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An organization chartered by the U.S. Congress

December 2002
 
   
 

TIME's Frank McCulloch
IN THE EYE OF THE HURRICANE

BY WALLACE TERRY


Frank 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 "Buddha, Buddha." 

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 Vietnam? 

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 Browne.   

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 Mohr did? 

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 bureau? 

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 Army.   

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 killed.   

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 years.   

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 endanger anybody. 

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 clear guidelines.  

Terry: Were the Five O'clock Follies in Saigon useful? 

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 spokesman, helpful? 

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 to.   

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 me. 

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 noncombatants. 

Terry: Where did you go with the Special Forces? 

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 back.   

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 right.'' 

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 goddamn good.   

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 infantrymen.''  

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. Westmoreland? 

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 totally unsophisticated. 

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 disturbed you? 

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 bothered me.  

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 wrong.   

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 should have.  

Terry: Were there ever incidents that amused you? 

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 afraid.''  

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 out.   

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.

   

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