'Old Hacks' relive coverage of Vietnam, future wars
The Vietnam “Old Hacks” had been gathering for years on major anniversaries of the 1975 collapse of South Vietnam. Over the weekend they came together again, this time in Orange County’s Little Saigon to recount old exploits, critique the war coverage of today and confront never-ending questions about America’s most bitter war.
The meeting of several dozen combat reporters, photographers and editors was the first in Southern California, after several other gatherings, mostly in Vietnam. While the meals and discussions ended Sunday, an exhibit of some of the most gripping photos from the war continues until the end of May in the community room of the Nguoi Viet Daily News in Westminster.
Don North, an ABC News correspondent during the war, acknowledged that some of the reunions’ allure is about recapturing the “old pizazz” of the biggest story of the Old Hacks' lives. But members also worry about maintaining accurate accounts of what they saw, holding long discussions about the finer points of the coverage.
After meeting on the 20th and 30th anniversaries of the fall of Saigon, as well as other milestone, why a 36th reunion?
Because one of the group’s most active members — Carl Robinson, an Associated Press photographer and photo editor in Vietnam — happened to be coming through Southern California. And members see their group declining in numbers due to death and illness.
Ray Herndon, a former UPI correspondent and later a journalist at the L.A. Times, said the Orange County location also allowed organizers to invite in Vietnamese staff members who haven't been involved in past reunions. Herndon called the Vietnamese--such as Dang Van Phuoc, a photographer who attended Sunday's session in Westminster--crucial to the coverage of the war.
Several of the Old Hacks made it clear they aren’t just on a nostalgia trip. The photographer Tim Page, an Australian who worked for many different outlets in Vietnam, has been back to the country dozens of times. He’s led five photojournalism courses in Vietnam and was in Afghanistan a year ago doing the same.
His Vietnamese students have taken photos from Beirut to Iraq and been able to transmit their pictures back to Vietnam, where they have been published without censorship, Page said. “It’s the most rewarding thing,” he said. “I think the Fourth Estate has won. We got something right, haven’t we?”
The Old Hacks described a level of access to the front in Vietnam that has not been enjoyed by war correspondents since. The wrenching photos on the wall in the Nguoi Viet exhibit are evidence of a kind of close contact with suffering that’s harder for today’s photojournalists to produce.
Not everyone who visited the exhibit and discussion Sunday afternoon was thrilled with the journalists’ work, though. Little Saigon is a hotbed of loyalists to the old South Vietnamese regime. The yellow- and red-striped flag of the old South Vietnam still flies in front of many businesses. A car parked near Sunday’s meeting place was painted in the flag's colors.
Dung To, an immigrant who fled Saigon on April 30, 1975, the day of the Communist takeover, pressed the Old Hacks several times about whether they had any regrets about coverage of the war. “We feel the war was only covered 50%,” said To, now an engineer with Boeing. “We didn’t see any of what happened in the North, so it wasn’t the whole story.”
Edith Lederer, one of the few women in the war zone and still an AP reporter today, said she understood some of the hard feelings. “These people had to leave homes and businesses and start all over,” she said. “There were holes in their lives that doesn't easily go away.”
But Lederer said American correspondents in Vietnam did their best to cover the whole story, which included the corruption of the South Vietnamese regime and the failures of decision-makers in Washington. Concluded Lederer: “The media have always been an easy scapegoat for failed policy.”
Richard Pyle was AP Saigon bureau chief for several years during the war. He has co-authored a book, “Lost Over Laos,” about four photographers killed in a helicopter crash during the war. He credited the American military with enabling much of the heroic coverage — flying photographers and reporters almost anywhere they wanted to go.
“There was a certain oddity and irony in that,” Pyle said, “since they then blamed us for losing the war.”
Photo: Journalists who covered the Vietnam War, who call themselves the "Old Hacks" gathered in Orange County to discuss the war and their current endeavors. From the left: Carl Robinson, former AP photo editor in Saigon; Richard Pyle, former Associated Press bureau chief in Saigon; Tim Page, UPI photographer; Edie Lederer, AP reporter. The photo is by AP's Nick Ut, who won a Pulitzer Prize for his photograph of a girl wounded in napalm bombing of Vietnam. Credit: Nick Ut / Associated Press