The Vietnam War lasted 15 years and George Esper covered it for 10. From 1965 through the fall of Saigon in 1975, writing daily for the Associated Press, he wrote more words on the war than any other journalist.In his 42 years with the AP, Esper covered conflicts around the globe, but for him (and most of us who reported Vietnam) it would become the biggest story of his life.
In many ways, it was an easy war to cover, with few restrictions for journalists. But with easy coverage came the danger; 70 of our Western colleagues were killed, more than in World War II. Esper set the bar high for those of us who would follow him into the bloody paddies and jungles. And he did it with a combination of dogged persistence, aggressiveness, quiet dignity and professionalism.
George was a damn good journalist. George was a damn good friend. He was known to us all as a gentleman journalist.
In these days when the watchdogs of journalism don’t bark much anymore, we remember and appreciate Esper’s brand of reporting. He saw himself as a guardian of the people’s right to know. He was from that special school of journalism…the “if your mother says she loves you, check it out” school of journalism.
“You don’t want to be obnoxious and you don’t want to stalk people, but I think persistence in covering news pays off,” Esper said in an interview in 2000.
So when he was assigned to write a story on the 20th anniversary of the Kent State shootings of four students and could find no phone number for the mother of one of the students killed, he drove through a snowstorm for an hour to knock on her door.
“She just kind of waved me off, and she said, ‘We’re not giving any interviews,’ Esper recalled. “I didn’t really push her. On the other hand I didn’t leave, I just stood there, wet with snow, dripping and cold and I think she took pity on me.”
Like so many others over the years, she opened her heart to George.
In Vietnam, Esper applied his relentless persistence to the ancient and frustrating telephone network, a talent that would make him a legend in the press corps. As a freelance photographer in 1965, I would often drop by the AP bureau in the Eden building just to watch George “the telephone man” work the phones… “Tiger, Tiger, get me Red Dog, Red Dog…working, working!” He would shout as if he was a four-star general.
Once when a U.S. firebase was under pressure, he managed to get through on a military line to an officer in the midst of combat. “I can’t talk now. We’re under attack,” the officer yelled into the phone.
One of my NBC News colleagues told me about traveling for three days by C-130 and helicopters to reach the scene of a major battle in the A Shau valley only to be scooped by Esper working the phones. “Do you know a guy called Esper?” the commanding officer asked. “Well he just interviewed me over the phone.”
Esper found his best stories through grit and guile. In 1972, he got an exclusive interview with an Air Force B-52 pilot facing court-martial for refusing to fly missions over North Vietnam. He tracked him to Thailand and the pilot gave Esper the full story, including the fact he had been officially “muzzled” from commenting. Esper reported that too.
The US Military Assistance Command (MACV) regarded Esper with wariness, respect and even affection. At the daily “Five o’clock Follies” his questioning was often relentless. “Why don’t you know? You should know.
I know you must know.” After the war, one retired public affairs officer is reported to have included Esper’s photo in a wall montage of “all the commanders I served under.”
Esper wrote his most memorable Vietnam story as the AP bureau chief on April 30, 1975, the day the war ended with the fall of Saigon to the North Vietnamese. Esper, reporter Peter Arnett and photographer Mat Franjola were three American AP staffers who refused to join the frantic evacuation of foreigners as the North Vietnamese Army closed in on Saigon.
Two armed North Vietnamese soldiers soon walked into the AP office. Esper offered them Coca Cola and stale cake as he interviewed them. “They showed me photographs of their wives and children,” Esper recalled. “Vietnamese-South and North, Americans, we’re all the same it seems. That’s how the war ended for me.”
Hours later, AP communications were cut with the outside world, but not before the story got out and became the front page story in the New York Times.
“I was able to put my feelings aside and do my reporting,” Esper recalled years after the war. “But even now it haunts me and I feel a sense of loss and mourning. What a pity all those people died. I didn’t feel sorrow and pain at the time, but I really feel it now.”
On his return to the U.S., Esper became an AP Special Correspondent based in Boston. He was assigned major world stories including the Jonestown massacre in Guyana and in 1991 the Gulf War.
In 1993, Esper returned to Vietnam to open AP’s first post-war bureau in Hanoi and was Bureau Chief for over a year. Following his death on Feb. 2, 2012, in an unprecedented gesture, the government of Vietnam paid tribute to Esper. The Foreign Ministry delivered a letter to the AP’s Hanoi bureau, “remembering a kind and caring gentleman and friend whose professionalism and tenacity impressed us very much.”
In 2000, Esper retired from the AP after 42 years to pursue a second career as a professor of journalism at his alma mater, West Virginia University, Morgantown, WV. He taught writing and reporting and journalism history.Failing health overcame him in 2011, and he was finally forced to retire. As he battled heart disease, cancer, arthritis and diabetes, his attitude, mental strength and good humor never wavered. It may take more courage as an old and sick man nearing the end of a life, than facing death as a young man in a Vietnam jungle.
During the summer of 2011 George was very ill and in a nursing home in Braintree, Mass. The institution was a nightmare and George was worried he would be stuck there with elderly people who had lost their minds and wandered aimlessly in the halls. But George would interview everyone and knew all their stories.
One day a nurse was taking his vitals and asked, “Sir, I need to know your name, age and where you are?” George replied in a mock serious tone, “My name is George Esper, I am 78 years old and I am in Hell.”
George was born in Uniontown, Penn. in 1932. His family ran a tavern near the railroad tracks, and as a boy George helped out tending bar. The mystery of how the son of a Lebanese immigrant family growing up in small town America became a world-class war reporter was found in a documentary about Esper’s life, produced by one of his students and finished just a week before his death.
In “Tales of an AP Journalist,” Elaine McMillion used the techniques George taught her to open his innermost secrets and tell a compelling and moving story of his life from Uniontown through the worlds conflicts and back.
“When I was growing up in Uniontown there was a lot of prejudice against Lebanese immigrants. People called us ‘camel drivers,’” Esper explains in the documentary. “Girls didn’t want to go out with you. I was rejected so many times and it kind of adds up. I don’t feel the hurt the way I used to. I dealt with it by saying they will someday regret they shunned me.”
More scar tissue to the soul was added in his freshman year at West Virginia University. “My ambition was to be a sports star. I turned out for the football team but at 120 pounds only lasted one day. Afterwards the coach came over in the locker room. I was in tears. He said, ‘George everybody likes you but you’re going to get hurt. Why don’t you be the team’s student manager?’ So I started and was writing press releases for the team, sending them to newspapers and soon I got a job as a sports writer for a home town paper, the Uniontown Morning Herald.”
It led to a job with the AP in nearby Pittsburgh and the slights and rejections he had experienced
apparently fanned the flames of his ambition to succeed as a journalist.
On Feb. 9, 2012, Esper was laid to rest where his life had begun 79 years ago in Uniontown, a coal mining and steel making town nestled in the western ridge of the Appalachian mountains. More than 100 mourners, townspeople, Vietnam War colleagues and his West Virginia University students gathered for a funeral mass at the St. George Maronite Catholic Church.
Nobody suggested George Esper was a saint, but in his homily, Father Nadim Helou said, “I am sure George is numbered among the righteous and the just. His time spent in Vietnam made him a peacemaker, who tried to pass on these virtues to family and in his teaching.”
Following burial at nearby Sylvan Heights Cemetery, Esper’s friends returned to the St. George Church for a Lebanese lunch and to recall memories of George.
“Hundreds of journalists learned from him in the field or in the classroom and his words and his spirit inspire them every day,” said Kathleen Carroll, AP’s Executive Editor.
Chris Martin, a Vice President of West Virginia University said, “George was a celebrity who made everyone he met feel like a star. It made him a great reporter but an even greater human being.”
Richard Pyle, an AP Saigon colleague quipped, “In Saigon we used to say that we should sell tickets to watch George Esper make phone calls. I’m half expecting my phone to ring any minute now.”
George Esper talks about covering VietNam:
Don North is the vice president of the Military Reporters & Editors Association. He was born in Canada and has been a military reporter since covering Vietnam and most recently Iraq and Afghanistan.