The Vietnam War lasted 15 years, and George Esper covered it for 10. Writing daily for the Associated Press, Esper penned more words on the war than any other journalist. In 42 years at AP, he covered wars across the globe, but for him Vietnam was the biggest story of his life.
Esper set a high bar for those of us who would follow him into the bloody paddies and jungles. And he did it with a combination of persistence, aggressiveness, quiet dignity and professionalism.
I would often drop by the AP bureau in Saigon just to watch Esper work the phones
George Esper was a damn good journalist, a damn good friend.
In these days when the watchdogs of journalism don’t bark much, we appreciate Esper’s brand of reporting. He saw himself as a guardian of the people’s right to know. He was from that special school of journalism that admonished, “If your mother says she loves you, check it out.”
“You don’t want to be obnoxious and you don’t want to stalk people, but I think persistence in covering news pays off,” Esper said in a 2000 interview. So when he was assigned to write a story on the 20th anniversary of the Kent State shootings of four students and could find no phone number for the mother of one of the students killed, he drove through a snowstorm for an hour to knock on her door.
“She just kind of waved me off, and said, ‘We’re not giving any interviews,’” Esper recalled. “I didn’t really push her. On the other hand, I didn’t leave. I just stood there, wet with snow, dripping and cold, and I think she took pity on me.” And, like so many others over the years, she opened her heart to Esper.
In Vietnam, Esper applied his tenacity to working the ancient and frustrating telephone network, a talent that would make him a legend in the press corps. As a freelance photographer in 1965, I would often drop by the AP bureau in Saigon just to watch “the telephone man” at work. “Tiger, Tiger, get me Red Dog, Red Dog,” he would shout as if he were a four star general. Once, when a U.S. firebase was under pressure, he managed to get through on a military line to an officer in the midst of combat.
“I can’t talk now,” the officer yelled into the phone. “We’re under attack!”
Esper found his best stories through grit and guile. In 1972 he landed an exclusive interview with a B-52 pilot facing court-martial for refusing to fly missions over North Vietnam. He tracked him to Thailand, and the pilot gave Esper his story, including the fact that he had been officially muzzled. Esper reported that too.
The U.S. Military Assistance Command, Vietnam (MACV) regarded Esper with wariness, respect and even affection. At the daily news briefings we called the “Five O’Clock Follies,” his questioning was often unremitting: “Why don’t you know? You should know. I know you must know.” One retired public affairs officer included Esper in a wall montage of “all the commanders I served under.”
Esper wrote his most memorable Vietnam story as the AP bureau chief on April 30, 1975, the day Saigon fell to the North Vietnamese. Esper, reporter Peter Arnett and photographer Matt Franjola were three American AP staffers who refused to join the frantic evacuation as the North Vietnamese army closed in. It wasn’t long before two North Vietnamese soldiers walked into the AP office. Esper offered them Cokes and stale cake—and he interviewed them. “They showed me photographs of their wives and children,” Esper recalled. “Vietnamese, South and North, Americans, we’re all the same, it seems. That’s how the war ended for me.” Hours later, AP communications were cut, but not before the story got out and landed on the front page of The New York Times.
“I was able to put my feelings aside and do my reporting,” Esper later said of his experience in the war. “But even now it haunts me, and I feel a sense of loss and mourning. What a pity all those people died. I didn’t feel sorrow and pain at the time, but I really feel it now.”
On his return to the United States, Esper became an AP special correspondent in Boston. He worked major world stories, including the Jonestown massacre in Guyana and the 1991 Gulf War. In 1993 Esper returned to Vietnam to open AP’s first postwar bureau in Hanoi and was bureau chief for over a year.
Esper retired from AP in 2000 and became a professor of journalism at his alma mater, West Virginia University. Failing health forced him to retire in 2011, but his attitude, mental agility and good humor never wavered.
It may take more courage to be an old and sick man nearing the end of life, than a young man facing death in a Vietnam jungle. In a nursing home in the summer of 2011, Esper was worried he would be stuck there with elderly people who had lost their minds and wandered aimlessly. But, sympathetic and diligent as ever, Esper tried to interview everyone there and learn each patient’s story. One morning a nurse was routinely checking his status and asked, “Sir, I need to know your name, age and where you are.” George replied in a mock-serious tone, “My name is George Esper, I am 78 years old and I am in Hell.”
Born in 1932 in Uniontown, Pa., a coal-mining and steel-making town in the Appalachian Mountains, Esper’s family ran a tavern near the railroad tracks, and George helped tending bar.
How a Lebanese immigrant’s son grew up in a small town to become a world-class war reporter is the subject of a documentary about Esper, produced by one of his WVU students and finished just a week before his death. Elaine McMillion used reporting techniques taught to her by Esper, to open his own innermost secrets. Tales of an AP Journalist is a compelling story of his life from Uniontown through the world’s conflicts and back. “When I was growing up in Uniontown, there was a lot of prejudice against Leban-ese immigrants,” Esper explained in the documentary. “People called us ‘camel drivers.’ Girls didn’t want to go out with you. I was rejected so many times, it kind of adds up. I dealt with it by saying they will someday regret that they shunned me.”
More scar tissue was added in his freshman year at WVU: “I turned out for the football team but, at 120 pounds, only lasted one day. Afterwards the coach came over in the locker room. I was in tears. He said: ‘George, everybody likes you, but you’re going to get hurt. Why don’t you be the team’s student manager?’ So I started and was writing press releases for the team, sending them to newspapers, and soon I got a job as a sports writer for the Uniontown Morning Herald.” That led to an AP job in Pittsburgh.
On February 9 Esper was laid to rest at Uniontown’s St. George Maronite Catholic Church. Nobody suggested George Esper was a saint, but in his homily, Father Nadim Helou said: “I am sure George is numbered among the righteous and the just. His time spent in Vietnam made him a peacemaker who tried to pass on these virtues to family and in his teaching.”
Making the priest’s point, AP Executive Editor Kathleen Carroll said, “Hundreds of journalists learned from him in the field or in the classroom and his words and his spirit inspire them every day.” And Chris Martin, a West Virginia University vice president and former dean of the WVU School of Journalism, where Esper had both studied and taught, noted, “George was a celebrity who made everyone he met feel like a star. It made him a great reporter but an even greater human being.”
Richard Pyle, an AP Saigon colleague quipped, “In Saigon we used to say that we should sell tickets to watch George Esper make phone calls. I’m half expecting my phone to ring any minute now.”
Don North was a freelance photographer and later staff war correspondent for ABC and NBC in Vietnam for more than four years. He is a frequent contributor to Vietnam and VietnamMag.com.