Lost Over Laos

You couldn't help but be moved by the image: Sherry Potter Walker, sitting in the front row of the memorial ceremony at the Newseum, under a towering glass panel that bore the name of 1,843 journalists who had died on the job, and sobbing inconsolably.

Her daughter clutched her arm. Walker seemed alone and unreachable. In a way, the opening of the Newseum brought her a measure of closure. There her brother, Kent Potter, had found his final resting place, 37 years after he and three other Vietnam War photographers were shot down over Laos.

A book-size stainless-steel canister is buried under the plaque that honors the men. Inside are teeth and bone shards, wrapped individually in plastic and kept together because forensic scientists could not determine what belonged to whom.

That they are interred at all is a tribute to the persistence of the photographers' friends and U.S. military personnel who in 1995 began to investigate sites in Southeast Asia where the remains of American citizens might be found.

"When you lose somebody close to you, it doesn't scab over and heal," Potter's sister told the Washington Post at the April 3 service. "A zipper is installed. And any time you come across the memory, it opens up, and all of your sadness falls out."

Stories about the 1971 crash tend to focus on the older, more-established photographers: Larry Burrows of Life magazine, Henri Huet of the Associated Press, and Keisaburo Shimamoto of Newsweek. I was curious how a Quaker-born Philadelphian joined them in death on the Ho Chi Minh Trail.

Kent Biddle Potter was 23 when he died. He was the youngest member of the Saigon photographic corps when he arrived in 1968, according to Richard Pyle, who with AP colleague Horst Faas wrote a book about the crash, Lost Over Laos.

Potter had grown up in a gatehouse on the grounds of Awbury, the estate owned by Henry Cope, a Quaker merchant. Friends describe the setting as idyllic - families looking after one another. Yet Potter's own family was troubled. His mother killed herself when he was 13, overdosing on sleeping pills she had asked the boy to get for her.

Kent Potter grew tall and thin with dark good looks and pale blue eyes. He played end on the school football team and ran track. By 16 he was a messenger and photo stringer for United Press International.

"He just matured faster than the rest of us," recalled classmate Eddie Loewenstein, 61, now a Philadelphia veterinarian. "He followed his own path."

Loewenstein tells how, during a teacher's heady deconstruction of The Magnificent Seven, Potter asked why they could not just stop talking and enjoy the film.

Pat Reifsnyder, a retired Germantown Friends School teacher, said that Potter had been unengaged in her U.S. history class in his senior year. She read me a quotation Potter chose for his 1965 yearbook page, from John O'Hara, which begins:

"I realized that until then I had not known him at all. It was not a discovery to cause me dismay. What did he know about me? What, really, can any of us know about any of us, and why must we make such a thing of loneliness when it is the final condition of us all?"

"That," she said, "is a very Kent thing."

Where Potter's father, a talented elementary school shop teacher, was steadfast in his antiwar activism, his son joined the Marine Reserve, "embracing a kind of warrior ethic, taking giant steps to the farthest side of his father's moon," as Pyle and Faas wrote.

Instead of going to college, Kent went to work for Dirck Halstead, the UPI photo chief in Philadelphia, who would later do the same job in Vietnam. Potter, Hyde says, angled sharply for a posting in Saigon.

"It was not a surprise he would go off and do something like this," said Theo Coxe, another GFS friend, a Seattle phys-ed teacher.

Pyle describes the young photographer as fearless and competitive. "He was a hot talent. He was going to go places." His photograph of two hurt Vietnamese children awaiting evacuation is haunting.

On Feb. 10, 1971, Potter and three other photographers boarded a Huey helicopter piloted by South Vietnamese to document the invasion of Laos. The pilot got lost. Tracer fire arced into the chopper, sending it plummeting into the mountain jungle. All 11 passengers died.

Pyle wrote the story marked urgent for the AP that day.

Recovery was delayed by the fighting and the inhospitality of the jungle, which Faas called the "remotest place on earth." Then for years a bureaucratic slip-up left Potter off the list of missing Americans, an oversight corrected by a vigilant military investigator named Bill Forsyth in 1995.

Pyle and Faas went along three years later as a forensic team excavated the crash site. On their second day someone found what they suspected was a mine; it was a lens, a 28mm lens from a Nikon F camera. They discovered 13 rolls of film, a piece of a battered Leica, some torn fabric, two scorched helmets.

Those artifacts plus the few pieces of bone and teeth also unearthed sat on a shelf at a forensics facility in Hawaii until Pyle made a suggestion to Newseum officials in 2003 and an agreement was reached. Citizens of many nations, they are now at rest, at home in a monument to a craft they died serving.

A couple of days after the memorial, I reached Sherry Potter Walker. She had not talked to Pyle for his book and had shown no interest, he wrote, when the State Department notified her of the excavation. She told Pyle, "It happened a long time ago, and the government has said there was no hope of ever finding anything."

But this month's service, she said, and the camaraderie of those who reported and photographed the war, left her at peace. "That Newseum is a good thing to have to honor the people who have and who continue to carry on this very important work.

"The loss of those photographers does not go away for the surviving journalists, and of course neither does it for the families. If there is a shared sense of comfort, it is that they had each other."