Lt. Halls pulled the single-engine fixed-wing up to 3,000 feet and chose to return to Phu Bai by flying straight East over Highway Nine to where it met Highway One, then South the final 10 minute leg home. Passenger seats in the aircraft had been removed and a hole cut in the floor to mount camera equipment. For the third time he had flown over this area that in two days would have friendlies on the ground. Photos would be developed within the hour and be passed on through ARVN and MACV channels.
He did not hear the explosion over the sound of the engine, but looking South saw smoke trailing upwards from where Highway One skirts Dong Ha Combat Base. Instinctively he took it down to 1500 feet and leveled off, then banked for a clear view of the jeep with ARVN markings that lay scattered all over the highway. The main chasis was on fire. The driver and passenger were still in their seats and were not moving, and about 10 meters away, as if thrown clear, he could see what appeared to be a woman. Hatless, she was not moving either. He did not know that all three were dead. Halls called in what he saw and was instructed to return to Phu Bai. This was an ARVN matter, the locals would take care of it.
The order had been relayed up to Dong Ha from MACV headquarters in Hue, signed by an Army two star who chaired a desk in Saigon, directing the Dong Ha team to pick up a Newsweek journalist arriving by plane in Phu Bai. This was unusual since by late 1969 there was far less activity in I Corps than in the other three corps, especially since the Marines had left the DMZ some months ago, relocating in phases first back to Da Nang, then to Okinawa. With the Marine departure the First ARVN Division moved in to Dong Ha Combat Base with MACV advisor groups in tow.
The Lieutenant finished his cigarette and field stripped it as he watched them drive off the compound. Sgt. Duong was driving Sgt. Dukes over to Phu Bai from their compound on Dong Ha. Phu Bai, the closest air strip where a C-130 could land.
Catherine Liseau: Newsweek journalist, photojournalist to be exact. French, from Nice, at 23, employed by Newsweek-Paris shortly after graduating college with a degree in journalism. Now one year later she was in I Corps on her second field assignment in Vietnam, having already spent a month in the Delta. Dukes identified her by the press badge that hung around her neck, the only woman and non-military on the 130.
You with Newsweek?
Yes I am.
Ahh, - surprised that Newsweek was a woman - Iım Sgt. Carl Dukes, MACV Division Forward Dong Ha. Supposed to pick you up.
Sergeant she responded nodding, Iım Catherine Liseau, NewsWeek-Saigon.
Dukes quickly recovered by inquiring about her bags?
Just this, a backpack.
You travel light, hoisting the Vietnam made A-frame into the ARVN jeep.
Its mostly cameras, a tape recorder, cassettes, and notebooks.
OK, letıs go, the Lieutenant and the rest of the team are waiting for you.
The jeep pulled away from the short landing strip, a patchwork of sheet metal and linked PSP, a design typical of remote airstrips throughout Vietnam. There were no NVA here, but the local VC kept themselves busy at times with small team hit and run harassment operations, usually firing on stationary targets like the airstrip in Phu Bai with hand held aluminum mortars and light rockets that did little more than punch holes in the strip.
Surprised that Iım a woman Sgt.?
Forcing a smile, a little, yes, he admitted.
Iım just a reporter Sgt. Dukes, she tried but failed to sound authoritative, here for about a week. A story. Thatıs all, a story.
Why here Miss Liseau?
She was uncomfortable with the question, and decided to tell the truth. Since Iım a woman, my superiors wanted to send me to a relatively safe area. Army Military Intelligence reported that compared to 2, 3 and 4 Corps, this area, close to the DMZ, is just the place.
I donıt think MI reads the reports that we send down.
I just know what I was told.
The Lieutenant had been in Dong Ha two months, arriving at the onset of the six- month monsoon season, eating Vietnamese rations since day one, which brought on a case of intestinal parasites that resulted in frequent diarrhea. Dukes referred to this as the green apple high step. Today their own mess finally opened, staffed by cooks from an American artillery unit from the other side of the base. He sat in the mess drinking coffee enjoying the smell of recognizable foods, waiting for Sgt. Duong to return with Sgt. Dukes and the journalist.
As the jeep neared Dong Ha she pulled a Japanese camera out of her pack and set the selector switch to automatic, then randomly shot at everything along the last stretch of Highway 1 before the turnoff to the teamıs makeshift compound on the base.
They were to be in base camp another 24 hours, due to leave for a search and destroy operation starting West of Dong Ha in a kilometer wide sweep ending just short of the Loatian border. Out for three days. Sgt. Dukes had radioed in from Phu Bai that the journalist was a woman. Col. Montee, their CO, said nothing about that, he probably didnıt even know. A few days earlier the Colonel choppered in from Hue to read the riot act on ³guest² security, making it clear that Newsweek had ³serious² connections at the field grade level, which meant that this would be handled with kid gloves, no risks or chances taken, nothing Hollywood, and that Newsweek would live in a goddamn flak jacket.
Col. Montee ran down his wish list, while the Lieutenant opted out of politeness to look at the floor, then the ceiling, and finally eyes front on the Colonel.
Sir......... may I speak?
Go ahead Lieutenant!
We leave on an operation at 22:00 hours tomorrow.
Didn't know that?
We don't write our orders sir, ARVN command does.
When did this come down?
4 hours ago.
Well.....MACV-Saigon says this journalist tags along. Thereıs no choice on this one. A problem?
Well sir, everyone on the team is getting short, and you know how things get.
How short are you?
He rotates home in 6.
How about the two Australians?
The team was comprised of two Americans and two Australians. The two Aussies were career types, both Warrant Officers.
Connors and McMillan both leave in 9 weeks.
He remained quiet after that, giving Col. Montee time to think. Everyone on the team was short, every day ritually notching their own "short-timer" calendar, thinking about going home, the world.
Hands are tied on this one young Lieutenant. What can I tell you?
They both studied the floor for a moment, then mutually decided that there was little more to say.
I understand Sir....thank you
The Colonel looked around nervously, extended his hand, they shook, then walked stoically toward the Huey waiting on the elevated pad in the middle of the compound. The pilot had not shut down, letting the engine run in idle, both props in a slow rotation.
The Lieutenant heard it while sitting inside the mess hall. Placing the empty coffee cup down he looked toward the door, straining to hear a sister explosion which never came, finally dismissing the sound as some duce and a half backfiring on Highway One. Sounds tell stories, he told himself. Letıs keep this simple. Itıs a duce and a half. Thatıs all it is. Backfiring.