As PBS airs the new documentary “The Vietnam War,” we checked back in with former Baltimore Sun reporter Bob Erlandson, 86, about his experience covering the war from fall 1966 to early 1968.
The way Bob Erlandson tells it, he was in a bar in Venice when he met Ernest Hemingway. Erlandson was on leave from the Navy, and Hemingway was recovering from a plane wreck. (He was warm, fun, a big drinker. Erlandson never would have guessed about the depression).
Erlandson told Hemingway that when he got out of the military, he wanted to be a journalist. Well, you won’t get rich, said Hemingway, but you’ll have fun. By the following year Erlandson was a reporter at The Sun.
In 1966, there was a sign-up sheet to go to Vietnam. This was atypical in The Sun newsroom, where coveted foreign assignments were usually bestowed, not requested. Erlandson, who was then covering the state house, jumped at the chance to go. “Who could miss a war?” he said this month, sitting in his Towson living room.
One night, a copy boy dropped off a padded envelope at Bob’s desk. Inside was a gift from his boss, then-managing editor Paul Banker: a book, “How to Stay Alive in Vietnam.”
“My response was a very loud ‘holy [expletive],’” Erlandson said.
That night, he left the book in the kitchen for his wife to see. He was headed to the war.
“In November 1966 I was on a plane that landed in Saigon,” he said. The city was hot and “busy, busy, busy.”American military vehicles let out giant plumes of diesel, which mingled with the scent of cooking oil from civilian kitchens. He stayed at the Caravelle Hotel, which had become a de-facto location for reporters.
To be a Western reporter in Vietnam meant a substantial amount of freedom, Erlandson recalled. Journalists were able to travel all the country, and to write the stories they saw fit.
“On any given day I had my choice of what I wanted [to cover],” he said. Some days he might report on efforts to write a new constitution in Saigon, or attempts to clean up seedy nightclubs. Helen Bentley — then another Sun reporter — joined him briefly to cover the logjam at the port. “She got a lot done, but I’m not sure that God himself could have uncorked the Port of Saigon,” he said.
Other days, he’d take an Army helicopter to go see the war. In the jungle, Erlandson witnessed a new type of battle. “It wasn’t armies confronting armies like in World War II,” he said.
Rather, U.S. forces, in a strange and hostile environment, were fired on by forces in the shadow. The Vietcong and North Vietnamese Army proved resilient and passionate adversaries. Fully committed to their ideologies and their country, “They never gave up; they never stopped,” he said.
In contrast, the South Vietnamese government was laden with corruption. And the war’s high-minded purposes touted by Washington officialdom didn’t carry over to troops on the ground. “The GIs were not there for the ideal of democracy,” he said. “That was politicians talking. The GIs wanted to survive and get out.”
He remembers being asked one question over and over again: "You volunteered to come here? Why?”
At one point, he was wounded – the convoy he was in fell into a Vietcong booby trap. “I just scratched my right hand,” he said. “I was lucky. I was very lucky”
He returned to Baltimore in January 1968, just two weeks before the beginning of the Tet Offensive. He doesn’t think the war made much of an impact on him, personally. But there was one change. "I went to Vietnam as a hawk and came back as a confused pigeon,” Erlandson said.
"I knew we were not going to win it."
An earlier version misspelled the name of managing editor Paul Banker. The Sun regrets the error.
Baltimore Sun librarian Paul McCardell contributed to this article.