Saturday, July 21, 2007

South Vietnam, The American Waterloo: Short Timer, One Day And A Wake Up From The Land Of The Big PX

I arrived at Saigon November 4, after trips to Nha Trang, DaNang, An Khe, Dong Ha, and a visit to the aircraft carrier Franklin Delano Roosevelt, in the Gulf of Tonkin.

During the hectic activity, I had not looked at a calendar or a clock. After doing so, I realized a November 6 deadline loomed. It was my scheduled departure date from Saigon. Though looking forward to being reunited with my family, it seemed my assignment was incomplete. It nagged me that numerous leads for articles were in my possession, and there was no time to pursue and write.

Those leads, coupled with another fact, caused additional agitation. If I wanted to stay in Vietnam as a correspondent, all I had to do was follow up on a couple of offers.

As a result of numerous trips around the country and the long hours worked getting and writing articles, a couple of correspondents noted my efforts. Each of them urged me to visit their bureau chiefs in Saigon and try to stay in Vietnam. . Though very tempted and interested, I did not test the validity of the kind referrals.

The Indianapolis Star had sent me on the assignment, and it would have been neither fair nor honest to have taken advantage of the opportunistic situation. Making that decision, however, failed to soothe my anxieties.

My mind was a maelstrom of rocketing thoughts, none of which would slow down to permit examination. My senses were piqued by an urgency I could not pinpoint. My emotions soared, then plummeted.

Seated in my steamy-hot room at the Des Nations Hotel, the clamor of Tu Do Street vendors, rumbling trucks, the dinky whines of countless motorcycles, and the unmistakable whumps and whops of Huey helicopters patrolling the nearby Saigon river docks, hammered at my ears.

After reviewing some notes, I began to examine carbon copies of my columns. The faces of the men interviewed and the tones of their voices were clear in my mind. I hoped they were all alive. My fingers touched the pages of a column written October 25, (published November 10). That article detailed preparation of the bodies of men killed in action for shipment to America. Though my room was very hot, a chill struck me. My tour of the mortuary at Tan Son Nhut, and the interview with Col. James Price, had assumed inescapable personal importance.

The faces of those nameless dead, witnessed Oct. 25, in recent dreams, had taken on the countenances and names of the men met during person-to-person interviews. Several nights I jerked to a sitting position from a deep sleep, shocked by a nightmare in which I saw my brother's body at rest upon one of the cold, stainless steel embalming tables. Alongside him, resting on a long line of other tables, were the bodies of other men met during my travels.
(That dream persists)

Eventually, I managed to put that article aside, stifle my emotions, and turn to a current matter. I'd made an afternoon appointment with a U.S. Health official to discuss public health in Vietnam. His office was in Cholon, the Chinese section of Saigon. My notes showed there was enough remaining material for another article, and there were a couple I needed to finish.

After a look around at my room, I decided to leave that dingy sauna and go to MACV (Military Assistance Command Vietnam) headquarters at the Rex hotel and try to write in air conditioned comfort.

Marine Corps Major Sam Gipson soon found an unoccupied office, and I began writing. While working, Maj. Gipson said, "Rick, there's someone here to see you."

An elderly man entered the office and said, "Hello. I'm Mike Padev."

Though I'd never met Padev, I knew he was the foreign affairs expert for newspapers owned by Publisher Eugene C. Pulliam, which included The Indianapolis Star.

Padev was a pleasant man with a gentle voice. He took a seat and we began to chat.

"Can you fill me in?" he said with a smile.

"Me, fill in the publisher's foreign affairs expert?" I thought in amazement. My antennae rose a few notches. "Better be cautious," I reasoned privately.

"Mike, about the best fill-in I'd be able to give you would be to let you read my stuff. Have you been able to read anything I filed?" I said.

He shrugged, then said, "What do you think about being here, I mean."

The words came through my lips before I had a chance to harness them. "We should get out...and get out as fast as possible."

Padev's smile vanished. He looked shocked. I probably had the same expression. Until that instant, I did not realize all I witnessed had congealed into the blurted opinion. My plan of making cautious statements to Padev was thus scuttled. I knew Padev was a close friend, a conduit, and a confidant of the publisher. There was no doubt my remark would be repeated to Mr. Pulliam.

That instant of carelessness, I was certain, would plop me into journalistic no-man's-land. Mr. Pulliam was a friend and supporter of President Lyndon B. Johnson.

Neither of us spoke for a few moments. Padev shrugged again but he did not smile.

Padev asked how to get around the country, and I told him Maj. Gipson, the Marine who brought him to me, would help him get anywhere he wanted to go to get a look at the war and the nation.

I asked Mike how long he was going to stay and he said, "Oh, not long."

After looking at my watch, I told him I had an appointment. He rose, we shook hands, and he left. Though positive I could support my statement, I was just as certain I'd committed a tactical error.

The interview with the U.S. Health official went well. Although he declined to be quoted directly, he was an interesting man who clearly stated South Vietnam had absolutely no public health program. I returned to the Rex Hotel after the interview and wrote the article. That article and three others finished that day were not published.

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