Buddhists, angry envoys, kid GIs, graham crackers:a reporter recalls Vietnam

IT was 1966. We were in the embattled city of Hue, South Vietnam. Buddhists, protesting the war, were waging passive resistance against the South Vietnamese Army. Hundreds of Buddhists had set up their family altars on shaky tables in the middle of the city's streets to block military traffic. Giant tanks inched past the simple altars, the tank commanders fearful that to damage a single shrine could touch off rioting. The Army was confused; it already had its hands full fighting the Communist Viet Cong.

In the middle of this strange religio-military struggle, this reporter first met a young American helicopter gunner, a sergeant. He was barely 19 years old. Each morning, the sergeant flew away toward the hills to the west of Hue to fight the war. Each evening he flew back to a small military compound in Hue. This reporter was assigned to the same barracks, and at night we swapped stories. One of his stories has stayed fresh to this day.

As his chopper flew low over rice paddies a few miles outside of Hue one morning, the aircraft was hit by a single bullet. The helicopter pilot turned and took his crew back over the same area. They saw no soldiers, but another bullet whizzed through the aircraft.

Again the chopper made a pass over the rice fields, this time much lower. As it approached one paddy, the crew spotted an old woman chopping away with a hoe. Tied to the handle of the hoe was a rifle -- the one that had apparently been used to attack the chopper.

``There's the VC,'' said the aircraft commander to the young gunner. ``Get her.''

The pilot swung the chopper around one more time and it swooped down upon the woman at 80 knots. The young gunner opened fire, riddling the field. The pilot turned toward the west.

Later that evening, the young sergeant confided to me: ``I didn't kill her, you know. I couldn't do it. Even if she was shooting at us. She was only an old woman!''

Vietnam is full of memories like that. In the midst of brutality, there was also mercy. In the midst of hatred, there was also kindness. An apartment plus student

Americans often found themselves plunged into complex situations within hours of getting off the airplane at Saigon's airport. This reporter was no different.

By prior arrangement, I was to take over the apartment of a departing correspondent. He greeted me warmly, announced that he would be gone within a few hours, and then added:

``By the way, I hope it's OK. Someone will be staying here for a while with you. I told him it would be all right. He's a student. And he's hiding from the police.''

Vietnam was like that. A young man's game

War has always been a young man's game. Vietnam was no different. There were a few gray heads, of course -- diplomats, generals, and even reporters. But some of the lasting impressions were the young, innocent faces of those American soldiers going into combat.

Their innocence showed up in many ways. My wife, who joined me in Saigon for most of my tour, was working as a reporter for a couple of other newspapers. One week, at her editor's request, she conducted a survey of those young American soldiers on leave from the battlefields. One of her questions: ``What do you miss most back in the United States?''

The answer was surprising. What they missed most wasn't sweethearts, or moms, or dads, or their Chevys, or TV, or even the Boston Red Sox. Their overwhelming answer: fresh milk. Inexperienced commanders

Even the commanders in Vietnam were often inexperienced. As we pushed through the jungles with the First Division, the leader of our battalion was wounded in the arm. He was quickly evacuated. A lieutenant colonel took over.

A New York Times reporter who was among our group was talking quietly with the colonel as we moved carefully through the jungle. ``What other combat units have you commanded?'' the reporter asked.

The colonel replied, ``Oh, this is my first. Just a few weeks ago, I had a desk job at the Pentagon.'' The Times reporter thanked the colonel, and dropped back toward the rear of the column. He wasn't taking any chances. Helicopters changed the war

The helicopter changed the way war was fought -- and the way it was covered by reporters. Correspondents could travel to the war zone as easily as people commute to work back in the States.

One evening, at the daily US government briefing for reporters, it was announced that a major battle, code-named ``Junction City,'' had just begun about 40 or 50 miles outside Saigon. Any reporter who wanted to see the battle would be taken out the next day at sunrise.

The next morning, five or six of us showed up in our combat boots and fatigues, ready to go. An hour later, our chopper lowered us into a jungle clearing near the Minh Thanh Rubber Plantation not far from the Cambodian border. We were only 400 yards from the fighting. The clearing was surrounded by 50 tough-looking soldiers of the US First Division. Each soldier was carrying what appeared to be an immense amount of ammunition.

We jumped to the ground and the chopper whirred away from the battle area. Just as we were getting our bearings, a tremendous explosion shook the ground. One of the reporters hit the ground fast.

``That's just our own artillery firing,'' one soldier said with a smile as the reporter picked himself up sheepishly. Another soldier looked at us and said, ``You look absolutely naked without a rifle.''

The battle raged all day. By sundown, some of us were carrying rifles -- rifles that had belonged to some of the young men who had met us, now wounded or killed.

When evening came, the fighting ended for the newspeople. The soldiers blasted a clearing in the jungle with explosives. Another chopper flew in. It dropped off hot food for the troops and took the reporters out -- back to the safety of Saigon. It was never like that for World War II's Ernie Pyle. Watching war from a rooftop

One didn't need to leave Saigon to see the war. Any night, from the top of a tall building, you could see the tracers of machine guns, the flash of artillery. All around the city's outskirts, like fireflies, were visible the winking of red lights on helicopters as they ferried troops toward various skirmishes.

We went atop a 10-story building one night, just before the Fourth of July. A friend had invited us over to see what he called the Independence Day fireworks. Despite the noises of the traffic below, in the distance you could hear the ``crump, crump'' of mortars. The brightest flashes, according to our friend, were the antipersonnel shells, which burst in the air and showered the ground with shrapnel. Here and there, flares drifted to the ground on small parachutes to light an area of fighting.

Every Sunday, even during church services, the war seemed close. In the middle of a Bible passage, the glass fixtures on the lights would often jingle, and the windows would rattle as another rack of bombs hit the earth. An island of tranquillity

Outside Vietnam, it was easy to get the impression that the whole country was unsafe. Viet Cong seemed everywhere, and mines and ambushes were a constant threat along many of the country's highways. Even in Saigon, young Viet Cong fighters put plastique bombs into unlikely places, such as bicycle saddle bags or shopping baskets, so one was constantly on the alert.

It wasn't that way everywhere, however. Southwest of Saigon was the province of An Giang, a fertile island of tranquillity in the ocean of war. The reason for its peacefulness: religion. Most of its residents were Hoa Hao, a Buddhist sect that was adamantly anticommunist.

In An Giang, Americans could relax and get a feeling of what it must have been like in prewar Vietnam. One could glide along its canals in a sampan, or stroll along its rural roads unaccompanied by a squad of riflemen.

The province had 450,000 residents. Most were rice farmers. A fixture in many homes was a huge barrel in the center of the living area. The barrel was filled with rice. Vietnamese rice, by the way, was generally richer and nuttier tasting than American rices.

One wonders today how these staunch anticommunist peasants are faring. `The ambassador wants to see you'

One morning, very early, someone pounded loudly on the door of our apartment in Saigon. It was a US marine. He had a brief message: ``The ambassador wants to see you. Now!''

Ambassador Ellsworth Bunker hadn't been in Vietnam very long. But Mr. Bunker was angry. Stories like mine and those in the Washington Post and some other papers were ``undermining the war effort,'' the ambassador complained. He never sat down during our discussion in his office, but paced in circles.

He was upset about stories like the one that ran July 17, 1967. The story said that in spite of optimistic words coming out of the White House, the war was essentially a stalemate. The story included this exchange with a US official who had been regularly hopeful on the war:

Reporter: ``How would you sum up the outlook for ending the war?''

Official: ``Well, it's bleak. Very bleak.''

Reporter: ``Wasn't this the time we were looking for a breakthrough?''

Official: ``Yes, but there's no sign of it coming.''

Reporter: ``Do you think our generals have underestimated the determination of the North Vietnamese?''

Official: ``Haven't they always.''

Ambassador Bunker was outraged. ``Talk to General Westmoreland. Talk to the experts,'' he urged.

Of course, I had talked to them. Gen. William C. Westmoreland remained outwardly optimistic. But he was one of the few who did. Other generals, other senior diplomats, were increasingly gloomy. They wouldn't let their names be used. But they knew it was going badly, and they told us so. The official quoted, for example, was one of the top-ranking people in the US Embassy. But he had been there a lot longer than Mr. Bunker. Doctored reports to Washington

At another time, the ambassador and I talked on more friendly terms. Information from well-placed sources told me that one of President Johnson's appointees in Saigon was doctoring the reports about the war that went back to Washington. The bad news wasn't being allowed to reach the White House. One civilian diplomat was so upset about it that he had suffered a heart attack.

The ambassador was still new. He appeared to know nothing about it. He took notes on what I told him, and promised to look into it. But there remained some question among American officials in Vietnam whether the President ever understood all the difficulties. The graham cracker

My wife and I will always remember one tragic day -- and a graham cracker that changed it all.

We were walking to an official ceremony in downtown Saigon and were just passing a large cathedral. About 50 feet in front of us was a tall, striking US naval officer in his summer whites. We had been following him for two or three blocks, and both of us had commented on how handsome he was. Suddenly, right in front of him, the ground erupted. He was killed instantly. We thought a mine had gone off, and we ran to the center of the street to get away from any area where a mine might be buried.

Moments later, an ashen-faced MP ran up to us, shouting, ``Get down, get down.'' The explosion, he told us, wasn't a mine. It was a mortar shell. Other shells then began raining all around us. Many were killed and wounded.

We came through unscathed. But we'll never forget that naval officer. And we often recall the important role a graham cracker played in our lives that day. Minutes before the explosion, as we were leaving our downtown apartment, my wife insisted that I eat something. There hadn't been time for breakfast. So she ran back into the apartment to get me a graham cracker. Except for that brief delay, we would probably have been at the very spot where the first shell exploded. Hue and the Buddhists

Hue was a Vietnamese city that captured the imagination. Even amid the smoke and ashes of war, flaming royal poinciana trees bloomed along the street. Banana trees were heavy with fruit. Picturesque boatmen paddled along the Perfume River.

The importance of Hue, however, lay in its Buddhist traditions, and its religious leader, a slender monk named Thich Tri Quang. Another reporter and I pedaled on bicycles through Hue's eerie streets to find Tri Quang during that city's early resistance to the central military government of South Vietnam. Tri Quang was the key to the puzzle -- the man who had to be reached to understand what the confrontation was all about.

In our interview, Tri Quang urged ``absolute nonviolence'' as the only way to resist the military. I recall that he sat on a hard bed during our interview. There were only the barest essentials in his room. But there was little doubt he knew what was happening outside his quarters. Beside his bed, in his only nod toward the modern world, was a high-powered, shortwave radio receiver. A familiar face

I'm not sure what eventually happened to the student who stayed in my apartment for a few days after I arrived in Saigon. We talked far into the night. We discussed life in the United States, we argued about US goals in Vietnam, we talked about the communists and about the South Vietnamese government. Finally, one night, he left.

A couple of months later, I was covering a political gathering of students in Saigon. Things were tense. Security police were gathering in force in the street outside.

Suddenly, trouble broke out. There was wild confusion. Tear gas. Swinging clubs. Breaking windows. We all felt in danger.

In the middle of this melee, a hand grabbed my arm and steered me toward an open window, where I was able to escape to safety outside. The hand was that of my student acquaintance.

I never saw him again.

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