I’m headed to Khe-Sanh in the jump seat of a C-130. Three weeks ago we didn’t even know this place existed. It was just an out-of-the-way Marine base in the mountains near the North Vietnamese boarder. But since the North Vietnamese Army started to attack the Americans on the night of January the 21st, and landed a big hit, destroying the base’s ammo dump, every journalist in Southeast Asia is trying to get here. The powers that be are allowing in only two journalists at a time for three-day clips. I’m lucky enough to be one of them, but I’m apprehensive as well. There’s talk that Khe-Sanh will be the location of the largest battle in Vietnam. I’m only comforted because we think the military let a woman in since they were anticipating a lull in hostilities for the upcoming Tet holiday.
It’s January 29th, 1968, and I’m glued to a jump seat behind the pilot, looking down on the approaching base. From above it’s like a series of linked, reddish mud-bogs. Everything seems covered in dirt, the men included, an impression I confirm a little later. Outside the base are the hills and mountains, which are heavily fought over. From those hilltops, and other locations, the NVA was able to maintain a bombardment of about a thousand rounds per day into Khe-Sanh.
As I’m looking at the base, and wondering what it’s like to take such a number of incoming, the pilot turns around and says, “Do you want to take pictures?”
“Sarge, open the hatch so she can lean out!”
He opens the hatch in the roof above me, and before I can think twice, I’m climbing on the jump seat armrest. I put my head out the hatch, using my elbows as tripods to brace myself, and start snapping pictures of the upcoming runway. This is certainly something I’ve never done before, and my anxious energy changes to excitement.
Now we’re on the ground, rolling down the runway, and I’m getting carried away snapping pictures as we move by the base, until the pilot yells: “Thea, didn’t you want to get out here?”
“Well, you better go.”
“You haven’t stopped.”
“We ain’t gonna stop, baby. You better jump if you want to go. You better head out the back now.”
I pull my gear together along with my Leica camera and run to the back of the cargo area. At the end of the long plane I see men push crates down the ramp, which keeps the base supplied. It’s too dangerous to land here. As this thought comes to mind my apprehension returns because if this place is too dangerous for a plane to land, what about me?
I run off the ramp and onto the hard-packed dirt surface and look around as I slow down from running. I can feel their eyes on me from the mountains above. Just a moment ago I was looking down on them. Now I’m sure all eyes are on me—the only blond girl around for miles, and the only one alone in the middle of Khe-Sanh’s runway. To add to my sense of comfort, the edge of the strip is littered with planes and helicopters that got hit and were pushed to the side and left there. The feeling I have is not a good one. Walking down the runway I hear the click click sound of incoming. Just a few yards off I see oil drums and throw myself behind them, hitting the ground hard as I land, bending my new lens cap in the process.