|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
popular today: television. Introducing TV while simultaneously fighting the
enemy was especially challenging—and costly. Vietnam
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
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. Hue
The following year, AFVN’s
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. Hue
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
were car bombed.
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. U.S.
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,
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 .” 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 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. U.S.
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
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
. We were not combat
soldiers but sometimes the battlefield came to us, including our victory in
defense of the First Amendment. Vietnam
|1969 photo by rf.|
Rick Fredericksen was with AFVN in 1969-70 and shares his complete story in the digital book “Broadcasters: Untold Chaos.”