By: Richard Pyle
Ten years ago this week, a U.S. military search team digging into a steep mountainside in southern Laos found camera parts, film, broken watches and bits of wreckage ? proof that a South Vietnamese helicopter had been shot down there in 1971, a UH-1 Huey that was carrying four top-rated war photographers and seven Vietnamese soldiers.
Only scant traces of human remains were found, but a sealed capsule containing those remains is finally about to be interred in a place of honor.
On Thursday, family members, diplomats from five countries and aging veterans of the wartime Saigon press corps will dedicate the capsule at the Newseum, a $439 million Washington, D.C., museum devoted to the history and practice of journalism.
The unusual burial comes a day before the formal dedication of the Newseum’s Journalists Memorial gallery, a special showcase of sacrifice in the glass-walled edifice near the U.S. Capitol.
At the Associated Press bureau in Saigon on Feb. 10, 1971, I received the first report over a shaky military phone line that four photojournalists had been shot down in a helicopter in Laos, with no apparent chance of survival.
The news was shattering. They were AP’s own Henri Huet, 43; Larry Burrows, 44, of Life magazine; Kent Potter, 23, of United Press International, and Keisaburo Shimamoto, 34, a freelancer working for Newsweek.
The toll of dead and missing Vietnam war correspondents already stood at 50, and would reach 74 at the war’s end in 1975 ? the most news media casualties of any conflict in the 20th century.
It wasn’t the first multiple loss for the Saigon press corps, but the deaths of four of its most respected members at once was an almost incomprehensible blow, even for journalists who understood the hazards of war.
Burrows, a tall, gaunt Londoner, was widely considered the war’s premier photojournalist, producing dramatic camera essays for Life, although he liked to say he preferred taking pictures in quiet art museums.
Huet, born in Vietnam of a French father and Vietnamese mother and raised in France, had made the war his metier, spending more time in combat than many soldiers. Like Burrows, he had won the prestigious Robert Capa award, for “superlative photography requiring exceptional courage and enterprise.” He also was the most popular member of AP’s Saigon staff.
Potter, who had distressed his Philadelphia Quaker family by opting to become a war photographer, was the youngest-ever member of the Saigon press corps when he arrived in 1968 ? brash, ambitious and already recognized as a promising talent.
Shimamoto, born into a Japanese journalist’s family in pre-World War II Seoul, was a seasoned freelancer, in and out of Vietnam since 1965. “He had that in his blood,” says his older brother, Kenro, a former foreign correspondent.
The four were covering Operation Lam Son 719, a massive armored invasion of Laos by South Vietnamese forces to interdict the Ho Chi Minh Trail, the jungle road network by which North Vietnam fed troops and weaponry to southern battlefields.
Congress, mindful of political backlash from the previous year’s U.S.-Vietnamese incursion into Cambodia, restricted U.S. forces this time to an aerial support role. American officials, worried that compromised secrecy had set a stage for disaster, dredged up an obscure law barring civilians from crossing international borders on U.S. military aircraft. The combined effect was to deny journalists access to the battlefield for the first time in the war.
Thus Burrows, Huet and the others jumped at a chance to accompany the field commander, Lt. Gen. Hoang Xuan Lam, on a flying inspection tour of the Laos front. Dozens of other correspondents, camped out at the border, would have to wait for another day.
Lam’s first stop at a hilltop artillery base went routinely. But on the second leg, his helicopter became separated from the other four, which then strayed into what U.S. officers later called the heaviest concentration of enemy air defenses ever seen in Indochina.
Two of the four choppers took direct hits from the North Vietnamese guns and plunged into the jungle. The other two managed to escape.
In Saigon, we realized immediately there was no chance of anyone reaching the crash site in such wild, hostile territory any time soon. But as AP’s bureau chief, I felt a special responsibility ? and promised myself that if that ever became possible, I wanted to be the one to go there.
I couldn’t have known that 27 years later, AP colleague Horst Faas and I would stand on that hillside, watching experts from the U.S. Joint POW/MIA Accounting Command dig camera lenses from the ground and sift dirt through screens to find bits of human bone.
In 1992, 17 years after the fall of Saigon, Washington had restored diplomatic relations with the communist governments of Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia, enabling the United States to begin searching in earnest for some 2,500 Americans still missing in Indochina.
Two years later, MIA investigator Bill Forsyth first learned of the Laos crash from James Newman, a former U.S. helicopter pilot who had seen it happen. Forsyth also was surprised to find an American name that was new to him. As the crash had no connection to U.S. military activity, Kent Potter was not among the 40-plus American civilians listed as missing in action.
Based on Forsyth’s discovery, the incident became case No. 2062 on the joint accounting command’s list of pending investigations. In 1996, after a series of failed tries, the crash site was located, followed by the excavation two years later.
Because of the passage of time, the traces of human remains that were unearthed ? those now being dedicated in the Newseum capsule ? could not be positively linked to any of the 11 people aboard the helicopter. But the Army’s Central Identification Laboratory in Hawaii declared the case closed on the basis of “circumstantial group identification,” a common procedure in military air losses.
The next step was burial, and in 2003, JPAC proposed interment at the U.S. National Cemetery in Hawaii, where the grave of famed World War II correspondent Ernie Pyle offered a precedent. But that plan encountered obstacles, not least the priority demand for space for WWII veterans.
It was then that the Newseum’s directors in Washington stepped forward, agreeing to inter the crash remains at the new Pennsylvania Avenue facility, then under construction as a successor to an Alexandria, Va.-based Newseum. They made arrangements with the Hawaii MIA command to legally acquire the remains.
It is not unknown for museums to house human remains. Prime examples include Les Invalides, the French army museum where Napoleon is interred, and the Smithsonian Institution, where a stone sarcophagus contains the bones of its founder, James Smithson. The latter is just across Washington’s Mall from the Newseum, which opens to the public April 11.
Along with the four photographers, the Vietnamese soldiers who perished with them will be recognized at the ceremony: Col. Cao Khac Nhat; Lt. Col. Pham Vi; Sgt. Tu Vu; 2nd Lt. Le Trung Hai; 2nd Lt. Le Ue Tin; Sgt. Nguyen Hoang Anh, and one unknown.
As with any eulogy of war correspondents, the question arises: Why did they go there in the first place? What induces men and women to risk their lives just to tell a story with a pen and notebook, or a camera?
The answers may be as varied as the 1,843 names etched on the glass walls of the Newseum’s Journalists Memorial gallery, dating back to 1837: adventure, career opportunity, curiosity, camaraderie, or the noble idea of trying to discourage war by telling the world what it’s like.
While we cannot ask the four who perished over Laos their reasons, we can say nobody understood the dangers better than they, yet nothing would have kept them from getting aboard that helicopter.