Monday, September 10, 2012

The Death of CBS Correspondent George Syvertsen, Wells Hangen and Cambodia's Most Dangerous Year For Journalists


Running an errand, I heard some national security expert talking on the car radio and he said something like “Unlike Vietnam, which had no strategic importance, Afghanistan is truly significant.” 

No strategic importance?  For someone who spent his youth with that war, and paid for all that blood and money, it was a brutal message to hear while looking for garbage bags and soap.  No matter that he may have been correct, just the thought was hard to take.  I pulled off the road for a minute or two, shouted a few things in the car and ended up fussy all week.  A couple of days later I took out my Vietnam file, a few letters, some photos, mostly just fragments, with one exception, a document called “REPORT ABOUT MISSING CBS NEWS CREW IN CAMBODIA.”  I had not seen it at least for a decade and, more likely, longer. 

The report and attached maps and transcripts of interviews was authored by CBS Cameraman Kurt Volkert working with James Sturdevant of NBC and is about the death in Cambodia of CBS Correspondent George Syvertsen and five of his CBS colleagues at the end of May, 1970.  Also murdered then was a news crew from NBC News led by correspondent Welles Hangen.  These tragic events happened on the main north/south highway in Cambodia, 53 KM south of Phnom Penh near Slakou Village. 

George Syvertsen in 1970
I have this document because, while in the US Army and stationed in Saigon, I moonlighted at the CBS News Bureau, got to know Syvertsen and his wife Gusta and they were nice to me.  I was a soldier who had not yet met his new born daughter and they kind of took me under their wings.  I liked them. They were nice to a stranger. 

During the day, I worked at the US Army television station in Saigon, the mothership for seven army television detachments in South Vietnam providing television programming to the 525,000 US troops then in country.  A friend who once worked for CBS in Hong Kong and Tokyo sent the report to me after we finally met in person and talked for a long time about all of these things 19 years after they happened, sitting in a New York bar.

I never saw a job description for what I did at the CBS bureau, but let's just say I was a lackey. I’d show up at the Hotel Caravelle on Saigon’s main square at 5:00 o’clock in the evening, change out of my fatigues and into a ridiculous pair of stripped bell bottom jeans and sift through a stack of messages, scripts and instructions that needed to be sent over a telex machine to New York and other places for that evening’s CBS Evening News broadcast and other CBS programs.  Five o’clock in the evening Saigon time was 5 AM in New York and we were finishing our day when New York was waking up.

The telex was just off the small entryway to the office and reminds us how ancient the technology of news was then.  Today, we would describe the contraption as a telegraph line with a keyboard activated perforated paper tape interface. What happened was that you would type the words of the message and each keyboard stroke would be transferred as small perforations on a yellow paper tape about a half inch wide.  You would then place this tape into a perforated tape reader, snap shut a metal cover over the tape and activate the reader.  The machine would then start sending and, at the same time, typing each letter on paper with a thump, thump, thump.  The normal speed of that telex machine was 60 words a minute.  However, there was only one telex line out of the hotel and we had only one quarter of it, so our machine at top performance was doing 15 words per minute.  The New York Times had 50 percent of the line and some other organization the remainder.  Sometimes atmospherics or other disturbances would slow the line to a crawl, sometimes five words per minute – thump … thump … thump … thump. 

The telephones were mostly individual lines.  Some went through the hotel’s switchboard and others did not.  I don’t recall being able to transfer or hold a call.  The phones were all different colors.  Bob Lorentzen, when I started there the Deputy Bureau Chief, would frequently answer a call by saying the color of the phone as he picked up the line, barking “yellow telephone!!”

Many calls out of the office, both to military and civilian telephone numbers, went through switchboards where a person would physically plug in a connection.  Some of these switchboards were in remote locations.  If the operator heard nothing, he might pull out the plug, severing the connection.  So, while waiting for the object of your call to get to the phone, you would keep up a minimal patter, saying ‘working, working’ every five seconds or so.  Thump … thump … working, working … thump.

Hotel Caravelle
The CBS offce was behind the second or third bay window
from the bottom
The room seems today about 500 square feet, mostly open with a scattering of desks, a small bathroom and a bedroom used for equipment and equipment storage, a mini-refrigerator full of cold pop and beer, usually Pabst Blue Ribbon or Schlitz, a brand the Vietnamese pronounced as ‘Shlick.’  On top of the fridge was a coffee can where you could toss in change to help replace the beer you were about to consume.  There was also a small, single cot where I slept at night.  The next morning I’d wake up, put on my fatigues and go back to my military job, a ten minute walk at dawn past the old Continental Palace Hotel -- a building that screams the 1930s -- the Notre Dame Cathedral, the US Embassy, and close by the Presidential Palace.  The American Forces Vietnam television station compound was located next to the South Vietnamese Television station, separated by a chain link fence.  When one military faction would take over the government and kick out the former military faction, the Vietnamese TV station compound would be full of troops. 
You could see through the city’s many abrasions -- too many people, too many two cycle motorbikes, the smog killing the lovely Kapok trees -- the colonial city of the 1950s with its big boulevards and French scale.  The heat hadn’t obliterated the day yet and the air was a soft, cool humidity that was as comfortable as a helicopter at 7,000 feet, above the range of the North Vietnamese Regular Army rockets and the heat.

The American Forces Vietnam Network received commercial television programming from the United States mostly in the form of kinescopes, 16 millimeter films of television broadcasts with commercial content removed.  We would package up a week’s worth of programs and deliver it by air to seven television detachments up country, dropping off one package and picking up the other for delivery to the next station.  We would also produce public service programming, daily news programs and shoot film for Army TV programs like “The Big Picture.”  There was also a radio side, the famous "Good Morning, Vietnam" program, among others.

When I’d leave my Army job for the Hotel Caravelle and CBS, the scene on the streets was chaotic.  Great clouds of smoke were coming off streets filled with motor scooters.  Sometimes the sheer volume of the scooters in the street would force riders onto the sidewalk.  One day, at the big traffic circle in front of the central market, I watched as a blind man, long cane in hand, stood listening to this end-of-the-day madness around him.  Then he reached into his pocket, pulled out a referee’s whistle, put it in his mouth and began frantically blowing it as he set out for the other side of the street, the bikes and cars whizzing by him. 

Much of the CBS job was getting film from one place to the other.  While satellite communications were in place, the military had all the satellite circuits from South Vietnam tied up.  So the 16 MM film, the platform of news technology then in Vietnam, had to be shipped to destinations like Bangkok, Manila, Hong Kong, Tokyo or Los Angeles and frequently with breathless urgency.  Each of those cities had different technical capabilities and logistical quirks.  I recall Bangkok able to transmit only in black and white, but it was close-by and sometimes a trade off had to be made, speed against color.

Often, the film would be shipped on the commercial charter flights that brought troops in and took them out or on regularly scheduled flights around the region or back home.  However, sometimes going through a shipping company was not fast enough, and someone from the bureau would go out to the airport to the waiting area for a particular flight and ask soldiers about to get on the flight to take the package with them for $50 bucks or so. 

I would then send the details over the telex – the soldier’s name, general description, color of shirt if out of uniform, etc.  Sometimes, we would have information for the soldier to make a connection.

“A Mister Kim will meet you in the lobby of the Bangkok Intercontinental Hotel.  He will be wearing a green hat and holding a sign saying ‘CBS.’” Sometimes things would change on short notice.  Once, a couple of days after a difficult shipping deal that ended up not including Bangkok, I had a message on the telex.  “Deskman,” my telex handle, “Did anyone call off Mr. Kim in Bangkok?”  I hadn't.

As the day progressed in New York, producers there or in other bureaus would begin sending instructions and asking questions.  “How do you pronounce Buon My Thuot?”  “What exactly does the word 'retrograde' mean in the military sense?”  “Can you double check the spelling of Colonel Kozlofsky?”  “When does Threlkeld get back?”   Everybody had a telex handle -- the way you signed off.  Deskman was me.  Others used Cheers, Best, Yours, Me or, if you were a big producer in New York, you’d just use your last name.  “Little.”

As the news production process continued, some questions would require a conversation with the correspondent or the cameraman.  Since some of the questions were last minute and were asked at 2 or 3 AM Saigon time, I had to know who lived where and either call or physically find them.  Many of these questions would occur after I went to sleep and someone in New York would punch the key that rang the bell on the telex machine multiple times. 

In the evening, people would walk in the office and talk to me.  An older commercial pilot came in and, in the course of our conversation, told me that a Japanese officer had surrendered to him, then a young bomber pilot, when he landed at the Saigon airport in 1945.

Just a few days after I started, a beautiful Vietnamese woman came in, weeping.  She wanted to know whether I knew how to contact the former night deskman.  She said through her tears they were going to be married.  He had gone home without telling her.

Sometimes the Syvertsens would come in at night with some food they had brought back from a restaurant.  Syvertsen was a wire service guy with a knack for languages and fluent in Russian.  He was in Moscow and Warsaw for many years and met Gusta in Poland.  He told me once about covering a trip that Khruschev took to Yugoslavia when there was some question over how the Russians would welcome new freedoms then growing under Tito. 

It was a big story at the time and Syvertsen found himself separated from the other journalists and with Khruschev and Tito at a lodge, drinking and listening to folk music and watching folk dancers.  Khruschev and Tito started dancing as well with George the only reporter on the scene.  It was kind of a wild night!  After, the other reporters covering the trip asked him what happened at the lodge where Syvertsen had been. 

He said he told them “Oh, they just danced around,” and let go a big laugh, remembering how he had knocked their socks off when he filed his exclusive the next day.

The atmosphere in the office was highly competitive, internally and externally.  For those who wanted it, stardom and money could be just beyond the next tree line.  Also, getting beat in your own medium by your chief competitor, NBC, was not acceptable.  They didn't want to lose to the New York Times either.

CNN
The invasion of Cambodia on May 1, 1970 created conditions that, in tandem with this competitiveness, became extraordinarily dangerous for journalists accustomed to covering the war in Vietnam.  In 1970, 25 journalists from France, Japan, Austria, Switzerland, Holland, Cambodia and the U.S. were killed in Cambodia.  In Vietnam, no matter how dangerous it was in the field, there were usually well-armed, well-trained troops you were travelling with or were nearby.  If the situation got difficult, they had the ability to call in artillery, fighter jets or helicopters that could suppress the enemy or pluck you up and out.  Cambodia was simpler, though more dangerous -- an empty road and a rented car and driver.
Also, many journalists in Cambodia were new to the war zone.  It was, at the beginning, the big, new story and additional personnel were brought in to help cover it.  Their judgments were not informed by the kind of experiences most of the veteran reporters had.  Finally, no one really knew what the story was beyond the obvious extension of the old war.  And because of the visual demands television makes, reporters went out looking for trouble and would shape whatever trouble they found into some kind of larger narrative.

Kurt Volkert
Volket's report begins at 10 AM on May 31, 1970. Syvertsen and a group of CBS employees in two cars were on one of those empty roads, looking at a destroyed wooden bridge and wondering what to do next.  They had earlier passed a Cambodian Army road block a few kilometers up the road and had decided to drive through the roadblock though they knew it was terribly dangerous.

The night before, Syvertsen and Volkert had argued about Syvertsen’s risk-taking and Volkert, who was Syvertsen’s cameraman, was not on this trip.  CBS Producer Gerry Miller decided it was better if he put a little space between the two and Volkert stayed in Phnom Penh.  Miller was in a jeep with Syvertsen.  In another car, a rented blue Mercedes, were Cambodian driver Sam Leng, an Indian cameraman Remnik Leckhi and two Japanese, cameraman Tomaharu Ishii and soundman Kojiro Sakai.  They worked out of the Tokyo Bureau and had just been brought in temporarily to beef up the CBS presence in the region while all this news was breaking.  Their decision was, in many ways, financial.  Combat pay added a big premium to their take home pay.

Standing in front of the busted bridge, Syvertsen made a decision.  They would find a way around the bridge and keep heading south off the road. Leng and Leckhi would get into the Jeep, Leng to translate and Leckhi to shoot film if something happened.  Miller would go too.  They drove off to the left of the bridge and up and over a swale, lost to the view of Ishii and Sakai who remained with the Mercedes Benz.

Welles Hangen
Columbia University
After a few minutes, a car drove up behind the broken bridge and the CBS car. Welles Hangen got out of a gray Opel along with French soundman Roger Colne, a former French Legionnaire residing in Cambodia since 1947, and Japanese cameraman Yoshiniko Waku.  Their driver, a Cambodian named Chay You Leng stood by the car. 

The NBC crew had been behind the CBS cars and also passed the same South Vietnamese roadblock up the road.  NBC driver Leng said that the soldiers at the roadblock told them that they shouldn’t go further but also reported that two cars had recently driven past.  That was enough for Hangen.   “Go, Go,” Leng said that Hangen told him.  Hangen's daughter and son sent me a note not long ago thanking me for writing this.  They were too young to know him and, aside from their mother, did not have many second hand accounts about their father and his life.

Sakai and Ishii told the NBC crew that they had heard a sharp explosion just as the NBC Opel was coming up.  In a few minutes, Vietcong and Khmer Rouge soldiers came on the scene and opened fire on the group, and NBC driver Leng was slightly wounded.  The shooting stopped and the soldiers took the men into custody and marched them to a teacher’s house a couple of kilometers away where they were held in a room upstairs.

They learned there that a rocket-propelled grenade had hit Syvertsen’s jeep  killing all its occupants. 

Volkert's hand drawn map
In interviews with a Cambodian soldier who was imprisoned in the same house, Volkert learned that after being held overnight, Hangen, Sakai and Ishii were put in a car and driven south a few kilometers.  By an irrigation ditch and in a bamboo thicket, they are forced to their knees and beaten to death.  An hour or so later, Colne and Waku were driven to the same place and met the same fate.  

The only survivor, the NBC driver, Leng, was somehow able to escape, perhaps during a sharp firefight the next day between Vietcong soldiers and Cambodian troops.  When Volkert and Sturdevant interviewed him, they thought his escape story far-fetched and they had the feeling that he might have sold the others out, perhaps labeling them spies to an audience looking for just that label.

Volkert tried to find the bodies in 1971 but could get no closer than the burned out Jeep, still resting against the tree it crashed into, about 12 kilometers from the bamboo thicket and a Buddhist monastery called Wat Po. 

The area where the tragedy occurred is home to many ethnic Vietnamese and they were severely persecuted under the Lon Nol government which came into power a few weeks before Syvertsen’s death.  Then the Khmer Rouge took power and initiated the Cambodian Holocaust.  They were finally driven out by the Vietnamese in heavy fighting.  Only in 1992 was Volkert able to return to the site and, with his maps and notes and his tenacity, and with the assistance of the U.S. and Cambodian militaries, found a villager who had been ordered years ago to dig the graves.  They were able to find the remaining six bodies. 

Volkert wrote a book about the search with reporter Jeff Williams in 2001 called "A Cambodian Odyssey."  In 2010, a group of former journalists, including Volkert, returned to the site near the Wat Po Monastery to mark the 40th anniversary of the murders of the CBS and NBC crews. 

In his book, Volkert reflects on the strategic and historical value of these deaths, he an aging man, an artist living in Germany and Syvertsen forever 38, buried in Jacksonville, Florida.  The powerful cover art is Volkert's.

"Recounting the incident of 1970, I relearned how unimportant and temporal the products of my profession can be. No one remembers the story our people died for. Is it only the continuity of our reporting that counts, as if our daily stories were bricks in a huge wall? Would this wall, representing the total information of our lifetime, collapse if the Cambodian stones were missing?"

Nearly twenty years after Syvertsen’s death, I had an appointment with a man in New York on behalf of a client. We decided to meet at a bar on the ground floor of his office building. In the first few moments of conversation, it was clear to me that I was talking to a man I knew through the Saigon telex machine by his last name only. In those days he was a CBS producer and ran the Japan and Hong Kong Bureaus. In 1970, we talked all the time at 15 words a minute, or less, as we served the details of a television news production from faraway places. There would have been traffic about the tragedy between his fingers and mine. He had sent Sakai and Ishii to Phnom Penh and they were with Hangen and the others in that bamboo thicket. 

I interrupted him. “Wait a minute! You are Cheers Cross and I am Deskman.” And he knew right away what I meant.

5 comments:

  1. I was in PP for the coup. Had just left NBC News(6 month tour) and got off the -plane on the way to Hong Kong for r&r. I got into Cambodia as my name was not on the old press list they had. the coup was the next day but the day before I had hired a driver with a Mercades(possible killed) and we drove to Sinaoukville to check on a story. We passed NVA soldiers walking south along that road. No thank you! I got the hell out of the country after getting the exclusive coup film. I could have gone back for ABC but chose not to. read the full story on my blog stanmajor.blogspot.com

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  2. My brother and I have been looking for more information recently. Welles Hangen was our father. Our mother passed away and with her went so many of the stories about our dad and about those who knew, understood and respected what these men sacrificed. Thank you for this story. For two kids who were too young to have any memories of their father, what people share means a great deal to us. Respectfully - Claire W. Hangen

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    1. Claire, I'm so sad to know about how your father died but even sadder still that you never got to know him. Thank you for your note. Bob Royer.

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  3. I briefly met George Syvertsen & Gerry Miller before they headed out to Cambodia. Never thinking they wouldn't be coming back was a sad shock when I heard the news. I worked for CBS News doing camera & sound equipment repairs at the Caravelle hotel and knew Kurt (I think I have a pix of him at the teletype). I was assigned to AFVN Saigon late 69 to late 70. John Workman

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