In the early summer of 1966, I was in the Reuters bureau in Singapore when the company “offered” me a posting to Vietnam, where the war was building into a major conflict with rapidly increasing American military involvement.
I was 25, nearing the end of my two-year Reuters graduate trainee stint and still very much a rookie journalist. The “offer” was naturally both exciting and scary, but I knew the alternative would be a return to London head office — and maybe a spell on the Commodities Desk!
So it was a no-brainer, and the hardest part was working out how to tell my parents in the UK that I was going to a war zone for at least a year.
There were big stories all over Southeast Asia. Singapore had recently split from Malaysia and became an independent republic; Indonesia was swept by anti-Communist violence and mass killings that eventually would see the overthrow of President Sukarno. But the war in Vietnam was the big world story and growing daily.
When I arrived in Saigon, Communist-backed Viet Cong (VC) guerrillas already controlled much of South Vietnam’s territory, if not the major towns and cities.
South Vietnamese and U.S. troops were fighting VC and North Vietnamese units in scattered actions. In a highly combustible political atmosphere, Buddhist monks were demonstrating against the government of President Nguyen Van Thieu in Saigon and in the northern cities of Danang and Hue.
A few months earlier, U.S. troops had fought the biggest battle of the war so far against North Vietnamese army (NVA) regulars in the Ia Drang valley, in the Central Highlands, losing 250 men killed and another 250 wounded in four days of savage fighting.
At the time of Ia Drang, there were 185,000 U.S. troops in Vietnam. By the time I arrived, that number had risen to 350,000. When I left some 15 months later, U.S. troop level had reached almost half a million.
Was the driver a Viet Cong officer?
The Reuter Saigon bureau was small — a chief correspondent plus three other staffers, our invaluable local Vietnamese reporter and a teleprinter operator. (This was, of course, years before screens and Internet).
There was also an office driver, an almost toothless but smiley chap who, according to semi-serious office rumor, was really a senior Viet Cong officer.
The bureau chief lived in a small flat above the office. The other three expats shared a large room in the French colonial-style Hotel Continental, a five-minute walk down central Tu Do street, formerly Rue Catinat (now Dong Khoi).
The Continental was cool and comfortable and had an open-sided café-bar that looked out towards the old French Opera House next door. This bar was known to its many journalist residents as the Continental Shelf, where you could discuss events of the day over a local “33” beer or three.
The walk to the office up the still colonially elegant Tu Do led past the 19th-century Notre Dame cathedral, then a left turn into Han Thuyen, a quiet road facing a small park and leading down to the presidential palace. The Reuters office was in a terrace house 50 meters down this street.
At the “Follies” or “in the field”
Bureau routine was that at least one reporter would be out “in the field,” covering military operations outside Saigon while the others monitored the political and military situation from Saigon, mainly via the great work of our Vietnamese reporter who had contacts everywhere.
The unmissable event of every day was the 5 p.m. U.S. military briefing, known to all as the “Five o’clock Follies.” Here a spokesman would detail progress in the day’s operations involving American troops, including numbers of those killed in action (KIA) or wounded (WIA), and a “body-count” of VC or NVA killed. He would also report on increasingly heavy U.S. bombing raids against military targets inside North Vietnam.
The Follies usually gave us the basis of the main war story of the day, despite doubts about the accuracy of the KIAs and WIAs. It also often provided welcome entertainment in the banter between humorously skeptical American reporters and the determinedly deadpan spokesman.
Saigon at this stage of the war was an island of relative tranquility. The war was basically outside. There were plenty of good restaurants, and nightlife centered on a string of bars where attractive young ladies would be very friendly as long as you bought them plenty of “Saigon tea.” This purported to be whisky but was in fact exactly what the name said.
There was a midnight-to-six a.m. curfew, enforced loosely by the local white-shirted police, nicknamed “white mice.” If you could identify yourself as foreign press (bao chi), you could make the walk back to the hotel unmolested after working late.
Life with the U.S. Marines
Reporters in the field might stay away from the office for a couple of days or as much as two weeks, depending on the story, stamina and facilities provided by the U.S. military.
Much of my time was spent with the U.S. Marine Corps, charged with fighting NVA and VC forces in the northern provinces abutting the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) separating South and North Vietnam. I also made occasional sorties to areas near the Cambodian with the U.S. First Infantry Division and the 25th Division.
With the Marines, journalists stayed at the corps press center in the coastal city of Danang, which provided accommodation and food and “guided tours” of battle grounds in the area, with steely-eyed but generally very affable Marine staff sergeants as escorts.
With fighting spread over the region, any day could start with a 5 a.m. call to get into your jungle green fatigues and jump into a jeep, which would drop you at the giant Danang airbase from where a helicopter would fly you to some bomb-shattered hilltop or bullet-torn patch of countryside where fighting had been raging, or might still be going on.
There you would try to talk to the Marine commander, take notes, pictures or film. Get some quotes from Marines in their foxholes and be prepared to dive into the nearest available hole in the ground if the cry of “Incoming!” went up.
You try not to look into the eyes of the Marines staying on the battleground as you head for a chopper flight back to Danang, sometimes with wounded on board, occasionally with body bags.
Hastings and Hill 881
The final struggle, when you had cobbled together your story, would be on the phone at the press center trying to reach your office via the military line to Saigon LD (Long Distance).
Often you would be half way through when an only slightly apologetic voice would cut you off for a military priority call. When you did get your story through, the most heartening thing was the congratulations you would get from colleagues, including competitors, who had heard every word you bellowed down the telephone.
My “baptism of fire” with the Marines was with Operation Hastings in July 1966. This was a joint U.S. Marines and South Vietnamese drive to block NVA efforts to make inroads across the DMZ.
In fact, the bulk of the “fire” was outgoing as American artillery battered areas where NVA forces were thought to be massing. The artillery was in large part coordinated from a helicopter landing pad on the Rockpile, a cone-shaped rock outcrop some 250 meters high with a view across miles of countryside.
Almost 10 months later, Marines were involved in some of the toughest fighting of the war as they sought to drive NVA forces out of entrenched positions on two hills, 881 North and 881 South, close to the U.S. combat base at Khe Sanh.
Journalists were flown in to the site when 881 S was in U.S. hands. The faces of the Marines still on the hill told you all you needed to know about the ferocity of the fighting. The NVA had been dug in, with literally hundreds of camouflaged machine gun nests and bunkers in the hillside, and had fought to the last man.
More than just war
There was much more to life in the Danang press center than just war and dawn helicopter rides to battlegrounds, but these aspects tended not to be reported.
There were games of American touch football with Marine escorts on the square courtyard. There were the amazing New York cut steaks frequently served in the canteen.
There were open air film shows on the bank of the Danang River, often with an added element of gunfire and shell explosions on the other side of the water.
And there was the story that nobody wrote – the China Beach story. An easy jeep ride from the press center, Danang had a gorgeous, sandy beach, only slightly marred by stretches of protective barbed wire.
On a quiet day, the correspondents of AP and UPI — Reuters’ main competitor agencies — would find me in my room and say: “We are going to the beach. You are coming too.” Not a question. A statement. One goes, we all go – and no one writes about it.
In a way, life in Danang summed up the Vietnam experience. You saw and experienced terrible things, spent a lot of time scared. But there was also fun and real camaraderie, including with competitors.
Friendships were made that stick, especially with people you worked closely with, even if now you very seldom see them.
The war obviously ended disastrously for the United States and South Vietnam. But in 1966-67, the mood was still quite positive and there was little of the disillusionment among American troops that became so acute later.
Maybe I had the best of it.
Robert Hart was a correspondent and regional editor for Reuters for more than 35 years, reporting on the Vietnam war, West Germany during Chancellor Willy Brandt’s Ostpolitik and as bureau chief in Spain for five years in the 1990s. In between he was Asian News Editor based in Singapore and Latin America Editor, based in Buenos Aires during the military “dirty war” of the late 1970s.