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Staying alive on forefront of history

By Natalie Cortes


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ARLINGTON, Va. — Covering war in Vietnam and Cambodia "was history in the making, and we were there in the forefront. That can never be forgotten," former CBS correspondent Jeff Williams said at a Newseum Inside Media program on July 8. He was joined by former CBS cameraman and producer Kurt Volkert, his co-writer on A Cambodian Odyssey and the Deaths of 25 Journalists.

Both men spoke about the challenges and dangers of covering war.

"You have a lot of things to consider. You want to stay alive and you want to be able to find out what's happening and get as (many) authoritative sources as you can," Williams said.

Referring to the risks involved in covering the two conflicts, Volkert added that in Vietnam "there were moments of terror, of great terror and fear, but you were in good shape. In Cambodia, you were not. It was a war without fronts, and you had to invent your own rules to survive."

The differences between covering Cambodia and Vietnam are starkly delineated in their book, which focuses on the deaths of 25 colleagues, among them were a CBS correspondent, his producer, cameraman and soundman and a three-person NBC crew.

"Most of those killed in Vietnam were killed in [covering] combat, which is an accepted risk. But most of those killed in Cambodia were murdered and executed," Williams said.

Despite his fear for his life, Volkert recalled that he felt greatly motivated to remain in the thick of the battle. "All of us wanted to do a good job, and we understood it to be part of our job to go into tough places and take good pictures or write good stories."

Once those stories were completed, the greatest challenge was getting them back to the United States. Volkert said he was frustrated when some of those stories didn't get aired, for whatever reason. "It becomes especially difficult when you know in the morning the story is probably not going to be used. But the risks remain the same, the risks meaning that you get maimed or killed."

Volkert went back to Cambodia in 1971 to interview villagers in the area where the five NBC News and CBS News people disappeared. More than 20 years later, he went back again to participate in a U.S. Army recovery effort to uncover the journalists' remains. "We blocked off about 200 feet of river, about 70 meters, and we dug out every square, every cubic foot of mud to the depths of 10, 11 feet. After one month, we found four (bodies)."

Volkert chronicles the emotional search in the book, which was published in April.

Williams and Volkert agreed that war reporting had a tremendous impact on their lives. For Williams, what he experienced in Cambodia and Vietnam didn't hit home until years later. "After I left journalism and went into writing, all of a sudden I began dreaming (about the war) and it was just extraordinary. So I think it was just a partial (mental) shutdown."

Volkert said he moved on with his life, although his memories of covering conflict always will be with him. "I never wanted war reporting to govern the rest of my life. [I didn't] want to be tagged (just) as a war reporter or as a combat cameraman. That's just not the tag I wanted to live with."

The program was held in conjunction with the Newseum's exhibit, War Stories, on display through Nov. 11.


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