||June 20, 2006|
Editor’s Note: During 1967 and 1968 Lyle Davis, Editor and Publisher of The Paper, served as a war correspondent in South Vietnam. From those two years we have drawn stories that told of another time, another war, in another part of the world. He was younger then; nice, dark hair. No signs of grey. Wars have a habit of not changing a whole lot. What follows is an occasional series of stories dealing with that era.
by lyle e davis
I had arrived in Saigon about 2pm. I had been in the air for about 18 hours solid, on my first assignment as a war correspondent in a combat zone known as Vietnam. I head read volumes about the country, seen, heard and read the dispatches from the networks and the press. I knew a little about what to expect, and yet I knew nothing. I was bone tired but I was delighted to get off that jet.
Heading west from my home near Chicago I had stayed in a General's billet at Scott Air Force Base, all the comforts of home, a wet bar, an enlisted orderly awaited my call for service. At each stage along the way to Vietnam I was met by a PR guy or gal from the local PAO (Public Affairs Office) of PIO (Public Information Office). I was, for awhile, a big shot. A reporter. A member of the media. A card carrying member of the Fourth Estate. I was representing two newspaper chains in the Chicago area, the North Shore Group and the Hollister Press, as well as WIL Radio in St. Louis and WEEF Radio in Highland Park, a suburb of Chicago. I was travelling under the auspices of a Chicago Congressman and had "coming your way" letters sent by the most brilliant PR guy I've ever met, Lt. Col. Len Hughes with SAFOI (Secretary of Air Force, Office of Information).
In San Francisco I met my uncle, Harris Tollefson. Harris owned the Tollefson Flying Service out of Novato, California, in Marin County. I was not particularly close to uncle Harris; hadn't really known him all that well. I was
Midwest and he was West Coast. I knew that he had taught a lot of military flyers to fly during WWII. This was a war that occurred in the 1940's. You may have heard about it. It made all the papers. You could look it up.
Harris decided to show me a night on the town for the 4 or 5 hour layover I had before heading further west. He took me to dinner in the Mark Hopkins. . .and then he took me to a topless bar. I guess they had topless bars in Chicago. I just had never gone there. I've never been really thrilled about topless bars. Dunno why, just never rocked my boat. I imagined that the experience would be not much more than walking in, hearing music, seeing a woman with no blouse or bra on and thinking to myself, "well, I've confirmed it. She does have breasts." Then I, having had the thrill of a lifetime, would go
home, sated. I was pretty much on target. But I acted like I enjoyed myself, for uncle Harris' benefit.
He poured me onto the PanAm flight to Saigon via Honolulu, Hawaii, Guam, Singapore, Wake Island. . .places I had only read about or seen in the movies or newsreels. I'd have an overnight in Hawaii, touchdowns on Guam, Wake Island and a few hours in Singapore.
In Hawaii I toured Hickham Field where the Zeroes had beaten up the place on Pearl Harbor Day. I saw the pock marks on the walls of administrative building where Japanese machine gun bullets had strafed on that terrible day. I tried to imagine what it must have been like. . but I couldn't. It was
too beautiful of a day.
I got roaring drunk that night. Don't remember where, I think it was on base. I remember getting up the next morning, taking a walk, noting the beautiful ocean, the soft summer grass, the lovely palm and banana trees, the pleasantly warm, moist air, the lovely scent of flowers. And then I threw up. Right on the soft, summer grass. I laid down on a picnic bench and honestly thought I was going to die. "Never again," I promised. A familiar promise made by many folks who have had too much to drink.
Somehow I survived and managed to board my plane on time for what seemed to be interminable flying hours in the most uncomfortable seats mankind had yet learned to make. Reasonably comfortable to sit in, but miserable for sleeping. And the hours droned on. I would occasionally visit the lounge and chat with other passengers. One guy flew this route every week, he
was a heavy equipment salesman and had Wake Island, Guam, Singapore on his sales route. Sounded exotic and exciting but he sure didn't look very exotic or exciting. Overweight, sweating, jaded looking. If I was casting a movie I'd cast him as an evil guy.
We touched down at Guam and Wake Island; hit Singapore about 3am. They tell me Singapore is a beautiful city and I'd love to go there today. At the time I was not enamored of Singapore. I was dead solid tired.
Finally, the next day, we arrive in Saigon at Ton Sohn Nut Airport. We made a steep, angled descent. I knew this was to avoid possible small arms fire from the ground. Viet Cong had been known to fire at incoming commercial air traffic. Not a comforting thought nor a very warm welcome to a new country.
I was met at the airport by a jeep and several Military Public Relations officers. As they drove out of Ton Sohn Nut and into the civilian sector I was struck the teeming crowds of people. Vendors stalls on both sides of the street selling all kinds of fruit, vegetables, everything imaginable. The officers gave me a fairly thorough briefing as we headed into downtown Saigon.
Saigon was a fairly large city, hot, humid, full of traffic. Cars, bicycles, lots of bicycles, motorcycles, lots of motorcycles, pedicabs. . god, were there lots of pedicabs.
You had to be careful in Saigon while going anywhere in a pedicab. Saigon toughs were known to quite often come along adjacent to a pedicab on their motorcycles, reach out and snatch your wrist watch or camera and zip off down Tudo Street with you being helpless to do anything about it.
You also had to watch where you were walking in Saigon; or anywhere else for that matter. I received my first cultural shock the first day that I landed in Saigon. We had arrived in downtown Saigon and on one of the median islands that occupy the center of many Saigon streets I saw an elderly lady stop, hike up her dress, squat and take a dump. Vietnamese men and women, when they feel the call of nature would just go. While you might step in dog doo-doo in Vietnam it was more likely you were stepping in human waste. After all, dogs are considered a delicacy in Vietnam.
I checked into the Park Hotel. Reasonably clean by Vietnamese standards. Had a ceiling fan, just like in the movies, and an air conditioner. I took a long shower, had a drink and went to sleep.
Next morning I went to MACV (Military Assistance Command, Vietnam) to get my American and Vietnamese Press Credentials, and to attend my first "in-country briefing".
I then went to work. Oh, yes. I was no longer a "big shot." No more VIP treatment. Now I was just another member of the working press. I had been given the assimilated rate/grade of a Lieutenant Colonel so I had officer's privileges. This was nice since I had only attained the rank of SP4 when I defended Brooke
Army Hospital in San Antonio, Texas, from all the invaders that threatened the United States from 1957 to 1959.
My first night as a working journalist in Vietnam was a beaut. I had decided that I wanted to do a story on the Military Police and the tours of Saigon. I had been warned by more than one journalist to "stay the hell out of Cholon" (the Chinese section of Saigon). It was a very dangerous place. Naturally, the first place our jeep went was to. . .you guessed it, Cholon.
They had given me a flak jacket to wear. They seemed an amiable group. Later on they let me in on a little secret. On the back of the flak jacket there was a message. . ."Happiness is a Warm xxxxx". I had my photo taken with it but seldom was able to show it at Rotary or Kiwanis meetings to whom I would speak upon my return to the States. "Wouldn't be prudent", as George Bush (the senior one) would say.
I wanted to do a story on the helicopters and their crews while in Vietnam so I headed up to a base outside a town known as An Khe.
An Khe was a busy place. A major base. During the day there was all kinds of traffic, jeeps, trucks, tanks. . .all churning up the red dust, non-stop. There were fixed wing aircraft and helicopters constantly churning through the sky both night and day.
This was one of the homes of the 1st Air Cav. For the most part the troops lived in "hooches"; military tents built within the confines of a fairly large hole in the ground with sandbags placed around the entire perimeter. There was a press tent where we had typewriters (laptap computers and word processors weren't around then), photo labs and tape (radio) editing facilities.
Being brand new in-country I remembered very carefully watching my step as I would cross a patch of bare land from one section of the base to another. I had read about punji sticks and land mines. (They are normally found out in the boonies. . not on board a military base. But I didn't know this then. I was green. . .and a little nervous).
The town of An Khe was called "Disneyland East". This was, I found, because the town was full of "Joy Girls." Prostitutes. I decided to do a story on the Joy Girls and Disneyland East and sought out the PIO, a Major, to secure transport into town.
"You wanna do what!? A story on Disneyland East? Whaddya want? You wanna get laid? I'll get you laid! Please. . .don't do that story. There are millions of stories throughout the country. You do a story on Disnelyand East and I'll have every mother and wife back in Vietnam writing letters to their congressman, all kinds of congressional inquiries and delegations, they'll shut the town down and there goes the troops home away from home. You want that!?"
I allowed as how I didn't want to get laid (though, upon reflection, I wonder who he had in mind, what she looked like, how much he would have paid her, would she have been an expert lover. . .but then, these are idle thoughts as everyone knows I am a chaste man), and no, I thought there might be other stories I could cover. . .but he owed me. Big time. I had occasion to call in a few markers from that Major.
That night I was in the press tent typing up stories on the days events. Suddenly, all hell broke loose. The lights went out. "What the. . .!," I started to mutter and then the sirens came on. Wailing sirens from all over the An Khe military base. "INCOMING!" someone yelled. "What's going on?!," I shouted. "Mortar attack! Get to the bunkers!," answered back some voice in the darkness. "Follow me!,” he shouted. There were flares being fired into the air outside and they gave off just enough light that I could find myself out of the tent. We started to run toward the bunker when it hit me. "My tape recorder, I left my damned tape recorder." I reversed field, ran back into the press tent, fumbled around till I found my tape recorder and headed back towards the bunker.
The NVA (North Vietnamese Army) were attacking An Khe. They were after the helicopter pad and its resting birds. The helicopter pad was only slightly beyond the bunker towards which I was heading. The NVA were lobbing in mortar rounds. They were "walking them in," dropping a mortar round; as it fell
short they would "walk" the mortar closer to the target by sending it on a trajectory that would bring it closer to the target. Each successive mortar round came closer and closer to the helicopter pad. I was running in that direction. I had to get to that bunker. The mortar rounds were heading toward the bunker, slowly walking in my direction and exploding. I was running toward the bunker, the rounds were headed for the bunker. Would I get there before the shrapnel?
I dived into the bunker and caught someone's knee in my ribs. At the time it didn't hurt but for three days my ribs were sore as hell. The explosions were getting closer and closer. We then heard shrapnel rip into the helicopters sitting just outside our bunker. We heard something landing on the roof of our bunker. We didn't know if it was dirt clods kicked up by the exploding mortar rounds or shrapnel. Nor did we care. We just hoped that there were enough sandbags between us and the mortar rounds.
The most dramatic radio broadcast ever I did from Vietnam happened this night. I was out of breath from running from the press tent to the bunker. I wanted to get what was happening on
tape. I turned on the tape recorder and, breathlessly, said. ."This is Lyle Davis (puff, puff) we are in a bunker in South Vietnam (puff, puff). We are undergoing a mortar attack." Almost as if on cue a mortar round then exploded. When we got back home we edited our various radio features into a half hour documentary. The above narrative was followed by the exploding mortar and then segueing into the music from "Victory at Sea." Dramatic as hell. I still love it to this day. I think the tape is probably in a storage box somewhere out in the garage. Hopefully it is not too brittle to play one more time. The documentary, "Vietnam Diary, Parts I and II" was nominated for the Air Force Award for Journalism, and introduced at the Awards Nomination Ceremony by Bob Considine [for you younger folks
Considine was a very distinguished journalist]; didn't win but I felt honored to have had it nominated. And by Considine!]
A Vietcong foot/leg trap. A simple device, camoflauged with grass, the nails smeared with excrement, thus causing
infection to set in, and taking the trooper out of action as well as several other troopers as litter carriers, and tying up the medical team as well.
It is said that you don't have time to get scared when you are in a combat situation. It's true. Things happened so fast that, while you are logically aware that danger exists, your adrenaline is flowing so quickly and you are responding so quickly that you just aren't afraid. The troops in the bunker were talking. . ."those sumbitches are after our birds all
right, look at 'em walk those suckers in!"
"Listen to those xxxxxxx' sirens. Lookie at all them flares. . .like a xxxxxx' fourth of July out there".
"Had me a xxxxxx' full house when those slopes hit".
I observed that "xxxx" was the operative word whenever someone wanted to carry on a meaningful conversation. One did not go to the latrine he would "got to the xxxxxx' latrine." Somehow a latrine did not impress me as a particularly romantic place but then I was a civilian. I take that back. I was not a civilian. I was a "xxxxxx' civilian". Which is a pretty good civilian to be, I guess.
Above, a Loach (Light Observation Helicopter), below, a Huey helicopter, the workhorse of Vietnam
As our outgoing fire slowed and the incoming fire disappeared the sirens continued to howl, as a precautionary measure, I imagine. The base would still be on full alert until the danger was past. Several of us cautiously left the bunker to survey the scene. One of those in my group proceeded to describe all that was happening. Clearly, he knew his stuff.
He pointed out where the NVA had hidden, where they had laid
down their lines of fire, how our people had zeroed in on their location and returned fire and how, by the time our rounds landed on target, the NVA had already moved to a secondary location.
We watched as an ambulance sped up adjacent to one of the helicopters. There had been a jeep close by that had taken a hit. At least one of the passengers had been badly wounded. We could hear his cries and the medics trying to calm him down. In time, the sirens shut down and we all went to bed. Sleep was a long time coming though. . .the adrenaline rush kept us all on full alert until well past the time danger had left the area.
The next morning we wandered over to the helicopter pad. We could see where the shrapnel had exploded and sent shards of shrapnel through the plexiglass windows of several of the birds.
No major damage, though. All the aircraft were airworthy. The plexiglass would be sorted out in no time.
There was blood on the tarmac where the jeep had been. We heard there was one killed and another guy lost his leg at the knee. We never were able to confirm it. Too much to do and it was only one small story in Vietnam. A young kid loses his life, another loses his leg and no one writes a story about it.
The war went on. And so did I.
There are other stories from Vietnam that Mr. Davis wrote about. They will be featured in future editions of The Paper. His journeys and stories ‘in-country’ included the hot spots of Pleiku, DaNang, Mekong Delta, Cam Ranh Bay, and other areas of war and adventure.