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Fresh Air Remembers '60 Minutes' Correspondent Morley Safer

DAVE DAVIES, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. Morley Safer, the CBS correspondent known for decades of work on the Sunday news magazine "60 Minutes" died of pneumonia yesterday at his home in New York. He was 84. Safer won a host of awards, including Emmys, Peabodys and a George Polk Award. Terry interviewed him in 1990.

Safer's reporting ranged far beyond "60 Minutes." He covered wars in the Middle East, the conflict in Northern Ireland, the Cultural Revolution in China, the Soviet Invasion of Czechoslovakia and most significantly the war in Vietnam. He was known for his compelling stories from Vietnam of American troops in combat and the impact of the war on civilians.

Safer's report of Marines burning Vietnamese huts while weeping villagers begged them to stop so infuriated President Johnson that he wanted Safer fired and had him investigated as a potential communist. Let's start with an excerpt of that 1965 report from Vietnam.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

MORLEY SAFER: If there were Viet Cong in the hamlets, they were long gone, alerted by the roar of the amphibious tractors and the heavy barrage of rocket fire laid down before the troops moved in. The women and the old men who remained will never forget that August afternoon.

Today's operation is the frustration of Vietnam in miniature. There's little doubt that American firepower can win a military victory here. But to a Vietnamese peasant whose home is a - means a lifetime of backbreaking labor, it will take more than presidential promises to convince him that we are on his side.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)

TERRY GROSS, BYLINE: Can you describe what the mission was?

SAFER: The mission was not an extraordinary one. I had been up in Danang, which was the - where the headquarters of the Marines were. The Marines were responsible in Vietnam for something called I Corps. It's the military way of saying first corps. And I had arrived back up in Danang - I used to go up there every couple of weeks - and went out from the press center and checked in with various battalions to find out whether they had operations going on.

And one group said they had an operation going on the next morning. Would I like to come? And I said, yes, I would. And the cameraman, Ha Thuc Can, and I and a young man named Tin (ph), who was a soundman, arrived at - oh, I don't know - 5:30, 6 in the morning. And off we went in some amphibious track vehicles.

And along the way, a young officer told me they were going to in effect burn out a group of hamlets called Cam Ne, and I said why? And he said because the head honcho, the head Vietnamese honcho who was, I guess, the - would've been the district chief - had ordered. And I found this hard to believe because as brutal as search and destroy operations often were, at least in theory, they were not designed to level a place. I mean, if you receive fire, if there was fighting, that might've been the end result.

But we moved into this village. There was - they laid down a full array of what they call prepping it - rockets and some artillery and very heavy small arms fire - with very little return fire seemed to be coming out of the place. And then the Marines moved in and proceeded to burn the village down with everything from flamethrowers to cigarette lighters. And this wasn't an atrocity. You can't make any comparison with anything that happened in Germany or something like My Lai. This is quite a different kind of thing. But nevertheless, people were in shock to have seen on their television screens this kind of action by their boys.

GROSS: After your report from Cam Ne, you laid awake all night with a gun - a loaded gun. What were you afraid of? What were you expecting?

SAFER: Well, after sending that piece in, we left and went back to Saigon. And the following day - you must remember, Terry, I was younger - the following day I got a call from the Marines in Danang saying if I ever showed my face there again, they would not be responsible for what happened to me. And I said, well, you've never been responsible for what happens to me. What do you mean by that? Is this a threat? We just want to tell you show your face around here and something is going to happen. So I went to Ha Thuc Can, and I said, listen, I'm not going to tell you you got to come up -back up there, but I'm going up. Do you want to come to see this thing through? So Can and I went back to…

GROSS: This is your cameraman.

SAFER: Yeah. Back to Danang and we had a little - the Marines ran something called a press center. It was like a motel there, and each of the networks and a couple of the papers had permanent rooms there. It's the only time I carried a gun. And I went into the sort of bar dining room and had my dinner alone with Ha Thuc Can. Nobody would join us except for the Air Force officer who hated the Marines because he was in the Air Force.

And at about 8 or 9 o'clock, I got up, and there were a lot of cracks coming from the bar and pretty rough stuff. And I pointed to my bag, and I said there's a gun in here. Anybody comes through that door, I'm just going to blow them away. I'm not going to ask any questions. You know, tough guy.

(LAUGHTER)

SAFER: I've seen too many movies or something. And I was scared stiff and kind of - I went back, and we got into our bunks. And I locked the door, and I sat there trying to - lay in bed trying to read. And I had this pistol on the night table, and I had the safety on and then I had the safety off. And I thought better leave the safety on because I roll over in the middle of the night, and I shoot my foot off or something. So I put the safety on. And I lay awake all night scared as hell that somebody might actually come through the door.

And I knew I wouldn't do anything. I just don't think I could fire a pistol at someone - or at something for that matter. Anyway, it was - tempers cooled - I'll put it that way. And my relationship with the Marine Corps now is very good.

DAVIES: Morley Safer speaking with Terry Gross in 1990. Safer died yesterday in New York. He was 84.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

DAVIES: On Monday's show, Rabbi Susan Silverman, sister of comedian Sarah Silverman. After giving birth to two daughters, she and her husband adopted two boys from Ethiopia. She's become an advocate for international adoption which has been in decline, and she's the author of the new book "Casting Lots: Creating A Family In A Beautiful, Broken World." I hope you can join us. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.