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Southeast Asia: a correspondent's Vietnam revisited 35 years after the fall of Saigon

Every conflict has its own scribes. Southeast Asia's had a singular take.

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It was all deceptively easy, and then suddenly it got dangerous.

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Several days later, returning from the scene of a massacre in the eastern Cambodian town of Prasaut, where I counted the bodies of 90 Vietnamese refugees gunned down overnight by Cambodian soldiers in a barnyard, I ran into photographers Sean Flynn and Dana Stone on motorcycles, at a roadside stand. An old woman, through my interpreter, had told us the Khmer Rouge were "over there," but Flynn and Stone drove off, eager to get photographs, while I returned to Phnom Penh with my story on the massacre. They were never seen again.

"In Cambodia, we just couldn't believe how bad it was going to be," says Southerland, who saw Flynn and Stone that day, too.

We all have special memories of tragedy. I never saw my interpreter again after visiting Cambodia for the last time in 1974, when peasants told us the Khmer Rouge were terrifying the populace, sawing off heads with sugar palm leaves. British photographer Tim Page, wounded four times, has been searching for years for clues as to what happened to Flynn and Stone. Mr. Page responds indignantly to claims by four young Australians that they dug up the probable remains of one of them north of Phnom Penh. He suspects the four want to capitalize on the mystique surrounding Flynn, son of the swashbuckling actor Errol Flynn, and feels especially disdainful after the US Joint Prisoners of War, Missing in Action Accounting Command in Honolulu dismissed the find.

Such episodes, though, seemed isolated, almost like accidents in a war that ebbed and flowed. There was no censorship, no worry about officials blocking or slowing the flow of stories or photographs. Nor did correspondents in those days have to worry about Internet messages or calls on cellphones. You never called your office, and you waited for the surprisingly efficient postal services in Saigon, Phnom Penh, or Vientiane to deliver cables the next day on the fate of the pieces you had filed the night before.

Not that reporters were totally free. MACV withdrew accreditation from journalists for violating an embargo imposed on plans to withdraw from Khe Sanh after the 77-day siege was broken. Nor did reporters see the "secret air war" over portions of Laos and Cambodia. The bombing of the Ho Chi Minh trail down which North Vietnam shipped men and supplies to the South remained a mystery. Matt Franjola, who covered Vietnam and Cambodia for UPI and the Associated Press, is sure of one thing.

"The Americans never had any clue of how to run this war," he says. "Every generation makes the same mistakes as the one before. The Americans have no idea what they're doing in Iraq and Afghanistan either."

Donald Kirk covered the region for the Washington (D.C.) Star and the Chicago Tribune, wrote articles for The New York Times Magazine and others, and is the author of several books about that period, most recently "Tell It to the Dead: Stories of a War" (1996).