Sunday, April 29, 2018

The American Forces Vietnam Network, in 700 Words

This essay was requested by the New York Times for their 2017 series "Vietnam '67." Due to the overwhelming response from writers, some of the contributions went unpublished, so this is an Old Asia Hands exclusive.  

The AFVN television set was the scene of several on-air protests in Saigon. (1969 photo) rf

One of the most appreciated legacies from our war in Vietnam remains popular today: television. Introducing TV while simultaneously fighting the enemy was especially challenging—and costly.

The earliest telecasts in 1966 were transmitted from flying TV stations crammed into U.S. Navy Constellation aircraft circling overhead. There was even space for an announcer. Viewers below positioned simple “rabbit ears” antenna to capture an often fuzzy picture. When both TV planes were mortared while parked at Tan Son Nhut Airbase, a more reliable network of ground stations was established.

In 1967 the American Forces Vietnam Network debuted its most distant affiliate, Channel 11 in Hue, fulfilling the on-air catchphrase “From the Delta to the DMZ.” Either television, or radio, or both, was available from the Mekong Delta in the south to the demilitarized zone in the north.

The following year, AFVN’s Hue station came under siege during the Tet Offensive. For five days, the broadcasters held off North Vietnamese communists from their living quarters until a final assault forced them to flee. Two Americans were killed, one was executed and five men became POWs.

Bringing rock and roll to the troops and television shows like Bonanza, Laugh-In and even Combat, came with sacrifice beyond Hue.Three AFVN photojournalists were killed on assignment near Da Nang when they drove over a landmine. There was occasional shelling, sniper fire and terrorism. Both of our Saigon headquarters were car bombed.

As U.S. involvement deepened and troop strength grew, AFVN added new stations to provide news, information and entertainment. When casualties mounted and war coverage became more negative, the U.S. Office of Information sought to curb dispiriting news. Censorship had become newsroom policy by the time I arrived in 1969.

Command level interference was incubating in the early days of military radio in Saigon, sometimes in outlandish ways. One deejay remembers Chubby Checker’s song “The Twist” was banned, because the sister-in-law of South Vietnamese President Diem hated it. Later, when Diem was assassinated, announcers were barred from reporting the incident and had to refer to it as a “civil disturbance.”

Air Force deejay Adrian Cronauer hosted a radio show in 1965 and was immortalized by Robin Williams in Good Morning, Vietnam. Censorship was the movie’s underlying theme and Cronauer talked about it long after leaving the service. He told me they could not even broadcast the Pope’s Christmas message, “Somebody thought it contained a prayer of peace and could be construed as a criticism of our efforts in Vietnam.”

A “No, No” list posted words newscasters could not speak: napalm, search-and-destroy, body count and Hamburger Hill, among others. The obstruction became intolerable when Vice President Ky pre-announced a U.S. troop withdrawal. We were told to sit on the story because Ky was not an “official” source. The very men who would be going home were the last to know.

News censorship was so oppressive that a group of principled journalists turned whistleblowers. Army Specialist Bob Lawrence escalated the insurgency on live TV when he finished his late night newscast with a blistering one minute indictment: “A newscaster at AFVN is not free to tell the truth.” The most public protest in military history was on Walter Cronkite’s newscast back in the States and it triggered a congressional investigation.

From left: (standing) Bob Lawrence, Paul Baldridge, Lynn Packer and Rick Fredericksen; (seated) Tom Sinkovitz and Hugh Morgan. All but Baldridge, who was not involved in the protest, were taken off the air or reassigned.

Seven young agitators, including me, were taken off the air completely, or reassigned upcountry. Our motives were never anti-military or anti-war, but strictly anti-censorship. We supported Defense Secretary Robert McNamera's doctrine: "Members of our armed forces are entitled to the same unrestricted access to the news as are all other citizens."

Decades would pass before I learned the full impact of our disobedience. A year after Lawrence’s bombshell, U.S. Commander Creighton Abrams summoned AFVN’s news director. The general declared the young captain was in charge of news, not the information officers at headquarters. Censorship was coming to an end.

The controversy still divides AFVN veterans today. Some say it was overblown or well-intentioned. Others are in denial. AFVN has a proud history of bringing baseball games, the moon landings and other reminders of home to the fighting men and women in Vietnam. We were not combat soldiers but sometimes the battlefield came to us, including our victory in defense of the First Amendment.

1969 photo by rf.
Rick Fredericksen was with AFVN in 1969-70 and shares his complete story in the digital book “Broadcasters: Untold Chaos.”

Saturday, March 31, 2018

The Ghosts of Dong Da


A classic French villa, sealed off from a busy street in Vietnam’s imperial city of Hue, has been rediscovered, replete with a legacy of haunting memories, two narrow escapes and seductive entertainment.

No. 3 Dong Da Street in a 2016 photo from the Vietnamese website Foody.vn
The address is No. 3 Dong Da Street, and until recently Vietnamese could relax under umbrellas at the Café New York and enjoy the local favorite, ca phe sua da (iced milk coffee). The proprietor had dissed the charismatic ambiance of the colonial days, in favor of urban glitter reminiscent of the Big Apple, with bright lights, the Statue of Liberty and New York City skyline. Photos posted online show vibrant furniture, covered patios and patrons with smart phones and children.

No. 3 Dong Da Street more than 50 years earlier. It was a former U.S. Consulate property and later a TV station. (Photo circa 1960s courtesy afvnvets.net)
It’s unlikely that any of the customers would be cognizant of the home’s spellbinding past – most of them were not even born when the French villa was a flashpoint for historic events, both joyful and sorrowful.

More than a half century ago, a team of military broadcasters arrived at the address to set up a television affiliate for the American Forces Vietnam Network (AFVN). They arrived to find an elderly caretaker living on the grounds and still on the payroll of the American government. The two-story building had earlier served as auxiliary housing for the U.S. Consulate, directly across the street.

In the years before the TV crew settled in, guests at No. 3 Dong Da included consulate visitors and American officials on assignment to Hue, although the U.S. Consul himself, the top government official in Hue, lived in a separate residence nearby, on Ly Thuong Kiet Street. “Our first son was born in the bathroom of the consul’s residence in December 1964,” remembers Sam Thomsen, who was the U.S. Consul starting in 1964.

The U.S. Consuls lived in this villa, sometimes confused with No. 3 Dong Da. (2011 photo from James Bullington)
The villa at No. 3 Dong Da had a lower profile than the U.S. Consul’s home, but Thomsen recalls public affairs officer Bill Stubbs, who lived there with his family. A typical government accommodation would include a cook and a housekeeper who would also babysit.

Guests could walk over to the U.S. Consulate offices on the other side of Dong Da, where one might see a young Henry Kissinger, who was a Vietnam consultant for the Johnson Administration, legendary counterinsurgency warrior Ed Lansdale, or, up-and-coming diplomat John Negroponte.

Since Stubbs was a government spokesman, Thomsen attended receptions and social events at the residence. It’s logical that visiting journalists, like newspaper columnist Joseph Alsop and George Esper of the Associated Press, might have been welcomed during their visits to Hue.

In fact, Hue was a frequent destination for famous war reporters who made the trek down Dong Da Street: Johnny Apple of the New York Times; Keyes Beech for the Chicago Daily News; Robert Shaplen of The New Yorker; and author Frances Fitzgerald, who won a 1973 Pulitzer Prize for Fire in the Lake.

By 1966, local politics altered Hue’s persona from a sleepy town to a hotbed for public activism. Just beyond the villa’s front gate, demonstrators would march to the U.S. Consulate along Dong Da. “Then, it was just a little wider than a one-laner,” Thomsen reminisced, during a phone call from his home in Virginia.

A 1966 Buddhist protest in front of the U.S. Consulate, across from No. 3 Dong Da. (Photo courtesy James Bullington) 
When James R. Bullington had become Acting Consul, the city was descending into political chaos. A strong Buddhist movement against the Saigon government had lurched into massive street rallies and Bullington would meet with the protestors and listen to their demands.

According to Bullington, who wrote his memoir in Global Adventures on Less-Traveled Roads, “There was evidence that the Viet Cong had infiltrated the [Buddhist] Struggle, and its message became increasingly anti-American, with demands that the U.S. Government remove President Thieu and Prime Minister Ky from power.” 

Acting Consul James Bullington meets with student activists. (Photo courtesy James Bullington)
Bullington had access to the consulate’s official vehicle, and at one point the car was caught in a mob of several hundred students. They pounded on the vehicle and tried to open the locked doors, shouting anti-American slogans. 
The U.S. library and cultural center was ransacked and in flames. (Photo courtesy James Bullington)
In May 1966 the daily demonstrations escalated, and the U.S. library and cultural center was attacked and burned and the remaining American non-military properties were evacuated. Bullington, along with newly appointed Consul Tom Corcoran, remaining consular staff and several CIA officers, continued their work from the secure MACV (Military Assistance Command, Vietnam) compound in Hue.

A few days later, the U.S. Consulate itself was set ablaze and destroyed. The appalling scene unfolded in view of No. 3 Dong Da, across the street. The Associated Press described the incident: “A mob of about 1,000 screaming students attacked the two-story Consulate building just before noon, ripped down portraits of President Johnson and carried off two U.S. flags as the building burned . . . a company of Vietnamese Army troops fled when the students marched on the Consulate.” 

The U.S. Consulate in Hue was set ablaze in 1966. (Photo courtesy James Bullington)
Although No. 3 Dong Da was perilously close to the enraged crowd, the villa was spared; perhaps the students were unaware of an American connection. The consul’s residence also escaped their fury and was left untouched, but the State Department had had enough, and sent Corcoran to Da Nang, where he became Consul General. Bullington was re-assigned to Saigon.

The Dong Da dwelling would not be vacant for long, and would soon become associated with family entertainment: U.S. military broadcasters introduced television to Hue in 1967. Known as “Detachment 5,” it was an affiliate of the American Forces Vietnam Network, and the TV station farthest from AFVN’s headquarters in Saigon

The AFVN-TV van on Dong Da Street was jammed with electronics for broadcasting. Chief engineer Don Gouin would become a POW. (Photo from afvnvets.net)
A custom-designed truck trailer, parked outside the villa, contained the electronic television equipment. Popular shows like Combat, Bonanza, and Gunsmoke were all broadcast from the compound, and the engineers, announcers, program director and other staff lived in the old consulate residence at No. 3 Dong Da.

Army TV engineer Harry Ettmueller is the last American still alive who was billeted in the villa, and was present when the house was re-purposed. “The State Department decided to take it back and convert it to THVN (Vietnamese television),” said Ettmueller. That’s when he, and the other Americans, moved into another house nearby. “The Dong Da building was completely made over into a TV station,” Harry remembered. “We installed all the TV gear and the Seabees (Mobile Construction Battalion) added on a soundproof stage.”

AFVN continued to share the Dong Da Street compound with Vietnamese television, and the address became a symbol of the pioneering days of television. Americans and the local population enjoyed the lineup of drama, comedy, news and cultural programs. Local kids used to visit, and Harry would borrow one of the 16 mm film projectors from the TV van to project shows on a wall. Batman was a favorite.

AFVN broadcasters at No. 3 Dong Da in 1967. Harry Ettmueler (middle) is wearing sun glasses. Photo from Army Public Affairs Hall of Fame.
It was during the Tet Lunar New Year celebration in early 1968 when the television stations came under attack. Thousands of communist troops took control of Hue in what became the iconic Tet Offensive. No. 3 Dong Da was mortared and the AFVN-TV van was shot up and a couple tires were blown out by shrapnel. The property was ransacked and looters helped themselves.

From their living quarters nearby, nine broadcasters held off the enemy for five days, but had to flee when their billet caught fire. Three Americans were killed. Five were taken prisoner, including Ettmueller, and they spent the next five years in North Vietnamese prisons. The only man to escape was John Bagwell, an AFVN disc jockey. But once again, the old Dong Da building survived with only minor damage.

Exactly 50 years after the Tet Offensive, I visited Hue in February 2018. With the assistance of my Vietnamese friend Mai Phuong, we set off to locate the old TV station. Our first thought was to seek guidance from an old-timer at the city’s current TV station, but we were denied entry. We proceeded to Dong Da Street, which was now a bustling four-lane road, hoping to find No. 3. 

No. 3 Dong Da in 2018. (rf)
Helpful residents at an adjacent address pointed to a nearby property that was hidden with an opaque tarp concealing the lot from passing traffic. I glanced inside and there it was: the two-story villa, set back from Dong Da, and undergoing some type of renovation. It was the Tet holiday and since no one was around, we sneaked inside for a peek.

The villa had been rehabilitated back into a practical building, but we were startled by what we found: a shuttered coffee shop. The latest chapter of the property’s history is titled “Café New York.” [Ironically, two of the wounded broadcasters taken prisoners were New York natives.]

By 2018, Cafe New York was closed for business, furniture left in disarray. (rf)
Unmistakable possessions of the business were left behind; sofas, chairs and tables that had furnished a sitting room. A circular stairway led to more seating upstairs. There was a granite-style counter-top near the entryway, along with several menus. They showed the best confirmation that we had found the right address: “Café New York. Number 3 Dong Da.”

A forgotten drink menu shows an important clue: the address matched the former residence and TV station. (rf)
I pulled out my iPhone and took snapshots as we covertly scanned both floors. Although our motives were harmless, we did not have official permission and probably stayed for only 10 minutes. The Vietnamese government is obsessed with security concerns, and is especially paranoid about photographs. Fresh in my mind was the tragedy of poor Otto Warmbier in North Korea.

We slipped back out through the tarp, excited about our lost-and-found discovery, and immediately started to compare the new photos with an undated picture of the residence, circa the 1960s. The windows seemed an exact match, as well as the decorative studs extending out from under the roof. But the most compelling evidence was the same address, as evoked on the menu.

The staircase, which leads to second floor seating, appears to be a more recent upgrade. (rf)
A side-by-side evaluation for the internal layout was impossible; we have no “before” photos, and anyway, the interior was drastically overhauled in the transformation from a house, to a TV studio, and then back again to a multipurpose building. At first, Ettmueller doubted it was the same building, and I cannot discount that possibility 100 percent. One of my photos showed a fireplace and Harry said there was none when he stayed there, but it could have been installed during the re-conversion.

This room sports a fireplace, which would have been installed post-1975. (rf)
When the victors took possession of the residence in 1975, [the TV station had already relocated across the river inside Hue’s ancient city] new walls would have been constructed to create functional rooms. Mai Phuong, who served as my guide and interpreter, is certain we had corroborated the correct building.

According to Vietnamese media, Thua Thien Province acquired Hue’s old French buildings. Eventually, the former TV station became office space for the Bureau of Education and Training. In 2013, a large government administration building was opened and small offices, like the one at No. 3 Dong Da, were consolidated into the new location. When officials offered some of the villas for sale or rent, Café New York came to life as a public business for the first time.

Two screen shots from Foody.vn. 
 
This covered open-air space is just just outside the villa. 
As recently as three years ago, the storefront was photographed with numerous vehicles parked in front. In addition to drinks and food, a poster inside promoted another attraction that lured regular customers: a passion for the red-whiskered bulbul. The small Asian bird is admired for its vocal finesse, and owners would bring their caged performers to the cafe, sip morning coffee and ponder which bird had the most alluring song.

A poster, advertising bird singing gatherings, also shows the matching address. (rf)
By early 2018 Café New York was closed and some sort of construction project was underway. Covered shelters that provided open-air seating had been dismantled. There were piles of bricks and gravel, some scaffolding and a small cement mixer – hopeful signs of new life for the old residence.          

If Café New York re-opens, or some other coffee shop, restaurant or bar, just imagine the wistful conversation at a table shared by Sam Thomsen, James Bullington and Harry Ettmueller – musical entertainment provided by the red-whiskered bulbuls. I’ll buy the first round.

The New York Coffee storefront, as seen in a newspaper photo in 2014.
Today, Dong Da Street is a busy thoroughfare running through southern Hue, the present TV tower is seen in background.


Wednesday, December 6, 2017

TV Station's Final Days

Army DJ John Bagwell was one of the broadcasters defending AFVN in Hue. (Seen here earlier in An Khe)
[The final layout of this story is in Vietnam Magazine's February 2018 issue]

Introducing television to Vietnam’s northernmost provinces was doomed from the start. For the pioneers assigned to build the American Forces Vietnam Network’s most remote broadcast facility, there was trouble even before they arrived: While still in Saigon, an AFVN engineer was badly injured in a grenade attack and evacuated out of the country.

Then, on May 15, 1967, when AFVN officially opened its newest upcountry affiliate, designated Detachment 5, in Hue, the Viet Cong answered defiantly with a mortar attack. Six weeks later, the TV tower collapsed when a fuel truck backed into a guy wire, knocking Channel 11 off the air for five weeks. The inauspicious beginning of the Hue TV station foreshadowed the detachment’s agonizing demise in a communist assault, which would seal a poignant place for AFVN in broadcasting history.

As the Tet Lunar New Year holiday approached in late January 1968, a staff of six men was operating the expanding broadcast facility. Two others had just arrived from the 1st Cavalry Division (Airmobile) to help launch the detachment’s new radio service. Spec. 5 Steven Stroub and Spec. 4 John Bagwell had been working at the 1st Cav’s own radio station in An Khe in the central part of the country. They were reassigned to AFVN, assuring that American radio would be there for the troops when the division relocated to Camp Evans, just northwest of Hue.

On the eve of the Tet Offensive, Military Assistance Command, Vietnam (MACV), which oversaw military operations throughout South Vietnam, had placed Hue under full alert. Broadcast engineer Army Spec. 5 Harry Ettmueller, one of only two survivors of the attack still living, remembers the ominous signs. “With all my contacts, they kept telling me you don’t want to be here for Tet. You need to be on R&R. Don’t be here.”

That night Hue’s original TV station signed off the air for the last time. The final two programs would have been ABC’s Combat and The Fugitive, according to a published TV schedule.

The entire eight-man staff, along with visiting civilian engineer, Courtney Niles, an Army veteran employed by NBC International, worked at Hue’s broadcast center, which housed the dual facilities of AFVN and the city’s Vietnamese television station. The compound was formerly an auxiliary residence of the U.S. Consulate.

The Americans used to live in this villa at No. 3 Dong Da Street. Formerly a residence for U.S. officials assigned to Hue, it was later converted into to a broadcast center.  
The Americans were sleeping in their new billet, a villa one street over, when “all hell broke loose,” remembers Bagwell, the other remaining survivor. “We had a pretty good view from our back door,” he said. We could actually see the attack going on.”

In the coming hours, days and weeks, the ancient imperial capital would become an iconic flashpoint of the countrywide Tet Offensive as the North Vietnamese Army took control of large sections of South Vietnam’s third largest city.

Enemy gunners targeted the television station on the first night. A mortar shell penetrated the roof of AFVN’s maintenance shed at No. 3 Dong Da St.

From the detachment’s nearby quarters, the officer in charge, Marine Lieutenant James DiBernardo, called the MACV headquarters in Hue on the house telephone, Bagwell said. “They told us to stay put. Fighting, they thought, was all over the city. Sometime the next day the line was cut. We were on our own at that point.”

A protracted siege at the broadcaster’s villa started with sniper fire. “We could see them out there every now and then probing,” said Ettmueller, who carried an M-14 rifle. The others were armed with a hodgepodge of weapons requiring different ammunition, which was available only in limited quantities.  

In addition to Ettmueller’s M-14, the defenders had a collection of old M-1 carbines, a couple of M-16 rifles, a .45-caliber pistol, a shotgun, a heavy M-60 machine gun and six hand grenades. The detachment was never issued its M-79 grenade launcher, Ettmueller recalls. “The supply officer in Saigon thought that we didn’t need it because we were in the city.”

The men took up positions inside the house to secure entry points. They had C rations, drinking water and even a transoceanic radio that was their link to the outside world as they listened to AFVN radio broadcasting from Saigon. Bagwell was guarding the window in the bedroom where he slept. “We eluded them for a couple of days and actually thought that we would eventually be rescued,” he said.

Five of the defenders are seen in this 1967 photo in the TV compound in Hue. Standing (r to l) DiBernardo; Niles; Anderson; Ettmueller; Gouin. 
After several days, an American helicopter flew over. “As far as they knew, the whole city had been taken,” Ettmueller said. “They came buzzing over, and the door gunner fired down on us.” The stunned men escaped the friendly fire.

With no warning, an enemy soldier appeared in front of Bagwell’s window and fired an AK-47. “He’s just a kid, probably 10, 11, 12 years old,” Bagwell thought. “I could hear one of the bullets go by my right ear, and a second later another bullet went past my left ear and the kid was shaking.” Poor marksmanship saved Bagwell. “When he shot at me I realized I’ve got to kill this kid or he’s going to kill me, so I shot him and he fell in front of the window.”

As the radio played, Bagwell heard an AFVN newscast. “Someone they were interviewing, I think it was [MACV Commander Gen. William] Westmorland, said, ‘Oh yes, we knew that this was going to happen in Hue.’ We looked at each other and thought, ‘We wish you’d told us.’”

In the fourth day of the marathon standoff, the billet lost power, and the men darted past flickering candles while hostile soldiers gathered for a mass attack. A salvo of three or four rocket-propelled-grenades signaled the start of the assault. “One B-40 [rocket] went right through the window,” Ettmueller said, “and blew the back wall apart, crashed down on top of me, crashed down on top of Tom Young,” a Marine sergeant and the station’s newscaster. The other men in the villa “had to pull us out from underneath the debris,” Ettmueller added.

The coming brawl was chaotic and brutal. One attacker, carrying a satchel explosive, tried to get inside, but one of the broadcasters shot him. The resulting explosion splattered the parked AFVN pickup truck. Army Sergeant First Class John Anderson, the noncommissioned officer in charge, was shot in the chest.

Anderson, Marine Corporal John Deering and Army Sergeant First Class Don Gouin were armed with carbines dating back to World War II. “Every time they fired those [carbines] the magazines fell out,” Ettmueller grumbled.

The most potent weapon the Americans had, the M-60 machine gun, was capable of easily firing a hundred rounds, or more, per minute. But the one at AFVN wasn’t properly maintained. The gun jammed after firing just two rounds and was promptly discarded, said Ettmueller. He picked apart the M-60’s belted-ammunition and saved the rounds, which could be used in his M-14, and took up a shielding position at the back of the house.

“They were coming up and trying to throw grenades in the window,” he said. “I killed four, possibly five. I nailed them in the back of the house with my M-14. I had it on rock ’n’ roll [fully automatic].” After daylight, Ettmueller discovered a dud “Chicom” grenade on the floor between his legs.

The 16-hour assault had extended the punishing stalemate into a fifth day. Injuries were mounting for the beleaguered AFVN crew, and supplies of food and water were now exhausted. Ettmueller described the final moments: “They were shooting RPGs into the building. The house was on fire. It was falling down around our ears.” The Americans had no choice but to flee and try to make it to the MACV compound a mile away.

The sleeping quarters the broadcasters had to flee, at No. 6 Tran Duc St. U.S. Navy photo.
Niles knew his way around Hue and took the lead out the front door. Bagwell emptied his last magazine as the enemy was clamoring into the back of the house and followed Niles.  As they fled, Niles was shot in the leg, and then mortally wounded, leaving Bagwell alive, but lost.

Ettmueller and the others had split off in the opposite direction with NVA soldiers in hot pursuit. The Americans scampered across a rice paddy but could not get through a fence and were trapped next to the U.S. Information Service Library, which had been gutted by fire. “We were firing back, but the problem was we were hemmed in on three sides,” Ettmueller said, reliving the final desperation. “They were maybe 20 feet away, throwing grenades; automatic weapons fire. I got shot in the leg. The adrenalin was pumping.”

The end came when Young was killed in a burst of automatic weapons fire, and Stroub was hit in the arm with an open fracture. “They tied us up with commo [communications] wire,” Ettmueller said, “and as they started to lead us out, he [Stroub] started to falter and that’s when they turned around and shot him right in front of me. I’ll never forget that. There was no mercy.”

Officer in charge DiBernardo had hidden in a pile of trash. “If he’d stayed there they would never have found him,” said Ettmueller. “All of a sudden they bring Dibernardo out; they took his glasses off, dropped ‘em on the ground and stepped on ‘em. I laughed, I couldn’t help it.”

Another photo of the abandoned villa. Courtesy U.S. Navy. 
As the five survivors were marched away as prisoners, they witnessed some of the first executions of noncombatants in Hue. “They made us look,” Ettmueller said. “They had these people on their knees, hands tied behind their back with their head down. They were shooting people in the back of the head, Vietnamese civilians. Five people, bang, bang, bang.”

Meanwhile, Bagwell was ducking fire and running for his life between houses. “I felt there was this Plexiglas surrounding me,” he recalled. “There was something keeping the bullets from reaching me.” One shot got through, however, hitting him in the foot. “I’d probably gone a good eight city blocks. I don’t know where I am. I said a prayer, and I looked up and here was this Catholic church that was literally not there 30 seconds before. I mean, it just appeared from nowhere.”

Bagwell knocked on the door and a priest let him in but insisted, “I’m not going to hide you in your uniform.” They went to the backyard and buried Bagwell’s rifle and fatigues. He put on typical Vietnamese civilian clothing and the radio DJ was suddenly in a cathedral with about 100 refugees. Many had been wounded.

The priest disguised the American soldier as an injured civilian and placed him among the Vietnamese casualties. Gauze was wrapped around Bagwell’s head to cover his face and hair. “The only thing showing was just my eyes,” he remembered and described what happened next. “The door swung open and the North Vietnamese came in and started looking, probably for me.” As they walked down the hall, one stopped and pointed his rifle 2 inches from Bagwell’s nose. “I was staring up the barrel of an AK-47, closed my eyes and thought I’d die, but he didn’t recognize me as being American. He bought it.”

Bagwell was human contraband, and the priest isolated him upstairs in the cathedral’s steeple. “I was laying there and all of a sudden we started getting shelled,” he remembered. In disbelief, Bagwell realized, “It was the Americans. Someone had instructed the Americans that the North Vietnamese were hiding in the church.” At nightfall, he was told to leave and the priest pointed toward a light far into the distance—an American outpost.

Bagwell motivated himself with hope: “I want to get married. I want to have kids. I want to get out of this.” He slipped out of the church and was slogging through rice paddies when danger appeared overhead. “An American helicopter started shining a light on me. I would stop, and I would move, and they would move their light.” That cat-and-mouse pursuit continued for more than an hour. “I thought, I’ve made it this far, and the Americans are going to kill me thinking I’m a Vietnamese.” The chopper moved on.

Wounded and cold, Bagwell crawled to a ravine and waited till morning across from a U.S. signal company. “The sun comes up, I sneezed, and these guys have no idea who I am,” he said. “So I pulled off my white shirt and kind of waved it in the air, jumped up and said, ‘For God’s sake, please don’t shoot.’” They fired a warning shot and challenged whether he really was an American. “With this Okie [Oklahoma] accent you can’t tell? I’m John Bagwell.” The soldiers said they thought he was dead and had been looking for his body.

On the seventh day after the Tet Offensive slammed into Hue, the gritty disc jockey was finally safe. Spec. 5 Mike Larson, who worked with him at the 1st Air Cav’s public affairs office, saw Bagwell lying on a cot at Camp Evans right after the ordeal. “I think he was probably a little shell-shocked, as you can imagine,” Larson said. “We were soldiers. We carried a weapon, but pretty much did our shooting with cameras.”

The interior ruins of the Americans' house in Hue. U.S. Navy photo.
Bagwell told me that he counted a dozen times when he should have been killed. “I literally wake up every morning glad to be alive.” His good fortune continued in the days after his escape. A nurse told him his leg would have to be amputated because of his untreated foot injury, but it healed. Months later, Bagwell learned from a friend that on the night he left for Saigon, his tent was shelled and the soldier who took his bunk died instantly. “God has allowed me to live for some strange reason.”

After arriving back home in Oklahoma, Bagwell’s mother had saved a Newsweek magazine for him. It had an article about a Vietnamese priest who was executed in Hue for hiding an American. “I’m pretty sure that would have been him and they were referring to me,” Bagwell presumed. “I could have been a prisoner of war easily.”

Harry Ettmueller and the other four survivors of Detachment 5 were POWs for five years, starting with a harsh, barefoot march up the Ho Chi Minh Trail. They endured the squalor and abuse that was common for Americans held in North Vietnam’s most infamous prisons. Ettmueller came home with nightmares and what he called war souvenirs: “Every now and then a piece of shrapnel will pop out of my leg.”

Ironically, John Deering, the detachment’s program director, survived many months in solitary confinement by constructing the perfect radio station entirely in his mind, according to his biography at macoi.net. He then equipped it, staffed it and managed it. The imaginary project became the POW’s obsession and helped him overcome the despair of brutal confinement.

Anderson, the NCO in charge of the Hue station, conducted a similar mental exercise in solitary. “He built a radio station from the ground up, laying the bricks, fitting the windows, even installing the wiring and equipment,” according to a story written by the Fort Monmouth public affairs office. After the POWs were released in 1973, Anderson finally achieved his vision when he became operations manager for a bona fide radio station in Niagara Falls, New York.

A half-century after the ghastly standoff at AFVN, the last men standing have both reached 70 years of age, and some pleasant memories of Vietnam emerge. Ettmueller recalls using a 16 mm TV projector to show movies on a wall for the kids in Hue. “They liked Combat and Batman.” Ettmueller returned to Hue in 2017 but could not find the place where three broadcasters were killed, five taken prisoner, and only one escaped. He has gone back to college and is studying history.

Bagwell talked about his DJ days before going to Hue, when he was a popular radio personality with the 1st Air Cav at An Khe and listeners knew him by his on-air moniker “The Scrawny Thing,” he chuckled. “I weighed 108 pounds.” Bagwell said he’s told his Vietnam story hundreds of times at veterans ceremonies, churches and schools.” Quite honestly, disc jockeys are not supposed to be fired on. I’ve relived it and I’m grateful every day.”

Now 50 years later, the harrowing account of this band of broadcasters at No. 6 Tran Duc St. has received only limited exposure in the literary world and none on the big screen. Bagwell would like to correct that, and tells me he wants to get together with Ettmueller so they can work on a manuscript.

Ten years ago, Detachment 5 was inducted into the Army Public Affairs’ Hall of Fame at Fort Meade, Maryland. A photograph shows some of the men in battle gear standing in front of the Hue television station. The broadcasters are in good company; other inductees include General Douglas MacArthur, who started the Army’s first bureau of information, and Pulitzer Prize-winning cartoonist Sgt. William Mauldin.

In 2017, the U.S. military’s worldwide broadcasting service, now known as the American Forces Network, also honored Detachment 5 in an article commemorating AFN’s 75th anniversary. News manager Mike Roberts wrote, “AFVN Detachment 5 remains the only unit in AFN history to take one hundred percent casualties.”

Rick Fredericksen was a Marine newsman at American Forces Vietnam Network in 1969-70. His new e-book is Broadcasters: Untold Chaos.


Epilogue
Chief Engineer Don Gouin relaxes behind the TV van. Photo courtesy Ron Turner.
>There is conflicting information on whether the defenders sabotaged the facility to keep a functioning TV station from falling into enemy hands. Engineer Ettmueller says he is not aware of it, but announcer Thomas Young’s biography at macoi.net claims “they disabled the radio and TV equipment just before a series of rocket-propelled-grenades struck.” When AFVN personnel came to recover the broadcasting van later, they found the TV trailer inoperable: the power line was sheared off, several shots were fired into the antenna cable and camera adjustments were turned out of alignment.

>The AFVN operation in Hue was ill-equipped. The men had insufficient weaponry and no field radio at their barracks, according to Ettmueller, who remains bitter. “We got very little support from Saigon. Nobody wanted to come up there because they were afraid.” An after-action report written by AFVN’s Capt. R.W. Johnson reads, “Due to the profile of the quarter’s area and the surrounding terrain, it appears to be an impossible area to defend against the number of troops and fire power of the enemy.”

>If the broadcasters had held out just a little longer they would have been rescued. A U.S. patrol with a military photographer arrived at the TV station less than two hours after the Americans fled, and the cameraman told Bagwell “the bodies [of the Americans] were still warm, the house was still smoking.” Waiting for help was not an option, Bagwell said. “They [the enemy] were coming in the back door as I physically went out the front door.”

Detachment 5 Roster
(Highest achieved ranks are shown)

Killed in Action
Thomas Young, sergeant, USMC, announcer; Hot Springs, Arkansas
Courtney Niles, Army veteran, TV engineer for NBC International; Detroit, Michigan

Executed
Steven Stroub, specialist 5, Army, broadcast specialist; Austin, Minnesota

POWs
John Deering, gunnery sergeant, USMC, program director; Nashville, Tennessee; deceased
Donat “Don” Gouin, master sergeant, Army, chief engineer; Central Falls, Rhode Island; deceased
James DiBernardo, major, USMC, officer in charge; Fulton, New York; deceased
John Anderson, master sergeant, Army, noncommissioned officer in charge; Torrey, New York; deceased
Harry Ettmueller, sergeant first class, Army, TV engineer; Pleasantville, New Jersey

Escaped

John Bagwell, specialist 5, Army, radio announcer; Ardmore, Oklahoma

Contemporary photo of John Bagwell, who owns a media company in Texas.

Tuesday, November 28, 2017

Anchorman's Haunting Story

I met Shirley 41 years after announcing her family's tragedy.
I sat in Shirley's living room a week before Thanksgiving and we became acquainted for the first time. Although she was previously unknown to me, I was among the most important men in her life. As we chatted, a subdued train whistle could be heard in the background. It came from the same railroad tracks where her mother, three brothers and a sister were killed in a car-train crash on July 1st, 1976.

It took more than 41 years for this face-to-face encounter to materialize. The rendezvous started to take shape after I retired from Iowa Public Radio last year, when I received Shirley's mysterious text message on Facebook: "Did you work at KCCI in 1976?" "Yes," I answered, "What can I do for you?" She wanted to meet me. That was the moment when I violated a cardinal rule in journalism: Don't get too involved in a story.

Shirley informed me that I was the TV anchorman who delivered the news of her family's horrifying tragedy. "It happened on NE 56th when my mom was headed back from the police pool," she continued texting. "She [mom] was 46, David 12, Michael 7, Alvin Jr. 4, Sarah almost 3." I slumped in stunned silence before my computer screen. During my 50 year career, I had never heard of anything remotely close to this happening to another newscaster.

Shirley Overton wasn't quite 16 when the accident occurred. Now married to Dan, Shirley Evans still lives in Des Moines, and I felt uneasy driving to their residence where we would talk for the first time. Kyle Munson accompanied me; The Des Moines Register's leading feature reporter would share our poignant story with the widest audience possible. Shirley didn't want her family to be forgotten.

The front door greeting was cordial and genuine. We hugged and Dan took our coats as we settled in for a sometimes excruciating conversation, exposing the grim consequences of a terrible family catastrophe.

But first, I set up a laptop computer to play one of my KCCI-TV newscasts from 1976. Not the one from the day of the accident, but rather, a newscast recorded exactly three months earlier, when Shirley's family was still whole.

Shirley watches my newscast from three months before the accident.

The iconic TV8 news set from the 1970s.
The news desk was in the shape of a figure "8," reflecting KCCI's designated TV channel. I was only 26 and sat behind the massive "8" alone. My 10 o'clock co-anchor, Russ Van Dyke, was off that night. Connie Mc Burney was at the weather map and Pete Taylor gave the day's sports. Shirley was able to see me again with my beard, on the same set, exactly how it would have looked that fateful night 12 weeks later, when I announced that five of her family members had perished.

Shirley was fearless and calm as we talked about that day and the newscast that is etched into her mind. "I remember you telling the story," she told me. "He's got a beard and looks like a cool guy, and he's kind of young. I'm going to remember Rick Fredericksen because he was the one that told the story to the whole world."

Shirley lost track of me when my career shifted overseas for 13 years before returning home to Des Moines. Once she heard about my retirement, she found me on Facebook and sent that initial eight-word text message.

"It's like God was telling me to look you up because it would be a good thing," she believed. As we sat together, I felt like a living memorial to her lost family. "That's what made me want to look you up, so I could have someone acknowledge they remember it."

On July 1, 1976, Shirley was babysitting for neighbors, when her mother, Patricia, went to the police recreation center to pick up 12-year-old David at the swimming pool. Alvin Overton, their father, was a Des Moines Police sergeant.

Undated photo of Patricia and Alvin Overton. Alvin died in 2011.
Patricia was under stress, and had left supper on the stove, when she loaded three of the couple's other 10 kids into the car. Alvin was upset that his wife had dropped David off at the pool without supervision. "Mom left mad," Shirley told us, "and she knew she had this hamburger cooking."

Patricia picked up David and was returning home with the four children, following a car ahead of her, when they approached the railroad tracks. After the first vehicle cleared the crossing, a freight train broadsided the Overton car, pushing it 200 yards down the track. There were no survivors.

The other siblings, including Shirley's twin sister Sharon, were waiting at home when Polk County Medical Examiner R.C. Wooters pulled up. Their father was in Wooters' official vehicle. "He [dad] got out of the car, red eyes, puffy, red nose, and handed me mom's purse." It's a moment Shirley recalls vividly. "That was all it took. Dad said, 'Get all the kids in the house now.'"

As word got out, family members, friends and policemen rushed to the east side residence. Shirley described the aftermath as "hysterics," frenzied memories that remain lucid. "We were all stomping our feet, lying on the floor, faces swollen and red from crying."

The pain was unbearable for Shirley's father. "My dad had his gun out. He goes into the bedroom and puts the gun to his head," she told us. "My uncle, who's a doctor, stripped the gun out of his hands and said, 'Don't do that again!'"

It was the same evening when Shirley turned on their favorite TV station to watch KCCI's 10 o'clock news, when I informed the audience about one of Iowa's worst rail crossing accidents in history. In an instant, a driver's momentary lapse had permanently reset the Overton family's genealogy. The next morning, it was The Des Moines Register's banner headline: "CAR-TRAIN CRASH KILLS 5."

The Register's front page on July 2, 1976.
Shirley was courageous as she reconstructed the incident, as another ghostly train whistle punctuated the conversation. For close to two hours, Kyle and I listened, and Register photographer Zach Boyden-Holmes recorded her spellbinding commentary. Trying not to provoke her emotions, Shirley spoke matter-of-fact, like a deposition before a court reporter. But her personal account revealed the traumatic consequences that inundated her life for decades.

Shirley knows things that could never be learned from a text book on advanced psychology. Life experience has given her valuable lessons to share with others who might face crushing grief.

"Get help, first and foremost," she insists. "Therapy is the only thing that's really gotten me through." Depression, anxiety, panic attacks and visits to psychologists and psychiatrists have shadowed her since the accident.

Nonetheless, Shirley got married, raised a family and worked at EMC (Employers Mutual Casualty Company) for 32 years. "I was scared every day that I was going to lose somebody from my family. To this day, I hear a siren and I'm calling my kids." She still takes medication, but counseling is now down to one doctor.

Raising her own family has also helped. "It's like I needed kids, I missed them," she thinks out loud, just like her mom, who was a nurse. "She was a baby lover like me. She was a nurturer and worked on the baby floor at Mercy (hospital)." Shirley and Dan had three children by the time she was 23. Their extended family now includes nine grand children.

More good advice: "Hug your family and say 'I love you' every day," she recommends. "I didn't get that chance. I had to wait till I saw five caskets to tell them that I loved them."

Courtesy The Des Moines Tribune. July 4, 1976.
Shirley's symptoms reminded me of post-traumatic stress. I've seen it in soldiers who have gone back to Vietnam in search of closure. Returning to the front line can be liberating for veterans. Perhaps seeing me again was Shirley's way of going back to her own battlefield; the day of the tragedy. When I suggested PTSD, she responded, "I kind of wish that people could see it that way."

She has gone through a similar process at the railroad intersection where the collision took place in Pleasant Hill. It is still an important rail line today and Kyle asked if she ever goes to the accident site. "We go all the time," Shirley said. "I closed my eyes for years if we ever went that way."

Like other Iowans, the Christmas season is sentimental for the family that originated with Patricia and Alvin Overton. "We always got everything we wanted. Dad made sure of it," Shirley said with anticipation. "My [twin] sister Sharon has it at her house. It's all warm and everybody gets along." But when she listens to "White Christmas," and other songs that her dad used to play, "It kind of makes me cry sometimes, but a lot of the times it's cathartic."

We said our goodbyes and the unforeseen reunion ended. Maybe it has helped Shirley heal just a little bit more. I realize she can never stop thinking about that day in 1976, and neither will I. Perhaps the emptiness of missing her loved ones is evolving into honoring them. That was her incentive for coming together 41 years later; to commemorate the lives of Patricia, David, Michael, Alvin Jr. and Sarah.

Mom and dad with 4 of their 10 children. Sitting next to their mother are twins Sharon and Shirley (right).
Later that day, something bothered me about our meeting. At the time, I thought it would be insensitive to ask Shirley about the distant train whistles that persisted while we conversed. So I sent Shirley a text message, and this was her devastating answer: "Yes, it's the same tracks and that makes me realize that's the sound that she [mom] would have heard." She continued, "For some odd reason, I hear it at night and I will stand at the door and listen."

Thursday, October 12, 2017

Happy 30th Birthday "Good Morning, Vietnam"

Good Morning, Vietnam and Off Limits were filmed in Bangkok at the same time. Photo is a night scene from Off Limits. rf (1987)
Note: This is my Vietnam Magazine story before the final edit and minus the slick production layout (with 14 photos). The finished product was published in the Dec. 2017 issue.

Thirty years ago, America’s irritable mood over the costly military venture in Vietnam began to lighten just a little. As the search for missing servicemen was escalating and as veterans were lining up for treatment of mental trauma and exposure to Agent Orange, a Hollywood company took a major gamble: Touchstone Pictures, a distribution label of The Walt Disney Co., made a bet that the time was right for the first major motion picture combining humor and the Vietnam War.

Good Morning, Vietnam, released on Dec. 23, 1987, is not a war movie in the traditional sense. Most of the movie, filmed in Thailand, takes place in the urban setting of 1965 Saigon, and there is very limited on-screen violence. It’s the story of Air Force disc jockey and Staff Sgt. Adrian Cronauer during his time as a broadcaster with Armed Forces Radio Service when he used the phrase, “good morning, Vietnam,” to begin his early-morning show “Dawnbuster.”

Producer Mark Johnson described the movie, with Robin Williams in the starring role, as “a comedy with a very serious underbelly” when he participated in a panel discussion of the film at the Foreign Correspondents Club of Thailand on May 6, 1987, four weeks into production. “We’re not irresponsible to do something lighthearted and frolicsome about the war in Vietnam,” Johnson said.

“It’s almost like Bronx meets Buddhism,” Williams said at the panel discussion. “I think right now the [war] numbness is wearing off a little bit. If it works, there’s a certain catharsis in laughter.”

In the film’s official production notes, Johnson said the DJ role was perfect for Williams. “When he sat down in the control booth to do the scenes reenacting Cronauer’s broadcasts, we just let the cameras roll,” the producer said. “He managed to create something new for every single take.”

Williams’ performance made him a star and made the movie a box office success. The film earned $124 million, making it the fourth top-grossing movie released in 1987. Williams won a Golden Globe Award and an Oscar nomination, both for best actor.

Before the accolades there had always been a possibility that laughing at the Vietnam War could be an audience turnoff, and Williams realized it when I interviewed him for a public radio piece during the filming. He said: “It’s like, how long before they made Mister Roberts? How long before they made Hogan’s Heroes?” The Germans are going [in thick German accent] ‘That’s really not that funny mister smart man.’ We can laugh at that now.”

Mister Roberts premiered 10 years after World War II; Hogan’s Heroes, 20 years. Although Good Morning, Vietnam appeared 12 years after the war ended, Cronauer had begun pitching the concept less than five years after the 1975 fall of Saigon. Cronauer wrote a television screenplay with former Army broadcaster Spec. 4 Ben Moses, who had become a close friend when the two men worked together at Armed Forces Radio in Saigon.

In 1979 Cronauer tried to peddle the script to TV networks as a situation comedy. “M*A*S*H was No. 1 in the ratings. WKRP Cincinnati was very popular,” he told an interviewer years later on KMOX radio in St. Louis. “So I figured if you put them together you’d have armed forces radio.” The networks were not interested. The timing was too risky they figured.

In 1982 Cronauer and Moses repackaged the story as a TV movie. By this time, Moses had become a successful television producer, and his agent, Larry Brezner, happened to be Robin Williams’ manager. “Robin and his agent bought an option on the script, and after a drastic rewrite tailored to the talents of Robin Williams, the hit movie Good Morning, Vietnam was filmed,” states Cronauer’s biography on the website macoi.net, dedicated to veterans who were in the Military Assistance Command, Vietnam, Office of Information.

Mitch Markowitz, a writer for the M*A*S*H series, worked up the final screenplay. Embassy Pictures expressed an interest in the script but backed out. So did Paramount Pictures. “They decided less than a year ago not to make it,” Johnson said during the May 1987 discussion at the Foreign Correspondents Club. “Then Disney Studios picked it up and almost immediately slated it for production.”

Doubts about the project, however, surfaced during the early stages of production. “The overwhelming mood as we shot the movie was that it was a mess . . . it was going to be an inglorious failure,” recalled one of the film’s advisers, Alan Dawson, who served in the war as an Army Spec. 4 in the information office of the 1st Signal Brigade and returned to Vietnam as a war correspondent with United Press International and Metromedia Radio News. “I can’t remember one person who disagreed, except [director] Barry Levinson. Levinson took little pieces of disaster and made a coherent and enjoyable movie.”

Williams leaps from a jeep during the convoy scene filmed outside Bangkok. rf
Even Williams had reservations, according to Johnson’s recollections in The Hollywood Reporter after Williams’ death in August 2014. “He did his best stuff in front of British crew members and Thai and Australian extras,” the producer said. “He would do some specific, iconic American humor . . . and the crew would just be sitting there. He thought his material wasn’t working.”

Williams’ fears were unfounded. Reviews were dazzling, including “two thumbs up” from the critics on the TV show Siskel & Ebert. Gene Siskel, who had written Army press releases at Fort Benjamin Harrison in Indianapolis, said the film “is the answer to a lot of moviegoers’ prayers at long last . . . that Robin Williams in Good Morning, Vietnam has finally found a film worthy of his talents as an improvisational comic genius.”

The cast of characters included a young Forest Whitaker and another comedian, Robert Wuhl. Thai starlet Chintara Sukapatana played William’s girlfriend Trinh. Two Vietnamese debuted in key parts. Tung Thanh Tran, who played Trinh’s brother, Tuan, had escaped from Vietnam at the end of the war and was a high school student in Chicago when he auditioned for the role. His character would turn out to be Viet Cong. Cu Ba Nguyen was the gregarious saloonkeeper Jimmy Wah. Nguyen was a former military prisoner who once staged a daring escape from Cambodia, according to the production notes.

No American veterans of the war were among the actors given top billing, although a couple found their way into the movie as extras. Available non-Asian faces were in short supply in 1987 Thailand, in part because production also had begun on another Vietnam War film, Off Limits, a crime thriller set in Saigon, starring Willem Dafoe and Gregory Hines.

Casting directors who needed blacks and whites for certain scenes faced a limited pool of prospects among expatriates, backpackers and international tourists. They posted “Wanted” signs in hotels and guest houses. Visitors from Europe, Australia and Nigeria were among those dressed up in U.S. Army fatigues.

“We explored shooting in Vietnam, but the Disney studio would not go for it at all,” producer Johnson said during the discussion at the Foreign Correspondents Club. “I think they’re worried about being perceived or doing business right now with a country that was quite recently an enemy of the United States.”

Constructing sets and city streets in the United States, however, would have cost millions of dollars, so Good Morning, Vietnam was made entirely on location in Thailand, which had a reputation for welcoming moviemakers. Director Levinson strongly believed in giving the troupe a sense of place. “The first and most important thing is to have the actors spend time together so they can develop a rapport,” he said in the production notes. “Inevitably the bonds they establish will translate to the screen.” It’s precisely the same kind of camaraderie that veterans themselves experienced in Vietnam.

Working in temperatures soaring above 100 degrees and frequent monsoon rains, the movie’s cast battled the same discomfort as a logistics unit during the war. Fittingly, Bangkok’s meteorological offices were converted into the Armed Forces Radio Service studios in Saigon. The Malaysia Hotel served as the radio operation’s exteriors. In 1965, the actual radio station was in the Brink Hotel (known as the Brinks), now the Park Hyatt Saigon Hotel.

When the crew needed to build a Vietnamese village, designer Roy Walker chose the resort island of Phuket to re-create a perfect rural landscape, complete with rice paddies. Walker was familiar with Thailand. He had worked there on The Killing Fields four years earlier. The land’s fertility was underestimated, according to the production notes. “The rice grew so quickly . . . the Good Morning, Vietnam team had to harvest the crop and replant before shooting could begin.”

British set decorator Tessa Davies and Dawson, her assistant, strove for authenticity in the look of the movie, from the uniforms and patches to the teletype machines and the 2½-ton cargo trucks. Fiberglass replicas of wartime Saigon’s two-tone Renault taxis—familiar to long-legged GIs who remember cramming into the yellow and blue cabs—were stamped out of the original molds. A small fleet of the reproductions was used for Off Limits as well as Good Morning, Vietnam.

Reproductions of Saigon's omnipresent Renault taxi cabs. Photo is reversed to protect copyright. rf
The historical evolution of the conflict was also respected, said co-producer Brezner in the production notes. “In early 1965, no one was taking the Vietnam situation very seriously, but by the end of the year, the number of troops had increased by the thousands,” he said, adding, “1965 was the year that Jekyll became Hyde.”

Even the basic storyline was grounded in reality: Military broadcasters provided a vital morale boost throughout the Vietnam War. There was censorship of the news and occasional controversy over the selection of music.

But the movie version of Cronauer strayed far from the real Cronauer, whose film alter ego didn’t emerge until the script went through several rewrites. “In one version, I was captured by the Viet Cong,” Cronauer revealed in the KMOX radio interview. “I was glad that never happened. In another version, I married a Vietnamese girl. My wife says she’s glad that never happened.”

But Williams’ madcap banter also was an exaggeration of the real Cronauer. In a 2014 interview with me after William’s death, Cronauer shared one of his favorite observations about the star’s portrayal of him: “If I did even half the things that Robin did in the movie, I’d still be in Leavenworth [federal penitentiary].” The film was never intended to be a biography. “Williams was trying to make it as entertaining as possible,” Cronauer told me and, echoing movie critic Siskel’s observation, added, “He was a comic genius.”

Williams’ mastery of his craft was on display when he joined producer Johnson and cast members at the Foreign Correspondents Club of Thailand, an organization of journalists, expatriates and Thais. The panel discussion, followed by questions from a standing-room-only audience, might as well have been headlined “Robin Williams, Live in Bangkok!” For more than an hour Williams dominated the program with his off-the-wall, spontaneous antics and impressionist ad-libs, impersonating President Richard Nixon and other public figures.

No one was safe from the comedian’s playful taunts. When someone walked in late, Williams became a style-show announcer: “Wearing a lovely suit from the Sears men’s collection, it’s almost springtime here in Bangkok. Let’s show some of the other fashions for foreign correspondents.”

Another guest asked if the moviemakers were bothered by the notorious mosquitoes in Thailand. Williams instantly swerved into a Southern drawl: “I’ve been to Texas. We have bugs out there that pick up the dog. You know, the ones that fly into the screen and go, ‘Open the door!’”

When an Asian woman questioned him about a scene in Good Morning, Vietnam where he tutors a “cursing class” for Vietnamese, Williams confessed in the best way he could, with humor. “There is one scene where I teach some American colloquialisms, some basic street language that will help you get a cab in New York.” The audience roared with laughter.

Film history is rich with stories connected to the Vietnam War. Wikipedia has assembled an inventory that includes, even if incomplete, nearly 100 titles, starting with the 1964 American film A Yank in Viet-Nam. Directors from a dozen countries have contributed to the genre, which includes two movies that were South Vietnamese productions made during the war. Bravery, prisoners of war and disturbed veterans are common themes. The most recent picture is a monster movie, Kong: Skull Island, released this year and partially filmed in Vietnam.

Good Morning, Vietnam remains the standout comedy and is still available through online streaming services and channels that show classic movies. Although Williams was never in the military, let alone on armed forces radio, he became the most famous of the DJs associated with the “Dawnbuster” show. His agonizing death in 2014, related to Lewy body dementia, was detailed in a haunting account by his wife, Susan Schneider Williams, in Neurology (September 2016): “Robin was losing his mind and he was aware of it . . . from where I stood, I saw the bravest man in the world playing the hardest role of his life.”

When Cronauer welcomed his “Dawnbuster” morning radio audience, he initially stretched out the word “good”— “Goooooood Morning, Vietnam”— to give himself a few extra seconds to cue up his first song on the turntable. The cadence of that wake-up salutation became a time-honored tradition and was copied by Cronauer’s successors, including Pat Sajak, who became the host of TV game show Wheel of Fortune.

In the studio scenes where Williams utters that phrase, he seems to hurry his delivery. “The one thing that rankles me to this day is that Robin’s personal ‘Goooooood Morning Vietnam’ is nothing at all like the actual, real ones,” complained movie adviser Dawson, who listened to the program on American Forces Vietnam Network (formerly Armed Forces Radio Service) while working as a war correspondent and still lives in Bangkok.

It’s true that Williams rushed through the word “good” in about three seconds, whereas Cronauer took at least twice as long. A later “Dawnbuster” host could barely do it in one breath, taking nearly 20 seconds. Few Vietnam veterans would ever notice the discrepancy—in fact, by the end of the war, the expression had faded. Army Spec. 4 Joe Huser was the final “Dawnbuster” host in 1973 and said, “I don’t ever remember saying ‘Goooooood Morning, Vietnam.’”

But those three words have had a lasting impression in reunified Vietnam. Some years after the fall of Saigon in April 1975, one of the first Western-style bars to open in Ho Chi Minh City was named Good Morning Vietnam. The phrase is now part of Vietnam folklore. On the streets of the bustling metropolis in 2017 you can buy a designer T-shirt with a distinctive twist: the words “Good Morning Vietnam” are centered around a war-torn Communist Vietnam flag.

Rick Fredericksen was a Marine newsman at American Forces Vietnam Network in 1969-70. His new e-book is Broadcasters: Untold Chaos. He reported from the Thailand set of Good Morning, Vietnam for CBS News, Asia Magazine and American Public Radio.


Robin posed with me for a photo during a pause in filming. (Bangkok, 1987) rf
Sidebar #1  Thailand's Star Attraction
In Good Morning, Vietnam, soon after the Air Force DJ played by Robin Williams arrives in Saigon in 1965, he is swept away by a virtuous young lady who would make him cry. Thai actress Chintara Sukapatana, ironically, was born in 1965 and had turned 22 when she landed the lead female role as Trinh.

Twenty-six minutes into the film the DJ is captivated by her modest beauty the instant she walks by wearing a traditional Vietnamese ao dai dress, with its snug high-collar top, silk trousers and flowing fabric panels in front and back. According to the film’s official production notes, hundreds of women were interviewed for the part. The first choice was Sukapatana, whose career was peaking after she won Thailand’s best actress award.

“She’s done 15 films in two years, which is more than I hope to do in my lifetime,” Williams said at the Foreign Correspondents Club of Thailand during an evening off while filming in Bangkok. “She’s teaching me some Thai. I’ve taught her some Californian.”

Alan Dawson, a Bangkok adviser for the production, said, “We came very close to losing the Thai star. She really didn’t give two hoots about Hollywood or the money, and she tried to break her contract to do another soap opera filming at the same time.” It took negotiations and threats to get her back on board, he said.

The behind-the-scenes drama, complicated by Sukapatana’s lack of English, was not apparent on camera, especially during the co-stars’ tender good-bye when their doomed relationship ends with a tearful handshake. “She cranked it out in the farewell scene,” Williams said. “All of a sudden she was full out and very good. She’s very innocent.”

Soon after Williams died in 2014, Sukapatana recalled that moment in the online media publication Coconuts.co.: “He said I did well and warned me that he was sensitive. When I cried on camera, he cried too.”

For her international admirers, Sukapatana will always be remembered as Trinh, the shy Vietnamese girl in Good Morning, Vietnam. But for her fans at home in Thailand, the 52-year-old actress is an established versatile performer in popular soap operas on Thai television.

Sidebar #2  View From the Back Row
During much of 1967, Army Spec. 5 Don Fox greeted radio listeners with “Goooooood Morning, Vietnam” as one of about 30 announcers who took turns hosting the “Dawnbuster” show throughout the war.

When the movie premiered outside Rochester, New York, the theater held a special preview for Vietnam veterans, and Fox was there, sitting quietly in the back row. He describes what happened.

“Every time Robin would shout out those infamous words the audience would shout back obscenities, hoot and holler, cheer, throw popcorn at the screen, and then laugh uproariously, often slapping each other on the back. They had no idea who was slumping deeper and deeper in my seat each time. As the movie ended, I slunk out of the theater, crawled into my car and sat quietly watching the crowd of once-hardened men, now gregarious and effusive, spill into the parking lot, gathering in groups large and small, as if to hold on to something precious, a camaraderie that had slipped from their lives so many years ago in that foreign land. And for the first time I realized that my time on-the-air at AFVN [American Forces Vietnam Network] had made a difference. It had given them—and me—a common bond, regardless of when, where, and how they served in country. It was a humbling experience.”

Robin and some of the extras practice drilling with M16s near Bangkok. rf