Al Kaff Reflects on Vietnam

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Al Kaff meets the princess, as his wife Diana looks on.

In an unrelated photo, Al Kaff meets Princess Margaret as his wife Diana looks on. Lord Snowdon, the late princess’s first husband, is in the background.

Albert E. Kaff, 91, died of a heart attack at St. Vincent's Hospital in Bridgeport, Connecticut, at 12:15 p.m. on Tuesday, October 25. This article was written on August 17, 2009.


Tracy Wood, long my friend, suggested that I describe the life of a correspondent in Saigon before most of the Viet Hacks arrived there. So here goes. Ernie Hoberecht, then the United Press vice president for Asia, sent me to Saigon in 1956, not because of any news requirement but because President Ngo Dinh Diem’s government agreed to sign a contract with UP for delivery of our radio Teletype news to Vietnam Press, the nation’s official news agency, if UP replaced its French correspondent with an American. I was that American, the French correspondent returned to Paris and I was UP’s bureau manager for two years, 1956-1958.

Bureau manager? I was the entire UP staff in Saigon except for a Vietnamese cameraman who shot film for UP’s TV service. The rest of the Saigon press corps consisted of AP’s Joe Nerbonne, Reuters Jacques Mutisommy (spelling?) who was an Indian correspondent, two Frenchmen with AFP (Saigon’s biggest bureau) and two or three British correspondents. Gene and Ann Gregory ran the English-language daily The Times of Vietnam, but we suspected they were CIA or some sort of government agents. Correspondents based elsewhere dropped in for a few days, and I particularly remember my old friend Bob Elegant of Newsweek being carried dead drunk from a Rue Catinet restaurant. Other memories: Drinks at a sidewalk table outside the Majestic Hotel with visiting Tom Dooley, the jungle medical doctor of Laos who helped transplant more than 600,000 Catholics from North Vietnam to the South in the U.S. Navy’s 1954 Operation Passage to Freedom; meeting and chatting with an attractive Vietnamese woman in a restaurant and buying her drinks only to be told later that it was a man; the presidential palace telephoning me late one afternoon at the Continental, where I then was staying, to give me 30 minutes to arrive for a long-requested interview with Diem. I barely made it through a heavy rain.

In addition to all Vietnam, I was expected to cover Laos and Cambodia. But I never visited those countries, picking up reports from Vientiane and Phnom Penh in Saigon. During two years, I left Saigon only twice – once on a day trip to Banmethuot with other correspondents and once on an afternoon trip to Cap St. Jacques with an Air France Japanese stewardess.

My daily routine was simple. In the mornings I would take a pedicab to Vietnam Press, pickup the overnight UP news file and the latest Vietnam Press reports. Then drop in at the office of Diem’s spokesman. The spokesman once told me, obviously not for quotation, that if reunification elections were held in the North and South as directed by the 1954 Geneva Accords that divided Vietnam at the 17th parallel but were never held, Ho Chi Minh would win even in the South. Then to the U.S. Embassy to see if they had any reports of disturbances in the countryside or whatever. I considered the British Embassy to be the most reliable and impartial source, and I often had lunch or drinks with the British spokesman.

There was little breaking news worth overheading to Paris, and I airmailed most of my dispatches to Manila from where the UP news report was transmitted by radio Teletype to Asia clients. The few stories that I sent by cable to Paris included a bomb exploding in the USIS library during the daily two-hour lunch siesta when no one was there, government-organized demonstrations against the Nationalist Chinese embassy and an unsuccessful assassination attempt on Diem during a ceremony in Banmethuot. Most of the small Saigon press corps were there for that ceremony. Art Higbee, then an editor in the Paris bureau, later told me that most of my overheads were spiked. Newspaper editors often changed the dateline on what dispatches got into print from SAIGON, VIETNAM to SAIGON, INDOCHINA. The name Vietnam was relatively unknown in the 1950s.

Lunch in my apartment prepared by my Vietnamese maid, recommended at wages even a Unipresser could afford. I lived in what was a brand new apartment house across the street from Hopital Grall and managed by a retired French soldier and his wife. Then an afternoon sunbathing at pool side in Circle Sportif, eyeing the girls in bikinis, particularly a stunning and very young Vietnamese whom I came to know. Drinks and dinner with friends, usually on the verandah of the Continental Palace (we never called it the Continental Shelf). Sometimes we were invited to the house of one of the then most widely known American residents in Saigon, Wolf Latajinsky, the land reform expert, for an excellent lunch that Wolf cooked and prepared himself. The Philippine ambassador lived on the same floor of the apartment house where I lived. One afternoon in 1957, I knocked on his door and told him that former Philippine President Ramon Magsaysay had just been killed in an airplane crash. The ambassador wept.

In those days, Air France crews on the Tokyo-Paris route would lay over for two or three days in Saigon, staying at the Continental, and I dated a couple of Air France’s Japanese hostesses. It was a comfortable life. The French restaurants and coffee shops along Rue Catinet were great places to spend leisurely hours. The French residents pretty much ignored the Americans, whom they viewed as interlopers. U.S. Ambassador and Mrs. Elbridge Dubrow invited the relatively few American civilians living in Saigon to Sunday afternoons of badminton and refreshments on their residential lawn. The few hundred U.S. military men in country were supposed only to oversee delivery of American military supplies to Vietnam. But their commanders sent them on patrols with South Vietnamese soldiers against Viet Minh insurgents. When I left Saigon in 1958 for Taiwan, the Caravelle Hotel was only a steel skeleton, its construction temporarily halted by financial problems. I spent 29 years with UP/UPI based in Seoul, Tokyo, Saigon, Taipei, Manila and Hong Kong. Saigon was by far the dullest of those cities but the most beautiful.

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James Brooke's picture
James Brooke on 27 October 2011 - 12:22pm

Fascinating a career -- and an inspiration to us all that he was writing at 91! On reading Al's profile, I realize I was a UPI college campus stringer in 1976 when he was head of personnel. Glad I finally met him at OPC's Japan Old Hands event. Jim Brooke. VOA bureau chief, Moscow.