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Vietnam War Reporter Told This is 'No Place for Lady'

Sunday, August 17, 2014

One of the few female reporters covering the war, Thea Rosenbaum fell into journalism after arriving in Saigon with her husband, she says in "No Place for a Lady." In this excerpt she recounts going into the field for the first time.

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Thea Rosenbaum fought on the front lines for women's equality.

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(WOMENSENEWS)--One night Hubert Humphrey came to town. He was running for president. He was another of the VIPs. He was there for the inauguration of President Nguyen Van Thieu of South Vietnam and Vice President Nguyen Cao Ky.

The party was at the Presidential Palace, but from its title you shouldn't get the idea that it was all splendor and opulence. The palace was just a large, plain hall. The entrance was fairly small and in a corner. Humphrey was standing outside in the foyer, talking to people at the door, when mortars hit. Mortar fire is very distinct; it sounds a certain way. Three mortar rounds hit. One was right in the garden of the palace. A lot of people hit the ground. The Secret Service was on top of Humphrey in a second, although I didn't see him actually go down since my view was blocked. I didn't hit the ground, either. I ran toward Humphrey, who dusted himself off. He was looking at me, so I asked him, "What do you think about this hello from Saigon?"

Humphrey replied, "We're not getting scared off that easily. But hopefully that's it for the welcome."

Then the party continued. Later, a reporter for the Saigon Post wanted to know what I had said to Humphrey and what he answered. There were also other correspondents who immediately asked what he said. I gave them the quote. I was very happy to be interviewed. But when the morning's paper came out, I was shocked to find that I was quoted as Mrs. Richard Rosenbaum when I told them my name was Thea Rosenbaum of the DPA (Deutsche Presse-Agentur – the German Press Agency). Even then, they still had my name wrong. It really pissed me off. I didn't like it. And I thought, "I want to do something about this."

Into the Field

I decided I needed to get out of town and into the field. I signed up for every press junket I could find with Military Assistant Command Vietnam (MACV for short). We called it Macvie. We could get in touch with them from the Rex Hotel. They ran trips to areas deemed interesting by the military, like the USS Forrestal. But with them you often got as much of the truth as from the Five O'Clock Follies, the daily military briefings, where the official version of the day's events were given. The scenes you were shown had usually ended hours or days beforehand. But if you wanted to get out into the field--and I did-- this was the fastest way to do it.

I would get better at getting into the field on my own with time, but for now I had to rely on MACV. On an occasion later on, I was taken by helicopter somewhere outside of Saigon in the Iron Triangle. The Americans had developed a near obsession with body counts. And I guess since the press questioned their figures, the military sought to prove what they said. I went along by helicopter to a field. There had been an engagement the night before. The military gave figures of how many they had killed. Sure enough, they had stacked bodies like cordwood in the field to make it easier to count.

"They're all there, if you want to count them," a glib press information officer said. "No, thank you. That won't be necessary."

First Trip

That was later on, but for my first trip with them I had to try for several days before I could get in on a press junket. It was my first time, after all, and there was limited space. When I finally did connect with a press junket, we flew out on a military helicopter headed for an old rubber plantation near the Cambodian border, near a city called Anh Loc. On board with me was a crew from ABC News.

The Americans believed that they were near the end of the Ho Chi Minh Trail, which is why they paid the area so much attention. The fighting had been heavy over the last week, and they had just had some engagements the night prior. The military was eager to show off their accomplishments, which would probably have included a stack of bodies.

You could see the plantation laid out in an old French colonial design as we flew in. In a way, it was like an American plantation with a large white house overlooking it all. Once full of rubber trees, there were no more trees. They all must have been defoliated in an attempt to find out where the North Vietnamese Army and Viet Cong were hiding. The Americans believed there was a base somewhere near there, but they couldn't find it. At that point, they didn't know about the tunnels spider-webbing the area.

We landed. The public affairs officer came over, eager to show us around. Near our position there was a heavy entrenchment of artillery. He motioned in that direction. I was new to this whole enterprise, and I had something else on my mind.

"Where is your ladies' room?"

A young G.I. pointed to a bush on the other side of the plantation.

"You see those bushes? Right one's the ladies' latrine. Left bush is the men's latrine."

I nodded to him and walked over and did my business.

A Minefield

When I returned from the right bush, I thought, "I can cut straight through the field." I started to walk across the old plantation. Choppers were coming into the landing zone behind us. I couldn't hear a thing. But I saw people waving at me. It was the G.I. who had sent me to the latrine. I couldn't tell what he was saying, so I was waiving back happily as if everything was fine. Then the rotors died down and the G.I. yelled, "Minefield!"

I wish he would have told me before I went to the bushes that if I veered off into the field I would be in a minefield. You'd think that was an important piece of information to tell someone. When I heard him, I stopped dead, turned around and began retracing my steps back to the bushes so I could walk out the way I came in. When I came back to the position where the artillery was placed, a young lieutenant greeted my return by saying, "This is no place for a lady."

"I guess not," I said, "But it's a place for me."

That wasn't the only time I had been told something along the lines, "This is no place for a lady." Every once in a while in a dicey situation, somebody would say the same thing. I seemed to hear it most often among lobbyists or arms dealers in Saigon. They were there to sell whatever it was they sold, like the rep for the M16. They had already sold them to the military, but they were still trying to sell them to the public. The best way to do that was through journalists. Very often people like that would say it to me. I always ignored them, but I heard it so often that I remembered the phrase.

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