official NBC News Vietnam war correspondent! There must
be some category of psychology that has a term for this “bad luck/good
luck” syndrome but I only had one semester of that subject at Bradley
University earlier...and sat next to All-American basketball star Bobby
Joe Mason (later with the Harlem Globetrotters) and we talked basketball
instead of the subject matter...so I don’t know. By the way...Chet
Walker...later a star with the Bulls sat in front of me in English.
Nice guy too! Bradley was big in basketball!
New York City
wanted me to fly in to the New York and spend a few days getting
acquainted. Also I had to get a new passport and all the damn shots
again since it had been over three years since the last bunch.
was quite a thrill being at 30 Rockefeller Plaza for that three or four
days. I watched the guy who sits at the big desk ordering crews all
over the world to catch planes (or charter them) to go cover breaking
day I noticed a lot of the tv monitors were tuned to an alternate
channel where actor Paul Newman was visible going up and down a flight
of stairs. Constantly.
out he was taping a show in one of the NBC studios on the floor below
and all the females at NBC news had discovered they could watch him do
his thing. It was better than a soap opera. I think they also could
have watched the rehearsals for Saturday Night Live that went on all
week...But I only saw a cast member or two at the small restaurant down
on the lobby level when I took a lunch break with my radio boss Russ
Tornabene and his buddy...Edwin Neuman.
couldn’t believe I was lunching with Ed Neuman...and more than once.
Ed is the only newsman, I think, who was ever invited to host a Saturday
Night Live show. Spending some time, informally, in his presence was
one of the great thrills of my life.
then came David Brinkley. I spent my afternoons hanging out with the
Huntley-Brinkley folks in their office. Chet Huntley was on
vacation...so Brinkley, who normally does his end of the cast from
Washington had moved to 30 Rock for the week.
invited me into his office (no more than a large cubical with a desk
and old fashioned typewriter) and lit up one of his constant king sized
Salem cigarettes and said in that clipped Brinkley tone...”so
Major...you’re going to Saigon”...and I replied in the
affirmative...sitting straight up in my chair in awe of the audience I
was being given.
took a long drag on the smoke and got a kind of a twinkle in his eye.
“You know, Major, you ought to go over there and be the first peace
correspondent in the war. Tell it like it really is.”
thought about it for a moment then replied that I really wanted to stay
longer than a couple of weeks. Which was probably the length of time
it would take to replace me if I did that.
don’t know if he was serious or not...but we chatted for a few more
minutes and then I let him get back to work on his evening news script.
I observed Brinkley typing quite a bit and inquired of Les
Crystal...the producer of the H-B report if Brinkley actually wrote the
whole show. He said...everything but the film intros but he checked
them out too.
“Do you ever edit David’s stuff?” I ask.
“Are you kidding” Crystal he laughed. “ I’d rather edit God!”!
But Crystal was
worried about a piece of footage being used on that evenings’
newscast. Seems there was a shot of a woman with a see-through
blouse...and the shot was a required part of the story so it couldn’t be
dropped. When I saw Les the next day I said...”well how did the shot
“Not one call” he said. No stations or viewers called to complain. You never know.
later when I was doing a talk show in Philadelphia David Brinkley
jumped to ABC (he told me he couldn’t stand CBS) and began his “This
Week” show but for some strange reason it wasn’t going to be carried by
the Philly ABC affiliate. When I found out I got David on my show and I
started a campaign which quickly resulted in them taking his Sunday
show. It was important to him as Philadelphia was the 4th largest TV
market in the country. He was forever grateful to me.
News flew me first class to Tokyo and then to Saigon. On the leg out of
Japan I had my first taste of Kobe Beef. Never in my life had I tasted
anything as good. Beef just melting in your mouth...no need to even
chew. It was the first time I ever ask for seconds of airline food!
this day I’ve never been able to find Kobe beef in any of the places
I’ve been. And I’ve eaten in some of the finest restaurants in the
world. What a shame.
NBC news corespondency got off to a bad start. Upon arrival in Saigon
there was no one to meet me at the airport. This was not a big deal
because of my experience in Saigon earlier...but it should have given me
pause because of the breakdown in the “protocol” of not greeting a new
made my way to the NBC News office and a somewhat surprised staffer
immediately contacted the bureau chief who wasn’t around... who blamed
the whole thing on New York. I found out later that a new boss was
coming in shortly so the whole Saigon bureau was in a state of flux.
I settled in at a nearby hotel which wasn’t too bad...and no rats to traverse to get to the front door.
reports were fed to New York via phone line at 7AM and 7PM each
day...seven days a week. During the balance of 1969 and 1970...I had
more stories broadcast by NBC Radio news on the hour than any other
correspondent before or since. On any given day New York would run from
three to five or more reports from me...ending with “Stan Major...NBC
News Saigon”. My parents were very proud...and I was making a
lot of money based on reports aired on the network. NBC brass wanted to
keep me off the books (more or less) and paid me as a “freelancer’.
This way they retained the regular their budget and I made more...lots
more money. In fact I twixed them a couple of times that I was making
way too much money...but they messaged back that it was correct and
“don’t worry about it.”
after I arrived in Saigon the bureau got a new boss. The new bureau
chief shall remain nameless for reasons that will become painfully
obvious in the next pages.
guy (like the rest of us) had his watch ripped off his wrist by the
infamous “Honda mafia” dudes. Saigon had a bunch of them...guys doubled
up on motorbikes who would rip the watch off your wrist as you were
being rick-shawed down the road.
We soon learned to trade our expensive watches in for a Timex..no expansion band please.
Well..the new boss was livid about losing his watch.
angry in fact that he ordered all three tv correspondents and
crews...about nine staffers in all with cameramen and soundmen to be
dispatched to several key places where known watch thief's operated. He
wanted to catch the culprits on film. So...the whole war stopped on
the tv side for a couple of days while they staked out the roads and
bridges in Saigon on behalf of this guy’s bruised ego.
never did catch anything on film, of course. We had some good guys
there...like Kenley Jones and Robert Hager who wasted their time on this
and were obviously embarrassed by it.
didn’t cover much on the TV side. Because as radio correspondent I had
to meet the two circuits seven days a week so I was land-locked in
Saigon most of the time. If there was an interview or story in Saigon
that needed both tv and radio I would cover it which allowed Hager and
Jones and others to roam the war zone for their stories.
I soon learned how the Pentagon got its points across by using the
media. I was assigned to interview a General...but with the proviso that
during the TV interview I ask him one very specific question which had
been planted by the Pentagon with someone in New York. So, about
halfway through the interview I dealt him the planted question...he
answered...and I made the Huntley-Brinkley report on NBC-TV that night.
interesting facet about NBC’s coverage of the war lay in the fact that I
was told right off the bat after arriving in Saigon that each time I
fed the circuit (reported stories to NYC) which was twice a day...seven
days a week...I had
to include a war story i.e. something about a battle somewhere and
causalities. This was tough at times because some mornings there just
wasn’t anything to report. But I would scratch around and rewrite
something from the day before or perhaps write a short piece about a
possible engagement forthcoming...just to give the impression there was
still a war going on.
never really found out the “why” of this rule at NBC News
Saigon...whether it was New York inspired or just a local edict. There
are two possible answers here:
The brass in New York wanted an anti-war slant a couple of times a day
and the best way to get that was an increasing American causality count.
(see Iraq coverage)
The local bureau wanted to insure their continued full staffing so what
better way than to pretend there was a big battle everyday.
Take your choice.