Broke and stranded in Vietnam, Rena Briand earned a dangerous living by going where the action is
A BUNNY TURNS WAR REPORTER IN VIETNAM
Broke and stranded in Vietnam, Rena Briand earned a dangerous living by going where the action is
I WOULD NEVER even have stayed two years in Vietnam, let alone have worked (here as a frontlines war photographer, if my smooth, charming but apparently restless French husband hadn’t deserted me in Saigon. He was the one who took me into Vietnam in the first place and, though I don’t have much to thank him for now, I am grateful that inadvertently he gave me the chance to live the great experience of my life.
I’d met my husband in 1962 in Montreal, where I lived after 1 came to Canada from my native Germany in 1954 when I was 18, and for the next three years 1 trailed him dutifully all over North America. He was constantly scheming over some enterprise or other that was supposed to make us rich, but meanwhile, to keep us eating, I had to work as a Bunny at the Gaslight restaurant in Toronto, teach French in Acapulco, sell expensive junk in a gift shop at the Flamingo Hotel in Las Vegas and impersonate a Bunny again at the Fairmont Hotel in San Francisco.
Then in the winter of 1965 my husband landed a steady job. He was hired as a purchasing agent for the RMK Construction Company in Saigon. He flew out of San Francisco almost immediately, and a little while later, after I’d stored my clothes and boarded my dog, I set out to join him. Except that I traveled by ship, an ancient freighter that seemed to stop at every obscure port in the Orient during the 22 days it took us to reach Vietnam.
I was happy to see my husband again and that was the main thing on my mind during my first days in Saigon. But, like everyone else who arrives there, I couldn’t help being slightly overwhelmed by the place. The people! — the streets just teemed with hundreds of thousands of bonepoor, stunned, hopeless-looking Vietnamese, refugees who had fled from the battle zones and swarmed into Saigon with their few belongings to set up house in some old discarded packing case or simply on a vacant patch of sidewalk.
1 was constantly coming across families eating, sleeping, washing right out on a busy street corner. (Little did Í realize then that Fd soon be joining those roadside diners.) And because of all the terrible overcrowding, the city struck me at first as the smelliest, dirtiest place Fd ever seen. The only bright spots seemed to be the garish, neonlit bars that lined the streets by the hundreds, all of them jazzed up with American-stvle names (Playboy, Flamingo) and American-stvle bar girls out for the GI dollar.
In those early few weeks, I took it easy, for the first time in years, and I cooked, shopped, kept house in the small apartment my husband had found, and wandered around Saigon soaking up, if that’s the right expression, the gamey at-
mosphere. Then suddenly everything collapsed around me. I arrived home late one afternoon and found a note from my husband announcing, without any ceremony or warning, that he had walked out on me.
The first thing I did was cry — I was alone, I had barely 300 piastres (about three dollars) to my name, and the rent was due in a week. So I cried. The second thing I did was look up a man I knew, Horst Faas, the head of Associated Press’s photo department in Vietnam. I told him that back in Montreal Fd worked in a camera store and that I knew how to take a pretty good picture. To my endless relief, Horst gave me a test assignment, shooting candid photos for hometown U.S. papers of G Is strolling around Saigon. And when I successfully passed that little trial, Horst hired me as an AP stringer with carte blanche to take pictures, not just in the relative safety of Saigon, but wherever the real action was, provided l could reach it.
So, for the next 20 months, I ranged all over South Vietnam, walking alongside American patrols into jungle thick with Viet Cong guerrillas; riding on helicopter rescue missions; living in bivouacs out in the boondocks where you were never quite sure whether the rustling you heard in the bush might be a VC sniper; eating, drinking, talking, arguing with young American Gls, many of whom, I soon discovered, were led up with what they considered a dirty, futile war.
My very first assignment gave me a taste of the fear I had to live with all the time 1 remained in Vietnam. 1 was sent to the country around Danang to accompany a convoy of three amtrucks (some call them am-tracks), the amphibious vehicles that cruise through the jungle. This trip was to look after sick Vietnamese in the sampan villages along the rivers. As soon as I climbed on one of the trucks, a Marine handed me a poncho and a warning. "It's going to rain, sweetheart, and you've got two choices,'' he said. “You
can sit inside and keep dry — but remember, if we hit a mine you’ll be roasted alive. Or you can put on the poncho and ride up top. But, I’m telling you, look out for those goddam gook snipers.”
I sat on top, scared stiff. But after awhile I began to push the fear to the back of my mind as 1 got involved in photographing the Marine medics at work. Our trucks would wheel up to a river bank and plunge into the water near a cluster of sampans that hundreds of Vietnamese called home. Small sampans would detach from the fleet to wheel the sick over to us. And then the doctors, working under ponchos held over them by Marines to keep the rain off, would examine their patients and carry out their treatments.
All this while, one of the am-trucks would stand guard a little farther up the river because the Viet Cong paid 50,000 piastres for every am-truck destroyed. That was more than an entire
sampan village earned in six months, and the fact was that the Marine medics weren't really certain that they could trust even the patients they w'ere treating. For 50,000 piastres, anyone might try hurling a VC grenade from a lastmoving sampan.
A few months later 1 did a little doctoring, or rather nursing, of my own. It happened one afternoon when a convoy of South Vietnamese soldiers fell into an ambush near Gia Nhia. I headed out with an American rescue team, and on our way we met a truckload of the wounded Vietnamese survivors. 1 rode with them back to Gia Nhia’s hospital. Hospital!? — a few dingy rooms, cots without sheets, a wooden operating table covered with a dirty grass mat.
Anyway, in those miserable surroundings I spent the next few hours putting to work a sixmonth nursing course Fd taken years earlier. I cleaned and bandaged wounds, tried to calm the frightened young soldiers, prepared the worst cases for evacuation to a better-equipped hospital, and generally managed to forget that 1 was supposed to be a photographer. I got my reward next day. though, when the chief of the local province. Colonel Manh. gave a dinner party at his home in my honor.
Fm afraid 1 wasn't always as cool in the field as I was that day. Once, in fact, I almost panicked completely. I was out on a patrol with the U.S. 101st Airborne in the Tuy Hoa valley on a calm sunny afternoon, and as we ambled along everything seemed as peaceful as a stroll through a gentle Canadian countryside. Then, with a swiftness that literally took my breath away, the cracking and popping of rifle fire broke out of the bush in front of us and on both sides. We'd w'alked straight into a U-shaped Viet Cong ambush.
1 was vaguely conscious of bodies falling all around me and I could hear moans from the boys who’d been hit. but 1 was too busy trying to crawi into the ground and protect my own tail to form a rational picture of the action. I just lay there quivering — until in a very few minutes the shooting stopped almost as suddenly as it had begun.
I looked around. Some of the boys were rising from their cover, still wary of possible sniper fire; a few were writhing silently on the ground, grabbing at bloody patches on their uniforms; one boy wasn't moving at all. Out of a patrol of 26 men, we had seven wounded and one dead.
We summoned a medevac chopper to evacuate the casualties and then moved a little farther into the bush to check the VC dead. We searched their bodies for papers that might clue us into their activities, and in one dead man’s knapsack I found a book of poems. It was written in lovely flowing characters and someone had illustrated it with some graceful pen drawings. I looked at the book and at the limp bloody body Fd taken it from and in that / continued on page 75
continued on page 75
WAR PHOTOGRAPHER IN VIETNAM continued from pape 31
“Many GIs were disillusioned—with the war and their allies”
moment. I realized as I never had before how disgusting and cruel we all really are.
Sniper fire drove us back from the bodies and. almost as soon as we'd taken cover, refugees began to stream through the clearing where the VC had ambushed us. They looked pitiful —old women carrying their belongings in rice baskets suspended from sticks over their shoulders, a sad little boy waving a ragged white flag — but we held our breath. Were there really clothes in those rice baskets, or did they conceal grenades? We didn't relax until the refugees had passed safely out of sight.
It grew dark — and things got worse. Against the dusky skyline, about half a mile away, we could make out a line of at least 60 soldiers moving toward our position. “If those guys aren’t ours,” the sergeant said, “we’ve got nothing left except prayers.” That’s when panic really set in for me. Our radio man called for a helicopter to take me out, but in the meantime we had to crouch in the bush, watching that line of unknown soldiers wind their way into our section of the bush.
“Look at those fires!” the sergeant finally said. “It's got to be our guys burning VC shelters as they go!”
He was right. And when the first soldiers walked into the clearing, I ran out to meet them. “You look so good,” I said. “I could kiss you all!”
Before I could follow through, a little HI3 chopper dropped from the sky to ferry me out of the valley. It looked like an angel from heaven, believe me.
Fortunately for my nerves, life in Vietnam wasn't always that tense. The GIs treated me with constant courtesy — in fact, they spoiled me with such attentions as special showers of my own and lots of hot water, which is a very precious commodity out there. And in return I tried to boost their morale. I made a point of wearing a skirt and sweater at chow time, instead of dirty, unflattering fatigues, and I tried to keep my makeup neat. And when I washed my clothes, I always hung my brassiere to dry in a prominent place. That sounds pretty simple-minded, I guess, but the GIs used to flock around, pointing and laughing and taking pictures, and. by me, any little thing that takes your mind off killing for a while is perfectly okay.
Lots of the soldiers talked to me more as a woman than as a reporter and they were often very frank about their lot in Vietnam. Mostly, they seemed disillusioned. In the States they'd been given pep talks about “making Vietnam free for democracy,” but when they arrived there, they found that many of the people resented them and didn't give a damn about democracy or about government at all. The GIs resented the Vietnamese. too, especially the soldiers. “The first thing we’ve got to do to win this war,” I heard several times, “is load the Vietnamese army on a boat and tow it out to sea.”
I used to get the other side of the
story from my Vietnamese friends back in Saigon. I think 1 got closer to the Vietnamese than most white people there, partly because I wasn't American, partly because 1 spoke French, a language they know, and partly because 1 was poor. Often, if I wasn't invited out to dinner. I used to eat with Vietnamese refugees on the
streets. For 15 piastres (13 cents), we'd buy delicious Chinese soups, filled with chunks of chicken or pork, from the “Howard Johnsons," our term for the local street vendors. And gradual!) as different Vietnamese came to have confidence in me I'd learn their views.
Most of their soldiers, thev told
me, are reluctant draftees. They simply don't want to fight, certainly not on the side of a foreigner, the American, against their own fellow countryman, the Viet Cong, for a cause they only dimly understand. It doesn't make them any happier that their pay often never reaches them but is. instead, diverted into the pockets of their corrupt officials.
So the soldiers, like the refugees, like almost everyone in Vietnam, are poor. (One educated Vietnamese said
WAR PHOTOGRAPHER IN VIETNAM continued
“Viet Cong have one thing South Vietnamese lack: a cause”
to me, “Until the Americans came, my people never ate out of garbage pails.”) And their poverty sets off another vicious cycle, one that goes like this: a Viet soldier has a Viet girl friend; an American soldier arrives on the scene; he’s richer — and who do you think gets the Viet girl? Exit the Viet soldier into battle. He
marches into a Viet village and suddenly finds himself in a position of brief power. He can’t restrain himself; in a moment of absolute fury he runs wild, rapes a girl, steals food, gets his vengeance.
And that, sadly, isn’t an infrequent cycle.
As for the Viet Cong and the North
Vietnamese, they’re ruthless fighters and, in several villages I passed through, 1 saw examples of their butchery. But they do have one thing the South Vietnamese lack: a cause. They seem to have a terribly passionate belief in their kind of government, as all revolutionaries do, and they’re absolutely determined eventually to
run the American forces into the sea.
I once had a close-up, if brief, look at the kind of tough, disciplined men the Viet Cong have recruited. It was late one afternoon in a village 12 miles north of Saigon. I was up there shopping for old opium pillows (they’re the china things Chinese addicts used to lie on when they puffed on their opium, but now they make terrific lamp stands), and when 1 stepped out of a shop into an alley I was confronted by a young man carrying a submachine gun. He motioned me over to the side of the alley and for the next hour he and six of his buddies, all of them armed, all dressed in black pyjamas, all under 20, “detained” me for questioning.
I realized they were Viet Cong guerrillas and I played it cool — the same way they played it. I let on I was just a simple French housewife and I complained about the way the Americans were driving up prices and making it difficult for us all. They seemed satisfied, though they did check the labels on my purse and blouse (they were both French, thank God), and eventually, as polite and cool as you please, they arranged to transport me back to Saigon. I walked away from that encounter pretty firmly convinced that the only way the U.S. is going to beat those tough guys is with a dozen H-bombs.
Knowing meant trouble
The longer I remained in Vietnam the closer I became attached to the place and the more people — all kinds of people — came to trust me. Once a Frcnch-Vietnamese friend warned me not to go near the My Canh restaurant on a particular day and sure enough — though I’ve no idea where my friend got his information — the restaurant was blown up that day, presumably by a VC bomb. Fortytwo patrons were killed. And it was that kind of contact that began to get me in trouble.
I was told by some Vietnamese that their higher-ups had become convinced I was a CIA agent. The Americans, on the other hand, suspected that I was in on secret Viet Cong activities. The French just referred to me as “la James Bond.” I swear I was none of those things, but after awhile, especially when the British ambassador called me to his office to tell me, confidentially, it would be best if I got out of Vietnam in a hurry, I began to feel a little nervous.
Finally, for safety’s sake (though safety from whom exactly?), I managed to persuade some nuns I’d met to hide me in a convent and from there made arrangements to leave the country just before Christmas 1966.
I was frankly saddened to put it all behind me. I have some terrible memories of Vietnam, it’s true, of the suffering I saw there and of the useless death. But, though I’m happy to be back among my friends in Canada and perhaps relieved to live in a place where danger isn’t a way of life, I’ve definitely made up my mind to return to Vietnam. I’m going back simply because the most important events in the world are happening there — and because I feel more important there. The papers that will get me into Saigon should be through any day. ★
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