By Michael E. Ruane
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, April 4, 2008
After the memorial ceremony and the tears for the photographers killed in the war, their colleagues gathered on the steps away from the wreaths and the funereal smell of the flowers to have their picture taken.
There were canes and hearing aides, hugs and jests, and the sense that they might all be back in old Saigon, as one put it, with their cameras and typewriters, and the war, and the idea that any of them could be killed any day.
And as they jostled on the Newseum steps and ribbed each other in honor of their comrades killed in the downed Huey back in '71, someone joked over the din, "The press plane leaves in a minute!"
The purpose of yesterday's ceremony, about a week before the Newseum's official opening in Washington, was to dedicate the last resting place of trace remains of four Vietnam War photographers -- Larry Burrows, Henri Huet, Kent Potter and Keisaburo Shimamoto -- who were shot down in a helicopter over Laos.
Burrows, a native of London, was considered among the war's best photographers. Huet was born in Vietnam to a French father and Vietnamese mother. Potter was a young, ambitious member of the Saigon press corps. Shimamoto was a seasoned freelancer who had worked in Vietnam on and off since 1965.
Members of the families still weep at the thought of them.
"When you lose somebody close to you, it doesn't scab over and heal," said Sherry Potter Walker, Potter's sister, who cried inconsolably during the dedication. "A zipper is installed. And anytime you come across the memory, it opens up and all of your sadness falls out."
The event was also a gathering of the old Vietnam War correspondents corps, a tight-knit crew of then-young men and women who five decades ago sought to make sense for the world of the kaleidoscopic blood bath that was the war.
There in the crowd before the dedication was Horst Faas, the famed German war photographer, who was once wounded during a battle and who now uses a wheelchair because of illness; and Richard Pyle, the Associated Press Saigon bureau chief, who had to write the story, marked "Urgent," that February day about the death of his four friends.
George Esper, the AP Saigon reporter who wrote the daily roundup of war news for 10 years, was there, too; and the still-dashing former network newsman Bernard Kalb; and war historian and correspondent Stanley Karnow; and the AP's Edith Lederer, the first woman assigned to cover the war for the wire service.
"This is an incredibly important day for the family of Vietnam war correspondents and photographers," Lederer said. "Because it brings to a closure one of the tragic events for some of the best-known and finest photographers of the war, who really risked their lives to tell the American people, especially, and the rest of the world what was really happening."
The four photographers -- Burrows, 44, of Life magazine; Huet, 43, of the AP; Potter, 23, of United Press International; and Shimamoto, 34, of Newsweek -- were shot down while aboard a South Vietnamese army helicopter Feb. 10, 1971, during an incursion into Laos.
Their loss made headlines. But their remains and those of seven Vietnamese with them went undiscovered for 25 years, until the crash site was located by a U.S. casualty team in 1996.
Two years later, the site was excavated, and artifacts and fragmentary remains were recovered. In 2003, the Newseum, then in the process of constructing its new building on Pennsylvania Avenue NW, offered, at Pyle's request, to inter the remains in its Journalists Memorial gallery.
"This was an exception . . . for an exceptional case," said Susan Bennett, the Newseum's deputy director.
The fragments are in a stainless-steel box beneath a metal nameplate set in the floor of the memorial gallery at the foot of a towering glass wall bearing the names of 1,843 journalists who have perished doing their jobs since 1837.
The memorial will be dedicated today. The Newseum opens officially next Friday.
"All these years, we've never forgotten them," Esper, 75, who now teaches at the University of West Virginia, said of his four friends. "We talk about them all the time. And we remember them all the time. . . . They didn't have to get on that helicopter. They knew it was very dangerous."
Pyle and Faas were obsessed with the fate of the four men. They traveled to the excavation site and in 2003 published a book about the incident, "Lost Over Laos."
"It's a resolution to a long story that needed to have an ending," Pyle said yesterday. "This makes it all worth doing."
As Faas, in his electric wheelchair, made his way to the microphone to speak, he talked of old times.
"It's wonderful to see so many aged faces of the good and bad days of old Saigon," he said.
He spoke about his visit by helicopter to the crash site with Pyle.
"It almost felt like a combat assignment," he said. "The old adrenaline in me rose . . . just like the old days."