Reporting on War’s Human Cost

My editor friend was shocked. “You’ve never read the ‘Little Duck’ story?” she said one day last summer.

“Little Duck,” she explained, was the nickname of a young Kentucky soldier whose body was returned to his hometown from Vietnam. Written by John Fetterman, a writer for the Sunday magazine of the Louisville Times and Courier-Journal, the story about his homecoming won the 1969 Pulitzer Prize for local news.

It’s a classic,  Maria Henson, assistant managing editor for enterprise (who won a 1992 Pulitzer for editorial writing for another Kentucky paper, the Lexington Herald-Leader) told me. You have to read it, she said, explaining why in an e-mail:

This story, which I must have read a decade ago, stayed with me, a haunting tale of Vietnam, as personal as the names etched on the memorial wall in Washington, D.C. After soldiers began dying in Iraq, it occurred to me that all over the country reporters would be writing these kinds of stories. It seemed to me a model for literary journalists on a deadline. Reading it again, I marvel at Fetterman’s descriptions that put the reader immediately on the journey home, his perfectly placed quotes, and an ending that conveys the essence of a life and a war.
Thirty-five years ago, America was at war in another faraway place, and stories about war dead were a staple of news coverage.

One story stood out.

“Pfc. Gibson Comes Home,” Fetterman’s moving story about Private First Class James Thurman “Little Duck” Gibson, who returned to his Kentucky hollow in a flag-draped coffin, was published July 28, 1968. 
“More than 25,000 Americans have died in the Vietnam War,” said an editor’s note preceding the story. “Almost daily since early 1961 the headlines have told of a few deaths — or of many deaths — until the figures threaten to lose meaning … The Gibson family agreed to let Magazine writer-photographer John Fetterman be present when Private Gibson’s body came home in the hope that it would help show that behind each statistic of death there is deep personal grief and shock which affects an entire family, and an entire neighborhood or community.”

In the story that followed, Fetterman chronicled the return of Little Duck’s body, beginning with the arrival of his coffin in his home state on a hot rainy Wednesday night, through three days of grieving by family and friends, and ending with his burial on an Eastern Kentucky mountain slope.

Last July, the Courier-Journal commemorated the story’s 35th anniversary by reprinting Fetterman’s award-winning story, accompanying the piece with twinned stories by writer Pat Forde who provided a contemporary look at the writer, who died of a heart attack in 1975, and “Little Duck’s” family and hometown. You can read the package here.

Like other classics of war reporting, such as Ernie Pyle’s World War II story, “The Death of Captain Waskow,” John Fetterman’s story demonstrates the power of E.B. White’s advice to writers: “Don’t write about Man; write about ‘a’ man.”

My editor friend was right. With America’s war with Iraq once again confronting journalists with the challenges of covering the human costs of conflict, “Pfc. Gibson Comes Home” deserves attention and study as a model of good reporting and writing, a story with important lessons about the craft.

The Power of Brevity

“Someone was reading it here the other day,” recalled Mindy Fetterman, John’s daughter, a deputy managing editor for national news at USA Today, “and they said, ‘It’s so short.’”

Compared to the lengthy narratives that garner prizes today, her father’s story is relatively brief —1,895 words, just shy of 48 column inches.

Even so, Fetterman covers spacious ground in the story’s 57 paragraphs, documenting the grief and pain of “Little Duck’s” family and his Appalachian community. Hewing to a chronological narrative, the story is a triumph of economy, spanning six settings, 20 brief and extended scenes, and studded with the voices of 10 major and minor characters, all serving the story’s theme of grief, pain, and loss. 

The Power of Listening

Even though he was a Kentucky native, born and bred in Danville, Daniel Boone’s hometown, a reporter who’d helped his paper win a public service Pulitzer for a 1967 expose of strip mining, and the author of a respected book on the subject, “Stinking Creek,” John Fetterman still had to overcome the Gibson family’s initial resistance to letting a stranger observe their grieving.

But he was well-suited, Mindy Fetterman believes. As a teenager, she accompanied her father on reporting trips, including a memorable few months spent with a traveling circus for a National Geographic feature. “He was a blend-into-the-crowd type of reporter,” she told me in a recent telephone interview. “He was such a laid back, quiet man. I’m sure he just shuffled along all day with them. They probably forgot he was there. That’s how he liked to work. He liked to be an unseen presence.”

“He listened to the way people spoke. That was one of the things he was really good at,” she said, reciting quotes from “Little Duck’s” loved ones:

“He was never one to drink and run up and down the road at night.”

“He took good care of his family. He was a good boy.”

Her father “didn’t make fun of people’s country accents … that version of English that’s in the mountains in Kentucky and Tennessee is a beautiful sounding language, very beautiful, Elizabethan, and he really heard that,” Fetterman said.

The story is also worth studying for its evocative use of sensory details, such as “fat raindrops glistened on the polished hearse,” the description of Army pallbearers, “crisp and polished in summer tans,” and “sweltering heat (that) choked the hills and valleys as Little Duck was placed back in the hearse and taken home,” and the simple elegaic quality of John Fetterman’s prose. His daughter, who treasures the Nikon camera her father used to take the story’s accompanying photos and the Royal portable he wrote it on, rightly calls it “a harmonic convergence of subject matter and lyrical writing.”

She has her own theory on why her father’s story won the Pulitzer 35 years ago.

“It fell at a time in which America was re-examining its involvement in Vietnam. It wasn’t a political story. It wasn’t a hard-edged story. It was a sweet, personal story about one kid who died and I think that really had an impact on the Pulitzer judges. I don’t think a story like this would win the Pulitzer today. It’s not a big series exposing malfeasance, it’s not taking on the mayor, it’s not exposing the pension fund fraud. It’s not exposing anything except human emotion and real life.”

[ On Saturday, the U.S. death toll in Iraq reached 500. What stories have captured the human cost of the war in Iraq? ]

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