Jim Bennett telephone interview:
Q. Tell me about your background.
I was born in Detroit. And, well, my life, like my career, is varied and checkered. We moved to Florida when I was thirteen years old. My education, probably, was in Florida.
I was born in 1926. My parents were divorced. I moved with my mother and stepfather to Florida. He was from Florida.
I went to the University of Rochester. I joined the military in World War II when I was 17. That was really my war, the war I fought in. I was in the navy aboard a destroyer in the South Pacific.
Q. Nothing to do with the Press?
No, just a young seventeen-year-old kid who -- that was a patriotic war, you've got to understand. That war was fought with love and fervor as opposed to Vietnam.
Q. Did you see action?
Oh yeah. I was aboard a destroyer by the name of the Renshaw. We were torpedoed in the South China Seas. Lost eighteen people. Had a tremendous captain. He was a hell of a skipper. He was a great seaman and -- I don't know where he learned his damage control, but he knew his ship backwards and forwards. He held that thing together with chain hoists. It was hit right under the torpedo tubes which was aft of the main part of the ship, but it almost split in two, and like I say, eighteen people were killed. But he held that thing together until we got into Okinawa, off the coast and then some minor repairs were made and we were towed all the way back to the United States.
Q. Was it a traumatic experience for someone your age?
Yeah, I was still in my teens. I was nineteen, I think when that happened.
Q. Would you say it was the 'Formative period of your life'?
It gave me -- I've thought about this and wondered why I lingered so long over the war in Vietnam and wondered if it didn't have something to do with it. Because I think that you find that I stayed in Vietnam really longer than any other television correspondent and produced more television news stories out of Vietnam than any other correspondent except one. When I was told that it was by a man by the name of Lechty???. But I sometimes get him confused with another Lechty who's the head of some -- He gave me a takeout, printed printout of all of the stories that I had done. And he came to Hong Kong. He tried to get up with me several times. He was researching for his doctor's thesis, if I'm not mistaken, and that's where that information came from. He came to Hong Kong to interview me and we finally got together there and he gave me this printout. And when he told me that I knew immediately who that one correspondent was that had outgunned me. I forget by how much, maybe three or four stories. But I knew immediately that it was Don Webster of CBS, who was in Vietnam. But I've often wondered if it wasn't some relationship maybe between the fact that I had had experience, coupled with my fascination for what was happening in Vietnam.
While they weren't parallel situations, I was aboard ship and all of my experience in Vietnam was on land, although of course I did get aboard some of the vessels. The fact is that it did fascinate me to the extent that I stayed on so long, right to the fall.
Q. You did not stay in the military after the Second World War?
No, I was eager to get out and get on with things. I knew what I wanted and where I wanted to go. And also, having enlisted at 17, the day I was 17 years old I enlisted in the Navy, so I had not finished high school and I had that on my mind. I wasn't going to go anywhere unless I at least got a high school diploma. And it meant something in those days. So I had that to finish, and I wanted to get out. I'd had enough at that point in time.
So I did get out. I finished high school in Miami. It was an accelerated veterans' program that they had for veterans. And then I went on to the University. But I did not complete the university. I'm not a graduate of the University of Rochester. I went there for two years and then my career-- as I say, I knew what i wanted -- I was very fortunate;, more than some of the kids today taking a long time to finally decide what they wanted to do in life, but I knew that I wanted to be a newsman. There wasn't any doubt about that.
It was the infant days of tv. While I was going to the university, I think they were really unveiling. I remember television only started at four in the afternoon and went off the air at midnight. So I got a job on a newspaper and it really got my career launched. It was interfering -- I couldn't do both. I couldn't continue to go to the University and still do my job, so I decided as long as this was what I was going to do, and I was doing it -- I've often regretted that I didn't finish. It's never really hampered my career. I think I'm way beyond that stage.
Q. What was your major?
No, I majored in history. And I wish I had done even more of that. And Economics. I think those are really the vital subjects.
Q. Then you worked for a paper right in Rochester?
Yes, I worked for the Rochester democrat and Chronicle.
Q. Correspondents in the war, wasn't what made you see what you wanted to be, was it? Running across correspondents on shipboard, or anything like that? Did you have an idol, or ideal?
Yeah, not that I ran across any particular one. I never saw any correspondents. I participated in five of the major invasions during World War II, but I never ran into any correspondents. But I had done considerable amount of reading when I got out, but I would think -- Ernie Pyle was definitely my hero, and still is, for that matter. I just got a new book about him as a matter of fact, someone gave me for Christmas.
Q. Were you happy in Rochester -- did you go to Korea?
It was really kind of a funny thing. Because I was only 17, I enlisted under some special enlistment that they had calling for duration of the war plus six months, and at the end of the war I took my ship which was repaired and decommissioned it up the river in Charleston, South Carolina. We came all the way back and came around the side of the coast and I was aboard that ship until I was discharged. I was discharged in a separation center in Jacksonville, Florida. At the time of my discharge, it was really kind of funny, they wanted everybody to join the Reserve. They divided us up into classes, meaning that so many people were being discharged this day, and so many the next day. It took about a week to go through the whole process of the separation from the service. And when they came to me and said they wanted me to sign the papers to go in the reserves, I said, no, I've had enough, I'm not joining. My enlistment says, duration of the war and months. And you had a point system also for battles and one thing and another. And I had everything.
And they said, you can't graduate with your class. You can't separate with your class unless you sign. And I said, screw that, I'm not signing anything. Those guys signed, the rest of them, and they held me back. They held me back for three or four days, trying to pressure me, and I held out. And these people who were going out the damn front gate were laughing at me, what kind of a jerk is this who all he has to do is join the Naval Reserve. What does that mean, a couple of weeks, a month, every year, or something like that.
Well, lo and behold, I held out and finally they had to, they didn't have any legal grounds to keep me, so they finally turned me loose. But I held my ground, something that I'm kind of proud of. What was it, three years later, all those jerks who thought I was a jerk, who had signed that thing, they were called up from the reserves, and they went and I didn't. As I say, my career was going on and I wasn't --
Q. If Ernie Pyle is your ideal, did you figure to try to get in as a correspondent?
Yeah, but I wasn't that far advanced. I was still in my formative years as a journalist. I would not have been -- war reporting at that time was really -- one of my other heroes who was emerging at that era of the Korean War, was Keyes Beech, whom I later met, was very big of him, and we're very close friends to this day. He's one of the most magnificent guys around. I'm very proud of knowing him. He was a young newsman too, but he was at the right place at the right time. I don't think that my career was that far advanced that I would have made a very good correspondent at that time.
Q. What was the route to CBS for you?
My career in news, as a newspaperman, was a sixteen year journey, which took in several newspapers until I finally ended up at the Los Angeles Herald Examiner in Los Angeles. I was married and so forth, and by that time, and it was then that I was offered an opportunity. KNBC which is the NBC "O and O" in Los Angeles was looking to expand its news staff. It was expanding its newscast from fifteen minutes to half an hour and I strangely enough had been interviewed by a newsman, Bill Brown, who had been on the Examiner at one time, and he knew me, and I was president of the Los Angeles Newpaper Guild, and we had gone on strike. And he interviewed me when the strike was settled. It was a Hearst newspaper. When the strike was settled he came to interview me as a reporter -- he 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 -- I wasn't very long for that place.
So he hired me along with -- over the course of the year it turned out to be a very fine news staff. Among them was Tom Brokaw, and some others. It was a very fine news staff that Bill put together. So that's how I got into it. Really because I had gone on strike at the newspaper I was working on in Los Angeles, and Bill hired me. This was in '65.
Q. How were they getting their stories on the Herald Examiner from Vietnam?
At that time I was ready and I applied many times for -- the Hearsts like the Gannett organization, doesn't reflect much glory on itself by not maintaining -- didn't maintain any foreign news bureaus at all. It had Bob Considine and William Randolph Hearst Jr., which really kind of formed what they optimistically called their "Hearst Foreign News Service". And it really was comprised of those two diddie bopping around the world having a good time and doing stories. And that really was about the extent of the reporting. And there wasn't a chance in hell of really -- by that time I really did want to be a foreign correspondent. And I thought my best root really would be through television. There would be much broader and greater opportunities for me in television than staying with newspapers.
Really to the shame of the Gannett newspaper chain, the largest newspaper chain in the world, doesn't maintain one foreign news bureau. I think that's a crying shame.
Q. Were you curious about Southeast Asia when you wanted to be a foreign correspondent?
Well, not necessarily. Those were the very early years of our involvement in Vietnam. And it was really beginning to emerge into a major news story. But I had worked on the Toledo Blade at one time, and I thought my opportunity there might be better of getting a foreign assignment and that was a few years earlier than the Herald Examiner in Los Angeles. But that didn't come to fruition. But I didn't really much care about the location as long as it was a foreign one. My main goal I think probably was to get to Europe during those years. But then when I went to work for the Hearst paper in Los Angeles, those were the first years of emerging of what later became the Vietnam War. When it got to a certain point, then it did solidify and that's where I definitely did want to go. That was the story. I could see that that was going to be the story of that generation. What young virile red-blooded newsman wouldn't want a piece of that story.
Q. That's how David Halberstam writes about it. That's where he said young journalists made their reputations.
Right, and I wanted a piece of it.
Q. How did you get to Vietnam and when?
By that time I was an old line staffer with NBC, domestically and one of their top newsmen on the West Coast. But there was still the separation between being a staff member for an O&O, and the network. When they finally did put out a call for volunteers to go, there weren't many, they had David Burrington who had been in Los Angeles too. He had gone, and I really very badly wanted to go at the same time but they only took one. Then a couple years later they issued another call and I volunteered to go.
I was there twice. The first time it was only to be for six months. The tour of duty at that time was for six months, but you couldn't bring your family with you. So it meant a six month separation, but families weren't allowed in by any of the networks at that time. That was in '67. And that turned out to be a pretty successful six months for me. I completed my tour, which some of them weren't doing. 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.
I think basically because it wasn't what they expected it was going to be. Secondly I would imagine that -- I'm talking about television -- because there was the separation from the family, a lot of them brought their families over and kept them in Hong Kong and Singapore, and Bangkok, and we had the R & Rs every eight weeks, we got ten days. A lot of them managed to maintain it that way. But some of them bombed out. And I think a lot of them went for the wrong reason. 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 thing, that's when I think a lot of them became discouraged and bombed out and came back early on.
That was the trouble I think the networks were having. So I successfully completed my tour, and came back, but I wasn't satisfied. So "how you gonna keep em down on the farm after they've seen Paree", I guess. A short while later I was ready to go again.
Q. '67 was Junction City, and Cedar Falls, and those operations. Did you cover those?
I remember Junction City. Cedar Falls doesn't rattle my memory.
Q. That was up in the iron triangle, cutting down all the trees. Haig was in charge of it. Did you draw any conclusions from covering the stories? Were you "on the team", did you share the can do attitude?
I don't know. It probably was a lot more naive at the time among almost all of us who were there then. It hadn't really dawned on us at that point that this might be a losing proposition. More and more it was the escalation of troops. We were still buying in to the light at the end of the tunnel. There was a real air of optimism, I think on just about everybody's part. Except there were some who were skeptical and beginning to question whether this was a viable situation for us to be involved in. I don't think during that six months period that I had really come to that conclusion myself. I came away, as I say, 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 conclusion.
But I desperately missed my family. I didn't keep my wife there. I flew her over to Hong Kong for one of the R&Rs, but I did want to come home because I had three children back here.
Q. You didn't fear for your own life?
Well, there were a lot of hairy occasions that occurred.
Q. Did that bother you as a family man?
Yes it did, to the extent that I-- I don't think that I particularly, maybe the thought crossed my mind, I don't particularly want to die in some foreign battlefield without at least having seen my family one more time.
Q. Mike Merriott pointed out to me that he didn't know whether he was being selfish by desperately wanting to be there but at the same time knew it was dangerous and wasn't fair to his family. So he was torn. Were you ever torn that way?
Very much so, and that's why I did want to come back. 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. I didn't necessarily vocalize that.
But then when NBC changed its policy, and they changed it with me. I was the first one that did it. They came to me, I was back about six months in '68, when Bob Mulhollanad who was then the West Coast Director of News and he was the one who had gotten me over there the first time. He came to me and asked me if I would like to go back. And I said, well, I would consider it for a longer tour -- he wanted to know if I would go back for an eighteen month tour-- and I said yeah, I would, but I wanted my family this time. I couldn't possibly be gone for that long.
And they did change the policy and let my family follow me a few weeks after I had departed. It was the first time--I think I was the first correspondent who arrived in the country and that kind of broke the ice and the other networks followed suit. Steve Bell came with his family. Dick Threlkjeld came with his family. And I think that was really the first breakthrought. They 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 was a very firm policy.
Some very strange things happened. On my first tour I brought my wife over to Hong Kong and I went on my R&R over there, but then I snuck her into Saigon. What the hell, she'd come that far, paid a lot of money, and she wanted to see Saigon, so I snuck her in. They finally found out about it, I only had her there for a few days. She had to go back to Los Angeles, because my three kids were back here. 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 that just happened to be that person arrived the same -- Ron Steinman still with NBC as a matter of fact, in the documentary division now, but he came storming into town to take my measure because I had brought my wife in contrary to the company rules, and it just happened to be that he arrived on the plane that she left on. Once he found that out it kind of put the Kayitus??? on it.
Q. What was their concern?
I don't know what prompted it.
Q. The print people were bringing in their families weren't they?
Yeah, as far as I know, just about every print person had their family there that were married. Of course there were those who, like George S. Burn, Peter Arnett, who were married to Vietnamese. They had built in families there. Peter Collins got married after he was in country. I went to the wedding. I went to several weddings as a matter of fact.
Q. After Tet in January, February, what month did you go back in?
Right after, Tet was still hot, but it was right after the main part of Tet that I went back.
Q. You must have had great concern for your family. Did you have second thoughts when that happened?
That's why their coming was delayed really. The main part of Tet was in May of that year, and I went over the latter part or middle of June and my familiy didn't really arrive until July. There was a delay there so that I had enough time to convince myself, or persuade myself, that it was going to be okay, that they would be safe enough, that it wasn't going to be that bad. It was a dicey situation, 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.
Q. Did you find the situation had changed dramatically or at all in '68?
Yeah, in a lot of subtle ways. There was a hurry to get someplace -- everybody was rushing around very frantically trying to make a name for themselves because they didn't think it was going to last much longer. 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, and it was then that I think a lot of the other things that were disillusioning as far as Vietnam itself were happening. The introduction of . . . . .
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. . . being shoved into the ranks of the military at a great rate. The entire attitude was changing on the part of the military, and there was much more cynicism developing in the press corps than I had known was there before.
Q. Did you share in that?
Not originally. I couldn't quite 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.
One of the last stories I did before I went back that second time to Vietnam was the assassination of Senator Kennedy and he was really beginning to formulate the anti-Vietnam stance. Of course with his assassination other people had to pick up the pieces and carry it forth. So I didn't quite understand the depth or the extent of how bad it was back here. It took me a little time to catch up to that. Now others who had been there and -- I'm thinking of Arnett and some of the other people who had been there for a long long time -- they picked up on it pretty early, but I guess I was kind of a latecomer to that.
Q. What was the problem -- was the war more political than you thought?
Well, 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, with all of the sophisticalted weaponry we had, the unveiling of the SMART bomb,-- we had all of this great technology and the capability of literally wiping out the dissident factions, yet 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. Why couldn't we do those things, go beyond the Seventeenth parallel.
I remember going up to the DMZ several times, and I knew that we 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 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 toolss 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.
Q. It sounds like your disagreement was with policy rather than execution. You weren't disillusioned by the officer corps, the military leadership of either the U.S. or the South Vietnamese?
No, I saw 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.
Do you remember when Muhammed Ali got his -- maybe it's what he said, "I'm not mad at the Vietnamese. Why the hell do I want to go, I have no quarrel with them." 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.
Q. You never had any illisions about the North Vietnamese. You never looked at them the way the Peace Movement here did, as the good guys?
No, they were they enemy. And maybe that's why I've never been able to get in there. I think I held out to the end, as far as I'm concerned. No, I didn't look at them -- 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 begin to have a very different -- maybe my antiwar feelings begin to come out at that point. I'm going to burn my kids 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.
Q. Were you reporting that type of disillusionment?
I never had any type of restriction. What filtered through in my reports, yes, I can think of maybe a few occasions when it probably did filter through. I tried to maintain as much of a posture of objectivity as possible. I'm not sure that I always did. 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, Mel 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.
Q. Norman Lloyd pointed out that what was preferred back here was the "Boom Boom".
That's right. Horst Fass, the chief photographer for the Associated Press, had been over there for years, won a Pulitzer prize. He's a German, great photographer, very tough guy, and he loved it. That was his famous statement "I loved the Boom Boom". When somebody asked him why he had stayed all the years he did, that was his reply, "I loved der Boom Boom." And that's what they did want, the blood and the guts. So how do you put that into context? It's always been my position--that not one major story of any event was ever really uncovered in Vietnam. Take the My Lai massacre, that was broken back here by Seymour Hirsch. 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. The great one that -- I don't know if you ever saw the -- I really envied Gary Shepherd from CBS had the one with the young kid blew through one end of the shotgun --
Q. Oh, yeah, shotgun called Ralph.
That was all done after the American public had been made aware back here. We didn't really break any of that news. And when I think back it's really kind of strange. We were there. We saw these things and we didn't pull the plug on them.
Q. How about corruption in Vietnam?
Oh, it was rampant.
Q. By not pointing out that corruption was the way of life in every Asian country, do you think it was distorted unreasonably by the American press in Vietnam?
Yeah, I think so, because it was corrupt before we got there. There was a black market with the French. They were just as corrupt under the French as under the Americans.
Q. In Thailand, Laos, even Korea, it doesn't seem to bother people too much, but it did in Vietnam. Everybody bitched about it and then went down and bought stuff.
Well, who didn't participate in the black market? What the hell. Reality dictates that we would be participants in it when your own organization was telling things like when they were orienting you to go over, what to look for, and if you wanted a housing allowance, "You will be living off the economy, and there is the black market." They didn't really go much beyond that, but they made you aware of the fact that there was black market and you probably could participate 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.
Q. What about the accusations from these people who are screaming that the press were antiwar and so distorted reporting and aided the cause of the other side. Did you ever buy into that? Kais Beech and Mel Brown are pretty unsympathetic to a lot of reporters. What did you feel about the Press Corps in general? We their reports being used well by the other side in the United States?
I would say so. Yes. I don't know that I'd go as far as that statistic of Brown's( of 90 percent being bad). There were those who were very very good and there were those who were very very bad. And representing some major news organizations that, for whatever reason, didn't feel like they had to send their best or didn't feel like they had to have the best representation possible. Maybe they didn't take the story that seriously. I don't know. But when you had organizations like the Chicago Tribune, the New York Daily News, these are major news organs back here, for God's sake, and represented by some people who never even -- one of the great stories of all time, I think, was the correspondent for the New York Daily New never left Saigon until one time. And he was there for years and years and years. And one time his organization -- he didn't even have an office, he used the press room at MACV 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. And Joel ____ I forget his name. His newspaper once ordered him to go out to go up to ICORPS, to go up to DaNang and do hometowners for over the holidays this one year. And 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 any place beside the daily follies.
Q. The press did a bad job of covering the press. No press man ever did a good job on the press. Was there a club atmosphere? Where you don't write anything badly about your own? You must have been upset by the bad reporting, did you ever do a report on it?
No, I never did. I can't -- I'm trying to think of maybe somebody who did.
Q. Luce was running some stuff back here in Time-Life, but it was fairly unconvincing. It wasn't solid reporting. It was rather opinionated. Everybody I talked to would come up with these terrible stories yet nobody wrote it back here. I wondered it not the responsibility of the other press?
Well, the size of the press corps itself was horrendous. You couldn't possibly keep tabs on everybody. But you asked if there was a club atmosphere --not in a protective sense, but yes it was "our little war and god damn it don't intrude too much. We've got a good thing going over here." Maybe that type of attitude, but also it was a great party war. I remember being amazed at the number of parties that used to go on in Saigon. That makes it sound as if I spent all my time in Saigon, but God knows I didn't. Over all those years, I had my family there. But 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.
My thing was that -- the Marines for some reason fascinated me just tremendously. And they were up in ICORPS and I became something of the ICORPS specialist for NBC because I used to spend as much time up there as I could because I liked to operate with the marines. I could never quite understand the marine mentality and they just -- I love the marines, don't get me wrong, but I never could quite understand what their mentality was. Or I did understant it, maybe that's it. More importantly 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 battle of Khe San, many many months afterwards, after the big battle for Khe Sand, which was their big "Saipan" or "Tarawa" of Vietnam, they staged events where they flew a big contingent of newsmen and I was one of them back to Khe Sanh for a ceremony and part of that ceremony was a flag raising ceremony. 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.
Q. Did you report it?
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 gotten this -- to go back to do this -- 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.
Q. Did you fly up on Lam Son Seven Nineteen?
Q. Did you go into Laos?
No. That was the worst one of all. That was a bad one.
Q. I saw some of the reports done on it. Did it affect your reporting after that? Vietnamization wasn't working, but how did you report it?
Well, that was it. 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 in 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, 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.
Q. Were you in favor of withdrawal of troops?
Oh, yeah. 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 more 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, I was still with NBC at the time and he was with ABC. We 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 Henre 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 kind of put the Kayetus??? on 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 they were bailing out as fast as they could and anything that landed they were landing 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.
((((end of side B, Tape 1)))
(((Begin side A, Tape 2)))
. . . but were kind of open, and 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.
Q. That must have been a frightening episode. Did it bring back any of the feelings you had being on a torpedoed ship?
Well, I can't think so. I think I probably was a lot more full of piss and vinegar as a nineteen year old. I think I was a lot more cautious. 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. A lot of my reporting was outside of Vietnam. A lot of my years were spent in Cambodia.
Q. Did you see it grinding down there, too, by '70,
No, I think that the blackest mark on America's record will be Cambodia and 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.
But 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.
Q. Did you see tragedy unfolding or only in retrospect?
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 then 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 '70, or '71.
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.
But yes, 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, 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.
Q. You never saw American troops degenerate into that kind of thing?
No, I saw a lot of bad things, burnings of huts and their hooches, and a lot of dope activity, but I can't say that I ever really did see -- well, My Lai happened obviously, I went to My Lai.
Q. Norman Lloyd talked about the things he never filmed.
Where were you during the Easter offensive of '72?
Things got so bad and the situation had deteriorated so badly that I finally had to move them out. It was just too bad. In addition to which my kids were -- there was a very good school, the Phoenix School, not to be confused with the Phoenix program. The Phoenix School in Saigon was a very good school. It was an American school run by -- one of the petroleum companies originally set it up. But when we went to Phnom Penh there were no international schools, and they went to a French school. While their French improved, they didn't have enough of it to really master the academics. And I had them there over a year and my wife and I decided we just had to get them back into some kind of a reasonable school where they could function if they were going to go on. And also, as I say, the situation had deteriorated badly and I was fearful for their safety.
So I moved them out. A lot of other things had happened also too. I had lost a cameraman in Vietnam, he was killed. So I quit. I quit and moved my family to the island of Panang off the coast of Malaysia. It's a Malaysian island, and 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. (J-a-y-n-e, was later killed in an airplane crash in Amman covering the Beirut war)
Q. Who was the cameraman you lost?
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 ICORPS -- was Sam Kai Fay??? and that was a strange set of circumstances. Both were Chinese. Both from Singapore.
Q. Were you with them? Was the trauma in losing them or were you under fire yourself?
No, I was not. 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. It was a new correspondent and Sam Kai Fay who was new in country--Arnie Collins was the correspondent who was new in country. 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 where they were trying to get to a -- right off Highway One north of Hue about ten miles or so, and they'd come across a gun battle and Terry and Sam and he had cut across -- 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.
Q. That series itself caused you to --
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 & Howel, and I'll wild track it, get the wild 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 badly.
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 F-a-y-e , K-a-i
Sam felt so badly 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.
Q. You went to an Island -- P-e-n-a-n-g.
How did you pick that of all places in the world?
Well, we had been there on an R&R. My wife and I and the kids had gone on an R&R over there and I knew about this missionary school. Strangely enough, it was a school, called the DaLapta school, started by a group of missionaries who had been in Da Lat Vietnam, which is in the highlands. And when things got so bad they had closed that school down and moved over to Malaysia, to this island and had opened up a school there. That was an overriding thing at that time, the education of our kids. We wanted to get them into a good school, and they agreed to accept them. Otherwise I think we probably would have set up in Bangkok at that time, because there was an international school there. But I didn't want to do that because there was an awful lot of dope going on and there had been some deaths of some of the kids there at school.
Q. Were you fed up with Vietnam then? Did you ever plan to go back?
Penang is probably one of the most idyllic spots in the world, magnificent villa on a bluff overlooking the Straits of Malacca there, and we could walk down a hill and had a great beach, and it was just magnificent. Great food, and civilization, television--not very good television, but the kids liked it-- and movie theaters and things like that, but I couldn't stand the success. Like I say 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 attract 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.
Q. When did they name you bureau chief?
That was in Hong Kong. That situation went on for quite some time. ABC was going to scale down the bureau and Steve Bell had already been gone about a year or so in Hong Kong, maybe even longer than that. I'm trying to remember the sequence of events. He was 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, that and Thailand.
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.
Q. You were pulled out just about with the American troops, then?
A. Right, everybody was scaling down. Everybody kind of scaled back on the Vietnam commitment. The end of the war was there. Sure it was.
Q. Did you really believe that?
No. Not for a minute. I think everyone was amazed that we were giving up on out commitment there. 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 of Vietname and moved Frank over to Hong Kong and then he became senior correspondent in Hong Kong. Frank was very unhappy. And probably Ann could tell you more about that. It was a very unhappy period for Frank. 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 day 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.
Q. So they reopened.
I had to reopen the whole god damn thing.
Q. When did they decide to reopen it? After Ban Me Thuot in '75?
Yeah, right. I think it was then they decided to stay in, but they wouldn't let Frank go back.
Q. Were you flying into Phnom Penh too, at that time?
Q. So you're going back and forth between --
I floated back and forth. Actually the way I did it, the rice flights were going on then, the rice count of Vietnam going on 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.
Q. Were they aware that they were doomed by the Khmer Rouge?
No, they thought that the Khmer Rouge would practice genocide? No, I don't think they did. Right to the end they called Sihanouk "Papa". He was always the papa, and they never did ever really accept Lon Nol. Even the people in that puppet government that he set up under the magical mystical marshall, even his own people who participated in that government were very suspicious of the entire setup. Sihanouk was wanted and loved even as the place was falling down. And the people in high positions still referred to Sihanouk as "Papa". You could engage in a serious conversation with them and they would refer to him as "Papa". Those were his most deadly heated enemies, you know.
Q. Did you help anybody out? Did people come to you, employees of ABC?
My biggest participation was helping to get some of the people out of-- the 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. At this time I had long since given up our flat over in Phnom Penh and was living in the Monaram Hotel. Everybody else set up digs at the Le Pnam Hotel.
Did you see "The Killing Fields?"
Well, whatever hotel they used for the Le Pnam was really pretty damn close to it. Particularly the old swimming pool.
Q. And you stayed where?
The Monoram, which was ???Dong Street?? But the Le Pnam was the major one where all the press corps was. But I never liked to do that. Everybody knew your business when you were -- that press corps, really, you asked if there was an old boys club in Vietnam, not really in Vietnam, but there sure as hell was in Cambodia. It was much smaller and it was a permanent residence sort of thing. I lived there for almost a year and a half as a permanent resident and then went back constantly and there was really very little turnover in the personnel and there wasn't an awful lot of floating in and out going on either. The permanent press personnel was very incestuous and 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. That's where I learned my instincts about . . . .
(((End of side A, Tape 2))) ((( Begin side B)
. . . probably saved an awful lot more people and made it worthwhile. 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 Le Pnam 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 government was under government control or Lon Nol's control, his troops, or whether it was under control of the -- 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 though 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 say "incestuous", 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.
Q. That was Ed Bradley's first assignment. Did you meet him?
Oh, yeah. He was awfully young.
Q. And Sidney Schomberg and Dip Prang, you met them and knew them?
I'll tell you, I really was kind of a latecomer -- and I'm not saying that denigrating me at all. He was the middle and latter period. He did great work.
Q. I interviewed Lacy Wright. He told me that he was down on Schonberg because Schonberg was one of the most outspoken individuals who insisted that the Khmer Rouge would be peaceful once they came in and took over. Lacy insisted that this was just an illusion. That there was going to be hell to pay. He still to this day holds it against Schonberg for what he considers a very naive attitude.
It was. I think really -- I think maybe by his own admission, Schonberg admitted that he was gulled, for whatever reason, into believing that the Khmer Rouge were going to be generous in victory, and that just wasn't the case. But I think there was enough evidence to show long before that. We had lost too many people in the press corps. There were nineteen missing in Cambodia alone. 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, but 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. Wells Hangen??? went 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.
Q. Was he found?
Nope, never found. His wife had to stay down in Hong Kong -- Wells was out of Hong Kong at that time-- for many years always believing that he was alive. But I don't know.
Q. These nineteen are still missing?
Oh, yeah. Sean Flynn, Errol Flynn's son. Dana Stone, who was a CBS cameraman. They all went down the roads and they just never came back.
Q. Nobody's ever done a story on them either. The news networks have never done stories on the missing nineteen.
No. Now there were some that were know were killed. They were killed in battle. George Sieversten of CBS being one of them. I remember Brian Ellis 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, Vietnam. 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 ICORPS, 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 came over, and I wasn't there at the time, but he was a close friend of Dana Stone. Dana had gone with Sean Flynn and they had gone -- 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 guess he felt like -- I didn't know Sean that well. 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 career in the movies had come a cropper, 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, but he and Dana had gone off and never came back.
Dieter came over to Cambodia some time after that. I was not the correspondent over there, I was back in Vietnam. And he came to the correspondent and said, "I'm going to go down the road. I've got a motorcycle, and I'm going down the road, this way, south, whichever way it happened to be." And the 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. He was a guy who before Vietnam had spent a long time in the jungles of New Guinea filming tribes that nobody had ever heard of. That was the kind of guy he was. Bellendorf, Dieter, or Pieter???
Q. Who made the decision to close down the bureau in Phnom Penh?
That was New York. Bill Sheehan replaced Homer Lauer as president of ABC news and I think it was Bill Sheehan's decision to close it down. And he even came out. That was when they sent me over to Hong Kong as senior correspondent with Steve, and Mariano was made bureau chief. And then, I forget how long after that, it went on for another year at least, and Sheehan came back out and closed down that bureau and Steve had already gone, and I was named bureau chief in Hong Kong. They closed down that bureau and we moved Mariano over to Hong Kong. It was really Bill Sheehan who made the decision. The New York establishment that the story was going away and they were going to go away too, cutting costs.
Q. Did you fly in and out right up until mid-April?
Q. Did you come out with the marines?
No. Here again, we were talking the other night. I wasn't evacuated. I had been sent over from Phnom Penh to Saigon and I was in Saigon and then when the fall in Saigon came -- you remember the orphans, that day New York told me they wanted me to fly back to Hong Kong to do a live report with Peter Jennings by satellite. The only facility 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 never had an opportunity to get back in.
Q. What was Peter Jennings interview supposed to be about?
It was evident that the end was near. I guess Thieu had resigned.
Q. No, he resigned on the 21st. You must have left on the 25th. The battle of Xuan Loc was just starting to take place. and Highway One. Da Nang had just fallen.
DaNang had fallen and Cam Ranh. I was in on the fall of DaNang. I can't remember the date. It was the day that the orphans --
Q. So you watched that from Hong Kong?
Q. Who was bureau chief when you left?
Q. Where is he today?
I understand he has his own business in Washington in which he teaches companies how to handle television correspondents.
Q. Is it hte Kevin Delaney company?
A. God, I don't know. I think Ann Mariano told me that. Kevin was bureau chief when I was there. When I first went, before Mariano. Kevin left and that's when Bill Sheehan came out and that's when Mariano was made the bureau chief.
Q. What did you think watching all of this from Hong Kong? Did you want to be back in Saigon?
Oh, god, yeah. 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 along the Thai border. 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. So I went over to Bangkok. I forget how long I was there. So I wasn't really in touch too much, but I knew the end was there.
Then I went back to Hong Kong. I was in Hong Kong when the fall came.
Q. Some of the planes that were taking off, Air America people, were landing in Hong Kong. Did you interview any of them?
Q. What were your feelings when you knew the marines were evacuating the last Americans and it indeed was over? Were you aware of being at a historical juncture?
Yes. I knew that -- I think my feeling was relief, but also one that 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 that the fall of Vietnam, because our participation was so heavy and it was such a heavy commitment that came acropper. There wasn't any victory involved for us. Yes, there was bitterness. I felt, as did Mariano even more so than I -- Frank was very very bitter. But 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 the feeling of utter frustration when that last congressional delegation, Bella Abzug of all people. McCloskey, came through and were 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.
Here was 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 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.
So 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.
Q. Did you take a vacation or anything after you left Thailand, or did you stay on continuing to report?
I was not worried about the people who were in Vietnam who had stayed behind, but I was pretty worried about the people in Cambodia because I knew about the Khmer Rouge. So I was in Thailand -- and that was one of the reasons why I went over there, too, because we never knew when they were going to come out. I staked out Naranja Pri Tet???? for weeks on end and I was there when they finally did come out. But that was three or four months later. That was the time when everything was going on as depicted in The Killing Fields. I wasn't worried about Schamberg, but I did have some very close friends who were very important to me that had been my colleagues for a long long time, Dennis Cameron, -- well an awful lot of people who were very close to me. It was a big story, what was going to happen to those people. So I spent most of my time, and I really didn't get an opportunity until after that.
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.
Q. What was it? Everything?
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, Alfie? What the hell did we do here?
Q. The New York Times reporter in Saigon went bonkers also. Jim -- came running out of the office saying, "that's it" and immediately flew his family out to Bangkok and refused to go back in. It was with the fall of Ban Me Thuot. I think he's the Paris bureau chief now for the New York Times. Were you aware that was happening to some other people too?
Yeah, I certainly was aware it was happening, not in the same manner, but to Mariano. He was a basket case. I don't know how many people know it, but Mariano finally did sneak into Vietnam. I don't think New York ever knew that, but he did finally come in and we had a hell of a time getting him out. We had a hell of a time getting him to leave. It was a big worry that we couldn't get Frank to go. He finally did, but I know Delaney and I were really kind of beside ourselves.
Q. Now you ask the question, "How did this happen?" Did you in the years after that come up with answers that satisfied you?
Did you become less patriotic, less cynical?
Oh, yes. 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." Because my son had to register for the draft and I didn't want him to. My youngest son who is a third year medical student at East Carolina School of Medicine now, when he 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 to go to school and med school. And I said, Okay, but by god if the situation ever arises like arose in Cambodia or Vietnam, I'll burn your goddamn 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.
Q. What a change from the seventeen year old who joined the Navy. Had the country changed or you, or both?
Oh, the country changed drastically. It changed the ten years or almost ten years that I was gone. It wasn't the same country that I had left.
Q. In what way?
Well, 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. There is no such thing as a police action. And it had kind of emerged then but it was really bought hook line and sinker in Vietnam, and so the philosophy -- the country had not sold 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 to be. We were there because we were defending a theory. We were finding commies under every god damn bed in town. And therefore we had to go out and fight.
And they weren't under every damn bed in town. 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.
And then to have expended such a tremendous amount of life and limb and effort, and 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 the people of Abyssinia.
BENNETT, Tape 3, side A.
Q. You came back when?
I came back in '77. I was in Hong Kong for three years.
Q. Did you want to come home again or not?
Yeah. To the extent that I had even asked my bosses to send me back. They used to make tours around to the various foreign bureaus, and when they came through on one of their visits to Hong Kong I had expressed an interest in coming back and they said, "Are you sure you really want to do that? You are established out here," -- which I was -- "You've been here so long, you know the territory." About that time I was off on fifty different other stories, and it was kind of like Bert Quint or CBS, I think they looked on me as the old war horse. The bell goes off and out of the gate comes Bennett. The Six Day War, they sent me to Israel. Then the Yom Kippur War, and then I was in Lebanon half the time. They sent me over to Lebanon once and left me there for three months. Those were days when -- well, they're bad now, I don't mean to imply they're not, but that was the worst experience of all. I'll take a good jungle fight any time. That street fighting is nasty stuff, particularly with those Arabs. They are crazy people.
Q. Jim, when you came back, did anybody want to talk about Vietnam?
There wasn't any great interest in it at all. Even I felt that very acutely. I thought, Jesus, this is a good chance for me to hit the lecture tour. I don't think I was thinking of it so much from a standpoint of finances, 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. Nobody really cares about it. They don't want to hear about it. But now it's turned, these young kids want to.
Q. It must have been a real surprise to learn you'd spent so much of your life someplace that nobody was interested in any more. Wasn't it almost like time had passed you by?
Yeah, it was. When I came back -- I separated from ABC because they didn't want to sent me back. They wanted me to stay over there. And I wanted to come back. Number One, my kids had been out of the country almost more than they had lived in it. I had been back two times in those ten years on home leave, orientation leave. My wife had never been back, and my kids had only been back once to visit their grandparents, in all those ten years. And they had gone to all these various different schools, and so forth and they had lost touch with the country. That was part of the reason why I wanted to come back. Secondly, I was getting awfully tired -- my war didn't end with Vietnam, and Cambodia or Indochina. They were beginning to look on me as just being a war horse, which Bert Quint really is. Every time the goddamn gun shot goes off, they open the gate and out would spring old Dumbo. And I could see that that was going to go on.
Then I lost another cameraman in some idiotic goddamn thing that nobody wanted. There was a communist resurrection in southern Thailand and I went off with -- they didn't want that god damn story any more than they wanted the man in the moon, and the cameraman was -- he was my closest friend.
Q. Who was that?
Joe Lee. He's still alive. Korean. I'd been with Joe for years. I'd known Joe -- I'd gone to Lebanon with Joe. I'd gone to Israel with Joe. And we'd been together all those years and not a damn scratch. One of the most famous photographs that ever came out at that time -- it was a still photo -- in Lebanon, was Joe in the middle of a gunfight that was taking place around the Assembly Building, the governmental building in Beirut, and everybody else is ducking and there's Joe standing on the steps, upright, with his camera on his shoulder filming this action and some photographer got the shot. It played all over the world.
We went through all of that, and then here we are in some little shit province in southern Thailand where there was some little insurrection going on with the communists. We were riding on the back of a tank and were ambushed. We leaped off. My sound man and Joe went one way and I went another. They went the wrong way and they triggered a land mine and Joe's left leg was blown off and the sound man was killed. He was a Thai. That's the worst time I think I ever went through.
Q. What year was that?
That was '75. That was the pattern of my life. When Darwin was blown away -- I don't know if you remember the story, but in Australia, it was blown away in its sleep on Christmas eve of '74 and you could hardly get there from here. Who was the first one they called who was to go up and see all the death and destruction in Darwin? I had become too much -- if I was a war lover, and I'm not sure that I was -- I will admit there was a tremendous attraction and fascination to it, and maybe that's why I stayed on as long as I did. I wasn't that much of a war lover that I wanted it to be the sum total of my life, the sum total of my career. I think I have other things in me, although I did do a lot of other things. I've done some good reporting in my time and I've covered some major stories. I've won awards, won Overseas Press Club Award, with Joe, as a matter of fact, back in Cambodia. It's about the only story I've got left of my own out of all those things I produced. NBC never gave me any of them, or ABC, but I did have this one. It was a rocket that hit a school with all of these young kids that were killed. It was a hell of a story.
Q. In Phnom Penh?
In Phnom Penh. They were rocketing indiscriminately all over the place, but this one really was a bad one. It was a very frantic, very moving story. It was more in pictures than in words. I didn't have to put many words to it. But we did win the Overseas Press Club Award that year. So I had my share, but being a war correspondent wasn't what I wanted to do in the latter part of my career. I didn't want to be running off to -- Bert, I guess, will do it, but the hell with it. When I refused to carry on in that vein we did come to a parting of the ways.
I didn't know where else to come back to. I had left from California, and ten years latera, you understand. So I came back and went back to work with NBC. I came back to the west coast, to the only place I knew and went to work for NBC.
Now, when I left, Pat Brown was governor. He'd just lost the election to Ronald Reagan. When I came back, Jerry Brown, Pat Brown's son was governor. One of the stories that I had was, they sent me up to Sacramento to cover the legislature. Remember Proposition 13? That was a big story then and I was sent to Sacramento to cover that. And here I am, I'd been up there before when Pat Brown was in the Governor's Office and now here's his son. I really had this horrible feeling of, "What the hell has changed?" The only thing that's changed is that I've gotten that much older and now it's the governor's son who is the governor. I'm meeting myself coming back from the same story I was doing ten years ago.
My reentry into American society was less than auspicious.
Q. You've seen the war movies, Platoon, etc?
Well, yeah, I've seen about all of them, I guess.
Q. Deer Hunter, and so on?
That was pure absolute bullshit. I couldn't get over that one.
Q. How aboaut Apocalypse Now?
Well, Francis Ford Coppola nightmare inflicted on the rest of the world.
Platoon, I think that was an amalgamation of a lot of things that happened, but not in that condensed period of time. Those things did occur, yes, the fragging, and it was probably a pretty damn good depiction of what day to day life could be for the grunts. But to have all of those horrendous events occurring in one platoon at any one given time, I don't think that was Stone's intent. I think he truncated a lot of his experiences over a period of time and he did it pretty faithfully. The guy who was the military adviser, Dale Dye, I knew him when he was a sergeant. He may have moved up in the officer's ranks, but he was a sergeant in the Corps. I think he was in Da Nang if I'm not mistaken, and a real funny guy. He came down once, I invited him down for Christmas to Saigon. We were going to have a big Christmas and if he could get off, he got leave so he came down and spent Christmas with us, my wife and I. We had a big to do.
Liz Trotta was there and he fell in love with Liz Trotta, and we just had a hell of a bangup time for about three or four -- Christmas went on for a long time as I recall.
But, as I say, he was a very knowledgeable, funny guy, but was the technical advisor on that and I'm sure -- he even appeared in it, as I recall. He didn't come over as having this great love for the Marine Corps as I can recall. I thought he wanted to get out of it as quickly as he could. He was there to do his time and bail out. But I guess he did go on and maybe became an officer.
Q. What about "Hamburger Hill"? Did you see that?
No, I didn't.
Q. That had a press thing where it came down fairly hard on the press. So did Full Metal Jacket. Did you see that?
Yes, I did. I saw Full Metal Jacket.
Q. What did you think of that?
Not much. As a thriller there too I couldn't identify it with anything that I knew. I didn't relate to it as being much in the way of a true depiction of any battle that I knew had taken place, much like the Deer Hunter. Was I so lax in my reportorial abilities that I didn't know that things like that with Russian roulette among defectors was taking place in the outskirts of Saigon? Bullshit.
The one that really kind of disappointed me for an entirely different reason, was Gardens of Stone. Nick Profitt's a fine writer and a fine reporter and he did some awful good work, but I don't think that's a true depiction of his book. His book was a hell of a lot better than the movie. I think they screwed up the book.
Q. The movie didn't go over that well.
Platoon I think probably is the best of the bunch.
Q. Have you visited the Vietnam Memorial in Washington?
Well, yes, I've tried. My wife and I went up there about a year ago. I just kind of walked around. I couldn't get into it. I tried to go to it, but I couldn't get there.
Q. Did you see the three figures?
Yes, as I say, I walked along the outside of it and came around the other side across from the Lincoln Memorial. And I did see the three. It was sure as hell lifelike. 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. 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 quite a ways, four or five miles away from it, maybe even longer, and we had to hike through this horrible jungle area to get to this ??? unclear at 219??? triple? purple? canopy where they thought was this headquarters complex. But by the time we got there they had long since absconded and it was cold, maybe a day or two. It wasn't hot by any means. But my cameraman, sound man and I had been up and down the lines and 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 they were sitting around shooting the shit. Some people were blowing up the tunnels, and so forth and so on. And I can hear this grunt, I can see him, and he had the bandoleer 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. He looked just like one of those kids in that statue.
Q. At the wall, it was something that had enormous power, even from a distance?
Q. What are the lessons of Vietnam?
I hope there's something to be learned from it. At least that much should emerge from it. Some lesson should be there that's going to be worthwhile to the nation and to the people. What would that be? Has it made me anti-war? I suppose it has. Maybe what I said before, don't get involved with a pissing contest with a skunk if the only thing you've got to bring is Chanel No. 5. That's the only conclusion -- why going around saving the god damn world if you are not ready to win the battles?
Q. Do you watch television news?
Well, I'm a news director.
Q. We talked about people getting more of their news from television than anywhere else --
I watch it faithfully. I'm a television news hound.
Q. But you do read also.
I try to read just about everything that comes around. I've tried to keep up pretty much with -- you know we're getting to be pretty much a thin red line of heroes, those who were there who are still -- Steve's gone, no longer at the network. Some of the others are getting to be a little bit long in the tooth, so to speak. So my contemporaries of that period are beginning to fade. One of the other shocking things is the great interest in my staff here who are reasonably young kids -- young people, they're not kids by any means, but in their mid-20s, a reasonably young staff, who come to me all the time wanting to know about Vietnam. It amazes me. They were just -- they weren't aware of it. They didn't know about it. They have an overriding interest. They're always at me to talk about experiences in Vietnam, particularly about the reporting end of it. So that war is really fading into history and those of us who reported on it are doing the same, I guess.
Q. Thank you. I found the best memories were from the newsmen. It's strange. I've interviewed all sorts. . . . . . .
You're a news director where now?
In Washington, North Carolina. It's a triad market, there's three cities.
I've been here about a year now, but I still maintain my home in Florida. My son is up here, a third year med student now, Matthew.
Q. Is this an NBC affiliate?
Yes, it is. WITN.