“Then I ran into the street to get reaction,” Esper said, recalling events during an interview. The first person he saw was a South Vietnamese po¬lice officer, wild-eyed, arms waving, shouting, “Fini, fini!” Esper ap¬proached to ask a question and the man unholstered his revolver. “I thought, ‘Oh, my God, he’s going to shoot me. I survived ten years in Vietnam and now I’m going to die the day the war ends.’ Personally, I never liked weapons. They always made me nervous.” The officer put the gun to his own head, saluted a nearby statue of a South Vietnamese sol¬dier, and killed himself. His body fell at Esper’s feet.
By the time Esper got back to the AP office, three NVA soldiers were waiting. They put their Chinese-made AK-47S on the counter. “They were twenty-one or twenty-two, shy but very friendly. We had a transla¬tor so we interviewed them. They took out a map and showed us the in¬vasion routes. They said they’d been in the field two years. They opened their wallets and showed us pictures of their wives and girlfriends. One had kids. I’d been writing all these years about the nameless, faceless communists, and here I was with three of them and they seemed very, well, human. I thought, ‘Geez, so many Americans, so many North Viet¬namese and South Vietnamese have killed each other, and it turns out they all have the same feelings, the same loneliness.’ That’s how the war ended for me.”
Esper had arrived in Vietnam in 1965, an unworldly reporter from Uniontown, Pennsylvania, who worked AP’s overnight desk in New York. He hadn’t really volunteered for Vietnam. It was just that AP needed bodies to build up its Saigon staff; an editor asked if he’d go to Vietnam. “I said sure,” he recalled. “It sounded exciting. I hadn’t been fol-lowing the story that closely, and I’d never even thought about joining the foreign staff. But I agreed to go for a year.”
He did the year and returned to New York, back to his old job. Every¬thing around him seemed ordinary. The domestic stories he read and wrote seemed meaningless. It dawned on him he never should have left Vietnam. Esper returned in 1967. He married a Vietnamese woman, Ha Kim Cuc. He would write a book on Vietnam and, when Saigon fell, would be one of a handful of American journalists to refuse evacuation and stay behind to cover the first weeks of Hanoi’s triumph.
We stayed in touch from time to time over the years with an occasional lunch in Boston, where Esper worked as an AP feature writer, and also during a stint covering the Gulf War. He was sixty-seven years old when I last saw him, long since divorced from Ha, and had been with AP for forty-two years. He said he was thinking of retiring to accept a teaching job at his alma mater, the University of West Virginia, but was fearful. “AP’s been my family. That’s where all my friends are.” In all his assign¬ments around the world, nothing had ever matched the intoxicating al¬lure of Southeast Asia or the blood-pumping high of covering the Viet¬nam War.
“I’ve searched for an answer why I stayed all those years,” he said, “and what I keep coming back to was a young nurse from Upstate New York I saw on a fire base. It was monsoon season. We were under rocket attack. She was tending the badly wounded. Some died in her arms. And I said, ‘Wow, a woman. Why are you here?’ and she said, ‘Because I’ve never felt so worthwhile in my life.’
“That’s how I felt too. What we were doing was really important. On top of that, we were living this free-wheeling, unstructured life with so much freedom and a go-to-hell attitude. It was a very good lifestyle de¬spite the war. It was exotic, sensual. I think that’s one of the reasons some people wanted to get lost in Vietnam and why some stayed in Vietnam, mentally, forever.”
Espcr had been one of the lucky ones—he survived. I asked Esper if he’d been present when Senator Barry Goldwater tongue-lashed the press during a visit to Saigon in 1965. He said he hadn’t. Goldwater’s assess¬ment of the press was this: “I’d like to see you pansy reporters out there in the boondocks getting your asses shot at. No guts, no guts. I wish they’d let me have my way out here. There wouldn’t be a gook or a fucking re¬porter left in six months. . . . Our kids are dying out there right now while you guys are up here getting pissed. . . . You’re nothing but a bunch of yellow bastards.”
More than 320 reporters and photographers from both sides died in combat covering the war.
BY NIGHTFALL ON APRIL 30,1975, the old Saigon no longer existed. It was now the soon-to-be-impoverished economic capital of a peasant na¬tion. The Viet Cong flag, red and blue with a yellow star, flew over the Presidential Palace. Young, hungry NVA soldiers in pith helmets and VC guerrillas in floppy bush hats gathered around separate campfires in city parks. Saigon was dark, apprehensive. A thousand miles to the north, Hanoi lay eerily still. Unlike the liberation of Paris, where Ernest Hem¬ingway had observed, “Anyone who doesn’t get drunk tonight is an exhi-bitionist,” Vietnam’s wartime anguish ended quietly and, in the appropri¬ately austere and disciplined manner of the men who had come south to govern, somberly. The South was exhausted by war. Its people were will¬ing to give the Northerners a chance.