Long after the war, the AP’s George Esper and Pulitzer Prize–winning photographer Nick Ut turned up to get another scoop in Vietnam.
Vietnam’s June 2012 issue, with its remembrance of George Esper and story behind Nick Ut’s 1972“Napalm Girl” photograph, sparked a poignant memory for me. In September 1988, the United States conducted the first in a series of joint recoveries at crash and battle sites in Indochina. As deputy commander of the Joint Casualty Resolution Center (JCRC), I was in Hanoi with three small teams of Graves Registration soldiers and linguists plus two physical anthropologists to establish a liaison with Hanoi military forensic specialists and coordinate all facets of the 10-day operation.
This was sensitive for Americans and Vietnamese alike, and the culmination of years of work by the JCRC, the Central Identification Laboratory, Hawaii, and a dedicated group of Defense Intelligence Agency analysts. The former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff General John Vessey, President Ronald Reagan’s special emissary for POW/MIA affairs, had negotiated with the Vietnamese government to make the mission possible. As the issue was highly politicized, the National Security Council, which had overall control of the operations, told us to avoid reporters.
After making arrangements for the teams to travel to their investigation sites, I was summoned to the courtyard of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs guesthouse in Hanoi to meet with Nguyen Can of the Vietnamese Office of Seeking Missing Persons, a clever and urbane diplomat, and two reporters.
I felt a sense of foreboding when Can introduced me to George Esper and Nick Ut, who were seeking to accompany one of the teams to the Hue/Phu Bai area and report on its activities. I’d never met them, but I knew their reputations as serious journalists.
Following my instructions, I stated all the reasons we could not allow them to accompany the team on this first mission, including political and family sensitivity and any other reason I could think of—except the fact that our NSC “minder” had instructed me to “stiff-arm” the press.
In response, Esper turned to Can and asked,“What’s the position of the Vietnamese side on this matter, Mr. Can?”
Can replied,“Vietnam is a free country and we have no objections, but clearly we have to honor the U.S. side’s wishes.”
Esper and Ut turned back to me. “It’s going to get reported one way or the other, colonel,” Esper said with a grin. I noticed he had a small tape recorder running under his notebook.
Finally, I agreed—providing they didn’t attempt to link up with the team in the former I Corps region—to let them accompany Can, me and an anthropologist on a case we had decided to investigate near Hanoi at Son Tay, scene of the daring POW raid in November 1970.
Later, I called Hawaii to report the news. My boss replied through the static-filled connection, “I understand, but I think you’re going to be fired when you get back.”
The next day, Esper and Ut and a camera crew covered our investigation, including witness interviews and the examination of and attempt to excavate the crash site.
When we got back to Hawaii after the operation, we were able to watch a tape of the coverage of our mission as it had aired on the major U.S. television news networks. The reporting was balanced and accurate about these first formative attempts by both nations to resolve the fates of Americans missing in Southeast Asia, the difficulties that time and terrain were going to impose, and the efforts both sides were making under difficult conditions. It was an objective report that set the stage for more expansive and many ultimately successful operations that returned and identified remains of many missing Americans.
My “firing” turned into a severe dressing down from a White House official, with instructions to follow orders next time. I went on to spend the next decade working as Secretary of Defense Dick Cheney’s principal adviser on POW/MIA affairs and then on the creation of the Joint POW/MIA Accounting Command. My final assignment was commander,Central Identification Laboratory,Hawaii.
Esper and Ut were intent on getting their scoop in Hanoi in 1988, and their reporting, rather than impede our recovery operations, actually helped to develop trust between the former enemies and to raise awareness about our efforts. They were honest, objective—and tenacious—newsmen and a credit to their profession. George Esper will be sorely missed. Today’s news correspondents and war photographers could learn a great deal from pros like them.
Originally published in the October 2012 issue of Vietnam Magazine. To subscribe, click here.