By Jasmine Linabary
In a clearing interspersed with dense jungle groves near the Cambodian border, they waited. A large Viet Cong flag blew in the wind at the center of the clearing, marking the spot. It was the first time CBS cameraman Willis "Skip" Brown, '66, had seen the enemy.
Thirty Vietnamese men in uniforms that looked like work clothes scattered about the clearing. The Viet Cong had come to release three American prisoners of war held captive inside South Vietnam. Brown's pictures would be some of the first images of the Viet Cong in the field television viewers in the United States would see.
The heat was stifling this New Year's Day in 1969. Everyone was sweating. Brown was a "pool" cameraman, covering the exchange for the three U.S. networks while working for the CBS News bureau in Saigon. He was one of the few there to record the event for the United States.
The Viet Cong set up tables and chairs to serve tea and warm beer to the American negotiators. Everyone stood behind the chairs, but the American officers refused to sit. They did not want to be seen in a subservient position. No American officer drank.
Then, out of the bushes, the three men came in blue pajamas, each carrying a duffle bag of belongings. The men, tired and thin, crossed the clearing and boarded a helicopter after some brief words with the officers. Brown had been warned in advance not to speak to them.
"I remember that scene as if it were yesterday – one day of almost three-and-a-half years [in Vietnam] and one story out of thousands," Brown said.
Brown's journalistic curiosity had always drawn him toward Vietnam.
"The journalist in me knew that it was one of the biggest stories in the world, certainly the biggest story in our country," Brown said. "I wanted to be a part of it. It was instinctive."
Brown got his start in the television industry working nights his junior year at Whitworth, splicing commercials into black and white film programs and working as a full-time studio cameraman for KREM-TV in Spokane.
After two years as editor of the Natsihi, Brown became editor of The Whitworthian his senior year. The Vietnam War seemed a distant issue in the newspaper's coverage, Brown said.
Brown, who always wanted to be a print reporter, wrote a letter to Time magazine asking for a job in Vietnam. Time wrote back telling him the magazine "usually hires people with some field experience," Brown said. He still has the letter.
After graduating with a degree in journalism, Brown moved to Seattle for a summer position at KIRO-TV, a CBS affiliate, and married alumna Marilyn Munger, '65. He intended to start graduate school at Northwestern University in the fall, but when a cameraman position opened up at the station, his plans changed.
A year later, the general manager and the news director of KIRO-TV organized a trip to Vietnam to report on the war and do on-air editorials.
"When they put the word out, every cameraman said 'Not me.' Meanwhile, I'm in the back of the room dancing up and down, waving my hands, saying, 'I want to go. I want to go,'" Brown said.
He got his wish.
"I consider the trip to Vietnam the first major turning point in my career," Brown said.
Brown describes that first trip to Vietnam as an "extraordinary experience." He had never been out of the country before except to Canada.
While he felt restricted by his lack of military knowledge and the language barrier, Brown found he was able to communicate in a pidgin English and the limited French that he had learned in high school.
The CBS News bureau in Saigon noticed the enthusiastic, 23-year-old cameraman traveling around the war-torn country with his bosses. Then, a CBS News staff cameraman was wounded during the Tet Offensive a month after Brown returned to Seattle. Brown had just been made an anchor on a new Sunday news show when he received the call from CBS in New York asking if he could go to work in Vietnam right away.
He did, and for nearly three years Brown worked in Vietnam and Southeast Asia for CBS News. With a correspondent and a Vietnamese soundman, he would fly into areas that were under fire often by medevac helicopter to interview soldiers and report on the day's battle.
After returning to Saigon, the crew would catalogue and ship the day's work on a military or civilian aircraft to Tokyo. From there, the film and correspondent's story would be processed, edited and transmitted to New York by satellite to air on the CBS Evening News with Walter Cronkite the same day it was recorded. The immediacy in the coverage of Vietnam was a significant technological advancement, Brown said.
"War had never had that kind of coverage before. You saw the destruction, the pain and the suffering. It wasn't just American casualties – it was the whole situation," Brown said.
Brown went all over Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos, enduring ambushes and heavy combat. In a Jan. 17, 1969 letter he sent to The Whitworthian, he wrote: "I have been shot at, shelled, mortared and machine-gunned more times than I care to count, but it's still exciting and I wouldn't trade it for anything."
As a member of one of CBS's crews, Brown worked almost constantly. In exchange for a week's duty in combat areas, he had eight days off out of the country every six weeks. With his wife Marilyn and sometimes his 2-year-old son Bob, he toured much of Asia, visiting locations in Hong Kong, Japan, Indonesia and Thailand.
Following his time in Vietnam, Brown has filmed stories as a freelancer all over the world for nearly four decades. He can recall detailed stories from Northern Ireland, the Falklands War, El Salvador and the Gulf War, as well as time spent working on shows with veteran journalists Charles Kuralt, Morley Safer, Bill Moyers and Dan Rather. The Iraq war is one of the few conflict situations he hasn't covered, Brown said.
"It's strange – in a matter of seconds I can recall the exact picture I took for a story back 40 years," Brown said. "My mission has been to bring [stories] back in an honest way and I thought [that] through the lens was the best way I could do it."
He can still recall the overwhelmingly sweet, acrid aroma of Saigon, a mixture of the open sewage, humidity and fumes from motorbikes, and the images of the streets, crowded with old American cars, French Citroens, Australian Mini Mokes, cyclos and motorbikes.
"Out in the countryside, Vietnam is one of the most beautiful places in the world. If I could do anything over again, I would have moved back there 20 years ago and perhaps stayed in Southeast Asia," Brown said.
Brown can also remember the frenzied confusion that took over in the middle of a battle: the impenetrable dust and smoke, the flattening surround sound of rockets and the spinning white-hot pieces of shrapnel in the air.
His chosen profession has had its costs. Work, extensive traveling and the situations Brown reported on took a toll. His marriage became one of the biggest casualties, though he and Marilyn remain close friends, Brown said.
"You become a different person. You can't see the things I've seen or be a part of them for that long of a time and not really be changed by it," Brown said. "It's fair to say some of this still haunts me – I don't let it affect my performance in the field. Instead, it has affected my ability to be a person."
Today Brown works for his production company near San Francisco, creating high-definition feature stories and longer documentaries. He continues to freelance as a cameraman for the networks.
Though the technology has changed dramatically since he began in 1965, the essence of his journalistic mission has not.
"The cameras are smaller and lighter, and the technology is more complicated. I see this as remarkable opportunity to continue to tell stories, to go out and cover the world," Brown said. "I don't see myself slowing down very much."