Female war stories

Joyce Hoffman weaves the stories of female reporters in the Vietnam War with the history of the conflict in her book 'On Their Own'

Bangkok Post
Saturday, July 26, 2008

By Alan Dawson

On Their Own is not the first book about women journalists in Vietnam, and it is not by one of those journalists. It is, however, the best report in any form about the few wonderful women who went the whole way to make it finally, indisputably clear that women also belong in combat journalism. This 10-year labour of love by Virginia newspaper writer and academic Joyce Hoffman is one of those rarities in the mountains of Vietnam literature: A human story, a history of the US war in Vietnam, and a treasure trove of research.

I have never had any compunctions about saying -- bragging -- that the privilege of working with women reporters and photographers in Vietnam shaped my opinions about women in society and the workplace. I have also been fortunate enough to work with dazzlingly brilliant Thai reporters who simply backed up the opinion that I got in Vietnam. It now seems ridiculous that anyone ever thought that women couldn't do the job. But that was the standard thinking of the editors and the vast majority of (male) foreign correspondents at the time of the Vietnam War.

Oh, there was token praise for women who had previously gone to war -- Marguerite Higgins, Margaret Bourke-White, Dickie Chapelle -- but they were the exceptions, "one of the guys" even, and certainly no proof that women could go to war.

Hoffman's book cover properly features Kate Webb, the softly spoken "waif of a thing" who landed in Saigon from New Zealand via Australia with a couple of hundred dollars and the mandatory battered typewriter. Hoffman picks up her story in detail, and we get to follow Kate as she works through the double burden of being a lowly paid freelancer and a girl. Webb, who died last year, became one of the most respected of all war correspondents in Vietnam. It didn't happen because she was a women, nor despite that she was female. She was simply totally splendid at her job, as brave and as scared as any of us, men or women.

She is one of the four women featured in Hoffman's book, along with the equally but discretely fascinating Beverly Deepe, abrasive New York Times reporter Gloria Emerson, and pioneer Chapelle, the only woman correspondent killed in the Vietnam War.

But while these four get the in-depth study, author Hoffman leaves no woman reporter unnoticed. The tiny and agonisingly brave Catherine LeRoy is properly respected. I was extremely curious to see what she would say about Tracy Wood, a close colleague who got to the United Press International Vietnam bureau just as the war was at its most dangerously violent, in 1972. On Their Own gets it exactly right. Wood, now with the L.A. Times, was ordered by the big boss in New York to stay away from combat. She was determined to ignore the order, and she got mixed support and opposition from our boss and co-workers. She went to the field, reported from under fire.

The real purpose of On Their Own is to document the virtual minefields that women had to navigate before they even got a chance at maybe reporting the dangerous stories and getting shot at like the men. I may be jaded, but I found this part of the book to be actually the least interesting. Whatever legal and cultural obstacles they met, the couple of dozen or more women of this book got to Vietnam and succeeded at reporting the war. Some were better than others, some had more effect than others, but all of them earned their bones as surely as they earned their pay.

Hoffman is a good writer, and weaves the stories of the women together, along with an excellent history of the overall Vietnam War as sort of a sub-text. (One of the last stories is about ex-Saigon correspondent Tad Bartamus, by then the Alaska reporter for the Associated Press, trying to get orphans out before the fall of South Vietnam.) Wood, Webb and others have written their own Vietnam books, either alone or with each other, but this history stands head and shoulders above previous efforts. It's properly picking up hundreds of five-star reviews at Amazon.com, and it is unlikely there will ever be a better version of this important story.

Alan Dawson was a reporter and later the bureau chief of UPI in Saigon between 1968 and 1975.