From Matthew Naythons, M.D. Sept. 29, 2004
Gloria came into my life 25 years ago in a hospital room in Bangkok. The circumstances were certainly odd, but the events of that morning (even though only one of us was completely conscious) forged one of the most enduring bonds of my life.
Gloria had a gift for gratitude, and certainly for drama among many of her greater gifts: for prose, for friendship, and warmth.
Entering Gloria’s life meant that no matter how irritating and impossible you henceforth became, she was your friend forever. And when Gloria, as you all know, befriended you, she did more than befriend you.
She made it very clear that from now on, she was going to have an absolute say in all aspects of your existence. Gloria was always there to tell me – unprompted and at times unwanted- what she thought of my politics, photographs, values, friends, women, marriages, dogs, clothes and always my haircut.
Living primarily in California, I saw her as the perfect counter-point to the new-age “life guides” of Marin. . .a laughing, chain-smoking, hectoring, criticizing, sardonic, impossible-to-please, brash and wise sage.
And when Gloria adopted you, she also made it a point of adopting your colleagues and friends—and remembering the names of all your friends’ children, nieces and nephews—as well as the names of everyone’s ex-girlfriends, wives, ex-wives, would-be wives, and buddies.
It is impossible to imagine being in New York without hearing Gloria’s, “Hello Mooshkie” bellowing down the steps of her flat. I passed her darkened flat last evening. Her plants are thriving in the rain, and it is an absolute impossibility to imagine that she is gone.
So she isn’t gone . . .Que Viva Gloria! Like you, I shall miss her greatly.
A Letter from Ronald Moreau in Islamabad (Newsweek Magazine) Tuesday, September 28, 2004
Something horrible was happening and we didn't know how to stop it. Alexander Shimkin and I were community development volunteers in Vietnam for International Voluntary Services, a Washington-based, humanitarian organization that was largely funded by USAID. In 1971, we were working in Tinh Bien District, near the Cambodian border, which at the time was one of the few Mekong Delta regions that still had a significant presence of North Vietnamese Army soldiers and their southern Viet Cong allies. Tinh Bien was also unusual in that it was the only part of the horizontal Delta that featured a range of long, brush-covered, rocky hills, called the Seven Mountains, running along the border.
North Vietnamese and Viet Cong soldiers, who were infiltrating into the Delta from Cambodia, had set up an important way station and military base in the mountains that were honeycombed with caves and dotted with huge, rock outcroppings. Naturally, the communist-led troops visited the local villages at night, asking for food and supplies and spreading anti-Saigon government propaganda. To help secure their mountain redoubt from Saigon attacks, the guerrillas had seeded the hillsides, the scrub brush and the largely abandoned fruit orchards surrounding the hills with landmines and booby traps.
A handful of US military advisors were stationed at a small South Vietnamese Army base in Tinh Biens Ba Chuc village, not far from the foot of the highest hill, called Nui Dai, or Long Mountain. Periodically, North Vietnamese gunners shelled the camp. The Americans and their Saigon allies had tried just about everything to dislodge their foe from the mountains. But the carpet of landmines and booby traps hampered any ground assault toward the hills. If Saigon’s soldiers tried to clear the mines, the NVA/VC would rain down barrages of mortars. Next Saigon’s troops tried heliborne assaults onto the top of the mountains. But the choppers were driven away by heavy anti-aircraft fire from well-camouflaged gun emplacements. B-52 Arc-light bombing strikes were called in. That didn't seem to work either.
Finally, US and Saigon C-47 helicopters tried to burn the enemy out. The large, two-rotor choppers flew high over Nui Dai with dozens of 55-gallon drums of diesel fuel, dangling from the aircrafts’ bellies in rope nets. The helicopters released the slings, dumping thousands of gallons of diesel fuel on the mountainside, some of which would run into the caves, or so the Americans hoped. Then Cobra helicopter gunships attacked, firing rockets that ignited the fuel, setting great patches of the mountainsides on fire. The theory was that the walls of fire would not only cause the landmines and bobby traps to explode but would also burn the enemy out of, or suffocate him inside, the caves. But when Saigon soldiers attempted another ground assault the next day, they quickly found that the landmines were still lethal and that enemy gunners were as active and as accurate as ever.
Then, suddenly, the American advisers and Saigon’s officers had a new idea. They believed that the poor, local villagers who lived scattered around the base of the mountains were sympathetic to, and in close contact with, the communists. They reasoned that since the villagers did manage to grow some rice and pick some fruit from their war-damaged orchards near the mountains, then it followed that the villagers knew where the NVA/VC had placed the mines and booby traps. To rid the land around the mountain of these hazards to Saigon’s troops, American and Saigon officers devised a cruel plan to force the local villagers at gunpoint to clear the minefields by hand. For their trouble the villagers would be given sacks of US-donated rice.
The operation proved to be a disaster for the villagers from day one. It soon became obvious that the peasants didn't have the slightest idea where the NVA/VC had planted the mines. Almost immediately, the poor farmers began being fatally wounded and maimed when their sickles and hoes hit and detonated the nearly invisible explosives. Nevertheless, the US advisers and Saigon troops didn't relent and continued forcing the villagers to labor in the minefields. The communist forces took no pity either, mortaring the work crews if they ventured too close to the mountain. The village men were not the only victims. Many women and children became casualties, too. Either out of loyalty to the head of the family or because Saigon’s officers coerced them, many wives and children accompanied the men on their deadly, daily detail.
Helplessly, Alex and I witnessed what was going on and tried to imagine how we could stop the carnage. When we approached the American military advisers we were told that the villagers were volunteers, and that the operation was none of our damn business anyway. So we thought about writing an article for Dispatch News Service that had made its name by uncovering and publicizing the My Lai massacre. We took our plan to Don Luce, the former director of IVS who had resigned in protest over the war, and who had done some work for Dispatch and had recently uncovered the infamous Tiger Cages on Con Son Island for Life Magazine.
Wisely Don had only two words of advice for us: Gloria Emerson. He said that if we tried to write and publish the story, no one would read it. No action would be taken to stop the bloodshed. He said that not even he had the clout that Gloria had to end this cruel operation immediately. So Alex and I went to the Times office in Saigon with Don’s introduction.
Gloria swung into action immediately. She arranged hotel rooms for her two unwashed sources in rubber flip-fops. She booked Air America tickets to Chau Doc, the provincial capital, and hired the best photographer in the business, Magnum’s Philip Jones-Griffiths. She and her brilliant and courageous interpreter and fixer, Nguyen Ngoc Luong, debriefed us. Within a day or two we were off to the village.
After a long, jolting ride along the potholed road, we arrived at Ba Chuc village and immediately set out along the still dangerous paths to where the villagers were squatting down, clearing away brush in search of mines. Through Luong, Gloria talked to the villagers, both men and women, while Philip snapped pictures with his silent Leica.
When Gloria was convinced that she had heard the villagers’ story, she led the way back to the small military base at Ba Chuc and headed straight into the complex of sandbag bunkers where the American advisers stayed. Gloria immediately asked to see the US infantry captain in charge of the American advisory team. “He’s taking a nap,” an American sergeant replied testily. Gloria didn't hesitate. She blew right passed him and marched straight into the bunker where she found the captain sleeping in his bunk. She kicked the bunk as hard as she could, waking the captain with a start. Gloria glared at him and said, ”Tell me everything you know right now and Ill go easy on you.” The captain knew there no way he could escape or lie to Gloria. He even sounded apologetic as he answered Gloria’s questions like a school kid replying to his teacher.
Gloria wrote her usual first-rate, colorful and emotion-filled story that landed on the front page along with one of Philip’s pictures. In what was unusual for the Times back then, I believe two photos of the peasants working in the minefields were published inside the paper as well. The story had an immediate impact. The Pentagon ordered a halt to the mine-clearing operation at Ba Chuc, although it still tried to justify the unjustifiable by saying the villagers were volunteers who had been paid for their services with rice. But never mind. Gloria had scored a clear victory. Ba Chuc’s peasants were no longer forced to venture into the minefields.
Gloria’s story also changed Alex’s and my life. Gloria quoted both Alex and myself in the story, saying how much the villagers had suffered from the operation. Within days, Alex and I were summoned to the IVS office in Saigon where we were both fired for having talked to the press without permission.
But Gloria wasn’t about to cut us loose once she had her story. No. She marched Alex into Newsweek’s Saigon bureau and told the bureau chief, Kevin Buckley, that he was going to hire the Vietnamese-speaking Shimkin as a reporter/translator. Kevin, seeing a good thing and certainly not wanting to cross Gloria, consented immediately. Then she hustled me across the street to the Washington Post’s office. There she told Peter Jay and Peter Osnos that they now had a new Vietnamese-speaking stringer/ photographer/ translator. They graciously accepted the offer they couldn’t have refused anyway.
So Gloria saved Ba Chuc’s villagers and launched Alex and myself into careers in journalism just like that. She was our hero.