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Daily Variety (14 February 1968

"James MacArthur Recounts Reaction Under Fire on 'Handshake' Vietrek"

by Jerry Beigel

James MacArthur, just back from a USO-Hollywood Overseas Committee handshake tour in Vietnam, almost got caught in a fire fight in Saigon before recalling it was the real thing and not another picture.
But he terms the protection “excellent” and said he was ready to return “whenever they ask me.”

MacArthur arrived in Saigon a few days before the Viet Cong’s attack on the cities. He visited several areas that had been, were, or would be scenes of intense fighting, then returned to Saigon early because the attacks had caused cancellation of trips to Nha Trang, U.S. Seventh Fleet units, and Thailand.

On first arrival, MacArthur described Saigon as a city at play, the war seemingly dimly distant. When he returned, it was like the Wild West. Everyone was carrying guns. The early curfew also made it seem like a ghost town, he said.

Even then, however, there was an unreal aspect to the war, he reported, “We would sit up on the roof of the Caravelle Hotel and drink beer and watch the air strikes going on outside the city.” At his own hotel, he heard guns firing, went to investigate, and soon heard bullets hitting the walls behind him. He scrambled for cover, but didn’t think, at the time, to be scared. “It was like playing a part,” he related. “It was only later that I began thinking.”

Although not reported as the site of any VC action, MacArthur said a mine had been attached to a U.S. ammo ship at Cam Ranh Bay while he was there, but was discovered before it exploded. He also described the mortaring of a hospital at Pleiku, which he visited soon after. “In the midst of it, a wounded North Vietnamese soldier being treated there kept laughing” while the shells poured in, he said.

MacArthur urges other Hollywood performers to go on the handshake tours. “I don’t do any jokes or anything. Most of the time I’d just talk with them or play cards. I was a little dubious before I went. But if your face is familiar, you don’t have to be a big star. They appreciate your being there because they know you don’t have to be there.”

Another group, four pro footballers, were pinned down in Saigon on arrival and confined to their hotel while the fighting went on near-by for several days, MacArthur said. He added that chunks of their tour were also cancelled. The players are Bill Brown of the Minnesota Vikings, John David Crow of the San Francisco 49ers, Andy Russell of the Pittsburgh Steelers, and Bob Bell of the Kansas City Chiefs.

However, Sebastian Cabot left for Vietnam last weekend and Disneyland’s Golden Horseshoe Revue and Tony Randall are set for treks this month, indicating the situation has calmed.

On the other hand, a report from Washington said the Disneyland troupe was being rerouted to Greenland and Iceland. That could not be confirmed at USO office here.

James MacArthur, Dick Schmidt

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