For female reporters who wanted to cover the long, brutal war in Vietnam, the challenge began before they even left home, when – in the words of one former Saigon bureau chief – they had to “fight like hell to get the assignment.”
On Their Own: Women Journalists and the American Experience in Vietnam focuses on a few of the approximately 70 women who worked as journalists during the Vietnam War, spanning from its earliest days as a “not-so-secret war” in the late 1950s to the fall of Saigon nearly two decades later. Each traveled a different path to get the assignment, and each arrived at different conclusions about what they saw. Dickey Chapelle, a grizzled anti-Communist hawk, lived at the front lines with the Marines for more than four years; she would become the first American woman to be killed while covering a war. Gloria Emerson, on the other hand, the first woman to report from Vietnam in 1956, would later earn some of President Nixon’s angriest epithets on the White House tapes for her award-winning work about the war’s effect on South Vietnamese civilians. And for Laura Palmer, among the last reporters to leave Saigon in 1975, the faces below her departing helicopter were “sacred, because it was beyond words; you stand in the mystery, you stand with humility, and you stand with awe.”
Researched and written over the course of ten years, On Their Own is the story of a fundamental shift in journalism, the point at which the “boy’s club” of war reporting in World War II and Korea gave way to the modern press corps of Iraq and Afghanistan, and a more vivid perspective on the causes and casualties of war. At the outset, they had to fight for the assignment; after they got it, the women profiled in On Their Own produced work that led one critic to suggest, in 1986, that Vietnam had been the first war recorded better by women than by men.
Joyce Hoffmann has written for the Washington Post, Chicago Tribune, the Philadelphia Inquirer, and several other publications over the course of her twenty-five year career. She is currently a professor of journalism at Old Dominion University and public editor of the Virginian-Pilot.