Brooke Gladstone: The 20-year conflict claimed the lives of nearly 60,000 Americans and millions of Vietnamese, Cambodians, and Laotians. We know about some of those lives lost because war correspondence risked their lives to document them, including a cadre of women reporters at a time when the military offered unfettered access to the battlefield. Members of that few, that happy few, that band of sisters, contributed to a book about their experiences titled War Torn: Stories of War from the Women Reporters Who Covered Vietnam. In 2002, I spoke to three of them. How they came to be behind the battle lines was different for each, but they each shared a compulsion as war reporters do.
Jurate Kazickas: Well, I went on a quiz show called Password to win $500. I bought a one-way ticket at that time.
Brooke Gladstone: Jurate Kazickas was born in Vilnius during World War II. Her family fled to a refugee camp, and then to America. Her parents couldn't fathom their daughter's obsession with Vietnam, quitting a nice job as a library researcher for Look Magazine.
Jurate Kazickas: My mother said to me, she said, "My whole life, our whole life has been to keep you from never having to experience a war." It really was our war. Like any journalist who went over there, I wanted to see for myself.
Brooke Gladstone: She was 24. She thought she was immortal. She stood up in the midst of battle to take pictures, and she went to Kasan, the jungle to the north near the demilitarized zone, a place of many battles but few reporters.
Jurate Kazickas: I was only there 24 hours before I was wounded mercifully, not seriously. It was a little humiliating to have shrapnel in my rear end.
Brooke Gladstone: A shrapnel in your face.
Jurate Kazickas: Yes. Fortunately, the only plastic surgeon in all of the northern part of Vietnam was on duty that day. He said, "If you were a Marine, I would just take a Brillo pad and just scrabble that stuff out of your face." He worked on me for about an hour, taking out every little piece of shrapnel.
Brooke Gladstone: In the book, Kazickas asked herself why she went out on so many patrols with the infantry. Did I really want to be a soldier? Maybe what I really wanted was to experience with another writer called The Terrible Ecstasy of War, and its horrific seduction. She recalls one colonel after hearing she was hit saying, "Well, she got what she was looking for."
Kate Webb had just set out as a journalist in Australia when she felt the pull of the war.
Kate Webb: I couldn't understand the war. There were arguments in pubs. I was in Sydney then, and the boys who were marching out were getting paint thrown at them.
Brooke Gladstone: Like Kazickas, Webb bought a one-way ticket. When she got off the plane in Saigon in March of 1967 to find a job, she was 23. Eventually, she made her way to UPI and became Cambodian bureau chief when her predecessor was killed. She covered the Tet Offensive, and over strong objections in Washington, broke the story of Cambodian leader, Lon Nol's disabling stroke. She saw many friends die. She was tough on reporters who took needless risks. Then she was taken captive by North Vietnamese troops on the south coast of Cambodia.
Kate Webb: It's one of those things that's fascinating if you live to tell it. I was able to see how the other side operated, in a limited way, of course. When you're tied up and marching all night, you don't see much.
Brooke Gladstone: How about the experience itself, what it was like simply to live as a prisoner of war?
Kate Webb: Physically, it was very tough. I lost 10 kilos in three weeks, walking all night on bare feet. That's 12 hours a night next to no food. You have to keep urging yourself on as if you're a small child. You talk to yourself and say, "Keep going."
Brooke Gladstone: Journalists like Webb and Kazickas paved the way for people like Laura Palmer, who came to the war as it was ending, but it wasn't journalism that drove her.
Laura Palmer: I literally hitchhiked to Vietnam.
Brooke Gladstone: Actually, she was hitchhiking back to Berkeley in summer school. A car stopped. She eventually hooked up with the driver, a pediatrician. He went to Vietnam, so she went too.
Laura Palmer: Haven't you ever done dumb things for love? Come on, Brooke, tell us. It was 3:00 in the morning. He was in Morocco. The phone rang. I picked it up. He said, "I got a job offer, Vietnam, six months. Do you want to go?" I said, "Sure."
Brooke Gladstone: Neither Palmer, Kazickas nor Webb had any experience covering a war when they arrived in Vietnam. When Palmer landed in 1972, women reporters had already proved themselves. When the pediatrician left and Palmer began looking for work, it was women back home who did the heavy lifting. Women reporters at the New York Times had launched a major sex discrimination suit just about the time Palmer was prospecting for a job at ABC.
Laura Palmer: Major media organizations knew they needed women on the air. I was, as the bureau chief at ABC News in Saigon, said to me on my first [crosstalk] day at work. He sat me down beside him. I was all of 22 years old. He looked at me and said, "Well, of all the applicants, you were the least qualified." That was absolutely true.
Brooke Gladstone: For Palmer, being female was by now an advantage. Some sources were more inclined to open up to a woman, but there were drawbacks as when she was offered a tour and lunch by General Minh, the commander in chief of the Saigon region. She thought they'd eat at HQ, but a table was set up in his trailer with a big double bed.
Laura Palmer: I thought, "Oh, my God. What have I walked into?" He asked me if I liked music. I said, yes, I liked the Rolling Stones, and he liked The Carpenters. Then he looked at me with all earnestness and said to me, "Miss, Laura, would you go-go for me?" [laughs]
Brooke Gladstone: She said no.
Laura Palmer: What I really wanted to say was, "You son of a bitch. People are dying under your command." This was one of the top five generals in Vietnam, and you're having lunch with me, giving me a fake Cartier lighter, and asking me to go-go for you. I thought, "There is no way if there's this much corruption at the top that they will ever win the war."
Brooke Gladstone: She did see the General again right after the evacuation of Saigon. She sat with him briefly on an aircraft carrier sailing to the Philippines.
Laura Palmer: He looked very small and very quiet, and he was chain smoking Salems and drinking Kool-Aid. I don't know, we ended up talking about Elton John. It just was one of those strange, surreal moments that happen so often in Vietnam were because of Vietnam.
Brooke Gladstone: Martha Gellhorn, that Veteran War reporter who cut her teeth documenting The Rise of Adolf Hitler, wrote that "Of all wars, I hated Vietnam the most because I felt personally responsible. I'm talking about what was done in South Vietnam to the people whom we supposedly had come to save, Napalmed children, destroyed villages. My complete horror remains with me as a source of grief and anger and shame that surpasses all the others."
Jurate Kazickas: This was a war like no other for everybody.
Brooke Gladstone: Jurate Kazickas.
Jurate Kazickas: To get that close to the fighting, nobody ever is numb to it. There were many people who had nervous breakdowns. There were several suicides among male reporters. It took its toll. It really did.
Brooke Gladstone: Jurate Kazickas, wounded in Kasan, is a writer who has co-authored several books on women's history. She later began a foundation to support charitable work in Lithuania where she was born.
Laura Palmer, who hitchhiked to Vietnam, continued her journalism career as an author and at Nightline on ABC News. She later worked as a pediatric hospital chaplain. In 2019, she was ordained as an Episcopal priest.
Kate Webb, who'd been taken prison in Cambodia, died in 2007.
Clip: Daniel Ellsberg, at a recent press conference, you said you were willing to accept any responsibility or anything that came from your part in the Pentagon Paper. The latest indictment says 115-year prison term and $120,000 fine. Are your thoughts still the same, that you're willing to accept any consequences?
Daniel Ellsberg: How can you measure the jeopardy that I'm in to the penalty that has been paid already by 50,000 American families and hundreds of thousands of Vietnamese families? It would be absolutely presumptuous of me to pity myself.
Brooke Gladstone: On the Media is produced by Micah Loewinger, Eloise Blondiau, Molly Schwartz, Rebecca Clark-Callender, Candice Wang, and Suzanne Gaber, with help from Shaan Merchant, our technical directors, Jennifer Munson. Our engineer this week was Josh Hahn. Special thanks to WNYC Archivist Andy Lanset. Kathy Rogers is our executive producer. On the Media is a production of WNYC Studios. I'm Brooke Gladstone.