- Historic Sites
How a patch of ground forged a man’s future, stole a part of his soul, and gave it back to him 30 years later
June/July 2003 | Volume 54, Issue 3
The dinner over, we spotted a sign outside the ballroom identifying the Associated Press offices. The room was locked. We returned the next afternoon and knocked on the door. Inside, five correspondents were working at their computers. We approached an older reporter, introduced ourselves, told him why we were in Vietnam, and asked if he had known Oliver Noonan. “Yes, I did, just a little,” he said, “but Horst Faas knew him the best. He’s out but should be back in an hour.”
I couldn’t believe our luck. Horst Faas, a legendary photojournalist, has covered many wars but is most famous for his 12 years of work in Vietnam. He won two Pulitzer Prizes, the first while serving as the AP’s chief photographer in Vietnam, and had just had published a handsome book, Requiem , which collected the best works of photographers from all nations who had been killed while covering the wars in Indochina.
Oliver Noonan was prominently featured in that book, and Faas had written the brief biography that accompanied Noonan’s work. I wanted to know more about Noonan, but I really was hoping Faas would be able to tell me about the battle and where the helicopter had gone down, about any landmark or detail that might help us find Hill 102.
We met Faas an hour later. He has a shock of white hair, a craggy visage, and a paunch. He is a presence, and he treated our questions with gravity. “Yeah, I knew Ollie very well,” he told us. “Let’s find a place to sit down.” He had flown out to the battlefield within a day or two of Noonan’s death, he said, had found himself pinned down with the GIs trying to reach the site, arranged for the remains to be flown home, and developed the photographer’s last rolls of film. “Ollie was a serious person. He didn’t drink. He wrote poetry. He was sensitive, exceptional at coming up with feature photos—families working the rice paddies, a silhouette of a water buffalo at sunset. How he got into this scrape, I don’t know.”
Noonan, who died two and a half months before his thirtieth birthday, had come from Boston, taking a leave of absence from the Globe to pay his own way to Vietnam. He had covered the civil rights movement in the American South and the 1963 March on Washington. The day he died, he got exclusive pictures of the fierce fighting in the Que Son Valley, then put aside his camera to help carry wounded men to safety. His last photos were of a fisherman on a beach and GIs in battle.
I saw the dropoff of a ravine at the far edge. I stepped into the space, and I knew it immediately.
Horst told us he’d sent copies of Requiem to Ollie’s sisters but never heard back from them. He said it very sadly. This gruff, worldly man was tender about Ollie Noonan. As the AP’s chief in Saigon, it turned out, he’d been the one who sent Noonan on his final assignment. I asked if he remembered anything about where the helicopter had crashed, anything that might help us pinpoint the place where I was wounded.
“Hill 102?” he repeated dismissively. “You’re thinking of going to the site? Don’t bother. It’s been 30 years.” He told us about a recent trip he’d taken to Laos to find a helicopter crash site. “It was two or three feet underground. It took 70 Laotians digging for 15 days to find anything.”
Patty and I made one more try, asking him if he remembered anything at all about the spot. Yes, he said, almost offhandedly. When he and the soldiers had been pinned down near the site, the machine-gun fire had come from an outcropping of boulders just below the helicopter wreckage. There was a slope and there were some boulders. Was there a hill beyond the boulders? He couldn’t remember.
We walked him to his hotel room, and he said he had something for us. He sifted through files that he apparently took everywhere and pulled out a photo of a handsome, earnest, freckle-faced young man smoking a pipe and looking sideways at the camera.
“That’s Ollie,” he said. “I’ll give you Ollie.”
The next day, we left for Da Nang and were met at the airport by Luong Chinh, our tour guide. Mr. Chinh, 43, was sweet-tempered, talkative, and relentlessly solicitous, with a good command of English. It turned out we have daughters and sons the same ages. With us was Julie Schmit, the USA Today reporter. She was tall, pretty, square-shouldered, and understated, from a Wisconsin dairy-farm family, and I had come to trust her. When she asked to go with us to Hiep Duc, Patty and I agreed.