Old war wounds heal slowly, former combat correspondents learned Saturday when they met in the Fairfax district to dedicate the world's first memorial to writers and photographers killed in Vietnam.
The South Vietnamese artist who volunteered to etch the names of 76 American and other western war correspondents on black marble balked at inscribing names of slain North Vietnamese journalists.
So a former American combat cameraman decided to add the names of Viet Cong war photographers himself.
That explains the roster of North Vietnamese names, printed on clear adhesive and taped to brass leaves. The leaves were mounted next to the marble as part of the unusual shrine at the Chao Krung restaurant at 111 N. Fairfax Ave.
The shrine--in a corner of the Thai restaurant beneath miniature Huey helicopters suspended over a Buddhist statue--includes a battered typewriter, a vintage Nikon camera, old film canisters and an empty whiskey bottle along with the marble and the leaf-shaped brass nameplates.
"The war in Vietnam and Cambodia was an unconventional war," said shrine organizer Jim Caccavo, a former combat photographer for Newsweek. "So a memorial for our colleagues had to be an unconventional one, too."
Former war correspondents have long used the restaurant opposite CBS Television City as an unofficial meeting place when they pass through Los Angeles.
The restaurant was picked as the site of the shrine after a local cemetery rejected the idea of a Vietnam War memorial as too controversial, explained Caccavo, now a Hollywood-based magazine photographer. It was Caccavo who insisted on adding North Vietnamese names.
Artist Linh Duy Vo, the South Vietnamese refugee now living in Downey who inscribed the western names, praised those who brought "the truth home to America" while covering the war in the 1960s and early '70s.
But he was dismissive of North Vietnamese journalists who would "dishonor the pen to write what the government wanted him to write."
Thai dancers performed an ancient candle dance before a trio of Buddhist monks blessed the shrine. The ceremony--and the sight of the engraved names--brought tears to some of the 150 onlookers.
"It's a big day, remembering my brother who was killed covering the war and old friends in Vietnam," said Nick Ut, a Pulitzer Prize-winning Viet-born combat photographer. He now lives in Monterey Park and shoots pictures for the Associated Press' Los Angeles bureau.
"It's long overdue recognition," said author Marvin Wolf of Mar Vista, who covered the war for Stars and Stripes. Added Robert Sam Anson, a Santa Monica magazine writer who reported from Vietnam and Cambodia for Time: "I knew a lot of these guys. This stuff is never far from my thoughts."
Milwaukee resident Miriam Eaton--whose son Bob Ellison died in 1968 at Khe Sanh after shooting a Newsweek cover photo and a seven-page picture story on U.S. Marines trapped there--traveled to Los Angeles for the ceremony. "I'm very proud of what my son did," she said after viewing his name on the shrine.
Former war correspondent Paul Dean, now a Times writer living in Woodland Hills, said the bond among Vietnam combat reporters is great because "none of us, living or dead, were ordered to go there. We chose to be there." The Thai restaurant is an appropriate place for the memorial, he added.
"It's a private place where we can speak little prayers with those we knew then, while holding our memories of those who didn't make it, and sharing all of this with the people who no longer have their land."
Former wire service and CBS correspondent Murray Fromson--a Brentwood resident who heads USC's journalism school-- described the shrine as "a touching reminder that we all need some sort of closure to what's gone on."
From the back of the restaurant, there was a nod of agreement from Pham Thuy. She's a Hanoi journalist with the English-language Vietnam Courier who is visiting this spring to study at USC.
"I think it's a good idea to forget the war," Thuy said quietly.