By WeNews Staff
Monday, April 7, 2003
Women's eNews presents three excerpts from "War Torn: Stories of War from the Women Reporters Who Covered Vietnam." The tales inspire sadness, outrage and awe for the journalists who broke the gender barrier in war coverage.
Sometimes an officer would say, "What the hell is a woman doing here?" and I'd shrug nonchalantly. "My editor sent me to cover the fighting." There were struggles with the military over where I could and couldn't go, and what I could and couldn't do. I tried never to back down and usually my dogged persistence prevailed.
Soldiers offered me pistols or knives, believing that I should have some kind of weapon. Even though I was from Texas, guns made me uncomfortable. I was given a snub-nosed .38 pistol as a farewell gift from an officer in the 1st Cavalry who was returning home to the States. He was sure I'd need to shoot my way out of a Vietcong ambush one day, but of course I never did. I was afraid if I had to shoot anything it would be my one foot.
I was opposed to the war when I arrived in Vietnam and left as a true pacifist, more convinced than ever that humanity had to find peaceful ways of resolving conflict. Being in the field proved to me that while there are many cases of individual courage and heroism among soldiers, there is nothing about war itself that is heroic. The suffering and deaths of soldiers and casualties among the Vietnamese civilian population were staggering. I had no doubt that America's involvement was tragic and doomed to fail. There was nothing to prepare me for the death and devastation I saw.
-- Ann Bryan Mariano was in Vietnam from 1965 to 1971, reporting for The Overseas Weekly, a privately-owned newspaper for military stationed overseas. Mariano is currently suffering from Alzheimer's disease, and wrote her essay with the help of friends and family.
War Torn: Stories of War from the Women Reporters Who Covered Vietnam:
[Associated Press reporter Edith Lederer] and I were at the [Hotel Royale] to cover for AP correspondent Lee Rudakewych, whose garden-suite office was also his home and a crash pad for a motley parade of photo stringers. After working two months without a break, Lee had reluctantly been persuaded to join other correspondents for a day at the beach at Kompong Som on the Gulf of Siam, a three-hour drive. They planned to be back by dark, when it was too dangerous on the roads.
Edie and I were joined by Christine Spengler, a tenacious Belgium photo-stringer making a name for her self in Indochina. We giggled together at the idea of cabling [AP general manager Wes] Gallagher that three women were in charge of his Cambodian war coverage but decided he might retaliate by firing Lee.
The day drifted on through the relentless heat. Edie and I wrote a roundup about scattered fighting and sent it off by motorcycle messenger to be passed by the censors and cabled to New York. We lunched, had a swim, took a nap. At twilight there was still no sign of our friends.
Then Christine burst into the suite.
"It's very bad, the Khmer Rouge have mined the highway, a small patrol got blown up. A few survivors were trapped in burning jeeps. We arrived just as reinforcements came. There was a lot of shooting. Somebody got nicked in the arm, but everybody else got out all right. I got very good pictures, and I can--"
"Incoming!" Christine yelled. We crowded under the old iron bed's sagging mattress. The rockets were aimed at some oil tanks but went far wide of the mark. Christine mumbled about painting a bull's-eye on the tanks to help the Khmer Rouge, then buried her head in her arms as more rockets crashed down, each closer than the one before.
Finally they stopped: two minutes, four minutes, six.
Christine bolted for the door, yelling: "I'll count the dead."
Edie found a map and hunted for a ruler. Failing to locate one, we agreed a Tampax would do. Carefully marking off quarter inches along its length, we used it to plot the rockets' progress and the Khmer Rouge advance toward the heart of the city. Today they were closer than yesterday. Tomorrow they'd be closer still.
Christine reported back that three civilians were dead and eighteen wounded just a block away. Edie dictated and I typed on Lee's portable with the blood-red ribbon. The motorcycle messenger arrived, knowing rockets meant overtime. Half an hour later the story, with art, was on its way to New York.
--Tad Bartimus was a reporter for The Associated Press, in Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos from 1973-1975.
From their base at Khe Sanh, the [Marines from the two-hundred man Lima Company of the 3rd Battalion, 26th Regiment, based in South Vietnam's 1Corps] were planning a secret foray to the Laotian border, where they hoped to engage the enemy and intercept a suspected North Vietnamese supply route. As a properly accredited journalist, I was entitled to cover any military mission in Vietnam. However, securing permission to join this long-range patrol had not been easy. While male correspondents sometimes went into the field unaccompanied, there was no way the Marines were going to let a woman move around on her own, as I had been used to doing with army units. The military brass insisted I have an official escort.
I tried to object, but eventually there was no choice. To my chagrin, the man assigned to watch over me, Staff Sgt. Les Johnson, an overweight, out-of-shape desk clerk, looked woefully inept. He seemed nervous at the prospect of going out on patrol as we flew by helicopter from Dong Ha to a small landing zone hacked out in the wooded staging area by Captain [Franklin Delano] Bynum's men.
We woke early, and before the sun had risen far into the sky that morning, Captain Bynum had his patrol on the move. [H]e set a hard pace, insisting we hike for hours without a break in the oppressive heat, which was reaching 110 scorching degrees. Several men complained of dehydration. But they pushed on, hacking their way with machetes through clumps of bamboo and ten-foot-high elephant grass. Sometimes the only way the lead men could get through was by hurling themselves forward and falling against the stalks of grass. The sharp edges slashed at our skin like a million paper cuts as we stumbled up the steep hills. Coming down the treacherous slopes, encumbered by packs weighing as much as one hundred pounds and filled with weaponry such as mortar rounds, grenades, and machine guns, the men slid and fell, shredding their fatigues on the sharp rocks. I got an eyeful of hairy bare bottoms that day.
My escort was beginning to fade. Panting for breath and barely capable of putting one foot in front of the other, Johnson was clearly suffering. Soaked with sweat, he lagged far behind and slumped in an exhausted heap every chance he got.
As we slogged on, I concentrated on staying focused and keeping up without complaining. But I could not stop worrying about my lagging escort. Then, late in the afternoon, after more grueling hours of scaling impossible ridges, Johnson pulled a muscle in his groin and collapsed. Writhing in pain, he said he could no longer walk. A burly Marine offered to carry him up the hill. Johnson looked miserable.
Clearly exasperated, Captain Bynum checked on the crippled sergeant. "We'll have to call a chopper to get him out of here," he said. Then he added that I too would have to leave the patrol.
"I was promised a five-day patrol," I argued.
Bynum, however, was insistent. "No escort, no reporter."
The last image I had of the men of Lima Company that evening was of several Marines turning their heads away from the dusty downdraft of the chopper.
Watching the darkening hills of Khe Sanh recede in the distance, I became so angry that I could hardly look at Johnson. I resented having to leave that patrol. I was sure that a firefight would erupt before the mission was finished. Intelligence reports had indicated that several battalions of NVA were massing in Laos to assault the area near the demilitarized zone.
Now I would miss the action that I might have photographed and reported with an exclusive byline that could have been flashed across the world. Instead, I was heading back to Da Nang with nothing but sore muscles and bloodsucker bruises, all because of my hapless escort.
A few days later, back at the press center, I was studying a map to figure out where to go next, when a fellow reporter called out to me.
"Weren't you on a patrol near Khe Sanh?" he asked. "Lima got hit. Company commander was killed."
"What?" I was stunned. "I can't believe it."
As soon as I confirmed it was Captain Bynum, I was overcome with anxiety. I wondered if the company had been discovered by the NVA because the resupply chopper had appeared to extract me and my ailing escort.
I had typed up my notes from the operation, but I couldn't complete the story. Fear and grief prevented me from further checking out the details of the Marine officer's demise. It was a story I didn't want to write. Nor did I want to open a Pandora's box of my own mixed emotions concerning the events of that hot June day in the jungle near the border of Laos.
-- Jurate Kazickas was a freelance reporter in Vietnam from 1967 to 1968.