Sunday, February 6, 2011

Remembering War and Francois Sully

A young Francois Sully with Vietnamese children.
Forty years ago in Vietnam, the world lost a great reporter

Fran├žois Sully died 40 years ago this month. The world probably little remembers him today, although he was one of the stellar reporters of the Vietnam War.

For me, Francois was as exotic as you could get. I arrived in Vietnam in June of 1966 to work for Newsweek, not that long from a California State University BA degree. Sully also worked for Newsweek and was already becoming a legend. He was one of the first journalists to cover the Vietnam War and had spent 24 years in Indochina, arriving there as a member of the French Expeditionary Forces that tried to reestablish colonial control following World War II. He stayed on as a tea planter before giving that up for journalism.

He was famously assigned to cover the doomed battle of the French forces at Dien Bien Phu in 1954 by Time Magazine and was made additionally famous by the fact that when he parachuted in to the disaster, he took with him his blue pajamas with white piping.

I first met him in the San Francisco bureau of Newsweek, after he had been kicked out of Vietnam by President Ngo Dinh Diem at the behest of Ngo's wife Madam Nhu, as his reporting was deemed "helpful to the enemy." Diem intended the expulsion to serve as a warning to all journalists reporting the failings of his war against the Viet Cong. Somebody in Washington, DC engineered a Niemann fellowship for him at Harvard. He was back in Indochina, reporting from surrounding countries, about a year later.

He was the quintessential Frenchman. Shortly after my arrival in Saigon, Francois invited me to his quarters in a flat off Tu Do Street, where, over a leisurely and rambling lunch, he served up a crisp bottle of white Bordeaux along with the first foie gras and caviar I had ever eaten, and had barely heard of for that matter. The lunch included baby artichokes grown in the highlands of Dalat. I was used to California artichokes seemingly the size of a man's head. These were tiny and so tender they could be eaten raw, with vinaigrette. We finished off with cafe filtre, something else new to a youth accustomed to Hills Brothers coffee and other bilge.

Born in Paris, he was about as urbane as anybody you could find in Saigon, with a perpetual smile on his face. As the late actor Maurice Chevalier exploited his French accent, so did Sully. Once when I misnamed a patch of forest along the Mekong River, he answered: "Zhon, zat is not jangle. Eet ees mangrove swamp." It is axiomatic that a Frenchman, greeting an American, will say "Good morning." The American will answer "Bon jour." None of this for Francois. It was always "Bon jour, m'sieu" when I saw him.

His years in Vietnam made him the dean of the foreign press corps in Saigon. But he had a heroic history before he ever got there having fought with the underground in Paris during World War II and being wounded at the age of 17. After Paris was liberated, he enlisted in the reconstituted French Army and fought the Nazis in Germany.

At Dien Bien Phu he was one of the last journalists out a hellhole where the French lost 8,000 dead and 11,000 captured, only 3,000 of whom were alive to be repatriated four years later. It was the end of the French experience in Indochina and the beginning of America's, which would also end tragically.

(In another tragic counterpoint, Bernard B. Fall, one of Sully's best friends, and perhaps the most sensible historian on Vietnam, and who wrote, among other things ‘Hell in a Very Small Place, a history of Dien Bien Phu, was killed in February of 1967. The Austrian-born Fall, a professor at Howard University in Washington, DC, stepped on a land mine on Highway 1 above Danang – the area he had named La Rue Sans Joie – the street without joy – in another history of the French engagement in Vietnam. He had returned to Vietnam for six months as Sully's roommate.)

In 1959, according to an official history, Sully joined United Press International. Many suspected him of being a communist, even among the press corps when I knew him years later. It was nonsense. Along with some of the best reporters in Indochina – David Halberstam, Malcom Browne, Neal Sheehan, Peter Arnett and others – Sully reported fairly and honestly. He was kicked out of the country by Diem, only to return to report from around the borders of the country. He returned to Newsweek in Saigon after the US-sanctioned November 1963 coup, that resulted in Diem's assassination.

Sully covered the Vietnamese community better than anybody else in the 550-person press corps. He knew and loved the Vietnamese, speaking both Vietnamese and Laotian. He was a source for us all and the institutional memory of the Newsweek bureau, if not the entire press corps. He had sources inside the communists and the palace in Saigon.

Sully represented what was once the best about a Western press that largely has lost not only its funding but its courage, which means Americans in particular know less and less about the world around them, to their detriment – see the current events in the Middle East. He refused to be intimidated by either the Saigon government or the shills from Washington, DC who accused him of treason or treachery.

In a today's world, where the American press too often cheerleads for jingoistic war aims, Sully – and by extension much of the press corps in Saigon – ought to serve as a lesson that independent journalism is as much a necessary adjunct to democracy as are the countervailing arms of government.

Back in California after my own period in Vietnam had ended, I would read with tremendous shock that Sully had been killed when the helicopter he was riding in burst into flames as it lifted off from a firebase along the Vietnam-Cambodia border. It has always been widely suspected that the helicopter, the command ship of one Gen. Do Cao Tri, was sabotaged by a rival general. Tri, nicknamed "the Patton of the Parrot's Beak," was killed along with eight people on the craft when it exploded. Sully jumped from the flaming helicopter and fell about 75 feet. He died of his injuries at a hospital in Long Binh. He is buried in a Saigon cemetery. He left his insurance policy of 18 million piastres, as the currency was known under the Republic of Vietnam, to Vietnamese orphans.

I recall once that he put a fragment of a French Foreign Legion marching song at the end of a story on the tragedy of Vietnam. I have hunted for it on Google for days. I think this is it. Translated, it reads: Our ancestors died, for the Legion's glory/ We will soon all perish according to tradition/During our far-off campaigns, facing fever and fire/ Our sadnesses we forget with/Death's, which so little forgets us, for we are the Legion.

Death did not forget Francois Sully, sadly enough, on that February day 40 years ago. He was 44 years old. Written by John Berthelsen Asia Sentinel

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