Jim Laurie takes a moment to reflect on his life as a journalist. (Photo by Pamela Chodosh)
A war correspondent for NBC and ABC News, Jim Laurie’s work included long stints in Cambodia and China, and shorter ones in India, Sarajevo, Iraq, Israel, Iran, Germany, Bosnia and South Africa.
Laurie then set up news stations in Asia for START TV News and built a broadcast news/video/convergence program for the University of Hong Kong. A documentary filmmaker, he now has his own company called Focus Asia Productions and Consultancy.
Laurie has spent summers in Norway since he was a child. Though he often does not have that much time here, his wife Xuhn Xuan is in Norway for most of the summer. Their two grown sons visit when they can, as does Laurie’s younger brother, who lives in Florida.
This is the first of a two-part story, The second will appear next week.
I was born in Central Florida, near Orlando. My father was an old-fashioned General Practitioner with a private practice in Florida. Then he decided to move to Massachusetts to join the medical clinic at the Veterans Administration. It was based in Worcester, which is also where we lived.
I was a reasonable and bookish kid until I reached my 16th birthday. That’s when I became enamored with radio.
I got my first radio job at WNEB, the station in Worcester. I auditioned and became their weekend disc jockey. Then the job morphed and I began reading copy from the Worcester Telegram and Worcester Gazette on the radio. When I became the station’s first reporter, I covered fires, burglaries and traffic accidents. Even when I was assigned to Worcester’s School Committee meetings, it was just fun.
I went to American University in DC. I wanted to be where there were lots of journalists.
I majored in history and international relations. In my third year, I began to focus on Asian Studies, specifically Chinese and Japanese history. That got my Asian juices going.
During my last two years of college, I freelanced at a radio station and at newspapers. I did theater reviews for the Washington Star and the Washington Post. Though I did not know anything about theater, this increased my desire to go into journalism.
I was one semester shy of earning a BA in History when I got the urge to go to Asia and see what was happening. I bought an around-the-world ticket which allowed me to stop anywhere and stay as long as I liked, as long as I got back to New York within a year.
I got on a plane at end of 1969. My first stop was Japan. I got a job with the Osaka World’s Fair polishing the writing in the brochures they did for the tourist bureau. While I was in Japan, I decided I wanted to go to China. I could not get in, so I flew to Hong Kong.
A guy I had met in Japan gave me a call. He had decided to quit his job in Saigon. It was a radio reporting job. He said, “It pays $250 a week. It’s yours for the asking.”
He worked for WNEW, which was owned by Metromedia in New York City. They had heard a radio story I had done on the March on the Pentagon. It was the one story the radio station sent me to do.
WNEW hired me and then bought me a one-way ticket to Saigon.
My first story for WNEW was about Nixon’s invasion of Cambodia. He’d sent thousands of troops into Cambodia, which he called an incursion. That had the immediate effect of widening the Vietnam War across Cambodia which had been peaceful before that happened.
I called my first combat reporting job baptism by fire. We flew into Cambodia on a First Air Calvary helicopter just above the jungle and rubber plantation trees, which made it more difficult for people to shoot us. Then I was with a tank unit.
I was not yet 23. I was the greenest reporter they had.
We recorded commentary and then took the tape back to the studio, which was controlled by the Joint United States Public Affairs Office of the Military Assistance Command Vietnam (JUSPAO MAC). The studio had a crackly circuit, which we used to file our stories either with WTTG in Washington or in New York at WNEW.
I would file every day, just after the military briefings, which we later called the Five O’clock Follies. All the military cared about was body counts. They were accurate about the Americans. The communist side? Who knows.
Within the first year, I attached myself to a cameraman from Australia named Neal Davis and to a man named Bill Dowell from Time Magazine. Davis, who was 15 years older than I, had been in Vietnam since ’63. Dowell, who was also older, had been in the service and knew the military from the inside. I began to learn.
I did this in ’70, ’71 and ’72. I was at serious risk, but I was having a grand time.
On May 1st, 1970, Nixon invaded Cambodia. In ’72, the North Vietnamese invaded Vietnam. It was a major invasion called the Easter Offensive. It was the first time the North used tanks which came across the DMZ from the north and also from the west through Cambodia. Nixon said he wiped the North Vietnamese out, but he didn’t
Nixon kept withdrawing troops and shifting the war to the Vietnamese. The older news corps did not want to cover that. They wanted to cover the Americans. It was left to an Asian History guy like me, who was interested in people, to cover the Cambodians. I did 100s of stories about how the Vietnamese and Cambodian troops were doing and the refugees.
In January of ’72, I became a stringer for NBC News. There were two older staff corps who worked for NBC. One had a wife who was having a baby. The other was on vacation.
The Bureau Chief saw me, a long-haired kid who did radio. He asked me what I was doing and then put me on a plane up to Quang Tri in Vietnam.
All of sudden my cameraman and I were arriving at a little airfield under fire. I scrambled out of the plane and saw 100s of thousands of refugees heading southward down the highway. Twenty-four hours later, that became my first TV story, Done by accident, it led the NBC Nightly News.
I stayed on as a reporter for NBC. During a brief respite in ’73, I came back to the States. I finished up my undergraduate degree and began work on a Masters in Chinese History at George Washington’s Institute for Sino-Soviet Studies.
NBC called again in 1974. They wanted me to go back to Vietnam. I dropped out of school and went to Cambodia as an NBC reporter. I covered the last days of the American presence through 1975 and then the end of the war in Cambodia.
The Khmer Rouge had come in and killed more than 2 million people. They made the Maoists look like liberals. I had many Khmer friends and was devastated by what I saw.
I said to NBC, ”Everything is collapsing. The war is at its end. There is devastation in Indochina. I want to go back to Vietnam. In fact, I am going.”
They said, “Of course.”
Partly to assuage my emotional devastation about Cambodia, I flew from Phnom Penh back to Vietnam on the 12th of April, 1975 with Neil Davis, my film guy. He and I were both upset about the Cambodians.
Neil said, “I don’t want to go through another American helicopter evacuation. Let’s agree that we are going to stay and watch what happens.”
The networks were all trying to figure out what to do. Neil didn’t want anyone to know, so we made a secret pact.
Back in Washington, Ford and Kissinger were urging ambassadors to pull out. The Americans began leaving on 29th of April of ’75 and were done by 8 AM on the 30th. Busses carried reporters to the airbase and then to the US Embassy. Once you got into the embassy, there was no going back.
Neil and I remained to cover the whole thing. We were the only staff reporters to stay behind. NBC kept our secret.
I spent a month in Communist Vietnam. I returned to the States in May or June of ’75 when the Vietnamese Communists gave me a choice. They said I could stay, but the film from the last 28 days would be kept, or I could leave. I said I would leave.
NBC was absolutely paranoid about what was going to happen. They said I had to be the one carrying the film out. The North Vietnamese flew me to Laos where NBC was waiting. I crossed the Mekong River to a waiting airplane which flew me to Bangkok. Another plane then flew me to Hong Kong.
I did a broadcast from Hong Kong. Then, I flew to New York City in the only plane NBC could find. It was a 707 jet designed to carry over 200 people. Instead it carried me, three film bags, seven air attendants and a crew of three.
Once I got back, they preempted the Johnny Carson Show so I could do a late night special. I was no longer a little kid doing radio from a small place. It was quite the exclusive.