Sunday, October 9, 2016

A Career Ends

Seen in the Iowa Public Radio control room in Des Moines during my final hour on the job. (Photo by Clay Masters)
My professional journalism career concluded Oct. 3, 2016 after nearly 49 years of radio, television, print and online reporting. I exited as a quasi government employee (Iowa State University), and started as a federal employee (U.S. Marine Corps). In-between, I worked for commercial news organizations and as a freelancer. KCCI-TV did an overview of my life which is posted here
I continue to write my full length book about some of the broadcasters and news events I've covered over the last half century. 

Saturday, June 18, 2016

Prominent Mention For POW-MIA Book

Four years after I published my POW-MIA book, an Army War College newsletter gave me a nice mention. A salute to the AWC, where I joined the Class of 2015 as a member of their National Security Seminar. (See earlier posting)

Friday, June 3, 2016

Agent Orange Hearing in the Heartland

Emotional testimony was given to Agent Orange panel in Iowa.

The group Vietnam Veterans of American held its first fact-finding hearing in Des Moines, Iowa, in May, 2016. The mission was two fold: to hear from Iowa vets and their family members about serious health problems that may related to exposure to defoliants used in the Vietnam War; and to urge support for government funding of research to study suspected links, including suspicions that offspring are also threatened. From Iowa Public Radio.

Thursday, March 31, 2016

Inside Story: The Floating Restaurant Bombing

Here is the original manuscript of my story, published in the June 2016 issue of Vietnam Magazine; unedited and without  the professional layout and photos contained in the finished product.
In its glory days, it was among the most prominent restaurants in Saigon and a popular attraction for global visitors who were pouring into South Vietnam in 1965. Moored along the riverfront at the door step of Tu Do Street’s entertainment district, the My Canh was, perhaps, less famous for its food than its ambiance; the floating restaurant’s name means ‘beautiful view.’ And so, on a pleasant evening in June an international crowd had gathered on the Saigon River for a Friday get together with friends, family members, fellow soldiers, or, perhaps a CIA encounter.

Viet Cong terrorism was well established across South Vietnam, especially rampant in the countryside, and it was moving into the capital city as the allied presence intensified. On the previous Christmas Eve, the Brink Hotel (often referred to as the Brinks), a residence for American military officers, was bombed by the Viet Cong. Three months later, the U.S. Embassy was hit, and the Saigon air terminal was targeted just nine days prior to the bloodbath at the My Canh, which would become the most sensational terrorist incident of the war.

Urban commandos had been staking out the target, including Huynh Phi Long, the Viet Cong sapper whose inside story was told in People’s Army, a publication of Vietnam’s Defense Ministry. Phi Long, the article speculates, appeared to be about 60 years old at the time of the interview in 2010, and “had carefully studied the terrain and the enemy’s movement habits, his drinking habits and his playboy habits.”

Security surrounding the My Canh was extraordinary on June 25, 1965. According to the expose, three armed policemen stood guard at the gangplank which diners would use to cross from the riverbank to the on-deck, open-air dining room. Other uniformed and plain-clothes officers were watching from an open area opposite the barge. Armored vehicles and combat soldiers were manning nearby intersections and naval vessels patrolled the river. Phi Long was assisted by Le Van Ray, another member of Saigon’s 67th Commando Unit.

The two VC sappers approached the floating restaurant on bicycles, one was motorized. “Phi Long led the way, and carrying one time bomb, while comrade Ray pedaled a bicycle, pretending to be a newspaper seller, as he transported a 22 pound, directional, claymore-type mine.” They weaved through traffic, even passing through a checkpoint, using a crowd of Vietnamese as cover. As they approached the My Canh, several peddlers were walking in front of the restaurant and there was a cigarette stand near to the entrance.

Set to detonate in a few minutes, Long parked his bicycle bomb so the blast would spray shrapnel over two-thirds of the barge, then took out some money to buy cigarettes and walked a short distance to a get-away motorcycle that another conspirator had pre-positioned. In the meantime, Ray had set a second directional mine and joined Long to make their departure. They had gone 50 meters when the first explosion blew. Metal shards peppered the hull and tore through the dining room; customers panicked and ran for the walkway desperate to escape.

As the bombers’ motor scooter reached the Nguyen Hue traffic circle, Phi Long was stopped by police, but the two were allowed to proceed after they produced IDs. At that very moment, the second mine exploded, ripping through the flesh and bone of fleeing customers, peddlers on the shore, mothers and children, mostly civilians. “Enemy sirens echoed loudly and the streets turned into a scene of chaos,” according to the military publication. The translation goes on, “Only the two commandos were filled with a feeling of incredible joy.” Minutes after the twin blasts, the People’s Army writes, the U.S. Ambassador arrived on the scene: “The ambassador shook his head hopelessly and sadly got back into his car seeming to be unable to believe what had just happened.”    

Removing the dead from the My Canh. Photo from the U.S. Public Affairs Office. Like so many other Americans, I had dined at the floating restaurant many times.
The horrific crime would go down as a successful example of maximum impact. It was a trendy location during prime time, Friday evening just after 8 o’clock, an international venue, and only a few blocks away from foreign news bureaus, guaranteeing extensive media coverage. This excerpt is from a combined Associated Press and United Press International wire story that ran on the front page of an American newspaper:

“The restaurant was a ruin, both decks a smoking, smoldering mass of broken bulwarks and smashed tables. An American woman, mutilated in her torn clothing, responded weakly to mouth-to-mouth resuscitation administered by a U.S. military policeman. A Vietnamese man waved the body of a young child at photographers. He seemed insane with grief. The broken causeway leading to the restaurant was piled high with bodies. American medics were rushing from body to body shouting: ‘Is he an American? Is he? Find the Americans, find the Americans.’ Some of the wounded stacked along the pavements died as they waited. Thirty minutes after the blast, many were still pleading for help.”

The unforgettable carnage resurfaces as intense flash backs 50 years later, even for grizzled war reporters. “The street was full of sandals that people had run out of, or been blown out of,” according to Joe Galloway, former UPI journalist. “One vivid memory is the top of a Vietnamese woman’s head laying on the white tablecloth…with long, flowing, black hair cascading down the side. I never ate there again.”

A history of sapper forces in Vietnam, written by the former enemy, claims the attack ended up “killing 51 CIA intelligence officers and wounding many other personnel.” Western reports put the final death toll as high as 48. The Joint U.S. Public Affairs Office (JUSPAO) listed 12 Americans among the dead and 123 total casualties, killed and injured. Most of the victims were Vietnamese. In addition to U.S. citizens, other nationalities included French, German, Swiss and Filipino. The shock waves went worldwide.

As for the CIA assertion, Vietnam War historian Erik Villard says, “You can’t just take them at face value. Some of those people may have been informants, others not actually on the CIA payroll, or, the VC suspected they might be, so it’s not like you’ve got 51 James Bonds.”  Nonetheless, the People’s Army profile on bomber Phi Long alleges that the My Canh owner, identified as Phu Lam, “was a trusted intelligence lackey of the CIA…superiors believed that by destroying the restaurant we would essentially have destroyed an American-puppet source…” Regardless of any proven connection, one can assume that CIA personnel would have frequented the My Canh, which was a short walk from the U.S. Embassy.

Perhaps a bigger factor in the communists’ motive was straightforward pay back. The People’s Army rendering of bomber Phi Long was blunt in calling the My Canh incident, “an act of revenge for the death of Comrade Tran Van Dang, a commando fighter who had just been executed by the U.S. and the puppets at Ben Thanh Market on June 20, 1965.” The 25 year old terrorist was blindfolded, tied to a post, and publicly killed by a South Vietnamese firing squad in central Saigon for trying to bomb an American billet.

The enemy reprisal went one step further. In a clear tit for tat, Radio Hanoi announced the execution of Army Sergeant Harold Bennett, from Arkansas, and suggested other Americans might face the same fate. “The punishment serves to warn the U.S. aggressors and their henchmen…that the murderers must pay for their blood debts. The crimes of the bloodthirsty devils are intolerable.” While numerous Viet Cong had already been executed by the Saigon government, Sgt. Bennett was the first American POW put to death during the war. He was an adviser with South Vietnamese Rangers and was captured on Dec. 29, 1964 at Binh Gia, when the unit was overrun.

Within hours of the My Canh mayhem, the communist Vietnamese and American governments were exchanging terse rejoinders and propaganda. Radio Hanoi and Viet Cong radio both claimed that hundreds of U.S. aggressors were killed or wounded, the restaurant was seriously damaged and that a U.S. warship nearby was blown up. The following day, the Joint U.S. Public Affairs Office tried to set the record straight in an eight-page pamphlet. Ambassador Maxwell Taylor said, “This surely was the act of desperate men who have begun to realize that they cannot win. Last night’s outrage, like the wanton murder of an American prisoner…can only strengthen us in our resolve.” As for the inflated casualty toll of Americans, the embassy said most of the victims were Vietnamese, there was no harm to any ships in the harbor, and damage to the restaurant was minor; “the bombs were designed to kill people.” The My Canh reopened in five days.

Behind the public pronouncements, Ambassador Taylor was recommending severe punishment for the Saigon slaughter. In a cable from the U.S. Mission in Saigon, held at the Lyndon B. Johnson Library, Taylor laid out his suspicions: “Viet Cong execution of Sgt. Bennett, closely followed by My Canh Restaurant atrocity, brings into sharp focus blackmail potential VC and Hanoi possess in numbers of U.S. hostages in their hands and the usefulness of this blackmail to support a stepped-up terrorist campaign.”

Ambassador Taylor, a four star general and former Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, urged an immediate bombing attack in the Hanoi-Haiphong area, accompanied by major leaflet drops and maximum exploitation by Voice of America and other media. He also recommended a presidential statement announcing the reprisal to show the U.S. “would not stand for blatant violation of all standards of humanity and international conduct.” The ambassador’s advice was overruled by Secretary of State Dean Rusk and Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara. National Security Adviser McGeorge Bundy sent this response to the president at the LBJ Ranch: “Rusk, McNamara and I all disagree with this recommendation.” They favored a more restrained response, but to still “hold Hanoi responsible.”

The North Vietnamese continued to extract propaganda from the My Canh bombing, including this classic broadcast from Radio Hanoi: “You are a long way from Fort Riley now and there is no Jersey coffee in town on Washington Street where you can sit around the counter eating hamburgers and sipping coffee without having to be afraid a bomb might go off, like it did at that restaurant in Saigon a few weeks back. You can get killed here. Get out while you’re still alive and before it’s too late.”

Far more than 100 people were on board the vessel and along the boulevard when the commandos struck. Twenty-eight Americans were killed, missing, or injured. According to newspaper accounts of the incident, U.S. losses included government workers and military personnel: civilian Air Force employees who repaired damaged aircraft, military advisers in from the field, and three soldiers attached to the Phu Lam Signal Battalion, who were among the dead.

The cover shot on the U.S. Embassy's pamphlet deploring the incident,
There is background on the Vietnamese casualties in the brochure issued by U.S. public affairs officers, illustrated with ghastly pictures. The front cover shows an American holding the bloody body of a young boy, visibly in shock. One of the photo captions reads: “Of the 123 people killed and injured, 89 were Vietnamese: cyclo drivers and government officials, sugarcane vendors and businessmen, young women clerks and a popular singer, and of course many children.” Ambassador Taylor is seen visiting patients in a hospital where survivors were interviewed. A 13 year old boy, who was selling peanuts was recovering from surgery to remove shrapnel from his back and a leg; a 22 year old dressmaker escaped the first bomb and was on the sidewalk when the second explosion inflicted multiple wounds; the sugarcane vendor passed out from loss of blood and was quoted as saying, “I feel hot all over.” Mrs. To Thi My, the mother of pretty Saigon singer Phuong Thao, who perished, is pictured weeping. She said her daughter was not performing at the time, “She was dining there with some of her friends. They were there just for a good time.”

A Vietnamese man who provided a crucial service for western news agencies barely lived and was taken to the U.S. Naval Hospital. Known as “Mr. Thach,” he was in charge of the all-important radio photo machine at the post office and would transmit news photos for the wire services. A false rumor was circulating that Mr. Thach would be thrown out of the hospital, and his boss at PTT (the Post, Telegraph and Telephone office) called former UPI reporter Mike Malloy for help. Malloy straightened it out, assuring the Director General that Mr. Thach would not be forced out of his hospital bed.

“Later, someone at PTT called and said they had a package for us; a sack of Piasters,” according to Malloy. “It was a lot of dough,” seemingly a refund to settle a long standing dispute with UPI. The wire agency was also granted an exclusive 24 hour outgoing circuit of its own. “Nobody ever told me why we got these favors,” recalls Malloy, “but it’s obvious to me that they were rewards for saving Mr. Thach’s life, even though the Navy never intended to throw him out in the first place.”

Another perspective worth pondering is the people who were almost casualties that night. One fortunate American was a newly-arrived Army officer who had landed at Ton San Nhut earlier that day. Norman Schwarzkopf and a West Point classmate arrived in Vietnam with a list of Saigon’s best restaurants and had planned to go out, but were jet lagged and chose to dine at the roof garden restaurant atop the Hotel Majestic where they had checked in.

“We had just placed our orders when wham,” recalled Schwarzkopf in his 1993 autobiography, “It Doesn’t Take Hero.” Since the Majestic was so near the beleaguered restaurant, he was able to peer down from the roof and saw wounded customers moving over the walkway to shore. “Suddenly another explosion blasted them from the gangplank into the water,” wrote Schwarzkopf. “That was my welcome to Vietnam.” It so happens that the My Canh was number one on his list of recommended restaurants. If it wasn’t for jet lag, the young officer might have crossed the street and been a casualty himself. Twenty-five years later, after two tours of duty in Vietnam, General Schwarzkopf led allied forces to victory in the Persian Gulf War.

It was an even closer call for armed forces radio announcer Adrian Cronauer, who had finished dinner with friends and was still in the area when the terrorists hit. Cronauer dodged the horror and lived to create the story concept that comedian Robin Williams turned into the hit movie, “Good Morning, Vietnam.”

Others were walking towards the My Canh when the neighborhood was shaken. Don North had just arrived in-country the month before as a freelance journalist and had left his gear in his room when he set off for a seafood dinner. His most lasting memory? “Watching firemen with strong water hoses washing blood off the street in crimson waves. “After that,” North insisted, “I never left my apartment without cameras and a tape recorder.”

Army Spc. 5 Ron Hesketh had two brushes with terrorism. He was heading for the My Canh to celebrate his 25th birthday when he heard the thunderous explosions. “It was the worst thing I saw in the war.” Six months earlier he was scheduled to work at the Brink Hotel on the night VC planted a car bomb there, but Hesketh had suddenly been sent away on temporary duty.

Urban terrorism was escalating alongside the burgeoning U.S. troop presence, but it was not a new phenomenon. In 1957, the U.S. Information Agency Library, a military bus and a hostel were bombed during an international meeting in Saigon, wounding 13 Americans and five Vietnamese. By 1965, the terror campaign in Saigon was dwarfed by omnipresent Viet Cong intimidation in the countryside. While VC commandos were hitting hotels, bars, theaters and other strategic targets in the capital, civilians had it much worse in rural Vietnam.

A 1967 study titled “Viet Cong Use of Terror,” compiled by the U.S. Mission, lists page after page of terrorism against non-combatants. In the same year of the My Canh bombing, the report amassed 1,800 assassinations and 8,500 kidnappings countrywide. Erik Villard, with the U.S. Army Center of Military History, says “they (Viet Cong) are very deliberate in what they do. Rather than just say, ‘let’s go kill a bunch of civilians,’ they had thought it through to achieve a certain affect.” One strategy, says Villard, was to drive a wedge between the allies, exemplified in the restaurant massacre. “In other words, whenever they could, try to do things that would put the Americans and South Vietnamese at each others throat, point fingers; ‘You brought this on.’ ‘No, you brought this on.’ ‘You should have prevented it.’ That sort of thing.”

As for the Viet Cong commandos who pulled off the attack, their careers as terrorist agents were celebrated and decorated: Huynh Phi Long was awarded the Combat Achievement Medal, First Class. The entire 67th Commando Unit won the Military Achievement Medal. Correspondent Bang Phuong, who prepared Phi Long’s profile for People’s Army, wrote “This legendary person fills everyone who sees him with awe and respect for the intelligence and courage he displayed when he scored a resounding victory in the attack on the My Canh Restaurant.”

Phi Long, the principal bomber, went on to raise three children, but he and his wife were both captured and jailed for revolutionary activities. Phi Long even spent time on Con Son Island where, according to the publication, he was locked up in so-called “tiger cages,” notorious French-built cells with barred ceilings where guards could look down on the inmates below. In 1973, he was released in a prisoner exchange after the Paris Peace Talks.

In the years immediately following the raid, the floating restaurant remained trendy for its “beautiful view,” despite having an ugly past, and it continued to dish up Vietnamese, Chinese and sea food to a forgiving clientele. Fresh faced young servicemen, like myself, enjoyed fried rice and tasted the delectable tropical fruit lychee for the first time, even though it was out of a can. The My Canh also continued to be of keen interest to the Viet Cong. In October, 1969, the VC lobbed several mortars at the floating restaurant only to land harmlessly nearby in the Saigon River.

Tuesday, March 22, 2016

Vietnam Workhorse Saved From Graveyard

The "before" photo of an F-100 Super Sabre that has been restored for it's final mission as a museum piece.

Once on display at Andrews AFB, it will look like this F-100 outside the Sioux City airbase.

A Vietnam War-era fighter jet has been saved from the graveyard for retired military aircraft and is ready to be perched on it's final place of honor. Here is the story on this special plane, including a slide show, as heard on Iowa Public Radio.

Monday, October 26, 2015

New Life for Vietnam War Recordings

Steven Starnes (left) and me, in the IPR studio where his father's recordings were resuscitated.
Paul Starnes was a disc jockey during the war in Vietnam and sent audio letters home to his family. His collection includes an air check from one of his programs, broadcast from a small studio of the American Forces Vietnam Network in Dong Ba Thin. Paul's son, Steven Starnes, brought his father's collection of reel-to-reel tapes to Iowa Public Radio where John Pemble digitized them. Here's our story. 

Friday, July 31, 2015

Project Jenny Brings TV to Vietnam

Although this is the October issue, it hit mailboxes end of July
This is my full manuscript, as submitted. The final magazine version (with photos) can be found at this link:  Final magazine story

Project Jenny / On the air—from the air (2015)
Seven months after marines hit the ground in Da Nang, officially becoming the first U.S. combat forces in the Vietnam War, a lone aircraft departed Ton San Nhut Airbase with a surprise, nonlethal weapon. It would bring immediate support to the American buildup, and, over the coming months, would transform the very culture of Vietnamese on both sides of the conflict. Fifty years ago, on October 6th, a Navy C-121 Super Constellation turned loose its payload: a live radio broadcast of the 1965 World Series. Anyone within range could tune in a receiver, even a cheap transistor radio, and listen to the opening game between Minnesota and Los Angeles; the Dodgers’ Don Drysdale versus the Twins’ Mudcat Grant. The NBC broadcast, with announcers Joe Garagiola and Byrum Saam, came from Metropolitan Stadium in Bloomington. The signal was relayed around the globe and intercepted by waiting airborne technicians, who retransmitted the program over AM radio and short wave, to an eager audience below. Peanuts and beer would have made the game more complete, but for the fans who were listening in Vietnam and at sea, the play-by-play broadcast was a grand slam. It was a breakthrough success for the U.S. Naval program code-named Project Jenny, and it was only a sneak preview of what the military had in mind.

Home-based at Patuxent Naval Air Station in Maryland, Project Jenny was considered experimental. Doubters believed the next phase was near impossible. During that summer of ‘65, the Oceanographic Air Survey Unit was commissioned at Pax River, and since OASU (later VX-8, and VXN-8) was a collection of technology-oriented units with novel missions, the Chief of Naval Operations added Project Jenny to the portfolio. What's more, they were all familiar with the Lockheed C-121. The World Series broadcast was designed to test an aerial platform, a fully-functioning, flying radio station, complete with built-in transmitters and antennas. Radio was already available in Vietnam via traditional ground stations from AFRS (American Forces Radio Saigon), but never a sustained, live broadcast from the air like that first historic ball game; it stretched out over two hours and 29 minutes before the Twins prevailed 8-2. The broader vision for Project Jenny was mind-boggling; nothing short of revolutionary: the introduction of television to Vietnam transmitted from aircraft.  
The strategy was more complex than simply building morale and making shows like The Beverly Hillbillies available to the audience in South Vietnam. “Previous studies and research,” according to the written history of OASU, concluded that “television would significantly contribute to the U.S. policy objectives of rural pacification, urban stability, national unity, free world support and U.S. prestige in Vietnam.” The plan was to roll out TV as a bilingual venture, with separate language channels for English and Vietnamese, while maintaining capabilities for multiple radio missions. The TV objective was seen as temporary, to keep the aircraft in service until ground stations and towers were up and running.
“We were at RCA school when we got wind of it, and I said they’ve got to be nuts,” according to Chief Electronics Technician John Lucas. A graduate of submarine school, Lucas got orders to meet a civilian on a street corner in Camden, New Jersey at 8 o’clock one morning. “We introduced ourselves and he said, ‘What do you think of television?’ My first words were, ‘I hate the damn stuff. The biggest waste of time I’d ever seen.’” It was all rather hush hush. “I walked into a room with about 20 guys and nobody knew what was going on,” said Lucas, who would later become the senior technician for the project.
The concept of airborne telecasting had been researched since the early ‘60s. The first operational assignment was to Cuba, but the two prototype C-118 aircraft were not outfitted in time to be deployed during the missile crisis. As the Vietnam War was ramping up, Project Jenny became a priority, to include psychological warfare radio operations. RCA was a lead inventor and manufacturer in the expanding television industry, and despite fears that “the project is probably not feasible,” according to unit’s chronological time line, the company agreed to provide the equipment and technical expertise anyway. When the Navy delivered two more NC-121J Constellations to the project, technicians and mechanics immediately began to convert the 1950s-era transports into hi-tech radio and television stations. Collectively, they would become known as Blue Eagle One, Blue Eagle Two and Blue Eagle Three.  BE1 was deployed for the World Series broadcast and would remain radio-only. BE2 and BE3 would become TV birds, but were also capable of transmitting radio; sometimes all at once.
Navy Captain George Dixon, a World War Two veteran, was recalled to head up the project. Dixon had become vice president of Technical Materiel Corporation, a defense contractor that specialized in communications systems. “It would not be wrong to call him the father of Project Jenny,” according to Jim Hicks, who manages a website for Project Jenny veterans ( He flew on Blue Eagles in 1967 and 1968. “We broadcast AFVN (American Forces Vietnam Network programming) in English and some “Chieu Hoi” (open arms program) and Vietnamese news at the same time.” AFVN was on channel 11 and THVN (Vietnamese TV) had channel 9. As Hicks remembers it, “We were very proud to be over there. I was especially very proud of trying to keep people alive instead of trying to kill people.” Technical Coordinator Dixon expressed it this way in 1966: “This project is being designed to fight the enemy with ‘show and tell’…instead of bullets and men.” In a thank you letter to the wives of team members, Dixon wrote, “Passing the word to the general populace in a minimum amount of time can very well be the saving of a great many lives, both American and Vietnamese.”
It was the job of senior tech John Lucas to dismember and retrofit all of the essential components so they could be squeezed inside the Super Connies. The precision work of customizing all the modules was executed at Andrews Air Force Base. “The challenge was to break it down so I could get two transmitters in there, get a whole television studio in there, get all the stuff that feeds video tape machines, film chains and all that stuff, get it packed in there so we could operate it and still be able to do any maintenance.” When Blue Eagle Two was ready for an aerial performance check, Capt. Dixon, Chief Lucas and an RCA engineer were all on board. Some of the aviation personnel, it was said, refused to fly because the plane was overweight. The crucial test flight was above Washington D.C. Lucas had his wife watching television at midnight when engineers used a “function generator” to create a false signal, and according to Lucas, “we literally wiped out a broadcast station on the ground by jamming their signal. My wife saw a bunch of squiggles on the screen. That was the intent; hands down it was a success.”
The conversion of Blue Eagle Three was started next, as an advance party arrived at Tan Son Nhut Airbase to establish Detachment Westpac, OASU’s operations center in Vietnam.  They annexed an open space near the flight line and hastily built an improvised facility with tents, scrap lumber and shipping crates. “They wanted it on the air now,” according to Jean LeRoy, then an Air Force announcer on some 50 TV flights. “They wanted to show this presence. It was to let people know we were there.” By January 1966, the two TV birds had joined Blue Eagle One in Saigon. South Vietnamese Premier Nguyen Cao Key, U.S. Ambassador Henry Cabot Lodge and General William Westmoreland were all beaming for the dedication ceremony at the airport terminal, and of course, it was recorded for later broadcast. LeRoy was attached to AFVN and ran the camera. “We had a full size studio camera and had run cables into the airplane because that was the only place we had a VTR (video tape recorder).” AFVN was responsible for programming the English language channel and personnel would bring along the show films and video tapes for that night’s schedule. AFVN also provided the on-air talent to read live newscasts and announcements from a small onboard studio. LeRoy says he was on the original flight: “I’d get some rip and read news before we left, you’d strap yourself in and away we’d go.”  
The twin TV aircraft flew on alternating nights, seven days a week, showering news and entertainment from an altitude around 10,000 to 12,000 feet. “We’d just get them on station and fly in circles,” radio operator Dave Tice remembers from his 1966 perch behind the pilot. “We’d fly a race track pattern, fly a leg, make a turn, and fly back.” The Vietnamese channel was telecast simultaneously and they provided their own program recordings. But for locals and expatriate viewers alike, American blockbusters like Bonanza and Combat were among the fan favorites. For several hours every evening, the Constellations went on-the-air, from the air, broadcasting signals that could be picked up by “rabbit ears” antennas throughout the capital city region. The U.S. government distributed TV sets, “for less than the cost of one load of bombs,” according to Congressman Charles Chamberlain. He considered television “a potent weapon,” that would help defeat the Viet Cong. By the end of 1966, TV Guide reported that 46,000 receivers had been sold at Post Exchanges around Saigon. At one time, the PX’s imported 10,000 sets a month and usually sold out.
Television officially premiered Feb. 7, 1966, with regularly scheduled programs in two languages. The technology breakthrough that had swept western countries years earlier was now an overwhelming sensation in South Vietnam. In what may be the only account of that historic first night, Air Force Master Sergeant Shelly Blunt, a pioneer announcer himself, gave his impressions of TV’s debut to the AFRTS (Armed Forces Radio and Television Service) Newsletter.
“Just for kicks, a few of us patrolled the area to see how TV was being received. The large round-about near the Brinks (hotel) with the small park in the center was jam-packed with citizens like crazy, to see and hear. They placed two receivers on a platform about seven feet above the ground…it kind of reminded me of sitting in the last row at the Hollywood Bowl and trying to see the color of the eyes of the performer! In another place, this time in a bar not far from the Brinks, we noticed a large crowd of people on the street, seemingly hypnotized at what was going on inside. All in all, we’re tickled pink and hope both planes stay up.” 
Compared to the “flat screen” TVs and High Definition clarity of today’s picture, those wavy, rudimentary, black and white images that mesmerized viewers in Saigon were captivating, nonetheless, especially when considering the telecast was beaming down from an orbiting aircraft. The basic “rabbit ears” reception could be sharpened with better antennas, which became a form of barter. “Our engineers would make TV antennas and I would trade those for all kinds of silly things,” according to AFVN’s LeRoy; “Lobsters from the Navy, steaks from the Army, and we would have parties with all that stuff. The engineers knew exactly how to tune that antenna so it got that signal perfectly.”
Television was becoming a hot commodity, but not everyone liked it. Two months after the dawn of TV, the Viet Cong mortared Tan Son Nhut where the Blue Eagles had parked right after the night’s telecasts. Senior Tech John Lucas was still aboard BE2 when it sustained a direct hit. “I was inside cleaning up. There was only one thing between me and the mortar and that was the air conditioner.” The cooling unit, installed to keep the television equipment from overheating, ended up saving his life, but the Eagles were damaged. BE2 was in bad shape, although the others returned to service quickly. The nightly television schedule had to be scaled back for a month while Blue Eagle Two underwent major repairs, including a two foot gash in the fuselage. A couple months later, Project Jenny was bolstered when a third flying TV station arrived in-country, designated as Blue Eagle Six.
All along, the plan was for land-based facilities to replace the aerial broadcast platforms, and Gen. Westmoreland was there for the ribbon cutting to christen AFVN’s first ground station at Qui Nhon. He brandished a Samurai sword and sliced through a video tape to inaugurate the station. Then, in October of ’66, AFVN’s new headquarters opened near the U.S. Embassy, adjacent to THVN-TV, which would soon be broadcasting in Vietnamese. The 300 foot tower was the tallest structure in Saigon and provided excellent TV coverage. This allowed the Blue Eagles to concentrate on the Vietnamese-speaking rural population in the Mekong Delta. “The State Department put generators and TVs in the strategic hamlets and the larger cities. I’m sure it was all propaganda,” recalls Jim Eanes, a 23 year old Ensign who supervised the Blue Eagle technicians broadcasting the Vietnamese programs. “It was entertainment and news for the government. They obviously were trying to win the hearts and minds of the population.”
The four-prop Constellations bursting with all the TV equipment were always overweight on takeoff; including diesel for the generator that ran all the non-aviation electronics, in addition to the aircraft’s own fuel. They were equipped with four of the most powerful Wright, 18 cylinder engines. “Some of the pilots commented the aircraft was a big, lumbering beast,” according to technician Jim Hicks. The exception was Blue Eagle One, which was the radio-only plane, free of the heavy video gear and external TV antennas. “It flew just fine” for navy pilot Chuck Monroe. He was in control of the cockpit in 1968 when BE1 was based in Da Nang. “Black radio” missions, or, special operations, originated high off the coast of North Vietnam. “We had grandstand seats of the anti-aircraft fire and SAM missile launches and other fireworks over there,” the former Lt. Commander reminisced. “One night we heard radio chatter that MIGs were in the air. A few minutes later we saw some unidentified aircraft whipping by, thought the worst and we shagged ass out of there.” But the plane could have been an American aircraft, and the next day Monroe reminded the Special Operations Group that Blue Eagle One drags a 1,000 foot long antenna cable through the air for broadcasting radio. “That could easily cut a wing off a jet, and it would be best to stay away from us,” Monroe cautioned. “(We) did not see any more aircraft come close to us.”
Blue Eagle One, with its enigmatic assignment, was the most mysterious of the Project Jenny Constellations in Vietnam. “One part of the mission was completely classified and the other part was PSYOPS,” is how Electronics Technician Hicks described it. Occasionally they took a “spook” along: “That person came aboard to operate radio equipment in the back of the aircraft behind a curtain.” Hicks says a bright Vietnamese PR officer would fly along sometimes. “He would listen to the news from Hanoi and take voluminous notes. As soon as that show was over we would come up on the air, with our superior altitude, and override their program and (he would) give the South Vietnamese version of the news, on their frequency.”
Like any other television station, technical snafus would sometimes interfere with programming. The constant vibrations of the big planes began to take a toll on broadcast equipment, according to an insider’s account of the program logs. “One evening, no less than five soldered connections in one tape recorder shook loose. Added to this, the rainy season with its turbulent air currents came along, and notations in the program logs began to appear.” A sample of log entries shows broadcast interruptions for various reasons: “Transmitter failure,” “probably bad amplifier,” “lost audio,” and “video tape machine kaput.” The most alarming log notation was a near disaster: “At 19:15 a fire broke out in #4 engine. The supercharger blew smoke into the fuselage. So smoky the pilots couldn’t read instruments. At low altitude hatches open and smoke cleared.” The unidentified writer concludes, “This was the closest a Blue Eagle aircraft ever came to an actual ditching.”
There were other vivid recollections too, based on accounts from Blue Eagle veterans and old news stories. Occasionally, air strikes in support of ground troops would force the Connies to change course; BE2 was raked by a 50-caliber machine gun during takeoff from Saigon near the end of the Tet Offensive; and three of the unit’s officers were wounded when the VC bombed the Victoria Hotel. For Jim Eanes, it was lightening strikes: “If you got hit on the nose of the aircraft there was this big blue ball of energy that would roll back through the plane, and miraculously, it hardly ever knocked out any of the equipment.” Aircraft electrician Ken Hassebroek was aboard for choppy rides during the rainy season: “The Super Connie was a rugged aircraft through storms and through monsoons; it’s really aerodynamic with the three tails.” Lt. Joe Rolwing’s nemesis was walking from his BOQ to the airbase; “I had to walk by the morgue, every day. That was the most traumatic thing I did.” When AFVN’s ground station in Hue was overrun and knocked off the air during the ’68 Tet Offensive, Project Jenny came to the rescue. According to a detachment fact sheet, northern AFVN and THVN operations were rapidly replaced by airborne telecasts from Blue Eagle flights in the I Corps area.
By the late 60s, television had become deeply rooted in South Vietnam’s everyday life. A growing audience was watching the news, cultural programs and, even Laugh In, while gathered around a flickering small screen in darkened living rooms. On the streets of Saigon, young American military newscasters were seen as TV celebrities. Servicemen bought portable sets for their hooch, and the South Vietnamese government was learning how to spin its own news for the Vietnamese population, both friend and foe. The several hundred American military men, who kept the Blue Eagles in the air, had made the innovation of television into Vietnam’s “social media” of the rock and roll ‘60s. During its first four years of operation, it was estimated the TV squadron had logged 10,000 broadcast hours.
Five years after that breakthrough baseball broadcast, Project Jenny put itself out of business, flying its final TV mission on Sept. 30, 1970, and the entire project was wound down by the end of the year. A network of reliable ground stations was providing a full schedule of programming over a wider reception area, and with more sophisticated production techniques, including live news, sports and program specials than could ever be done from an airplane. As primitive as the Blue Eagles might seem today, in one respect, they were ahead of their time; millions of viewers still receive their television from platforms in the sky—except today, we call them satellites. Meanwhile, that Minnesota baseball diamond where the experimental World Series transmission originated has been transformed into another favorite American pastime, a shopping paradise, known as the Mall of America.  
Sidebar: Super Dooper Blooper
Blunders are just part of the business in live television broadcasting. Most of the fluffs and faux pas are harmless, often humorous, but an innocent gaffe made by a Blue Eagle technician in 1968 had the potential to escalate into a diplomatic kerfuffle. It was right after the Tet Offensive; a sensitive time with civilians and the military still on edge. A prime time audience was watching a Vietnamese language program when the sound track was mismatched and startled viewers heard the wrong channel; a tape recording that was meant for Vietnamese radio. “It was a big brouhaha when we landed,” according to Lt. J-G Ralph Koozer, who was in charge of the broadcast technicians on that flight. “I heard the skipper say the Vietnamese were hopping mad and wanted to come up and shoot down the plane.” Exactly what the audience heard is not clear, but another Blue Eagle veteran, Jim Eanes, was told that the audio was a PSYOPS broadcast intended for the enemy. “The South Vietnamese Air force thought the Viet Cong had taken over the Blue Eagle and scrambled a couple F-5’s.” Koozer says the mistake involved a “humongous patch panel,” and the mix-up happened as they were patching music into the plane’s internal speakers for the crew to listen to. The story circulated through the squadron back in the States, where Eanes heard how the technical difficulty was resolved: “The American crew was able to convince the fighter pilots that it was an unintended blooper, they’ve fixed it, and the correct audio was now going out.”