Wednesday, December 6, 2017

TV Station's Final Days

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Americans used to live in this villa, the former U.S. Consul residence. It was later converted into to a broadcast center.  
The Americans were sleeping in their new billet, a villa one street over, when “all hell broke loose,” remembers Bagwell, the other remaining survivor. “We had a pretty good view from our back door,” he said. We could actually see the attack going on.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

Detachment 5 Roster
(Highest achieved ranks are shown)

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

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

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

Escaped

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

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

Tuesday, November 28, 2017

Anchorman's Haunting Story

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

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

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

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

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

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

Shirley watches my newscast from three months before the accident.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, October 12, 2017

Happy 30th Birthday "Good Morning, Vietnam"

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, August 28, 2017

Darkness During Peak Solar Eclipse

The time is 1:08 p.m. in Lathrop,Missouri (8-21-2017)
At a frontage road hundreds of cars pulled off I-35 to watch.

The heavy traffic, many cars from Minnesota, reminded me of a college football game.

Thursday, July 27, 2017

Tiger Den Bar Poured Last Beer 30 Years Ago

This is the CBS Radio story I filed. I bought one of the bar stools and set it next to the telephone in my Bangkok home until I returned to the States. 
The late Tiger, with wife Lucy and daughter Patty, outside the bar in 1982. (From: "The Tiger of Bangkok" by Tiger Rydberg with Alan Dawson)

Tuesday, July 18, 2017

Book Review in The Vietnam Veterans of America (online)


Broadcasters: Untold Chaos by Rick Fredericksen


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Rick Fredericksen, the author of Broadcasters: Untold Chaos (Amazon Digital, 207 pp., $4.99, Kindle), is a Marine Corps veteran of the Vietnam War. Fredericksen, a veteran journalist and author, has written an interesting and readable book about the many years he spent in Southeast as a foreign correspondent, including a stint as CBS News’ Bangkok bureau chief. Broadcasters is sort of all over the place, which is fine with me as it is written in easy-to-read sections and deals with subjects I enjoyed reading about.
The one I found the most interesting was the fairly long section on Agent Orange. Because I have Multiple Myeloma, which is associated with exposure to dioxin among Vietnam War veterans, I was eager to read what he had to say.
In contrast to nearly everything else I’ve read about dioxin, Fredericksen focuses on what Agent Orange and the other dioxins the U.S. military sprayed in Southeast Asia have done to the people who live there. Most books and articles about AO published in this country tend to start with the havoc that the spraying and exposure has wrought on veterans and all but ignore the citizens of Vietnam and other parts of Southeast Asia.
Fredericksen includes photos of the displays in Vietnam that are available for tourists to view that show how dioxin affects the fetus. Horrible, scary stuff. I actually felt lucky that AO has done so little to me by comparison. And to my offspring.
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Rick Fredericksen during the Vietnam War
I recommend this book to those who want to dip into some readable and interesting essays by a man who has spent much of his life in Southeast Asia writing and thinking about what the American presence there has meant. Not all of it is good and not all of it is popular among the folks who live there.
Even Filipinos have some bad things to say about Americans in this book. I enjoyed reading about Imelda Marcos and her 3,000 pairs of shoes.
So there is some fun in this book. Quite a bit, actually. Buy it and read it.
—David Willson

Tuesday, June 6, 2017

Thanks, Army War College

This nice mention is in the Army War College Foundation and Alumni News (Spring 2017). I participated in the National Security Seminar with the Class of 2015.