From an Undeclared War Zone

By Fran Castan
Sam Castan interviewing Gen. Ton That Dinh in November 1963, shortly after the death of President Ngo Dinh Diem of South Vietnam. The general played an essential role in the coup.

    This is the 145th anniversary of Memorial Day and the 45th anniversary of the day I became a war widow. How could all those years have passed since my first husband, Sam Castan, was killed in Vietnam? I still carry inside me the 16-year-old who met him the summer after I graduated from high school, just as I carry the 27-year-old who opened the door of our Hong Kong apartment to let in two strangers, U.S. government representatives, who told me that my husband was dead.
    They apologized with utmost sincerity for “the media,” that unruly, inconsiderate pack, who announced Sam’s death on all the wire services before the government could notify me.
    Ah, the irony of that one! For my husband was a member of that unmanageable pack. Like his friends and colleagues David Halberstam, Tim Page, Neil Sheehan, and Jack Laurence, he went out into the mountains and deltas of Vietnam, into danger, to find out what was actually happening. That is what he did unfailingly in his job as correspondent for Look magazine.
    At 26, Sam Castan became the youngest senior editor in the magazine’s history. After reporting from Vietnam for three years and winning several major awards for his work, he convinced his bosses to send him to Hong Kong as their bureau chief, along with our infant daughter, Jane, and me. This would allow him more time with the story and with his family.
    But back to May 21, 1966. In the middle of the night, in Hong Kong, my telephone rang. It was Susan Slater, a friend from home.
    “I’m so happy to hear your voice,” I said, even though she woke me. “I miss you!”
    There was a long pause.
    “How are you?” she asked.
    “Great,” I replied.
    “How’s everyone else?”
    “Fine.”
    “Where’s Buddy?”
    “Vietnam.”
    “Have you heard from him?”
    “Sure.”
    “When?”
    “A few days ago. Why?”
    “Maybe it’s a mistake.”
    “What are you talking about?”
    “The news.”
    “What news?”
    “Uh, they . . . they said . . . Buddy . . . was . . . shot.”
    “Shot! Who said it?”
    “It’s everywhere — front page of The Times, on TV, in The Daily News.”
    “Well, if this is a joke, it’s one lousy joke.”
    “Maybe he was just shot.”
    “Just shot! What do you mean, just shot?”
    “I’m so sorry. . . .” She began to sob. “Fran, they say he was killed.”
    Only three years earlier, on Nov. 22, 1963, a news bulletin said John Fitzgerald Kennedy was shot. Before the final, devastating announcement, most Americans never imagined a mortal wound. We imagined injuries from which J.F.K. would recover. With this memory so fresh and no final word about Sam, Susan and I hoped that he was “merely” wounded, not dead.
    That’s what I believed, until those two men walked into my apartment. When they apologized about “the media,” all the energy in my young body rose into my throat and I shouted, “Good for the media! Splendid, that they didn’t sit around in some press room waiting to hear your version of events.”
    I felt they were insulting everything my husband lived and died for. No self-respecting journalist would wait for government permission to report the death of a fellow correspondent. Sam began covering the war in the early 1960s. He had been in Saigon during the overthrow of Ngo Dinh Diem. He was on the aircraft carrier Coral Sea with broken bones in his foot from an onboard accident he kept to himself so he could finish the story. He went on patrols with foot soldiers into rice paddies and villages in the Mekong Delta. Whatever fear he may have felt never took him away from where he thought he could find truth.
    The first time he returned to Saigon from the field, early enough to attend the U.S. government’s daily press briefing, he heard a version of what had occurred that bore no resemblance to what he’d just witnessed. This convinced him to leave the safe havens and the lies.
    That’s what he did the day he died. From An Khe, a remote village in the highlands, he boarded a helicopter carrying troops to a mountain where an attack was expected. Only three members of the platoon survived. Posthumously, Sam was awarded the Army’s Outstanding Civilian Service Medal for bravery during Operation Crazy Horse. Already shot twice before his third and fatal wound, he was reported to have led several members of the platoon out of harm’s way.
    As Robert Capa said, “The war correspondent has his own stake — his life — in his own hands. He can put it on this horse or that horse, or he can put it back in his pocket at the very last minute.”
    Sam staked his life on Operation Crazy Horse and lost. Pete Hamill wrote, “If [a reporter] is any good at all, if he goes to a war the way Sam Castan did, he has it in his power to keep an entire government relatively honest. And with some great luck, he can even make a government more human. . . . There are some things you cannot put back in your pocket. One of them is a conscience.”
    Having reread Mr. Hamill’s column about Sam for the first time in many years, I decided to go to the Newseum, a museum of news opposite the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C. Every year, the Newseum rededicates the Journalists Memorial. This year, on May 16, the names of 59 journalists from around the world were added, bringing the total to 2,084. They all died gathering news, most often in dangerous circumstances, covering wars or uncovering political corruption.
    As Mr. Hamill wrote 45 years ago, “There are men like Sam Castan out there now, slogging around in the rainy swamps, and before we leave that country, a lot more of them will be dead.”
    His words remain true, only the countries have changed, and more women, as well as men, are out there risking their lives, working for us.
    In January 1991, 15 years after the American withdrawal from Vietnam, our government sent troops to Kuwait. I went directly to Louse Point, where I had found solace back in the ’60s. This time, nothing worked. The tranquil beauty of the beach and the sound of the water made the suffering of those in the desert inconceivable. Young men and women would inevitably die — on both sides of the conflict. I sat on the damp, cold sand and cried. I cried for the young soldiers and for their families, who would have to clean up the mess, probably for the rest of their lives.
    There are no winners in these situations. Certainly not the ones who die. Not the commanders who order troops into harm’s way. Not the soldiers who sustain life-altering injuries. Not the ones who watch their closest buddies get zipped into sacks and shipped home. And not the ones, like me, who know how it feels to receive the body bag.

    Fran Castan and her husband of 40 years, Lewis Zacks, who saw combat in Korea, live in Springs, where he paints and she is writing a memoir. This is an excerpt.