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Danger, grief, betrayal mark reporter's time in Vietnam

By Natalie Cortes


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ARLINGTON, Va. — Two years spent covering the Vietnam War were the most exciting and terrifying of Wallace Terry’s life, the former Time magazine Saigon deputy bureau chief says.

“War is a constant atrocity,” Terry told a Newseum Inside Media audience on Oct. 27. “I lost more than 60 friends in Vietnam. I lost my roommate.”

Terry described the day he and a colleague searched for the bodies of Terry’s roommate, John Cantwell, and three other journalists who had been killed by the Viet Cong. “After we found the bodies, and we were moving the bodies into… a jeep, about 20 young men – Vietnamese, in black pajamas, in formation, faces frozen in scowls — passed by us. They were probably John’s killers, [but] for some reason they didn’t kill us.”

Such dangers were commonplace, he said. “Traveling in a jeep from one base to another base, you’re subject to be shot by a sniper, so there’s always this constant feeling that you’re living on the edge,” Terry said. “Every day is very intense. … It’s almost like you’re watching Technicolor instead of black and white.”

Despite the constant danger, “It was an opportunity to broaden me as a reporter, to give me the opportunity to see the war of my generation,” he said.

Because the Vietnam War was fought without fronts, at times the military found it difficult to identify the enemy. Terry had the same problem, even off the battlefield. A Vietnamese reporter for Time who accompanied Terry on many of his interviews turned out to be a Viet Cong.

“Here was a full colonel in the enemy army, privy to every piece of information that we were provided with by our government, just reading our copy and walking out of the building and going into the countryside somewhere and meeting one of his Viet Cong contacts,” Terry said. The discovery left Terry feeling embarrassed and betrayed.

After two years in Vietnam, having witnessed the deaths of so many of his colleagues Terry decided it was time to come home. “I began to realize that I was pushing my luck. Everyone in my office had either been shot, fragged, which means fragments from explosions, or (contracted) a serious illness. If you stay there long enough something’s gonna happen; you’re lucky if it’s just a disease and not a bullet,” he said.

Terry also said that he tried to understand the military’s need to protect sensitive information. “I always cooperated with the military in terms of any embargoes or any way they wanted to protect their exercises because I looked at every soldier who was fighting as my fellow citizen … and not as a possible scoop.”

Limiting some information about today’s war in Afghanistan also is understandable, he said. “You’ve got to balance the need to keep the morale up by controlling some of the flow of information that could somehow erode the support that the people will give to the president and to the military forces,” he said.

Terry criticized recent coverage of U.S. military operations. “Every bomb … doesn’t fall in the right place,” he said. “And this gives some people the impression that we are doing something terrible because that bomb fell on a Red Cross location or a hospital in Afghanistan. In war there are mistakes made all the time. … Innocent people are hurt. That’s the nature of war.”

The discussion was one of a series of programs presented in conjunction with the Newseum’s War Stories exhibit, on display through tomorrow.


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