When Wallace Terry came back from his stint as a war correspondent and produced a 600-page manuscript, the first publisher he talked to said America was not ready for a book about Vietnam and the black experience there.
"One hundred and twenty other publishers told me the same thing," he said. Are there really that many mainstream publishing houses in the United States? "I think I hit some of them more than once," he added, "hoping the people I talked to the first time had left."
It took Terry some 17 years to get Bloods: An Oral History of the Vietnam War by Black Veterans into print. His campaign lasted longer than the war itself.
Now Bloods comes to television as a "Frontline" documentary entitled "The Bloods of 'Nam." Judy Woodruff is the show's host, and Terry serves as correspondent. The program, airing on PBS at 9 p.m. Tuesday, updates the stories of some of the 20 black veterans whose war experiences made up the book.
A Philadelphia high school serves as the baseline for the television presentation.
"It's used as a fulcrum for the show," said Terry. It was after publication of Bloods that Terry heard of Thomas Edison High School, which lost 54 graduates in Vietnam, most of them black. The documentary returns to Edison periodically for encounters between veterans and members of the senior class, a class that at an earlier time was about to face killing and dying.
And there are the personal stories, with emotions that have lost none of their resonance.
There's the visit with Charles Strong, a black man from Pompano Beach, Fla., who recalled a friend he served with, a white southerner named Joe whom many blacks dismissed as a redneck. But to Strong, he was a friend, a guy to pitch a tent with and share water and food. Joe stepped on a booby trap.
"You know," recalls Strong, "I loved him. Long after his wife and children forget him, I'll remember him."
And there's the sequel to the book's story of Fred V. Cherry, an Air Force colonel from Suffolk, Va. Shot down during the war, he spent time as a POW with a white southerner, Porter Halyburton, as a cellmate. In the '60s, Terry speculated, the North Vietnamese must have found the rooming arrangement fiendishly amusing.
"Fred was badly hurt and was being tortured," said Terry. "He was a senior black officer, and they wanted him to broadcast to the bloods fighting in the south to lay down their arms. They would bring his broken body back to the cell. He couldn't care for himself. Halyburton had to treat him like a newborn baby."
"I owe Hally my life," says Cherry.
On "Frontline," they are reunited for the first time in eight years.
"That was one of the most rewarding experiences I've had as a journalist," said Terry. "And I've done it for 25 years."
Terry has done many things in his 48 years. He was born in New York City and raised in Indianapolis. He spent his undergraduate years at Brown University and did graduate work in theology as a Rockefeller Fellow at the University of Chicago. He has been a Nieman Fellow at Harvard University and a Poynter Fellow at Yale University. He belongs to Phi Beta Kappa. And he's an ordained minister in the Disciples of Christ and Baptist churches.
His career in journalism took him to The Indianapolis News and The Washington Post.
He met his wife, Janice, in 1960 at a party at Howard University. He proposed on the first date.
"She smiled. I said, 'I'm serious,' " recalled Terry. She had impressed him by recognizing his name from the byline on a newspaper story about the whooping crane. "It also helped that she's gorgeous," said Terry.
They have three children, Wallace, a 22-year-old junior at Brown; Lisa, 21, a senior at the University of Virginia, and David, an 18-year-old freshman at William and Mary.
After four years at The Post, Terry, at 25, became a Washington correspondent for Time magazine. Later, during his years as Time's deputy bureau chief in Saigon, Bloods, named for the fraternal term among black servicemen, began to take shape.
During his Nieman year, 1969-70, he spent part of his time writing the book. What emerged was a 600-page narrative. He took it door-to-door, rejection to rejection.
In the meantime, Terry put bread on the table through stints with USA Today as the paper's inquiry editor and as an account manager and film producer for J. Walter Thompson.
The book's breakthrough came when a series of referrals put Terry in the hands of Erroll McDonald, a black editor at Random House. But what he had in mind as a commercial book was not what Terry had written. He proposed that Terry rewrite the book as an oral history. "They were looking for a market," said Terry. " . . . I couldn't say no to Random House. They're like E.F. Hutton: When they talk, you listen."
This was in 1982. And while Terry and Random House were looking for a market, the market was coming to them. The Vietnam Memorial was coming to the Mall. Feature films were beginning to pick up on the Vietnam theme. Middle East and Central America crises had Americans talking about the possibility of another Vietnam. The war no one wanted to talk about a dozen years earlier was slowly making its way back into he American mainstream.
Bloods was published in 1984. It was a best-seller.
For blacks, the Vietnam war had many fronts. Representing about 10 percent of the American population, blacks accounted for 23 percent of the war's American fatalities. They were fighting an enemy of color while racial tensions and the civil rights struggle had reached the flashpoint on the home front. While they were firing at a yellow enemy as members of a white man's army, back home someone else was shooting at Martin Luther King Jr. And they were in military service, where integration was about as new an idea as it was in Alabama.
Two dominant dramas of the '60s were played out in the jungles of Southeast Asia -- the war itself and the racial revolution.
But it is a theme that has had few public exponents. "There are 2,000 titles in the Library of Congress dealing with Vietnam," said Terry. "Only six deal with the black experience there."
Written in Bloods and conveyed in the TV documentary are some of the universal postscripts of war, the physical, psychological and social prices paid by the warriors.
"If you don't walk away with second thoughts about the rattling of sabres," said Terry, "we've missed the mark."