Let me say this about that

By Gene Klare

October 19, 2001

THE RECENT DEATH of Nguyen Van Thieu, the last president of South Vietnam, brought back memories of 34 years ago when I covered his first inauguration in Saigon while on a reporting trip for the Labor Press.

Thieu died in a Boston hospital on Sept. 29 after collapsing at his home the day before. He was 76.

He was an army colonel when he participated in a 1963 coup that overthrew President Ngo Dinh Diem with the support of the United States. Four years later Thieu won election to the presidency of his war-ravaged country and he continued in office until April 1975 when North Vietnamese Communist troops routed the South Vietnamese forces and chased him into exile. He escaped from the Viet Cong soldiers in a roof-top take-off by a U.S. helicopter.

AS THE EDITOR of the Labor Press, I went to South Vietnam on a month-long self-assignment in November 1967 to interview sons of Oregon and Washington union members who were fighting with the U.S. Armed Forces, and also to report on the South Vietnamese labor movement.

I did not go to Saigon to cover Thieu's inauguration; it just happened to take place shortly after my arrival. A foreign correspondent for the Los Angeles Times and I, along with several other reporters and free-lancers for U. S. newspapers, found that our South Vietnamese and U.S. press credentials weren't enough to get us into the press area at the swearing-in ceremonies in front of the National Assembly Building in the heart of the city, but the office that issued the special credentials for the inauguration had closed early. So we pushed our way into a nearby office building. Our cameras, tape recorders and spiral notebooks were enough to convince police to let us into the building and we climbed to the fifth floor where an Asian news service had its office. Its reporters generously shared their space with us and let us lean out their windows to peer at the inauguration and snap photos of it.

HUBERT H. HUMPHREY, as vice president of the United States of America, was the ranking foreign dignitary at the inauguration. The U.S. delegation included two labor leaders - President James Suffridge of the Retail Clerks International Association, and President David Roe of the Minnesota AFL-CIO, who had known Humphrey since his days as mayor of Minneapolis 20 years earlier. Roe, a lather by trade, had been a building trades leader before winning the presidency of the Minnesota labor federation. A labor leader in the Japanese delegation was Kishoro Miki, head of his nation's labor federation, known as DOMEI. Also on hand, of course, was a South Vietnamese labor delegation, led by Tran Quoc Buu, a school teacher who was president of the Vietnamese Confederation of Labor, known by the initials CVT.

Fifty thousand spectators and troops watched the inauguration in sweltering heat. Although there was no Viet Cong interference during the ceremonies, that evening Communist terrorists slammed several mortar rounds within 200 yards of Independence Palace, in downtown Saigon, where Vice President Humphrey and scores of other foreign dignitaries were attending a reception. The shells landed near where the guests' automobiles were parked, injuring a chauffeur. One round hit a block away, killing a Vietnamese civilian.

Saigon police found a mortar tube three-quarters of a mile away. Alongside it was the body of a Viet Cong agent, killed from a misfire of his weapon.

SHORTLY AFTER THIEU became president he granted amnesty to more than 6,000 people being held in South Vietnamese jails and prisons without having been given a trial. The labor federation's weekly newspaper, Cong Nhan - The Worker - had urged the release of those prisoners, most of them workers.

Also in the days following the inauguration, Dave Roe and I were invited to meet with Buu and several other English-speaking Vietnamese labor union officials at the Saigon Labor Temple. Over tea our hosts explained some of their problems in representing workers in a country at war and told us of the assistance given them by labor movements in the U.S., Japan and other nations.

South Vietnamese unions, Roe and I were told, represented workers on rubber plantations, rice farms, other tenant farms, in the oil industry and in offices and other workplaces. One unusual occupation represented by a union was that of bird nest gatherers. The birds' nests were used in making soup. While I was in South Vietnam, a union organizing campaign was achieving success in signing up "B-girls" - women who plied their age-old trade in Saigon's bars.

AN AMERICAN working in Saigon for the U.S. Agency for International Development, Emil G. Lindahl, was extremely helpful in providing me with historical background about South Vietnamese labor unions. Lindahl had been in Vietnam since 1965, and earlier had worked for the State Department agency in Iran and India. Before he went into government service, Lindahl had been the full-time president and executive director of the Industrial Union Council of Nassau and Suffolk Counties on Long Island, N. Y. He'd worked for 14 years as a machinist in the Sperry Gyroscope plant on Long Island. He then belonged to the International Union of Electrical and Machine Workers of America and had been active in the fight to rid the IUE of Communist influences. I told him of an incident in the late 1940s when I was a reporter on a daily paper in Niles, Ohio: a Communist leader in an IUE local said to the editor, "Comes the revolution, I'll be sitting in your chair."

WITH THE COOPERATION of U.S. Army, Navy and Marine Corps officers and senior non-commissioned officers, I was able to track down and interview some relatives of Labor Press readers who were serving in Vietnam. One was a Marine lieutenant colonel, John Mitchell, a Grant High School graduate who was a nephew of a veteran of the 1959-65 Portland newspaper strike, Jimmy McCool, a longtime reporter for the Oregonian. Jimmy, who was in his 60s when the strike started, worked for the union-financed Portland Reporter until it folded on Sept. 30, 1964, then he retired. I caught up with Lt. Col. Mitchell at Con Thien at the northernmost U.S. outpost in South Vietnam. He commanded a Marine battalion stationed in the so-called De-Militarized Zone (DMZ), which came under frequent artillery bombardment from the North Vietnamese forces. A shelling occurred while I and several other correspondents were at the muddy DMZ on a Saturday afternoon, and we took cover in a Marine bunker.

It was by chance that I later encountered another former Portlander, Kurt Rolfes, a Lincoln High School graduate who was covering the war as a free-lance photographer/correspondent for the United Press International news service. We and some other correspondents and photographers were accompanying Marines on a search-and-destroy mission to Viet Cong-infested villages in a rice paddy district northwest of An Hoi. As we were returning to Danang in a Marine helicopter late in the day, a Viet Cong sniper fired at us. A shot went through a window and hit Rolfes' backpack, but a camera in his pack stopped the bullet and he was unhurt. Rolfes told me his father, Alex, was a member of Meat Cutters Local 143.

IN MY ABSENCE from the Labor Press office in Portland, the then-weekly newspaper was ably edited by Buford Sommers, who, like me, had worked for the Oregonian before the strike. I sent my stories and photos to Sommers by air mail. Because of the time difference, my material arrived in Portland each week well ahead of the printing deadline.

The reports from Vietnam won a special award from the International Labor Press Association. The plaque was presented to me by Robert Culp of the Screen Actors Guild at the 1968 ILPA convention in Washington, D.C.


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