In 1959 the lure of what westerners then called “the Orient” overpowered Jerry Rose. So he walked away from a half-finished Comp Lit PhD program to teach English for two years at the University of Hue in Vietnam. That job led him to become a newspaper and magazine stringer, which put him in the middle of South Vietnam’s economic and political turmoil prior to the United States’ full-scale infusion of manpower into the nation. He covered the Time Life bureau beat and much more until he died in an airplane crash in 1965 at the age of 31.
Lucy Rose Fischer, Jerry Rose’s sister, collected his voluminous published and unpublished papers, journals, and letters, and laboriously wrote “100 versions—maybe more,” she says, of her new book, The Journalist: Life and Loss in America’s Secret War (Spark Press, 332 pp. $16.95, paper; $8.99, Kindle). She uses that wealth of material to tell the story as a memoir in her brother’s voice. From its opening page, the book read as if Jerry Rose were alongside of me recounting the drama of his life.
I delighted in plowing through six years of Jerry Rose’s life with him. His aspirations, insights, successes, mistakes, cleverness, and stupidity brought back memories of episodes from my twenties. At times I wanted to shout, “Don’t do that” or “Don’t go there.” Narrow-minded readers might be turned off by Rose’s concentration on himself, but I found it tremendously lifelike.
Jerry Rose’s exposure to the oppression of the South Vietnamese government began while he taught at Hue University. His descriptions of the gunfire and hand-grenade explosions of a failed coup d’état; arrests, punishments, and disappearances of his friends; and his disastrous love affair with a diplomat’s wife challenge the best story-telling of Graham Greene about that era in South Vietnam.
From there, Rose’s life and career went into overdrive. He eagerly roamed the jungles and rural areas to interview the common man and to reveal clandestine American military operations, which elevated his perspective above that of some established reporters. He had a knack for getting interviews with high-ranking officials. As a result, he saw the future disaster before it formed into reality—and both American and South Vietnamese leaders labeled him a troublemaker.
Within four months after he finished teaching, Jerry Rose sold feature articles and photographs to Time, Life, The New York Times, The Reporter, and the New Republic. His ability to uncover corruption earned assignments to Burma, the Philippines, Thailand, Laos, and Indonesia. He reached a higher level of notoriety with an account in The Saturday Evening Post of a battle at Camp Plei Mrong that he and a half dozen Special Forces men barely survived.
Settling temporarily in Hong Kong, he married Kay Peterson in 1962 and they soon had a daughter and a son.
Despite his adventures elsewhere, Rose’s heart belonged to Vietnam. Following coups and multiple transitions of leaderships in the South Vietnamese government, Rose put his writing career on hold and accepted a job as Adviser to the Prime Minister to try to improve the education system and farmers’ living conditions.
Four-and-a-half months after starting that job, he concluded that corruption at all levels of the South Vietnamese government was even deeper than he had thought. He decided to quit, but agreed to one last assignment: to help a camp holding four hundred refugees. His plane crashed on September 15, 1965.
Lucy Rose Fischer is an author, artist, and social scientist. She has written five books about aging and more than a hundred research articles. She has a PhD in sociology and an MA in Asian Studies.
Thanks, Lucy, for a really cool look back in time.
The book’s website is jerryrosevietnam.com