I stumble a bit, me, the former Math major, when I try and do the 'math.' Last fall was fifty years: I arrived in Vietnam in October 1970 following a two year stint freelancing for TIME in DC and Miami bureaus. Frankly, I never thought I would be the one writing about something 'fifty years ago...." but here we are. I found the assignment work in Miami was rather thin after TIME closed the bureau and moved the reporter (the wonderfully irrascible Joe Kane) to that new bastion of Southern politics and energy, Atlanta. Over the summer of ’70 I'd stayed for a few weeks in John Olson’s (https://www.life.com/photographer/john-olson/) Chelsea apartment while he went back to Saigon to work on a LIFE story about a soldier's return to civilian life after a year in the bush. When John came back to NY in July of that summer, he said that there was still a lot of freelance work in Vietnam, that it might be worth my pursuing - and in any case would be more interesting than languishing in Miami. I was by that time quite ‘over’ Miami, and those long hot weeks of little work, and steamy hot sunbaked cars, so I bought a one-way ticket from Salt Lake City to Saigon (I left my car with my brother in DC, where it was stolen a month later and never found.) My first time in Asia, I bought 4 Nikomats ($85 each) while passing through Tokyo, had my first authentic Chinese dumplings, in Hong Kong, and landed in Saigon in early October, with two hundred rolls of film, and a $500 'guarantee' (a basic "sum" to be used to support a story, different from the other concept of 'day rate' where you were hired by the day) from John Durniak at TIME, a gift really. John could be a tough and demanding editor, but he could be terribly kind if he thought one little step would help you on your way. And though it eventually led to his undoing, he was a man who had more ideas in an hour than most editors, certainly photo editors, had in a lifetime. (He blew through his annual freelance budget at the NYTimes in one January week, when he assigned photographers to cover every one of the newly liberated Iran hostages in 1981, the week they were freed. But boy, did that guy have ideas.)
When I told John I was heading to Vietnam, he said to me… “do a story for me - call it Children of War…” I paused, then bagan to ask, “John, what do you want me to do… ?” and before I could finish the sentence, he said “No, no! You tell ME the Story. YOU’re the journalist, your pictures should show ME the story.” Over the decades since, I have been immensely glad for that teaching moment.
John had sent a note to the Saigon bureau telling them that I was coming, and like most distant enclaves - especially in the pre-Instant communication era - they were rather defensive of their established team, and in the beginning only begrudgingly welcoming to me. They couldn’t understand why TIME would send someone all the way to Saigon to do a story on "children of war" which half a dozen of the regulars could easily have handled. They didn’t understand that John’s assignment for me was to basically help me cover my airfare just to get there, and that I was coming on my own, not being sent. (I paid $512 for a one way, with stops in Tokyo and Hong Kong.) John Saar, the LIFE correspondent, a loquacious and witty Brit with a very enterprizing side, ran into me on day One as I was trying to introduce myself at the Time office (Room 5 at the Continental Palace hotel) and mentioned that Larry Burrows was leaving the next day, probably just in his room across the square at the Caravelle, and why don’t I go say hi. I was of course a bit reticent about just knocking sight unseen on Larry’s door, but when it opened, there was a big broad smile, and within a few seconds he’d poured me a scotch. We sat for an hour, Larry half-reclining on his bed, surrounded by a half dozen giant, gaping Halliburtons, talking about LIFE, his stories, and what it was like working "in country." I was quite amazed how, as we talked about past pictures of his that I remembered, that he spoke of them by the title that LIFE had given them in the layout. One in particular “The Degree of Disillusion” had a few pictures I remembered well, but I recall thinking that I was so inept as a journalist that I’d never given any of my TIME stories a real title. Larry was sincere, unsparing of criticisms of the difficulty of his own work (he was there finishing a story about a young Vietnamese boy, a casualty of the war, who was returning to his village with newly done leg braces and crutches, things which worked all right in a hospital but were less useful in a small village with unpaved paths. He was incredibly generous of his time to a newbie such as myself. I have always tried to remember to carry that forward, when I meet someone just starting out with dreams perhaps greater than their talent.
Larry left the next day, and for a month, I settled into my sparse, abjectly colonial room in the Continental Palace Annex (so sparse that capitalizing the "A" in Annex is certainly overkill) , a charm-free building across TuDo street from the real deal. It was a big spacious room, but with lights and and a fan dating to many previous regimes, and a small squadron of geckos who cavorted unhindered on the walls with all the precision of the Stanford Marching Band. I left the US with maybe a thousand bucks. Maybe. I was paying about four bucks a night to stay there, though I’d been given a recommendation to try the nearby Hotel Royale, run by the kindly Corsican, Monsieur Ottavi, who had played host to the likes of Horst Faas, Peter Arnett and dozens of others of the more adventurous ilk. A room at the Royale was about three bucks a night, and each morning that first month that I woke, the chintzy skin flint in me ached with the knowledge that I had spent a perfectly useful dollar so frivolously . I did move after a month, and lucky for me I did, for it was at the Royale that I met and became friends with the man who would inadvertently mentor me, the man for whom merely being in his presence would teach you more about how to be a photographer than any school could.
He was Phillip Jones Griffiths, a Welsh photographer working through Magnum, who was in his 4th or 5th year of covering Vietnam, and who within a year or so would finally produce his incredible photographic book, “Vietnam Inc.” Phillip was someone who enjoyed palavering, and he was pretty good about dealing with the company of tyros such as myself. At a small Chinese cafe on TuDo we more than once joined any of a half dozen other aspirants, Phillip always ordering beef with ginger. Sometime after I’d been in country for a month or so, and still trying to work out which orphanage to visit, and which hospital to survey, Phillip unloaded on me, in a way I’ll never forget. “Being a photographer in Vietnam has nothing to do with doing some silly story for TIME or Newsweek. It’s about getting into the life of the country." [there was a pause you could drive a truck through, here, for added emphasis on what was to follow:] "You should fill your rucksack with fifty rolls of film, take a plane to Danang, and don’t come back to Saigon till you’ve shot it all.”
It was probably the best advice I ever got. I spent much of that winter (well… a South Vietnamese winter…) working on the story, shooting for a few other publications - USNews, and with Gloria Emerson for the New York Times. But most of my time was spent on the road trying to run down pictures of the lives of South Vietnamese children whose lives had been in jeopardy because of the war. In January of 1971, it began to look like something was brewing in I Corps (the northern most tier of South Vietnam). Phillip was leaving for London, and it looked as though nothing, even a big invasion story, would keep him in Saigon. But one afternoon he said “I think Larry’s back in town. I saw a 707 coming in to Tan Son Nhut looking like this…” and he held his hand up at a 45 degree angle, intimating that Larry’s equipment (he was famous for always traveling with strobes, a 4x5, a medium format outfit, as well as 35mm) had once again pulled the tail-end of a jet much closer to the ground than the nose. Philip left for London, bequeathing me his AM/FM/Cassette player, as journalistic gravity began pulling the press corps to the north of the country.
I saw Larry a few times in Saigon before we all found ourselves near Quang Tri, much further north, awaiting for what would turn out to be the Lam Son 719 invasion of Laos, an attempt by the US and ARVN troops to try and cut the Ho Chi Minh trail, slowing the arrival of men and materiel heading from the North into the South. The first night, near the Laotian border, there was a big encampment of ARVN troops, getting ready to bivouac for the night, and head into Laos the next day. Just at dusk, with a background of the soft muffled sounds of people getting ready to settle in for the night, a horrific series of explosions ripped an area just a hundred yards or so, from me. An American Navy fighter had accidently dropped a late-hanging cluster bomb on this concentration of ARVN troops, the definition of 'friendly fire,' as it was leaving the area. I huddled in fear from my first experience with aerial bombs, jumping into a cavernous shell hole with another newbie. I looked up, into his frightened face, mirroring my own, I'm sure, and said "Is this your first?" He nodded yes, and from that moment, George Lewis of NBC and I were friends. Looking up and across the clearing, I saw a figure rise up and run towards the terrible cries of pain and anguish, not away from them. It was Larry, shooting what turned out to be his last set of published pictures in the fading light. I'd already thought, how can anyone shoot a picture, let alone color, in this almost non existent light. But Larry was a master of his gear, and those pictures would end up in LIFE the following week. I ended up spending the night in the same crater I'd met George, sharing it with a few ARVN soldiers, and was pissed the next morning that one of them had swiped my brand new, and virtually unused, Buck survival knife.
The next day, as dozens of APC’s ran the up the Route 9 dirt road into Laos, many of us, trying unsuccessfully to catch a ride across the border, stood near a sign erected for the purpose of reminding all Americans that their presence on the ground in Laos was not only not required, it was banned. We all signed our names on the warning sign, as if to make it more real.
photo: Roger Mattingly/Stars & Stripes
The next day, the press corps moved en masse in dusty trucks back to Khe Sanh, the former Marine base which had become a household word in the spring of 1968, where we hoped to find a chopper ride into Laos. For the first time in several years, American helicopters wouldn’t just routinely let you ride with them (if they had space.) The word had come down, no doubt from Kissinger and Nixon in the Oval Office, to keep the press at bay. No one seemed to be going anywhere, and the following night I was camped in a press tent at Khe Sanh, when there was a sapper attack, North Vietnamese troops getting through the wire, tossing explosives, destroying helicopters, and causing some number of casualties before being killed themselves. I ‘d gone back to Quang Tri to ship that film to Saigon, and the next morning managed a chopper ride back to Khe Sanh, arriving after nearly everyone else, where I would start again trying to talk my way into Laos. That's where the story was, and those were the pictures we somehow knew must exist.
It was the era of that Nixonian phrase “Vietnamization” and as the ARVN were taking more charge of things, a different kind of order and approach was needed. The ARVN had a lot of helicopters and guns, but the pilots weren’t always the most well trained or experienced. I wandered around the chopper pad, looking for the Press officer in charge, a very starched, very 'in charge,' Vietnamese Major. Gathered there were several of the first wave, the people who were always the very first to land somewhere and make their pictures. Larry was amongst them of course, as were Henri Huet, the Franco-VN photographer with AP, Kent Potter of UPI (sitting on the left with the boonie hat in the "No US Personnel" picture) Keisaburo Shimamoto, a Japanese freelancer working for Newsweek, and Tu Vu, a young Vietnamese Army photographer.
Also in the mix was LIFE stringer Hal Ellithorpe, a writer who often went with Larry to make sure to get all the names spelled right in the captions. (This was still the era of writers serving as, essentially, note takers for photographers. Where the hell did THAT idea disappear to?)
The Major in charge then started boarding the ARVN "Press" chopper with that small group, and I tried coaxing him into including me in the mix. I did, after all, represent TIME Magazine. He didn’t want to be bothered, least of all by me, and brusquely told me to come back later (in modern parlance I think he was telling me to Fuck Off, which is more or less what I was telling him as well.) I remember that feeling of being the one guy who didn't get to go, the one guy whose editors would drill a new asshole for not being competitive, the one guy who didn't make a picture of the biggest story in months. I was still trying to make a good impression after 4 months "in country," in a town filled with smart and capable war photographers. After all, you could only get by so long with 'not quite artsy enough' pictures of rows of helicopters, loading up troops to head west.
The turbines of the Press chopper started whining, and with it, my understanding of how screwed I was - the lone magazine guy standing by watching, instead of being on board. Those aboard got strapped into the chopper just as TIME’s bureau chief Jon Larsen came up to me and said, wisely, that maybe I should just get the hell out of there for while, and cool down, “… otherwise you’ll never get to Laos.” As I walked away I had a very clear view of that first wave of photographers, my envy no doubt getting the better of me, getting ready to make some important pictures of this very news-worthy invasion. I remember all the noise - Huey helicopters could be very noisy, and several of them could be extremely noisy. But for the moment as the choppers became gently shrouded in their own dust, I could only think of how I’d been skunked, that TIME was the only major mag not on that chopper, and that I was supposed to be THAT guy. I was pretty down for a few minutes.
I wandered around the base camp for a while, trying to photograph groups of ARVN soldiers and Marines, and after an hour or so, ran into John Saar again, the LIFE reporter, who had just arrived from Quang Tri. I told him that Hal and Larry had taken off in the helicopter and were probably in Laos by now, shooting pictures. We made our way eventually back to the ARVN TOC, (the Operations Center ) where the 'press' Major worked. A moment later that same Major came out through the door, stood hesitantly for a moment and then said “I think maybe your friends shoot down, Laos.” And with no other explanation, he turned and walked back inside. John and I were panicked to hear this but we weren’t allowed inside the TOC and stood waiting for a few minutes to see if he would return. Then I looked up and saw Hal Ellithorpe, the LIFE stringer, walking towards us from maybe 50 yards away. I breathed a sigh, and said to John, “ well, it can’t be Larry’s chopper, because Hal was on it, and there he is.”
As Hal approached I waved at him, and said “Boy, am I glad to see you. The Major just said he thought the photographer’s helicopter was shot down, but” — looking at him “obviously not.”
“No,” he said. “I wasn’t on the chopper. We did a hover test, the pilot said it was too heavy, and Larry looked at me and said 'we’re a picture magazine, you can come later.' I never left.”
At that moment I realized something awful, in the middle of a war, had happened. Several people I knew, on a helicopter that I had tried my damnedest to board, were now missing. We waited without much more information for an hour, then I walked off and tried to belay my angst by shooting some pictures. Late in the afternoon I caught a ride back to Quang Tri, where the press center was, and shall remember for the rest of my life, the look on BBC’s Brian Barron’s face when I walked in at dusk, near the end of the briefing, and Brian turned to me and whispered, “ have you heard, Larry Burrows was shot down over Laos.” In a world of so many chances, and in war where you never really knew what was coming next, that news just stopped me cold. I’d been with them all the previous few days, and it seemed like an impossibility that they might have all so quickly perished.
It was years before recovery crews were able to gain access to the area where the helicopter crashed. (AP reporter Richard Pyle and photographer Horst Faas wrote a powerful book about their many years long attempts to recover the bodies… “Lost Over Laos….” well worth a read.) Amidst the remains the only convincing bit of evidence was a piece of a Leica camera, traced back to one purchased by Larry years before, at a store in London, and a watch strap which was determined to have been Larry's. Those few remains, gathered decades after the crash, were the basis for the memorial for fallen correspondents at the Newseum in Washington DC. No doubt that missed ride has been something I have pondered my whole adult life, wondering what little favor fate threw me that day. I think I have tried to live up to the sense of mission which photoreporters undertake, to tell stories, and to do so with compassion, truth and always accompanied by a vague wonder of those talented photographers whose lives were cut short — “what would THEY do here today?” Each day you work as a photographer you face issues, some trivial, others more grave. And you never know what is going to be the moment of grand success or total failure. But it is that desire to tell the story, to reach out with the language that needs no words, which keeps us going.
Fifty years on.... David Burnett February, 2021