Friday, November 20, 2020

Historic Video of Postwar Saigon in 1986

In the gift shop at the historic Continental

Eleven years after the fall of Saigon, I videotaped some of the city's best-known landmarks. It was my first trip back since I served in Vietnam in 1969/70. In 1986, the economy had collapsed without American support and the U.S. embargo was strictly adhered to. It was a dark place with many southerners in re-education camps and others trying to flee the country. With Vietnam's economic rebound still years away, the old city looked much as it did when the U.S. was present. Strikingly missing are the traffic jams and U.S. military personnel. The video is unedited and runs about 18 minutes. Thanks to Cortney Kintzer and Brad Harvey.

Saturday, October 3, 2020

Anchorman's Mysterious Death

 This Vietnam magazine article (Dec. 2020 issue) is an adaptation from my forthcoming book Hot Mics and TV Lights: The True Story of the American Forces Vietnam Network with co-author Marc Yablonka

Mike Turpin on the news set in Saigon. AFVNVETS.NET

Nothing seemed unusual about Army Spc. 4 Mike Turpin. He was a respected TV newscaster during his time at AFVN in 1967-68. “When he went on the air as the new anchor, he had a new uniform and looked spic and span,” according to Army Spc. 5 John Mikesch, who was the technical director for Turpin’s newscasts. “He had a mature, experienced presentation. He was perfect.”

To most people who knew him, Turpin hardly seemed like a person who would die under mysterious circumstances, yet that is what happened in 1972 after he left the military and strangely returned to Vietnam. Nearly 50 years later, the mystery remains unsolved.

Turpin in the field (right, foreground) with 1st Infantry Div. Courtesy Matt Turpin

Off-camera, Turpin, who spoke at least five languages, led a life that was a perilous concoction of one part adventure and one part danger. Prior to arriving at AFVN, he served with the 1st Infantry Division in Vietnam, earning a Purple Heart, Silver Star and Bronze Star.

Turpin joined the Merchant Marine at age 16 in 1944 but changed course the next year and enlisted in the Army in April 1945. He served in Korea, where he suffered a head laceration and earned a Bronze Star. He was discharged from the Army in 1968.

Turpin, who went by “Mike” but whose given name was Ira Leslie Turpin, was born Jan. 29, 1928, in Gary, Indiana. He had five marriages, and four of them broke up. He had five biological children and one stepdaughter.

When Turpin died, officially in April 1972 at age 44, he was in Vietnam as a civilian. It’s not clear what he was doing there. Even more puzzling is his death. There are multiple theories of what happened.

Trouble at International House

International House in 1966. John F. Cordova Courtesy Manh Hai
After he left the military in 1968, Turpin ran a small bookstore at the International House, a popular downtown Saigon social club for foreign civilians on Nguyen Hue Street. That same year he married Kyong Ui, the International House’s chief accountant, whom he had met while still in the service. A Korean native, she was known as Kim to everyone but Turpin, who called her Lily. She had a young daughter, also born in Korea. The wedding reception took place in the club’s banquet room. Lily had become Turpin’s fifth wife.

Customers at the International House tended to be “high military people, high-ranking Vietnamese people, Indian people, Arab people. French people,” said Doris Hochberger, Lily’s daughter, who used to go there with her mother, who died in 1988.

The International House had several thousand members, according to a wartime column by Daniel Cameron in the Saigon Post. “You paid a $20 membership fee and then ate low-priced steaks, drank the PX booze, played the slot machines and had companionship,” Cameron wrote. “American civilians went there in droves,” he said.

Some U.S. officials served on the International House board and the U.S. Embassy could audit the place, but otherwise it had limited oversight. According to Cameron, a federal grand jury indicted two managers for defrauding the American government of hundreds of thousands of dollars. It reportedly closed in 1969.

“Everybody got subpoenaed at International House,” Doris said. “Everyone had to testify and they were leaving town.” One of her father’s friends was subpoenaed and then killed when his helicopter blew up. Lily’s boss, also summoned, was shot while walking to work, but survived. Turpin suddenly moved Doris and Lily to Bangkok. “It seemed my dad was shipping us off to get us out,” Doris recalled.

At age 6, Doris learned to swim at the exclusive Cercle Sportif Club
She was too young to understand events at the time. “When I got older I always figured it had to do with money,” Doris said. “Greed. So much money went through International House. I thought it was embezzlement, money laundering, I don’t know.” 

Jocelyn Turpin, the daughter of Turpin with his third wife, Joyce, was researching the family’s complicated history when she came across connections between the International House and a scam involving diamonds imported through the Post Exchange.

Clark Mollenhoff, a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist for the Des Moines Register in Iowa, wrote about the investigation in 1971, reporting that a global diamond trader was doing more than $1 million a month in diamond business through the PX system. Mollenhoff explained that expensive jewelry was allegedly being sold through International House to avoid high South Vietnamese customs duties. “That central fact,” he wrote, “is at the heart of what will be one of the major scandals coming out of the Vietnam War.”

Family members believe Turpin and Lily were both subpoenaed to testify before a federal grand jury and a U.S. Senate subcommittee investigating Vietnam scandals. “He told us he was due in court in LA later that spring (1971), but he didn’t want to go and was afraid he wasn’t going to return,” Jocelyn said. Family members aren’t certain whether Turpin and Lily were subpoenaed to testify s suspects, informants or straightforward witnesses.

There was no official allegation linking the couple to illicit activities at the International House, but Turpin’s affluence did not go unnoticed.

“My mother had a lot of diamonds,” Doris recalled. “I mean a lot of diamonds. She had one-carat diamond earrings.” The family moved into a large residence outside Saigon about the time Mike left the military. They had a pool, two housekeepers and a gardener. They hosted large weekend social gatherings, and up to 150 guests attended some of the barbecues, including Turpin’s friends from AFVN.

Turpin also had a virtual arsenal in his house. “In my parent’s room, under their armoires, he had AK-47 and M16 rifles, grenades, all kinds of stuff,” Doris said. Turpin also kept two handguns at home, one in his night stand and one under the bed. He taught Doris and Lily how to shoot. “One time they used a grenade launcher on a watermelon,” Doris recalled. “It was awesome!”

Doris provided the photo, at left, of her mom on the firing range with an M16 rifle in 1968.

Jocelyn believes Turpin might have been profiting from the black market. “Clearly he was involved with something,” she said. “I think a lot of people wanted him dead for the information he had.”


                                             Killed in Combat Theory

After the family moved to the United States in 1969, Turpin bought a house for his parents in Florida, a car for his family and a brand new sports car convertible for another relative—all in cash. “Dad never wrote a check and did not have a credit card,” Doris said. Turpin took Doris on a nationwide driving vacation that covered 32 states in four months.

Mikesch with radio starlet Chris Noel. AFVN photo.
At one point, the family stayed at AFVN veteran John Mikesch’s house in Seattle while Turpin tried unsuccessfully to find work in television. The family moved on as Turpin continued his job search, which landed him in a familiar place.

“He’d gone back to Vietnam to do some work for the military or the government,” according to information Mikesch got later from Lily and confirmed with his own contacts. “He was freelancing,” Mikesch said. “There were a lot of new weapons being developed at that time, and he got connected with people who were able to maintain these things, able to get hold of them.”

Mikesch believes that Turpin was killed in combat: “In one of those skirmishes that he was involved in they were overrun. Something went wrong . . . so that was the mystery of how it all ended.”

When Jocelyn attended a reunion and talked with Turpin’s buddies from the 1st Infantry Division, she heard more speculation that her dad was “military intelligence.”

Died of Nature Causes Theory

In a letter to the family, U.S. Embassy Consul General Malcolm Hallam wrote that Turpin’s landlord found the former soldier dead in his room in late April 1972. “He was sitting in a chair dressed in pajamas with his head and upper torso slumped over . . . and his head resting on a small table,” the letter said. “There was no visible evidence of violence within the room.” Congealed blood from Turpin’s nose and mouth covered the top of the table. Vietnamese police “found no evidence of foul play,” Hallam stated.

Mike and Lily at their International House wedding reception.
The Consul General said Mike’s friend, Larry Worth, president of Worth Co. Ltd. in Saigon, told the Embassy that Turpin was unemployed and visited him the night before his body was found. Worth’s business card was found in one of Turpin’s pockets. The official death certificate, signed by an army captain at 3rd Field Hospital, lists the cause of death as “natural” and shows that no autopsy was performed.

The body was flown to Georgia where Lily and Turpin’s father, Leslie, met the plane to make the identification. Doris, 9 years old, did not go to the airport, but she remembers the adults talking afterward. They were uncertain if the body really was Turpin’s.

“Mom said it could have been anyone,” Doris recalls. “There was no embalming.” However, a U.S. Foreign Service report on Turpin’s death says the remains were “embalmed and shipped by air to U.S.” The body was buried at Pennville, Georgia, on May 9, 1972—11 days after being discovered in the room in Vietnam.

Bar Brawl Theory

Another theory comes from former Army Spc. 5 Dick Ellis, who worked with Turpin at AFVN and ran his teleprompter for the 6 p.m. news. After Turpin left the military and returned to the United States, he “then came back to Saigon as a civilian and was shot in a bar incident, I understand,” Ellis said.

Jocelyn Turpin holds her dad's photo.
The three Turpin children I interviewed were not familiar with the bar murder story; however, they were not surprised. Jocelyn told me that military police once went to the home of Turpin’s parents in Georgia and told them their son “had been found in an alley badly beaten.” When Turpin was a younger man he would regularly get into bar fights, she added.

Standing over 6 feet tall, Turpin was an imposing man and gritty. Before his time at AFVN, he was a reporter and anchorman at TV station WTOP (now WUSA) in Washington, D.C. His son Matt, Jocelyn’s brother, has a newspaper clipping of an incident that shows the reporter on the other end of a news story. “There was some news conference in D.C., and he got into a brawl with another reporter, and it made the news,” Matt said.


       CIA Theory

One of the most tantalizing clues about Turpin’s death came from a man who visited Lily in Florida and identified himself as “Mr. Olson.” He told Lily he was with the CIA, recalled Doris, who had been sent to her room but heard everything. “He was talking about the time in Vietnam, about International House and started talking about dad,” Doris said. “He told my mother he was murdered and shot in the head.”

From her room, Doris could see photographs Olson had brought, including an 8-by-10-inch black-and-white print that showed a man leaning over with his head on a desk, an image similar to the scene described in the U.S. consul general’s letter. The man’s face was not visible. “It looked like it was staged,” Doris said. “It was too neat, no mess, no blood.”

Jocelyn didn’t see the photo but also thinks the death scene was staged, based on the embassy’s description of the hotel room. No identifying features were given, and the lack of an autopsy prevents other confirmation, she said.

Jocelyn has conducted a tenacious search for official records, photographs, credentials and internet corroboration. Rather than answering questions, however, that documentation often raises new ones.

For example, personal possessions that the embassy recovered from Turpin’s room and returned to the family include clothing, his passport, and items like his wrist watch and toothbrush. “I think what is unusual is what is missing,” Jocelyn said. “Where are his pipes and books? He never went without those.”

Why did Mike have this photo in Saigon? He's at the head of the table.

Also puzzling are two photos the embassy returned to Turpin’s family. They show Turpin inside Andy Wong’s Chinese Sky Room nightclub in San Francisco—28 years earlier. One is a group photo of Turpin with about 10 men and women around a dinner table. The other snapshot shows Mike sitting with an unidentified woman holding a cocktail.

And what about this mystery woman?
Jocelyn asked: “Why was this gathering in a Chinatown nightclub so important to him . . . that he chose to bring these pictures halfway across the world [to Vietnam], when he brought so few other things with him? Was it some kind of last message?” No photos of Turpin’s own family were in the packet of his personal belongings.

“He used to tell everybody he was in importing and exporting,” Doris said, but adds, “I think dad had something to do with the CIA because he always seemed to know everything before it happened.”

Doris and Jocelyn are not blaming the CIA but believe any work Turpin might have done for the agency could have contributed to his death.

Mike Did Not Die Theory

This theory also places Turpin in a life-threatening situation, but instead of being killed he disappears to save his life or escape other problems.

About 20 years ago, this cryptic posting appeared on a now-obsolete AFVN discussion group: “Joe Ciokon was the daily War News Editor and the 6 PM TV news anchor for the American Forces Vietnam Network . . . he relieved an Army sergeant named Mike Turpin . . .  strictly a “soldier of fortune” who only came out for wars and conflicts [and] had a penthouse apartment at the International Hotel (he was probably a spook) and R&R’d in Tokyo a lot.”

Although there is nothing definitive establishing Mike as a mercenary or a spy, his extravagant lifestyle caught the eye of AFVN colleagues—and perhaps others who wanted something from him.

Turpin had good reasons to vanish, Jocelyn said. “A lot of people were looking for him, everything from ex-wives to family friction.” In this theory, she continued, “he picked the perfect place knowing they had no autopsy facilities for civilians in Saigon. It would have taken nothing to pay off the landlord at that hotel, find a body . . . in the middle of the [communists’ spring 1972] Easter Offensive . . . and just say it was him. He wanted to disappear. He would have known how to do that.”

Doris is conflicted: “Half of me says yes, if he passed away, there was foul play. The other half of me says I don’t even know if he passed away at that point. So I don’t know.”

AFVN Memories

Some of Turpin’s best days in Vietnam were at AFVN as a valued television anchorman. Doris and her mother would sit in front of the TV in their sixth-floor apartment downtown and watch Turpin read AFVN’s evening news. On one occasion Doris, about 6 years old, tagged along to observe a newscast from the control room. “I remember all the guys being really, really nice,” she said. Doris even joined her stepfather for a story that required a helicopter flight.

Mike's picture of bombing scene.
On May 3, 1968, Turpin was reading the 1 p.m. newscast when a terrorist bomb exploded in the compound that AFVN shared with Vietnamese TV. Army Spc. 5 Bob Casey, who was running the control board, described the attack at “We were about a minute in when the bomb went off. I never shut the mic off and on the tape, you can hear the explosion, the falling ceilings, fluorescent lights falling and glass breaking.” There were numerous casualties but only a couple of minor injuries at AFVN. The audio recording is on YouTube, titled “The story of AFVN radio and TV.” 

Turpin was also a dedicated writer, even taking a portable typewriter into the field. “He also contributed to a story for Alfred Hitchcock [who hosted a television show that focused on mysteries],” Doris said. “I remember watching it on AFVN with dad and the credits came up and there was his name.” 

As terrorist bombings became more frequent downtown, Lily was growing more frightened. The family moved to the spacious home outside Saigon. It was not only ideal for large gatherings and formal dinners but also a welcome place for privacy.

Mike, second from left, at the Turpin residence outside Saigon.
As Doris recalled, “Dad used to come home every night from work. He would make himself an Old Forester bourbon on the rocks, sit on the porch and start reading. He read three or four books at a time.”

Her stepfather’s favorite song was “Those Were the Days,” recorded by Mary Hopkin in 1968. “Dad would hold a glass of Old Forester and sing,” she said. “I remember him playing “Those Were the Days” and singing at the top of his voice. He used to just wail it.” Doris said her stepdad had a great sense of humor and was always patient. “I never heard the man raise his voice.”

But there were skeletons in Turpin’s closet, Jocelyn discovered. During the first of his Army enlistments, Turpin lied about his age—he was just 17—and signed up using a fictitious name. For some reason, he walked away from boot camp. He was court-martialed for desertion, sentenced to two years and released with a dishonorable discharge.

"The grief and shame from this situation almost killed his mom and dad," Jocelyn believes. She adds that her father "spent the rest of his life trying to make up for that big mistake."

Turpin on patrol in 1966 along the Song Be River northeast of Saigon.
Turpin talked the Army into giving him a second chance, she said. When he went AWOL he was young, homesick and had fled boot camp, not the battlefield. He re-enlisted again, and again, and left the service with a chest full of medals for valor.

"For those that loved and respected my dad, but were confused by some of his choices," Jocelyn said, that dark episode in his life "explains so much. Without knowing this, any real understanding of who he truly was is incomplete."

Turpin's behavior might even be a model for redemption, she believes. "If it helps even one more person to understand and forgive him, or maybe inspires them to get over a rough patch in their own life and overcome their past mistakes, I feel good about it."

Like families of troops missing in action and still waiting for news of their loved ones, Turpin’s children crave closure. “I have lived with this forever,” Doris said. “When I was younger it used to creep me out. When I got older I started to understand things better.”

Mike Turpin: Father, soldier and journalist.

Weighing the various theories of his father’s death, Matt said: “Whether it’s the bar fight or he died of some quasi natural causes or it’s something nefarious, it’s possible. I’m less inclined to think about a government cover-up.”

Jocelyn quotes her mother: “Mom said she thought he was doing something for the government and doing something important, and somebody killed him.”

There is common family agreement on this much: Turpin was a decent man, a courageous soldier and a talented journalist. Doris raves, “I absolutely adored the man, tall and lean, baby blue eyes. He taught me to be myself and to like myself. He was amazing.”

Rick Fredericksen served as a Marine newsman at American Forces Vietnam Network 1969-70.

Thursday, July 16, 2020

Agent Orange Ambush

Standing along a roadside with dead shrubbery poisoned by defoliants in Vietnam. (Hon Tre Island, 1970)

When I came home from the life-altering appointment everything looked different. The view out onto the grassy courtyard, the living room, the book cases and the ceramic urn that holds the ashes of Tiger and Snookie—it all seemed more vivid; still in focus but with more texture. Perhaps others who’ve received traumatic news have experienced these curious hallucinations.

When my wife came home from work a few hours later we sat on the sofa together and I told her I had news that would drastically change our future. I couldn’t get it out without breaking down. We held hands as I whispered these words: “I’ve been diagnosed with Parkinson’s Disease.”

In reality, I had already figured it out for myself and was prepared for the preliminary assessment from my neurologist at Veterans Hospital. A year and a half earlier I had self-diagnosed myself with the wrong disease, Multiple Sclerosis, which resulted in a cascade of tests that would disprove MS, but provided no alternate conclusion.

Waiting for a brain scan at the VA.
Another brain image (DaTscan) was ordered, and a consultation with a movement disorders specialist. The scan revealed a telltale display in the region of the brain where the chemical Dopamine is produced. The analysis pointed to Parkinson’s, or, a Parkinsonian-like disorder, some of which are worst than Parkinson’s. I was actually relieved when my diagnosis was the standard variety of Parkinson’s Disease, PD for short.  

When presented with my newest symptom a few months earlier—a minor tremor in one hand—the first thing my neurologist asked was if I had been exposed to Agent Orange. I gulped, before answering, “Yes.”

The defoliant was widely used in South Vietnam to destroy vegetation which provided enemy soldiers with hiding places. My neurologist advised me that she sees a couple guys like me every week; Vietnam War vets who are around 70 years old.

Nearly 50 years after the war, there is an unreported wave of Parkinson’s patients who are entering the VA system. It has been deemed a “presumptive disease” caused by Agent Orange, along with multiple cancers and a variety of other conditions. Before it has run its course, Agent Orange may end up being the most deadly weapon of in the war—and exclusively deployed by our own forces.

Hundreds of PD patients are receiving care at each of Iowa’s VA hospitals, in Des Moines and Iowa City. A new palliative/hospice care facility is being prepared in Des Moines and multiple programs are available to keep these veterans independent for as long as possible. Imagine what the nationwide scope must be.

Island defenses: barbed wire, perimeter lights and Agent Orange.

My exposure to herbicides occurred on a remote South Vietnamese island off the coast of Nha Trang, where I worked as a TV newscaster. The American Forces Vietnam Network (AFVN) had a broadcasting station on the island of Hon Tre, or, Bamboo Island. Defoliant chemicals had been applied along the winding road up to our facility so the Viet Cong could not easily ambush U.S. vehicles. I even have a picture of me standing along that very barren roadside 50 years ago.

We were aware that defoliants were deployed, but didn’t consider it a danger. Rather, it was for our own benefit. Agent Orange and other defoliants efficiently killed underbrush that could otherwise conceal the enemy. After lunch one day some of us left the mess hall and noticed a chemical smell. I had no reason to doubt it when someone suggested it was Agent Orange.

Sgt. Bob Wilford, Agent Orange casualty.
AFVN’s small detachment on Hon Tre provided television and FM radio to large American military installations at Nha Trang and Cam Ranh Bay. I am not the only broadcaster who worked there and now has Parkinson’s. Fellow Iowan Bob Wilford and I were on the island together in 1970. We were both Marines and are now both PD patients. There are other AFVN veterans living with Parkinson’s, including another colleague who spent time in Nha Trang.

I never fathomed becoming a disabled veteran. Sure, there were close calls from indiscriminate terrorism and rockets that plagued Saigon, where I spent the bulk of my one year tour, but I hadn’t come under direct fire. While I was lucky when it came to enemy attacks, everyone who was in-country remains vulnerable to the unintended consequences of Agent Orange.

Early on, I had developed skepticism of all the health maladies blamed on defoliants. My doubts were formed as a journalist covering the issue from Bangkok, Thailand as bureau chief for CBS News.

In 1994 I spent a week in Vietnam researching the postwar impact of Agent Orange for 60 Minutes. I was to identify places, victims and interviews for a magazine segment. Veteran war reporter Ed Bradley was the designated correspondent. 

A key photo op was to be the return of Elmo Zumwalt, the retired U.S. admiral who ordered the use of herbicides. His son died of cancer which may have been caused by Agent Orange exposure. Zumwalt also suspected it was responsible, via genetics, for brain damage in his grandson.

The 60 Minute’s “blue sheet,” which is a one-page prospectus, was a shocking summary: “Imagine an area where the infant mortality rate is about five-times the national average, birth defects are six times higher . . . and in the last few years, 16 sets of Siamese twins have been born.” It was sure to be a high-impact, emotional story. The TV magazine came to me to help set up what would be a difficult journey into some of Vietnam’s least-accessible topography.

Is this young girl with a severe hand deformity an Agent Orange victim? 
During my scouting mission I was introduced to frightened parents with deformed children; many with limb imperfections. One young man howled like a wild animal. Two brothers—Siamese twins—had been surgically separated but one was in a vegetative state. 

At Saigon’s Tu Du Hospital, I photographed the “collection room,” with dozens of jars of malformed fetuses, including conjoined twins and triplets. In my final report for 60 Minutes I suggested the specimens, submerged in formaldehyde, might be too gruesome for a television audience.

When I submitted my summary to CBS producers, I raised ominous doubts: “Throughout my stops in Vietnam, I kept hearing about incomplete statistics or none at all, studies with poor protocols, and the need for Western research assistance. Anecdotal, circumstantial and statistical evidence points to a connection, but that is not definitive.”

I concluded, “The terrible conditions I saw occur naturally in every country around the world. Also, most Vietnamese exposed to the noxious concoction appear to be leading normal lives.” 60 Minutes cancelled the project. I was told that Bradley was needed elsewhere, but I suspect another reason was the inconclusive research. It also left me a cynic. 

Agent Orange symposium in Iowa in 2014. Photo: Iowa Public Radio.
But two decades later in Des Moines, Iowa, I covered a public hearing on the human toll of Agent Orange. Vietnam Veterans of America sponsored the symposium and a parade of more than 50 people gave gripping testimony; both veterans and their offspring. Their emotional stories were devastating and believable. It was a turning point for me.

Prestigious medical research is ongoing into Agent Orange’s role in numerous health aberrations. The Veterans Administration has added new medical conditions to the list of “presumptive” diseases linked to the herbicide, including Parkinson’s.

I have just started my journey down the treacherous road of Parkinson’s—my primary care physician calls it a “devastating diagnosis.” It progresses at different speeds for different patients, but not everyone experiences all of the symptoms—many of which are terrifying.

At this point, my problems are not obvious to others, but I am constantly looking over my shoulder, as are the other 100,000 Iowa Vietnam veterans who may find a terrorist—Agent Orange—knocking on their door.

I never imagined that I might some day be a “disabled veteran,” but that is the designation granted by the VA for veterans with approved, but unwanted, service-connected diagnoses. While the war ended long ago, it is no hallucination that the casualty count continues to surge.

{I wrote a full chapter about my 60 Minutes research in my digital book Broadcasters: Untold Chaos, available at Amazon and other e-book stores.}

Wednesday, June 17, 2020

Heroic Rescuer Dies 55 Years After Bombing

University of Texas at Austin, oral history project

An Army major who rescued numerous bombing victims after a horrifying terrorist incident in Vietnam died Tuesday (June 16, 2020) in San Antonio, Texas. Abel Vela would have been 94 years old next week.

Although his decorated military career spanned two wars, Vela’s most prominent heroism occurred while he was wearing civilian clothes at the famous My Canh floating restaurant in Saigon. Vela was waiting to meet friends before crossing the street for dinner at the My Canh when a Viet Cong explosive blew shrapnel across the restaurant. 
U.S. Joint Public Affairs Office

As Vela evacuated casualties, a second bomb detonated, and although injured, he continued to aid the wounded. As Vela rescued the last person—a little girl he carried in his arms—a photographer snapped a dramatic photo that was printed on the front page of American newspapers, including Stars and Stripes.

The shocking incident caused more than 100 casualties from six nations, but most were Vietnamese civilians. At the time, the U.S. Joint Public Affairs Office reported 20 Americans killed and wounded.

One year ago, Vela finally met the girl he saved, Aimee Bartelt, a naturalized American citizen now living in New York. Aimee’s Vietnamese mother was killed in the double bombing, along with her mother’s friend in the U.S. Army.

Vela found Aimee, who had suffered a gaping thigh wound, underneath another body and carried her to safety. They went to the hospital in the same vehicle. Vela told me, “I wasn’t worried because I was still alive and walking and was more concerned about trying to help the Americans and the young baby.”

Aimee a few years after the bombing
The child, not quite two years old when Vela scooped her up off the restaurant floor, is now 56. Aimee was devastated by the news of Vela’s death. "I never thought the man carrying me away in that photo would ever enter my life again. Miraculously he did, and now he's gone again. But what a gift it was to know him.”

Aimee had discovered me after reading my exposé about the My Canh tragedy in Vietnam magazine. After I located Vela in Texas, the two met for the first time when Aimee made a private phone call to wish Vela a happy 93rd birthday. (Scroll back for earlier stories)

Abel Vela was born on June 26, 1926, the son of Mexican immigrants. His father was a sharecropper and Vela and his siblings worked alongside their parents in their cotton and corn fields, according to an oral history interview conducted by the journalism school at the University of Texas at Austin.

Vela as a young enlisted man. Univ. of Texas-Austin

During his first enlistment in World War II, Vela helped liberate Jewish prisoners from concentration camps. After the war, he met his wife, Angela, in Austria.

When Vela’s Vietnam service ended in 1970, the couple returned to San Antonio where Abel was the first Latino to own a McDonald’s franchise. This time he had to fight prejudice. “They didn’t want any Hispanics or blacks,” he told oral history interviewer Nora Frost in 2008. “I went over to [McDonald’s] headquarters and took my cot with me and slept there, until I was able to get an interview.” The Velas eventually operated five Mc Donald’s.

Fifty-five years after Abel and Aimee were brought together at the chaotic bombing scene, Aimee has lost her hero. “Now, Abel Vela is not just some stranger in a photo anymore, but a remarkable man who led a remarkable life and left behind a lot of people who loved and admired him. I'm so thankful to be one of these.”

Abel Vela is survived by his wife Angela and an extended family that spans five generations.
An internet photo showing the moment Vela picked up Aimee

Tuesday, February 11, 2020

EXCLUSIVE: Two Bombing Victims Meet After 54 Years

This adaptation is from my story in Vietnam magazine (April 2020)

One of the most searing photographs from the Vietnam War got very little notice when it appeared in a single military publication and in several newspapers, including Stars and Stripes. The terrifying image shows a badly injured child being rescued by a man in civilian clothes in the aftermath of the My Canh floating restaurant bombing in Saigon.

Had that picture been more widely published in prominent newspapers and magazines, it might well have been as symbolic of innocent civilian casualties as the “Napalm Girl,” a 9-year old badly burned child who was photographed fleeing after an errant napalm bomb hit her village in 1972.

The graphic My Canh photo was on the cover of a 16-page pamphlet issued by the Joint U.S. Public Affairs Office to focus blame on the Viet Cong “atrocity.” The double bombing on June 25, 1965 was given extensive media coverage—total casualties exceeded 100, and the public affairs office listed more than 20 Americans killed and wounded.

Amb. Taylor's hospital visit the next day.
The original brochure printed 17 photos, including the hospital visit by Ambassador Maxwell Taylor, seen comforting the toddler who was on the cover and incorrectly identified as a small boy. The photographers were not named.

I’d written an in-depth story about the attack for Vietnam magazine (June 2016) and posted it to my Old Asia Hands blog, along with the cover shot. Two and a half years later, this startling comment appeared on my blog: “The child was not a small boy as the Public Affairs Office claimed . . . but was a girl. I know this to be a fact because that child was me.” Her Vietnamese mother, Tran Ngoc Oanh, was killed, along with her friend, Army Sgt. 1st Class Alfred Combs Junior. Sgt. Combs was an advisor for the U.S. Military Assistance Command, Vietnam.

In the following days a relationship was established and I learned about the tragic life of this little girl. Her adult name is Aimee Bartelt and she is now an American citizen living in Clifton Springs, New York. After the bombing she was adopted by a friend of Combs, U.S. Army officer Robert Harry Bartelt. They came to the United States along with Aimee’s older sister, who was not at the My Canh that fateful night.

Now 56, Aimee said she was not quite two years old when she suffered crippling injuries. “Shrapnel went through my left thigh which did considerable nerve damage below my knee. My muscles are atrophied.” The gaping wound is clearly visible in the picture. She has had multiple surgeries and wore a leg brace until she was 10.

Aimee believes she was caught in the first explosion, and although she has no lucid memories of the incident, she is plagued by haunting images and has been diagnosed with Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. “Sometimes I’ll see a light, a flash behind me that kind of lights up the room, and be terribly afraid,” she said. “I imagine it’s the blast. That’s what my fear tells me.”

Carnage at the My Canh floating restaurant

There were two Viet Cong assailants who carried out the bombing. One of them shared his story in 2010 in the People’s Army, a publication of Vietnam’s Defense Ministry. Huynh Phi Long said he and Le Van Ray were with the Viet Cong’s 67th Commando Unit in Saigon. One of them arrived on a bicycle, and one rode a motorcycle.

The explosives they carried were powerful Claymore-type mines which were set to detonate in succession. After the initial blast sprayed the restaurant, the second one was aimed at the gangplank to hit panicked customers as they ran from the barge. The terrorists escaped on a getaway motorcycle before the first explosion blew, just as they reached the nearby Nguyen Hue traffic circle.

The victims represented at least six nationalities, but most were Vietnamese: police officers, an army captain, a cyclo driver, a variety of vendors, a dressmaker, a pretty Vietnamese singer, and numerous children among the civilians. A Radio Hanoi broadcast quoted by the U.S. described the raid as “a new glorious exploit . . . dealing an appropriate blow to the U.S. aggressors.”

It was the attack on the floating restaurant that incited this notorious warning broadcast over propagandist Radio Hanoi: “You can get killed here. Get out while you’re still alive and before it’s too late.”

Ironically, the My Canh’s name translates into “beautiful view.” According to the U.S. military pamphlet the restaurant was not seriously damaged and reopened five days later. It continued to serve Vietnamese, Chinese and seafood dishes until it closed permanently after the war.

Ten years after the bombing, as young Bartelt watched TV coverage of the 1975 evacuation of Saigon, she started seeing flashes of dead bodies. “I knew the U.S. was withdrawing, and to me it was the same as being told that the Vietnamese weren’t worth it,” the young girl surmised.

“The images of children being crammed onto helicopters—it broke my heart and made me think that the same thing was happening to them, like the picture of me being taken away by the man, and my mother being left behind.”

Aimee's current selfie.
When she was in junior high school in Fayetteville, North Carolina, Aimee remembers a disturbing incident while horseback riding with a friend. “I was being bounced around on a horse and had a flashback that I take as being carried out by that man.”

But what ever happened to the mysterious hero in the dramatic front-page photo; the man who scooped up the little girl from the bloody restaurant floor? An online photo caption identified him as Army Major Abel Vela. An internet search turned up a hopeful link to the University of Texas at Austin, where I discovered that the journalism school had interviewed Vela for its Voces Oral History Project, which archives the voices of notable Latinos in America. I was given his phone number in San Antonio.

It was on the 54th anniversary of the bombing when I called Abel. After a military career spanning 27 years, he and his wife, Angela, went into business operating a number of McDonald’s franchises in the San Antonio area. As a young boy in Texas, Abel worked in the cotton fields with his immigrant parents from Mexico. He was one of the military advisers sent to South Vietnam by President Kennedy in 1962.

On the night of the incident, Abel told me he was waiting across the street to meet friends for dinner at the My Canh when the first bomb detonated. He went into action rescuing the injured when the second explosion went off. “I got involved with saving as many GIs as I could. A horrible night, something you live with all the time,” Vela said, reawakening that ugly night.

Courtesy Angela Vela
The family still has a telegram from the Army informing Angela Vela that her husband suffered a wrist laceration, was treated and returned to duty.

Little Aimee was the last victim Vela reached. She was buried underneath another body. “The only thing I saw was a foot shaking and moving,” Vela said. “We got on the same military jeep. I wanted to take care of her. My wounds weren’t that bad.” Aimee has no doubt, “I feel like he saved my life.”

In 1970, Abel was stationed at Fort Bragg along with Aimee’s adoptive father, Robert Bartelt, a Special Forces Colonel. Col. Bartelt was Vela’s commander. The Velas didn’t know that the Bartelts were raising the girl rescued from the restaurant bomb explosions, and the Bartelts didn’t know Vela was the one who saved her life. A third person discovered the connection and brought the men together.

When Abel and Angela were invited to a social event at the Bartelt residence in Fayetteville, they were told not to talk to the kids. The Bartelts didn’t want to upset Aimee, who was not yet aware of the details surrounding her early life in Vietnam. When Aimee was 8 years old she discovered the Public Affairs Office pamphlet in her mother’s closet and began to figure things out on her own.

On the night of the party, the Velas spotted the young girl from a distance. “My husband recognized her because she was walking with a limp,” Angela recalled. “He remembered that when he picked her up (at the bombing scene), her little leg almost fell off.” Aimee said she was never told about this stealthy meeting. “It was chilling that that happened,” she said after I informed her.

Undated photo of Abel Vela. (Valentino Mauricio/University of Texas at Austin)
In June 2019, Aimee made an emotional phone call to wish Abel “happy birthday.” He turned 93, and it was the first time they had ever talked. “It was like a blur to me, amazing,” she said of the reunion. “I was so touched and moved. Angela told me they had remembered me all these years.” Aimee added, “Meeting Abel on the phone and knowing that he was alive, and hearing about details of that night, kind of catapulted me to the land of the living.”

The My Canh survivor had discovered my 2016 article as she investigated the calamity for a book she was planning to write, preferring a fictionalized account so she could make it a happy ending. “I’ve looked at a lot of pictures from that night and they are very gory, hideous pictures,” Aimee disclosed. “It wasn’t until I started doing my recent research that I began to understand the magnitude of devastation of that night.”

The Vietnam magazine article also answered her questions regarding the enemy’s motive. The People’s Army exposé said the bombing was a revenge attack for the public execution of Viet Cong commando Tran Van Dang. Dang had been shot five days earlier by a South Vietnamese firing squad near Saigon’s central market.

Furthermore, a Vietnamese-written history of Viet Cong commandos suggested the My Canh restaurant had been branded as a CIA gathering place and claimed 51 intelligence officers were killed in the attack. In the bomber’s interview with People’s Army, he identified the restaurant owner as “a trusted intelligence lackey of the CIA.”

For Americans who were in wartime Saigon, the My Canh remains a durable memory—a nice restaurant where they dined, the site of Saigon’s most vile terrorist incident, or where they were near-casualties themselves.

As a young Army officer, Norman Schwarzkopf almost went to the My Canh that Friday evening. Instead, he had dinner across the street on the rooftop of his hotel, the Majestic. After the first explosion, Schwarzkopf, who would become America’s Gulf War commander, looked down in time to see the second blast hurl fleeing customers into the river. 

Armed forces radio announcer Adrian Cronauer and three friends had just left the My Canh after dinner and witnessed the immediate aftermath. The bombing would later be loosely depicted in a Hollywood movie about Cronauer, Good Morning, Vietnam, starring comedian Robin Williams. 

From the U.S. Joint Public Affairs pamphlet
Although the explicit photos from that night are gruesome, Aimee finds comfort in them. “My early years were nothing but different black-and-white depictions of the same media images displayed over and over,” she said. “I know it sounds unusual that I didn’t find them disturbing, but I felt a sense of belonging with the people there that night.”

Because of her research and the cathartic phone call with Vela, Aimee says she is finally learning to let it go. “For the first time in my life I am seeing my young existence as truly real,” she said. “The My Canh bombing was real. That night was real. Now I feel like Pinocchio the morning he woke up, fully realizing, ‘Holy Crap, I’m a real kid!’ I am so lucky to know this.”

Aimee’s struggles are not over. “I live four blocks away from a hospital, so a lot of times they have mercy flights with helicopters coming in, and sometimes at night I hear them flying over and they scare me so terribly, and I want to panic.”

The New Yorker has never been back to Vietnam where she surely has maternal relatives. She thinks she was born in Saigon and has been told that her birth father was a French pilot. Aimee has a son who lives in North Carolina.

As for the Texan who saved her, Vela’s first enlistment at the end of World War II involved another agonizing rescue: the freeing of Jews from concentration camps. “They walked out and started eating grass, the bark of the trees, whatever they could find,” Vela told oral history interviewer Valerie Harris.

Vietnam was the scene of another brush with death for the Army veteran. He was nearly killed in a mine explosion when the South Vietnamese unit he was advising came under fire. As the men ran for cover, Vela triggered a mine and was injured by shrapnel, but escaped the main thrust of the blast.

Vela looked back at his career in his 2008 interview. “I wasn’t looking for Purple Hearts. That’s taking a big chance. My job was to save people’s lives.”

Married for more than 70 years, the couple’s family now extends over five generations. Abel is the patriarch of patriotism, telling me, “I’m proud that I was able to continue to serve my country.” Angela adds, “All my children know about Aimee. We have prayed about the situation and about the little girl all through these years.” Aimee was told she could consider the Vela family like her own.

Aimee has spent the past eight years on a rescue mission of her own. She has been serving on the board of directors at Seneca White Deer Inc., a nonprofit that helps preserve a herd of rare white deer on the former Seneca Army Depot in New York. “The deer would never have survived without the protective fence surrounding the munitions base,” she explains. “So it turns out that both those deer, and this war baby, would not be in this world if there were no such thing as war.”

Rick Fredericksen was a Marine newsman at the American Forces Vietnam Network and was at the My Canh when it was shelled in 1969. The barge shuddered but the mortars missed their mark.

Friday, September 6, 2019

Historic News Film Reveals Era of Hair Discrimination

Newly digitized film recalls popularity of short-hair wigs.
By Rick Fredericksen

The mysterious reel of 16 mm film had been stored in basements at homes where I've lived for 50 years. The label says "Bell strike." I had an inkling of what might be on the spool of color film, but no longer had a convenient way to review it; the analog format has been outdated for decades. So it was forgotten in boxes with old video tapes from my journalism career.

I got tired of seeing it over the years and decided it was time to have it remastered. A specialist in Tennessee could handle the job and I received the digitized recording on a thumb drive 48 years after it was broadcast. It was a 1971 news story I'd done soon after starting my first job in commercial TV at KRNT, the CBS station in Des Moines, Iowa. Known locally as TV8, the station is now KCCI-TV. That film is my earliest known stand-up in existence.

The four minute news story held up well. The multiple splices did not break and the mag-stripe audio was in mint condition. Beyond the physical state of the film, the content is what told an amazing story. It was from a time when even slightly long hair was unacceptable. Remember the scandalous mop tops worn by The Beatles?

As a cub reporter at KRNT, I had a shag hair style that was deemed inappropriate to be seen on-camera. Our #1 rated audience would surely complain and I understood the concerns of my bosses.  There was a compromise. I did what other young men did in the '70s: concealed my hair under a short-hair wig. The short-hair wig phenomenon crossed professions; a doctor friend wore one in the hospital to hide his "hippie hair." Even Iowa National Guard soldiers wore them during their weekend drills.

Still frame from a 1971 stand-up report (wearing wig) from a picket line.
My wig looked surprisingly natural. I would carry it in my camera bag when I covered the Polk County Courthouse, which was my news beat after anchoring morning newscasts on KRNT radio.

I can remember ducking into the men's room before filming my stand-up reports. It only took a couple minutes to pull it on, from front to back. Once the photographer gave me a "wrap," it was back in my carry-bag. (See link to video below)

Looking at the film today, I am more embarrassed by the wrap-around eye glasses, the Elvis sideburns and my stilted delivery. But I'm actually pleased at where I was at the age of 21, perhaps 22. The Communications Workers of America were striking Bell Telephone and pickets were marching outside their building in Des Moines, just around the corner from KRNT.

The posting is a classic example of how we produced stories in the age of film, before video tape became the newsroom standard. My film reel was the "A" roll, which was the primary film that included stand-up, interviews and the sound track. Typically, a "B" reel would be used to show general scenes to help tell the story. In this case, a "B" reel might show more of the picket lines, which is preferable to seeing me read my script.

My real hair, at the anchor desk in 1974.
As my career advanced, so did public acceptance of  things like hair length and dress codes, and women and minorities on local news. I started anchoring live newscasts and the photo above, from a 1974 newscast, shows me without a wig. Yes, it was a little long, but management was willing to tolerate it.

A couple years later I grew a beard and controversy returned. Viewers wrote in to complain; one man called me "Rasputin." The beard was later accepted as well, although when my career took me to the CBS affiliate in Hawaii, my first assignment was to shave. By then I was ready.

Today, there are still common sense boundaries that on-air news personnel mustn't cross--just watch your local news and you will not see nose-rings, facial tattoos or other contemporary taboos that would be dis-qualifiers. But cropped hair styles are no longer required, and well-trimmed beards are even popular.

I don't pretend to be a trailblazer like Mary Brubaker, Connie Mc Burney and Mollie Cooney were to women broadcasters, or Dolph Pulliam was to minorities, all former on-air talent at TV8 when I was there. One thing I can predict with confidence: today's generation of young news reporters will look back in 50 years and think they looked pretty silly, just as I did.

As for my short-hair wig, it's gone now. I kept it for some years and then revived it for a Halloween costume. Dressing up as an old man, I sprayed it grey, dressed accordingly, and nobody knew who I was. Now, my hair is turning natural gray and is shorter than that old wig.

Click to see short-hair wig video

Thursday, June 13, 2019

Apollo 11: As Seen From Vietnam

At corner of Tu Do and Nguyen Van Thinh. AP. Flicker-manhhai photo, 1969
  This is a variation of my story published in Vietnam magazine's August 2019 edition.

During a marathon torture session something extraordinary happened to Air Force 1st Lieutenant John Borling, a prisoner of war held at the “Zoo,” a prison outside Hanoi. He was “trussed up” with shackles, ropes and handcuffs which inflicted pain and could break bones.

When he was left alone in the room, Borling managed to loosen the bindings and scooted over to a nearby desk, where he discovered letters in a drawer, hoping to find one addressed to him. But his captors burst in and were furious. “I had a handful of envelopes, and they ripped them out of my hand, and there was the ‘Man on the Moon’ stamp that absolutely riveted me.” Borling was pummeled to the point of semi consciousness.

A commemorative stamp issued in Sept. 1969
After he was locked back in his cell, Borling communicated his news bulletin via the POW tap code. “I tapped on the wall, ‘We own the moon,’ and I can remember how excited people were,” recalls the F-4 Phantom pilot. “This was a tremendous morale boost. It contributed to staying power, and I can tell you for me it was uplifting. It’s still uplifting.”

POWs were among the last to learn about Neil Armstrong’s pioneering moon walk. Borling reckons he saw that postage stamp about June 1970, nearly a year after Apollo 11’s epic voyage.

Prisoners say guards never passed on good news, only disheartening events: antiwar protests, riots, assassinations, Jane Fonda and general propaganda. A number of prisoners remember hearing clues from the Voice of Vietnam—radio speakers were common in prisons.

Memories are foggy, but POWs recall tantalizing hints on Radio Hanoi: “No one has to go to the moon to see craters. All they have to do is look at the countryside of Vietnam;” “It doesn’t take Neil Armstrong looking from the face of the moon to tell that the U.S. is loosing the war in Vietnam;” “You can send a man to the moon and back, but not bring your troops back from 10,000 miles way.”

Navy Lt. Mike McGrath, historian for, was being held at the Zoo when rumors about Apollo 11 began to circulate late in 1969, he thinks. “Someone got a package, and there was a sugar packet with a picture of Neil Armstrong standing on the moon with the flag.” According to McGrath, a Skyhawk pilot on the U.S.S. Constellation, “We had a unilateral bombing halt and no POWs came in with news for four years. I’d say it was one of the brightest days.”

The week after astronauts landed in the Sea of Tranquility, President Nixon was in South Vietnam to visit the 1st Infantry Division at Di An. The trip was code-named “Moonglow” to commemorate the achievement. Sadly, none of the Big Red One soldiers had seen the historic live telecast from more than 200,000 miles away. With no satellite over Vietnam, a live broadcast was technically impossible.

AFVN's Apollo 11 set in Saigon. Courtesy AFVNVETS.NET
For in-country personnel who had access to television, delayed coverage was available from AFVN, the American Forces Vietnam Network. But the fact remains, all servicemen and women in Vietnam, more than a half-million, were among the few Americans on Earth who did not witness the most fantastic live broadcast in television history. NASA estimates the must-watch spectacle was seen by 530 million people worldwide.     

Harry Hahn was a 21-year old Navy radioman assigned to a howitzer Monitor boat at Go Dau Ha, near the Cambodian border. “I wandered into a little hut, and there was a black and white portable TV sitting on a chair,” recalls Hahn. “We adjusted the rabbit ears, and another sailor and I watched the moon landing together. It was a moment I will never forget as a proud American serving in a war!”

The brass at AFVN headquarters arranged to have recordings flown in from Hawaii, and Army Sergeant 1st Class Bob MacArthur was waiting to anchor the show in the Saigon studios. “The Air Force was suppose to shuttle new film in every two hours,” according to radio announcer Army Spc. 5 Larry Green, “but there were delays, so Bob had to ad lib for hours.”

The first recordings arrived three hours late, according to MacArthur’s biography at the website “He discussed the history of aviation and the space program for the entire time without notes and with no teleprompter. He was noticeably hoarse when the tapes finally arrived.” Subsequent recordings were flown in from the Philippines and broadcast in Saigon about five hours later.  

The AFVN set in Tuy Hoa. Courtesy Bob Young
AFVN’s distant affiliates had to wait longer for copies to be made and shipped upcountry. Our Quang Tri station, which could be received all the way to the demilitarized zone, aired the kinescope films one day after the Saigon broadcast.

The station at Tuy Hoa devised a novel alternative. Since AFVN radio were able to provide live reporting from civilian networks, thanks to an undersea audio cable from the States, the Tuy Hoa station broadcast the radio feed over its TV channel, with Airman 1st Class Bob Young anchoring the coverage on-camera.

When the visual recordings finally arrived, Young remembers, “The images were not that great, and it was difficult to make out what we were seeing.” Despite the poor quality, he drove a copy to a military unit where TV reception was blocked by a mountain and gave troops a private showing on a projector in their chow hall.

The triumphant space shot spanned 10 exhilarating days with multiple perilous maneuvers. Armstrong’s historic words, “That’s one small step for (a) man . . . one giant leap for mankind,” came on the morning of July 21, at 09:56, Vietnam time. Another veteran had a secondary reason to be overjoyed. Toney Brooks was in an airliner, his tour of duty behind him. "I was somewhere over the Pacific en route home . . . the pilot announced the (moon) landing," said the former AFVN war news editor. "There was immediate applause and cheering."

Congratulatory news release
On the very day that Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin playfully hopped across the lunar surface, Vietnamese President Nguyen Van Theiu issued a congratulatory statement to President Nixon. It had the presidential seal of South Vietnam and contained only three sentences, including this excerpt: “We wholeheartedly concur in the message of peace, which the brave astronauts carry for mankind to this new frontier of human beings.”

Many of the Americans suffering in North Vietnam prisons had a common bond with NASA’s spacemen: They were aviators. Navy pilot Lt. j.g. Charlie Plumb had even taken his physical hoping to become an astronaut himself, but his F-4 was shot down by a missile south of Hanoi in May 1967 and he joined other POWs at the Zoo. “We figured we were probably the last people on Earth to find out we put a man on the moon.”

Plumb said guards would pass propaganda newspaper stories under his cell door. An article from the Soviet news agency Tass seemingly bragged about another victory in space. The former POW paraphrased the key sentence: “We (Soviets) have sent a vehicle to the moon to gather samples, taken pictures, blasted off and returned safely to Earth and, unlike the Americans we didn’t have to put a man aboard to control the vehicle.”

“I read that a couple times,” Plumb said, “Then I tapped the thing word-for-word to the guys in the cell next door. They interpreted it the same as I had, that, in fact, we had put a man on the moon.” Since the war was dragging on, with peace talks stalled, the POWs were jubilant and Plumb recaptured the joy once again: “Holey smokes, we put a man up there. We knew it had to be one of our fellow pilots. It helped us hang on.”

Dennis Morrison at Di An. Courtesy: Morrison

A soldier with the 1st Signal Brigade had to work on the day of the moon landing. “Everyone was listening that day,” emphasized Army Sgt. Dennis Morrison, “I had to work a 12-hour shift and knew I couldn’t listen.” So he started a reel-to-reel recording of AFVN’s radio coverage and let it run while he went to work. He still has the news wrap-up anchored by Specialist Mike Maxwell. “I play the CD all the time in my truck,” explains Morrison. “My wife got tired of hearing it.”

Morrison’s obsession is justified. He and Neil Armstrong were born 30 miles apart: Morrison in Bluffton, Ohio, and Armstrong in Wapakoneta, a small town where the Armstrong Air & Space Museum is located. Morrison is donating a copy of his nostalgic recording to the museum, so visitors can experience Apollo 11 news coverage exactly like veterans did in Vietnam.