The Death of Supply Column 21

A lesson from the Vietnam War on the press, the military, and authority.

The Associated Press bureau that operated out of Saigon starting in mid-1965 was a great one — a place of legends, a bureau created by arguably the most underrated editor of that era. Wes Gallagher was new at his job as general manager of the AP, and determined from the start to show that this story and this war, whether his constituent papers liked it or not, and whether the news was good or not, was a very important one. All three of the bureau members, Malcolm Browne, Peter Arnett, and Horst Faas, would go on to win the Pulitzer Prize, Browne in 1964, Faas in 1965 (the first of two), and Arnett in 1966.

They were very good, the men and in time the women of the AP bureau. Like the other reporters in Saigon in those days, they lived the life of the obsessed. No one had a personal life. No one ever took a day off. Vietnam was a great crucible for anyone who wanted to become a serious journalist, not just because it was dangerous and you had to calibrate the value of every operation you went on, but because of the immense political pressures involved. Washington had invested so much in the appearance of the war that you were always under scrutiny. Since the war did not work, not from the beginning, any story that was important, and that had any significant dimension of truth, was bound to draw the anger of both Saigon and Washington. That meant any reporter working in Vietnam knew it was important to have your facts beyond dispute every time you filed.

For the ten years he was in Vietnam no one drew more anger than Arnett. He seemed to be a lightning rod for the Johnson administration, in part because he was so good and in part because he was from New Zealand; the White House was filled with young men and women studying his stories, looking for mistakes. “Peter, you’re a great reporter,” Gallagher told him as they were leaving the luncheon where Arnett had been awarded the Pulitzer, “but don’t be wrong on a story — there are too many people out there just itching to get you.”

Arnett had seemed like something of a journalistic hitchhiker in the beginning, taking whatever job was available. He started out running a small English-language newspaper in Laos in 1960, and first got the AP’s attention during one of those inevitable Laotian coups that brought down all communications for a couple of weeks. With all the news agencies cut off from the news on the Thai side of the river, Arnett had swum the Mekong, carrying his and other reporters’ stories in a plastic bag so they wouldn’t get wet, and filed them from a post office on the other side. It was a swim, as much as anything else, to a better job, and in time the AP offered him one.

Arnett met Faas when both men were on assignment for the AP in Laos in 1962. Faas, who had worked previously for the AP in the Congo, thought Arnett had a certain cockiness he had seen before — quick and brave and boisterous. “There was a lot of Fleet Street in Peter when we first met, and I could see him getting an offer from one of the British papers and ending up there.” But as Faas said, Arnett kept getting better and better, wanting to know why things were happening and why the war was not being won; in addition, he had an almost pure instinct for combat reporting — like a man with his own personal radar that told him when and where to go. He had two kinds of courage, the courage to go into battle again and again, and the rarer kind of courage to report stories that the American mission and Washington hated because they went against the official optimism.

The AP reporters who had been there when the first American combat troops arrived had, like a handful of other colleagues from the earlier days, a distinct advantage in covering the war. They had more sources, of course, but they were more rooted as well. By rooted I mean that because they had gotten there long before it was an American war, they tended to see it more through the prism of Vietnamese history, not American history. Unlike many reporters who arrived with the big American buildup, they did not see it as connected to how well we had done in World War II; rather, they saw it more through the legacy of the French Indo-China War. They understood that the flaws of the South were political, bound up in Vietnam’s modern history and in the colonial war from which this current post-colonial war was so derivative. Thus, even as the war was Americanized, they possessed a certain skepticism that many of their more newly arrived journalistic colleagues lacked. They understood that you could have, in the technical sense, a series of victories, but that because the other side had absolute political superiority, the ability to recruit eager young men and to keep coming, they might not really be victories at all.

Perhaps Arnett’s most symbolic clash with the American military authorities came right after the first American combat units arrived in country, three years after he first got there. In mid-August 1965, at the very start of the American war, the Marines received intelligence of the presence of a Vietcong regiment in the village of Van Tuong near the Marine base at Chu Lai, all of this just south of Danang. The Marines decided to attack, even though their own forces were still in the process of building up.

The entire operation was kept secret — there was to be no coverage, even though it was the first major use of the Marines in Vietnam. Lieutenant General Lew Walt, the Marine commander in Vietnam, went on a very public inspection tour of Marine outposts to the north, taking most of the Danang press corps with him; clearly the Marines wanted coverage after the battle. The ground fighting in the Van Tuong operation, known as Operation Starlite, turned out to be very fierce. Probably, though there is no empirical proof of this, the Vietcong had decided to test the new American military machine, trying to find out both its strengths and weaknesses. Instead of breaking contact as they often did in the face of superior western firepower, they held their ground and fought hard. There were heavy casualties on both sides.

Arnett had watched the arrival of major American units in mid-1965 with a sinking feeling. He was very wary of what American technology might do and, equally important, might not do. To win, he thought, the Americans would not merely have to fight the Vietnamese, they would have to become Vietnamese, and that was not likely to happen.

In mid-August, he heard about a major battle going on just south of Danang near Chu Lai and got himself on a space-available flight up to Danang, where he found an old friend who got him on an Army supply helicopter to Chu Lai. At Chu Lai he climbed aboard a Marine chopper about to bring fuel oil to the embattled Marines. But on their way to the main fighting in Operation Starlite, Arnett’s chopper pilot spotted a group of American armored vehicles stranded in a rice paddy. At that moment no one knew anything about Supply Column 21, which had been assigned to leave one of the ships just offshore and bring badly needed food and ammo to the embattled Marines of Starlite.

Supply Column 21 was already in danger of being wiped out. It had been ambushed in the night by the Vietcong, and the survivors feared that a renewed assault was imminent. When Arnett’s pilot spotted it, five of its seven vehicles had already been immobilized. The lost column had included two M-48 tanks and five Amtracks (heavy amphibious vehicles). The Vietcong had immediately knocked out one of the tanks and destroyed one of the Amtracks. Three of the remaining Amtracks had bogged down in the paddy, a perfect target.
By the time the chopper arrived, only one Amtrack was intact, around which the surviving wounded had gathered. As it landed, the chopper was immediately surrounded by wounded men screaming to get out of there; Arnett and a photographer named Tim Page, who had also hitched aboard, helped the crew members load the wounded onto the chopper. In those days you could not yet print casualty figures, but Arnett later estimated there were probably about twenty-seven men in the column at the start, that at least five had been killed, eight more seriously wounded, and about ten others more lightly wounded. Arnett flew back to Saigon where he filed his story — the Death of Supply Column 21.

To Arnett it was not just a one-day story — a serious firefight, with higher casualties than anyone had expected, a tragedy caused by bad communications in a brand new war. To him it confirmed a feeling he already had: that Vietnam was something of a quagmire, that a great deal of the technology that America was going to depend on in this country would be inapplicable and might turn out to be burdensome. In his story there are several prescient references to the sheer might and weight of the armored column, 287 tons of steel, and of how incredibly vulnerable it had proven — “a reminder too that armored vehicles have a limited use in Vietnam,” he wrote.

The next day the Marines denied the story. To them, Supply Column 21 did not exist. They were pushing the main operation, Operation Starlite, as a success, the first big engagement of the war, for the Vietcong had finally fled, the Americans had taken the objective, and the casualty rate was presumed to be roughly ten to one. They wanted no mention of Supply Column 21, for it would have tainted the larger story — that American military power was going to work.

But there was a problem for anyone denying Arnett’s story — he had a bunch of photos. Among those pushing the idea that the story was wrong was General Wallace Greene, the Marine commandant. Gallagher invited General Greene to a publisher’s meeting. There he did a slide show with Arnett’s photos from the battle. “General,” Gallagher said, “you said this didn’t happen.”
“I was misinformed,” Greene said.

As time went on there was a certain irony to the attempt of some American officers — newly arrived in country and warned back in America about the evils of the press corps and how unpatriotic it was — to lecture men like Arnett who had been there for so long. In the early years, 1962 to 1964, it was one thing, but later it became a joke, an American officer telling Arnett what was wrong with the press and why we were winning, and Arnett asking how long he had been in country and the officer saying three months or five months and Peter answering that he had been in country for five years or six years or seven years. More than any other journalist, Arnett became the possessor of the institutional memory of the American war. He had been there at the start and he was there at the end. It was Arnett, on that final day in April 1975, who wrote one of the last dispatches as Saigon fell. He was, in the unofficial judgment of his peers, the best combat reporter of the war.

Those reporters were not particularly well paid; print journalism has never paid well and the wire services are not known for huge paychecks. The rewards are in the doing. For those who cover this kind of history in the making, there is a certain kind of honor — one rarely expressed — in the willingness to go back day after day and take risks for what are, in the traditional sense of material benefits, negligible rewards. It is in some way about winning and holding the respect of your colleagues, and of your own respect for the men and women who are fighting the war. There is a camaraderie that comes from shared values and shared obligations; being a reporter is at the very core of a democracy, of being a free person in a free society.

Even as I write there are in some parts of the world young men and women going out every day, and doing something difficult and complicated, something that takes a surprisingly varied array of talents — the ability to write quickly, a rare, almost intuitive sense of politics, and of course a certain kind of courage, the courage to stand up to powerful people who are always trying to bend you and intimidate you. When I was a young man in Saigon I was privileged enough to witness such work and to see a great institution at its best, at a moment in a democracy when it mattered.

David Halberstam shared the Pulitzer for International Reporting (with Malcolm Browne) in 1964 for their work in Vietnam. His twenty-first book, The Coldest Winter, about the Korean War, will be published next September by Hyperion. This piece is adapted from his foreword to Breaking News: How the Associated Press Has Covered War, Peace, and Everything Else, to be published next summer.