McCulloch was among the most admired and respected
correspondents who covered the Vietnam War. As Saigon bureau
chief for the Time-Life News Service, he followed the
expanding American presence from 1964 to 1967, enjoying
remarkable access to American civilian and military leaders.
Under his direction, the Time-Life bureau grew from a one-man
operation to arguably the foremost team of war reporters and
photographers. In Vietnam, McCulloch's shaved head drew smiles
from grunts everywhere and from the Vietnamese, shouts of
Wallace Terry, who served two years in the
Time bureau after McCulloch's departure, recently
interviewed him for The VVA Veteran.
Wallace Terry: How did you get to
Frank McCulloch: One day, to my
astonishment, I had a call from Henry Luce. He said, "We've
got a real mess in Saigon. I want you to come back to Time
and go out and straighten it out." I thought he meant the
war, but he meant something else entirely.
Charlie Mohr, the bureau chief, was doing a
superb job when he got a typical, wise-ass query from the
editors in New York. They wanted a story that said the
reporting out of Vietnam was bad because the reporters never
left the Caravelle Hotel bar. The press corps was only 12-20
people then, so he would be pointing his finger at individuals
like Dave Halberstam, Peter Arnett, Neil Sheehan, and Mal
Charlie gave them an angry answer. They said
they were going to run the story anyway. Charlie said, "Not
with me, you're not.'' He quit and came back to Saigon for
The New York Times.
Unaware of any of this going on, I told Luce,
"Sure, I'll come back.'' So off I went. I got to Hong Kong
in January of '64.
Terry: Would you have done what Charlie
McCulloch: You're damn right I would
have. I probably wouldn't have been as patient as he was.
Terry: Where did Time stand on
the war in those days?
McCulloch: Harry Luce said it himself:
"Right war in the right place at the right time. All we have
to do is get this goddamn situation cleared up and establish
an American regency, then it will all be over.''
He came out to visit a couple of times. One
night I got the senior Australian military adviser, the
Australian ambassador, and some other pretty knowing people
who had been there for a long time, including two Vietnamese.
We had dinner. They painted a picture: It can be done, but
this is going to be a big war and a very tough war. They went
on and on for about three hours. Walking Harry back to his
hotel, I asked, "What do you think of the evening?'' He said,
"That's a bunch of losers.'' The Time editors
accurately reflected his view.
Terry: When you first went to Vietnam,
how did you view the war?
McCulloch: I couldn't understand why
there was so much excitement about this peanut war. There were
American advisers and a totally corrupted and inept and
ineffective ARVN. For the first 15 months, we covered the
American adviser war. The advisers grew to 16,000 people, but
it was still advisers.
I remember one query I got from the editors in
New York: "How is the morale of the American troops?'' I
thought that's like asking what are the prospects of the New
York Yankees in the World Series by checking up on Casey
Stengel's morale. American morale had nothing to do with
what's going on out here.
It's amazing that Time couldn't grasp
what the advisory thing was all about. I remember when two
battalions pushed through this Special Forces camp, imposing
heavy casualties. The story in Time had it that the
commander of the Special Forces camp had driven the North
Vietnamese out single handed. The conviction was we were doing
the only fighting there was.
Terry: Were you surprised by anything
when you first arrived in Vietnam?
McCulloch: No, but I can tell you how
wrong I was. I'm pretty sure I filed an internal Time
memo that said the French were rotten colonialists and we
would be able to correct this. Then, I would watch the
progression of Americans - five stages everybody went through.
You get there, and you say, "Can do, will do.'' The second
is, "Can do, but so far we're not doing it.''' Stage three:
"I'm not sure we can do or will do.'' Stage four: "You guys
are fucking this up.'' Always somebody else, not us. And
stage five: "We've got this all fucked up.''
Terry: When did you learn that the war
would change for America?
McCulloch: Christmas of '64. I was back
in Hong Kong. We had some visitors. Two of them were old
classmates of mine, both Marine colonels, and their commanding
officer. I learned that the 9th Marine Expeditionary Brigade
was going to land in Vietnam in about eight weeks. This was a
combat unit. It would totally change the nature of the war. I
was the first journalist to know the buildup was coming. I
knew the stages. But I was really hung up. I got this
information on a purely personal basis, and it was, of course,
highly classified. I decided to get the word to the New York
office by letter.
John Steele, Time's Washington bureau
chief, had access to everybody. He kicked the
bejesus out of my report. "No such prospects.
There probably will be no more Americans than there are
now.'' Then he wound up by saying, "This is from the highest
source in the land.'' So Time didn't report it, and
they had it four or five weeks before anyone else knew. Those
were some of the frustrations of the early days.
When the 9th landed at Danang, I was there to
greet them. Funny. Flags were waving. Rifles were at
ready. They came charging ashore. There wasn't anything
there but some little girls in ao dais.
But that's where the war changed. I tried to tell Time,
"Folks, this is different.''
The Marine mission was to provide security for
the Danang airstrip. That seemed easy enough. Then they
started to get nipped, and they had to extend a little. Kids
out there at night, 200 yards from the main area, and they are
getting killed. Americans are really shocked. Up to that
point, there were fewer than 200 American deaths--all advisers
killed over a period of five years. The 9th starts taking a
few casualties, and Lyndon Johnson says, "They ain't gonna do
that to my boys.'' And there we go. Two and a half years
later, there were 550,000 Americans in Vietnam.
Terry: Who was in the Time
McCulloch: When I got there, there
wasn't anybody but me. I got Jim Wilde. He was working in
Paris. He had been in Southeast Asia for 12 years before
that. Then the bureau exploded. We had seven Time
correspondents and five Life people. I got Art
Zwick, Bill McWherter, Dave Greenway, and Kenny
Danforth from Time's domestic bureaus. I hired Karstan
Prager and Dan Coggin from New Delhi. I hired John Cantwell
and Robin Mannock. I hired Zip Grant when he got out of the
Terry:How did you organize the bureau?
McCulloch: I just kept adding people to
it. The demands got heavier. We had to have more people.
When the 9th Med landed, we had myself and two reporters. It
built up like that. The greater the American presence, the
bigger the bureau had to be. I hate to admit that, but let's
face it, that's the definition of news: how many Americans are
Terry: Was the press covering Vietnam
any differently than in past wars?
McCulloch: There was no way to be
assigned to a unit and stay there. You couldn't get an
assignment to the 25th Division or the Big Red One and stay
there. You had to go back and forth. And you were totally
dependent on the military for your transportation. If you
didn't get that, you were helpless. Unless you were Joe Fried
of the New York Daily News who never left Saigon in six
Terry: But you had access you never had
in any other modern war.
McCulloch: Totally. There was no way to
impose censorship, as you did in other wars when American
reporters were assigned to American units. There were
reporters from 15, 16 nations covering Vietnam. Even if MACV
had chosen to impose censorship, it couldn't have done it.
The only restraint was the censorship you imposed on
yourself. You had to decide if what you reported would
Let me tell you how ridiculous things would
sometimes be. Say we had just begun bombing Cambodia. We
would have an embargo on that for four days. We would argue
furiously--let's see, the North Vietnamese over there know
they are being bombed. The Viet Cong know they are being
bombed. The Cambodians know they are being bombed. The only
people in the world who don't know are the Americans. Why do
we want to do that? Without censorship you didn't have any
Terry: Were the Five O'clock Follies in
McCulloch: The daily military briefing.
I never bothered to send anybody. There was nothing there that
was of any interest to Time. It was just a waste of
time. Every week we had four or five people in the field.
They knew more about what was going on than the people knew
down at the Follies.
Terry: Was Barry Zorthian, the American
McCulloch: Yes, you bet. In the first
place, he really earned his pay from the taxpayers in that he
presented American interests in the best possible light. He
really did that. The one way he did it was to level with you.
There were a lot of circumstances where he couldn't say
anything, but he was no spinner. Secondly, man, did he provide
access. Everybody. In the mission. In the military. The CIA.
The Vietnamese. A lot of contact was not based on ingenuity
or skills. We were just friends.
Wally, I think this was still the case when you
were there. All the editors in New York wanted to come out,
and they wanted to be shot at safely. Everyone wanted to go
back to New York and breathlessly tell folks, "Yeah, we were
out there and under fire.'' So I would have to figure out a
safe place to take them.
I took one editor on an air strike. Hedley
Donovan, Luce's successor. A-37s. There was quite a lot of
fire coming up. His plane got hit. All of a sudden, smoke
started pouring out. So we both return to Danang. We're
following along, watching that thing. We get down. The fire
engines are out there. We get Hedley out. We lost the plane,
but we saved Hedley.
Terry: Was there a safe place you liked
to take them?
McCulloch: We took Henry Grunwald out
where we thought it was safe, a Special Forces camp on the
shoulder of Black Virgin Mountain. Henry was then assistant
managing editor. We landed hot. And we were pinned down all
day. We had to ride out of there in a Jeep with three bodies.
Henry got a good look at the war a lot faster than he wanted
Henry, gradually, over a long period of time,
began to see things. Hedley was another story. We had all
kinds of briefings for him: private dinner with the ambassador
and everything else. We said, "Hedley, this is not a funny
little war. We're not marching towards Hanoi.''
Terry: Did you ever carry a weapon?
McCulloch: Only with the Special Forces.
The reason I did it was if you wanted to make those patrols,
you had to carry a weapon. And I don't blame them. I know I
shouldn't have done it.
Terry: I always carried one because if
something happened I didn't want the troops worrying about
McCulloch: That's exactly it. As long as
you said that, yes, I carried a weapon. I don't like to admit
it. It's a violation of the Geneva Convention. Journalists are
Terry: Where did you go with the Special
McCulloch: I went to Laos. I went to
Cambodia. I went with two different A Teams. Just on
recon. One time, we were north of Pleiku, maybe 30 miles. We
went out before daybreak. We came back three, four days later,
and never heard a shot fired. But that was the whole point of
the thing. They were not supposed to fire at anything. They
were over there gathering intelligence.
The second time was further south. It was much
the same except we got into two or three small firefights. We
had a squad of Montagnards. Every time we came to a stream,
the commander and I would have to get in it, because they
weren't tall enough. They would drown. A typhoon hit, and a
canyon would be full of 40 feet of water. It was miserable. We
didn't get any intelligence, but we got into Cambodia and
Coming back, the ground was slippery. And I
gave out. We were probably seven klicks from camp. I said to
the leader, "Steve, I can't make it.'' He said, "Oh, yes you
can.'' I said, "You're responsible for this patrol, and by
God, you're going to take them back in. I'll crawl back in
with my M-16. After I get a little rest, I'll be all
I finally convince him. I hear their steps
getting fainter and fainter. Just about then, whoosh, right
over my head. I squeezed down even tighter. I didn't see
anything. Later, Steve said he was 800 yards up this steep
hill, and when I caught up to them, I ran right through them.
In that same patrol, the point man waved for me
to come up to the top of the hill. There were two deer. I
thought that was a pretty sight. He finally got me to
understand they were going to kill them for fresh meat. I aim
at the deer and shoot. I miss. I'm thinking, "How could I
miss him?'' I could throw a rock at him. I shoot again. And
missed him again. The Montagnards rolled on the ground they
laughed so hard. What happened was I had fallen down on the
way up there and knocked the sights out.
Terry: What did you learn early on about
the enemy's fighting skills?
McCulloch: By the end of '66, I reached
the conclusion the North Vietnamese and Viet Cong were
probably the best infantrymen on earth. In the first place,
it's their ground, their environment, their climate. They
adapted to it and moved to it very well. They had been
fighting for 35 years.
In the second place, we used to wonder what the
hell a political officer was doing attached to their
companies. That's an iron discipline. You either do what you
are told to do, or you will be killed anyway. If you combine
that with some fervor and some nationalism, that's a pretty
potent combination. Plus, they had the best weapons the
communist world had to offer.
I just get awfully depressed by this conclusion
that we got licked by a bunch of little, ill-armed peasant
guerillas. We didn't really get licked, but we fought to a
draw with a superbly equipped large army. They were very
One time there was a Special Forces camp under
siege. The South Vietnamese had two battalions. There was a
lot of American air. There were three or four of us in the
press who got inside the Special Forces camp wire during a
little break. We were inside during the fighting. One of the
press guys stood up and was killed. At the south end of the
camp there was a creek with a bridge across it. You could see
when the helicopters came over, this NVA fired from under the
bridge. They rolled napalm over the bridge, and the guy never
stopped shooting. How he survived it, I have no idea. But that
machine gun kept firing right through all of it. I thought,
``This is not what we expected. These are awfully good
I was at the Ia Drang Valley when Hal Moore's
battalion went out. We--two other newsmen from Saigon rode
up--caught up with the battalion at the rear. We were walking
up this long draw. And the fire came from everywhere. It was
a horseshoe. Oh, man. It looked to me from a hundred yards
away like the whole battalion was going down. This was the
second day. I justbacked up. I crawled back in the far end,
back into the trees.
We were pinned down. A lot of frontal fire and
a little from each flank. We called in air. It was two and a
half hours and the B-52s arrived. They laid a string. The
B-52s--those bombs ripped the top off that ridge. It was
awesome. And they fell with great precision. Then tactical
air came, close support. Bombing and straffing. It took two
more days to take that ridge. That's when you say to yourself,
``Jesus Christ, I didn't know we were getting into this.''
It was either incredible shrewdness or a stroke
of luck to set that ambush up where the NVA did. If Moore had
landed a half mile to the south, then the ambush wouldn't have
been any good.
Despite pretty heavy casualties, Moore and his
men were brilliant under that kind of fire. There was every
chance in the world that total panic and disorganization could
set in. To the best of my knowledge, there wasn't a body left,
a weapon left, and certainly no wounded people. To me that's a
measure of what an infantry organization should be and what it
is led by.
Terry: What was your impression of Gen.
McCulloch: A decent guy, brighter than
the mythology about him. A good tactical commander, not much
on strategy. He wound up being Lyndon Johnson's patsy. That
was the cooking of the figures. There was an intelligence
effort to get the order of battle on the enemy, Viet Cong and
North Vietnamese. Westy did a pretty honest job. He even tried
to include the explanation that the gross figures could be
deceptive because if you give one guy a pistol in a hamlet and
he's the local commissar, then that hamlet belongs to him. He
reported his figures honestly.
Lyndon Johnson said, ``No way we are going to
tell the American public there are 400,000 Viet Cong and North
Vietnamese in South Vietnam, Cambodia, and Laos. The American
public would not stand for that.'' CBS broke the story about
the cooked figures, and poor Westy got nailed with it and was
left to turn in the wind. He was a generally decent guy but
I went out with him on one of his first field
trips. He hadn't taken over yet. We went down in the Delta to
visit the Special Forces. This Vietnamese lieutenant colonel
was the province chief. He had been justly accused of stealing
rice and reselling it at an enormous profit.
We met the province chief for lunch. He had a
beautiful French villa. And he served us an eight-course
lunch. Servants and everything. Westy said to this
Sorbonne-educated province chief, ``Well, sir, I notice you
raise a lot of rice down here.'' The province chief flinched.
He said, ``Oui, oui.'' Westy said, ``I take it you ship most
of this rice to Saigon.'' The province chief says, ``Oui, mon
general.'' And Westy says, ``Do you eat a lot of rice?'' The
province chief looked puzzled. ``Oui, oui.'' Westy said,
``In my country, we eat a lot of bread.''
The colonel just stared back. Westy said, ``We
call bread the staff of life.'' ``Oui, oui.'' ``So I suppose,
here in Vietnam, you can call rice the staff of life.''
Silence. The province chief breathed a big sigh of relief,
then shouted ``Oui, monsieur.''
Terry: Do you recall any incidents that
McCulloch: I was going up to Con Thien.
They were getting shelled. They would run an occasional truck
up with supplies. They were shelling the road ahead of us, and
we stopped. There was a woman selling candy bars by the road.
This kid Marine jumped off and knocked her flat. That really
Another time, with the 25th Division, a young
guy turned a guard dog loose on some Vietnamese. And the third
time, they kicked a guy out of an Army helicopter. They had
finished interrogating him. The thing that embarrasses me
now--chagrins me now--is that I didn't report it. And that was
Terry: It's not likely that Time
would run it.
McCulloch: No. But I didn't.
Terry: Why didn't you report it?
McCulloch: The chopper pilot was a
friend. I yelled at the Marine. What struck me is that we
were never going to win this war if we do stuff like this. I
don't know how many new enemies you've made, kid. But you
have made a lot more. He not only kicked her around, he took
one of her candy bars and threw the basket. I don't think this
kid had been shot at yet. He was just mean. And he didn't
want to be there.
Terry:Wasn't there an unwritten rule
that you don't write about American excesses?
McCulloch: Yes. We're not going to tell
this kind of story. One time some nervous Marines accidentally
shot four other Marines. It was night. Wounded them by
mistake. I wasn't going to report it, and some young reporters
did. I was furious. But looking back, I regret not reporting
the bad abuses.
I used to get upset when people back home would
say we were not reporting this. You come out here and stand
under this fire and see if you don't get pretty angry. Then
maybe you will see why these kids react this way. They are
scared. Their buddies have been hit or killed. They don't want
to be here. That was one of the reasons I didn't do the job I
Terry: Were there ever incidents that
McCulloch: Here's one about Nguyen Cao
Ky. Somewhere up toward the parallel, the Viet Cong had swept
through this hamlet and destroyed everything. Everyone rushed
up to cover it. There was a young Marine captain who was
trying to clean up. His company had gotten widely scattered.
Here comes Prime Minister Nguyen Cao Ky and his wife. Remember
their black silk scarves, black caps, and their boots? They
came around the corner, and this captain was taken by total
surprise. His mouth fell open. They walked on past. He said,
``Jeeze, Captain and Mrs. Midnight here to see the war.''
Another time Ky had a girlfriend in Dalat. Mrs.
Ky was suspicious of it. One day he flew up to see her. Mrs.
Ky thought about it and went out to Tan Son Nhut and ordered a
pilot to take her to Dalat, too. Pretty
nervously, the pilot took off. The tower at Dalat said, ``Who
do you have there?'' He said, ``Mrs. Ky.'' ``Permission to
land refused.'' She had to fly all the way back to Saigon.
Terry: While you were running the
bureau, did anyone get hurt?
McCulloch: Greenway was shot in the leg
in Quang Tri. Karstan got winged once. Took shrapnel in the
shoulder. Mannock was winged taking pictures. Nicked above the
wrist. And Tim Page was hurt twice. I had three teeth broken
off. We were coming into an LZ that suddenly turned hot. The
chopper was kicking up an enormous amount of dust. And the
crew chief was basically booting everybody in the ass to get
out. I stepped out, and it was about 15 feet down. Boy,
did I hit hard.
Terry: In the years after you left
Saigon, Time's Cantwell and Sean Flynn were killed.
And your friend, Larry Burrows. What was Burrows like?
McCulloch: I don't think my friendship
with him influences this assessment. I think he was the
greatest war photographer of all time. People think he was
reckless and kept taking chances. Bullshit. Larry never took
any chances. He knew exactly what he was doing. He calculated
the odds and knew what they were. When people said he was
without fear, that infuriated him. He said, ``Of course I'm
afraid. I'm always afraid. That's how you stay alive, by being
But he had to take that next mission. Of
course, none of us ever believed it would happen. I'm sure he
didn't believe it either. If you are out where there is
friendly or unfriendly fire far enough, eventually your luck
is not going to be there. He just ran out of luck.
One time he was going to fly an air strike. He
was drawing rectangles. I said, ``What are you doing?'' He
said, ``I do this before I go out on any assignment. I see 12
pages of Life, and I lay it out here. When I put that
viewfinder up, I'm looking for that picture.'' That's how
organized he was. Do you remember the Rockpile? He did the
same thing there before he ever got up there. He laid out the
Life pages. And the eerie thing is the magazine came
back two weeks later basically the same way Larry had laid it
I was always absolutely delighted when I went
out with Larry. We would always come back with a story,
because he didn't go if there wasn't a story. Second, he knew
what to do when he's out there. The only time I ever saw him
startled was when we stalled a Jeep in a paddy. We were south
of Danang. They would loan us a Jeep in the old days. We spent
a day and a night with this battalion. I don't think we heard
a shot fired the whole time we were there. We got out of the
Jeep and walked back to battalion headquarters to get help. We
came back to the paddy and the Jeep was on fire. That was the
sort of thing that made you a little queasy. They were there.
They were watching us the whole time. That shook Larry up.
Terry: What effect did the press
coverage have on the Johnson administration?
McCulloch: The press coverage little by
little eroded what small public support there was for the
war. There are two or three peaks. Morley Safer's story on
the burning of the huts was one. When I was back in
Washington for <I>Life<$> magazine, I was outraged by what I
perceived as the almost total disinterest in the United States
in what was going on in South Vietnam. Everyone was covering
the protests, but nobody was paying any attention to the war.
The casualties were still goddamn heavy, so I arranged to get
one week's KIA list three days early.
I sent a message all around the states to
bureaus and stringers: ``I'll be coming at you with names, and
I want you to get the pictures.'' We gathered all but seven of
the week's KIA of some 200 or so. We just ran page after page
of these young faces in Life magazine. That's the
American toll in Vietnam this week, folks.