Fred Branfman: As I knew Him

Posted: Aug 27, 2021

From the desk and camera of Sally Benson


In February 1967, I was on a train to Harper’s Ferry, West Virginia to prepare for work with the International Voluntary Service (IVS) in Laos and Vietnam.


Wandering into the snack car, I found a tall, brooding man holding his head in his hands, a posture reflecting my own anxiety about the route we were on. I sat down across from him.

With no introduction, he muttered: “Two weeks ago I was in a rural village in Tanganyika. A week ago in Dar es Salaam, I learned my draft board wouldn’t accept my New York University volunteer teaching in Africa as an alternative to U.S. military service. Today I am on a train to West Virginia, soon to be in Laos with IVS, and I’m not even quite sure where Laos is.”


After cold, drizzly days of IVS orientation in the old Harpers Ferry Hilltop House, the Embassy of Laos invited the Laos volunteers to a reception in Washington. Destined for IVS Vietnam but as the only woman in the group, the invitation included me. Fred excused himself to see his parents in New York for the first time since leaving for Africa. I, too, missed the event for an accident-related medical evaluation in Manhattan. Fred and our group left the National Airport for Vientiane and Saigon, I was left to wait for a delayed security clearance. When it finally came through, I flew out with the June IVS teams. 


Following their service, many volunteers found their way back to Washington. Coming home one afternoon and climbing to my new, unfurnished 3rd floor apartment at Q and 17th, I heard loud, scratchy language sounds in the stairwell. My door being wide open, I was surprised to find Fred sprawled on the bare floor with my phone. Without even a “hi,” he was focused on a small tape recorder playing the bombing stories of Lao refugees for someone on Capitol Hill.


Fred formed Poject Air War to alert the country to the secret war in Laos. He found a desk next to IVSer Dick Berliner’s Dispatch International News Service in the basement of an American Friends Service Committee (AFSC) property on R Street. Steve Nichols, another IVS alum, set up and operated a dark room photo lab for them.  


In 1972, Fred married Thoa with a ring made of aluminum scrap from a downed bomber. They moved into two 3rd floor rooms, their home and office at 1322 18th Street. That fall, Steve and I married and donated a toaster oven gift which Thoa set on a board covering their bathtub. That was their kitchen. Thoa’s meals became legendary, and she and Fred often worked and entertained late into the night. 


When Fred asked me to help Thoa with her English, I joined Project Air War, the first of many “anti-Vietnam War” jobs I was to have over the years to come. I was often the only one in the office first thing in the morning, and remember fielding a call from Paul Newman asking how he could help. These were heady times.


Steve, with his Dispatach News Service credentials, arranged the audio visual presentation for Fred’s first testimony before Congress. It was the Korean War veteran Congressman Mike McCloskey (R) who was the first to fully grasp the significance of the CIA’s Secret Air War as Fred presented it.  


An influx of young scholars helped Project Air War evolve into the Indochina Resource Center (IRC) with its sister organization, the Indochina Mobile Education Project (IMEP), in adjoining rooms. IMEP developed a huge, 40-panel freestanding exhibit to display the history, geography and cultures of Cambodia, Laos, and Vietnam in addition to displaying the devastating and deadly effects of the American war.  


The exhibit folded into a 2nd hand VW van for travel throughout the country to set up in malls, civic centers, student unions, and church basements. Nicknamed “Willie Wham,” the first VW with two former IVS Vietnam volunteers set out in the fall of 1973 for Vermont, New York and Pennsylvania. The second van, “Dangerous Dan,” soon joined, with its speakers who had also personally witnessed the war in Vietnam or Laos. Everywhere they went, they asked people to write letters about Saigon’s political prisoners and to sign petitions asking Congress to stop the war.  


Back in Washington, two enlarged photos hung over our desks: one of Hanoi’s formerly lively Kham Thien neighborhood, which was nearly demolished by Nixon’s 1972 Christmas  Bombing, and the other a Lao wedding picture in the preface of Fred’s 1972 printing of Voices From the Plain of Jars (and the image on the cover of his 2013 edition). Fred knew the family of the bride, Sao Douma, who was killed in 1972 bombing raids over the Plain of Jars.  


Our disheveled offices and frantic activity were in high contrast to other Washington offices and think tanks. It was stunning and humorous, then, to hear Ambassador Graham Martin’s 1976 testimony before the House of Representatives’ Committee on International Relations about the evacuation of Vietnam. He placed the blame for the Fall of Saigon on “a propaganda and pressure organization the likes of which the world has never seen,” mistakenly calling us “The Indochina Resources Center.” 


In 1976, Fred learned  that the Vietnam Women’s Union was inviting activists with Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom (WILPF) and Women Strike for Peace (WSP) to visit post-war Vietnam. But with the war over, their intended guests were unable or uninterested in making the trip. “Someone has to accept this invitation, Sally. You should go,” Fred told me. And so I did.


At the time, that involved flying Aeroflot from Rangoon to Vientiane and Hanoi. When the Lao Women’s Union learned of our trip, it arranged for three of us to stop over in Laos: Marilyn Clement, the executive director of the Center for Constitutional Rights; Marie Sanchez, a Northern Cheyenne tribal judge from Montana; and me, a member of Women Strike for Peace and Clergy and Laity Concerned (about Vietnam).  


Madame Khampheng Boupha, the president of the Lao Women’s Union, welcomed us in Vientiane. She was a teacher in Luang Prabang and a member of the National Assembly of Laos who had joined the Pathet Lao movement with her husband. She said she wanted us to visit the Plain of Jars with two of her young staff members. She arranged for an American-trained Royal Lao Air Force pilot to be released from his re-education camp to be our translator. Two memorable images as our small Russian plane lifted off: pilots and mechanics tending vegetable gardens along the runway and their surprise and excitement seeing our translator guide. They were old friends who had served on opposite sides of the war.


Climbing over the bomb-cratered mountains of the northern Annamite Range, my seatmate’s body was trembling. Marie whispered prayerfully: “The earth; it’s our Mother.” Landing at the Phonsavan airstrip on the Xiang Khoang Plateau, we stepped out to a vast expanse of tall grasses. There was not a tree or building in sight. The grasses parted as a single line of women clutching small bunches of wildflowers came through to greet us. My face burned with tears as the opening words of Fred’s book came to me: “In September 1969, after a recorded history of seven hundred years, the Plain of Jars disappeared.”   


A young soldier led us on a newly-cleared path through land littered with anti-personnel bomblets, each holding 200 steel pellets designed to maim. We could then be close to the ancient urns for which the Plain is named. Our wonderful guide, like us, was seeing the Plain of Jars for the first time. He became emotional telling us how it had been famous for its village pagoda bells echoing across the beautiful plateau, rich savannahs, rice paddies, and herds of fine cattle. He said that at Lackland Air Force base in Texas, the pilots were told that communism was destroying Laos. In 1977 with the bells no longer ringing, the verdant fields no longer so rich, he said it was in fact the United States Air Force that had destroyed so much of his country.


There were only two buildings: a modest community center and a small guest house being completed while we were there. There were other early visitors to the Plain, an American Friends Service Committee couple and a Japanese photojournalist, as I remember It. We had a delightful evening with our Hmong and Lao hosts with food, song, and dance under a pale light.  It was my introduction to the Lamvong circle dance. The magnificent night sky belied the decade of incessant bombings, their scars on the earth and the gentle people of the Plain and unexploded dangers lurking in its soil.


Fred Branfman would be amazed and thrilled by the energy and passion with which a younger generation has taken up his legacy to bring greater healing and hope to Laos.  He would marvel that the Plain of Jars is thriving, and, as of 2019, a World Heritage Site. Neither Fred nor I could have imagined the courses our lives would take as we were pondering our immediate futures on that train to West Virginia over a half century ago.

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