Stringer Don North adjusts his new camera during the August 1965 fight for Duc Co. South Vietnamese losses were heavy, and North scored an exclusive with his film footage. (Photo: Don North)
Stringer Don North adjusts his new camera during the August 1965 fight for Duc Co. South Vietnamese losses were heavy, and North scored an exclusive with his film footage. (Photo: Don North)

“Try to look unimportant. Never draw fire – it irritates everyone around you. If you hear a shot, don’t get up and look around.”

Every journalist going to war should be required to take a slow boat. In May 1965, going from Hong Kong to Saigon, mine was the SS Messageries Maritimes Cambodge. For three days, as it rolled and pitched in choppy seas, I lay in my bunk and read three books, hoping to figure out what the hell I was getting myself into. All three were brilliant and wise on the war in Vietnam, and I wish I had been smart enough to take them much more seriously. As it was, they helped a naïve lad understand a little of what was in store. They would serve me well in Vietnam and in conflicts to come.

The first book was Bernard Fall’s Street Without Joy. A French-born scholar and a professor at Howard University in Washington, Fall was one of the few historians writing in English with firsthand knowledge of the French Indochina war. He documented the French military’s mistakes and the failures of their tacticians to recognize unconventional guerrilla war. He was a historian who worked like a journalist. He could have hung out with generals and ambassadors because his writings were well respected, but instead he chose to observe the war from the grunt’s point of view.

Fall’s 1961 book had excellent advice for American generals about to lead their men down the same path as the French, were they to read it and heed it. Years after the war, in conversation with General William Westmoreland at a Washington cocktail party, I asked him what he thought of Fall’s work. “Fine books,” replied Westy. “I have several of them in my library, but I never had time to read them.” I finally met Fall in 1967 on a rainy day in Dong Ha. The next day, on patrol with U.S. Marines near Quang Tri on Highway 1, the “street without joy” he’d written about, he stepped on a mine and was killed.

The second book I read on my voyage was neither history nor journalism but a novel by Graham Greene, The Quiet American, written in 1955. Greene had been a journalist for four years during the French war. It may be one of the most prophetic books ever written, a clear warning of the terrible mess Americans were about to experience in Vietnam.

The quiet American of the title is Alden Pyle, a young CIA agent masquerading as a diplomat. Greene describes him: “He was impregnably armoured by his good intentions and his ignorance. I never knew a man who had better motives for all the trouble he caused.” The quiet American genuinely wanted to help the Vietnamese—but he ends up burning the village in order to save it. How many Alden Pyles would I meet as a journalist in Vietnam?

“If one writes about war, self respect demands that occasionally one shares the risks,” wrote Greene. “The further you get from headquarters the looser becomes the control, until when you come within range of the enemy’s fire, you are a welcome guest.” Greene knew journalism and was giving fair warning how the editors back home, in safe and dry offices, always knew better about what was happening in Vietnam than their reporters in the field.

“Perhaps truth and humility go together, so many lies come from our pride…in my profession: a reporter’s pride, the desire to file a better story than the other man’s. And it was Domingues [his assistant] who helped me not to care, to withstand all those telegrams from home asking why I had not covered so and so’s story or the report of someone else which I knew to be untrue.” Soon, I found myself at war with my bosses at home much more than with the press authorities at Military Assistance Command Vietnam (MACV).

The third book I read probably saved my life, particularly on my first forays into the field. Malcolm Browne, the Associated Press bureau chief in Saigon who had won a Pulitzer for his reporting a year earlier, had written a 24-page mimeographed pamphlet, “A Short Guide to News Coverage in Viet Nam.”

In the introduction, Browne suggested the contents were confidential. “Coverage in Viet Nam requires aggressiveness, resourcefulness and, at times, methods uncomfortably close to those used by professional intelligence units. You can expect very little help from most official sources, and news comes the hard way. Correspondents in Viet Nam are regarded by the Saigon government as ‘scabby sheep,’ and treated accordingly. At the same time, the Vietnamese people are friendly and agreeable, and private sources can be cultivated. Because of the political climate, it is vitally important to protect sources—particularly those of Vietnamese nationality. Disclosure of sources by several indiscreet newsmen in Viet Nam have wrecked careers, or worse. American military sources must be similarly protected. Good Luck. You’ll need it.”

Browne dealt with a wide range of problems unique to a new reporter, including health problems, basic survival in combat and who to trust. “Don’t trust information you get from anyone without checking it the best you can, including this booklet. You will find quickly that most ‘facts’ in Viet Nam are based at least in part on misinformation or misunderstandings.”

Browne advised that longevity in war isn’t just luck. Survivors are smart, superstitious, careful and often get good advice from their experienced colleagues. Browne had a lot of good advice in his booklet that I learned by heart before I got off the boat:

“If you hear a shot and think it’s not from your side, don’t get up and look around. The second shot might get you. Lie prone and move on your belly toward cover.”

“When moving with troops do not stay close to the head of a column or the ‘point man.’ Soldiers are paid to do this. Stay in the middle of a column near the radio operator where you will hear what is going on.”

“Beware of water buffalo. When excited they stampede, charge and kill. Don’t be misled by seeing children playing on their backs. Children and buffalo are friends.”

Later I learned from the grunts I walked with and particularly from Vietnamese camera crews who had long experience at war and I added some of their sage advice to Browne’s list:

“Try to look unimportant, the enemy may be low on ammo and not want to waste a bullet on you.”

“The enemy invariably attacks on two occasions. When they’re ready. When you are not.”

“Never draw fire, it irritates everyone around you.”

Fresh off the boat, my first stop was at the Government of Vietnam press office for a press card, usually freely provided to anyone who claimed to be a journalist. Next stop was the U.S. Military Assistance Command press office. A photo, a letter from a news agency saying that they would buy news stories from you and your signature on a list of common-sense regulations (like not revealing the military’s future plans or reporting the exact number of casualties of friendly forces) got you a press card.

There were only about 50 journalists covering the war when I arrived, but that number would swell to more than 500 at peak periods like Tet in 1968. Pentagon data shows some 5,000 journalists given press cards over the course of the war. Of this total, only 224 were stringers or freelancers.

With a MACV card in hand, my goal was to get as close to the war as quickly as possible and capture it with an inexpensive Yashica 35mm with a fixed 50mm lens. The urge to make pictures that will remain as witness for generations is one of extraordinary  hopefulness—hope that in looking and remembering, we will be touched and even changed for the better. It is that urge that drives the photo-journalist to take enormous chances, and not the 10 bucks that AP or UPI paid a stringer for a photo in those days.

There was a large flock of guardian angels for newly arrived stringers like me in Vietnam. Larry Burrows, whose home was in Hong Kong, first convinced me not to wait for a staff job, but to jump into Vietnam freelance. Don’t worry about not being able to afford a Nikon, Larry said, “Hard work and a good eye will get you by.” His other tips included: “You can’t photograph bullets flying through the air, so it must be the wounded” and “The hardest part is to keep your emotions under check. If you feel too much you would crack.” The week I headed for Saigon, Burrows had a 14-page spread in Life about a U.S. Marine helicopter crew, “One Ride with Yankee Papa 13.” Burrows’ story of a single bloody helicopter mission became one of Life’s most famous photo essays of the war.

They used to say about Larry, “He’s either the bravest man in Vietnam or the most nearsighted.” Burrows was killed in 1971 in Laos when the helicopter he was in was shot down during Operation Lam Son 719.

François Sully had jumped into Dien Bien Phu as a French Army photographer. Now writing and shooting for Newsweek, he was an inspiration. We were at Cam Ranh Bay together covering the construction of the largest deep-sea port in Southeast Asia. As we were taking photos of Vietnamese laborers moving sand, Sully started laughing. “Look Don, it is Ho Chi Minh. The Americans have Uncle Ho working on their Cam Ranh Bay.” Sure enough the old man in black pajamas and cone hat had a wispy white beard and wise expression like Ho Chi Minh. Sully shot a roll on the old man, and I shot a roll on Sully shooting the old man.

Sully used to sing old Legionnaires’ songs—“Chacun son tour…Aujourd’hui le tien, demain le mien.” In English, “To each his turn…today yours, tomorrow mine.” His turn came in 1971, when a helicopter he was flying in blew up.

David Duncan Douglas had been a Marine in Korea and was shooting some of the greatest photos of the war in Vietnam. In September 1967, Douglas and I were preparing to go over the side of a U.S. Marine carrier to assault supposed VC positions on a beach near the DMZ. It was called Operation Fortress Sentry, one of the few amphibious landings in Vietnam. Douglas said, “Here kid, you might need these,” as he held out a handful of condoms. I was surprised and suggested to him this was no time to worry about safe sex. Douglas, who had been on countless such landings, replied, “When you go over the side you will be drenched in water, and later you’ll be soaked in your own sweat. Safe sex? Hell. Safe film maybe.”

My first three months went by, and I managed to make a modest living between AP and UPI photo sales. I was learning the ropes and without taking too many risks was able to stay unscathed both in mind and body. This was to change one day on a large ARVN operation in the Mekong Delta.

At 4 a.m. in the officers’ mess at the U.S. Army helicopter base in Can Tho, I shared pancakes, bacon and eggs with two young pilots who would fly a Mohawk reconnaissance aircraft in that day’s operation. They were to find and fix the Viet Cong as they tried to evade the two-pronged assault on a suspected base south of Soc Trang. The men, at the top of their game, were eager for the big operation, optimistic it would end in a big setback for the enemy who had so far eluded helicopter assaults on their turf. We planned to have a beer together when the day was done.

About 50 Hueys took off into the rising sun at dawn to lift the ARVN Tiger Battalion into combat along with their U.S. Army advisers. There is a primeval rush of adrenalin at such a moment for soldier and journalist alike, and you mumble a quick prayer for safe return and feel the rush of cold air as the chopper gains altitude. Flying in a chopper load of Vietnamese troops, hot, sweaty and wet from the paddy fields, the smell reminded me of days of my youth hunting ducks in Canada. The officers calmly studied their maps wrapped in plastic as we neared the landing zone. The Tigers were supposed to be one of the ARVN’s best units, but I didn’t observe much enthusiasm as they slowly eased out of the choppers bringing them into a landing zone. I covered three insertions, and although there was no hostile fire to greet us, I saw American advisers at one point pushing their reluctant students out of the helicopter as they appeared to change their minds about jumping into the paddy.

My Army aviator friends in the Mohawk could be seen flying low over the operation area, trying to spot any sign of the enemy. Back at Soc Trang base later, a chilling report was passed along the ranks. The Mohawk had been shot down by enemy groundfire. When the pilots ejected, they were too low for the ejection-seat chutes to deploy, and they were killed. They were recovered, and as my new friends’ mangled bodies passed by on stretchers, squinting through tears I clicked off a dozen frames. I had learned to never shrink from taking photos in the field, no matter how gruesome. Let the editors judge whether it can be printed or not, the old vets told me. But these images stayed with me and chilled any enthusiasm for covering more combat for a while.

One of the small advantages of being a stringer is that you will not get fired when losing your nerve for covering combat; you just won’t get paid. So it was time to broaden my horizons beyond photo sales and, incidentally, try to cure a bad case of what in Vietnam they called “crotch rot,” a painful skin inflammation caused by constant immersion in paddy water. I acquired a tape recorder and arranged to produce a weekly radio program called Vietnam Reports for Hong Kong Commercial Radio. The BBC’s Tony Lawrence was going to be away from Vietnam for several months, and I would handle his daily radio circuits to London. Bud Merrick of Radio Press International in New York also needed someone to cover him while he took a lengthy R&R. It would mean attending the so-called “Five O’Clock Follies” every day and sending brief radio reports through the Saigon telephone exchange office. The Follies were the official word on the war from MACV. It was the only opportunity to ask questions and get answers on the record from the American military and the U.S. Embassy in Vietnam. Often it was the ability of the reporters to challenge the official line against our own experience in the field that nailed the truth that MACV was reluctant or unwilling to acknowledge. Over the years, it has been fashionable to disparage the Follies as having no useful purpose, but for the savvy war correspondent they provided the bare bones of the war and a road map to build on.

Each day I would have about an hour to bash out a half-dozen 40-second radio spots gleaned from the Follies or any other sources. I used the same scripts for BBC as I did for Radio Press International; it was essential, however, to mark the script to pronounce  “Left-enants” and “Miss-iles” for London and “Lieu-tenants” and “Miss-ills” for New York.

The formula for success as a freelancer was to sell every story multiple times. I carried a camera for black-and-white film, one for color, a tape recorder for the actuality and interviews, a pad and pen for the basic newspaper file and finally added a small Bolex 16mm camera with a single lens to shoot 100-foot film rolls. Being a one-man band was like carrying around almost as much weight as a U.S. Marine in combat. It was hard work but never boring.

Detroit News reporter Van Sauter offered yet another way for me to gainfully pass long hours waiting at airports and flying C-130s around Vietnam. He would pay me $50 for every “hometowner”— an interview with photo of a soldier from Detroit. It was amazing how many soldiers from Detroit turned up on flights around the country. It was through my Detroit soldier contacts that I was introduced to another good source of radio news stories. On a flight one day I met a Detroit Marine from a Hawk missile battalion just outside Da Nang. He had heard there were riots in Detroit, but when he tuned in Armed Forces Radio he couldn’t get much news about it. He explained, “Then on Radio Hanoi this lady Hanoi Hannah comes on, and she knows how many brothers were killed, she knew what Guard unit was called in, what kind of weapons were used…you know what I’m sayin’?” He was upset. “We know that kind of firepower and what it can do to people, our own military is turnin’ on us. We might as well have been Viet Cong…know what I’m sayin’? If Hannah picked up on it, then Armed Forces Radio knew about it too.”

As they say, in wartime truth is the first casualty. By ignoring the truth about events such as this, Armed Forces Radio lost the trust of many GIs when they were most isolated and vulnerable to enemy propaganda. It wasn’t that Hannah always told the truth. She didn’t. However, she was most effective when she did tell the truth, and our Army radio fudged it.

After that, I often taped Hanoi Hannah’s broadcasts. Although she didn’t interview them, there were often statements broadcast from American pilots shot down over the North, and antiwar activists such as Jane Fonda were always news when they went on Radio Hanoi.

Although considered the lowest ranking members of the brotherhood of war correspondents, being a stringer was for me a special calling once I hit my stride, and I had more work than I could handle. Most of the time, stringers have to start their own engines each morning and assign themselves to be where the action is. After a few months in-country, I was able to afford a correspondent’s outfit with about a dozen pockets cut by “Minh the tailor.” I could even afford an R&R in Hong Kong like the staffers got, and when I did I headed straight for the camera store and bought a new Leica-flex with multiple lenses and a big Bolex 16mm with a zoom lens and a lever that let you fade in and fade out.

Back in Vietnam in mid-August 1965, I was eager to try out my new equipment and headed out again to chase rumors of war. One night I found myself at the Pleiku airstrip and was tipped off on a battle that was underway. For 48 days a large NVA force had been threatening to overrun the U.S. Special Forces A-215 at Duc Co, a camp located near the Cambodian border. Eight ARVN infantry, ranger and marine battalions were fighting their way through the surrounding enemy force to relieve the camp. A medevac chopper was waiting for first light to bring out casualties after an ARVN mechanized battalion had been ambushed. A dustoff crew was always open to a hitchhiking journalist on the way in to pick up wounded. But it was always a one-way trip. They would probably be full on the way out.

Waiting with me were Rick Merron, an AP staff photographer, and Tim Page, another stringer like myself. As the first hint of daylight appeared, a Huey gunship pilot came out and said: “OK, guys, they’re in heavy shit with a couple of PAVN battalions, they might get overrun, but we’re going in for the wounded. If you guys want to come you can, or you can go in later on our next trip.”

It was like Robert Capa, the patron saint of war photographers, had written: “The war correspondent gets more drinks, more girls and better pay than the soldier, but at this stage of the game having the freedom to choose your spot and being allowed to be a coward and not be executed for it is his torture. The correspondent has his stake…his life, in his own hands, and he can put it on this horse or that horse, or he can put it back in his pocket at the last minute.” On D-Day, 1944, Capa was on Omaha Beach with the first wave.

Most of us in Vietnam got to experience what Capa said we would. Page and I told the Huey pilot we were in no great hurry and would just as soon go in a little later. But Merron said he would have to go or his boss, Horst Fass, “would fire my ass.” I was really itching to try out my new Bolex and prove I could be a TV guy as well as a stills man, so I said I would go with Merron. Page, reluctant to be left behind, decided he’d go, too.

My companions and competitors on the flight into hell that day would both become celebrated war photographers in the following years, but would pay a terrible price. Page was wounded severely four times to become the most wounded Vietnam journalist to survive.

Rick Merron spent years with the AP, photographing some of the most intense combat in Vietnam with skill and bravery. He was among the last to leave as Saigon fell.

“As mortar rounds bracketed the LZ, I jumped off the Huey and landed hard on my face, grinding my new camera into the gravel and red clay.”

Just as the sun was coming up, we descended into the operations area, a single road leading to the Special Forces Camp where the ARVN tanks and armored personnel carriers (APCs) had been ambushed. The enemy was hardcore and holding their ground, which was newsworthy in itself. I stood on the struts just in front of the door gunner and leaned out as we came in along the road at treetop level. I couldn’t believe what I was seeing through the viewfinder of my fancy new Bolex. Gunships were strafing and rocketing the bushes beside us, and airstrikes were going in a few clicks farther out. Beside the road were burning APCs and piles of body bags, stacked like cordwood. As mortar rounds bracketed the landing zone, I jumped off and landed hard on my face, grinding my new cameras into the gravel and red clay.

Limping to the nearest foxhole, I found an American adviser and asked him where the fire was coming from. “You see that bush about 30 yards out there? Well, there’s a sniper in there, and he’s a damn good shot. Better keep your ass down. Welcome to the war.”

It was a helluva story. Two full regiments of North Vietnamese regulars had come out of their sanctuary in Cambodia and engaged the ARVN infantry and armored battalion and several battalions of crack Vietnamese marines. Heavy airstrikes including Arc Lights kept the PAVN at bay as we slowly moved up the highway toward Duc Co behind tanks. At night, to ward off attacks, flares constantly lit our position. After a few days the pressure eased, and we pushed through to relieve the camp at Duc Co on August 17.

I hitched a ride back to Saigon fast and ran to the NBC office in the Eden Building with 10 rolls of exposed 16mm film. Bureau Chief Garrick Utley and I wrote a narration for my film, and it was rushed out to Tan Son Nhut for the next flight to the States.

I was feeling bold now. Since Merron and Page had AP and UPI covered, I decided to take a shot at Time magazine with my stills. Bureau Chief Jim Wilde was delighted to get some color on Duc Co, as it had become the biggest story of the week. But just as I was leaving the office, he grabbed my arm and said: “Hey, kid, how do I know you didn’t have your lens cap on when you shot these rolls? If I ship this to New York and it’s no good…I’ll kill you.”

Two days later, when I knew my film had reached NBC New York, I dashed into the bureau to see if my Duc Co story had been broadcast. A Telex was coming in from the Nightly News program. “On pass North. Looks like shot Duc Co story with mostly lens cap on. But from three good rolls cut lead story minute thirty. Congratulation NBC exclusive.”

Damn! I must have shot the seven dark rolls with the Bolex fade-out lever engaged, I thought. Should have read the manual and shot some practice rolls. Chances were good my stills with the new Leicaflex were just as bad. Wilde will surely kill me. I laid low for another few days until Time hit the streets in Saigon. One of my Duc Co shots led the world news section with a half-page spread. I had survived the siege of Duc Co—and the wrath of the suits at Time and NBC. I put some duct tape on that lever on my Bolex so it would never fade out again, and became an avid reader of camera manuals.

Being a Vietnam stringer was my first experience as a war reporter. It was an apprenticeship that served me well in later years as a correspondent in some 15 wars. Vietnam’s lesson for the military, that images and stories from the battlefield can inform with stunning effect and lead to demands for accountability, was not forgotten and led to more rigorous control of the media. It is regrettable, as our democracy depends upon access to the complete and unfettered truth, reported fairly and honestly. It is unlikely journalists will ever again have the unfettered access to war we had in Vietnam.

Some of us may still have a little shrapnel in the heart, and all of us sadness for those who are no longer with us. As reporters of the lost war it may have been our finest hour,  documenting the defining event of our generation. Reporting on Vietnam was important work that marked me for the rest of my life, as a person and as a journalist. I’m grateful I was there.

A friend who was a spokesman for the National Security Council in Washington once told me he could always spot a journalist who had been in Vietnam. “They remain as distrustful of government as ever, always pushing abrasively for answers long after their older and younger colleagues have given up.”

On our tombstones they should write, “If your mother says she loves you, check it out.”

This story was originally published in the December 2010 issue of Vietnam magazine.