[We had to cut “On the Frontlines of the Television War” almost in half to find a publisher so I’ve been posting the chapters we cut on this website. I thought that today with the passing of Anne Morrissy Merick, I’d post this chapter about a train journey through Viet Cong-held Vietnam and a very sweet return to Saigon. Terry Irving]
Another attempt to cover the “other side” was when I was sent to film a mountain railway that still operated between Dalat and the coast by way of Phan Rang to Nha Trang—cutting across areas controlled by both the South Vietnamese and the Viet Cong. Vietnamese would take the train but foreigners were discouraged from boarding because Communist political units would often appear on the train and give speeches about their cause and the reasons for their fight. They would also collect taxes of course. There was one newly arrived correspondent who was willing to take the journey, Ann Morrisey, the first female TV correspondent for ABC News in Vietnam. She had been a producer and then volunteered to come to Vietnam as a correspondent or at least that’s what I was told.
She was quite brave and very curious so she decided to take this train ride. For one thing, it was the last train still operating in South Vietnam and she wanted to film a Viet Cong unit if they showed up on the train. She spoke French so she thought she could communicate well enough to do an interview. Again, Saigon thought sending a Western crew was a bad idea and even sending a South Vietnamese soundman was risky so I went by myself.
The train ride itself was fun. It went through beautiful scenery and at every stop, there would be locals selling souvenirs. You could also buy food: fruit, tea, or coffee. The coffee was a very famous product of this region before the war. At times, it seemed as if the train was just going from market to market but the food was delicious and I was soon stuffed.
But the Viet Cong never showed up so it was more like a tourist film than a war story. In “War Torn,” the excellent book about women reporters in Vietnam, she said that the train ride was the most picturesque story she did in Vietnam and her favorite.
We were out of touch for 3 days and Bureau Chief Elliot Bernstein and the Assignment Desk was worried we’d been captured. As it happened, Wendel “Bud” Merick, the US News and World Report correspondent was also quite concerned and wrote her a letter every day. When Ann returned, she found a pile of what were really love letters from him. They were married at the Caravelle Hotel.
Anne Morrissy Merick, who as a television field producer persuaded the Pentagon to overturn an edict that prevented women in the press corps from covering combat during the Vietnam War, died on May 2 in Naples, Fla. She was 83.
Her daughter, Katherine Anne Engelke, said the cause was complications of dementia.
Even as a college student, Ms. Morrissy Merick began blazing trails for women. She was the first woman to be named sports editor of The Cornell Daily Sun and the first woman admitted to the press box at the Yale Bowl.
In Vietnam, Ms. Morrissy Merick was working in Saigon for ABC News in 1967 when Gen. William C. Westmoreland, the United States commander there, was horrified to encounter Denby Fawcett, a 24-year-old reporter for The Honolulu Advertiser, embedded with American troops on a dangerous mission in the Central Highlands. Ms. Fawcett’s mother was a friend of the general’s wife.
Fearing for their safety, General Westmoreland barred female journalists from remaining overnight on the battlefield.
In effect, his order handicapped them from covering combat, because in a guerrilla war, the front could materialize suddenly anywhere and there was no assurance that journalists could be evacuated quickly.
(As it turned out, Ms. Morrissy Merick’s only war wound was a monkey bite, inflicted by a soldier’s mascot.)
In response to the Westmoreland order, Ms. Morrissy Merick and Ann Bryan Mariano, an editor of Overseas Weekly, organized the half-dozen other women covering the war to join them in meeting with Phil G. Goulding, a deputy assistant secretary of defense for public affairs, who was in Saigon, the South Vietnam capital (now Ho Chi Minh City).
After an inconclusive meeting, he and Ms. Morrissy Merick adjourned for drinks in her hotel room, where she persuaded him to have Westmoreland’s edict reversed. (“And if you’re wondering if I slept with him, the answer is no!” she wrote in “War Torn: The Personal Experiences of Women Reporters in the Vietnam War,” a collection of remembrances published in 2002.)
Ms. Morrissy Merick argued that giving her access to the battlefield would enable her to produce the kind of in-depth reporting that she found lacking in daily television coverage, in which “the war was just chopped into little pieces of bang-bang every night for dinner entertainment,” as she was quoted saying in Joyce Hoffmann’s book “On Their Own: Women Journalists and the American Experience in Vietnam” (2008).
“My objective was to get ‘the story behind the story, not only what these men did but how they felt about it,’” Ms. Morrissy Merick said.
The Westmoreland order and its reversal were not widely reported at the time, but the journalistic precedents she set as a student at Cornell University in 1954 did make headlines across the country.
As Anne Morrissy, she defeated three male students that spring to be elected the first female sports editor in the history of The Cornell Daily Sun, the student newspaper, which was founded in 1880. (Its editor in chief at the time was Dick Schaap, who would become an accomplished sportswriter.)
On Oct. 16, 1954, after having been admitted to the press box at Cornell’s football stadium, she overturned another hoary tradition. Traveling to New Haven for a Big Red away game, she became the first woman credentialed to sit in the press box at the Yale Bowl.
For the most part, her milestone at The Sun and her giant step for womankind in integrating the Yale football press box were greeted with condescension by the male-dominated profession.
Misspelling her surname, the syndicated columnist Red Smith wrote in The New York Herald Tribune, “Miss Morrisy is a slick little chick whose name probably will be linked in history with those of other crusading cupcakes such as Lady Godiva, Susan B. Anthony, Lydia Pinkham and Mrs. Amelia Bloomer.”
He continued, “The first sportswriting doll to thrust her shapely foot through the door of an Ivy League press coop, she has breached the last bastion of masculinity left standing this side of the shower room.”
In an editorial, The Chicago Tribune wrote that Ms. Morrissy might bring a fresh viewpoint to sports coverage, as a woman and as a philosophy major.
“She can explain Cornell’s victories and defeats in terms of the categorical imperative, the Platonic doctrine of ideas, or the pessimism of Schopenhauer, holding that the will is an irrational form in conflict with the intellect,” the Tribune said. “Or she can write a fashion review, giving a description of the costuming in Dartmouth green or Harvard Crimson, and what accessories the athletes carried.”
She had earlier covered varsity crew, swimming and even intramural horseshoes for The Sun, agreeing to take sports assignments that her male colleagues had spurned. That left her at a disadvantage when, as The Sun’s sports editor, she entered the Yale Bowl press box.
“In my excitement over the opportunity to sit in the press box,” she wrote in The Boston Globe. “I had forgotten to learn anything about football.”“To me, the hardest part of covering football is being able to keep your eye on the ball,” she added, “and I consistently found myself watching the wrong person.”
Anne Louise Morrissy was born on Oct. 28, 1933, in Manhattan to John Morrissy, an advertising executive with Time Life, and the former Katherine Harriett McKay, who had been an actress.
After graduating from Cornell in 1955 with a bachelor’s degree in philosophy, she toured Europe and became sports editor of the Paris edition of The New York Herald Tribune. She was on assignment in Syria for an Israeli newspaper when she was arrested as a spy and deported.
Hired by ABC as a producer in 1961, she covered the civil rights movement, presidential primaries and spaceflights. Posted to Vietnam later in the ’60s, she remained there until 1973.
By then, she had married Wendell S. Merick, a U.S. News and World Report correspondent whom she had met in Vietnam, and had a daughter with him. The family moved when the magazine closed its Saigon bureau. He died in 1988.
She later married Dr. Don S. Janicek, a physician, who died in 2016. In addition to her daughter, she is survived by a sister, Katherine Hemion; four stepchildren, Larry, Steve and Nancy Janicek and Julie Janicek-Wilkey; four granddaughters; and 13 step-grandchildren.
“From the many articles I have read about her,” her daughter, Ms. Engelke, wrote of her 5-foot-2 mother in an email, “it sounds like she was happy to play up her cute, attractive spunkiness in order to get a foot in the door, and then she walloped them with her knowledge and ability to ask good questions.”
It is unclear why Yale relented and allowed Ms. Morrissy Merick into the press box that day in 1954 (perhaps because of her imprimatur not only as a reporter but also as an editor), and its decision was not immediately transformative: A few weeks later, Faye Loyd of United Press was barred, and in succeeding years, few women were assigned or chose to cover sports.
But for Ms. Morrissy Merick, it may have been an epiphany.
“I think the whole Yale press box thing was a big deal,” Ms. Engelke said. “That really set her up to not be afraid to do the job of a man.”
(This is another section that had to be trimmed from “On the Frontlines of the Television War” before it could be published.]
An Asian in Vietnam
One day, I was in a taxi in Saigon and the young driver started to talk to me in what turned out to be quite good English. He explained that he was only driving a cab temporarily while he prepared to go to college. After he learned that I was from Japan, he said, “If there were three people in a competition, an American, a Japanese, and a Vietnamese, the Vietnamese would have an equal chance of winning. Now, if the competition was between teams: three Japanese, three Americans, and three Vietnamese, the Vietnamese wouldn’t have a chance.”
I asked, “Why?”
He explained that his personal opinion was that the basic nature of the Vietnamese people will always prevent them from success. The country is essentially divided into three parts, inhabited by three very different types of people, and they have never gotten along. Even without the Americans or the Chinese or the French, the Vietnamese would fight among themselves, and it was impossible for them to cooperate.
Other Vietnamese friends said that it was the French who understood this essential division of the Vietnamese and used it in a “divide and conquer” strategy to keep them a colony. They’d run the nation as three provinces: Tonkin in the North, Annam in the Center, and Cochinchina in the South. There was continuous competition and feuding between the regions, different religions, and different customs. So long as the Vietnamese continued to quarrel among themselves, the French didn’t have to worry about them uniting to throw them out. It worked for about 100 years until Ho Chi Minh created a united front after the Second World War.
However, the Vietnamese have kept these divisions alive long after the French departed. The people in the North saw the Southerners as lazy and too easy-going and in turn, the people around Saigon thought those ruled by Hanoi were smart but greedy. The people of the Center thought they were clearly the smartest and, if not, the beautiful city of Huế, for a long time the imperial capital of Vietnam, had the most beautiful women. In private—or in anger—they called each other names based on the food they consumed which made sense since the entire nation loved food and were known as the gourmet people. Northerners loved to eat a particular vegetable, a type of spinach named Rau mồng tơi, and so, that’s what they were called. Of course, it was also one of the few things that very poor Vietnamese could buy so it also meant “dirt poor.” People from the Central region cooked with a very hot pepper called “ớt hiếm” which means “dangerous” or “rare” chili so the were known as “ớt,” and in the Southern Delta, people love bean sprouts or “giá đậu” so they are known as “giá.” This can also mean “price” or “haggle.” Most of these names weren’t serious insults, just the sort of thing you’d say in jest like an American might call someone a “city slicker.” In Saigon, there were so many people that all types ended up mixed together.
No one who has ever been in Vietnam, or at least in Vietnam and not on a frontline, can forget the wonderful rice noodle soup from the North that’s called “Phở Bo” when it’s made with beef and “Phở Ga” when it has chunks of chicken. Interestingly, it’s a street food that was only invented around 1925 but the Vietnamese have now spread it around the world. In the Central region, people make a spicy and yeasty rice vermicelli soup with beef & pork together and named after the old capital “bún bò Huế. ” The Southerner have their own noodle dishes, some with lots of seafood, another called “hủ tiếu” which has different types of meat all mixed on top of flat noodles and has spread to Cambodia, Singapore, and even Thailand. Even if they might not like each other all that much, Vietnamese all enjoy food, no matter where it came from originally
The Vietnamese might all look and sound alike to foreigners but they can easily recognize each other by the way they talk because each area has a different dialect and accents. Oddly, no matter where they are, singers always perform with a Northern accent unless they are doing traditional folk songs. I asked my friends why but they just shrugged and said it had always been that way. I guess the Northern accent just is better for singing and broadcasting much like in America where I’ve noticed that very few reporters or anchors have a strong Southern accent.
All Vietnamese have one thing in common: they love to gamble, a feeling shared by most other Asians. Whether they are from the North, South, or Center of the country, both men and woman like to gamble and they really don’t like losing. When my Vietnamese co-workers found out that I loved to gamble as well, they began to let me into their society. Of course, they might just have wanted my money but it didn’t always turn out that way.
When we had spare time, we would usually play cards but it seemed for a long time that I could never win. They played a game called “Russian Poker” where each player was dealt thirteen cards and then you would create three poker hands and place them face down: a back hand with five cards, a middle hand with five cards and a front hand with three. The back hand must be better than the middle hand and the front hand must be the weakest of all. When everyone is ready, you show your hands and if two out of three of your hands are the best, you win. The problem was that a loser could call “Challenge” and that meant that you had to play a “winner takes all” hand for the whole pot. Even if I was winning in the three hands on the table and didn’t think I would get good cards, I always took a challenge bet because I didn’t want to lose their respect, both as a gambler and as a man, unfortunately, I often lost on the challenge hand. It’s as tough to beat the Vietnamese because they were determined fighters in psychological warfare—in gambling and in real war. The Chinese had a long history of being beaten back when they tried to conquer this country, the French lost, and now even the Americans are struggling.
The Vietnamese might compete against other Vietnamese but they will all combine against foreigners. Americans are considered to be chumps at gambling and they are the joke of many conversations that, of course, the Americans can’t understand. The Vietnamese don’t hate Americans, but they don’t have a lot of respect for them and they certainly don’t feel thankful that American GIs are fighting to save their country.
It was different when the French were in charge. Sure, the French exploited Vietnam and stole everything they could but the Vietnamese appear to like them better because, as the Bureau Manager, Mr. Lam told me, the French allowed Vietnamese into their society. The French learned how to speak Vietnamese but the Americans forced everyone to learn English. Why can’t the Americans learn Vietnamese?
He went on to say that, even if the Americans brought aid and assistance instead of exploiting the country, one of the most un-popular practices was the ceremony of giving aid to Vietnamese. For instance, in the local villages, the American administrators would ask villagers to gather in the square and make them watch as their head man took the money, often with a band playing. Then the people of the village would have to cheer. It was as if the Americans were really saying, ” Pay attention! We’re giving you a lot of aid. Now, thank us for our generosity!”
Lam wondered why Americans couldn’t give aid quietly and without a big ceremony? Even though they were suffering and dying in a war, the Vietnamese are a proud people and don’t want to feel that they are now just beggars. Lam explained to me that Americans were too straightforward and they didn’t understand the complexity of life in Vietnam with all of its different cultures and long history. In addition, he said, many Vietnamese are now living in France as French citizens but the Americans, while they don’t steal and indeed bring in all sorts of aid and assistance, never let the Vietnamese into American society.
(Of course after the war, millions of Vietnamese refugees settled in the States—including Mr. Lam—and became American citizens.)
I was a bit angry and said that it wasn’t fair that young American soldiers were being wounded and killed fighting for Vietnam and they weren’t being appreciated by the people they called friends.
Another Vietnamese friend explained it to me by telling me a story. He said that the leader of North, Ho Chi Minh and leader of South, Ngo Dinh Diem met one day.
Ho Chi Minh asked Ngo Dinh Diem, “Why are you making friends with America? They’re all the way around the world from you?”
Ngo Dinh Diem answered Ho Chi Minh. “Don’t you see? History shows that our next-door neighbor, China, has attacked, invaded and occupied our land for centuries. It’s much safer to choose a friend who lives far way from Vietnam. If I were you, I’d watch out for China.”
He said it was just a metaphor but I responded that it might just be a metaphor but it’s not a fair metaphor for America!”
The book “On the Frontlines of the Television War: A Legendary War Cameraman in Vietnam” is so different than almost every other read of mine lately and has such an important subject matter that I feel I must review it here. True, I have read of war before, but not from this angle. I admit I did not realize the risks that video journalists, such as the author Yasutsune “Tony” Hirashiki, took in wartime. Now I know better.
The Vietnam War & The Journalists
Tony and so many other cameramen and camerawomen were capturing the events of the Vietnam War for ABC News and other news stations. Of course, I knew there were people doing so, but I certainly didn’t take into account the immense danger they put themselves in to film a story of the day’s “bang bang” events, as they were known.
(When it came down to finding a publisher, we had to cut savagely into Tony Hirashiki’s manuscript. Here’s another segment that got trashed in the in process.)
Marines generally marched at a steady pace with twenty minutes of walking followed by a five minute break. Those breaks were sheer joy because I could rest my camera on the ground and sit down. Sometimes, during those breaks, Roger would take a can of fruit from his knapsack and we would all share it. My favorite was peaches in syrup in a can.
Roger Peterson in the 1980s when he was a General Assignment Correspondent in Washington DC.
Roger’s knapsack was the biggest size that the US Army had and it was so heavy that I couldn’t even lift it. But even the largest knapsack looked small and rather light on Roger’s big shoulders. He used it to carry just about everything I could imagine. I would watch awestruck when he set up camp for the night. It was like a magician pulling endless stream of odd object from a tiny hat. First would be a neatly folded rubber mattress which he would blow up in less than five minutes—something that would have left most of us gasping for breath on the ground. It was really big! At least seven long and three feet wide.
Next, Roger would unstrap the shovel from the side of the knapsack and dig foot-wide ditches along the sides of the mattress to keep the heavy rain that would usually fall in the night from flooding his bed. Then, using a large knife, he cut down tree branches for tent poles. With these, he supported his big poncho over the mattress and there would be a tent as comfortable as you could ask for. If we were in deep jungle or heavy woods, he wouldn’t use the mattress but just hang a hammock and a mosquito net between two trees. He had a blanket for the cool nights that happened even in Vietnam’s hot climate. No matter the weather, he was usually pretty comfortable.
Here are a few of the other things in his knapsack: a towel, soap, a toiletry kit, a shaving kit, a portable radio with spare batteries, a flashlight, anti-malaria pills, a bottle of salt tablets, pills to sterilize water, powder for athlete’s foot, insect spray, aspirin, anti-diarrhea medicine, various tools, a can opener, a coffee pot, portable fuel, socks and underwear for three days, several notebooks, a writing kit, paperback books, a picture of his wife, letters from his wife, a corn cob pipe, pipe tobacco, a cleaning kit for the pipe, and at the bottom there was a bottle of Jack Daniel’s whiskey wrapped in extra clothes to make sure that it wouldn’t get broken. I know that there were even more useful items in there that I can’t remember. It always seemed magical to me—no matter what was needed, it would be in there somewhere.
My knapsack was tiny and light compared to Roger’s. I couldn’t carry a lot of things because my first priority was the camera which weighed between 30 and 40 pounds. Anything else I carried was very carefully chosen. First, I had to carry cans of unexposed film and extra magazines to hold the film on the camera and a number of other camera tools and accessories. Basically, when I had all this loaded, my knapsack was full but it wasn’t all I needed to carry.
The rubber-coated, hooded poncho is essential in a war zone. It was a raincoat, the roof of a tent, and a carpet to sleep on. Folded in half with poles on each side, it was an emergency stretcher strong enough to carry a wounded man. Sadly, it had one more use—as a final shroud for the dead. Vietnamese troops would say that someone was “coming back by poncho,” meaning that he’d been killed in action.
There was “no war” in Laos. Everyone knew that–including the soldiers that were fighting it and the reporters who were covering it.\]
Since I didn’t have any space for a mattress, hammock, or mosquito net, I made do with a military surplus nylon blanket which was lightweight but enough to keep me warm at night. When I knew that we were going out for a long period, I would pack a toiletry kit, first aid supplies, aspirin, diarrhea medicine, underwear and socks, cans of food, dry food, and candy for quick energy.
In the end, it always came down to a choice between film and food. A 400-foot roll of 16mm film weighs twice as much as a can of food but I knew that, once we got to the front lines, I might be able to get food supplies but there was no way to get more unexposed film. I would always end up carrying more film and leaving the canned food behind.
I also had a canteen of clean water hanging on my waist which was quite heavy but totally essential. Roger always carried two canteens and I knew that one was filled with water and the other with Jack Daniels. Roger loved to drink, especially Jack Daniels. At the end of a long day in the field, when he had finished writing the script for that day’s story or arranging to get our film back to Saigon, Roger would relax, open one of the canteens, and, with a gentle smile, sip from it while smoking his pipe. I know this was one of his favorite times and with that corn cob pipe in his mouth, I often imagined that he looked like General McArthur.
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