Tuesday, May 13, 2014

The Reality of War: CBS Cameraman Mike Marriott Remembers Vietnam

Mike Marriott

When Ban Me Thuot fell and the withdrawal from the Central Highlands began, I went out with correspondent Peter Collins in films the “convoy and tears” coming down Highway 7B from Pleiku. The equivalent of three divisions of ARVN pulled out of the Central Highlands without firing a shot. A friend of mine from one of the intelligence agencies called me and said, “Hey, Mike, did you know the Central Highlands have just fallen?” And I said, “oh, fuck no!” He said, “look, I’ve got a porter” – which is an air America two-engine engine aircraft – “and I’m going to pull some of my people out before they get captured. If you come with with us I’ll guarantee your seats coming back. I’ve got an Agency (CIA) helicopter to take you over the area so you can film. There are just thousands of people fleeing. I'll give you a survival radio so we can put you down ahead of them. You can wait for the convoy to get to you, after you do some of the aerials. Then you can get off in the fields, away from the convoy, radio for the chopper to get you, and we’ll pluck you up.”

So we went out to the middle of the Central Highlands. Right out in the middle of nowhere, and suddenly, as far as the eye could see, there were 100,000 fucking people, and soldiers, and tanks and armored personnel carriers – all coming toward us. I filmed it and then we got out.

I was never really concerned about getting out of Saigon until a Vietnamese police captain tried to shoot me. There had been an incident at the Presidential Palace. A plane had buzzed it or strafed it and there was all this excitement in the streets. We went out to film it. We saw this Vietnamese police captain with a .45 pistol shooting at a taxi and wouldn’t move and couldn’t move because the engine had died. The captain was shooting at the guy in the taxi. He had just totally freaked out. So I started to film him. And he saw me doing this and he turned and pointed his gun at me and started screaming, “American traitor! American traitor! American traitor!” To which I responded, “hey, wait a moment, I’m in Australian.” I was trying to think of something to distract him and to keep him from killing me. So he ran over and put the gun about a foot from my head. And he pulled the trigger. And nothing happened. So he slid back the breach. I could see the .45 round jammed in it. He tried to put his finger in and pull it out, but he was so panicked and so paranoid that he was shaking and he couldn’t do it. He pulled the trigger three times while aiming at my head. My camera wasn’t running at the time. To this day I don’t know why. I didn’t dare point the camera at him – I just didn’t want to make a move in any way, shape, or form that would make him snap out of what he was doing and realize that if you got that round out he could kill me. So I just stand right into his eyes and kept looking at him. After the third time he pulled the trigger and nothing happened he reversed the weapon, held the barrel, and started smashing me over the skull.

Then in there I decided I was not going to stay in town and film the North Vietnamese Army and the Vietcong when they rolled in. I decided as I was running away from that captain, "no, no, no. I can't do it. I don't mind the goddamn communist having a go at me. But these guys are our allies. And if they are prepared to shoot me, then I don’t want to hang around here. No way.”

I left Saigon on the early evening of April 29 from the Defense Attaché Office at Tan Son Nhut Airport. I flew out and a Jolly Green Giant (CH-53) to the USS Blue Ridge. I felt immense sadness at that time. I had no feeling of being glad to get out. I felt, in one way, a sense of pride that two months earlier even before Danang fell, I had predicted that the country was about to fall. But my friends just scoffed at me. They insisted, “No, it won’t. the South Vietnamese Army will fight.” I told them, “Look, you’re wrong.” And now I had a feeling of, “shit, I was right. How sad.”

As we left Tan Son Nhut we stayed low. We followed the Saigon River for a short distance. Over the river we picked up a couple of F -4s that were escorting everyone out. I remember looking down at the river. Suddenly I saw my apartment building. I remember that my apartment was still full of everything that I own. And I was thinking, “Jesus, some fucking North Vietnamese kernel is going to get all that. And tomorrow morning he’s going to look just great in my suits.” It was a strange thing to think, I know.

Then we started to climb. I was on the back ramp of the CH 53 with my camera rolling. One of the gunners back there with me was looking at me and I had tears rolling down my cheeks. And he stepped over and put his arm around me and patted me on the back. Then he turned away and started popping flares out the back of the chopper. If anyone did fire a SAM at us, those white phosphorus flares on a parachute would take them out, because the missiles were heat seeking in the flares were hotter and brighter than the engines of the helicopter.

When I ran out of film I put the camera down and I helped the gunner pop flares out the back of the chopper as we rolled out over the countryside toward the South China Sea and the waiting American fleet.

On the Blue Ridge, the next morning, I saw all the Vietnamese choppers coming in and then ditching at sea. There were so many of them that they couldn't all land on the deck, so they just hovered around the ship like a swarm of bees. Then they would put the nose up in the air and they would jump out the door, and the chopper would just flop over into the sea.

All of the American Embassy people were on the Blue Ridge. So were the DAO people and the CIA people. They were embarrassed and insulted because they considered that the press had lost the war. Even at that time they were saying we lost a war for America. The CIA station chief, Thomas Polgar, was the most vocal about that. He really disliked us. Gen. Nguyen Cao Ky was on the Blue Ridge, too. He was still cocky. He was so sure of himself that he just sickened us. He was a multimillionaire and one of the most corrupt men going. He got out with his favorites, naturally.

Not long ago, I went down to the Vietnam Memorial with those 57,000 names on it. It was so sad because I realized that all of that sacrifice was for absolutely nothing. Nothing. I abhor war. I hate it.

I think that in the end we television newsman told the truth about Vietnam. What the military objected to – and I'm not saying that it was all the military, not by any means – was it we brought home to those people who watched the CBS Evening News the real horrors of war and the futility of Vietnam.

There were some accusations that newsman had staged some shots. I don't know about that. But I do know that no matter how you look at it, you’ve got real napalm victims and real young Americans dying in the arms of a comrade. And that is not staged. That is the reality of war. I guess we changed the way America looked at the war. We didn’t do it recklessly or maliciously. We did it because it was there.

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