Its crazy: i cant get past feb 10th without some reminder that this is the day, 51 years ago… (impossible to actually write that number and believe it could be me..) that I was fruitlessly trying to talk my way on to a Vietnamese Army helicopter, to get into Laos, at the outset of the Laos invasion (the attempt to cut off the Ho Chi Minh trail)…. aware that all the vets (Larry Burrows(LIFE), Henri Huet (AP) and Kent Potter (UPI) were already on the bird… as well as a Newsweek guy and i was the lone major publication (TIME Mag) photo guy NOT on that bird — feeling like a tyro, a twit, an incompetent jerk… someone who just couldn’t cut it…. who couldn’t figure it out … and i walked away completely angry with myself as the chopper’s engine started to whine…and away it went… to be shot down 20 minutes later, killing all of them. I think something in my soul has driven me to try and make the most of my professional life since then having been spared that awful fate at the time, but so aware that those guys on the chopper were the savviest, smartest, most experienced….and that even they were not beyond the fickle moment which fate was capable of dealing at any time.
I remember so well haggling in very strong terms with the Vietnamese Captain in charge of who got on that helo, and was on the edge of being insulting to him… when a reporter from TIME who i worked with, Jon Larsen, who had heard my unsuccessful pleas, came up to me and whispered, “you better get out of here for a while and cool down, or you ll NEVER get to Laos”
It was an hour later that I was walking by the underground Army HQ, when that same Captain came out, saw me, and said, in halting English, ” I think maybe your friends shoot down, Laos.” He said it twice then walked back inside. At that point no one knew any more than that, and I ended up just walking away, till I saw Hal, the LIFE reporter, who worked with Larry, walking towards me. I had seen him sitting next to Larry on the chopper as I’d walked away, earlier. “Boy am I glad to see you,” i said. “They just told me they thought the helo was shot down, but here you are.”
He said, “I didn’t go. They did a hover test, the pilot said it was too heavy and someone would have to get off. Larry looked at me and said “LIFE is a picture magazine, you can come later.”
At that point I didn’t think I could do any more, and wandered off to shoot pictures around the base camp, eventually making my way back to the Quang Tri HQ that evening. I walked into the ongoing press briefing about 6pm, and Brian Barron, a blond toussel-haired earnest faced BBC reporter, turned to me and whispered “have you heard, Larrry Burrows was shot down in Laos….”
How quickly, how piercingly quickly, fifty one years can blow by.
We’re just sayin’… David B