Ray F. Herndon, a journalist who covered the early days of the Vietnam War for United Press International and later helped free an innocent man from a Texas prison as an investigative reporter, died Sunday after a three-year battle with cancer. He was 77.
Herndon, who finished his long career as a reporter and editor at the Los Angeles Times, died at home in Fountain Valley, said his wife, Annie.
"Ray believed in using journalism to stand up for the underdog and as a force for doing good," Times Editor Davan Maharaj said Sunday. "He achieved a tremendous record of using daily journalism to hold elected officials accountable for their actions. He imparted many of those values on journalists across the country."
Born Jan. 12, 1938, in Houston, Herndon dropped out of college and went to work laying pipe in the oil fields of West Texas. He volunteered for service in the U.S. Army, where he learned the newspaper trade as an editor at Pacific Stars and Stripes, the armed forces' newspaper, in Tokyo.
After his discharge, Herndon joined UPI in early 1962, and covered the final days of the Laos War before moving to Vietnam in 1963. He made his name as one of the "Boys of Saigon," a small cadre of journalists who chronicled the rebellion by Buddhist clergy against the authoritarian South Vietnamese regime, and America's increasing — though officially unacknowledged — military involvement in the region.
"Ray was a splendid journalist, because he had both physical and moral courage," said Neil Sheehan, the Pulitzer Prize-winning author of "A Bright Shining Lie," who in the early 1960s worked alongside Herndon in UPI's Saigon bureau, where another famous chronicler of the war — David Halberstam of the New York Times — also shared space.
Also among that group of journalists was Peter Arnett of the Associated Press, who recalled Herndon as "a fierce competitor in the daily grind of war coverage in those days, well informed about the military, and fearless in going after stories."
In 1963, Sheehan recalled, American reporters were living under threat from President Ngo Dinh Diem's government, which feared their coverage might foment popular discontent. Sheehan said sources warned the reporters might be targets of assassination.
"Ray really believed in getting the truth out no matter what the risk. It was really quite hairy in Saigon — it looked like the regime was gonna take a crack at us," Sheehan said, describing Herndon as a "tough Texan."
When a Vietnamese marine battalion stormed the presidential palace in November 1963 as part of a successful coup, Herndon — whose sources had alerted him to the coming attack — followed close behind to get the scoop, racing through a blasted wall on the palace grounds.
"In those days in Vietnam you were always getting shot at," he said. "That was normal."
In Vietnam, Herndon met a young Vietnamese woman named Annie Elise Porcher, whom he married in 1964.
Herndon went on to postings in Singapore and in Paris, where he covered the death of Charles de Gaulle and the Paris peace talks. Herndon worked briefly at the Miami Herald and at the St. Petersburg Times before joining the Dallas Times Herald in 1978. In a celebrated series in 1990, he explored the case of Michael Anthony Woten, a former paramedic who had been convicted of robbing a Safeway and was in the eighth year of a 55-year prison term.
Herndon began investigating the case after a desperate Woten wrote an eight-page letter to the newspaper. He could not have robbed the Dallas supermarket, he said, because he had been hitchhiking near the Texas-Oklahoma line and had caught a ride with a trucker to Missouri. He did not know the trucker's name, but recalled the CB handle he had used — "Kangaroo."
Herndon printed up fliers and spent weeks distributing them, by fax and mail, to truck stops across the western United States, urging truck stop operators to post them on bulletin boards. Anyone who knows a trucker with the nickname "Kangaroo" might help establish a prisoner's innocence, the fliers said.
The story of the search reached a trucker's magazine, and ultimately a trucker named Don "Kangaroo" Fainter, who verified Woten's alibi.
Woten won a full pardon, and Herndon was named a Pulitzer Prize finalist for investigative reporting.
Herndon joined the Los Angeles Times in 1992, where he worked as both reporter and editor, retiring in 2004.
Along with his wife, Herndon is survived by two sons, Paul and Philippe, and a grandson.