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John Laurence covered the Vietnam war for CBS News from its early days, through the bloody battle of Hue in 1968, to the Cambodian invasion. He was judged by his colleagues to be the best television reporter of the war, however, the traumatic stories Laurence covered became a personal burden that he carried long after the war was over.
In this evocative, unflinching memoir, laced with humor, anger, love, and the unforgettable story of MÃ© a cat rescued from the battle of Hue, Laurence recalls coming of age during the war years as a journalist and as a man. Along the way, he clarifies the murky history of the war and the role that journalists played in altering its course.
The Cat from HuÃ©i> has earned passionate acclaim from many of the most renowned journalists and writers about the war, as well as from military officers and war veterans, book reviewers, and readers. This book will stand with Michael Herr’s Dispatches, Philip Caputo’s A Rumor of War, and Neil Sheehan’s A Bright, Shining Lie as one of the best books ever written about Vietnam-and about war generally.
There is no need to sound my reputation.
I have a sense of right and wrong, what’s more—
heaven’s proudest gift. Call no man blessed
until he ends his life in peace, fulfilled.
If I can live by what I say, I have no fear.
FEBRUARY 19, 1968
The whole war was in the room. Light came in through a hole in the roof made by a mortar—monsoon light, murky and dim, filtered by low heavy clouds the color of stone. The floor was littered with wreckage from the explosion: sharp-edged fragments of a metal shell, pieces of plaster ripped off the walls, splinters of wood from a shattered table, and a pool of blood that was slowly becoming a dark stain on the once shiny surface of the tiled floor now scorched black by the explosion and covered with a film of fine dust. The air was cold and wet. Nothing moved.
I sat on the floor with my back to a wall, eating a can of C ration food with a white plastic spoon. Beyond the wall, a few hundred yards up the line, a machinegun rattled, stopped, rattled again. The bullets hissed in flight and the hisses gathered in a long steady ssssshhhhuuuussssshhhhh that caromed off the walls and buildings and the great chunks of broken stone of the old Hué Citadel and reverberated around the city. Grenades burst—muffled blasts—one at a time, punctuating the flow of riflefire. A mortar banged—first the pop of the tube, then, a few seconds later, the crash of the shell. Rifles cracked, sixteens and AKs, fast and slow fire.
Thank God I’m not up there, I thought. I had arrived at the house an hour before and had asked the Marines to take me forward, but they said nothing was going up during the fight. ‘Later,’ they said, ‘we’ll take you up later, when we go up with this stuff.’
At the house next door, a teenage Marine carried wooden cases of ammunition from inside the house to a pebble-covered driveway outside and heaved them one by one onto a small flatbed vehicle called a mechanical mule. The young Marine wore a dark green T-shirt, fatigue trousers, flak jacket and helmet and was sweating hard in the humid air. As soon as the battle up ahead was finished, he and the other Marines in his squad would load their mules and drive the ammo and other supplies to the front, then turn around and come back for more, bringing with them the wounded and dead. The military supply line was an endless conveyor—from factories in the States to the riflemen at the front—a long human chain moving men and materials forward for the infantry: replacements, rifle ammunition, machinegun bullets, hand grenades, mortar shells, rockets, tank gun canisters, high explosives, food, water, gas, tank parts, batteries, mail, medicine, morphine, IV fluid, bandages, body bags—all the paraphernalia required by a U.S. Marine infantry battalion of 650 men to sustain itself in extended combat. In this case it was 1st Battalion, 5th Marines. The battalion was trying to take a tall brick watchtower in the Citadel, had been for days, but the advance was slow.
An animal appeared in an open doorway at the back of the room. It was visible at first only in silhouette, a black shape against the bleak light outside. The creature was dirty, disheveled, its greasy fur sticking out at odd angles. Silent, curious, its nose twitched above its head and turned from side to side in a slow arc, sniffing the scent of food from my C ration can. It appeared to be a kitten, maybe eight weeks old, about the size of my hand.
Not much chance of a scrawny cat surviving this place, I thought. Lucky it hasn’t already gone in a cooking pot. The kitten stared at the can of food and sniffed the air above its head.
“Hello, there, cat,” I said. Anything new or unusual, any distraction, anything that took your mind off where you were and what you were doing was worth the diversion.
The kitten paid no attention. ‘Chào ông,’ I said, trying to get the tones right, figuring it might know a little Vietnamese. The kitten turned its head a fraction to one side and looked at me as if I were demented.
‘Too young to know the language. I get it,’ I said, smiling. The kitten sniffed the air.
When I had finished eating, I reached into a pocket of my fatigue jacket, opened a waterproof plastic case, shook out a cigarette, and lit it. The metal lid of the lighter snapped shut, making a sharp metallic click. Instantly the kitten turned and dashed out the doorway.
Spooked, I thought.
No wonder. All of Hué was spooked. The venerable old city of shaded gardens and pastel yellow villas and slender graceful people had endured twenty days of unrelieved fright, twenty days of riflefire and shellbursts and sleepless nights and empty stomachs and mad subhuman screams and slow-moving death that spread from house to house and street to street like a plague, crawling on khaki-covered knees and elbows across garden walls and narrow alleys and bursting through doorways with weapons blasting, constantly maneuvering closer for a kill. Hué was thunderstruck by violence. After being spared most of the misery of two Indochina wars over the past twenty years, the citizens of Hué were now condemned to suffer the worst of it all at once.
I got up and walked to the doorway. The air in the garden behind the house was heavy with moisture. A light afternoon rain had lifted, leaving a fine cold mist in the air. The garden was tangled with tall vines and fat leafy plants that had flowered in kinder times but were now struggling to survive against an encroaching wild of weeds. Everything was green and gray. Beneath the foliage, a stream gurgled. Invisible insects screeched. A waist-high wooden barrel full of rainwater stood next to the doorway beneath a drainpipe that ran down from the roof. The kitten was perched on the edge of the barrel, its front paws and hind legs together, drinking in fast tiny laps. As soon as I appeared in the doorway, it looked up and saw me, then jumped to the ground and ran into the garden and out of sight.
I took a breath and looked around. The house was part of a compound of one-story buildings made of stucco and wood with orange tile roofs. Five houses were arranged in a neat semicircle with a courtyard and circular driveway in front. The style was graceful, harmonious with the surroundings, practical and elegant, peaceful.
Must have been one big family, I thought—maybe twenty to thirty people—grandparents and great-grandparents with their children and their children’s children. I imagined what it would have been like three weeks before on the first day of Tet. It was Vietnam’s biggest holiday, a celebration based on tradition, rebirth and renewal. Tet marked the beginning of the lunar year, in this case, Nhâm Thân, the year of the monkey. I pictured the family, some visiting from far away, enjoying themselves in this compound, observing their ancient rituals: tending the family gravesites, honoring their ancestors, making offerings to the Ong Tao, decorating the house with bright-colored flower blossoms and lanterns and handmade prints, baking bánh chung cakes and other delicacies, catching up on family news, exchanging stories of babies born and sons gone off to war. I imagined the elders sitting with their children and sharing observations, the young children laughing in excitement at the sparkle of skyrockets, playing perhaps with a litter of newborn kittens.
Then, in the cool early hours of New Year’s Day, as the city slept, the war burst upon Hué and its people with the convulsions of a volcano. The night exploded in brilliant light. Fierce white flashes of military flares illuminated the sky. The slow red rush of machinegun tracers flew above the rooftops. The earth rumbled with the shock waves of long-range rockets. Shells shrieked over the city and cracked open the earth and everything on it.
In the turmoil, thousands of North Vietnamese and Viet Cong soldiers trotted through the streets in their dark close-cropped hair with rifles and rocket launchers on their shoulders. They seized the city’s main installations—government buildings, bridges, the airfield, police stations, communications facilities—and started digging in to defend them. The few hundred South Vietnamese and U.S. soldiers on duty in Hué were surprised by the swift-moving attack and forced to withdraw to their headquarters, where they were quickly surrounded. Scores of others were killed or captured. At least half of the government soldiers were away on leave because of the holidays. Intelligence reports that the North Vietnamese and Viet Cong were preparing an offensive throughout South Vietnam did not suggest it would come during the three-day Tet holiday. Many civilians had no adequate bomb shelters, no trenches, no safe places to hide. Families gathered behind the doors of their houses and held one another in their arms. Mortar, rocket and artillery shells flew out of the sky and crashed onto the rooftops and streets.
And the one large family of Vietnamese who lived in the compound where I now stood staring into the garden survived the twenty days of fire and smoke and ferocious noise, adjusted to the new conditions of danger and shortages, and made their accommodation with the crisis. Each day they searched for food to eat, gathered water and wood, fought back their fear, consoled the children, tried to cheer each other, and lived their diminished lives with daily, individual acts of dignity and fortitude—they survived—until this afternoon of the twentieth day when the mortar crashed through the roof of their home and exploded in a flash of flame and heat. Arriving at the compound an hour ago, a few minutes after the explosion, I saw the family being taken away, their pale brown bodies piled in the back of a Marine truck, broken and bleeding and making no sound at all, their arms and legs limp and twisted, faces frozen in expressions of pain and disbelief—the dead and dying family, together still at Tet.
From the doorway at the back of the house, I stared into the tangle of tropical trees and vines in the misty garden. I was lost in thought, my vision out of focus. Gradually, I became aware of something moving in the interior of the brush. My sight sharpened. A shadowed presence deep inside the foliage took shape. A Vietnamese soldier! He was crouched on one knee on the ground with a rifle in his hands, an AK-47. Now I saw him in sharp focus: mustard-brown uniform, ammunition vest, green bamboo helmet, black hair sticking out the sides. A North Vietnamese Army regular. Slowly, with deliberate care, he stood up in the thicket of vines and raised the rifle to his shoulder and pointed the end of the barrel at me. Movement in the garden ceased. There was absolute silence. I couldn’t move, even to breathe. I felt trapped, paralyzed by the fear of what was about to happen, as in a bad dream. A thought flashed into consciousness. So you’ve made it all this way and it ends like this.
Time slowed and stopped. My concentration on the soldier was total, no sense of anything but the danger, my perceptions heightened, all other reality suspended.
The soldier’s eyes came away from the rifle sights and looked out at me from inside the shadow of his helmet. How young he is! The barrel of the rifle dipped. Then, in one slow continuous move, he turned his head and looked behind him and swung his shoulders around with the rifle in his hands and twisted his hips and then his legs and stepped back into the brush and disappeared into the green and gray foliage.
The garden was still. I took what felt like my first breath. A pulse beat in my temples. Time started to move. An insect chirped. I hadn’t heard anything for what had seemed like an hour but could only have been a few seconds. The air felt cold, damp.
Why didn’t he shoot? Because I didn’t have a gun? Because I was looking for the cat? Maybe I wasn’t worth it? He might have been after someone more important, an officer perhaps. It didn’t make sense.
His presence was still there, lingering, as if some part of him remained in the mist. Nothing tangible, only the essence of our encounter, but nearly physical. I was aware of the narrow separation between life and death in this place, between extinction and survival, and the immediate closeness of both. It was being defined in Hué so often these days that everyone seemed to take it for granted, saw it as just another part of the landscape: everybody ended up with one or the other, nothing you could do about it. But I was taking it personally.
I stepped back from the doorway, crossed the room and sat down against the wall. Out of breath, mouth too dry to swallow, I picked up my helmet and put it on. The noise of fighting at the front sounded more menacing.
Hey, man, you must have imagined him. Surely it was just a phantom. Couldn’t be anything else. Otherwise he would have shot you. You must be seeing things. Short-timer’s syndrome. Who knows? Or was it a premonition? Something up there waiting for you? God knows. I tried hard not to think.
The kitten appeared in the open doorway again and sat. Its tiny ears turned toward me.
“Puss-puss-puss,” I whispered between my lips. No reaction. I tried a number of different animal calls without effect.
Spunky cat, I thought. The kitten seemed to sense danger. I must have looked and smelled like the Marines in the house next door. Faded green combat fatigues, boots, helmet, flak jacket—for all it mattered to the cat I was one of them. It couldn’t know I was no danger at all, just an unarmed civilian, a noncombatant, a reporter. The kitten was drawn to the food by a desperate hunger, but its fear of me was greater.
I unfastened the straps of my rucksack, lifted out a can of C ration meat and opened it with a small metal tool called a P-38. I pried back the lid and held out the can a few inches above the floor, offering it. The kitten raised its nose high over its head and caught the scent. Then it stood up and stiffened its muscles, straightened its four legs to their full height, arched its back and danced a few feet toward me, sideways. So, it’s a skitter cat, I thought, surprised by its jerky movements. It reminded me of a book from childhood.
The kitten crossed a third of the room and sat on its back legs, straining its neck toward the food. I held out the can again and called, “puss-puss-puss.” The kitten danced a few inches closer and stopped. As much as I coaxed, it would not come nearer than the center of the room. It sat, tense and alert, watching over its shoulder, measuring its route out the doorway to the safety of the garden.
I could see the animal more clearly now. Its face, legs and paws were mostly black. There were a few spots of soft white on its flanks. A splash of orange on its forehead, from the bridge of its nose to the space between its ears, gave it a distinctive, offbeat look. Its short, slender tail appeared to be light brown or orange and had a crook at the tip. Its pale blue eyes were dull, distracted.
“So, you’re a lucky cat,” I said.
Most Vietnamese do not have the same affection for cats that many Westerners do, but I knew that some of them thought an orange, black and white cat—a calico cat—brought good luck to itself and its owner. The Vietnamese called it “a cat of three colors” and believed it to be rare, to be prized. I looked at the kitten with new respect. It looked at me and the food but did not move.
Like most line troops and combat reporters, I was superstitious. I’d do almost anything to get an edge against the fear, the vulnerability that went with me into the field. Each time I went out I wore the same old set of GI fatigues I had first bought on the black market in 1965, scrubbed in Stone Age Vietnamese laundries until they were bleached and threadbare and tattered and safe. Like a few other field reporters, I never polished my boots. Over time they had become scuffed and worn and encrusted with layers of dirt and mud from all over—from Con Thien to Can Tho, from Pleiku to Bong Son—a record of where I’d been, my ID as an old hand in this place. I wore a lucky hat, a floppy Australian bush hat that had been a gift from Dan Rather. The hat was a size too small but it was certified good luck so I wore it under my helmet. I also carried coins, charms, four-leaf clovers, religious medals and all kinds of talismans in my pockets, wallet, around my neck. The one thing I did not carry was a weapon.
Of all the superstitions, going into battle without a weapon was the most important. I believed that those of us who took no part in the killing were less vulnerable to becoming casualties ourselves. It was part of my personal war ideology—a loose-knit, undefined mix of humanism, morality, religion, ethics, law, pacifism, survival strategy, common sense and, above all, pathological superstition. My hope was that we noncombatants got special protection, were somehow given immunity, as if at the center of all the carnage in Vietnam some higher being watched over innocent reporters and spared us from the physical effects of the violence we were covering. I was wrong of course; no one was safe. Reporters and photographers were killed and wounded in the same proportion as the frontline troops they accompanied. (On this same day in Hué, just up the line, three print journalists were seriously wounded in the fighting. Two of them were later given medals for helping evacuate wounded Marines.) Whatever the evidence, I needed something to believe, something to balance against the fear. My reasonable expectation of survival (or denial of the alternative) made it possible to do the job. Somewhere at the center of my being I felt protected, insured, sometimes even blessed. Somehow I was going to survive this.
The cat of three colors was down on its luck. The skin was so tight on its tiny frame its ribcage showed through the fur. “No wonder you haven’t been gobbled up,” I said, smiling. “There wouldn’t be anything to eat.”
The kitten’s eyes squeezed together in a peculiar squint and blinked rapidly, as if irritated or infected. Small black insects buzzed around its ears. Its fur appeared to be infested with fleas. And yet, despite its discomfort, the kitten tried to hold its head with the confidence of a healthy cat, sitting with pride, staring at me and my offer of food as if it were not afraid.
This is some kind of spunky cat, I thought, admiring its elegant grace. At the same time, the kitten looked as vulnerable as I felt. This was my last assignment of a long second tour and Hué was the worst place ever. I had been in the war too long, seen too much, been scared too many times. Long overdue to leave, I was jumping at shadows too.
I pushed the can of food to the center of the room, left it and moved back to the wall. The kitten skittered up to the can, sniffed it, looked around and sat, but did not eat.
A tall, thin-faced Marine walked into the room. “If you want to get up to the CP,” he said, biting off the words, “we’ve got a mule goin up any minute.”
His voice was cold, impersonal, no sign of friendliness. The bitterness surprised me. Marines in the field were scrupulously polite. I did not know yet that the North Vietnamese mortar attack that had destroyed the Vietnamese family in the compound had also killed two Marines from the supply squad, two of his buddies.
“Thanks,” I said, “thank you much,” grateful to be moving on. The presence of the North Vietnamese soldier in the garden had not gone away.
I stood up and heaved the pack on my back, set the helmet straight on my head and walked out of the room. At the front doorway I turned and looked back at the kitten. It sat by the can of food in the center of the room, watching me.
“Good luck, cat,” I said.
FEBRUARY 3, 1968
(Sixteen days earlier)
Racing at maximum speed toward Hué on the fourth day of the battle, bouncing in the back of a flatbed truck filled with Marines, hurtling over holes in the road the size of small shell craters, watching a blur of silent villages sweep by in the background, I felt the first hit of the feeling that came with close combat—a concentrated charge of excitement and fear, my fright-flight-fight instinct engaged in all its intensity, an organic speedball of adrenaline, noradrenaline and cortisol pumping through my system and powering the tension I now took for granted, so familiar I never imagined I might be addicted.
Keith Kay crouched on the metal bed in the back of the truck and struggled to keep his balance. One of his big hands held a thirty-pound film camera steady on his right shoulder while the other gripped a wooden slat at the side of the truck. Kay’s shoulders were wide and muscled like a running back’s and the weight of the camera and brace fell on them naturally, as if they were an extension of his body. His hair was long and black and blew in the slipstream of the cab. A bright patch of premature white the size of a silver dollar made a spot on the side of his head, a mark of the war. The dominant expression on his dark broad-nosed face was determination, a hard scowl that seemed to say, How the hell did you get us into this?
Kay and I were partners. He shot the film and I wrote the narration for the stories we covered for CBS News. We had worked together for the past six months in violent, out-of-the-way killing grounds like Khe Sanh and Con Thien, dropping in on the Marines for a few hours or a few days, asking them questions and recording their answers, trying to get a sense of what was going on in the war from the young men who were trapped in its most tortured places. When we had enough film to tell a story, we hitched a ride back to the rear and shipped it home to be shown on The Evening News with Walter Cronkite.
The truck was a six by six with low metal sides and horizontal slats to keep cargo from falling out—in this case about fifteen Marines and four reporters and photographers. The truck charged along the two-lane blacktop that covered the twelve miles of flat coastal plain between Phu Bai and Hué, stopping for nothing. It was one in a convoy carrying more than a hundred heavily armed Marines with orders to break through the North Vietnamese death grip on Hué and reinforce the small American garrison inside. The day before, on the same road, a Marine convoy trying to get into Hué had driven into an ambush and had lost some of its men. The survivors fought their way through with multiple dead and wounded. Today the road was empty.
Route 1 was part of a long busy highway that connected Saigon in the south with Hanoi in the north during Vietnam’s brief periods of peace. The road had a violent history. Farther north, on the other side of Hué, it was known as la rue sans joie (the street without joy). The French had named it during their war with the Vietnamese and for good reason: families who lived in the area were determined to be free of foreign domination and fought the French with unremitting ferocity. Nowadays, Marines who knew the history of the place called the entire road from Danang north “street without joy” and tried to avoid it.
The truck carried a Marine colonel who had been ordered into Hué to take over U.S. military operations in the city. He wore a worried expression. A small garrison of American troops, mostly Army soldiers, had been fighting for four days and nights to hold their headquarters, the size of a small city block, against repeated assaults, sniper attacks and mortar fire. Now the men in the compound were exhausted, running out of ammunition and suffering a growing toll of dead and wounded.
Colonel Stanley Smith Hughes was a combat hero of World War II, a much decorated veteran. He commanded more than two thousand men, the First Marine Regiment, but they were scattered across the northern military region known as I Corps and not all of them were under his control. Heading into Hué with one of his rifle companies, Hughes appeared to be distracted, uncertain, with no clear idea about the dimensions of the fight ahead.
Keith Kay put his right eye to the viewfinder of his Arriflex-BL, focused the lens with the fingers of his left hand, and switched on the camera with the other. Sixteen millimeter film rolled past the shutter with a whirring sound and recorded the solemn expressions on the faces of the colonel and the men around him. Crowded close together with their flak jackets touching, green camouflage helmets bobbing on their heads, the young Marines bounced up and down on the back of the speeding truck like a tough gang of teenagers on a trampoline.
They looked at us with wonder. An hour earlier the Marines had welcomed us at Phu Bai with the reception they usually gave to civilian visitors—respectful and correct, occasionally light-hearted, friendly. Outwardly, they seemed pleased to have us with them.
‘You guys know something we don’t?’ one of them asked, smiling.
‘Yeah, what’s going on in Hué?’ another said. Their voices were mildly apprehensive.
‘You know as much as we do,’ Kay said with measured nonchalance, climbing onto the truck with his camera.
They were fascinated by the camera and what it could do, though the idea of being photographed during what was about to happen—God knows what’s about to happen—was outside their experience and therefore strange. They kept a polite distance from us, presumably because the old man was in the truck and looked so serious, but also because they were worried about what was waiting up the road. The Marines had not expected civilians to be going into Hué with them and weren’t sure how to behave. They looked at us with the curiosity they reserved for those rare occasions when something genuinely new and interesting was happening, distractions from the usual boring routine of infantry work.
- On Sale
- Aug 5, 2008
- Page Count
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