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Buddhist Rebellion – Da Nang 1966

(When it came to finding a publisher for

On the Frontlines of the Television War,”

we had to cut savagely into Yasutsune “Tony” Hirashiki’s original manuscript.

Here’s another of the book segments in the way we originally edited it.)

 

In South Vietnam, there was tension between the government, led by Generals Nguyễn Cao Kỳ and Nguyễn Văn Thiệu, both Catholics, and the Buddhists, who made up the majority of Vietnamese especially in the big cities. Da Nang, on the central coast, is the second largest city in South Vietnam and, in 1966, it was the stronghold of the Buddhist-led “Struggle Movement.” At first, the opposition was peaceful with large demonstrations and boycotts but, when some of the Vietnamese soldiers from the ARVN I Corps, the force that controlled the surrounding region, joined with the Buddhists and erected defenses against government troops, the government sent in Vietnamese Marines and Rangers under the command of Nguyen Cao Ky. The American troops, who supported the Saigon government but didn’t see the Buddhists as a threat, were caught in the middle. The Tinh Hoi Pagoda, one of the largest Buddhist temples in Da Nang, became a fortress filled with armed soldiers and Buddhist refugees.

In the late afternoon of May 18th, 1966, I arrived in Da Nang for a completely different assignment, testing out 16-millimeter color film to see if it would hold up under the tough conditions of news coverage. The US TV networks were changing from black and white to color and, as more tv sets were in color, they wanted the news to be in color as well. I shot pictures of the other ABC News team as they covered the Buddhist demonstrations because the clothes of the monks and nuns were bright, warm oranges, yellows, and browns that would really show if the film was OK.

It was such an easy job that I figured that Jack O’Grady sent me as a reward for our much tougher assignment with the 1st Air Cavalry. I wrapped up the shooting by the next day, sent the film back, and began to work with Roger Peterson. He already had a sound camera crew so I was to be the second “cutaway” camera, shooting silent footage that could be worked into his stories. I wasn’t given a lot of instructions but allowed to go out and find news events, interesting people, and, in general, good pictures on my own.

The streets of Da Nang were totally chaotic, particularly around the pagodas. One reporter explained to me that the soldiers of I Corps who didn’t agree on the rebellion were fighting each other but not very hard. This changed when the elite troops led by General Nguyen Cao Ky arrived and the skirmishes between government and rebel troops became tougher and more common.

At one point, I was standing in at a small square and watched as a rebel soldier, a frightened, middle-aged guy, was escorted past me by government troops. Without warning, the South Vietnamese officer in charge simply took out a pistol and shot him in the head, killing him instantly. It happened only yards away from me and I was completely shocked. It was real, not like in the movies, and it shocked me deeply.

At first, I was frozen, unable to move or speak and completely forgetting to use my camera. Then I felt a hot anger inside and I wanted to shout, “It’s murder! You’re nothing but a murderer!” but my voice simply wouldn’t work. I just stood there and stared at the ARVN officer. I never did roll film in my camera and, as a result, had nothing for Roger that day.

The next day, reinforcements from Saigon had arrived with armored troop carriers and tanks and completely surrounded the Tinh Hoi Pagoda, which was the Buddhist headquarters in Da Nang. Inside the pagoda, the monks, soldiers, and civilians were ready to defend themselves against the Army. There were a lot more government troops and the rebel soldiers didn’t have any tanks or heavy weapons so I guessed that they had almost no chance of winning. Even so, they weren’t about to surrender.

All morning, I searched without any luck for a vantage point like a high-rise building or a hill where I could get a picture of the pagoda which was buried deeply in an old neighborhood of small streets and alleys. Roger and his crew were covering the government troops at the front gate of the pagoda.

A street kid about ten years old began to follow me as I walked around looking for a good shot. After a while, I got the idea to ask him to help me get near the pagoda. However, there was a big problem with this idea. I couldn’t speak Vietnamese and I figured he couldn’t speak English. I was completely sure he couldn’t speak Japanese. How could I give him an idea of what I wanted?

I took my camera and posed with it as if I were filming. OK, now he knows that I’m a journalist and not a spy. I only knew a few Vietnamese phrases but “Cho toi di” is what I was taught to say to a taxi driver in Saigon because it meant “take me with you.” means “let me go” according to Google How would I let him know where to take me? I didn’t know how to say “pagoda” in Vietnamese. So, I posed again, pantomiming monks putting their hands together in prayer, clapping, and chanting prayers. I kept saying “Nammaida, Nammaida.” which is a Japanese Buddhist chant and not all that different from the Vietnamese.

He was a very smart kid and instantly knew what I wanted! I must still have good luck left over from the Bong Son operation. The kid let me follow him as he quickly crossed through a small narrow street into someone’s courtyard, down several small lanes and alleys, and finally to the side entrance of the pagoda and there wasn’t a soldier in sight!

It was like magic; it took less than five minutes. Before I had a chance to say “Thanks,” the kid disappeared. I thought for a second that he might have been an angel sent to lead me right where I needed to go.

The courtyard of the Tinh Hoi Pagoda was jammed with people working, running, praying, and preparing to fight to defend against the government troops. Soldiers and civilians were digging bunkers and trenches, making sandbags, and piling them up. Young monks were answering questions and telling people where to go while the nuns and other women cooked food and delivered tea to the workers. Even kids were helping their parents.

I didn’t ask for permission and simply began to film everything around me. No one tried to stop me, in fact, some were eager to show what they were doing. Everyone was very friendly and I realized that I was the only journalist who was covering their side of the conflict. Everyone else was outside with the government troops.

After I filmed the activities in the courtyard, I went to the front gate and shot the rebel troops ready to stand off any attackers. I was behind sandbags in a machine gun nest and I could see all the other newsmen gathered with the government troops only 200 yards away. A lot of the camera crews were taking shots of the pagoda and so I took shots of them. I even recognized Roger because he was taller than everyone else but I couldn’t communicate anything.2016-09-16 14.10.57

The rebels began to move out in several lines along the wall of the pagoda and behind the trees along the road. I heard the loud and sharp “da, da, da, da” of machine gun fire and soldiers near me fell down wounded. The government hadn’t fired warning shots, they’d shot to kill.

It was a short attack but more than a dozen were killed or wounded, both soldiers and civilians. I can’t think of why I wasn’t hit except for another miracle. I got scenes of the advancing soldiers, Buddhists evacuating the wounded into the temple courtyard, and giving them medical care. I also filmed a woman who was just lying there with her baby crying next to her. I couldn’t’ tell if she was dead or alive.

baby pagoda

Yesterday, I hadn’t shot a single good frame of film but this morning, my camera was rolling almost continuously. The scenes were shocking, ugly, cruel, sad, and unreal. I could see more than twenty victims in the courtyard of the pagoda and the shooting had only lasted a minute. It there was a full-scale attack with the tanks and heavy guns that were lined up outside, I couldn’t imagine how many would be killed and wounded.

I thought that this was just a serious protest by the Buddhists and, even though some soldiers had taken their side, I never expected that it would come to killing each other. In Japan, I had covered many demonstrations and the police had only used tear gas against civilians. To my mind, this was political and not all-out war as it was with the Viet Cong and the North Vietnamese. I didn’t think the Buddhists meant to overthrow the government, just get more rights.

As far as I could tell, the wounded soldiers and civilians in the courtyard and on the floor inside the pagoda couldn’t be evacuated to a hospital. In fact, everyone inside appeared to be trapped, including me. I had filmed everything that was happening in the pagoda and I needed to get my film to Roger so he could write a report that gave the story from both sides.

How was I going to get out and get Roger the film?

For the first time, I was worried about my own safety—I needed to get out of here before the government troops attacked again but I had no idea how to manage it. I put my camera down and sat on the stone steps of the pagoda to think. The rebels were busy again, making more sandbags and digging more bunkers with no lessening of their fighting spirit. Inside the pagoda, women were chanting and praying louder than ever in front of the main altar. It was a beautiful sound and very reminiscent of my home in Japan.

I don’t remember how long I sat on the steps. It might have been nearly an hour before a young monk approached and began to speak to me in clear and easily understood English. His head was completely shaven so I couldn’t tell how old he was but I guessed that he was one of the young Buddhist leaders. He had that air about him that simply marked him as a leader.

He said, “I need your help. We wish to have a press conference in here this afternoon. We are all thought of as rebels. We want to have a chance to explain our point of view and the situation we’re in. As you know, no journalists have been here so no one has heard our ideas. Could you bring your reporter and other international reporters here—as many as possible?”

It was a demanding request. Could I bring journalists into such a dangerous place? And if I could, should I? This was, after all, a war zone.

I told the monk that I’d come in by the side door with the help of a street kid and wasn’t sure how to get out, much less bring other journalists back in. He promised me that he would show me a way out and arrange a way back in.

I asked him how they could guarantee the safety of the journalists if they crossed the government lines. The young monk told me that he would order the rebel soldiers to hold their fire as soon as the newsmen reached the crossing point. The newsmen needed to wave white handkerchiefs or something else white and shout “Bao chi,” which is the Vietnamese word for journalist. I wrote it on a piece of paper.

I was surprised that he was giving such an important mission to a stranger like me, a newcomer to Vietnam and a Japanese no less, how could he trust me so much? It was blind faith.

I told him that I’d try my best to bring the newsmen to the pagoda—at least my reporter, but I couldn’t make any promises. It might have been a gamble for the young monk, but I don’t think he had any choice considering his situation. He gave me an escort and he led me out of Tin Hoi Pagoda and through a maze of alleys, lanes, and back roads. I concentrated on memorizing the way so I make my way back with Roger and any other journalists who wanted to come. My escort vanished as soon as we reached the main road.

When I returned to the press center, Roger was worried about where I had been. I told him that I had footage from inside the Tinh Hoi Pagoda. Roger simply couldn’t believe it, he thought I must have been confused and filmed some other smaller pagoda. After all, Tinh Hoi was completely surrounded by government forces who weren’t letting anyone through. I finally convinced him where I had gone and what I had shot.

Now it was Roger’s turn. He had to decide whether he and his friends and competitors in the press corps should go back to the besieged pagoda on the word of this Japanese cameraman he’d only met three weeks ago? I was completely honest, I even told him that there was no guarantee for our safety, particularly because the rebel troops were angry about this morning’s shooting.

Roger grilled me for more details about the situation inside the pagoda and then talked it over with the other reporters. Finally, about ten decided to follow me into the pagoda. The wire service reporters from Associated Press and United Press International, some still photographers, and Roger and the ABC sound crew. I’m fairly sure he didn’t offer the opportunity to anyone from CBS or NBS, we were competitors after all.

Before we left, I made sure that everyone had a white handkerchief, a towel, or a white shirt—something to show our peaceful intentions and I told them how to say “Bao Chi.” They all had to practice that because Vietnamese is a notoriously difficult language for a foreigner. We also agreed that we wouldn’t run no matter what. We might walk a lot faster but we wouldn’t run because all soldiers will shoot at someone running just by reflex.

We crossed the dividing line in the gathering darkness and followed the route I had memorized. As we twisted and turned through the maze of streets, the newsmen were tense but followed me without questions.

When we arrived at the pagoda, it was time to show our good intentions. As we walked up to the rebel lines, we waved our white handkerchiefs and polo shirts, and loudly repeated “Bao Chi. Bao Chi.”

Rebel soldiers were cautious at first, peering at us from behind their sandbag barricades. Then they waved us forward. This was the most frightening moment but the young monk’s word was good, no one stopped us or even raised their weapons and we all walked into the pagoda.

The young monk who had given me this mission welcomed us and led all the journalists inside the temple. He made eye contact with me but there was no time to greet each other.

For the next hour or so, he answered the newsman’s questions. Roger had his own camera crew, so I just filmed shots from the side or close shots or pencils writing on pads, or tight shots of Roger listening—all the usual cutaways. I felt good about keeping my promise because the Buddhists got to give their side of the story openly and completely and face the questions of real journalists. I felt like I gave something back in return for when an innocent kid took me to the pagoda early that morning.

I decided that Roger Peterson was a great guy to work with. After all, he’d had the guts to trust me and he’d gotten a great story.

When we made it back to the Da Nang press center, several reporters shook my hand in appreciation for getting them into the pagoda and said that getting the other side made their reporting a lot better. Roger thanked me as well and shook my hand with his powerful grip even though I tried to tell him that I should be thanking him for trusting me in such a dangerous situation.

It truly was dangerous as was proven the next night. The standoff at the pagoda continued all day and a messenger came to the press center with a note saying that the Buddhists were going to hold another press conference, a very important one. Once again, we were asked to come to the pagoda. Even though it was dangerous, a dozen newsmen went to the Tinh Hoi Pagoda because the note had promised important news.

It turned out not to be important but was just a photo opportunity for them to show us all the wounded and, especially, the little baby crying beside its mother. That was an impressive and dramatic picture but several journalists worried that it might be staged. I didn’t because I had seen the baby crying the day before and no one had even pointed them out to me. I was told later that NBC correspondent Ron Nessen was so suspicious that he told his camera crew not even to take their picture but it was distributed by both AP and UPI as a legitimate and honest photograph

After the journalists had finished taking pictures, we left. I was with one of the first groups to leave, shouting “Bao Chi” as we were crossing towards the government side.

Rifle shots rang out and firing seemed to come from behind us so we thought the rebels were shooting but, if reality, the shots could have come from anywhere. The group I was with ran and jumped inside the nearest house. An M-79 grenade was fired by someone and exploded when it hit a nearby tree. An AP reporter and two photographers were injured, Tim Page of UPI receiving a serious wound in his head from shrapnel. I was nearby but had rolled under a table as soon as we ran into the house and didn’t get even a scratch.

From midnight on, it poured. I couldn’t sleep, partially because of the thunder of the rain on the tin roof of the press center and partially because I kept thinking of the Buddhists, wet and cold at their positions behind walls of sandbags or in inches of water at the bottom of bunkers and trenches. The government announced that they would launch a full-out attack if the pagoda wasn’t surrendered by dawn.

In the morning, we heard that all the Buddhist civilians and rebel soldiers had vanished from the Tinh Hoi Pagoda. All of them just gone!

I imagined that everyone, including the young monk, had used the cover of the rain to disappear one by one into the maze of lanes and alleys. I was relieved, at least no one died—not at this time and not at this place.

I knew that not taking one side over another was Rule Number One for a good journalist but in the time I’d spent with them, I had become sympathetic toward the Buddhists and the rebel soldiers. Perhaps I was impressed by people who would fight for their cause even when they knew that defeat was only a matter of time.

“Only ABC News had pictures of both sides and other nets did not.”

Telex from ABC New York to Roger Peterson May 23rd, 1966.

Exactly one month since I left Osaka, Japan and, already, my fourth “herogram.”

After I returned from Da Nang, ABC continued to hire me almost every day through May and June and into the beginning of July. Finally, with only 40 dollars in my pocket, I asked Jack O’Grady when ABC was planning to pay me. I hadn’t every asked before because in Japan it would have been impolite. A worker shouldn’t demand his pay but wait until the company got around to it.

Jack was so surprised, he scolded me, asking why I hadn’t just asked for my money. He said I had every right to it and I shouldn’t be too shy to demand it. He ordered me to sit down right then and write up the details, how many days, what assignments, and then add up the total. As soon as I handed that in, he wrote me out a check for almost two thousand dollars.

Being raised to be thrifty, I paid some bills, opened a savings account, and deposited most of the money.

A couple of days later, Jack invited me into his office and told me that I was going to Hong Kong the following week—no more assignments in Saigon. It was an unexpected and shocking announcement. I saw that my time at ABC was at an end. The news from Vietnam had quieted down and Jack was leaving for the States with a new bureau chief, Elliot Bernstein, already on his way to replace him.

So, I decided to be a man about it and thank him for being so kind and for taking care of me and teaching me so much over the last two months.

“Jack-san, you have been very great about helping me and you gave me a lot of chances. And I enjoyed working with you and ABC News. Thank you for your help. And I wish that someday I will work with you and ABC again!” Then I made a deep bow, showing my respect in the traditional Japanese manner. It was an honest and sincere speech and it was completely in English! I was proud of my “Sayonara” speech.

I couldn’t understand why Jack looked so confused and puzzled.

Then he burst out laughing and said, “You’re crazy! You’re not fired! You’re going to Hong Kong for a vacation, or ‘R & R’ as we call it. In fact, you’ve been officially hired as a full-time staff cameraman for ABC News. From now on, you’ll work three months without vacation, and at the end of that, you get 10 days of R&R in either Hong Kong or Bangkok with your round-trip ticket, hotel, and meals all paid by the company. If you want, you can even go back to Japan but you’ll have to pay the extra airfare. Either way, be back in ten days and not a second later.” Then he gave me a vigorous handshake and said, “Congratulations! You’ve been hired!”

I was happy, stunned, and embarrassed all at the same time. I’m not sure I’ve ever had so many different strong emotions at the same time. I wasn’t being fired! I was hired, my weekly salary was $125 plus a living allowance, and I was being sent on my first vacation. Later, I found out that ABC had made the decision to put me on staff quite a while ago—like with my pay, maybe they’d just forgotten to tell me.

In July, Jack O’Grady sent a letter to Sadao Mazaki, who had been my boss in Japan. Jack thanked Mr. Mazaki giving ABC the chance to hire an excellent cameraman like Mr. Hirashiki. This O’Grady guy, who I’d thought at first was mean and mustachioed had turned out to be a classy boss who’d made sure I learned from the right people, gave me the time to prove myself, and, in reality, gave me my start as a war cameraman.

When I returned from Hong Kong, I was told to learn how to operate the “Auricon,” which was the big sound camera that the number one cameraman carried. Ron Headford, the Australian I’d met when he was working with Roger Peterson, was known as the “artist of the Auricon” and he taught me all the techniques and tricks himself. When I’d mastered the big camera, I found out that Roger Peterson had specifically asked for me to work on his team.

There were moments when I didn’t believe it but the letter that Jack Bush, the big boss of all cameramen in New York, had written to me in Osaka had come true.

“If you go to Vietnam, you will be given a chance.”

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