By Robert Hart

My first “combat” experience of the Vietnam war came very soon after my arrival “in-country.” The U.S. First Infantry Division, the “Big Red 1,” was involved in heavy fighting west of Saigon, near the border with Cambodia.

With other reporters, I flew out to a landing strip near the action in a C-123 transport plane at dawn on what would turn out to be one of the craziest days of my life.

On arrival, we were briefed by the division’s intelligence officer, who told us that the U.S. troops were in heavy “contact” with North Vietnamese regulars who had penetrated so far south for the first time in the war.

There was a scramble for the one available field telephone between me and other agency reporters, desperate to get this major story back to our offices. After futile hours of “no signal,” we all agreed to give up and jump on a chopper ready to ferry us and some newly arrived journalists up to the front line.

Where is everybody?

As we swooped down towards a patch of open ground, U.S. air strikes were lashing the thick forest ahead, and American artillery fire was screaming over our heads. Our pilot said he could not land but would hover a couple of meters off the ground so we could jump out.

He hovered. We jumped – and looked around for U.S. troops. But there was no one, in front, behind or to the sides. The action had obviously moved on. Where was the Big Red 1? And maybe more important, where were the North Vietnamese??

American helicopters were flying overhead. Should we wave, or might they take us for enemy soldiers and machine gun us?

One of our group was Cathy Leroy, the great Vietnam war photographer. Petite, blonde. Someone had the bright idea: “Let’s wave Cathy.” As another helicopter came over, we collectively hoisted Cathy skyward and waved her.

The chopper came down and out jumped an archetypal U.S. officer, helmeted, end of a cigar between his teeth, who greeted us with the question: “What the f..k are you doing here?”

We were airlifted back to base camp, where a C-123 was waiting to take those who wanted to go back to Saigon. It was now dark and getting back seemed the only sensible thing to do, so an AP photographer and I clambered on board. Enough excitement, tension and frustration for one day!

Fire in the hole

But as we flew over the low-canopy jungle, the metal air-conditioning tubes that ran the length of the plane’s ceiling suddenly caught fire, spewing acrid white smoke and orange flames.

We were only about 15 minutes out from Saigon. Our alert load-master wrenched open the hatch at the front of the plane, allowing the wind to scream in as AP and I stood in the doorway, eyes closed, sucking in the cold air and clinging to the harness on the parachute seats.

We made it, breathless but barely singed, to Saigon’s Tan Son Nhut airport. I can’t recall how we got from airport to city center — I’m sure it was boringly normal — but I do remember walking into our room in the Continental Hotel and seeing Donald Wise, of the Daily Mirror, sitting at my desk, using my typewriter, and looking at a story he was writing, which began “Bob Hart, of Reuters, from Watford, narrowly escaped death today when……”

Fortunately, I knew my parents never read the Mirror.

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