Bookends to the War

IN DECEMBER 2010, IN THE PROVINCIAL Tunisian city of Sidi Bouzid, 26-year-old Mohamed Bouazizi had had enough of life in a repressive regime. His ultimate protest—setting himself afire on a city street—ignited a revolution in Tunisia that spread and engulfed much of the Arab world in North Africa and the Middle East. As reports of Bouazizi’s selfless act spread around the globe, it conjured memories of the most famous self-immolation in history, that of Buddhist monk Trich Quang Duc on a Saigon street in June 1963. The impact of Quang Duc’s act of protest was immeasurably heightened because a reporter with a camera, Malcolm Browne, was on the scene. His grisly photos, which were on the front pages of newspapers within hours, raised disturbing questions about the nature of the conflict, even inside John Kennedy’s Oval Office. Before Browne’s death last August, he gave his former AP colleague Hal Buell a minute-by-minute account of his coverage of the monk’s protest. To mark the 50th anniversary of Quang Duc’s ultimate protest, we present a collection of Browne’s less familiar images from that day to accompany his gripping eyewitness chronology.

While the monk’s protest marked a turning point in the escalating Vietnam conflict—fueling the U.S.-supported coup against Ngo Dinh Diem that set the course for deeper U.S. military involvement—we also mark in this issue another bookend to the war, Operation Homecoming. Forty years ago, after some 58,000 Americans had been killed and tens of thousands wounded, the negotiated release of prisoners of war was the last act of the drama that brought the U.S. war to a close. Our story on Operation Homecoming, and ongoing efforts to find and return remains of those still missing, begins on page 48. Also, in the official guide to Rolling Thunder XXVI inside this issue, we present selections of poetry and sketches by long-held POWs John Borling and John M. McGrath, and a story on the May 24, 1973, Nixon White House gala held in the honor of the just-released POWs.

Our cover story tells the compelling saga of a remarkable 1966 slugfest on a hill above Hiep Duc Valley that pitted an 18-man Marine platoon against more than 300 Viet Cong and North Vietnamese fighters. One of the 12 Marines that survived that long June night, Ray Hildreth, returned to the hilltop two years ago, on the anniversary of the battle. Hildreth’s incredible story, as told by author Charles W. Sasser, includes his emotional meeting with a number of his former enemies on that night.

And, sadly, in this issue we mark the passing of Stanley Karnow, one of the leading reporters and historians of the Vietnam War.


Originally published in the June 2013 issue of Vietnam. To subscribe, click here.