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Dear John

Esquire in the Sixties
by Carol Polsgrove
© 1995 by Carol Polsgrove

History All Around

In the fall of 1965, John Sack, former CBS bureau chief at Madrid, was sitting around CBS in New York without very much to do but read magazines. He would sign up for whatever office magazine he wanted to read, and when he got finished reading the magazine, he would cross off his name and a mail boy would deliver it to next name on the list. The routine varied for only one magazine: Esquire, which bad to be passed around in an interoffice envelope--otherwise the mail boys would divert it.

One day toward the end of October, Sack was reading Time magazine, and he came to an article that described soldiers getting off a troopship in Vietnam as "lean, laconic, and looking for a fight." He didn't believe it. He had been a soldier in Korea. A night or two after he read the Time article, Sack woke up in his apartment on East 63rd Street at four o’clock in the morning, and he knew what he was going to do. He would do the same thing he had done in his book on the Korean War, From Here to Shimbashi--he would follow a company through infantry training into their first combat in Vietnam. Now that he thought of it, it seemed obvious--the only way to report a war, the way Mailer did it in The Naked and the Dead, the way Joseph Heller did it in Catch-22: show soldiers in a context readers can identify with, then follow them into the strange world of war.

He would do it as a documentary for CBS News--then he had second thoughts. As soon as he proposed the idea he would be told, "Great idea, you’re the associate producer." He could guess how the producer in charge would do the piece, and he wanted none of it. Better he should take an absence from CBS, and write the story as an article for Esquire.

On October 25, he wrote to Harold Hayes, as chattily--although they had met only once--as if they were buddies.

All right, it happened, after four happy years as a writer, producer, and special correspondent there is something I want to just plain write.

It's this. I just can't bring myself to believe in the soldiers said to be doing duty for us in Vietnam.

He mentioned Time, he mentioned the afternoon paper, he even mentioned Esquire, which had somewhere called the soldiers "cool."

Where in this outfit is Beetle Bailey? Willie and Joe? Dammit, I know they're there…where is Private Hargrove?

Look, this is the Army, I've got to assume that a couple of things are still snafu, that the cooks are getting eggshells in the scrambled eggs, that the back-of-the-barracks conversation is about making it with girls, that a sergeant's most awful anxiety is over the sheen of his combat boots, that one or two privates haven't learned dress-right-dress from right-about-march, that a certain number of them haven't the foggiest of where Vietnam is or why they're going there…

Why wasn't anyone saying anything about the "sad sacks, boneheads, goldbricks, loudmouths, paranoiacs, catatonics, incompetents, semi-conscientious objectors, malingerers, cry-babies, yahoos, vulgarians, big time operators, butterfingers, sadists, and surly bastards"?

Would Hayes give him an assignment to follow a company into Vietnam?

Hayes answered right away:

Dear John,
Jesus Christ, how much would all this cost?

A thousand dollars? suggested Sack, going for what he thought he could get.

By early January 1966 he was out at Fort Dix, New Jersey, on assignment for Esquire. By the second day, he was glad he had not done the story for CBS News. No one on the base was talking about Vietnam. Everyone was more concerned with the captain's inspection on Saturday, or getting off on the weekend. Vietnam never came up, except now and then when a sergeant would say, "You'd better shape up because you're going to Vietnam." And everybody would just groan.

If he were working on the story under a CBS producer, after one day with the company the producer would come back shaking his head and saying, "No one's saying anything about Vietnam, they're not talking about Vietnam."

And Sack would say, "Yes, that's the whole story."

The producer might give it another day, and on the second day when nobody was saying anything about Vietnam he would break into a sweat. His face would turn red, and he would say, "We've gotta get in there with a correspondent." And he'd have Charlie Kuralt go up to the soldiers and say, "Well, in one month you're going to Vietnam. What do you think about that?"

Sack was glad he was writing the story for Esquire. Like the television producer he was, he passed his days at camp collecting scenes: M Company firing its first real ammunition in a mock attack--guns stalling, guns going off, soldiers running in front of other soldiers with loaded and unpredictable guns. He went around scribbling notes and thinking he'd walked into a goldmine. He'd clutch his notebooks and say, "It's gold, it's gold."

The story was falling into place just as he imagined it--a gallery of real, true enlisted men was taking shape in front of his eyes. There was Demirgian, who wanted more than anything else to get out of the army--he even hired a former policeman to break his jaw. Then someone said, just in time, that a broken jaw wouldn't get him out of the army. He'd have to break his foot. "Can you break my foot?" There was Mason, a Harlem street-fighter who figured he had the skills to come out of Vietnam alive. There was Smith, a God-fearing farmboy who wanted to be a minister and joined the army to test his ability to follow the Lord's will and not to kill.

Sack's plan was to go with the company on its first operation, and that would be the end of the article. He flew with the men to Saigon and...  More

Read the first scene-and-a-half

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It Wasn't Pretty, Folks,
But Didn't We Have Fun?
Esquire in the 60s

by Carol Polsgrove
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Read about M
in Vietnam, We've All Been There:

Read about M           
in Dictionary of Literary Biography           

Other books by John Sack