No Place for a Lady charts Thea Rosenbaum’s turbulent life from a little girl escaping the Soviet Army with her mother in Berlin in 1945 to becoming Germany’s first woman stock broker at Oppenheimer and Co. to Germany’s only woman war correspondent in Vietnam. She then embarked on a career as producer for ARD German television in the US, where she was White House pool producer for foreign correspondents from the late ’70s to late 2000s. In this capacity, she traveled with five presidents and was present in Germany for the end of the Cold War as the Berlin Wall fell. Her life, as a civilian, correspondent, and producer, bookends and charts the greatest conflict of the later half of the twentieth century.
As she rose in the ranks of a difficult career, she was constantly overcoming her sense of inferiority, ugliness, and even stupidity. While becoming a journalist was always something she aspired to, as a young lady, she believed she was too stupid to achieve it, and yet she was able to succeed in every facet of the work for five decades. At every point in her historic career, she overcame the under-expectations and prejudices of her contemporaries as well as, and most especially, her own inner weakness and self-deprecation.
As to the history she witnessed, she gathered chocolate in the streets of Berlin that the Americans dropped during the Berlin Airlift. As a West Berliner, she was there the night the barbed wire first went up, hardening the East/West divide. Later, and as a journalist, she was in Khe-Sanh in ’68 when it was the focus of attack by the NVA until the Tet Offensive began, when she reported on the NVA and Vietcong attacks from Nam O, Hue, and Saigon. She was the first woman to report from a nuclear submarine. She covered the Carter administration for the Camp David Accords as well as reporting from Cairo when the deal was finalized.
No Place for a Lady also reveals many of Thea’s funny, and sometimes not, interactions with America’s greatest journalists.
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No Place for a Lady
By Thea Rosenbaum
AuthorHouse LLCCopyright © 2014 Thea Rosenbaum
All rights reserved.
I'm headed to Khe-Sanh in the jump seat of a C-130. Three weeks ago we didn't even know this place existed. It was just an out-of-the-way Marine base in the mountains near the North Vietnamese boarder. But since the North Vietnamese Army started to attack the Americans on the night of January the 21st, and landed a big hit, destroying the base's ammo dump, every journalist in Southeast Asia is trying to get here. The powers that be are allowing in only two journalists at a time for three-day clips. I'm lucky enough to be one of them, but I'm apprehensive as well. There's talk that Khe-Sanh will be the location of the largest battle in Vietnam. I'm only comforted because we think the military let a woman in since they were anticipating a lull in hostilities for the upcoming Tet holiday.
It's January 29th, 1968, and I'm glued to a jump seat behind the pilot, looking down on the approaching base. From above it's like a series of linked, reddish mud-bogs. Everything seems covered in dirt, the men included, an impression I confirm a little later. Outside the base are the hills and mountains, which are heavily fought over. From those hilltops, and other locations, the NVA was able to maintain a bombardment of about a thousand rounds per day into Khe-Sanh.
As I'm looking at the base, and wondering what it's like to take such a number of incoming, the pilot turns around and says, "Do you want to take pictures?"
"Sarge, open the hatch so she can lean out!"
He opens the hatch in the roof above me, and before I can think twice, I'm climbing on the jump seat armrest. I put my head out the hatch, using my elbows as tripods to brace myself, and start snapping pictures of the upcoming runway. This is certainly something I've never done before, and my anxious energy changes to excitement.
Now we're on the ground, rolling down the runway, and I'm getting carried away snapping pictures as we move by the base, until the pilot yells: "Thea, didn't you want to get out here?"
"Well, you better go."
"You haven't stopped."
"We ain't gonna stop, baby. You better jump if you want to go. You better head out the back now."
I pull my gear together along with my Leica camera and run to the back of the cargo area. At the end of the long plane I see men push crates down the ramp, which keeps the base supplied. It's too dangerous to land here. As this thought comes to mind my apprehension returns because if this place is too dangerous for a plane to land, what about me?
I run off the ramp and onto the hard-packed dirt surface and look around as I slow down from running. I can feel their eyes on me from the mountains above. Just a moment ago I was looking down on them. Now I'm sure all eyes are on me—the only blond girl around for miles, and the only one alone in the middle of Khe-Sanh's runway. To add to my sense of comfort, the edge of the strip is littered with planes and helicopters that got hit and were pushed to the side and left there. The feeling I have is not a good one. Walking down the runway I hear the click click sound of incoming. Just a few yards off I see oil drums and throw myself behind them, hitting the ground hard as I land, bending my new lens cap in the process.
I realize this as I snap a picture of one of the strangest things I've seen before. In front of me, there are cows crossing the runway as they flee to save themselves. The fear in their eyes reminds me of something I saw in my childhood. After Soviet troops burned our Berlin apartment, my mother and I escaped the wrecked city to the country where my grandparents kept a cottage. Dead bodies were everywhere, but I remember crying when I saw a group of horses lying together in a ditch among rubble and blood. This was a cost of war rarely reported. You hear of the buildings smashed and burned and of the people dead and wounded, but rarely of the animals killed or the lovely tree, staple of your childhood backyard, shattered by mortars. These are terrible things also. They are part of the mood of war, and seeing the cows scatter with terror in their eyes brought me to the moment when we were also the victims of war.
It wasn't just the cows running from the plane that struck me but the oddity of cows on a military runway at all. I later learned the people in the village of Khe-Sanh, looking for safety, had brought their herds here. And so that's how you get cows on a runway dodging incoming.
But that didn't help my position now, behind oil drums. At the end of the airstrip, the C-130 banked over the trees for its return flight, followed by explosions on the runway. To my left Marines motion to me from the large green sandbag opening that leads to the base. The Marine closest to me is shouting: "Those drums are full of oil! Those drums are full of oil!"
I remember thinking: "Where else was a I supposed to go?" These were the only objects within a reasonable distance that I could have hid behind. Had one of the cows been hit, I suppose that might have served my purpose too. But the men here also just thought I looked funny. And they were right. A journalist scrambling for her life on an open runway was probably funny to some of the Marines under these conditions.
The incoming stops and somebody runs over from the sandbags and takes me inside. He grabs my arm and pulls me. I notice his hands are covered with red clay from where he grabbed me. I'm covered in the clay from diving on the edge of the strip. Everything is covered in it, even the oil drums have red smudges on their sides, and the green sandbag walls show the red streaks, especially down by the ground where the men kick it up. It's evening and it's just starting to get dark, but the red is clearly visible wherever you look.
As we enter the base, the man says: "You could have been killed."
"Well, how else was I supposed to get in?"
He doesn't respond. Who knows what he's thinking. Since it's dark now few Marines know there's a woman here, which may be better for now. The man I'm with takes me to the Marine Captain, whose job is to keep me alive and out of trouble. After a short introduction in the opening to a sandbag enclosure, the Captain walks me to the First Aid Tent. Inside is full of wounded men, mostly there from shrapnel. The ones who take direct fire don't make it here.
When I ask for the bathroom, he points it out to me just across from the First Aid Tent. I'm wearing fatigues and I have on a white Marine belt that was given to me by a friend. The trouble is that something is broken, and I can't get it off. It's dark and I can't see. I call the Captain, and he comes with a flashlight, and in the dark, holding possibly the only light in camp, he fumbles to undo my belt outside the latrine. I can only guess what the others think. There are a few laughs from somewhere indistinguishable as the Captain walks back to the tent alone. I follow shortly behind.
Without a word on the incident, the Captain puts me on a cot in a section of the Medical Tent where I'm mostly by myself. Soon the only thing I can think of is a shell dropping through the fabric above me. There's something about being attacked from above that's more unsettling than any other part of warfare. There's no action during the night, and so I sleep, but from time to time, and all night long, I hear the planes landing out on that strip. I can tell the deceleration and landing from the acceleration of the takeoff. The two come close together as the planes are not stopping throughout the night.
Next morning, I'm up early to tour the base. I want to see the ammo dump first—or what's left of it. The NVA really landed a blow when they hit that ammo dump, and it is important that I see the destruction. Word still hasn't spread that there's a woman in camp, but as I'm walking in the direction of the ammo dump I happen upon the open shower where the young Marines are bathing.
Here I am, a young blond German girl in the midst of a war, watching these young men shower. I'm a journalist, but when I see these young, fit men I pause without thinking. It's only a moment before they notice me standing there. The fact that I'm wearing fatigues apparently doesn't hide that I am a woman, and the men begin shouting, "Female in camp! Female in camp!" and boyishly run for their towels. I couldn't tell why they did that. I hadn't even taken pictures. Some of them blush, while others turn with towels on and stand, chests out, in more aggressive stances.
After the shower scene with the naked Marines, I continue on toward where the ammo dump was pointed out to me. It's not hard to find. Like the Captain said as he sent me in this direction, "You can't miss it." And you really can't. The ammo dump is now just one giant hole in the ground. When it blew up, it took nearly everything with it, and sent all types of munitions bouncing in every direction in camp and onto the runway itself. This is the reason the planes must land around the clock as they do, even risking coming down in broad daylight. If there's to be a full assault on the base, then they need every round they can get. With the explosion and subsequent damage, the Marines must get in more supplies so they don't run out of bullets when the shooting starts.
I talk out loud to my tape recorder and snap a few pictures. I notice a small dug-in bunker off to the side of the runway. I think this must be the tower where they direct landing planes, and since the base is under attack, the "tower" is underground and fortified. I make a note to get there after the briefing.
A few Marines are nearby as I look over the ammo dump. Suddenly I hear the click click sound, and the Marine closest to me shouts damn near in my ear, "Incoming!" I hit the red clay ground again, but I'm the only one. The other Marines stand there laughing as I dust myself off. The rounds were outgoing. I assume this is payback for witnessing some of them in the shower, but I can't be sure. A few of them look me over with less than friendly eyes.
We don't say another word to each other and I head off to the briefing. But since the briefing reveals nothing new, I walk out by the runway and enter the bunker. There are no flights scheduled to land for the next hour or so, so the man inside takes some time to talk with me. He's bored to tears.
This is not the assignment he planned on. "Sergeant Lan," he says to me, reaching out his hand. "Thea," I say. Despite the sunshine it's dark inside the bunker where he directs air traffic. Beneath a haze of smoke, he begins to talk. I guess since the Marines at Khe-Sanh were all in the same boat, and he had no one to talk to, he opened up to me. You might think the men were not fond of talking to journalists. I found it to be exactly the opposite.
Sergeant Lan is not where he wants to be, he tells me. Of course this goes without saying, since he's in Khe-Sanh, but in his case this is especially true. Until getting transferred here, Lan had it good in the Marines. He only arrived a few days before I did. Prior to this unfortunate deployment, he handled the Officers Bar and the Enlisted Men's Bar. He worked the supplies, but he also traded in money, wheeling and dealing in military payment certificates and cash. The PX wouldn't accept American dollars, only dealing in military scrip, and so he had what they called a "mamma sanh" in a nearby village who helped him exchange the money. He was running black market arbitrage and doing well. So well, in fact, that he had re-enlisted to keep his business. He had it in mind that he would supply the Americans in Japan. He probably read Catch-22 and took that sort of military venture to heart. That was before he was sent here for a four-week stint in a fortified, underground airport tower, which saw constant assault.
At this point his dreams of building an empire in the Marine Corps were about as far away as possible.
"I won't leave this hole unless it's an urgent urgent." He says. "Just urgent's not enough to have me cross the open, not after the last few days."
"Today's not bad."
"Remember that when you cross back to the base," he said.
He's right. As I cross back in the open, I remember his words. Today isn't a bad day, but the silence is ruthless as I imagine the concussion that might come all of a sudden. I'm sure I'll hear the click click first, but God knows where it'll land.
Back in the base I see a French photographer. He's frantic because he just learned in a briefing that an offensive is on throughout the country. There is no cease-fire. It's obvious we have to get out. The action here at Khe-Sanh has died. We're in the wrong place. There's a war on after all, and it's my job to report from it.CHAPTER 2
Next morning we're on a helicopter out of Khe-Sanh. I arrived the 29th to stay through the 1st, but I got a ride out the 31st. Two full days without a shot fired is a long time, especially when the German Wire Service is pressing for twice daily news.
The flight from Khe-Sanh was uneventful, but I hit the ground running in DaNang and got over to the Press Center as fast as I could. First, I need to shower. This dust I'm covered in is awful and is giving my hair a red hue and texture I don't like. The Press Center's a good place to make connections and hear the news as well as clean up.
I quickly run to the showers and strip down, happy to have the hot water, but inside the shower stall I hear commotion outside. There's something happening. The journalists are getting excited, and if that's the case, then there's a story. I quickly get out of the shower and dress. With my boots in hand, I run out of the locker and see reporters assembling in Jeeps out in front of the center. I grab my recorder. In the street I jump into one of the Jeeps as they leave in a small convoy.
"Where we headed," I ask?
"Up the bay road, a place called Nam O."
And so it goes. I'm barefoot in the Jeep before I rub the dirt off my soles and put my boots on. My hair is still wet as we parallel DaNang Bay on the road up to the little village. It's such a lovely day, it's hard to imagine that people are fighting and dying—but they are. As the Tet offensive will show us, there is no front line in Vietnam. Fighting can take place anywhere, at any time. The driver and I say only a few words to each other, but enough so that I have a view on what's happening. There's word that Nam O has seen fighting in the last few hours, but the South Vietnamese, with some American advisors, pushed the NVA and Vietcong back and are now cleaning up.
As we arrive in Nam O the story we learn is different than what we heard. About five hundred meters from the village we run into a roadblock. The Vietcong, presumably, have cut trees across the main road of town every thirty yards or so, making travel by Jeep impossible. Not only that, but the South Vietnamese soldier who stops us is hesitant to let us in. It's unclear to him whether there's still fighting in the village. With a little persuasion, he lets us pass and we make our way to the village edge, which has been obscured by the crown of a large Hopea tree lying across the road. Passing that, we see a downed plane on the left side of the road. Inside, the pilot and co-pilot are dead behind the broken windshield. There's blood on their clothing. Beside the plane, South Vietnamese are using the first hut as a sort of makeshift headquarters. Out front, they have with them an NVA prisoner whose hands are bound.
I think to myself as I walk up to the hut, "This just happened." It's obvious to me that "cleaning up" didn't mean the mess after a battle, but rather a part of the battle itself. I walk toward the "headquarters." One of the South Vietnamese Airborne troops approaches me. He sees that I am wearing Airborne Wings on my chest and he points to them and smiles.
"What class you were?"
I tell him and ask what class he was in. We have an immediate connection because he knows I have gone through Airborne training, which I completed just a few weeks before the Tet offensive began. We can't stop and talk for long. He waves for me to follow him. We head up the road to the next house with a group of Airborne who are doing a sweep of the village. They've already taken a prisoner from a hut and are pulling him onto the street as I approach. He was holding a B-40 rocket, and the troops put that off to the side of the doorway.
The huts beside this one are all on fire. The Vietcong have lit the roofs. People are out in the streets shouting, but we are not prepared to put the village out. There's no way to do it. We can only stand and watch as it burns. I think of Morley Safer of CBS news covering the burning of Cam Ne by Marines, but these are NVA and Vietcong burning a South Vietnamese village. Because of the view of the war back in the United States, I imagine such an occurrence will hardly even matter—it's not the correct angle. If I were an American journalist, I probably wouldn't even do the story, but as a journalist for Germany I have more leeway.
Excerpted from No Place for a Lady by Thea Rosenbaum. Copyright © 2014 Thea Rosenbaum. Excerpted by permission of AuthorHouse LLC.
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Table of Contents
Chapter 1 Khe-Sanh 1
Chapter 2 Nam O 7
Chapter 3 Hue 11
Chapter 4 Saigon 16
Chapter 5 Berlin 21
Chapter 6 Berlin 27
Chapter 7 Post War 32
Chapter 8 Kleinmachnow 37
Chapter 9 Opi 42
Chapter 10 Surrogate Family 46
Chapter 11 The West 53
Chapter 12 Oppenheimer & Co 62
Chapter 13 New York to Saigon 68
Chapter 14 War Correspondent 76
Chapter 15 Airborne School 89
Chapter 16 Leaving Saigon the First Time 102
Chapter 17 Count Hasso Rüdt von Collenberg 108
Chapter 18 Chicago 115
Chapter 19 Back to Vietnam 122
Chapter 20 Washington D.C. 129
Chapter 21 Inauguration 136
Chapter 22 Camp David 142
Chapter 23 Reagan 149
Chapter 24 The Wall 157
Chapter 25 Honduras to Vietnam 164
Chapter 26 Birthdays 170