Veteran war reporter Morton Dean hosts documentary at Branson IMAX Military Film Festival

A still image from Morton Dean’s report aboard a Dust Off chopper in Vietnam; Courtesy Morton Dean, CBS News, January 1971

One of America’s most legendary war correspondents visited Branson during Veteran’s Week, presenting his documentary “American Medevac” at the Branson IMAX Military Film Festival.

Morton Dean has been a journalist since 1957, starting his career at WVIP in Westchester County, New York. He went on to work in Boston and New York City, when he joined WCBS-TV, the flagship station of the CBS Television Network. He moved to the network in 1967, covering NASA, national politics, the Invasion of Grenada, the Falklands War, the Iran Hostage Crisis and the Vietnam War during a 20-year stint. In addition to his reporting work, Dean also anchored the CBS Sunday Night News, and CBS Sunday Evening News.

He also worked for ABC for 14 years, covering the Space Shuttle Challenger disaster, reporting from Kuwait during the first Gulf War, was on the ground during Operation Desert Storm in 1991, and was the only reporter to report from inside the parking garage at the World Trade Center in 1993 after terrorists detonated a truck bomb in the first WTC bombing.

Dean was reporting from Vietnam in 1971 when he and cameraman Greg Cooke were at an Army emergency aid station called Hawk Hill, where they discovered the story that later was the basis for the documentary film.

               498th Dust Off. The “Huey’s” that the Editor of Federal Observer flew on for 21 months.

Helicopters would fly medevac missions rescuing wounded soldiers and bring them to the station at Hawk Hill, where the soldiers would be patched up before being taken to established hospitals. These medics were called “Dustoff” crews, named after the radio call sign for the first Army air ambulance in Vietnam.

“Back then, sometimes you’d get a call from New York and they’d say ‘such and such a story ran on a wire or a newspaper, can you see what’s going on?’” Dean told Branson Tri-Lakes News. “Otherwise, you were told to go out and find the best possible story you could find. So I was searching for a story, along with my cameraman, and we were in Da Nang talking to guys who had come in asking what was going on. We hitched a ride on a helicopter to a place called Hawk Hill, and in the morning we found out about a briefing for the troops.

“We were the only [news] crew there, so I asked the guy in charge if we could stay for the briefing and he said sure. The briefing he told about an event about to take place and said who the medevac standbys would be. I said to my cameraman who had been in Vietnam longer than I had, ‘I wonder if we can get on an assault chopper?’ He didn’t think it was a good idea, so I said I’d see if we could get on a medevac chopper.”

Dean, Cooke, and their sound man Nguyen An, walked to the flight line, where they noticed a medevac chopper beginning to warm up and the crew readying for flight. Dean approached the crew to see if they could go on the mission. Pilot Bob Brady eventually agreed to let the news crew on board.

“He looked at me like I was crazy, with his head cocked a little bit to the side as he thought about it,” Dean said. “Then he said ‘you want to fly with us? Sure. Come on.’”

(Brady, who flew over 800 missions during tour and received a Purple Heart and Distinguished Flying Cross, ended up getting in trouble for allowing the news crew on the flight without permission, but the report was received so well in the United States, making the crews look like heroes, so he was never formally disciplined for the action.)

Veteran war correspondent Morton Dean (left) and Vietnam veteran Bill Formanack presented the documentary “American Medevac” at the Branson IMAX Military Film Festival. Photo by Jason Wert

The decision to join the flight ended up bringing Dean and his team a stark look at the risks the medevac crews faced on every mission. When the helicopter approached a rice paddy designated as the landing zone for the chopper, the tail was struck by a grenade which caused the aircraft to shake.

“Bob, the pilot, seemed unfazed,” Dean said. “He just said ‘Okay, let’s go get ‘em’ and set the helicopter down.”

The crew, the wounded, and the soldiers who brought their brothers-in-arms to the chopper were under fire the entire time. Dean and his team documented the actions of medevac teams in a way that had not been done on network news until that moment. However, Dean says that’s not the reason the report is the basis for the “American Medevac” documentary.

“People ask ‘why choose this story to make a documentary when there are so many others?’” Dean said. “It’s because I knew from the get-go, when I hooked up with the Dustoff crew, the medevac crew, that they were a special breed of cats. They exemplified what America to a certain extent is and should be; that is, when they got the call, nobody would say ‘wait, who are they? What’s their skin color? If they pray, where do they pray? A mosque? Synagogue? A church? Where are they from? Who are their parents?’ All they knew is that someone needed help and they went out regardless of the danger.

“The wonderful thing of being on that chopper, seeing them work, taking fire on the way in, to the landing and the pickup, taking fire out. They were just doing their job.”

Morton Dean in Vietnam 1971

In 2013, Dean teamed again with cameraman Cooke to reconnect with the men from the mission with a goal of making the documentary film.

They reconnected with many involved in the story, including pilot Bill Brady. The documentary crew met with Brady when he was scheduled to take a flying lesson, and Dean asked if they could go on the flight.

“Brady said to me ‘I didn’t kill you the last time you flew with me, let’s see what happens this time,’” Dean said with a laugh.

Also in the documentary is Bill Formanack of Talmage, Nebraska, one of the three wounded soldiers who were rescued that day. Formanack was also in Branson to attend the showing of the documentary and shared how he became part of the documentary.
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“I was contacted by a guy named Leslie Hines, an Americal Division historian that Morton knew,” Formanack.

Dean jumped in to explain that he had to reach out to Hines because he overlooked something as a reporter during the initial encounter.

“I got a hold of Les because it was difficult for me to find the wounded guys,” Dean said. “I, being a lousy reporter, had not written down their unit. I was so focused on the medevac unit, and at the time the rules were you couldn’t report the names of the wounded until after the family was notified.”

Formanack continued his story saying that when Hines reached out, he remembered the camera on the helicopter.

“I just remembered seeing this camera on the Dustoff chopper,” Formanack said. “I didn’t think too much about it until I got home and told my mother, and all of a sudden we put the dates together and she said she saw it. ‘We saw that with Walter Cronkite on TV.’ Then all these years later I get this call from Hines giving me Morton’s number, and I thought it was interesting, so I called and left a message wondering if I’d hear back from him. Within an hour I get a call from Morton and my wife said we talked for an hour and a half. It was like talking with an old army buddy.”

He agreed to do an interview for the documentary.

“So [Dean] came to Talmage to meet the pilot and co-pilot to shoot the documentary,” Formanack said. “I think the word ‘surreal’ was used many times. It brought back a lot of memories and it was a good thing because nobody was killed during this, everybody survived, and I was wounded the worst. I only had four days left out in the field when I was wounded.

“Where I was wounded I was very, very lucky. A little closer [to the explosion] I wouldn’t be here or I would have lost an arm or a leg. A had a piece [of shrapnel] that hit my nose that could have hit anywhere else I wouldn’t be doing this.”

Dean interjected the experience was very therapeutic.

“It was very therapeutic,” Formanack agreed. “It brought some things back on the good side, not the bad side. I thought they did a heck of a job putting it together. It turned out quite well. You see so many documentaries, and you never think you’re going to be in one! And becoming friends with Morton has been a big plus.”

Dean said that documentaries like “American Medevac” are important to remind Americans of the sacrifices of the men and women who served in the armed forces, and noted that news coverage today is not like it was during the days of Vietnam.

“I called a friend of mine, a producer at ABC who’s now no longer at the network, and this is when Afghanistan was just beginning to percolate, and I asked him who we [the network] had in Iraq,” Dean said. “And my friend laughed and said ‘you don’t watch television much anymore, do you?’ I said no, I don’t, and my friend said ‘we don’t have anybody there. We buy freelance footage. When one of our stars goes over we cover it in detail.’

“I asked about Afghanistan and he said ‘no.’ I said ‘what about CBS?’ and he said ‘Mort, we don’t do things the way we used to.’ I told that to one of my old colleagues and I said I found it troubling, and he said to be “troubling? It’s criminal.’ By that he meant that when America sends its treasure into battle, whether that’s money or especially when it’s people, the media, the press ought to be there to cover it. I think people back home ought to know.”

Dean said that the press are important even if they are a convenient whipping boy for elected officials or political advocates.

“If the president is angry about press coverage, or the Congress, about some aspect of American society, perhaps they ought to be reexamining their policies rather than criticizing press coverage,” Dean said. “I felt that way in Vietnam. I know there are people who believe the press lost the Vietnam war. That’s nonsense.”

Dean said today’s reporters are just as firm on the ethics of the business as they were in the days when he worked at CBS alongside legendary newsmen like Walter Cronkite, or Eric Sevareid.

“There are lots of good, honest, hard-working, decent reporters, photographers, producers, and news writers around,” Dean said. “A lot of people think of talk, that tower of babel on television, is the ‘news.’ And they equate that with the rest of us. But these shows are interested in opinion, which is fine, but that’s not what [journalists] do. I’m not in a newsroom now, but I talk to old colleagues who still are, and while we don’t get much foreign news reporting, we get a lot of honest reporting.

“I can’t say every reporter, because I don’t watch everything, but the people who criticize [journalists], they don’t watch everything either.”

American Medevac originally aired on PBS. The documentary film can also be ordered (but not streamed) through Amazon.

Written by Jason West and published by Branson News ~ November 12, 2021

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