Sunday, May 12, 2013
Bill Plante (CBS News) Remembers Vietnam: "We are a Headline Service."
Bill Plante, CBS News. "We Are a Headline Service"
I had been in Vietnam three times before 1975. I had been there for several months in 1964, for eight months in 1967 and for eight or nine months in 1971-72. I grew very fond of the country and the people and became very concerned about the war. It seemed to be going nowhere and it seemed to be doing terrible things to the political fabric of the country and terrible things to the Vietnamese. And yet I never could quite buy the argument that we just ought to walk away. So I never knew quite what to do. I was confused as anybody else about it, I guess. But the point of that is that I had what I felt was a serious interest in the country and the people and the war.
And so when the big final offensive began in the spring of 1975 I watched with absolute fascination, I was based in Chicago at the time, as I had been for some years for CBS. And when I saw Bruce Dunning's piece, the last World Airways 727 leaving Danang, the one that Mike Marriott filmed and Mai Van Duc did, that was it. I just had to go back. So I just volunteered knowing that they would need people probably, that was in late March. And three or four days later I was in Saigon. That's how I came to be there. It was by choice.
I didn't have any trouble getting the assignment. I don't think there were too many people who were anxious to go back. We all assumed that the drive by the North would be successful and that the people in the South would be forced to capitulate and we had no idea how this would happen.
I don't know what the bargaining chips might have been if people thought a partition might have been the result. There were these rumors that swept through Saigon in the final days that the US was sending B52s. But those of us who knew about the War Powers Act, doubted it very much. And of course the way the stage was then set, it was not really possible, except by act of Congress and that was hardly likely.
I came into Tan Son Nhut and came to the bureau. It was being run at the time by Bryan Ellis, our Hong Kong bureau manager and he played a heroic role in my opinion in getting our Vietnamese employees and their families out of there. It was all virtually due to his insistence, I mean New York didn't know quite what to do or what it could do. Ellis even personally drove the US Air Force bus, that he was allowed to use, which he had filled with dependents or Vietnamese employees and their extended families, and bluffed his way through the Vietnamese guards at the gates of Tan Son Nhut to get to the place where the US planes wee departing for Guam. There were about a hundred or so people that Ellis got out.
Ellis was running things, and Dunning was there and Bob Simon was there, Dick Threlkeld was there, Peter Collins was there, Ed Bradley was there. Bradley had been in Cambodia and when Cambodia fell he came out and then stayed in Saigon. I may be missing one or two people.
There was more going on every day than we knew how to deal with. We had a couple of Vietnamese employees whose job it was, who were called journalists, to keep tabs on the daily rumor mill and let us know what was being written and said in Saigon.
The only way you could check things out with any kind of authority at all was on the US side you could talk to people in the Embassy. The people in the embassy and even some of the people in the agency became fairly willing to pass out information. Obviously not anything terribly secret, there wasn't much secret by that time. But we found ourselves able to get pretty good daily estimates as to how the armies were doing. This was helpful. It helped us to assess the chances that the Thieu government, to what degree they stood any chance.
We all went out on the road to Xuan Loc several times, Simon seemed to adopt that as his specialty. he went out there almost every day, I was out there several times. There was always some kind of fighting going on if you went far enough on the road. I remember one day we went down the road and turned around when we hear d shell fire ahead, went back to a staging area where VNAF was preparing to helo-lift troops over Xuan Loc over to the other side, so we all watched. And a jeep came screeching up with Hunter Thompson and Nick Proffitt in it, and Thompson said, "What's going on?" and I said, "There's incoming down the road, so we stopped here." So Thompson switched on his tape recorder and said, "Incoming. Down the road!" That was only one of many times that I saw the good doctor on that trip. He left before the end, I don't know how much before, but I saw him in Hong Kong later.
We were impressed that the South was doing a pretty good job of stopping the North at Xuan Loc, but I don't think any of us were convinced that they could hold on for long because of what was happening in Central Vietnam. The intelligence reports showed that the Northerners were pouring troops down through the Central Highlands and that in the last two weeks there were just on a nonstop March to Saigon.
Most of the refugees couldn't travel that fast, so Saigon wasn't filled with refugees. Most of the refugees that we saw in the Central Highlands were traveling on foot to god-knows-where. Most of them couldn't get to Saigon before the end.
There was great concern in Saigon, but you couldn't call it panic. It was a sort of guarded fear that one sees in certain situations like that.
Thieu was widely regarded at the time as not really being in control of the situation. Nobody was in control, essentially. Some army generals were apparently hanging around. Thieu and others were pleading for US assistance, realizing, I guess that that was their only hope.
We wondered when it came down how we were going to get the hell out of there, starting from about the time I got there, since it seemed inevitable that the place would get taken over. We had many long discussions about staying in which we all participated. There were people who were willing to stay. In the end the company ordered us all out. And the only member of the CBS staff who hung around -- there were two, actually -- one was an Englishman named Eric who functioned as the night office manager, he was one of those wandering souls who liked the country and had been in Asia for years and worked for us answering the telex at night from New York just as a way of feeding himself, and he elected to stay and he kept sending information out on the telex machine for a good 14 hours after the North Vietnamese entered the city. He was the one who described the triumphant parade and the generally reserved attitude that the North took, the quiet reception and so forth. Then we had one or maybe two Vietnamese employees who elected not to be airlifted out.
A couple of stories in the last days struck me. There was so much in the way of human interest. People who had had any contact with the US feared that when the other side took over, which they expected, that if they had had any history of working for the US or any US government agency, that they would be shot on the spot, or maybe not quite as bad, imprisoned and punished. So they flocked to the US Embassy to seek visas to get out. They knew that there were people in the employ of the US who were being given refugee status and flown out to Guam. This had been going on for about two weeks prior to the final day. They were all aware of this and news of it was all over town. These people were nervous and they wanted to get out too. There were thousands of them, they would line up before dawn every morning at the Embassy along the wall waiting to get into the consular section. It was pathetic. We could talk to the ones who could speak English and very quickly get enough material for a very poignant story. In many cases their fears may have been unfounded and in others they may not have been. But it really didn't matter because they were real enough to them.
It took an emotional toll on me, it was bound to and it did. But I don't think that's important. They would come up to me and ask if I could help them. People I didn't even know asked for help. I'd go to the line, and simply because you were a westerner, an American, people would come up and beg you to help them and they would say things like, "I have twenty taels of gold if you can help me to get out of here," which really tears you up.
There were, in the last couple of days, there were some rockets fired on to Tan Son nhut and into some of the poorer sections across the river, by local guerrilla forces apparently.
We worried about the South Vietnamese turning on the Americans. The closest we ever saw it was on the day of the vacuation when the Americans were boarding buses, and the Saigon city policemen, the people we used to call the white mice, because they dressed in white and gray uniforms, cocked his pistol and pointed it at Marriott and pulled the trigger and it misfired. I didn't witness that myself, but that was an awful moment. Everybody knew what was about to happen and yet everybody was trying to be cool about it. Armed forces radio in Vietnam had a prearranged code signal, which was the playing of White Chistmas. That was not a secret to many people, though.
I remember that I came in through Hong Kong. I remember leaving all my good clothes and good luggage in Hong Kong and just taking a cheap bag that I picked up there with an absolute minimum of clothing, since I fully expected to have to leave it all behind. So we sort of went into this with our eyes wide open.
The US government took the position that it was responsible for all Americans there, including journalists. They pressured the major news organizations to cut back on the number of journalists stationed there. And our news organizations in turn pressured us to cut down the size of our bureaus, which is how they wanted me and Simon to go out on equipment flight one night, they couldn't find Simon, but they finally shipped my ass out to Bangkok, and it turned out to be 36 hours before the evacuation began. We didn't know that then. They were rocketing Tan Son Nhut, and the airplane was a DC3 piloted by a former CIA contract pilot who had booze on his breath, and a co-pilot named Floyd who wasn't in much better shape. I went out on that to Bangkok and then put a story on the air from Bangkok, slept into the next day and then the following day in the morning went out to fly to Hong Kong and discovered when we got on the plane from the crew that Saigon traffic center was closed down and had been since 6:00 AM. They had to fly around the peninusla rather than over it at that time. So I went to Hong Kong and went to a television studio and wrapped a report of all of that we knew and put it in the dispatches we were getting from Eric in Saigon, it was still the same day in the United States, even though it was early morning the following day in Hong Kong.
I left at approximately 8 on the night of the 28th and flew to Bangkok where I stayed up all night putting a story on the air. At the airport there was a big crowd and a lot of confusion. And since this was a charter aircraft we didn't go through the main terminal where the crowds and the chaos were. But we still had to talk our way out through immigration and customs. They were in a state of agitation.
We went in an office car which had the right credentials to get through. We were unsure as to how easy it would be to get through under the circumstances.
I was sad upon leaving, terribly sad. And I still am. I don't pretend to know how we might have done it better, but I am sure we could have. We as a nation. Graham Martin was out walking his dog in the embassy compound at that time, they tell me. Martin was a very odd duck. I see him every now and then, I guess he spends much of his time on his farm in Tuscany, between Florence and Sienna.
It was dark when I left. All I could see was the lights below and some parachutes out in the west over the edge of the airfield where the incoming rockets were hitting.
Occasional incoming rockets were hitting. We wondered about SAMS, but we didn't fear it since it hadn't happened previously.
The first thing I wanted to do when I got to Bangkok was call my parents and call my kids. I thanked God that I was out and safe and there were many mixed feelings.
I was thirty seven at that time. The orphan airlift crash touched all of us. It was so big and involved so many people and so many emotions. It's very hard to get that involved in that sort of thing and not feel it.
There were stories I had heard afterward about people being pushed or pulled over the wall of the Embassy. Most of the stuff that was shot the day of the evacuation never got onto the air. It was ferried out to the fleet and it didn't reach us until two or three days later. All the pictures of the helicopters flipping into the sea and the pilots being rescued and so on. It did eventually get on the air, but not to the degree that it would have if we had gotten it earlier.
I would say that what I saw in Vietnam over the course of ten or eleven years helped to sharpen my professionalism as a journalist, I hope. I suppose you could say it made me a better journalist, dealing with what I saw, reporting what I saw.
I find that people are not really very interested in what happened there anymore unless they had a part of it, unless they served there or were close to someone who did. People who were not touched by the war generally don't seem to think much about it anymore. And that's not very surprising. It's abundantly clear in the survey work that we do and that others do that the American people as a whole have no doubt as to where the stand on the issue of US troop involvement, unless our physical security is threatened or really vital interests are at stake. They don't want it.
Even with these years of perspective I can't say that we should have done this and this and this and it would have all have been been different, and it would be presumptuous of me to try.
We are a headline service, that's what we are. And we owe it to the public to do the best headline service we can. But if you are really going to have any idea of what's going on you've got to seek information from other sources. When you go to talk to audience of people or write something you tell people that. I can't disagree with Michael Arlen, television didn't give you an understanding of the political and cultural background of the war, not even after watching television night after night for 15 years.