Wednesday, December 12, 2012

They Called Her Pearl




When I was barely 16, I sat down with the guidance counselor at my high school who proceeded to ask me what my future plans were, so I told him. I wanted to be a war correspondent. He replied, "Oh, a photojournalist?" I replied, 'No, a war correspondent.' I'm pretty sure I saw him hesitate before he realized I wasn't kidding. I was being specific. So, instead of trying to dissuade me, he told me what classes I should be prepared to take in order to achieve my goals. This being the late 1960's, long before the advent of computers and cell phones, the idea of taking stenography left me cold. But, I did not voice this to him, and I wasn't deterred.

I was ultimately thwarted by my own choices. Early marriage and motherhood did not allow for globetrotting journalism. Looking back, I feel fairly confident in saying I'm okay with that. It still sits in the back of my mind as something that would have led for an interesting life, but I found other ways to take life out of the mundane, and they have served me well. I also get to remind myself every day that it's not over yet. I may not find myself hunkered down in the jungle, or behind a barricade next to a bombed out building with bullets flying, while I'm trying to snap a picture and tell a story I think the world needs to know, but one never knows where life will take them.

For many years I collected National Geographic and Life magazines that contained stories written and photographed by Vietnam War correspondents. More than one held a story from my hero, Dickey Chapelle. Dickey was a girl from Wisconsin whose life took her into the heart of war, if there is such a thing, where she witnessed and recorded, so all the world could see, its harsh reality.  Wherever she went, she wore a pair of pearl earrings, small bits of beauty among the horror and a reminder to me of the biblical admonition: "Give not that which is holy unto the dogs, neither cast ye your pearls before swine."




On November 4, 1965, while on assignment near Chu Lai, Vietnam, she died doing what she loved, perhaps was even born to do, still wearing those pearl earrings. Her friend and fellow correspondent, Henri Huett, took her picture as this brave and honorable woman received last rites. I cannot speak for her, but cannot imagine she would have wanted her death recorded any other way. A few years later, Huett, along with several other correspondents, would lose their lives when their helicopter was shot down over the Ho Chi Minh Trail in Laos.

In January of 2005, I was given a book called Requiem: By the Photographers Who Died in Vietnam and Indochina. It contains the stories and photographs of many people I have come to admire. It covers journalists from all over the globe who lost their lives, including those from the "other side" of these conflicts. It remains among my prized possessions. Inside, my friend inscribed: "These brave men and women are an example to all of us. May we face our future with hope, courage and love." And, despite all the obstacles we put in our own way, I like to think we're still doing just that, although certainly not at the level of these very dedicated people who gave their lives to bring the truth to the world. I would be happy with even an infinitesimal part of their courage.

While looking through this book again today, I found this final message from Associated Press reporter, Mean Leange, who was in the Phnom Penh post office, where he had been receiving reports from other Cambodian reporters, shortly before Cambodia descended into hell, falling to the Khmer Rouge on April 16, 1975.

I alone in post office, losing contact with our guys. Only guy seeing me is Moonface at 13:00 [1:00 P.M.]. I have so numerous stories to cover.

Only call from Seang [an AP reporter], still at Hotel Le Phnom. Seang told me black-jacketed guys [the Khmer Rouge] want his bike.

I feel rather trembling. Do not know how to file out stories.

How quiet the streets. Every minute changes. At 13:00 local my wife came and saw me here at post office saying that Monatio [French for the National Movement, or Khmer Rouge] threatened my family out of the house. Vichith lost his camera to the black-jacketed guys.

Appreciate instructions. I not admitted to Le Phnom Hotel this morning into Red Cross security zone. Need press card. I have none. Last night they admitted me to Le Phnom.

The Red Cross ordered removal of all belongings whatsoever having military aspect.

I, with a small typewriter, shuttle between the post office and home.

May be last cable today and forever. 

George Esper, chief correspondent for the Associated Press in Indochina, replied in a message to Mean Leange, telling him to leave the post office immediately and seek safety wherever he could.


Mean lived in obscurity for a few years, hiding his involvement with the AP. Eventually, he was found out through his own inexplicable admission. Wanting for some time to return to Phnom Phenh, he asked for permission to do so from the Khmer Rouge, thereby revealing his true identity. His request resulted in his immediate execution.








22 comments:

  1. What an interesting story. Sad, yet it shows the courage of those who live out their passion. I remember when my guidance counselor in HS asked me what I wanted to be way back when and I told her I wanted to be a "fire watcher" one of those men that lived atop a fire tower out in the middle of nowhere and watched for smoke. She tried to steer me towards other park related things and I never followed through with any of it as life got in the way.

    I cannot imagine being a war correspondent. But thank goodness there are those who throw themselves in harms way to tell the story none of us really want to hear. We always relive the horrors of war, but never quite learn to stay away from the next one.

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    1. Summers in a fire tower high in the Cascades, like Kerouac and pals, was another of my dreams. Love the idea still. My counselor is to be commended for not steering me in another direction, and believing I might actually pull it off. Many do not listen nor allow for young people's dreams to be recognized and encouraged.

      Unfortunately, war correspondent seems to equate with job security.

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  2. Great post.

    Embedding war correspondents has filtered our news.
    Some countries in certain conflicts actually target the reporters.

    I remember when I was at Fort Ord and news came that we had admitted to entering Cambodia. Most of the drill sergeants and others that had served in Nam all wanted to go to Cambodia. The most important person to end the war in Nam was not Kissinger, Nixon, or our congresscritters.
    It was Walter Cronkite, when he came on tv and said the war in Nam was lost.

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    1. Thank you so much, RZ. We should never underestimate the value of a really fine news commentator, or correspondent. Cronkite was one classy guy.

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    2. I just had to chime in, here, and agree. I remember very clearly when Walter Cronkite spoke so eloquently and so surely about the Viet Nam War. He had served as a war correspondent in WWII and was a pioneer in broadcast news. He was also, as you say and what I believe RZ implies, one classy guy.

      This is such a powerful and sobering post, Teresa. I will be thinking of this long after I sign out.

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    3. Thank you for chiming in, Penny. It's appreciated. :)

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  3. I had never heard of Dicky Chapelle but wish I had. I'm also sorry I wasn't more aware of what was going on at the time. Although I identified as pacifist, I really had no idea what was going on.

    Growing up, schools and my family seem to have conspired to make sure the only female role models available to me were "safe": nurses, teachers, and a blind/deaf woman. As my daughter now pursues her dream, I'm her biggest cheerleader and am glad so many opportunities are available to her.

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    1. Things have changed a great deal for women during our lifetime. I was fortunate in that I had parents who believed anything was possible. How wonderful that your daughter has your encouragement.

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  4. It makes you long for the day when there will be no more wars to cover. What a waste of bright, talented people.

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    1. Yes, war is a terrible waste of countless lives.

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  5. When I think of war correspondents I think of people who know life as it really is and not as some fabricated fairy tale. I am in awe of people like this and cannot imagine how they reconcile their two worlds and move from one to another. In so many ways their lives are so different from ours in that they live what we can merely imagine. Reality.

    And now today we live in this world where there are no more Cronkites and no more Dickeys to be clearly heard. Today I often wonder just what is really real. We hear from no one who does not speak with a spin.

    I think I understand why you were drawn to these sorts of lives Teresa as I have felt the same attraction myself. If you had not become a mother you might very well not be here today.

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    1. I think it was a desire to see life at its most elemental level that I always found intriguing, and still do. I think you may have touched on why Mean Leange wanted so badly to return to Phnom Penh, IMO, life made more sense to him there, for reasons almost impossible to articulate. Perhaps it's the same impulse we saw in the Christopher Walken character in "Deer Hunter," where returning to "normal" life becomes impossible. Of course, that phenomena known as survival guilt also plays a role, I'm sure.

      I trust no major news sources. The so-called news is always spun and often late. No "news" at all.

      And, yes, Rubye, you may very well be right.

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  6. I spent some time this week with my two stepdaughters - one 33, one 41. Both of them had dreams in high school, and both were encouraged. And both followed those dreams, setting aside the easier diversions and possibilities. Now they're a nuclear engineer and a pharmacist, materially set and opening the way for their next dreams.

    Thank goodness the doors have opened for women.

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    1. It has definitely changed the face of things. Good for them for following their dreams.

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  7. The good ones are gone. Bad ones rule today. Just how bad they are now = the amount of stupidity we have today in this country.

    There will be no more like Cronkite. I remember him saying that. It was amazing ever for a kid like myself.

    I did not have a good counselor. Lived two houses away and is still there. Piss poor baseball coach with views skewed by being religiously insane. I avoid him like the plaque to this day. A good one could have made a difference.

    Also in a way Progressive/Liberal bloggers are doing the same today. It is a war now as well and many truth tellers have been punished. Get's to be old shit!

    BTW - you would have made a good one.

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    1. There is a blogger serving 18 years in prison in Nigeria. Said something they didn't like....

      And thanks, OF. I appreciate that very much.

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  8. I was never like the other "girls" I did not want to get married, have kids..Only wanted to go to college (did) and travel did..Married later than most, lived on my own a lot, my hubbs oldest of huge family with dad missing in action, he lived on his own, worked, we met at a time we had traveled, gone to college and knew we wanted more than to live in a town with little sunshine, little happiness, moved to colorful Colorado and loved it, I am a hippie at heart how can one be defined just by what others deem possible, I was always different and gladfully so, our only child a wonderful daughter, travels a lot, does what she want in film stuff, makes a man wage in otherwords more than what most women get and won't tolerate less and is treated well, she will never be defined by others expectations never, rightfully so..her parents are hippies at heart, it is the soul and creativity and kindness that drives us living close to the earth and caring for felines that makes us happy..we just don't get the assbackwardness of the republican party or for most organized religions, we really really don't. Take care in the snow and enjoy the earth and keep warm, we have snow now and ice, & rain and cold weather about 200 more days ugh, but we manage!!!!!!!!!!!!

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    1. Do you blog? It sounds like you would have some interesting stories to share....Is your father in-law still MIA?

      You've made some good choices in life, seems to me... They have served you well, and the world, too.

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  9. Well Teresa, I'm glad you're still here. The war correspondents live a life on the edge, but I'm sure you would have been enough courageous to become one of those brave people.
    I know what you say about being married before being able to go on with your wishes for the future. If I had "avoided" marriage I would most ptrobably have been a fashion designer in Paris. I'm serious, I had the chance. This is certainly in the other end of the scale don't you think?

    I remember the name Dicky Chapelle. Thank you for telling about her. It is a very moving post and I cried as usual.

    Grethe ´)

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    1. So am I, Grethe, and so happy to be sharing the world with you at this time. I love knowing you have the heart of a fashion designer, and in Paris... what appears to be the other end of the scale is often the perfect balance. I spent hours as a very young child trying on that idea by designing dresses for my paper dolls. Thank you for calling up that fine memory for me. So good to hear from you.

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  10. I was really surprised to read that you wanted to be a war correspondent. I didn't Quite understand why until you wrote on "gave their lives to bring truth to the world." My goodness, that really hit me. As terrible as war is, and its the absolute worst part of human history, it is necessary for someone to report it, to tell the truth about it.

    I doubt I would have had the courage to do this. But, somehow, I believe that you would have pulled it off.

    A wonderful read, both historic and interesting, and thank you for reminding me the importance of being reminded about the horrors of war. A necessary, if not disabling, exercise.

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    1. Bill, Thanks a million for your comment. I appreciate it very much. Endless killing....

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