THE STORY IS OUT
Tony Duarte nods his head and smiles when I ask him if he got any flack when my article came out in Time with his name. “It was fine,” he says. “Didn’t bother me.”
We’re at a small café in Saigon, having coffee and a smoke. We’re sitting at one of those metal tables that wobble and squeak every time you move. We’re an odd-looking pair, Tony in his fatigues and green beret, me in my casual shirt and trousers. Also, he’s a head taller than me, but it doesn’t seem to be as obvious when we’re seated.
After trudging through jungles on military operations together—four so far—we’ve become good friends. I admire him immensely, his bravery and his sense of purpose. Tony served in Korea where he got a Silver Star for gallantry. I think of him as Tiger-Tony. He has a quality about him, tough, but also gentle and sensitive. I’ve never seen him act with arbitrary anger against anyone.
We start talking about the Special Forces—they’re called the “Green Berets”—how they operate, who the guys are, their commitment to their country. One of the guys that was with us—Mike Bradford—is 44 and is supposed to retire, but he doesn’t want to leave the force and he’s working out how he can stay on in Vietnam. I remember Mike from our night venture a couple weeks ago. He doesn’t say a lot but when he does, his voice is surprisingly deep and resonant, like an opera singer’s voice.
“You know my boss at Time told me that Vietnam is ‘not an American problem.’”
Tony shakes his head and sniggers. “That’s just blind and stupid,” he says, “America is in here deep. As we speak, the U.S. is upping its aid—in a big way, really big. There’s a shipment coming soon, a whole mess of military supplies from the U.S. of A. I hear it’s something like we’ve never seen before in these parts. Everything is hush-hush. But you might wanna check it out.”
“Really,” I say, and we talk about the details—where and when.
Then he adds, “I hope your stories don’t get you in a mess of trouble.” He tilts his chin up to blow smoke high into the air.
“Same for you,” I say.
Tony shrugs. “Don’t worry about it.”
Two days later, on Tony’s tip, I go out to the U.S. military base at Cam Ranh on the South China Sea. This isn’t exactly an assignment from Time or anyone else—just following my nose as a journalist.
A U.S. Marine stands guard but lets me in when I show my press pass. The Cam Ranh base is a large complex, with tin-colored buildings, landing fields, and piers for ships. Before I talk to anyone, I meander around. What I see suggests that what Tony told me must be true. Three large supply ships are docked along the piers, with men buzzing around them in droves. Huge wooden crates are everywhere—on the ground, dangling from the air, being transported across the ground.
I go up to one of the men, an American in army fatigues. I show him my journalist badge and ask, “What is all this?”
“Look,” he says, “I just do what they say. You go ask someone at Headquarters over there.” And he gestures with his head to the largest of the tin buildings.
So, I go there, walk up to the first desk, and say, “I’m with Time Magazine. I’d like to talk with the base commander, please.”
“Wait there,” he grunts and points to a hard bench over on the side of the room.
An hour goes by. I go up to the desk again. “When can I speak to the base commander?”
“He’s not available at the moment. You can wait if you like.”
And so I wait. All afternoon. But the base commander never comes out. At five in the evening, when they dim the lights, I leave.
But I’m back the next morning, sitting on the same hard bench, waiting. I know there’s a story here. I know it. I just have to be patient.
Finally, I get to speak to somebody. His name is Frank O’Sullivan—he’s not the base commander but he’s a sub-sub-lieutenant or something. And it turns out, he’s a frank sort of guy. “We’re helping out the Vietnamese—helping them fight the communists here,” he says. He gives me details, lots of details. He just says, “Don’t use my name, please.” And I promise—I will just say “according to military sources…”
I write up the story. I don’t send it to Time—I don’t trust them to get it right. This is important news for Americans to hear, and I’m afraid the ultra-conservative Time editors would bury the story. I send my article about the large mass of in-coming U.S. military aid to Vietnam to The New York Times.
By the next day, I get a cable—my story will be published on the front page of The New York Times. I’ve scooped the world! Now, because of my words, Americans will know the truth—that the US is getting deeply involved in the fighting in Vietnam.
MAAG—the Military Assistance Advisory Group—calls me on the carpet. I’m in the office of an Air Force colonel at MAAG headquarters in Saigon. He’s sitting at his oversized green metal desk with The New York Times spread out in front of him, and he’s tapping the paper with his forefinger so hard he makes holes in the newsprint. His face red with rage, he shouts at me, “Where did you get this info? Did you just make it up? How dare you write this stuff! You must be a commie.”
I’d like to kick the bastard in the teeth. But I just nod and say, “I’m a journalist and a loyal American.”
Anyway, the story is out, and it’s true. At first, MAAG denies everything. Then, just one day later, they confirm it, all the details.
For a follow-up story, I go out to the airbase at Bien Hoa and begin shooting pictures, both stills and film. ABC-TV hires me to do a report. This is my first time on television. It’s actually a voice-over—the viewers hear my voice as they watch the film I shot. Speaking into my small microphone, I have a sense that my voice and my words are going out to the wide world, telling the truth, making an impact. It’s an amazing feeling.
Then the ARVN, a unit of the Vietnamese military, arrests me. This happens shortly after my ABC-TV report. They bang on the door of my apartment on Rue Thi Sau. They rudely grab my arms, throw me into a jeep, and drive me to a Vietnamese army base just outside Saigon. A lieutenant with a pock-marked face bellows at me, in pidgin French, “I hear you a trouble-maker.”
“Je sui un journaliste,” I say. But my hands are shaking, and my stomach is flip-flopping almost as if I’d ingested something toxic. My Vietnamese friends have been arrested in this country—they’ve been beaten and tortured. What will they do to me?
The pock-marked lieutenant grunts, grabs my camera and yanks out the film. One of his buddies leads me to a small wooden chair in a corner of the station. Suddenly I’m angry—oddly not afraid—but shaking with fury, as I sit on the hard chair for two hours. Then this same lieutenant nods to me and says, “You go now.” I have to find my own way back home.
Now I have three secret service police tailing me. They’re pretty obvious—Vietnamese men in plain clothes who wait outside my apartment or wherever I happen to be. But I often lose them. They’re not very good at their own game. It’s like the theater of the absurd—sometimes funny, often irritating and also unnerving. I’m always looking over my shoulder as I walk down the street.
I hear from a friend that the Vietnamese government wants to boot me out of the country, declare me persona non grata. But, thus far, they haven’t found a graceful way of doing this.