Reporting America At War
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Saigon AP Bureau Handbook

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There are two objectives in covering an operation -- getting the basic facts of what happened, and getting the color and little details that put flesh on the bones. It's not always possible to do both things simultaneously.

Sometimes the basic facts are the most important things to look for, and the color is merely routine -- color that's been described many times before.

Sometimes the color is more important, especially if the operation had no significant military result. Perhaps someone said something interesting. Perhaps some home-made Viet Cong ammunition of an interesting kind was captured. (In several instances, cartridges made out of old French coins have been found.) In short, the sidebars are sometimes more interesting than the story. Most often, a good balance of both color and facts is needed.

Operations these days may start with landing craft, trucks, armored amphibious personnel carriers, or even with a foot march. But most often the operation starts with helicopters, and sometimes with parachute drops.

Covering an operation that starts with helicopters requires a decision on the part of the correspondent early in the day -- whether to stay with the helicopters and at the command post, or whether to get out with the troops.

In terms of personal danger, it's six to one, half dozen of another. Helicopters take casualties, too.

To get close to the war, you must be with the troops, unless you are so unlucky as to get shot down. It is often best to be in the thick of the fighting to know what's going on, and it's essential if you want pictures.

On the other hand, tactical details of what is happening generally are more accessible at command posts. Maps are kept posted and casualties are reported as they develop. Lately, the Vietnamese government has made it very difficult to get near tactical maps, and has forbidden correspondents to talk to Vietnamese field officers unless they first go through mountains of red tape (aimed at filtering any direct quotations through the government propaganda agencies).

Despite this, a good deal of information is available from American sources around command posts, which generally are only a few kilometers from the objectives.

There is the added advantage that you can always get out with another helicopter wave if an interesting one develops later in the day.

The main disadvantage of being out with the troops is that you rarely can get information as to what's happening throughout the entire operating area. Usually, operations involve a number of landing points, sometimes miles apart. You may hit it lucky and land in an active sector. On the other hand, you may not hear a shot fired all day, and miss the whole thing. It's pot luck.

Wherever you are during an operation, you must expect to have to spend most of the time in long, tiresome hours waiting for something to happen. This is the most tiring and frustrating aspect of war coverage.

HOWEVER, operations most often run into any enemy resistance they will meet in the opening assault phase. If, as your helicopter touches down in front of a hamlet or tree line you start receiving enemy fire, you probably have hit an interesting sector. It is best to get out and follow the assault on in. But remember, once the helicopter touches the ground, you have only about six seconds to make your decision as to whether or not to get out. That's how long the troops (and you) have to leave the aircraft before it flies off.

Once you get out, your decision is irrevocable. You may not see another helicopter again all day, and chances are, you will have to march back to the assembly area. In fact, you may not be able to get back for several days. It is therefore wise to have field gear with you if you plan to get out.

If you are wounded or sick, you will be evacuated; otherwise, you must stay with the troops from that time on, as a rule.

Often, helicopters make their landings in a series of waves, especially if the operation is large. Three waves are common, and a reserve force at or near the CP may be committed later in the day. Reserve forces generally are sent in if active fire fights develop anywhere in the operating area, and sometimes are interesting units to be with.

If you are flying with the Utility Tactical Transport helicopter company (U.S. Army), you will not be with troops at all. These helicopters are escort craft armed with rockets and machine guns, and their only function so far is to guard the troop-carrying helicopters. They stay in the air when the troop carriers land.

If you are on the ground when an artillery bombardment or air strike begins nearby, stay under cover and don't move until you're sure it's over.

Don't try covering an operation from a T28 or B26 fighter plane if you have the slightest tendency to air sickness. To a lesser extent, this applies to L28 and Mohawk reconnaissance planes. These flights are really rough, and pulling out of strafing runs puts a force of more than four "Gs" on you.

Commanders rarely tell you how many troops are on an operation, so you must estimate. Count the number of troop-carriers (H21s or H34s). Each troop-carrier holds an average of 12 troops (one squad). By counting the number of helicopters and counting the number of waves, you can calculate fairly accurately the number of troops that went in by helicopter (there may be others who went in by road, on foot, or in river craft).

For example: 15 helicopters, three waves. 15 x 3 x 12 equals 540 troops, or about one Vietnamese battalion.

You may not know the direction of the objective from the point at which you took off. Just check the direction of the sun, and remember the sun rises in the east and sets in the west. To gauge distance, remember that a helicopter flies at about 80 miles an hour on combat missions.

Remember that DIRECT QUOTES FROM OFFICERS AND SOLDIERS ARE IMPORTANT TO GET, especially if they illustrate some important aspect of developments.

In identifying any American, it is important to get his age and home town, if possible.

Courtesy Malcolm W. Browne.

Photo: Horst Faas, Mal Browne and Peter Arnett in the Saigon AP office. Photo credit: Peter Arnett collection Reporter's Notebook