WASHINGTON Nearly four decades after their deaths, four combat photographers received a museum burial Thursday as family, friends and former colleagues recalled how the men gave their lives to show the world "Vietnam as they saw it."
A UH-1 Huey helicopter carrying the four photographers was shot down over a steep mountainside in southern Laos on Feb. 10, 1971. Human remains were recovered years later, in 1998, along with camera parts, film, broken watches and bits of wreckage.
The remains have been interred at the foot of the Newseum's soaring glass memorial dedicated to fallen journalists. A small silver plaque was inscribed with the names of the four: Larry Burrows, 44, of Life magazine; Henri Huet, 43, of The Associated Press; Kent Potter, 23, of United Press International, and Keisaburo Shimamoto, 34, a freelancer working for Newsweek.
"All were imbued with a purpose larger than themselves," said AP reporter and former Saigon bureau chief Richard Pyle. "In their case, to invite, even compel, the world to see Vietnam as they saw it, through a camera lens that told truths about the war."
At the time of the crash, the photographers were covering Operation Lam Son 719, a massive armored invasion of Laos by South Vietnamese forces. The aim was to cut off the Ho Chi Minh Trail used by North Vietnam to feed troops and weapons to southern battlefields.
Their mission, said Associated Press President and CEO Tom Curley, was "believed to be the first of the Vietnam era where journalists tried to circumvent restrictions designed to thwart coverage."
American officials had barred civilians from crossing international borders on U.S. military aircraft. So, when a South Vietnamese field commander offered the four men a chance to accompany him on a flying inspection of the Laotian front, they went.
A formal dedication of the journalists' memorial, with the names of more than 1,800 fallen journalists dating back to 1837, takes place today. The Newseum opens a week later.
Thursday's ceremony brought together families of the men and long-ago colleagues and friends.
"The best thing about this is meeting people who knew him," said Kent Potter's sister, Sherry. "I knew he was doing what he wanted to do."
After their chopper was shot down, the crash site was too hostile to retrieve remains. In the early 1990s, Washington restored diplomatic relations with the communist governments of Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia. That allowed the U.S. to begin searching in earnest for some 2,500 Americans still missing from the war. Several years later, human remains from the Laos site were finally unearthed by experts from the U.S. Joint POW/MIA Accounting Command.
A proposal to bury the remains at the U.S. National Cemetery in Hawaii raised concerns because of demands for space for WWII veterans. The Newseum then offered to inter the crash remains.The passage of time had diminished the remains to just scant traces. They could not be positively linked to any of the 11 people aboard the helicopter the four journalists and seven Vietnamese soldiers. But the Army's Central Identification Laboratory in Hawaii has declared the case closed on the basis of "circumstantial group identification."
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