In the early 1960s, Jerry Rose, a writer and artist, travels to Vietnam to teach English and gather material for his writing. Almost accidentally, he becomes one of America’s most important war correspondents. He interviews Vietnamese villagers in a countryside riddled by a war of terror and embeds himself with soldiers on the ground—the start of a dramatic and dangerous career. Through his stories and photographs, he exposes the secret beginnings of America’s Vietnam War at a time when most Americans have not yet heard of Vietnam. His writing is described as “war reporting that ranks with the best of Ernest Hemingway and Ernie Pyle.”
In spring 1965, Jerry agrees to serve as an advisor to the Vietnamese government at the invitation of his friend and former doctor, who is the new Prime Minister. He hopes to use his deep knowledge of the country to help Vietnam. In September 1965, while on a trip to investigate corruption in the provinces of Vietnam, Jerry dies in a plane crash in Vietnam.
Now, more than half a century later, his sister, Lucy Rose Fischer, has drawn on her late brother’s journals, letters, and other writings to craft his story. She has written this memoir in “collaboration” with her late brother—giving the term “ghostwritten” a whole new meaning.
Read on for an interview with Lucy Rose Fischer and an excerpt of The Journalist.
Q: What inspired your story?
A: I had the first spark of an idea for a book on my brother sometime in the mid- to late 1980s. I was at a life history conference in St Antonio, TX where I heard an author (it might have been Tim O’Brien) sharing his experiences as a soldier in Vietnam. I thought my brother’s story would be different.
My big brother, Jerry Rose, was a journalist in Vietnam in the early 1960s. He also served for a while as an advisor to the Vietnamese Prime Minister.
When my brother died there in 1965 in a plane crash, he left behind a treasure trove of journals, letters, and other writings—all of which my sister-in-law had carefully saved. He was only 31.
Q: When did you start writing this book?
A: I’ve been working on this book for a very long time. I think I wrote the first draft around 1990. I had a job directing research studies and took half-time off for seven months to work on the book. I wrote the first draft as a biography.
I was a PhD sociologist, so I approached this book as I had my other books that were research studies. But the manuscript needed a lot of work and I ran out of time. I had to get back to my paid career.
My sister-in-law had helped copy hundreds of pages of my brother’s writing. But she was uncomfortable with my telling so much about her life. She was a shy person.
I ended up putting the book project aside for 25 years. Everything sat in two big file drawers.
Q: When did you come back to the project?
A: It was after my sister-in-law died and their daughter and son were planning to send all his papers to the Hoover Institute at Stanford University. I started pulling out my old manuscript and copies of other documents and got excited all over again about my brother’s story.
My brother was a fascinating person. He was a painter and a writer. Going to Vietnam was a way to gather material for his art and his fiction. Initially, he was hired to teach English at the University of Hue. Vietnam had been a French colony, and Jerry spoke French because he had studied at the Sorbonne. He quickly became immersed in Vietnam and the Vietnamese people. He had a Vietnamese blood brother and was adopted into their family.
He became a journalist almost by accident when a friend asked him to take over his position as a stringer—a freelance journalist.
He did his own photography—because he was also an artist.
Q: Where were your brother’s stories published?
A: For much of the time, he was a stringer—so he wrote for different publications—Time, The New York Times, The Reporter, New Republic, and The Saturday Evening Post. He even did some broadcasts for ABC News – though my family never caught any of his live broadcasts. For a while, he had a staff position at Time-Life, but he found Time too conservative and constricting.
He published the first major story about US troops fighting in Vietnam—it was a cover story for The Saturday Evening Post, with his color photos. He liked to follow stories on his own—embed himself with troops and interview villagers. That was pretty unusual for his time.
He also published fiction in literary magazines. Just before he died, he had two books published—one was a book of photographs, Face of Anguish, and the other, Reported to Be Alive, was a book about an NBC cameraman who had been held captive by communist guerrillas in Laos. He was the ghost writer for that book.
Q: Are you a ghost-writer for your brother’s book?
A: I think this book gives a whole new meaning to the term “ghost-written.” I’ve written this book in my brother’s voice and listed him as first author.
My brother was a wonderful writer, so chunks of the book are drawn from his journals and letters. But a lot of the writing is mine.
It was an unusual choice to write this in his voice. It was his story and I wanted him to tell his own story, in the form of a memoir. I wrote it in present tense, as if the reader would be experiencing events along with him. That also felt right to me—because I had written my last two books in present tense.
My brother had been my mentor. He encouraged me to write.
The odd thing was—it was as if he trained me to do this—to write this book for him. While I was working on this, I felt that he was sitting on my shoulder and whispering in my ear. I could hear his voice.
Q: What do you think your brother would say about The Journalist?
A: This book is coming out almost exactly 55 years after Jerry died. I think my brother would wonder, “What took you so long?”
A Sleeping Child
Today is hot with heavy rainstorms in the afternoon and then a deluge of sun, and then another rainstorm. By the time I get home in the evening, I feel begrimed with sweat, and slightly claustrophobic from the low-cloud sky and enclosing heat. I shower immediately and the cold water helps; and the cool tiles on my bare feet helps; and drying myself in the wind of the ceiling fan helps. For a moment, then, naked under the ceiling fan, I feel clean, utterly clean, uncluttered and fresh.
Then I hear the first explosion, like an angry uplifting and falling of a stack of lumber. I begin to dress rapidly. Then comes a second explosion. Exactly one minute later. In another minute I’m dressed and on my way out. My heart is galloping and I’m thinking, Oh no… oh no… another attack in the city…
As I run out into the street, I find people rushing toward the river front. I stop an American, walking in the opposite direction, and ask “What happened?”
“A bomb…two bombs…” He has a look of horror in his eyes.
“It was at the My Canh Floating Restaurant.”
Something inside me gasps. Oh my god, my god, I was there with Kay and Thorina just a few days ago. It was so lovely, so peaceful, that evening, under the night sky, enjoying our meal, moored along the river at the elegant My Canh Floating Restaurant. And now…
I hurry on, wending my way among throngs of people, bicycles and motor bikes. The evening air is hot and heavy. Though I’ve just showered, my shirt is already damp with sweat. Sirens begin to lift their voices like mourners’ wails. A hysteria of sirens.
As I come near to the river, I find a tight line of police and soldiers in crisp uniforms encircling the My Canh. They try to keep the crowd back. All around me, people are yelling and shoving. The scent of smoke, blood and sweat shimmers in the hot air. I have a crushing sense of déjà vu—it was just a couple of months ago when I stood outside the American Embassy witnessing another scene of horror.
I’m on the opposite side of the street from the My Canh. Headlights from the ambulances illuminate bodies, heaped like mounds of wet red pulp on the gangplank leading up to the floating restaurant. I can barely breathe, and bile rises in my throat as I recognize a waiter from the restaurant—Phuong is his name. He’s being hefted into an ambulance. His body is raw and red, as if his skin has been ripped off. Just the other day, Phuong had a bright smile as he sauntered over to our table, holding a small glass of ginger ale with a cherry floating inside and handing it to our little Thorina.
Horst Faas, the German photographer, is taking pictures. His strobe light flashes, flashes, adding to the panic of the scene. It’s as if there’s a haze in front of my eyes, blurring my vision—my eyes are welling with tears.
On the side of the street where I’m standing, a tall Caucasian man lies on his back, badly blooded on the left side of his body. One leg is drawn up and he keeps moving it back and forth like a rhythmic groan.
And then there’s the child.
She’s in the shadows, lying on the pavement. She’s about ten years old. She wears black silky pants and a flowered blouse. She lies face down. Her right arm is neatly by her side. Her left arm is extended outward, palm up. She’s a sleeping child. She looks like she’s sleeping. Except for the already-coagulated streak of blood that has trickled out of her mouth, she seems untouched by the ravage of the explosion.
Perhaps she’s just unconscious, I think. I squat next to her and lift her left arm. My hand is trembling. My whole body is quivering. She’s not moving. I try her pulse. There is none. I put her arm back into the same position, palm up.
With tears streaming down my face, I stand up. Light, laughter cut short; all the child’s glee gone. The girl continues to sleep at my feet. She lies dead in the street.
And the picture continues to burn and hurt. I think she will always remain with me, a sleeping child somewhere within me.
Purchase your copy of The Journalist here.
Jerry A. Rose published feature articles and photographs in TIME, The New York Times, The Saturday Evening Post, New Republic, The Reporter, and other news venues. He authored two books: Reported to be Alive and Face of Anguish, a book of his photographs. He was one of the most accomplished journalists of his time.
Lucy Rose Fischer, Jerry’s younger sister, an award-winning Minnesota author, artist, and social scientist, is the author of five previous books: Linked Lives: Adult Daughters and Their Mothers; Older Minnesotans; Older Volunteers; I’m New at Being Old; and Grow Old With Me, as well as more than 100 professional research articles. She has a PhD in sociology and an MA in Asian Studies.