In 1999, the New York University Department of Journalism solicited nominations for the Top 100 Works of Journalism in the United States in the 20th century. The Vietnam War garnered four entries, including a 1965 “CBS Evening News” report by correspondent Morley Safer involving U.S. Marines in South Vietnam. This entry was nominated by New York University journalism professor and writer Mitchell Stephens, who described his submission as a “report for CBS on atrocities committed by American soldiers on the hamlet of Cam Ne in Vietnam.” In his book A History of News, Stephens claims, “The Marines, who faced no resistance, held cigarette lighters to the thatched roofs and proceeded to ‘waste’ Cam Ne.” The film and photos of Cam Ne were widely distributed and are among the most famous images of the Vietnam War. Did Professor Stephens get it right? This article investigates the incident at Cam Ne from the perspectives of both the media and the Marine Corps.
Why Were the Marines at Cam Ne?
After the August 1964 incident in the Gulf of Tonkin between North Vietnamese torpedo boats and U.S. Navy destroyers, President Lyndon B. Johnson ordered airstrikes against North Vietnamese military bases and storage areas. Those attacks were conducted by carrier-based aircraft of the U.S. Navy Seventh Fleet. At the same time, the U.S. Pacific Command activated the 9th Marine Expeditionary Brigade (MEB), making it a force in readiness, capable of landing as needed on short notice.
The beginning of 1965 was a period of political instability for the government of South Vietnam. Buddhists led anti-government riots in Saigon and Hue. In February, the Viet Cong launched a major attack on the U.S. military base at Pleiku in the Central Highlands. Again the United States launched retaliatory airstrikes against North Vietnam. In this round the United States would launch attacks from the air base at Da Nang to ensure the participation of the South Vietnamese air force. The possibility existed that North Vietnam might respond by launching air attacks against Da Nang. On February 7, the Marine Corps 1st Light Anti-aircraft Missile Battalion was ordered to protect the airfield there. More VC attacks led to more airstrikes against North Vietnam. On March 7, the Joint Chiefs of Staff ordered the 9th MEB, which had been off the coast of Da Nang, to come ashore to further protect the airfield. A new phase of the war had begun.
Initially, the Marine intervention was to be limited. The JCS landing order directed that the Marine force “will not, repeat will not, engage in day-to-day actions against the VC.” The role of the Marines was to protect the base. The area around Da Nang would be protected by the South Vietnamese armed forces. But the Marines’ mission was enlarged as the American troop buildup continued. By April they were patrolling into the densely populated area south of Da Nang. In July, an 85-man VC group reinforced by a 13-man North Vietnamese sapper unit launched a ground and mortar attack on the air base from the area to the south. This enemy force was armed with one 57mm recoilless rifle, four 82mm mortars, grenades and assorted demolition equipment. The base perimeter was penetrated at 0115 hours. Three aircraft were destroyed and three more were damaged. The VC quickly withdrew in the same direction from which they had launched their attack. Although no enemy was confirmed killed by the Marines, blood trails leading away from the airfield were found the following morning.
Marine commanders felt they could not adequately defend the air base if they were unable to patrol farther, and in July their tactical area of responsibility (TAOR) was expanded to include the region south of the Cau Do River, a few miles southwest of Da Nang. On July 12, elements of the 9th Marine Regiment moved into the area and quickly received fire from a VC force coming from the hamlet of Cam Ne 4 (numbered in order to identify it in the complex of six villages of the same name). The Marines pulled back and called for close air support. Marine patrols continued in the area around Cam Ne during July and into August. Almost daily contact was maintained with the village chief to obtain information on the civilian population. American intelligence considered Cam Ne a well-known VC stronghold and its residents long-time Communist sympathizers, dating back to the French occupation. On August 3, 1965, Lt. Col. Verle Ludwig, commanding officer of the 1st Battalion, 9th Marines, was ordered to “search out the VC and to destroy them, their positions, and fortifications.” One company commander involved in the operation instructed his men “to overcome and destroy” any position, including huts, from which they received fire. As the Marines moved into Cam Ne, the VC withdrew, refusing to fight.
Morley Safer and Cam Ne
The American news media accompanied U.S. forces to Vietnam in 1965. Thirty-three-year-old CBS correspondent Morley Safer, one of the first television newsmen to be permanently assigned to Vietnam, was sent to Da Nang. At the beginning of August, Safer was having coffee with some Marine officers in an attempt to get an idea of what sort of activity the Marines were engaged in. One lieutenant told him that an operation was planned for the very next morning, and invited the reporter to come along. On August 3, Safer joined the Marines headed for Cam Ne.
While en route to their objective, the lieutenant told Safer his force was going to level Cam Ne, “really tear it up.” When asked why, the officer said his men had taken a lot of fire from the village. Further, the Vietnamese province chief said he wanted it leveled. Another reporter, Richard Critchfield of the Washington Star, later told Safer the reason Cam Ne was leveled had nothing to do with the Viet Cong; rather, it was because the chief was furious with the residents of Cam Ne for refusing to pay their taxes. According to Critchfield, who was an expert on villages in Vietnam, the chief wanted the village punished. Safer was accompanied by a South Vietnamese cameraman, Ha Thuc Can, whose film of the controversial operation was narrated by Safer.
The report was filed on the spot, sent via telex from Da Nang to Saigon to New York. CBS realized that it had a powerful story as soon as it was read in the New York office. CBS News President Fred Friendly asked a staffer to confirm that Safer was sure of his facts. Safer confirmed the validity of the report. Friendly was nervous, aware of the enormous implications of broadcasting the film, as yet unseen by CBS officials. He called CBS President Frank Stanton to warn him about the upcoming broadcast. Next he called Pentagon public affairs official Arthur Sylvester, telling him to listen to the local CBS radio station. At that point the film itself had been transported by airplane from Vietnam to Los Angeles. A data line was leased to Los Angeles. Fred Friendly and Walter Cronkite in New York watched the film of U.S. Marines setting fire to Vietnamese dwellings, watched the burning of Cam Ne. They were shocked by the film images, but felt it was so important they could not fail to broadcast it. CBS called Safer again to ensure they had the proper context of the story. This was confirmed. The film was broadcast on CBS Evening News on August 5, 1965.
Reaction to the Cam Ne report was immediate and powerful. CBS was inundated with calls and letters critical of this negative portrayal of American military personnel. Early in the morning after the film was broadcast, Stanton was awakened by the telephone. “Frank, are you trying to f– me?” yelled a voice.
“Who is this?” asked the president of CBS.
“Frank, this is your president,” answered Lyndon Johnson, “and yesterday your boys shat on the American flag.”
That same morning newspapers across the nation featured an Associated Press photograph of a Marine setting fire to a hut with a cigarette lighter. The president ordered a background investigation on Safer, sure he was working for the Communists. No Communist affiliation was found. LBJ then ordered an investigation of the Marine officer in charge of the Cam Ne operation, certain that Safer must have bribed the Marine to burn Cam Ne. Nothing came of that, either. The Pentagon asked CBS to replace Safer as Vietnam correspondent. The Department of Defense began monitoring the evening television newscasts. Safer followed up his initial report with additional broadcasts critical of Marine operations in the area. The commander of the Marines in Vietnam, Maj. Gen. Lewis Walt, banned Safer from all of I Corps, the Marine Corps’ area of responsibility in South Vietnam, but the order was soon rescinded.
The film that accompanied Safer’s CBS report on Cam Ne showed a Marine, armed with a rifle, lighting a hut with his cigarette lighter. No opposition was evident. According to Safer’s report, the Marines were under orders to burn to the ground any hamlet from which they received even a single burst of sniper fire. The pleas of old men and women for the Marines to spare their houses were ignored. So were pleas from the villagers to delay while their possessions were removed. The houses and all their belongings were burned, as were all rice stores. The day’s operation netted four prisoners, all of whom were old men.
“It first appeared that the Marines had been sniped at before and that a few houses were made to pay,” Safer reported. “Shortly after, one officer told me he had orders to go in and level the string of hamlets that surrounded Cam Ne village. And all around the common paddy fields [camera focuses on a roof being lit by a flamethrower] a ring of fire. One hundred and fifty homes were leveled in retaliation for a burst of gunfire. In Vietnam, like everywhere else in Asia, property, a home, is everything. A man lives with his family on ancestral land. His parents are buried nearby….Today’s operation shows the frustration of Vietnam in miniature. There is little doubt that American firepower can win a military victory here. But to a Vietnamese peasant whose home means a lifetime of backbreaking labor, it will take more than presidential promises to convince him that we are on his side.”
In the days that followed, newspapers, television networks and wire services ran additional reports on the impact of Marine operations on South Vietnamese civilians in the Da Nang TAOR. In a subsequent report, Safer claimed: “These [civilians] are the people to whom the war is a curse. Intimidation and atrocity by the VC, and now to them, equal brutality by the government and its allies.” Safer interviewed Marines involved in the operation at Cam Ne. “You treat everyone like an enemy until he’s proven innocent,” one claimed. “That’s the only way you can do it….Yesterday we were in that village of Cam Nanh [sic], we burned all the houses, I guess.”
Asked if this burning was necessary, the Marine replied that it was, and that his company had done a good job. He said his was the only Marine company that was in Cam Ne that hadn’t had Marines killed, that they showed the civilians the Marines were done playing with them, and that the Marines had proved their point. Another Marine was quoted as saying that he had no remorse for the civilians because they were the enemy, that one couldn’t do his job and also have pity for the people.
Pulitzer Prize–winning author and journalist David Halberstam claims the Marines injured at Cam Ne had been wounded by friendly fire, not enemy fire. “All three wounded in the initial operation,” he said, “received wounds in the back caused by their own men. When the Marines occupied the village they reacted in anger and tore the place apart.” The Americans threw grenades and used flamethrowers in holes and tunnels where Vietnamese civilians were sheltering. Some were burned to death. At one point, cameraman Ha Thuc Can, the only one present who could speak both Vietnamese and English, saw Marines about to fire a flamethrower into a hole and began arguing with the infantrymen, pointing out there were women and children in the hiding place. The cameraman talked to the civilians, urging them to come out. Finally about a dozen people emerged. When Safer asked a Marine officer why no one in his group could speak Vietnamese, the lieutenant answered that he did not need anyone who could speak Vietnamese. Later, Pentagon official Arthur Sylvester tried to have Can fired, objecting to the use of a South Vietnamese cameraman by CBS.
The Marines’ Account
The men of Company D, 1st Battalion, 9th Marines, which conducted the mission at Cam Ne, gave a somewhat different account. Their goal was to clear the Cam Ne village complex. U.S. intelligence reported that Viet Cong local and main force troops were present in company strength. The attack began at 1000 hours on August 3, and the attacking force arrived in amphibious tractors (amtracs or LVTs). Three of the LVTs quickly became stuck in the mud. After dismounting from the armored tractors, the Marines took small-arms fire from a tree line to the southeast. Three platoons advanced across open rice paddies along a 1,000-foot front. One Marine was wounded during that stage of the attack. As the Marines pushed forward, the VC withdrew into the hamlets of Cam Ne.
According to the commanding officer of the units involved, Cam Ne had been fortified by the Viet Cong into something not unlike what the Marines had encountered in World War II. Caves, tunnels, fortified trench lines, spider holes and punji stakes were in evidence. Nearly impenetrable hedgerows ran around the perimeter of the village and between village structures. LVTs were used to breach and crush the hedgerows, setting off booby traps as they pushed into the village. The civilian population was uncooperative. Marines received heavy and concentrated small-arms fire, including from automatic weapons and probably one machine gun, from VC hiding in the village.
The Marines returned fire with small arms and 3.5-inch rockets. The impact of one of those rockets caused secondary explosions in the tree line from which fire was being received, indicating the presence of booby traps. That secondary explosion caused a further detonation of explosives from booby traps and mines located in hedgerows around the village. According to the commander’s report, heavy small-arms fire continued throughout the period the Marines were in the village (1000 until 1500). Reportedly most of the structures were burned by rocket fire directed toward hostile fire from the huts. Others were destroyed by flamethrower or grenade action used to neutralize VC positions.
One platoon leader, 2nd Lt. Ray G. Snyder, claimed Cam Ne was an “extensively entrenched and fortified hamlet.” The battalion commander noted that “in many instances burning was the only way to ensure that the house would not become an active military installation after the troops had moved on past it.” By midafternoon Company D had uncovered 267 punji stake traps and pits, six Malayan whip booby traps, three grenade booby traps, six anti-personnel mines and one multiple booby-trapped hedgerow. Fifty-one huts were demolished along with 38 trenches, tunnels and prepared positions. At that point, during midafternoon, it became evident that the Marines would not be able to complete their mission before darkness. Captain Herman West ordered his men to withdraw back to the Yen River. While leaving the village, the Marines received automatic-weapons and small-arms fire from VC who had resumed positions in a nearby tree line. The Marines called in artillery and mortar fire on the VC positions. The fire stopped and the Marines boarded their amphibious tractors. When they entered the Cau Do River, the Marines again came under enemy fire from the south bank. They returned fire and enemy fire ceased.
The Marines estimated the enemy force at Cam Ne at between 30 and 100 soldiers. When the VC withdrew they carried off their dead and wounded; no bodies were found, although estimated VC casualties were placed at seven. One 10-year-old Vietnamese boy was killed and four villagers were wounded, having been caught in a firefight between the Marines and VC. Total Marine casualties at Cam Ne were three killed in action and 27 wounded.
Marines had been in the Cam Ne village complex on July 12 and had taken casualties. The subsequent operation of August 3 was not envisioned to be a routine patrol. The Marines expected that Cam Ne would be occupied by VC soldiers, that it was mined and booby-trapped, and that the operation would be dangerous. Those factors governed their conduct. The action at Cam Ne included more than CBS showed during its news report of August 5. Marine commanders were resentful that this was not made clear during Safer’s report. “War is a stupid and brutalizing affair,” wrote the editors of the Marine Corps Gazette. “This type of war perhaps more than others. But this does not mean that those who are fighting it are either stupid or brutal. It does mean that the whole story should be told. Not just a part of it.”
Cam Ne’s Aftermath
The fact that senior American commanders in Vietnam considered Safer’s report to be both distorted and incomplete does not mean the U.S. military was unresponsive to it. The killing of civilians and the intentional destruction of village property was felt to be a serious political mistake in a war in which political success was an essential component of military victory. As one Vietnamese observer explained it, “The 10-year-old children who witnessed their village being burned are the ones who at 15 will take up rifles for the Viet Cong.” Morley Safer noted in an interview that subsequent to his report, several Marine officers told him his story kept things from getting worse, that it was the kind of reporting that kept them honest.
On August 9, another Marine unit operating near Cam Ne was taken under fire. Two men were killed and more than 20 were wounded. The Marines decided to secure the area once and for all. On August 18, the Marines returned to Cam Ne in force to complete the search for Viet Cong hideouts–but this time, the villagers were given full warning of the Marines’ arrival. In addition to searching Cam Ne, the Marines built shelters for the Vietnamese civilian homeless. The entire village was cleared with no difficulty; no casualties were taken by the Marines, and no VC were found in Cam Ne. By then, Marines had expended their TAOR from the Tien Sa Peninsula and the South China Sea in the east, to the Yen River west of Cam Ne.
During that period CBS made a continuing and conscious effort to present positive aspects of Marine Corps operations in the area in order to balance the initial Safer reports. General William Westmoreland, commander of U.S. forces in Vietnam, operating under pressure from the JCS in Washington, directed his staff to prepare a new set of guidelines governing the relationship between the U.S. military and civilian noncombatants. Those rules, published in September 1965, explicitly prohibited the indiscriminate destruction of populated areas. Whenever possible, units in the field were to use loudspeakers and aerial leaflet drops to warn villagers of upcoming air and ground assaults. South Vietnamese troops were to fight alongside Americans in order to assist in searching dwellings and communicate to the civilian population that the South Vietnamese government had endorsed the military operation.
Pentagon official Arthur Sylvester assigned various officers the task of drawing up plans to censor American reporters working in South Vietnam. Others were convinced that censorship would be both unwise and counterproductive. Eventually all plans to enforce field press censorship in South Vietnam were ended, and the Saigon press corps was allowed to report the war as it saw best.
Regular contributor Peter Brush, a Marine veteran who participated in the Battle of Khe Sanh, is a librarian at Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tenn. For additional reading, see: William M. Hammond’s Public Affairs: The Military and the Media, 1962-1968; and Jack Shulimson and Charles M. Johnson’s U.S. Marines in Vietnam: The Landing and the Buildup 1965.
For more great articles be sure to subscribe to Vietnam Magazine today!