by Larry Engelmann
"I went there to cover the war and the war covered me."
George Syvertsen, still missing in Cambodia
Sean Flynn and Dana Stone, among the missing
He can't stop thinking about the war. Not a day goes by, not one, when he doesn't find himself thinking about about it again, remembering things that happened on particular days, words that passed between men walking down a jungle path, the beautiful faces of children, the laughter of the young soldiers, the taste of "33" beer at the end of an exhausting day, the last moments and last words between a close friends. Then he wonders why he remembers these things, why he's been unable to tuck them safely away in some remote compartment of the memory where a special effort must be made to pull them out. But it hasn't happened. And when he tries to forget, he only remembers more vividly. Nothing seems to work. So, over time, he's learned to live with the the past always just a blink away.
He wonders if it all stems from the length of time he spent there -- Jim Bennett covered Vietnam longer than any other television correspondent. He produced more television news stories on Vietnam than any other correspondent except Don Webster of CBS. "Don did three or four more stories than I did in Vietnam," Bennet recalls.
Vietnam was the first war Jim Bennet covered as a correspondent. But it wasn't his first war. But I've often wondered if it wasn't some relationship maybe between the fact that I had war experience, coupled with my fascination for what was happening in Vietnam.
Bennet was born in Detroit in 1926. In 1943, when he was just 17, he joined the Navy. "That was really my war, the war I fought in," he recalls. "It was a patriotic war and it was fought with love and fervor. Vietnam wasn't."
Bennett was assigned to the destroyer Renshaw. Eighteen crew members were killed when the ship was torpedoed in the South China Sea in 1945. "It was hit directly under the torpedo tubes which are aft of the main part of the ship. It almost split in two." But the captain and the surviving crew members of the Renshaw managed to hold the ship together with chain hoists and prevented it from going down. The Renshaw limped back to Okinawa for minor repairs and then was e towed back to the United States.
After the war Bennet returned to Detroit to finish high school on an accelerated veterans' program. Then, using the GI Bill, he enrolled in the University of Rochester. He dropped out of the university after his second year. By that time, he says, he knew exactly what he wanted to do with his life. He wanted to be a newsman. And he didn't want to wait any longer to get started.
His first job came working as a reporter for the Rochester Democrat and Chronicle. For the next sixteen years he moved from paper to paper, completing his career in print journalism as a reporter for the Los Angeles Herald Examiner.
When the chance came to work in television news, Bennett took it. In 1965 he took a job with KNBC television in Los Angeles, a station owned and operated by NBC. It was expanding it's news time slot in the early 1960s from 15 to 30 minutes and it was look for additional news staff members. I had been interviewed by a newsman, Bill Brown, who had been on the Examiner at one time. I was president of the Los Angeles Newspaper Guild, and we had gone on strike. And he interviewed me when the strike was settled. Brown was the news director also for KNBC. About a month later he called me and asked me if I had ever thought about getting into television. I had not really thought about getting into television, but I figured my career at the Herald Examiner, having been president of the guild which took them out on strike, was about over.
"So he hired me along with -- over the course of the year it turned out to be -- a very fine news staff," Bennet remembers. Among the new staff members was Tom Brokaw.
While working for the Herald Examiner Bennet had applied many times to be a foreign correspondent. But the Hearst organization didn't maintain any foreign news bureaus at that time. The "Hearst Foreign News Service" was comprised of Bob Considine and William Randolph Hearst Jr., who --as Bennett describes it -- "diddie bopped around the world having a good time and doing stories." There was little depth to what they reported. But the owners apparently wanted little depth. So Bennett concluded that "there wasn't a chance in hell of really becoming a foreign correspondent for them" and he concluded that his best chance might be through the medium of television.
In 1965 Vietnam was just emerging as the major television story. In the spring of 1965 Lyndon Johnson committed America's first combat troops to Vietnam and in the fall the first major confrontation between American and North Vietnamese units took place in the Ia Drang Valley. Vietnam was tranformed from a story to the story.
" I could see that it was going to be the story of that generation," Bennett says. "And I thought, 'what young, virile red-blooded newsman wouldn't want a piece of that story? Vietnam is where newsmen made their reputations--and generals lost theres. As I saw what was happening in Indochina, I knew that I wanted to be a part of it.".
When the network finally did put out a call for volunteers to go to Vietnam, not many correspondents stepped forward. David Burrington, who was working with Bennett in Los Angeles, got the first call. "I really very badly wanted to go at the same time," Bennett says. " But they only took one."
Two years later, in 1967, they issued another call and again Bennett volunteered. This time he was selected. Bennett left his wife and three children in Los Angeles and flew to Saigon.
Bennett's first Vietnam assignment for NBC lasted six months. All three of the national television networks made the decision to rotate their newsmen in and out on a six month assignment. That way, the assignment meant a six month separation since no newsmen were allowed to bring family members with them to Vietnam.
Bennett completed the full term of his initial tour, which some of the newsmen were not doing, he recalls. "There were some crazy things that were happening. I guess Vietnam had a tendency to make boys out of men and men out of boys in a lot of ways. A lot of correspondents, young reporters who went, couldn't hack it and terminated their tours very early."
There were two reasons for the problems the early newsmen experienced, Bennett believes. First, many of them found that Vietnam wasn't at all what they expected it was going to be. And second, with regard to television newsmen -- it required the separation from the family. Some of the correspondents brought their families as far as A lot of them brought their families over and kept them in Hong Kong or Bangkok and then left them there. the networks allowed ten days of R and R( rest and relaxation) every eight weeks. For some that was adequate time to be reunited with their family. But it was emotionally difficult and several of them begged out of the assignment early.
Bennett desperately missed his family. And so within a few weeks of arriving in Saigon, he contacted his wife in Los Angeles and arranged for her to fly to Hong Kong to meet him during his first R & R. Then, rather than leaving her behind when he returned to Vietnam, he broke network rules and brought her back with him. "What the hell, she'd come that far, paid a lot of money, and she wanted to see Saigon, so I snuck her in," he explains. NBC eventually found out about it and ordered Bennett to send her back to to Los Angeles. But it created a hell of a stir within the hierarchy in NBC to the extent they sent somebody out from New York to find out what the hell was going on, and how come I'd broken the rules."
And, as Bennet reflects on those days, "I think a lot of them went for the wrong reasons. I don't think they necessarily went because the story attracted them as much as they saw an easy way to gain fame and fortune. And when it turned out you had to do something to gain the fame and fortune, to actually really cover the damned war, that's when I think a lot of them became discouraged and bailed out and came back early."
But after completing his initial tour, Bennett was hungry for more. Having seen the country and the war, he wanted to follow through, to follow and report the progress of the American effort in Vietnam. Within a few weeks of returning to the US, he was asking for another assignment in Vietnam.
"There was probably was a lot more innocence at the time among almost all of us who were there," he remembers. " It hadn't yet really dawned on us at that point that this might be a losing proposition. More and more there was the escalation and we were still buying into 'the light at the end of the tunnel.' There was a real air of optimism, I think on just about everybody's part."
Bennett talked to some of the print journalists who were openly skeptical about the war and were beginning to question the explanations for and the execution of the war. But he didn't draw that cocnclusion during his own first tour.. "I came away with a feeling of dissatisfaction that it was a job undone. I hadn't had enough. I hadn't seen enough to come to any other conclusion."
There were many dangerous incidents then. And that bothered him to the extent that maybe the thought crossed his mind, "I don't particularly want to die in some foreign battlefield without at least having seen my family one more time."
So, at the end of six months he came home. " I had three children back here. I was reluctant to leave, but I wanted to come back because of my family. But I think in the back of my mind even then, I thought I'm going to come back here and see this thing through one way or the other. "
Then NBC changed its policy on Vietnam. And they changed it for Bennett. He was back in California only six months in 1968 when Bob Mulholland, West Coast Director of News for NBC came to Bennett and asked if I would like to go back to Vietnam. Bennett said he would return, but only for a tour longer than six months. Mulholland asked if Bennett would go back for an eighteen month tour. Bennett agreed, but only if his family could accompany him this time. "I couldn't possibly be gone for that long without them," he told Mulholland..
So NBC changed its policy and authorized Bennett return to Vietnam accompanied by his family. He flew to Saigon and they arrived a few weeks later, allowing him time to find accomodations for them. "I think I was the first television correspondent who arrived in the country with his family and that kind of broke the ice and the other networks followed suit," he recalls. " Steve Bell came with his family then and Dick Threlkeld came with his. And I think that was really the first breakthrough. The networks were getting tired of those six months tours because they had to feed that machine every six months and I think that was the reason why they finally broke loose because it had been a very firm policy."
So Bennett returned to Vietnam in the spring of 1968, shortly after the launching of the NVA/VC Tet offensive. He found the war was suddenly "very hot." Consequently, his family was delayed from coming to Saigon until July. During that time Bennet persuaded himself that his family would be safe in Saigon. "It was a dicey situation," he remembers, " but my family wanted to go into it. I suppose that isn't quite fair to my kids. They weren't really old enough to be participating in decisions of that magnitude, but certainly my wife did. And we had discussed it pretty thoroughly and I had enough time over there before they came to make up my mind that this was not going to be all that bad as far as they were concerned."
Bennett found that in the short time he had been back in the US, the situation in Vietnam had changed in subtle ways. And the behavior of the newsmen was different. "There was a hurry to get someplace -- everybody was rushing around very frantically trying to make a name for himself because they didn't think it was going to last much longer," he found. "Then they began to see that the tunnel was a hell of a lot longer and you couldn't see any light at the end of it anyway," He found much more cynicism among the newsmen than he'd noticed earlier.
Bennett didn't share in that cynicism at first. " I couldn't yet come to grips with the fact that this tremendously powerful military machine could not take the measure of this country, this little country. Never mind the dedication on the part of the North Vietnamese and Viet Cong. I didn't quite understand it at that point. It took me a little bit of time to come to grips with that. Maybe that does harken back to my own time and my belief in the military machine, if you will, as a viable way. I didn't understand the extent of the politicizing the war back here in the states. I didn't understand how far that had gone, either.
"We had everything in place. There wasn't any reason why this military machine as it had been built up to almost five hundred thousand men with all of the sophisticated weaponry we had and all of this great technology capable of literally wiping out the enemy, why it didn't do that. But the military was constrained and they couldn't fight beyond a certain limit. It couldn't use its great technical ability. A couple of bombs in the Red River Delta in North Vietnam would have settled the whole thing in a great hurry. That's what I mean. And I didn't understand what the constraints were. I just didn't understand. Why couldn't we do those things, go beyond the Seventeenth parallel, I wondered.
Bennet went up to I Corps near the DMZ several times, and saw that American forces were honoring that DMZ. "We were not infiltrating north--maybe some of the long range patrols and things like that, the Green Berets may have been carrying out some clandestine affair behind the lines, but those were Special Forces events. But there was no mass movement of our troops that was going on. That was the DMZ and we were honoring it. But I remember standing just yards away, looking through the night scopes and you could see the movements that were going on at that time by the North Vietnamese using the DMZ as an infiltration route. I thought that was a very perplexing thing. Why should we honor this if they're not honoring it? When you're in a pissing contest with a skunk, don't bring Chanel #5 to the fight. And when you've got the best tools available, there's no such thing as a limited war. You can not have a limited war. You give me a limited bullet and I'll give you a limited war. "
Bennett found in I Corps "these great young men who were willing to give their best and to lay it on the line, but they had nothing to back it up. Nobody was reinforcing them. They were not being given any reasons for it. It was a war that was being fought in name only. They understood probably earlier on than maybe some of the people in the news business did that they were being shackled. And I looked at them and understood that here they are over here and willing to put it on the line, but they don't really quite understand why. What does this mean in the overall context of things, what does it mean to us? They didn't understand things like domino theory and they were just told they were fighting communism. That's not enough reason. Some of them were over there thinking, 'What the hell am I doing here? I'm not mad at these people, it's not my country.' And I think that's when things began to come apart. That's when the disillusionment really began to set in.
"When you're in a war, they are fought to be won, not to be lost. And when the politicians began to shackle and hinder this machine that we had put together to win the war and put restrictions on it so it couldn't win the war, then I began to have a very different view of things -- maybe my antiwar feelings begin to come out at that point. I started to think, I'm going to burn my kid's draft card before I'll let him get involved in this kind of a situation. I'm not going to let him be ground up in this kind of machine."
Along with his own growing cynicism, Bennett found that the corruption within the Vietnamese government was rampant. He didn't believe this was the fault of the Americans. "Vietnam was corrupt before we got there," he believed.. " There was a black market with the French. They were just as corrupt under the French as under the Americans." On the other hand, he found that the American participated almost enthusiastically in the black market. Even the newsmen, who were often the most self-righteous about the corruption. " Reality dictates that we would be participants in it when your own news organization is telling you to use the black market when they were orienting you to go over. They told us, 'You will be living off the economy, and there is the black market.' They didn't go much beyond that, but they made you aware of the fact that there was black market and you probably could save money by participating in it. And there was only one person that I know that ever pulled the plug, and that's because he got in a bind. That was AP photographer who finally testified at some congressional committee about the media being all involved in the black market insofar as exchanging currency. I knew people who made a bundle, made a business out of it. And you could do it by just going back and forth from the money man, 'the Indian' as they used to call him -- the Indians were the great currency black marketeers. Going back and forth from the Indian in downtown Saigon out to the airport and change your piasters into dollars, and then take your dollars and go back and buy piasters and take the piasters back out -- it was a business and they had a regular shuttle service going. And many newsmen participated in that."
Bennett also found that there were a lot of bad newsmen in Vietnam along with the good newsmen. Some of the very bad represented major news organizations that didn't feel they had to have the best representation possible. "Maybe they didn't take the story that seriously, " he concluded. "When you had organizations like the Chicago Tribune, the New York Daily News -- these are major news organs back here, for God's sake -- represented by some people who never even left Saigon, then you've got a problem. One of the great stories of all time, I think, was that the correspondent for the New York Daily News only left Saigon once. And he was there for years and years and years. He didn't even have an office, he used the press room in the MACV building and he considered it his own -- God help you if you wanted in there to use any of those typewriters. That was his newsroom. And it was supposed to be available to wandering correspondents coming in and out of the country. His newspaper once ordered him to go out to go up to I CORPS, to go up to DaNang and do hometowners for over the holidays this one year. Absolutely ordered him. He had never been outside the city limits, and this man was reporting every day. And he was reporting the line that was delivered at the daily follies every damn day, that the military was coming out with.
"So what he did, he called up and he told the IO officer up in Danang that he was coming up to do hometowners and he wanted twenty-five people from New York City or New York State. He wanted them at the airport. He flew up on a military flight, got off that damn plane and the IO had them all lined up, and he went down the line, got the names, addresses and a quote, interviewed the whole twenty-five of them--and this is a true story--got back on the airplane and was back in Saigon that night. That was the extent of that man's experience, of his total experience of honestly reporting the war in Vietnam."
The size of the Vietnam press corps itself was horrendous. And Bennett found there was a "club atmosphere" in Sagion --not in a protective sense, but in the sense that newsmen tended to think, "Yes it is our little war and god damn it don't intrude too much. We've got a good thing going over here." He also found that "it was a great party war." He recalled his amazement at the number of parties going on constantly in Saigon. "You could go to a press party given by somebody --a fellow journalist--every night there'd be a party someplace you could go if you wanted to. And if you could hold up under the gaff of partying all the time, you could go to a party every damn night. That kind of faded away as things got tougher. But the fact of the matter is that it was a great party war."
Bennett was fascinated by the Marine Corps in Vietnam. He became an I CORPS specialist for NBC because he spent as much time up there as he could in order to report on the Marines. "I could never quite understand the marine mentality," he confessed. "I love the marines, don't get me wrong, but I never could quite understand what their mentality was. Or I did understand it, maybe that's it. I did understand that what they were -- this magnificent fighting machine, introduced into this country and willing to do anything and everything to gain so little, but that was the nature of the beast. We weren't there to gain ground at all. If we did win it, we gave it back. I think somebody pointed that out in what became the Battle of Hamburger Hill. There we wanted the top of the god damn hill and we got it at great expense and the next day abandoned it. We never were there to take territory and hold it.
"But the marines' mentality was that the enemy's on the top of the hill and we're at the bottom. There's fifteen different ways to really take that hill. You could bring in tac air and soften it up before you make your charge. You can attack it from two sides and split their forces at the top. But with the marines there's only one way with the marines and that was charge right straight up that hill and God help you if you didn't take it."
After the seige of Khe Sanh, which Bennett believed was was the Marine's big "Saipan" or "Tarawa" of Vietnam, the Marines staged events where they flew a big contingent of newsmen back to Khe Sanh for a ceremony. Part of the ceremony was a flag raising. "Now you understand they had been out there maybe a day or two before. I'm telling you there were hundreds of us that they flew out there. Just think of all the C-130s they had to tie up to fly I bet there were two hundred of us at least. To fly us out to this old abandoned air strip at Khe Sanh. There wasn't anybody there. Maybe a few VC around, but they weren't making any trouble anyway. But after this horrendous battle they flew us all back there several months later and part of the ceremony amongst the speeches and the bands playing, and banners waving, was a flag raising ceremony. They had these marines lined up to face this flag in the precise exact manner that the flag had been raised at Iwo Jima. They had gone to all that trouble. And those boys had rehearsed and rehearsed how to raise that goddamn flag. It was the damndest thing I ever saw in my life.
"I reported that. I sure as hell did. That's one I did. Don Webster, as I recall, was with me and I was near him at the time, and we both just absolutely guffawed. And we both had got it on film -- in those days it was before video. It was just hysterical. They had to have an event. That's the marines, bless their hearts. I'm not talking them down, I love them dearly. But they had to have an event in this war that they could put in the history books and Khe Sanh was it."
Bennet reported on the Laos invasion of 1971 --Lam Son 719. "That was the worst one of all," he remembers. "That was a bad one. It was then obvious that we were pissing into the wind on Vietnamization. It was a joke. They did try to ban us from going into Laos and it was very very difficult to get in. But you could find the odd chopper pilot who would take you in, but it was very very dicey. That's where the three newsmen were lost at one time, Larry Burrows, Ken Potter, Henri Ewett -- that was the worst of all. I think that one operation turned me around all the way. I could see there wasn't any hope after that. I knew that we were, as I say, pissing into the wind."
After Lam Son 719 he started thinking of the US getting out. " Why spend any more? Maybe I was even a little bit vitriolic about it. To my own credit, and I don't mean to make this sound self-serving, I did try to maintain a posture of objectivity. I'm not sure I did. I'd have to go back and see what I really did. But it was a frustrating operation. We were all put into this one compound, I think probably for control purposes. But anyway they had confiscated this one compound that belonged to the First Air Cav, as I recall, and I don't know where those poor guys were moved, but there were several quonset huts and we were all jammed into these huts. They had a briefing in the morning and in the afternoon -- the Americans did. And they did bring over the Vietnamese to brief us on their part of the operation. The Americans were strictly in support. We were just supplying the helicopter support and the logistical support for the thing.
"I remember one day, Steve Bell and I were making a dash for the border by land, the only way we could see to get there. We had a hell of a time. We finally got to the border of Laos and that's where the road stopped. It was just impenetrable jungle from that point on. There wasn't any way of getting in. So you were really at the mercy of the chopper pilots if you really wanted to get in. And I think what happened with Larry Burrows and Ken Potter, who was my bunk mate, had the bunk next to me -- nice young kid, always hungry, a lot of us brought our own food and he was always after me -- he was a growing boy, I guess -- he was only about twenty-two -- he and Henri and Burrows stayed by the helicopter pad for days waiting to get the trip in and when they finally did they were shot down. I think that got the rest of us. I made a lot of helicopter flights over it and I got in one time on the ground, but boy I'll tell you, I didn't stay on the ground, no sir. I came right back out on that same helicopter, because the South Vietnamese were bailing out as fast as they could and anything that landed they were jumping on, and the American pilot --thank God I hadn't gone with a Vietnamese--says we have to go. Dozens of them, hundreds of them were barreling towards anything that landed and grabbing the runners to the extent where some helicopters couldn't even take off.
"You could see a lot of things happening on the ground, but most of the American pilots in the First Air Cav wouldn't set down. This one group did, but I got the hell out, I came right back out. I didn't even get a story.
"One thing I think that kept me alive through all of Vietnam was I knew when to keep my head down. I could recognized a dicey situation and get the hell out of it. "
Bennett also did reporting from Cambodia. That was, he recalls, " the blackest mark on America's record. What we did to those people! They were tossed into the maw of the war machine without even knowing what the hell was happening to them, for the sole purpose of trying to protect Vietnam, no other purpose whatsoever. That whole episode was perpetrated with an eye towards trying to pull the war in Vietnam out of the bag for political reasons. The Cambodian people were sacrificed for that. And we still to this day won't recognize it or admit it.
"Here's a nation of what, seven million people, who probably will never be a nation again. And I think that we were largely responsible for that.
"I could see it happening day by day. When American newsmen were first in Vietnam and Sihanouk was in power, we were restricted from going in. Some did manage to sneak in under the guise of being everything but journalists. But for a television newsman it was impossible. You couldn't get in there with a camera or anything. But finally after the overthrow of Sihanouk we all piled over there. By that time I had left NBC and joined ABC and my assignment with ABC was Cambodia from that point on. That was in 1971.
"I worked in Vietnam an awful lot, but I actually moved my family and everything over to Phnom Penh. And we were there for well over a year. But I would go back to Vietnam periodically. They'd reassign me back there for special events and stories and if they needed to beef up the bureau.
"I did watch the tragedy of Cambodia unfold every day, and it was a tragedy. They didn't understand what had happened. They thought this was a great event. They didn't have any military establishment as such. I think they had an eighteen thousand man palace guard sort of standing army and it was really nothing more than a palace guard. It was more or less ceremonial troops that would function around the country. They weren't fighters. They didn't have any military equipment and we weren't giving them a hell of a lot. They originally went off to war on Pepsi Cola trucks, which Nixon had introduced, if you will, when he was between gigs after his abortive attempt for the Presidency and Kennedy beat him. He became the legal representative for Pepsi Cola and he went around the world selling Pepsi Cola plants and he had set up the one in Cambodia. And believe me, I mean this literally, when they actually went off to war, the only troop vehicles they had were Pepsi Cola trucks.
"Then of course some of the vehicles, the military equipment, did start to filter in, but very limited. They were never given anything -- they didn't know how to fight a war. Certainly they were up against the crack troops of North Vietnam who had developed this magnificent machine, the Khmer Rouge. But I saw those people turn from this beautiful race of gentle sweet-natured people into savages. They literally were. At the end they were beheading each other. On any given day, if you dared venture out, if you wanted to, you could get a scene of -- they used to cut each other's liver out because they felt that the spirits of war lived in the liver and if you ate the man's liver it would make you a braver person. I used to have shots of them carrying heads by the hair down the roads. And that's what the race of people had degenerated into as the war progressed over the years.
"Then in Vietnam a lot of other things had happened, too. I lost a cameraman in Vietnam. He was killed. His name was Terry Khoo. He was a Singaporean Chinese. And the other young fellow that was with him that day -- that was during the Easter offensive in I CORPS -- was Sam Kai Faye -- and that was a strange set of circumstances. Both were Chinese. Both from Singapore.
"I had been up in Hue. The whole press corps had moved out of Da Nang and up to Hue and we were operating out of there and going north for all of the fighting every day, out of Hue. Terry Khoo was one of the top cameramen, in the world for that matter, but one of the top cameramen in the country, and had been with ABC over there for years, to the extent that he was being transferred to Rome to get him out of there, he had done enough, had been there for years and years. This was his last day. We had been up there in Hue for I think two weeks, and we were being replaced. There was a new correspondent, Arnie Collins, who came in. He'd just walked in the front door and they put him on an airplane and slapped him up there and he didn't have any equipment at all. He came off the plane with sandals on.
"The night before that Terry and I had had a big fight. He wanted to take Sam up the next day and I said,"No", he was supposed to leave country, to fly back to Saigon and leave the country and I didn't want him to go. And we had an argument over it and I said, "No, you're not going out. We're going to make this transition as easy as possible and you're going to get back to Saigon and you're going out. They don't want you doing anything more."
"Well, there was some stuff going on up north and the following morning, here's poor Arnie. I said let's go over to the black market and get you some boots. You can't walk around in shower shoes, for Christ's sake. And he didn't have any fatigue pants or anything. So when I was gone Terry and Sam and the sound man, T.H. Lee, geared up and went off. I didn't even know they were gone. And when we finally go back I found out they had left and I didn't know where they had gone. And a couple hours later T.H. Lee came bursting through the door at the hotel and he said that they had gotten into a situation, right off Highway One north of Hue about ten miles or so, where they'd come across a gun battle and Terry and Sam and he had cut across a field -- he thought they were going around and coming in from behind to go in with the South Vietnamese troops and they were walking across this terrain when out of a clear blue sky they were ambushed. He said he saw Sam go down and he saw Terry go down and he hit the deck. He wasn't hit and he laid there for a while and he could hear Terry still moaning, then finally he said he got up and ran and got away. That's when he came back to get me.
"So we went out there and we couldn't even get to them. There was a very serious battle that was going on. The worst part was they were calling an air strike. If there was any opportunity to get to them at all, they called in an air strike and blew up the whole terrain. If they were still alive they were not alive after that. We never did get to them until the following day.
"And a few weeks before I had gotten kind of close to Sam and I was close to Terry too, but when Sam first came into country which was about six months before I had kind of taken him under my wing. We'd been up there before. He and I had been up in Hue before. And we did a marvelous story that I kind of thought more or less typified what was happening during that particular offensive, which was a losing proposition. We were coming back, having been up to the front, so to speak, and here was this long funeral procession with two or three caskets being carried and the wailing families were trailing behind and they were going down the road and they started to cut across the open field. And it was a very dismal dim drizzly day, cold and dank and death was in the air, about the only way I can characterize it. What they were were three ARVN soldiers who had been killed in one of the recent battles. It had to be recent because they believe in burying the dead on the same day. It was a Catholic ceremony too. The priest with the altar boys were trailing behind in this procession. And I said, "Let's shoot this Sam. I think this story tells a hell of a lot, because there were three of them.
"Well, we went over, he grabbed the hand camera, with the three lenses on the front, Bell & Howell, and I was going to wide track it, get the wide sound. I wasn't going to do any interview, but we did need natural sound. It was great sound with the wailing and so forth going on. So we followed them over and they were going through the liturgy there at the grave site and they started to lower the caskets into the hole in the ground. And I'm standing on the opposite side from where Sam was filming, and I looked up at Sam, and my God, he had his lens cap on. And Jesus I just came apart. And I just screamed at him, jerked him around and really landed on him terribly. He felt so bad.
"Well he managed to recoup. He got his lens cap off. There was enough of the ceremony going on that I got it. It did make a marvelous story. It typified what I was trying to show of what was happening. The lost cause and the look on these people's faces and the entire atmosphere was so symbolic of what was actually happening in those days. And I did manage to get an excellent story. One of the best ones I think I did.
"Sam felt so bad about it and I really just couldn't get over the fact he had his lens cap on. And then, when he went like that, I never had a chance to even say I'm sorry.
"So I quit. I quit and moved my family to the island of Penang off the coast of Malaysia. I put my kids in school there. I stayed down for about three months. I just had to have time off I guess. But I literally had quit.
"One day David Jayne who was the Far Eastern Bureau Chief in Hong Kong and a good friend of mine, the one who had really gotten me over to ABC when I came to the parting of the ways with NBC, called me and asked me if I'd go back. It was a little over three months and I was getting edgy. I had done some radio work for them over in Malaysia. I had done a few assignments for them and some radio reporting for them. For about four months I managed to stay on the beach, but then when David called I had to go. I still hadn't seen it through.
"The Paris peace talks were going on then. And I think that was the crux of it. He said all these years of the war that you've covered, do you want a piece of the peace, don't you want to see what it's going to be? That did kind of attracted me I guess. American troops were leaving. The war was grinding down. It looked like maybe peace was going to come, at least the peace treaty was about to be signed after all that Paris bullshit that went on there. So that did appeal to me and I said I'd go back. But you know, peace was worse than the war. There was no peace.
"Then ABC scaled down in Vietnam. Steve Bell became bureau chief in Hong Kong and Frank Mariano was named bureau chief in Saigon and I was transferred over to Hong Kong as senior correspondent under Steve. That lasted for maybe four or five months. My main assignment out of Hong Kong was to reinforce Frank, although I did go all over Southeast Asia and other assignments, Australia and India, and things like that, but if anything big popped up, I was supposed to float in and out of Vietnam, which I did with great regularity.
"Then Steve was sent back to the States. They tapped him for "Good Morning America," as I remember. So they named me bureau chief in Hong Kong at that time. That was '73.
I" think everyone was amazed that we were giving up on our commitment in Vietnam in 1973. As I say, the peace was really worse than the war, for God sake. But in any event, they finally decided after a while to close that bureau down entirely. They closed out Vietnam and moved Frank over to Hong Kong and then he became senior correspondent in Hong Kong. Frank was very unhappy. He wanted very badly to either be in Vietnam, which he dearly loved, or he wanted to be back in the States. He didn't take to the Hong Kong assignment at all. He'd had enough of the Far East unless he could be in Vietnam. And they weren't about to do that.
"Then the came 1975 and we could see that the end of the war was approaching and they would not send Frank back, and they sent me back. That's when they made me bureau chief in Saigon. I had to reopen the whole god damn thing.
"They reopened in Saigon right after the fall of Ban Me Thout in March.
I floated back and forth between Phnom Penh and Saigon. Actually the way I did it, the rice flights were going on then, into Phnom Penh on World Air. So I'd fly back and forth that way. Or I'd either fly back to Hong Kong for a couple of days and then fly out to Saigon out of Hong Kong. Getting in and out of Phnom Penh was getting hairier all the time. It was getting to be a desperate situation. That was the assignment I wanted the most, to tell you the truth. I wanted to spend more of my time there because I really could see that the end was coming there and I knew that there wasn't any hope for those people. Cambodia did something to me. I felt very acutely for those people, what we had done to them.
"I helped get some people out -- some "little people." But there wasn't as much of that going on in Cambodia. I helped get out a driver and his family, and a middle-aged woman who had been our cook and housekeeper when we were living there.
"The permanent press personnel were very protective of each other in Cambodia, much more so than ever happened in Vietnam. And we were all pretty much of a mind about things. While it was competitive to the extent of, if you knew something that you knew somebody else didn't know, you didn't share that, but it was a deadly situation. The Khmer Rouge took no prisoners and there was no doubt about that. They made that abundantly clear. And just going down the road was an extremely dicey situation. But we would check with each other who'd been down that road before. And you'd let each other know where you were going. We had a kind of an unwritten rule that everybody was supposed to be back at the hotel by three in the afternoon. That was kind of the cutoff time. And those who were not there, inquiries were made as to their whereabouts. It was that kind of thing because it was very -- there were no front lines. Well there weren't any front lines in Vietnam for that matter, but you never knew whether the something was under government control or Lon Nol's control, his troops, or whether it was under control of the Khmer Rouge. I remember once I went out with some government troops and I don't remember entirely the circumstances, what the story was about or what the objective was, but I remember we went out with this squad of Cambodian government troops. We went in our own vehicle following them and we all stopped at some point in the road, paddy fields on either side. And we got out, and they got out. They stood around and we stood around. And we started to walk a little bit and they started to walk a little bit. We stopped and they stopped. They didn't know where the hell they were going, they thought we knew where we were going. And we didn't have any more of an idea who was controlling this territory, and you just didn't walk beyond the control. Believe me it got to be a very spooky feeling. I didn't know what the hell was going on. They didn't know what the hell was going on. They thought we did. We thought they did. And finally we all just packed it up and said screw it. We got back in and came back to town.
"So it was that type of thing. When I got back, I shared that information. "We went this far, fifteen clicks down this highway, and it was safe up to this point. We didn't know what was beyond that." And that was the kind of information you shared with each other.
We had lost too many people in the press corps in Cambodia. There were nineteen missing. And we had formed what we called the Committee of Nineteen, to do as much as we possibly could to investigate. And we even got Cronkite, and it got to be a broader thing. Cronkite finally became the head of this committee. We tried to interest the world, if you will, into trying to find out whatever happened, because we never really knew. Welles Hengen was missing, the great NBC correspondent, whom I followed, as a matter of fact, over there. I was still with NBC at that time and went over the day after he went up missing.
"He was never found. His wife had to stay down in Hong Kong -- Welles was out of Hong Kong at that time-- for many years always believing that he was alive. But I don't know.
And others disappeared, too. Sean Flynn, Errol Flynn's son. Dana Stone, who was a CBS cameraman. They all went down the road and they just never came back.
"Now there were some that we know were killed. They were killed in battle. George Syvertsen of CBS being one of them. I remember Brian Ellis, the CBS bureau Chief in Sagion, had a nice ceremony, a service for him at the hotel, over which Brian presided. But there weren't many of those occasions when you knew. Dieter Bellendorf was a cameraman for NBC News and I'd known Dieter and he was a tough one, a German, tough as nails. He'd been my cameraman on occasion during the early days when I was there in Saigon. Dieter loved it. He was another war lover. He loved the din of battle, loved the smell of the smoke and he loved the smell of blood and he just loved the whole nine yards of it. He ate it up alive. And if you weren't going to go out with serious intent to cover a gunfight, screw you. He wanted to go out and cover the gunfight.
"This was the kind of guy that he was. Like everybody else he traded on the black market and I guess whatever funds he had, it behooved you to trade large amounts so you didn't have to go back to the well too often. And he would keep his bundle in a suitcase and when they would send him up to Hue, or I CORPS, or down to the Delta, he went of for maybe two or three weeks at a time on those assignments. He'd put his money in this suitcase in which he also kept a python. He'd feed the python a couple of rats or chickens. This is true. I'm not kidding. And the thing bit him once. His theory was that anybody who opened up that suitcase and tried to get his money, they were going to get that damn python when they did.
"He was a close friend of Dana Stone. Dana had gone with Sean Flynn and they -- well nobody really knew where they went, but they went to some part of eastern Cambodia on some story. Young Flynn was really a macho type. I knew him and worked with him and everything, but I didn't know him all that well. I wasn't that close a friend of his. But I think he felt that he had something to prove because of his dad. His dad was a great macho movie star and had been the great macho adventurer, soldier-of-fortune type before he became a movie star. And Flynn's career in the movies was abortive. He didn't even like to refer to it, to the few films that he was in. I guess they were pretty bad. But he was a bit of a loner. And he and Dana just went off and never came back.
"Dieter came over to Cambodia some time after that. And he said, "I'm going to go down the road. I've got a motorcycle, and I'm going down the road, this way," which ever way it happened to be. And a correspondent said, "No, I don't want you going out unilaterally on your own. What are you going to do?" He said, "I heard that maybe Dana might be injured or wounded in this village down here." And the correspondent couldn't argue him out of it. And Dieter went off on his motorbike and never came back. Never. He just disappeared into the mist. Now whether he ever found Dana or Sean, we'll never know. His remains have never been found. He's obviously dead, but they say he was a very tough little guy.
"I had been sent over from Phnom Penh to Saigon and I was in Saigon and the orphan plane went down. And so that day they called from New York and told me they wanted me to fly back to Hong Kong to do a live report with Peter Jennings by satellite. The only facility for live broadcasting was in Hong Kong. I flew out that day, on the flight just preceding the orphan flight. I didn't know about it until I got into Hong Kong.
I watched the fall of Saigon, then, from Hong Kong.
Oh, God, I wanted to get back into Saigon. They then sent me from Hong Kong to Bangkok, Thailand, because the fall of Cambodia had come about. So I went over to Thailand to go up along the border to see what was happening. There was an awful lot of fear that there would be an invasion of Thailand. Everyone was thinking that now the domino effect is real, they're not going to stop. It isn't going to stop with just the fall of Cambodia. Now the domino theory is really going to take effect.
Then I went back to Hong Kong and interviewed Americans and refugees coming out of Vietnam. I was aware that this was an important moment in history. I knew that. But I think also my feeling was one of relief. My story had come to an end and I had seen it through. By that time I was fully conditioned that the end was going to come and it was going to be -- I referred to it as the "fall". Now you can talk to other people who refer to it as the "liberation". And I guess it will always be in my mind the fall of Vietnam, because our participation was so heavy and it was such a heavy commitment that became a cropper. There wasn't going to be any victory for us. And I was bitter. Bitter. There was a real feeling of bitterness, I think, towards the politicians. Who could I really blame for not having prosecuted the war successfully? Johnson? Nixon? I remember especially my feeling of utter frustration when that last congressional delegation came over with Bella Abzug of all people. And Pete McCloskey was with them, too. Ford was seeking an additional appropriation of something like three hundred or five hundred million dollars, and they were a fact finding committee that was coming through to determine whether or not any more funds should be going into Vietnam. And so here was Abzug, this ridiculous woman, for Christ's sake, in her silly hat, and some other politicians who went around talking to God knows who, trying to make a determination on the future of this country. Of course, I will have to admit, the infusion of three hundred million more dollars was not going to make the difference. Probably three hundred billion more dollars would not have made the difference at that time. The cause was lost. But these were the representatives of the United States who had made the determination that the cause would be lost all along. And those were the people that I was bitter against.
"I remember my closure on that particular one, because it was one time when I had purposely let my objectivity slip away from me, and I said something to the extent that this committee had come all the way to Vietnam to find the courage of their convictions. They had obviously made up their minds even before they had come there and their coming there was just a sham and a show and that they had to come all the way to Vietnam to find the courage of their convictions of not releasing any more funds to Vietnam. And that report made the air. Either nobody caught it or somebody must have agreed with it. But I do remember that.
"And my bitterness was Jane Fonda. My bitterness was Senator Fulbright. My bitterness was Bella Abzug, maybe because she was the closest target. As I say, this ridiculous fat little woman who was not dumb, I don't mean that, but who the hell was she to be deciding these momentous things? Why weren't they being decided in other places, in other areas of more importance than some little congresswoman from Brooklyn, New York? What did she know about the sacrifices that had been made there? What did she know about Sam Kai Faye? What did she know about all of the people, how we had perverted and subverted a nation like Cambodia? My bitterness, I think, was really directed that way. Probably because there wasn't anybody else I could hate or be bitter against.
I do recall, when the fall came I went on a monumental drunk to the extent that I ended up in the hospital, the Queen of Angels Hospital, in Hong Kong. I just came apart. My wife had to put me in.
Well, those closing days in Vietnam capped off with that horrible crash with those orphans, the futility of it, it all just kind of got to me. What the hell was it all about? What the hell did we do here?
I have two grown sons now who were there, not that they really remember all those years, don't get me wrong, but I have two grown sons and we have had discussions about it and I have said to them that "I would burn your draft cards before I'd let you be drafted." When my youngest son turned the age to go register, I wasn't going to let him. I was not going to let him register for the draft. And he said, "But I've got to if I want to continue on in school." And I told him, "Okay, but by God if the situation ever arises like Cambodia or Vietnam, I'll burn your God damn draft card before I let these sons of bitches take you. I'll take you to Canada myself."
Strangely enough, he said to me, "That's my decision. I may not feel the same way, Dad. Maybe I will want to go. It's my country too." And you know I had to stop and reflect on that too. Who the hell am I to determine what my sons will feel at any given moment in a crisis involving the country?
When I came back to the states, I found that the country had changed drastically. It changed in the ten years that I was gone. It wasn't the same country that I had left.
Vietnam had changed it. The upheaval, I think, of Vietnam put this country on an entirely different course than it had ever had. A little of it had maybe emerged after Korea where the concept of limited warfare was first promulgated by Truman and he really kind of won that debate and that battle with MacArthur, who said there was no such thing as a limited war. Then came Vietnam. The country had not bought this war, the politicians and the Presidents had not sold this war to the country. They had not made a patriotic thing out of it so that we went to war feeling good about the cause, because there really was no cause there for us. We were there because we were defending a theory.
You know in those days they were finding commies under ever god damned bed in town. But really there weren't any commies under the bed. We were just chasing shadows. There was some point in time, I think, when we could have had Ho Chi Minh in our hip pocket. We probably could have owned the god damn country if we had wanted to, but we weren't smart enough to do it that way. We were too worried about commies. Commies!
And then to have expended such a tremendous amount of life and limb and effort -- well, that upheaval changed this country to the extent that now you'd have a hell of a time selling a patriotic war, even if it did involve us directly. And that's kind of a frightening thing. What is the sense in maintaining this horrendous military establishment if it is not to be used? What is the sense of getting involved -- call it a police action if it's going to make you feel better -- what's the sense in getting involved in a police action if you are not going to attempt to emerge victorious from it? Why not take that money that we're putting into a military establishment and do good with it? Feed starving people.
When I came back here there wasn't any great interest in Vietnam. I felt that very acutely. I thought, Jesus, this is a good chance for me to hit the lecture tour. But I couldn't peddle it for hell or high water. When I came back and even some of my colleagues who preceded me back all said, "You're spitting into the wind on this, Jim. Nobody really cares about it. They don't want to hear about it."
In the end after all the smoke and the din of battle has cleared away over the years, I'm not really satisfied that we in the media, in television news, did really a good job of reporting the Vietnam war. I came away from that feeling that almost everything I did was very peripheral. I'm not going to speak for anybody else but myself. It just seems to me that television overall more or less lurched from one gun fight to another and never really got involved very deeply in any --never showed any of what it was all about. I think the print media had -- certainly Arnett, Halberstam, Mal Brown -- had the vehicle. We impacted the war a hell of a lot more on the American public than the print media ever did, by the very nature of television news. It still does, even to this day, impact the American public a lot more, vis a vis the latest figures, sixty-five percent or seventy per cent of the public depend almost totally on tv for their news. Which is ridiculous of course. Nonetheless, I don't think we in television news really did much more than impact them, incite them, but we didn't really inform them.
And that was always my feeling when I came away. There were times when I thought, Geez, I'm doing a hell of a job over here, but then in the long run we just seemed to lurch from one gun fight to another.
Horst Fass, the chief photographer for the Associated Press, had been over there for years and won a Pulitzer prize. He's a German, great photographer, very tough guy, and he loved it. He made this famous statement "I love der Boom Boom". When somebody asked him why he had stayed all the years he did, that was his reply, "I love der Boom Boom." And that's what the newsmen did want, the blood and the guts. But how do you put that into context? That's the problem.
It's always been my position that not one major story of any importance was ever really uncovered by the press in Vietnam. Take the My Lai massacre, that was broken back here by Seymour Hersh. The stories on the doping that was going on really originated back here through complaints, congressional committees and so forth. The fragging that was going on. Almost all those stories had their origination back here and the press corps in Vietnam didn't originate those. We followed up and we impacted, yes, and we showed them. But we didn't discover them.
And when I think back it's really kind of strange. We were there. We saw these things and we never did pull the plug on them.
I visited the Vietnam Memorial in Washington once. My wife and I went up there about a year ago. I just kind of walked around. I couldn't get to it. I tried to go to it, but I couldn't get there. Never made it. I couldn't look at it.
I walked along the outside of it and came around the other side across from the Lincoln Memorial. And I did see the statue of the three soldiers. It was sure as hell lifelike. It brought back memories. I used to be a pretty good drinker in my day. I don't drink any more, but those were my drinking days and I used to carry a canteen of booze and a canteen of water. And the troops were always glad to see old Bennett come down the road. If it was a repeat performance with any particular outfit, they knew I had the booze. They used to call me, I can still hear them say, "Here comes that guy with the funny canteen."
I was operating with group, I hadn't been with them before, and it was on a search and destroy mission in the Central Highlands. I don't remember the outfit. It was the Army. And we had gone into what we thought was going to be a hot landing zone but it proved to be cold, and we were going into what we thought was going to be a headquarters area that they had uncovered and we'd thought we'd get in and ambush them. We landed four or five miles away from it, maybe even farther, and we had to hike through this horrible jungle area to get to this triple canopy where they thought this headquarters complex was. But by the time we got there they had long since gone and it was cold. But my cameraman, sound man and I had been up and down the lines and there was really no big action, and we were at the back of the platoon when they finally arrived at the site. We were all strung out. You had to be, they wanted a good separation between bodies. So by the time I got up there they were blowing the tunnels. And some of them were sitting around shooting the shit. And I can hear this grunt, I can see him, and he had the bandolier over his shoulder, bare chested, hot, wearing his floppy campaign hat pushed back on his head. And he says, "Hey guys, here comes John Fucking Wayne."
It was beautiful.
And I had my canteen of booze, and in no time he was my closest buddy. I thought of him when I went to the memorial because he looked just eactly like one of those kids in that statue.