When we started the section Vietnam to commemorate the 10th anniversary of the fall of Saigon on April 30, our readers’ response was immediate—and dramatic. Before noon on the day the first issue in the series (March 11) hit the newsstands, we already had received a dozen calls.
“One woman called to say she had never found out what had happened to her husband when he was killed 15 years ago,” says Jane Sugden, the reporter who is handling the call-ins. “She was crying and said, ‘I don’t even know if he’s the one they sent back in the casket.’ ” Most readers are trying to be helpful, sometimes too helpful. To date no fewer than 10 people have identified themselves as the bespectacled marine in the March 11 photograph of four servicemen carrying a fallen comrade. And there is an occasional note of cloak-and-dagger: Six callers tipped us off that in the same issue the civilian shown aiding Vietnamese to escape by helicopter from an apartment roof was a CIA agent. “Just say I have it on excellent authority,” said one anonymous voice. So far, we have identified four of the people whose pictures have been published, a heartening beginning.
For project editor Cutler Durkee, 32, who registered for the draft but was still a senior at the University of California at the time of the exodus, the main memories of the war are of headlines and protest marches. For Assistant Editor Jim Calio, 40, writer of this week’s section (page 78), Vietnam had a surreal quality. A junior officer aboard the carrier USS Constellation for two years, he recalls “a strange twilight war. We never saw the bombs drop—the pilots did—although some nights we could see explosions just blipping along the shoreline.” In writing the vets’ stories, explains Calio, “I tried not to slip into the trap of saying, ‘Everybody’s having flashbacks and everybody’s psychotic.’ I think there are a lot of positive things, like the fact that quite a few Vietnam vets are now serving in the U.S. Congress.”
Ralph Novak, 41, senior editor and adviser on the series, served as a combat infantryman, then as correspondent/photographer for his 25th Infantry Division newspaper. Says Novak: “For me Vietnam was an experience that at any given moment I would have done anything to get out of. After my tour was over and I survived, I was glad I had gone through it, because Vietnam was something elemental. You saw incredible courage and the most animal kind of brutality in the same environment. I guess that’s one thing that fascinates people about war.”