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Vietnam documentary series stirs reflections on the war's correspondents

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While the retrospective for the 10-part Vietnam documentary includes both expected praise, as well as some criticism, there should be credit for the fact it included extensive commentary from some of the reporters without whose services the real story that politicians sought to hide might never have reached the American people.

Two whose views were plumbed at length by filmmakers Ken Burns and Lynn Novick were Neil Sheehan and Joe Galloway, both of whom worked for United Press International, the wire service for which I worked for first 20 years of my career, making parts of the series particularly personal from a reporter's perspective.

Like many reporters who wound up in Vietnam as an early stop in their careers, both Sheehan and Galloway were young men, about the same age as most of the troops whose actions they covered.

Sheehan, a Harvard grad, was sent to Vietnam in 1962 at age 26 to run UPI's Saigon bureau before most Americans had heard of the Southeast Asian country. In 1964 he was hired away by the New York Times and went on to journalistic fame for uncovering the Pentagon papers that the Times published and for which the newspaper won the Pulitzer Prize.  

Sheehan also won a Pulitzer for his 1989 "A Bright and Shining Lie," viewed as an epic account of the Vietnam War through the eyes of Lt Col John Paul Vann, whose story was intended to "illuminates America's failures & disillusionment in SE Asia."

Joe Galloway in Vietnam 
Galloway was a 23 year old from the small East Texas town of Refugio when he was sent to Vietnam by UPI in spring of 1965, a half a year before he caught a helicopter in to join soldiers of the 1stBattalion of the 7thcavalry regiment in the Ia Drang Valley where the first major battle between regulars of the United States Army and North Vietnam regular army forces took place.

Galloway's book, "We Were Soldiers Once...and Young," co-authored with Hal Moore, the Lt. Col. who was the commanding officer of troops in that battle, as well as the movie that was produced from it, made Ia Drang one of the best-known battles of the war.

Galloway, who emailed me that he not only served as a consultant for the Vietnam documentary but said "Burns folks interviewed me for 11 hours in two sessions in NYC," for his commentary in several episodes springing from his four tours in Vietnam with UPI. Remarking on the series, Galloway told me "so far this series is magnificent storytelling and history at its best," followed by several four-letter words for critics of the series.

Galloway, who came to be known to many in the Seattle area for his two trips here to do days of interviews with Vietnam veterans for his role since 2013 as a special consultant for the Vietnam War 50th Commemoration project, emailed about getting home from a talk just in time to catch Episode 4.

"This one was harder to watch; harder on my heart. When the family got the word that Mogie Crocker had been killed all I could do was weep bitter tears for his loss, their loss, all our losses as those aluminum Army coffins began coming home in a seemingly endless stream."

Sheehan and Galloway weren't the only ones who covered the Vietnam War, of course, and it wasn't only men who were correspondents on the frontlines there.

Tracy Wood at POW release 
As my friend Tracy Wood, who was also a UPI reporter in Vietnam, explained to me in an email exchange, "Of the more than 2,200 journalists who were accredited by the U.S. military to cover Vietnam between 1965 and 1975, only 70 of them were women and most of those went in only for a short time to cover specific stories, such as someone from their town."

"It was hard for women to cover the Vietnam War," said Wood, who is now an investigative reporter for Voice of Orange County after years in the investigative reporter role with the LA Times. "The military would give you credentials, but the leaders of the top news organizations were opposed to sending women reporters to cover combat. Magazines would use women reporters, but not the wires or big news organizations like The NY Times or WA Post."

Wood didn't get to Vietnam until 1972 when she was 24 and it took careful planning for a young woman who was a political writer for UPI in Sacramento to get to the New York bureau where her lobbying would be closer to the decisionmakers.

Her immediate boss on the UPI cables desk didn't think a woman should cover wars. But Wood had the good fortune to work for UPI, whose top editors Roger Tatarian and  H. L. Stevenson believed in the ability of women to report just as well as men, and dispatched several high-visibility female correspondents to the war zone. Then it was Wood's turn.

One of the best-known correspondents of that war, male or female, was Kate Webb, a New Zealand-born Australian who began as a freelancer in Vietnam at 24 and so, as Wood explained to me, "she was able to avoid UPI's New York execs until her credentials were so strong they couldn't reject her."  

That was in 1968 and she made news herself when in 1971 she was captured byNorth Vietnamese troops operating in Cambodia. Premature official reports that a body discovered was Webb's prompted a New York Times obituary, but she emerged from captivity 23 days after she was captured, having endured forced marches, interrogations, and malaria.

"Even after Kate thoroughly established herself, NY UPI would not send women to Vietnam to cover combat," Wood recalled.

"I had to go over my boss' head just to get sent to Vietnam and, once there, covered combat only after colleagues quietly showed me what I needed to do," said Wood.

Wood played a significant role involving coverage of the first public release of prisoners of war.

"I was able to cover the end of combat and was the only U.S. reporter to cover the first public release of the POWs from Hanoi," Wood recalled for me for an earlier column.  

"Later, I was able to negotiate with the North Vietnamese for UPI to lease a plane and bring in about 30 reporters, photographers and TV crews to cover the final POW release."

Both Webb, who died of Cancer in 2007, and Wood have chapters in "War Torn, Stories of War From the Women Reporters who Covered Vietnam." It's a book whose contents are touted as "nine women who made journalism history talk candidly about their profession in deeply personal experiences as young reporters who lived, worked and loved surrounded by war."

In reflecting on the conversation and email exchange with Wood, and recalling the book in which both she and Webb had chapters of their recollections, it occurred to me they would have provided an interesting part of one of the segments of the documentary.

While the retrospective for the 10-part Vietnam documentary includes both expected praise, as well as some criticism, there should be credit for the fact it included extensive commentary from some of the reporters without whose services the real story that politicians sought to hide might never have reached the American people.

Two whose views were plumbed at length by filmmakers Ken Burns and Lynn Novick were Neil Sheehan and Joe Galloway, both of whom worked for United Press International, the wire service for which I worked for first 20 years of my career, making parts of the series particularly personal from a reporter's perspective.

joeGallowayinVietnamLike many reporters who wound up in Vietnam as an early stop in their careers, both Sheehan and Galloway were young men, about the same age as most of the troops whose actions they covered.

Sheehan, a Harvard grad, was sent to Vietnam in 1962 at age 26 to run UPI's Saigon bureau before most Americans had heard of the Southeast Asian country. In 1964 he was hired away by the New York Times and went on to journalistic fame for uncovering the Pentagon papers that the Times published and for which the newspaper won the Pulitzer Prize.  

Sheehan also won a Pulitzer for his 1989 "A Bright and Shining Lie," viewed as an epic account of the Vietnam War through the eyes of Lt Col John Paul Vann, whose story was intended to "illuminates America's failures & disillusionment in SE Asia."

Galloway was a 23 year old from the small East Texas town of Refugio when he was sent to Vietnam by UPI in spring of 1965, a half a year before he caught a helicopter in to join soldiers of the 1stBattalion of the 7thcavalry regiment in the Ia Drang Valley where the first major battle between regulars of the United States Army and North Vietnam regular army forces took place.

Galloway's book, "We Were Soldiers Once...and Young," co-authored with Hal Moore, the Lt. Col. who was the commanding officer of troops in that battle, as well as the movie that was produced from it, made Ia Drang one of the best-known battles of the war.

Galloway, who emailed me that he not only served as a consultant for the Vietnam documentary but said "Burns folks interviewed me for 11 hours in two sessions in NYC," for his commentary in several episodes springing from his four tours in Vietnam with UPI. Remarking on the series, Galloway told me "so far this series is magnificent storytelling and history at its best," followed by several four-letter words for critics of the series.

Galloway, who came to be known to many in the Seattle area for his two trips here to do days of interviews with Vietnam veterans for his role since 2013 as a special consultant for the Vietnam War 50th Commemoration project, emailed about getting home from a talk just in time to catch Episode 4.

"This one was harder to watch; harder on my heart. When the family got the word that Mogie Crocker had been killed all I could do was weep bitter tears for his loss, their loss, all our losses as those aluminum Army coffins began coming home in a seemingly endless stream."

Sheehan and Galloway weren't the only ones who covered the Vietnam War, of course, and it wasn't only men who were correspondents on the frontlines there.

tracey woods at POW ReleaseAs my friend Tracy Wood, who was also a UPI reporter in Vietnam, explained to me in an email exchange, "Of the more than 2,200 journalists who were accredited by the U.S. military to cover Vietnam between 1965 and 1975, only 70 of them were women and most of those went in only for a short time to cover specific stories, such as someone from their town."

"It was hard for women to cover the Vietnam War," said Wood, who is now an investigative reporter for Voice of Orange County after years in the investigative reporter role with the LA Times. "The military would give you credentials, but the leaders of the top news organizations were opposed to sending women reporters to cover combat. Magazines would use women reporters, but not the wires or big news organizations like The NY Times or WA Post."

Wood didn't get to Vietnam until 1972 when she was 24 and it took careful planning for a young woman who was a political writer for UPI in Sacramento to get to the New York bureau where her lobbying would be closer to the decisionmakers.

Her immediate boss on the UPI cables desk didn't think a woman should cover wars. But Wood had the good fortune to work for UPI, whose top editors Roger Tatarian and  H. L. Stevenson believed in the ability of women to report just as well as men, and dispatched several high-visibility female correspondents to the war zone. Then it was Wood's turn.

One of the best-known correspondents of that war, male or female, was Kate Webb, a New Zealand-born Australian who began as a freelancer in Vietnam at 24 and so, as Wood explained to me, "she was able to avoid UPI's New York execs until her credentials were so strong they couldn't reject her."  

That was in 1968 and she made news herself when in 1971 she was captured byNorth Vietnamese troops operating in Cambodia. Premature official reports that a body discovered was Webb's prompted a New York Times obituary, but she emerged from captivity 23 days after she was captured, having endured forced marches, interrogations, and malaria.

"Even after Kate thoroughly established herself, NY UPI would not send women to Vietnam to cover combat," Wood recalled.

"I had to go over my boss' head just to get sent to Vietnam and, once there, covered combat only after colleagues quietly showed me what I needed to do," said Wood.

Wood played a significant role involving coverage of the first public release of prisoners of war.

"I was able to cover the end of combat and was the only U.S. reporter to cover the first public release of the POWs from Hanoi," Wood recalled for me for an earlier column.  

"Later, I was able to negotiate with the North Vietnamese for UPI to lease a plane and bring in about 30 reporters, photographers and TV crews to cover the final POW release."

Both Webb, who died of Cancer in 2007, and Wood have chapters in "War Torn, Stories of War From the Women Reporters who Covered Vietnam." It's a book whose contents are touted as "nine women who made journalism history talk candidly about their profession in deeply personal experiences as young reporters who lived, worked and loved surrounded by war."

In reflecting on the conversation and email exchange with Wood, and recalling the book in which both she and Webb had chapters of their recollections, it occurred to me they would have provided an interesting part of one of the segments of the documentary.

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