40 YEARS AGO, REPORTER EMBRACED HIS 'TERRIBLE DESTINY'

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Several weeks ago, I had the pleasure of spending a pleasant Sunday morning sharing breakfast and talking with members of the Paul D. Savanuck-Shaarei Zion Memorial Post 888 of the Jewish War Veterans of the United States.

Most of them were World War II and Korean War veterans, and I found them to be a sprightly, engaging and informed group.

In passing, Chester Silverman, the post commander, asked if I wouldn't like to hear the story behind the name of their post and of the young Pikesville soldier whose memory it preserves.

Four decades have passed since Spc. Paul D. Savanuck was gunned down by enemy automatic gunfire on April 18, 1969, near the demilitarized zone in Vietnam, while attempting to save a wounded American infantryman.

Savanuck had celebrated his 23rd birthday the previous month, and he was the first and only Stars and Stripes correspondent to lose his life during the Vietnam War.

A graduate of Milford Mill High School, Savanuck enrolled at the University of Maryland, where he earned a bachelor's degree in journalism in 1967.

He enlisted in the Army after leaving College Park, hoping to hone his skills as a reporter covering the war in Vietnam.

After completing further military journalism studies at Fort Benjamin Harrison Defense Information School in Indianapolis, Savanuck was sent in 1968 to a missile base in Mainz, Germany, rather than Vietnam.

Unhappy with his situation, he initiated a letter campaign to legislators hoping they could help get him transferred to Vietnam.

His efforts lasted six months, and finally, on June 30, 1968, he was on his way to Vietnam, where he took up his new assignment as information officer for an artillery unit.

"He was located in one of the few jungle batteries in Vietnam. Here he spent a sweaty year in a bunker as a field correspondent, publicist and photographer for his division," according to a Stars & Stripes profile of Savanuck.

"His articles and touching photographs of the agony of victims, both American and Vietnamese and especially the children of this indefensible war, were widely used by national and international news services and periodicals," said the profile.

"His letters home warily set forth his position on the war, but about his work, there was no question ... he loved what he was doing."

Savanuck's work eventually came to the attention of Stars and Stripes, which offered him a position as an accredited journalist with a byline in Saigon.

His career as a newspaperman would prove to be short.

"I shall not be content with anything less than what is true," Savanuck wrote. "I intend to be the best."

Richard Kaplan, 61, a former Army buddy, was stationed with Savanuck at Phu Loi with the 23rd Artillery Group.

"We were the only two Jewish guys on the entire base, so we became close friends," Kaplan said the other day from his home in Seaford, N.Y. "What a great guy he was."

Kaplan recalled Savanuck's love for children.

"There was a Catholic orphanage in Saigon, and we'd often go down there and hang out with the kids. We'd bring them things," he said. "Paul planned to adopt one of the kids and bring him back to the U.S., but obviously that never happened."

Kaplan, who was a clerk assigned to military intelligence, remembered Savanuck volunteering to go out with a patrol.

It was in the early evening of April 18, 1969, shortly after the patrol established its night defensive position in the Cam Lo Valley, that trouble began.

At 8:30 p.m., North Vietnamese troops opened an attack on the position with heavy mortar fire, which destroyed several armored personnel carriers, and vicious hand-to-hand combat ensued.

During the attack, Savanuck stood by taking pictures by the light of exploding rockets and shells until a nearby soldier was wounded.

Putting down his camera, he rushed to aid the man and was mortally wounded by enemy gunfire.

Savanuck was one of 13 men who lost their lives in the ambush that night; 22 were wounded.

"Paul Savanuck chose to engage his terrible destiny," reported Stars and Stripes.

His career as a professional newspaperman had lasted 13 days.

Savanuck was posthumously promoted to staff sergeant and awarded the Purple Heart, Bronze Star and Air Medal. "I was going home in three days when I learned that Paul had been killed. It was a terrible shock," recalled Kaplan, who was discharged from the Army when he returned home.

"In my position behind the lines, I didn't experience or know casualties. Paul was the only personal death I experienced in Vietnam," said Kaplan, a sales manager with Global Logistics, an international shipping firm, and a community theater actor.

"The day before I came home, I attended Paul's memorial service that was conducted by a rabbi who came in from Long Binh," he said.

Kaplan still has the pictures that Savanuck took of him 40 years ago standing in front of his jeep. They hang on the wall of his family room.

When the Moving Wall, a half-sized replica of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, came to Long Island, N.Y., several years ago, Kaplan located his old comrade's name. "I made an etching and had it framed," he said.

In 1971, the national headquarters of the Jewish War Veterans announced a charter for the Paul D. Savanuck Memorial Post 888.

"Both of Paul's parents, Daniel and Isabelle, are deceased now, but in the early days were major players in our organization," Silverman said.

"Actually, we began meeting in their Manor Hill Road home," Silverman said. "Shaarei Zion is now our home."

Further tributes came when the Army named its technical reference center at Fort Benjamin Harrison's Defense Information School after Savanuck. The center later moved to Fort Meade.

The reference center, which continues to remember the sacrifice of the reporter, is called the Paul D. Savanuck Book Collection.

Savanuck was buried in Baltimore Hebrew Cemetery.

"We will be out decorating veterans' graves, including Paul's, for Memorial Day," Silverman said. "He won't be forgotten."

Copyright © 2021, The Baltimore Sun, a Baltimore Sun Media Group publication | Place an Ad
50°