Catherine Karnow’s portrait of general Vo Nguyen Giap, a history teacher, who barely knew how to fire a gun. Trained  by US military advisers during WWII,  Giap went on to become the commanding general of one of the most formidable armies of the 20th century.

25 years ago, the late journalist and historian Stanley Karnow travelled back to Vietnam to finally meet the legendary Vietnamese general Vo Nguyen Giap. Karnow’s daughter Catherine, a young photographer, went along a few months later and came to share her father’s unique access to the enigmatic North Vietnamese General.

Stanley Karnow, a veteran reporter of the wars against the French and subsequently the US-supported Saigon regime, was one of the very first Americans who anticipated the implications of the US engagement in Vietnam. Shortly after the Kennedy administration came into power, Karnow asked the President’s primary adviser Robert Kennedy, if Vietnam should not be seen as the major foreign policy challenge for the US.

“We got 30 Vietnam’s a day,” Robert Kennedy retorted.

Karnow went on to cover the war until the end in 1975. As the first American journalist after the war, he was allowed to visit communist Vietnam in 1982 on a research trip for his widely admired ‘Vietnam – A History’.  To Karnow’s frustration, Giap along with other enigmatic top figures like Le Duc Tho was unavailable.  ‘Only’ Prime Minister Pham Van Dong – a legend in his own right – would speak to Karnow.

Eight years later, Giap finally agreed to talk to Karnow. The outcome was a fascinating interview with the old general in the New York Times.

On this rare occasion, Giap shared with Karnow his life from the early days, when he was expelled from school for subversive activities against the French Colonialist regime, the death of his first wife in a French prison, the sleepless nights before the final battle at Dien Bien Phu, The 1968 Tet Offensive, and the ‘final victory’ in 1975, when the North Vietnamese forces and their Southern allies moved into Saigon.

Here is how Karnow heard Giap, reflecting on a long life at war:

A typical retired general, Giap now devotes much of his time to revisiting battlefields and addressing veterans. ”If I had not become a soldier,” he reflects, ”I probably would have remained a teacher, maybe of philosophy or history. Someone recently asked me whether, when I first formed our army, I ever imagined I would fight the Americans. Quelle question! Did the Americans, back then, ever imagine that they would one day fight us?”

He gripped my hand as we parted, saying: ”Remember, I am a general who fought for peace. I wanted peace – but not peace at any price.” With that he walked off briskly, leaving me to contemplate the cemeteries, the war monuments and the unhealed memories in France, America and Vietnam, and the terrible price their peoples paid.”

Here is a link to the full interview:


In the interview, there is no indication of any kind of personal hostility from Giap towards the Americans. On other occasions Giap spoke highly on his very first encounters with US military personnel. During WW II, Giap and his comrades received weapons and training assistance from the US Office of Strategic Services, the predecessor of CIA.  At the time, the US saw the Vietnamese guerillas as important allies against the Japanese occupation forces in Vietnam.

Giap himself fondly remembered, how a young American soldier, Henry Prunier, had trained him to throw hand grenades. In 1995, Giap spotted Prunier in a visiting US delegation to Hanoi. Giap picked an orange from the bowl in front of him and lobbied it hand grenade style to Prunier, the General’s way of showing his visitors that he had not forgotten the past.

During WW II, the relations between the Vietnamese resistance leaders and the so called ‘Deer Team’ (the code name for the military advisers) became cordial to the point that US team leader assisted Ho Chi Minh in drafting the Vietnamese Declaration of Independence.


Ho Chi Minh and Giap posing with the members of The Deer Team, the US military advisors, who assisted the Vietnamese resistance movement in their struggle against the Japanese occupation forces during VWII. Giap is seen in the white suit and tie, Henry Prunier is seen behind to the right of Giap.

Just a few months ago, I had the privilege to meet Catherine Karnow in Hanoi at her exhibition of photos, taken in Vietnam during the past 25 years. Her works are some of the very best I have seen on post-war Vietnam.  In my eyes, her portrait of Vo Nguyen Giap is the finest of them all.

Ms. Karnow and the Art Vietnam Gallery made a print available for me, which is now on the wall in our home here in Hanoi.  Below the portrait is a comfortable couch, perfect for reading once again her father’s 1983 tour de force ‘Vietnam – A History’.  His compelling narrative was instrumental in making me pack my bags for Vietnam as a young reporter in those days.

In 2013, General Giap, Henry Prunier and Stanley Karnow all passed away at the age of 102, 91, and 87, respectively.  Catherine Karnow continues to work around the globe, turning out some truly amazing work. Here is a link to her website:





Photo: Ole Johnny Sørensen

On 6 August, it is 70 years since the first atomic bomb detonated over Hiroshima. 30 years ago I and photographer Ole Johnny Sørensen went there to look into what the military term ‘collateral damage’ means in the real world. I still keep my notes from those disturbing encounters with human beings, whose fate was labelled as ‘acceptable loss’ to the military strategists, who devised the strike. One of them was Yasue Yoshida, a 57 year old woman. Her testimony deserves to be remembered still today. 

At first glance, Yasue Yoshida looks like most Japanese women – a decade younger than her actual age, 57 years.

She gracefully enters her living room from the minute kitchen and gets down on her knees the traditional Japanese way and approaches us, offering a lacquer tray with green tea and cookies.

As she is getting within a meter’s distance, her youthful appearance becomes a deception.The thick white make-up can no longer hide the web of tiny scars all on her face, on her arms – on all visible parts of her skin.

“I was only 17 years old in 1945, and they told me I was so beautiful. There was a big army base in Hiroshima. I really had a hard time keeping the young soldiers at bay.

Sometimes I said to myself: If only I had been fat and ugly, I would not be chased like the cattle in the fields. Then came the day of the Bomb. It changed everything in a flash. For years I longed to have my face back and all the young men that used to bother me.”

Yasue worked as a clerk at a tobacco factory two kilometers from downtown Hiroshima. She had just arrived at work, when the American B-29 bomber Enola Gay, named after the pilot’s mother, prepared the final descent over Hiroshima. At 08:16 am Japanese time the Bomb detonated, killing 80.000 people in a flash. Tens of thousands of fatal victims were to follow – some from their initial injuries and others for years to come from the effects of radiation.


“I was working a few meters from the windows. The impact of the blast sent thousands of little pieces through the air and into my body.I was lying unconscious next to my desk, when the rescue team arrived, they later told me,” Yasue quietly recalls, offering small, decorated cookies with downcast eyes and a little smile.

Almost cremated alive

“They thought I was dead and carried me to the nearest fire, where bodies were burned. Luckily, I woke up screaming, or I would have been thrown into the flames alive.”

The doctors managed to stabilise Yasue and brought her through the infections that followed in her damaged body.

“It took me a long time to recover from my injuries, and only very slowly I started coming back to life – a new life which was a living nightmare. Not only because of the pains coming back in violent waves. My scars were swollen and red. I looked like a monster. Children got scared and started to cry, when they saw me in the street.”

Saved by faith

“Already then, I was a devoted Catholic. If it was not for my belief in God, I think I would have committed suicide like so many other Hibakusha (Atomic bomb victims), who could not cope with the pain and fears after the Bomb.”

Yasue soon realised that the doctors had only managed to remove the visible glass pieces in the top layers of her skin.

“Even these days – 40 years after the bomb – new pieces of glass keep emerging from my body. In the past two years alone, I have been in surgery three times.

Last year I got an infection in my forehead. This is usually a sign, and the doctors once again located a buried piece of glass.”

Yasue holds up a jar, which is half full of glass pieces, found in her body over the years.


Our report on Survivors’ testimonies published in 1985.

The lucky ones died

In 1968 Yasue was awarded the maximum disability pension of approximately USD 1.000 a month. In addition she can apply for free medical care and refund of her expenses for medicine.

“Whenever I need surgery, I have to get approval in advance to obtain compensation for my expenses. I get so depressed, while I wait. Sometimes I cannot help thinking that my father and my younger brother were much luckier than me.

They were conscripted by the army as forced labor and worked in the city center. They simply evaporated in a flash and did not feel anything.“

For many years after the bomb she suffered from discrimination like many other survivors from Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

“It was impossible for me to find a husband and create a family, even after my scars faded. People in Japan were – and many still are – afraid to marry any Hibakusha.   In the postwar years, there were many cases of children with birth defects and terminal cancers among the survivors. We were treated like the lepers in India.”

“In the early 1950’ies I met a man, and we developed a very close relationship. I was so happy the day he proposed to me. When his parents found out that I was Hibakusha, they forced him to cancel the wedding.”

At last, in 1960 I married the man, who is still my husband. He is a war invalid from the battles in Burma against the British soldiers. We both suffer from the horrors of war, and we have managed to help each other to get on in life.”

“We wanted very much to have our own children, but we were so scared that something would be wrong with them. Finally, we decided to take the risk.

In 1961 my daughter was born. As soon as I managed to get out of bed, I went around to all our family members, even the neighbours. I wanted everybody to see that our girl was a normal, healthy child. Three years later, our son was born. Till this day, they are both healthy, apart from some allergy.”

Living with death

“Ever since the Bomb I have been living with death next to me. I have tried to raise my children in a way so they were independent of me as early as possible. I have known so many people who died young due to their exposure to the radiation. I sometimes wonder, why I have been allowed to live so long.”

Yasue lifts up her black hair to show me the white roots.

“My hair became white, when I was thirty. It happened after an acute appendicitis sent me into surgery. I almost died because I could only handle very little loss of blood. The doctors told me already then that my intestines looked like they belonged to a much older woman.

These days, I do not have the courage to ask any questions, when I go to my medical check-ups every six months at the hospital,” Yasue says, her voice trembling.

“It is still very difficult for me to talk about my life as Hibakusha. For more than 25 years I never said a word and I never attended the annual memorial services for the victims.

In 1981, our Pope visited Hiroshima and he encouraged us to speak up. I began accepting invitations to talk to schoolchildren. In the beginning it was unbearable. I broke down and cried in front of them.Then I started receiving letters from some of the children. They wrote that the meeting with me made them understand, why we must do everything we can to oppose nuclear weapons. These letters give me the strength to continue.

Please do not misunderstand me. We, the Hibakusha do not need you to feel sorry for us. All we want is a future without fear of a nuclear war. This is the only real compensation for all our suffering.”

For 6 years after our meeting Yasue and I exchanged Christmas greetings. She always enclosed her own hand made minute paper dolls. Then she became quiet. 

Here is what Wikipedia says in July 2015 about the Hibakusha:

The Atomic Bomb Survivors Relief Law defines hibakusha as people who fall into one of the following categories: within a few kilometers of the hypocenters of the bombs; within 2 km of the hypocenters within two weeks of the bombings; exposed to radiation from fallout; or not yet born but carried by pregnant women in any of these categories.[1] As of March 31, 2014, 192,719 hibakusha were recognized by the Japanese government, most living in Japan.[2] The government of Japan recognizes about 1% of these as having illnesses caused by radiation.[3]

Hibakusha are entitled to government support. They receive a certain amount of allowance per month. About 1%, certified as suffering from bomb-related diseases, receive a special medical allowance.[4]

The memorials in Hiroshima and Nagasaki contain lists of the names of the hibakusha who are known to have died since the bombings. Updated annually on the anniversaries of the bombings, as of August 2014 the memorials record the names of more than 450,000 hibakusha; 292,325 in Hiroshima[5] and 165,409 in Nagasaki.[6]