HO CHI MINH CITY, Vietnam – HO CHI MINH CITY, Vietnam (AP) — Some walked with canes, others with limps. Their hair stained with streaks of silver, their faces mapped by years of pressure and deadlines.
At first glance, it could have been any 35th reunion anywhere, but once the drinks and stories started flowing in the former Saigon's sultry air, this crowd of self-proclaimed 'Old Hacks' revealed how they risked their lives every day to tell the world about an ugly guerrilla war fought in the jungles of Vietnam, where they had unfettered access to report.
The aging press corps came together, one more time, on the eve of the day the Vietnam War ended 35 years ago — April 30, 1975 — when communist North Vietnamese forces drove tanks through the former U.S.-backed capital of South Vietnam, smashing through the Presidential Palace gates.
It was a dramatic end to a long, bloody war that killed an estimated 3 million Vietnamese and some 58,000 Americans.
The journalists also gathered Friday morning to watch Vietnam's formal commemoration of Liberation Day, as it is known here, taking in a parade down the former Reunification Boulevard that featured tank replicas and goose-stepping soldiers in white uniforms. Some 50,000 party cadres, army veterans and laborers gathered for the spectacle, many carrying red and gold Vietnamese flags and portraits of Ho Chi Minh, the father of Vietnam's revolution.
"This was the first foreign war the U.S. ever fought where the press challenged government thinking, challenged the decisions of generals, challenged the political decisions the war was based on," said former CNN correspondent Peter Arnett, who won a Pulitzer Prize for his Vietnam coverage in 1966 while working for The Associated Press.
Arnett, like many of the globe-trotting journalists, came to Vietnam as a young reporter and grew up covering battles from the trenches where correspondents were permitted to go without restrictions. Many carried their war experience into other conflicts, including Iraq and Afghanistan, but said they were never again given such freedom to tell their stories from the front lines.
"No longer will you ever be able to do wars like Vietnam," said Bob Carroll, a former United Press International photographer. "What did the military learn about press access from Vietnam? Don't give it to them."
The reunion's nostalgia was tinged with sadness for the 79 colleagues lost years ago on the battlefields of Indochina, along with others who survived bombs and bullets only to die more recently from illnesses or accidents. Dutch photojournalist Hugh Van Es, pioneering female reporter Kate Webb and legendary Pulitzer Prize winner David Halberstam were among the recently deceased who were remembered.
Others too ill to make the journey were also missed, such as former AP Pulitzer Prize-winning photojournalist Horst Faas, who talked with old friends over Skype video, and former AP Saigon bureau chief George Esper, one of the few journalists who refused to leave Saigon, now named Ho Chi Minh City, after it fell to the communists. Today, Vietnam continues to operate as a one-party political system, though it has opened its economic doors to free-market capitalism.
But the mood was far from somber. Whoops of laughter also roared through the famous Caravelle Hotel ballroom as the former war correspondents, many of whom survived war injuries along with years of hard boozing and chain smoking, told stories about their wartime shenanigans and how they outsmarted the competition.
Matt Franjola admitted he used to bribe the U.S. military signal operators in Khe Sanh, the site of a famous battle near the demilitarized zone in central Vietnam, with fresh loaves of French bread so they would relay his stories back to the U.S. ahead of competing news services. He worked for UPI at the time, and later switched to the AP.
"I cheated," Franjola said. "That's what happens when you know your way around."
The reunion, which the group holds every five years, brought together about 30 journalists and was organized by Carl Robinson, a former AP correspondent who manages the Old Hacks message board on Google Groups.
The journalists were treated like rock stars by young admiring Vietnamese journalists eager to hear war stories from a time before they were born. Edith M. Lederer, who continues to work for the AP decades after covering the Vietnam War, was among those tailed by the local press. She was the only female correspondent to return for the reunion.
"The Vietnam War showed beyond any doubt that women reporters, photographers and TV correspondents had what it takes to cover major conflicts and breaking stories," she said. "In all of the major wars that followed Vietnam, women have become far more commonplace in the media. For me, that's really heartening."
The Vietnamese scribes filed stories in the state-controlled media about the return of the Old Hacks, many of whom fell in love with the people of Vietnam and have returned many times over the years to visit old friends.
"It's strange to be able to talk about a war and talk about all the benefits that came from it," said Jacques Leslie, who covered the war for the Los Angeles Times. "But for me it was a positive experience. I found out I could do things I had no idea I could do, and I'm grateful for the experience."
At Friday's Liberation Day parade, the Old Hacks sat in the VIP section near a handful of former U.S. war veterans who have also returned to Vietnam many times since the war ended. Among them was Jim Doyle, a member of the Vietnam Veterans Peace Initiative, a small organization that supports a health clinic near Danang.
"I never had an enemy in Vietnam," Doyle said. "My government did, but I didn't. This place feels like home to me. These are probably the warmest, most genuine people I've ever met."
The government extended its hand to the Old Hacks, setting up a meeting with the mayor of Ho Chi Minh City and offering a trip to the nearby Cu Chi Tunnels, an extensive underground network where communist Viet Cong guerrillas sought refuge from American bombers.
"I think that now the government realizes that we were people who covered the war objectively," said James Pringle, who worked for Reuters in Vietnam and Cambodia.
Associated Press writer Margie Mason contributed to this report from Hanoi, Vietnam.