By Steve Liewer, Omaha World-Herald
Fifty years ago this week, five international photojournalists covering the Vietnam War hopped a ride aboard a South Vietnamese army UH-1 helicopter. Their mission: to get a firsthand view of the Lam Son 719 campaign across the border into neighboring Laos, intended to cut off North Vietnamese supply lines on the Ho Chi Minh. The helicopter was shot down in remote and dangerous jungle.
This article, first published by The World-Herald in February 2020, tells the story of the eventual recovery of a small amount of unidentifiable remains from the site years later, and how they ended up at a Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency lab at Offutt Air Force Base. Dr. Tom Holland of DPAA said Wednesday that the COVID-19 pandemic has slowed efforts to find a permanent burial place. "The remains are safely (and respectfully) being held at our laboratory in Omaha," Holland said in an e-mail.
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The legendary Life magazine photojournalist patted the empty seat next to him in the back of the South Vietnamese UH-1 Huey army helicopter. Then he invited Marine Cpl. Sergio Ortiz, a 23-year-old combat photographer, to climb aboard.
“See? There’s room,” said Larry Burrows, who had spent nine years covering the Vietnam War. “Come along if you want.”
Ortiz was tempted. The reporters on that helicopter on Feb. 10, 1971, would be the first to follow South Vietnamese troops on their invasion of Laos, then in its third day. Anyone in the Saigon press corps would have wanted to go.
But Ortiz had a separate assignment to finish for his Marine Corps editors — plus, explicit orders to stay on the Vietnam side of the border.
“I wanted to go with them,” recalled Ortiz, 72, in a phone interview last week. “I said, ‘I’d love to, but I can’t.’ I walked away. Then I turned around and snapped two frames.”
Ortiz’s devotion to duty saved his life. Those two images were the last ever taken of Burrows and three other civilian photojournalists on the chopper: Henri Huet of the Associated Press, Kent Potter of United Press International and Keisaburo Shimamato of Newsweek.
Minutes after Ortiz declined a ride, the Huey lifted off from the makeshift airbase near Khe Sanh. A few miles over the border in Laos it was shot down by North Vietnamese anti-aircraft fire and crashed in flames, killing all 11 on board: the four Western journalists plus two South Vietnamese army colonels, a four-man helicopter crew, and Sgt. Tu Vu, a South Vietnamese army photographer who freelanced for AP.
“It was just a burn spot in the ground, with a bunch of bomb craters around it,” said Michael Putzel, then a 23-year-old AP reporter, who photographed the crash site from the air the next day. He, too, had been at Khe Sanh, talking with his two AP colleagues just before their helicopter took off.
Twenty-seven years later, though, Putzel’s photographs would help archaeologists from what is now known as the Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency recover a few teeth and bone fragments from the wreck site, metal film canisters and camera bodies, and personal items such as Burrows’ watch strap and a locket from Huet’s ex-fiancée.
Now, 49 years after the shootdown, the remains are in storage at Offutt Air Force Base near Omaha, in the accounting agency’s laboratory there. Since 2008, the remains had been buried beneath the floor of the Newseum, a Washington, D.C., museum covering the history of journalism. But that venue closed Dec. 31 after years of financial difficulties, and the remains were moved to Offutt.
Putzel took part in a brief disinterment ceremony last month. Burrows’ son and grandson were there, along with several Newseum officials. Then Jesse Stephan, an archaeologist with the agency, flew to Omaha, carrying the remains in a silver container about the size of a jewelry box.
He turned them over for storage once he arrived at Offutt. No one is sure how long they will be there, though several journalists are working with the accounting agency to find a permanent burial site.
“The remains are back in a secure area, where they can be maintained safely,” said Tom Holland, the accounting agency’s director of partnerships and innovation.
The photographers died while covering Operation Lam Son 719, a controversial two-month campaign in which 10,000 U.S. support troops — many of them helicopter crews — backed an effort by 20,000 South Vietnamese infantry forces to cut off the Ho Chi Minh Trail through Laos and Cambodia.
The famous trail was used by communist North Vietnam to resupply North Vietnamese and Viet Cong guerrilla forces fighting the U.S.-backed government of South Vietnam.
In the United States, antiwar protesters opposed the move because it appeared to expand the war into a neutral country, an echo of President Richard Nixon’s secret “incursion” into Cambodia the year before.
“We knew it was a huge kind of a Hail Mary, going across the border into Laos,” Putzel said. “It was the last really big combat operation of the war.”
Though some territory was captured and held briefly, the campaign failed strategically because of communications problems and poor decisions by South Vietnamese leaders. The U.S. lost 168 helicopters, with 253 crew members killed and more than 1,100 wounded. It remains the biggest military helicopter battle of all time.
During Lam Son 719, U.S. helicopters were forbidden from carrying journalists into Laos, but in the first days of the battle the South Vietnamese commander took a press pool with him to visit the front lines.
Putzel was close friends with the French-Vietnamese Huet, 43, whom he considered a mentor. He also knew Vu, a South Vietnamese soldier who freelanced on operations that were sometimes closed to Western journalists.
The others: the London-born Burrows, 44, who had worked for Life since World War II; Potter, 24, a young American who had defied his pacifist Quaker family to travel to Vietnam; and Shimamato, 34, a quiet and capable veteran from Japan.
Putzel was sent to Khe Sanh by AP’s chief photographer in Saigon, Horst Faas, to inform Huet that his three-month visa was about to run out. He needed to leave the country to renew it.
“I told him I would take his place on the helicopter if he would go back,” Putzel said. “Henri told me this was the first time any of them could cross the border. There was no way he wasn’t going to go.”
Burrows had made his name early in the war, with a 1965 Life photo essay called “One Ride With Yankee Papa 13” that showed the anguished efforts of a helicopter crew chief to save the life of his ship’s mortally wounded co-pilot. Journalist David Halberstam called him a “sainted figure” in the Saigon press corps.
“He was kind of a rock star to anyone who knew him,” Ortiz said.
Ortiz had actually met Burrows before the war, in Los Angeles. Ortiz had shown such talent as a collegiate journalist at Pepperdine University that Life interviewed him for a job. But he found out the magazine thought he was too young to go to Vietnam said no thanks.
He joined the Marines instead, hoping they would make him a combat photographer. They did.
Ortiz didn’t find out the journalists’ helicopter had been shot down until two days later. He remembered the two images he had snapped of them on board the Huey and quickly processed the film. The photos ran in newspapers around the world. But the shock of his close call didn’t hit him until much later.
“It didn’t really register until after the war,” said Ortiz, who now lives on an island near Tacoma, Washington. “You say, ‘It could have been me.’ ”
On their flight over Laos, the four Hueys headed straight toward a trio of 37 mm anti-aircraft guns hidden in the jungle. An American pilot, Maj. James Newman, tried desperately to warn them over the radio, but there was no response. Two of the helicopters were destroyed.
“The first one exploded in the air, and the second got its propeller shot off,” Putzel said. “It plunged to the ground like a rock, probably from more than 3,000 feet.”
Early in the afternoon, Putzel got the news about the downed helicopters. In shock, he hitched a ride back to another base so he could call Faas and Richard Pyle, the AP bureau chief. He choked out a brief dispatch with the shocking news.
“It was devastating. I’d never had anything like that happen,” he said.
The following day, Putzel hitched a ride out to Newman’s isolated firebase. He asked Newman whether there were any survivors.
“No,” Newman responded, pausing. “You want to go see?”
As they flew over the site, Putzel scribbled down some map coordinates and took a few shots with a long lens. He filed his story and moved on, more or less.
He left southeast Asia in October 1971 and continued with a career that included coverage of the civil rights movement, Watergate, the fall of Communism from Moscow, and the presidencies of Jimmy Carter, Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton. He was an eyewitness to the 1981 assassination attempt on President Reagan. He retired and wrote a book, “The Price They Paid,” about his Vietnam War experience.
In the mid-1990s, Putzel got a call from Bill Forsyth, a researcher for Hawaii-based Joint Task Force Full Accounting, an earlier incarnation of today’s DPAA, focused on southeast Asia. Putzel was able to provide him with his long-forgotten photos and grid coordinates.
During the Vietnam War, coincidentally, Forsyth had served in the Air Force as an intelligence analyst studying aerial photos from SR-71 spy planes. He matched up bomb craters on Putzel’s photos and wartime SR-71 photos to determine the exact location of the crash site, on a hillside about 5 miles west of the Vietnam border.
That led to a pair of archaeological expeditions, in 1996 and 1998. Pyle — who had made recovering the remains a personal mission — joined the second, as did Faas, and wrote an article in 1999 for Vanity Fair magazine, and a book, “Lost Over Laos.” (Both men have since died.) The dig was limited because large amounts of unexploded ordnance around the crash site made it too dangerous.
The teeth and bone fragments yielded too little DNA to link the remains to any of the people on board, said Holland, who participated in the dig. But the discovery of film and camera parts (one of which was definitively linked to Burrows via serial number) made it clear they had found the right site. The identification was confirmed in 2003.
The mixed remains of people from at least five different nations caused them to fall into what Holland described as “an administrative black hole.”
“There was no mechanism to bury them,” Holland said. “Because they were commingled, we couldn’t return them to any one country, or any one family.”
It took several years, but Holland worked out a solution, with the help of Barbara Cochran, a Newseum vice president and University of Missouri journalism professor. Cochran agreed the museum would take them on a permanent loan.
“We thought that was, in many respects, the most fitting outcome,” Holland said. “It was — until the Newseum went belly-up.”
His best hope now is with the Fallen Journalists Memorial Foundation. Last year Cochran joined David Dreier, chairman of Tribune Publishing Co., in the effort to build a memorial in Washington, D.C., to journalists who were killed in the line of duty.
First, though, the idea needs approval from Congress. Then private funds would have to be raised, and the memorial built. That could take years.
Larry Burrows’ son, Russell, told The World-Herald that he likes the idea of returning the remains to a future memorial for fallen journalists. He would also consider sites in London or Paris, or possibly Vietnam, out of respect for the families of the seven Vietnamese men on board.
“I’m not a religious person. The need for a burial place — it’s not essential to me,” said Burrows, 71, who lives in New York. “But after all the effort made by everybody, and in great danger, I think it would be a travesty not to be able to find a resting place.”