Shooting Stars

  • There are many iconic images of the Vietnam War reprinted in Lost over Laos , but only one that made photographer friends of mine wince. It was not Henry Huet's eerie shot of a U.S. paratrooper's corpse being winched up to a medevac helicopter. Nor was it Larry Burrows' celebrated photo of a young soldier weeping for dead colleagues after his first day of bloody combat. No, it was a much simpler photo: of a mangled Leica camera, probably Burrows', unearthed from a Lao hillside where he, Huet and two other legendary combat photographers — Kent Potter and Keisaburo Shimamoto — died in a helicopter crash in 1971. As one friend shuddered, "If that's what happened to the Leica ..."

    So what did happen to the photographers and the seven South Vietnamese soldiers traveling with them? Lost over Laos is cast as a mystery, "a story waiting to be finished," say authors Richard Pyle and Horst Faas, though from the outset the facts are fairly clear. The helicopter carrying Burrows and co., who were covering a doomed U.S.-supported offensive into Laos to cut the Ho Chi Minh Trail, received a direct hit from enemy antiaircraft fire and plunged burning into the jungle. Chances of survival: almost nil. For Pyle and Faas, a reporter and a photographer who covered the Vietnam War for the Associated Press, this book is both a public tribute and a personal pilgrimage that ultimately leads them to the desolate spot where their much-mourned colleagues perished.

    As the chapter-size biographies reveal, three of the four photographers not only died in a combat zone but grew up in one. The peerless Burrows, who lived through London's Blitz, would surprise young U.S. Army photographers he worked alongside in Vietnam by always bringing pajamas to the front. The fearless Huet, who grew up in Nazi-occupied France, once returned to Saigon bleeding from a shrapnel wound but famously dropped off his film at his agency's office before seeking treatment. As a boy, Shimamoto watched American B-29 incendiary bombers weave through flak above nighttime Tokyo (a "beautiful sight," he recalled). Potter's childhood was a different kind of battleground. His mother overdosed on sleeping pills that he, then a teenager, had fetched for her. He was so desperate to experience the Vietnam War that he enlisted in the Marine Corps, despite (or maybe because of) the objections of his Quaker father.

    The evocation by Pyle and Faas of war-era Saigon and the world's "first living-room war" is brisk and familiar: the heart-stopping nosedive into Tan Son Nhut airport to avoid sniper fire; the U.S. military's "Five O'Clock Follies" briefings; as well as the discovery that TIME's chief Vietnamese reporter was a spy for the North. I read it with the nagging sense that once you've read all journalistic memoirs from 'Nam, you've still only read one (and it's called Dispatches ).

    More interesting are the later chapters, when we get a glimpse of the Joint Task Force (JTF), the U.S. military experts whose grim job is to search for, exhume and identify the bodies of U.S. soldiers missing in action in Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia. It would take a quarter-century before a JTF investigator happened upon the case of the missing photographers — who had not been counted among the military MIA — and a further two years before a JTF team started excavating Site 2062, sifting through earth and, in JTF parlance, "broken aircraft s___" for the tiniest bone fragment or tooth. Single bicuspids have been enough to identify some MIA, notes Pyle, as Vietnam was the first war in which the U.S. government kept dental records of every soldier. But Site 2062, a remote hillside near the Ho Chi Minh Trail, divulged few secrets beyond that mangled Leica and a sports watch that spookily survived the crash and ticked for another two days.

    With Faas' input, Pyle has written a breezy, anecdotal and occasionally poetic book. But it is too much of a tribute to really penetrate the psyches of men as complex and — in all probability — slightly disturbed as, say, Potter, who kept a duffel bag of guns and hand grenades in his Saigon apartment. Another unpopular war broke out as I finished reading Lost over Laos , and I suspect that's what gave it much of its resonance. So did the sudden, sobering thought that — with the never-ending war on terror taking journalist friends to ever more hostile places — I could conceivably find myself writing a similar book one day.