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Women covering war

Female correspondents recall their historic role reporting from Vietnam

Thursday, March 30, 2000

By Cristina Rouvalis and Bill Schackner, Post-Gazette staff writers

In 1967, Jurate Kazickas finagled a spot on the TV game show "Password," but she wasn't looking to get rich. She was trying to scrounge up enough money to fly to a place that most men her age desperately wanted to avoid -- the jungles of Vietnam.

"The first time I saw a soldier stop breathing, all filthy dirty, it was the most horrible death I could imagine," says Jurate Kazickas, who is shown interviewing soldiers in Bien Hoa Army base, outside of Saigon, in 1967. 

Kazickas, a researcher for Look magazine, had been told by her boss that there was no way she would be sent to cover the war in Vietnam. After all, she was 24, totally green and had never published a word. The magazine's male war correspondent had just been killed in Vietnam. It wasn't about to send a woman.

But Kazickas was obsessed with getting a piece of the story of the decade. With her $500 "Password" prize money, she bought a one-way plane ticket to Saigon and became part of a gutsy group of women who forever changed the face of war reporting.

Kazickas got incredible access as a free-lancer, slogging through the jungles with U.S. troops. The soldiers liked talking to the 6-foot-tall, exotic-looking reporter, but their higher-ups hated that she was dodging mortar fire and photographing them in bloody battles.

"If I heard it once, I heard it a thousand times, 'Combat is no place for a woman.' "

Combat is arguably no place for anyone, male or female. But seven women who risked their lives to chronicle the hell of the Vietnam War will converge Friday, April 7, at West Virginia University for a reunion celebrating their place in journalism history.

The panel at 8 p.m. in the Health Sciences Auditorium will take place three weeks before the 25th anniversary of the fall of Saigon. Christine Martin, interim dean of WVU's Perley Isaac Reed School of Journalism, tracked down the panelists and is recording their stories in a book and in a documentary with a colleague.

The women war correspondents coming to Morgantown won't reminisce about hanging out at a hotel bar in Saigon. Many of them covered combat, and Kazickas, now a 57-year-old free-lance writer in New York City, even has faint scars from the bloody siege of Khe Sanh.

It was a quiet day, March 8, 1968, and Kazickas was interviewing a group of Marines in the sunshine. Suddenly she heard a whistling sound and the men shouted, "Incoming!" A rocket exploded 50 feet away. Instead of throwing herself on the ground, she made the mistake of running toward the bunker. Shrapnel tore into her face, arms, legs and rear end.

Word traveled quickly that a female reporter was among those who had been helicoptered to a hospital in Da Nang. The military didn't send her flowers. One colonel said, "She got what she was looking for."

An obligation to go

Women were chronicling war before Vietnam, but never in such numbers or with such lasting impact. During World War II, an estimated 127 American women received Army accreditation, and some, such as Marguerite Higgins, made a name as war correspondents.

Denby Fawcett aboard a jeep in Saigon in 1967. A chance meeting she had with Gen. William C. Westmoreland in a remote Army base in the Central Highlands led Westmoreland to try to ban women reporters from staying overnight in the field. That proposal was contested by women reporters and later rescinded. 

But overall these women, Martin said, occupied a small and precarious niche in journalism. When male journalists who had been drafted as soldiers returned from war, they reclaimed all the good assignments, leaving women out in the cold.

Because Vietnam was an undeclared war, it was paradise for free-lancers. All a reporter needed to secure a press pass was a letter from three news organizations expressing interest in using their work.

A press card let them roam the battlefields cheaply. It entitled them to free military ground and air transportation, interviews with field commanders, use of TELEX, food and shelter and even fatigue pants, combat boots and cushion-soled socks.

"There were flights everyday to Saigon," said Martin, a native of Jeannette. "A lot more women went."

All told, 467 women correspondents, including 267 Americans, made the trip.

Many women went over initially as free-lancers or even girlfriends. The only reason Laura Palmer went to Saigon was because she was dating a pediatrician who was stationed there. The romance fizzled, but she stayed in Vietnam to be a stringer for ABC-Radio and to write for Rolling Stone magazine. Years later, she wrote the book "Shrapnel in the Heart," a chronicle of those who left poems and letters at the Vietnam Veterans Memorial.

As the Vietnam War dragged on and the women's movement took hold, women went to Vietnam as full-time correspondents for news organizations.

In the early 70s, Edith Lederer and Tad Bartimus became Saigon correspondents for The Associated Press and later landed prestigious overseas posts and covered other wars. Bartimus begged and begged to go to Vietnam, and finally went over in 1973, saying she was "too stupid to be scared."

Others went to Vietnam with some trepidation. UPI reporter Tracy Wood had mixed emotions when she was asked to go to Saigon in 1972.

"I am not a violent person by temperament," said Wood, now the investigations editor for the Orange County Register in California. "You know you are going to see people get killed. It was not my life's ambition. But I didn't want to say 'no.' I felt an obligation to the sisterhood. If you turned it down, it would hurt all kinds of women."

A fight to stay in battle

Even though women in Vietnam easily got press credentials, they were not always welcomed on the front lines of combat, especially early in the war. The biggest threat to their livelihoods came in June 1967, when Denby Fawcett, a 26-year-old woman filing battlefield stories for the Honolulu Advertiser, unwittingly became the focus of a tug-of-war between women and the military.

The press pass of Laura Palmer. 

Fawcett, who had quit her job on the women's page of another newspaper, had traveled out to a remote army base in the Central Highlands. Gen. William Westmoreland, commanding officer for U.S. troops, helicoptered into the base on short notice to boost morale of the troops, who had just suffered 64 casualties. As he mingled with the soldiers, Westmoreland did a double-take: there was Fawcett, a woman he recognized from back home. Her mother, Suzanne, played tennis back in Honolulu with Westmoreland's wife, Kitsy. The general asked Fawcett how long she had been there. Several days, she replied.

Fawcett later learned that the seemingly casual encounter led Westmoreland to decide that women should no longer be allowed to stay overnight in the field. For the women war correspondents, such a directive would have been career death since it often was impossible to get to a battle location for a story and then back to Saigon the same day.

"You couldn't demand a helicopter to take you out in the evening," said Fawcett, now a political reporter for KITV-TV in Honolulu.

A group of women successfully lobbied against the directive and kept their battlefield access.

The cracks about them continued, though. They were bad luck, a logistical nightmare when it came to considerations like toilets and just plain stupid to come to war, some were told. Otherwise flattering news accounts of them found a way to be condescending. A story in the Army Reporter referred to Kazickas as "a pretty, round-eyed brunette" who was a morale booster for soldiers.

But being female had advantages, too. The soldiers liked talking to the rare female reporter, and standing out in the crowd helped when trying to bum a ride on a helicopter.

"You sure got noticed in a sea of 25 male reporters all scrambling to get on a helicopter. They would say, 'We will take three of you and her,' " Kazickas said.

Women also came off as less threatening when they interviewed the Vietnamese women and children. This enabled them to do the stereotypical "soft" women's stories, the human angle that became more important as Americans started questioning the wisdom of this war.

"At times, the women were more attuned to the human side of the war and the Vietnamese side of the war while many of us were zeroing in on the American side," said George Esper, a celebrated war correspondent for The Associated Press.

Bartimus liked writing stories that some men dismissed as the "sob-sister stuff" -- the student who played an off-key piano in a public square of a devastated city, the Vietnamese children who walked to school in clean uniforms past dead bodies.

"I wasn't attracted to the bang-bang. War is not about shooting. It is about destruction," she said.

Anne Morrissy Merick, an ABC-TV correspondent, also made no apologies for covering the human side of combat.

"The men were over there to cover the war, and I would cover the role of a nurse in Vietnam. They thought I was dumb. I thought they were dumb for just chasing firefights," said Merick, who sometimes had her softer features cut from the broadcast in favor of the bang-bang of the nation's first television war.

"It made better television to see people cowering in foxholes with a lot of banging and shooting and rocket fire."

Still, some female war correspondents, including Kazickas, ran from stereotypical women's stories. She resented it when commanding officers asked her why she wasn't writing about orphans and refugees. Even so, it was wrenching to do combat reporting, interviewing an innocent young soldier one day, and seeing him dead the next.

"The first time I saw a soldier stop breathing, all filthy dirty, it was the most horrible death I could imagine."

She rarely saw other female reporters, and though she would later become an AP correspondent, Kazickas often felt alone and lowly tromping through the swamps of Vietnam.

"It was very, very lonely. I had no girlfriends. No one visited me in the hospital. I was the lowest of the low, a 24-year-old girl bopping around. But I knew I was part of one of the most profound, important events in American history. It was a real privilege. I never took it lightly."

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