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Recalling the horrors of Vietnam

By Mike Tunison


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ARLINGTON, Va. — Harrowing memories from 11 years of covering the Vietnam War still haunt veteran Associated Press correspondent George Esper.

During the fall of Saigon, "I ran down the street to gauge the reaction of these South Vietnamese soldiers and police officers coming into the center of the city to stack their weapons and surrender," he said. "I walked up to a police colonel to get his reaction. He looked crazed. As I approached him, I had my notebook in hand and he was fingering his holstered pistol. I thought 'This guy's gonna kill me.'

"I started to ease away from him. Instead, he pulled out his weapon, put it to his own head and fell mortally wounded at my feet."

Esper recalled his experiences in Southeast Asia at a June 10 Inside Media program at the Newseum, held in conjunction with the Newseum's War Stories exhibit.

Esper said that his "stoic nature" allowed him to push through his own fear at the time. "It never bothered me then. (It was) just part of my duty to report the war. I shrugged it off."

But as the years have gone by, living with the memories has gotten harder, he added.

"I look at those days now, and it bothers me a lot. I saw little children being slaughtered," he said.

"I saw a lot of American veterans whose lives were messed up in Vietnam through no fault of their own. We never really told the veterans, 'Thank you for a job well done.' They were there under the worst of circumstances and still served their country well."

Esper, now a professor of journalism at West Virginia University, also explained how technological advances have made war correspondents' jobs easier.

Reporters can now file stories instantly through laptop computers, satellites and the Internet. In Vietnam, he said, he often faced the difficult task of transmitting a story from the field back to Saigon by means of such now-archaic tools as a Teletype machine. Sent via radio signals, the transmissions often were disrupted by storms and other interference.

If the signal did not reach its destination, "a correspondent would be forced to sit on a story for upwards of a week," he said. But by the time he was sent to cover the Persian Gulf War, the procedure for filing had changed drastically.

One thing that didn't change during both those wars, he added, was the tension between the news media and the military.

The government often attempted to paint a rosier picture of military actions in Vietnam, Esper said. When journalists' portrayals of grim realities reached the public, the government blamed the press for undermining public opinion about the war.

"We were just telling the public what we saw. I am proud of the AP and my colleagues because we stayed the course, we were more honest with the American people than their own government was," Esper said.

From the outset of the Persian Gulf War, the military tried to prevent such a scenario from recurring, he added. Instead of open access, the military would present "some glib general (at a press conference) to showcase the war in a positive light" for direct broadcast to the public, he said.

Many stories were suppressed or lost, Esper added.

Mike Tunison is an intern in the Newseum’s programs department.


War Stories events coverage
Coverage of discussions relating to Newseum's War Stories exhibit.  07.31.01