My ticket to the Vietnam War

Here I go again, one story, one memory, tripping into another. Yesterday, it was about Kate Webb, the UPI Phnom Penh bureau chief captured in Cambodia, then dead, then alive.

Today, it’s my own Vietnam War story.

Again, it’s the early ’70s. Again, I’m a young reporter/editor at UPI-New York.

***

My weekend assignments were often covering anti-war marches. There seemed to be one every Saturday in New York in those days.

Police would cordon off the parade route and I would walk along, inside the barricades, on the edge of the line of protesters.

I’d look for signs of trouble – hope for it, really – get the official crowd count from the cops, call in my story.

It became pretty routine. A typical lead:

NEW YORK (UPI) – Tens of thousands of anti-war protesters marched Saturday through the streets of midtown Manhattan, calling for an immediate withdrawal of all U.S. troops from Southeast Asia.

I played these stories straight, though I sympathized with the marchers. That war was pretty personal for all Americans.

I had close friends shipped to Vietnam. A kid from my high school on Long Island had been killed at Kent State.

On my first newspaper job, in Livermore, California, I’d done “pickups” — gone to the homes of kids killed in the war to pick up a photo for the paper.

Then, covering the anti-war movement in New York, I’d formed relationships with its leaders, including Cora Weiss and Dave Dellinger.

They’d phone me when they were up to something. One call from Dellinger in the late summer of 1972 was exceptional.

He confided that he and Weiss were planning a trip to Hanoi, to bring back some American PoWs.

“Would you like to come along?” he asked.

“I’d love to,” I said. “I’ll have to check with my bosses, though.”

“Well,” he said, “let me know.”

Before hanging up, I asked: “Are any other reporters going?”

“Not that I know of.”

I called my editor, Tommy Zumbo, a tough-talking, hard-drinking fireplug who had whipped me into shape as a reporter over the previous two years.

Journalism boot camp with Zumbo included him crumpling up my copy, throwing it in my direction and shouting for all to hear: “This is shit, do it over.”

Zumbo’s response to my invitation to Hanoi was: “Talk to you tomorrow.”

There was a lot of talk. Zumbo talked to me. Zumbo talked to the editor-in-chief, H.L. “Steve” Stevenson. I talked to Stevenson.

I quickly got the message: They wanted the story, but didn’t think I was up to the job.

“Can we pick who goes?” Stevenson asked.

“That’s not up to me,” I replied.

“How much will it cost?”

“I have no idea.”

“I’ll let you know,” Stevenson said.

I called Dellinger. I didn’t ask whether UPI could send someone else.

“When are you leaving?”

“Soon,” he said.

A couple of days later, Dellinger called me at the office. “We’re leaving tonight, from JFK. I made a reservation in your name.”

I told Zumbo. He went into a meeting. When he came out, he said: “Go home, get you passport and pack a bag. But don’t leave for the airport before you call me to get the go-ahead.”

I rolled down my sleeves, stubbed out a cigarette and put on my jacket.

“How much is this going to cost?” he asked.

“I have no idea,” I said.

“Well, give me the flight number and we’ll find out.”

He shouted across the newsroom as I left: “Don’t forget to call before you go to the airport.”

I jumped on the subway and rode home to Queens. Excited. Nervous.

I’d avoided going to Vietnam as a soldier, fortunate to get a deferment because of a childhood illness that resulted in the removal of a non-essential organ. The army, thankfully, shunned the spleenless.

But I envied the war correspondents, soaked up their tales of wild nights in Saigon, the heart-of-darkness capital of sex, drugs and rocket attacks.

After quickly packing a bag, I phoned Zumbo.

“It’s no go,” he said.

“Why?” I asked, though I really wasn’t surprised.

“Too expensive.” He was kind enough not to add that UPI didn’t trust me to handle the story.

I unpacked, put my passport back in my sock drawer and poured a scotch.

Two days later, Peter Arnett of AP, who had already won a Pulitzer for his reporting from Vietnam, sent his first dispatch from Hanoi, where he was the only reporter traveling with Weiss, Dellinger and the rest of the American delegation.

I told colleagues that UPI had screwed up in not allowing me to go. But I knew my bosses were probably right.

In my first year or so at UPI, Zumbo often told me: “Don’t expect any plum assignments before you can cover a two-alarm fire in The Bronx.”

By the summer of ’72, I felt competent to cover a two-alarm fire.

But I figured I’d get my ass kicked going head-to-head with Peter Arnett.

Too bad I never got to find out.

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