Ann Bryan Mariano, who was one of the first female combat correspondents covering the Vietnam War and who sued the Pentagon to keep her publication on military-base newsstands, died Feb. 25 of complications from Alzheimer’s disease at Belmont Manor Nursing Home in Belmont, Mass. She was 76.
In 1965, Mariano -- then Ann Bryan -- was sent to Saigon to start an Asian edition of Overseas Weekly, a scrappy German-based tabloid that saw itself as an irreverent alternative to the semiofficial Stars and Stripes. The paper took particular delight in uncovering the misdeeds of military brass and offered its readers, most of them GIs, 12 pages of color comics and a weekly buffet of bosomy beauties.
Mariano exported Overseas Weekly’s iconoclastic exuberance to Vietnam and “added a lot of depth to it,” said Tracy Wood, who reported from Vietnam for United Press International.
Under Mariano’s leadership, the newspaper reported on war profiteers, officers involved in the black market, pot smoking among soldiers and racial prejudice in the Army. It also carried articles on doctors and relief workers assisting refugees and orphans and broke a story about U.S. soldiers at Long Binh Army base, outside Saigon, complaining that they didn’t have enough rifles and ammunition.
The Defense Department barred Overseas Weekly from newsstands in Vietnam and post exchanges throughout Asia. “Our only recourse was a lawsuit,” Mariano recalled in a chapter she contributed to “War Torn: Stories of War from the Women Reporters who Covered Vietnam” (2002).
In 1966, the paper filed suit in U.S. District Court in Washington, D.C., accusing Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara of violating the 1st Amendment by banning distribution of the newspaper in the Pacific region. While the suit was pending, Mariano arranged for the paper to be published in Hong Kong and flown to Saigon. Vietnamese newsboys hustled it on the streets and outside military barracks. Local authorities began confiscating copies.
“As it became clear the troops could trust us, soldiers began calling our office directly with tips and information, bypassing official channels,” Mariano recalled in “War Torn.” “We began getting stories that ran counter to the rah-rah military point of view, which, of course, kept us often at odds with the Pentagon.”
Overseas Weekly lost the initial round of its suit against the Pentagon but won on appeal in 1967.
Mariano also had to fight the Pentagon for battlefield access, not because she reported for Overseas Weekly but because she was a woman. The Pentagon eventually lifted its ban against female correspondents.
She left Overseas Weekly in 1971 and lived briefly in San Francisco with her new husband, Frank Mariano, an Army helicopter pilot and information officer who later worked as a correspondent for ABC News. The couple returned to Vietnam two years later, and she worked as a freelance reporter for the Associated Press and the Daily Express of London. When Saigon, now Ho Chi Minh City, fell to the North Vietnamese in April 1975, she helped former Weekly colleagues escape the city.
“Ann Bryan Mariano was the consummate investigative reporter during her years in Saigon, digging for the kind of stories that MACV [Military Assistance Command Vietnam] and the generals would just as soon she never found,” said Joe Galloway, who covered Vietnam for UPI and co-wrote “We Were Soldiers Once . . . and Young” (1992). “She was the real deal.”
She was born Grace Ann Bryan on Aug. 18, 1932, in Ballinger, Texas, and received her undergraduate degree in journalism and English from Texas Tech University in 1953. After a brief stint at the San Angelo Standard Times, she headed to New York, where she was a freelance reporter for a year before taking a job as an airline stewardess. She ended up in Germany, where she caught on in 1959 with Overseas Family, a sister publication of Overseas Weekly. She worked in Germany for five years, until many of the soldiers she was writing about began shipping out to Southeast Asia.
After her experiences in Vietnam and her return to the United States in 1976, Mariano joined the Washington Post, where she worked as an editor on the foreign desk and later as a reporter. She retired in 1996.
Mariano’s first husband died in 1976. A daughter from that marriage, Jane Catherine Thai “Katie” Mariano, died in 1983.
Survivors include her husband of eight years, Robert McKay, of Belmont, Mass.; a daughter from the first marriage, Anna Francesca Hua “Mai” Mariano of Columbus, Ohio, and a stepson from the first marriage, Tony Mariano of Carmel; and three grandchildren.
By 2001, when Mariano and co-authors were writing “War Torn,” she knew she had Alzheimer’s disease, which she described as “blowing through my memory like wind through a Buddhist sand painting.” Although she could speak, she could no longer write. But with information from old files, her daughter’s memories and letters and recollections of friends, she was able to reconstruct her experience.
“What no disease can ever erase,” she told Laura Palmer, a friend and fellow war correspondent who wrote her chapter, “is that Vietnam is where I found my family.”
Holley writes for the Washington Post.