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    An American Journey in Vietnam

    Transcript of July 21, 1998 Online Chat With Phil McCombs and Frank Johnston
    McCombs and Johnston
    Johnston and McCombs reporting in Vietnam in March 1998.

    Spacer Washington Post reporter Phil McCombs and photographer Frank Johnston both served in the military and covered the Vietnam War firsthand. Here are their responses to your questions about their experiences overseas in the 1960s and '70s, as well as their return trip to Vietnam in March 1998.

    If you have an additional comment or personal memory of the Vietnam War era to share, please add it to our Vietnam talk page.

    Arlington, VA.: Upon returning to Vietnam, what impressed you the most? How did going back alter the way you view the circumstances of that war?

    'Peace Church' Guests: Hi, this is Phil. The country is so beautiful, as always. The people are so friendly. There are a lot of young people who don't seem to recall the war, or resent Americans. And they seemed very interested in helping the American Marines go back and revisit places they had been. As for my altered impressions, to tell the truth, hearing these Marines on the trip talk about how they were betrayed by their country's politicians was really a powerful experience. These guys are fighters, who laid their lives on the line for their country, and if anyone has a right to these views, they do. It clarified my own thinking, because I realized how deeply I felt about this myself.

    Washington, DC: In all of pain and suffering and horror of that night in the church, was there any beauty or hope or humor?

    'Peace Church' Guests: Hi, Frank Johnston here. The word hope you use was the only thing we had in our favor. We prayed a lot that night, and our prayers were answered the next morning, when the enemy didn't show up on our front doorstep of the church. We transported the dead and the wounded from the inside of the church to a tree line -- a rice paddy -- where we waited to be rescued by helicopter. We laid in that tree line for seven hours, as the Marine helicopters came in from several different directions. We made sure that we got everyone out of there.

    denver, colorado:
    Phil McCombs & Frank Johnston,
    ...I am very curious about this unit and the absence of any blacks or other minority troops. The pictures in this article would lead one to believe that only whites were throwing down with Charlie or the NVA. I was a 19-year-old Mexican-American who was wounded and lost his right leg in 1968.
    My issue is not over political correctness, crap on that, but I want it reemphasized that Vietnam combat troops consisted of many backgrounds and colors. This was particularly true after the odious "Project 100,000" implemented by "Mother Moynihan."
    I liked the article but it almost seemed to reach out for that melancholy, military mythology so dear to many Americans' hearts. This may sound cynical but it seems that people love tragedy coifed in heroic and symbolic prose.
    The order to hole up in a church, a great target for mortars and sappers, is not one I would have followed, wounded or not.

    Ron Anguiano

    'Peace Church' Guests: This is Frank, responding to your comments. Every search and destroy operation with the Marines had blacks, American Indians and Hispanics in the units. They too defended the church. I owe my life to them all. And I don't think we can separate from each other when it comes to crediting what went on and what we achieved. -- Frank Johnston.

    Atlanta, GA.: Question to Phil McCombs,

    I have heard from a number of people who were genuinely moved by your articles. They apparently are having the effect you predicted this story would have.

    For the Sutter Family, they have been painful to read, both for what is accurate and for statements attributed that were either poorly stated on our parts, or misunderstood during your various interviews. To strangers reading this story the inaccuracies are immaterial. To those who know our family I feel an obligation to set the record straight, as many who read this will wonder what we really said about our parents.

    Various adjectives used to describe our parents really don't apply. Our parents were indeed stoic. They weren't given to outward expression of their most personal emotions. They did expect much of their children,as they expected much of themselves. They weren't "domineering" or "commanding." The impression given is a lack of respect and love on the part of their children. I speak for all of my siblings when I say we loved and cared deeply for our parents.

    The only other statement I think truly missed the mark was the comment that I felt I had been raised by wolves. What I was attempting to convey was that as the last child of six I was raised by many people. Parents, siblings, neighbors and friends all had a big part in my upbringing. I wasn't as close to my parents as some of my siblings may have been. It doesn't mean I didn't love them, or they me. The statement is not complete and it makes me sound cold. If that is how you perceived me then perhaps that is how I appear. I feel I owe my parents and their friends an apology for that remark. If there is a way to set the record straight before this piece is concluded I would be sincerely grateful.
    Warmest regards,
    Robert Sutter

    'Peace Church' Guests: Dear Rob,

    Thanks for your letter. This is Phil. I'm really happy that you wrote and clarified some of this difficult family material that troubled you. I gave you a call this morning, but you were out and so I talked with Laura some. I'll call you again this afternoon.

    I'm really sorry if I got anything wrong. I tried my best to be accurate with a complex set of facts and relationships. I never got the impression from you or anyone in the family, nor did anyone who read the stories say to me, that it seemed you didn't love your Mom and Dad, and that they didn't love you. Of course you did! Families, yours and mine and Frank's and everyone's, are just tough arenas to operate in. I personally think it was WONDERFUL and courageous of you to open your life so much to us, and the lives of your family, in order to promote healing in yourself, your family, and those who read about you.

    Well, maybe that sounds kind of corny, but I really mean it. You did good, and I thank you.

    Best wishes, Phil

    Charlottesville, Virginia: The series of articles on Rob Sutter's quest to learn more about his older brother's life and death is one of the most moving and powerful accounts of the war and its aftermath I have read. It is interesting to note that the bravery and courage of these two Marines -- and so many more who gave of themselves -- shines so brilliantly in your account. Thank you.

    Now for my question: As reporters covering one of the most intense and dangerous stories of our generation, how difficult was it to remain "detached" or "objective" while covering the war? Here you were, crouching in Peace Church together with Marines under fire, a former marine yourself (Mr. Johnston), charged with the duty of reporting this terrible story to the world. How did you deal with this?

    Yours sincerely,
    Mark Trank

    'Peace Church' Guests: This is Frank Johnston. I tried to cover the war as objectively as possible. Even though I was a Marine before I went to Vietnam, I wanted to illustrate what we were doing in Vietnam ... and how we had to deal with the crisis. It wasn't easy for the men who had to carry the burden, the men who had to fight.

    Hi, this is Phil McCombs. I was a reporter over in Vietnam during the war, too, and remember that it was often difficult to remain detached. There was often a lot of pressure from military authorities, and embassy personnel, to tell the story the way they wanted it. So that was a constant fight. As far as relating with the individual fighting men, this was seldom a problem. You always felt close with these guys. I usually admired them, except in the case from time to time when something would be uncovered that shouldn't be going on. But for the most part, the country's fighting men were great folks.

    Arlington, VA: Why do you think some of the soldiers that witnessed heavy combat in Vietnam return to the States and live relatively normal lives, while others find themselves trapped in a continual nightmare of remembrance?

    'Peace Church' Guests: Hi, this is Phil. I think people are different. Some can process their emotions better than others. It's also true that some guys who are living relatively "normal" lives in an outward sense may be suffering inwardly. You can bury some of this stuff inside, and it eats away at you. Ultimately, I'd guess that traumatic experiences have to be processed by all of us, sooner or later.

    Fairfax City, VA: For Frank or Phil:
    Can travelling back to the place of one's youth help one with closure?

    How can I get information on travel to the NAM? I was stationed outside of Da Nang 70 - 71.

    Raul Abregu

    'Peace Church' Guests: Raul, this is Phil. Thanks for bringing that up. I think definitely that going back and walking through the pain when it's safe to do so is a help in healing, in closure. The thing is to do it when one is ready, and not before. If you can't stand it, don't force yourself. But it definitely helped Frank and me, and most of the guys we were with. "I learned I didn't leave a damn thing back there," one of them told me. He was ready to move on. Try the outfit we went with, Military Historical Tours in Alexandria, Va. They're in the phone book, I'm sure.

    Troy Ohio: Could you take pictures of anything we built over there, MCB-3? Mostly Dang, Phu Bia, Chu Lia, and An Hoa

    Host, Gayle Worland: I'd like to add to that question: What sort of access were reporters and photographers allowed in Vietnam? How has the relationship between the U.S. military and correspondents changed since then?

    'Peace Church' Guests: This is Frank Johnston. I was based in Da Nang and I worked out of the Marine Corps press center, where I could choose to go out and cover any Marine operation in I corps. We were usually dropped in by helicopter to a Marine search and destroy operation. And we would walk the rice paddies with Marines. There were time the Marines held amphibious operations where we would land on shore on amphibious craft. I think the Vietnam War is probably the last war for the press where we could choose and go out and cover at our own discretion. That's why you saw such a great variety of photos from the war. -- Frank.

    Washington, DC: For Phil:

    First, let me say I've enjoyed the series. However, one reference helps perpetuate one of the great myths of the Vietnam era: that there was widespread harassment of GIs and veterans by those opposed to U.S. policies in Southeast Asia. I was as active an opponent as you could find and was acquainted with many of those on the so-called fringe. Let me say that never did I come across one individual who would condone such activity, never mind engage in it. Lloyd Sutter's reference to these "hot rounds" of phone calls after Richard's death clearly required some amplification. I wonder whether sister Ellen or anyone else in then household had experienced this barrage. Without any further evidence of this, I find this startling claim to be rather gratuitous.

    Jim Welch

    'Peace Church' Guests: Jim, Hi, this is Phil. Good question, and observation. Thanks for writing that, since I hadn't really given that much thought. I'm glad to hear it. I did notice on the trip that several of the guys, the Marines, told stories about reconciling, or having good relations, with people who were against the war at the time. I thought this was a current phenomenon, but you're saying it was happening at the time, too. As for Lloyd Sutter's story, he's a straight guy and I absolutely believe him. He and a now-deceased relative handled those calls, after the first one, he told me. So there's no way to check further. But I wouldn't be surprised if there weren't at least a few people in the peace movement, or maybe outside it who just felt a lot of anger, who would thoughtlessly do such a thing. Anyway, thank you for joining the chat.

    Washington, DC: Frank: The recent death of Nguyen Ngoc Loan brought back memories of anothr famous photo from the Vietnam War. In 1968 S. Vietnamese Gen. Loan was photographed aiming a pistol point-blank at a Vietcong prisoner whose hands were tied behind him. The image earned Associated Press photographer Eddie Adams a Pulitzer Prize - and stunned millions of American readers. Today, so much of our news is brought to us as live video. Do photographs continue to have the same impact and power to sway public opinion as they might have had 30 years ago?

    'Peace Church' Guests: This is Frank Johnston. Eddie Adams's great news photograph is one that will always be an icon of the Vietnam War. I hope, being in the business for a couple of years, that what I've been doing counts. -- Frank.

    Herndon, VA: No question, just thanks for writing this piece. I'm a 21 year old, with no sense of the type of loss this story depicts. My generation is once removed from Vietnam. We don't know the personal stories. But, we can learn them now. Sutter didn't die in vain.

    'Peace Church' Guests: Hey man, thanks for writing in! You make a great point. One thing is, a lot of those guys came back from Vietnam and never talked about the war, not even to their own families! So it's really heartening to me, in writing something like this, to see a kind of intergenerational connectedness growing out of it. So keep up the good work, keep prodding people to talk about this stuff, and if you have a Vietnam vet in your life, it doesn't hurt to let him (or her) gently know that you care, and would like to know. Real men do cry.

    Stafford,Va : Frank,
    Reading the article Peace Church, the thing that I bothers me is it seems Marine Richard Sutter was exposed to constant close combat his entire tour. Did he not get a little RR? The boy was constantly fighting. Survey says that the more you were exposed the likelihood of losing your life was escalated. Did he not get a break? He was probably so worn out and weary he could not stay alert to save his life. Only 10% of all vets actually saw close combat. I don't think the Marine had a chance in hell. Tell me what you think. Vince

    'Peace Church' Guests: Vince, this is Frank Johnston. All Marines were eligible for rest and recreation during their 13-month tour of Vietnam. Richard Sutter indeed was in the middle of most of the heavy combat along with everyone else during that period of time.
    The North Vietnamese 324B division operated in that area near the DMZ, predominantly during that time, 1967. -- Frank.

    Host, Gayle Worland: We now have half an hour remaining. Please continue to submit your questions for reporter Phil McCombs and photographer Frank Johnston.

    washington, dc: Mr. Johnston,
    It sounds like the trip in March 1998 was a very cathartic experience for Rob and the Marines accompanying him who had fought in Khe Sanh. Did you experience the same kind of feelings, or had you already been able to close the door on what you saw in Vietnam? Thank you.

    'Peace Church' Guests: This is Frank Johnston. After being in Vietnam with Gen. Mundy, former commandant, and 54 veterans of Khe Sanh, I feel that going back after 31 years helped bring some closure to the experience they had when they were young. For me, to return with my friend Robert Sutter and to take him back to the church in An Hoa ... this act brought peace to me ... and it appeared to help Rob too. -- Frank.

    Vienna, Va: First of all, this was one of the most well written, passionate writings I have ever read! The descriptions, the emotions, everything was so well written. My question is how did you hold back your contempt for the modern day residents of Vietnam? So many lives lost; for what reason? If you are angry about this do you focus your anger on the Vietnamese or our Government?

    'Peace Church' Guests: Hi, this is Phil. Thank you for your compliments. I really appreciate it. As for the people of Vietnam, I didn't feel contempt for them, just as I didn't during the war. We were supposedly there to defend these people against Communist aggression. It was sometimes hard, at the time, to tell whose side people were really on--but if you think about it, they were often caught between a rock and a hard place. I personally think most of them wanted freedom rather than to be governed by Hanoi, but what do you do when an North Vietnamese Army or Viet Cong unit is coming through your village. You got no choice but to smile and be on their side, at least for a time. I'm just not sure how many Vietnamese were enemies out of conviction, versus coercion. Undoubtedly there are studies that would tell us.

    Washington, DC: Frank, were you ever wounded, physically or psychologically, in Vietnam?

    'Peace Church' Guests: This is Frank Johnston. No, I wasn't wounded in Vietnam. I was very lucky.

    New York, New York: For Phil:

    The actions of the press are often given as the reason why the U.S. lost Vietnam. This characterization had led to the military controlling access in all subsequent engagements.

    Yet, it's clear from your articles that journalists and soldiers were very close during Vietnam, with journalists often helping out in the battles.

    Which do you think is better for all involved? The relationships during Vietnam or the current manipulations by the military, such as what occurred during the Gulf War?

    'Peace Church' Guests: Hi, this is Phil again. Good point. I think a free press is critical, period. So I'd prefer the way it was during Vietnam. Reporters who went to the Gulf War tried hard to get at the truth, which sometimes meant going around the military. It's rare that you'd find a reporter who would reveal specific military information that would damage a specific operation, and in Vietnam material was often embargoed in order to protect an operation; the press generally complied. I don't think you lose a war because that war is reported, but maybe you do because the nation as a whole doesn't want to do what is necessary to win, or for some other reason.

    Rockville, MD: Has anyone considered starting a fund to rebuild the Peace Church? What a great gesture of reconciliation that would be especially by those of us of the Viet Nam generation who were not called to serve but who strive to understand and appreciate the sacrifices of those who did. By the way, thank you one and all for a truly moving story.

    'Peace Church' Guests: This is Frank Johnston. The men from 1/9 and 226, who defended and fought around the church, talked about possibly helping to rebuild it. They talked about this when we went back in March '98. I think it would be a wonderful idea. There were pieces of the church that we found on the ground while we were there. It's a banana plantation today. The church was destroyed in 1968> It had been built originally by the French. -- Frank.

    Atlanta, GA: Responding to the question about R&R, Richard had R&R in Tokyo mid-way through his 13 month tour. He also spent about 3 weeks in the hospital over Christmas 1966 with a broken ankle incurred while jumping out of a chopper with pack, rifle and the rest of his load. To my knowledge these were the only breaks in the action he experienced.

    Rob Sutter, Atlanta

    'Peace Church' Guests: This is Frank. Hi Rob. Really happy you are with us today ... as always. I'm glad you've added to our experience here, responding accurately to questions. Thanks for being such a good friend and letting us tell your story ... and Richard's story. Semper Fi. Frank.

    washington, d.c.: Frank: What if the picture isn't really of Sutter? Does that make the story better or worse?

    'Peace Church' Guests: Hi, this is Phil, Frank's on another question. Thanks for mentioning that. Frank, Richard's family, photographic experts and myself are all convinced the pic is indeed Richard, but--and this is an extremely small possibility--if it isn't, then that is fine. We would presumably report that story, too. Why not? The whole goal is an open exploration of the truth, of reality. Rob told me that if it isn't Richard, he would welcome that information, and would hope to meet the person it is, or that person's family.... Frank is here now, he says he hopes that anyone in any of the photos, recognizing himself, will call in and talk with us. 202 334 4835. Or any family members. or e-mail

    syracuse ny: Frank,
    I have a picture of a Marine taken at Con Thien in the fall of 67. I think it is my brother who is POW/MIA Sept 21 1967. He served with 2nd BN fourth Mar Regt (2/4) Fox company. The picture appeared in the Syracuse Post Standard in Sept 67. If I sent you a copy could you tell me who may have taken the picture?
    Thank You,
    Pat Plumadore
    Sister of L/CPL Kenneth Plumadore.

    'Peace Church' Guests: This is Frank. Pat, do you know whether the photo has a picture credit on the lower right, saying UPI/Corbis or AP? If so, you can contact the press agency, send them a photocopy and they will be able to supply you with a print. Sometimes the press agency keeps a record of the photographer who took the picture, sometimes not. Send me a photocopy of the picture (Frank Johnston, care of the photo dept at the Washington Post, 1150 15 St NW Washington, DC. 20071) and I could see if I recognize the image from '67. -- Frank.

    Washington, VA: Both. Have you considered turning this article into a book to include more of Frank's photographs?

    'Peace Church' Guests: This is Frank Johnston. Phil and I have not had an opportunity to explore the idea of doing a book yet. But what do you think? Send an e-mail to

    Ann Arbor, Mi: Hi Dad. I just wanted to let you know how proud I am of you for going on this trip and helping a lot of people deal with some very emotionally difficult issues, especially since you too are a Vietnam Vet. It must have been so hard staying focused on producing an article while you were in the midst of such intense memories. I just wanted to ask if any healing took place for you on this trip and if so is there a specific experience that hit you the hardest? love, willow

    Host, Gayle Worland: This is a question from Phil's daughter in Ann Arbor. Thanks for writing, Willow. Over to you, Phil...

    'Peace Church' Guests: Hi, Willow. This is your Dad. Thanks so much for your sincere and thoughtful note. I think there was a lot of healing for me on the trip, but it's not hitting me right in the face. That is, I can't sum it with one short statement, but I feel that by going back to places where I had a lot of amazing, and some terrible, experiences, I got a lot of emotional information needed for the process of healing. That process itself is long and difficult. I returned to Saigon, where you and your sister Heather lived as little girls (Margaret wasn't born yet), and experienced a lot of feelings there. Specifically, family issues and war issues were intermingled, I can sense now. What was I doing taking my family to a war zone? Really, when I think about that, I can see there are a lot of issues around it that need to be worked on. It's interesting that this series is a series about the Sutter family, with a lot of family issues in it, and maybe as you and I and the rest of us in our family work on our own issues, we could look back to that time in Vietnam and figure out what happened there, not just in geopolitical terms, but in personal, family, existential terms. Love you, talk with you by phone later. Love, Dad

    Arlington, VA: Phil: What book would either of you recommend for someone wanting to better understand the Vietnam conflict? Is there one that stands out in your mind?

    'Peace Church' Guests: Hi, this is Phil. I'd go with the Karnow book, Vietnam, and Oberdorfer's book, Tet. Both are terrific. Karnow is encyclopedic, but a great read. Good luck with it!

    Manassas, VA: Phil,
    Not so much a questions as a comment. I served in 1/9 with the 81mm section attached to Delta Company. The engagement at Phu Ahn came about from 1/9 's movement to Con Thien. I was packing my gear to go on the op when I was ordered home on compassionate leave. By the time I got to California, 1/9 had stepped into it real good. One of the photos is of two Delta Company Marines sitting near the altar. I met the one on the left at a mini-reunion some years ago. He's now a retired police officer in NY or NJ. We had the option to defer notification of our family if wounded. He chose this option. His picture in the paper did not escape the sharp eyes of his Father though. The tables were turned on him and he caught some flak from his Father when he called to let them [his family] know of the wound. With not a little additional irony, his son would later serve on Desert Storm in 2nd MarDiv. The 2nd was then commanded by Delta 1/9's old CO, Gen. William Keys.

    Yes, I do have a question! For Mr. Johnston. A photographer took a picture of me and my gunner on one of 1/9's first trips into the DMZ. It was published in Stars and Stripes. He had a red beard and wore tiger stripe utilities. He also carried a Walther P-38 pistol. Do you know his name? What became of him?
    Great series of articles.

    Wayne Prilliman

    'Peace Church' Guests: This is Frank Johnston. Wayne, you're from Pottsville PA, where my family is from. After we spoke last night over the phone, and you told me that you found this photo of you and your gunner on the Web site that we linked to for US Army, I realized I had not taken the photo. I do know the name of the photographer you asked about covering 1/9: It was John Schneider. I don't know what happened to John after the war ... but John, if you see this posting on the Web, get in touch with us. -- Frank.

    Bethesda, md: Phil: I imagine that after spending so much time with Rob Sutter and his family, you felt some emotional attachment to them. How has writing this story changed you, if at all, as a reporter and a person?

    'Peace Church' Guests: Hi, this is Phil again. The necessary ingredient in honest reporting and writing is always loving detachment. And that is tough because, as you point out, one invariably comes to feel close to people like the Sutters, a wonderful family who gave so much to this country. I did, and do, feel so close with them--and then I have to detach and write! It's tough, and as you can see elsewhere in this chat, Rob didn't agree with everything I wrote. But that's fine, because he can put his views forth, too, and I respect them fully. As for how this story changed me, I think it showed me how deep it is possible to go with the lives of ordinary people, everyday Americans, each of whose story is, when you dig into it, just amazing, and often spiritually uplifting--as this one is. Thanks to the Sutters!

    Roanoke, VA: To both guests:

    I read with great interest the article "Peace Church."
    I am for the most part unable to read books and articles or see movies about the Vietnam War. I was a draft resistor and active war protestor during those years. I have often wondered about what happened to all those people who were in the streets with me during those protests. I am wondering if there isn't some organisation which serves to promote healing by linking together those who went to Vietnam and those who protested the war. It seems to me that there could be a great opportunity for bringing together those groups to find the common ground that exists between us. And, thereby, perhaps help both groups to find a "peace church" that welcomes each group in some attempt to bind the wounds that we all, in our own ways, suffered.

    'Peace Church' Guests: This is Frank Johnston. There are groups that are dealing with post-traumatic syndrome ... related problems.
    I don't know the name of organizations that may be bringing soldiers and protesters together ... but I get the feeling that a lot of the Vietnam protesters are retired ... and I'm taking pictures of their grandkids! -- Frank.

    Fairfax, Va: Phil & Frank,

    I grew up and left VietNam in 1967. I have really enjoyed your article. There is a debt owed to those who went to fight which will never be repaid. Did you have a chance to talk to South & North Vietnamese soldiers from the war? How do they feel regarding their fallen comrades? Thanks.

    'Peace Church' Guests: This is Phil. Thanks for your note. Well, I didn't have a chance to interview as many Vietnamese as I would have liked, because I was focusing on the Marines. But I loved the Vietnamese people in the year and a half I spent covering Vietnam after American combat troops left, and noticed on this trip that the Marines and the people often had good interactions. There was an old NVA colonel in Da Nang who talked a lot with Gen. Mundy, and it turned out they had been on different sides of the wire at Khe Sanh! But, again, I would have to go back and focus on the people themselves to get a full picture. I should add that I definitely got the impression the southerners are not at all thrilled being governed by the North. Good luck to you!

    columbia, sc:
    As one of 60 in the group that went with you in March, what do you think we can do to heal our wounds and those of our country? I BELIEVE the answer lies in our children and grandchildren. -- HOPPY

    'Peace Church' Guests: This is Frank. Hi, Hoppy. I totally agree with you ... hopefully this series will give the younger generation a better understanding of the great sacrifice by the Marines in Vietnam. You too were a proud member of that special force. Semper Fi. Frank.

    Hi Hoppy, this is Phil. Great question. Yes, it is the younger generation that we must connect with. Happily, many young people have said this series has affected them. One young woman told me it helped her talk with her father about Vietnam for the first time! Best to you and yours! Cheers, Phil

    Host, Gayle Worland: To Phil, Frank, and all the readers of So many questions, so little time! Thanks so much for joining us in this discussion today. For those of you whose comments we didn't have time to respond to, please visit our talk section and post your questions and notes there. And please join our next online chat at noon tomorrow, July 22, with Rep. John Spratt (D-S.C.), ranking Democrat on the House Budget Committee.

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