Stan Remembers: Vietnam and BT Collins, fates intertwined


  Stan felt it was fitting that he was allowed back into Vietnam that his subject was his friend, BT Collins.
June 25, 1999
Reporter: Stan Atkinson
KOVR 13 News, KCRA News

Sometimes, when covering the news, we meet people who change our lives forever. Such was the case with Brian Thomas Collins, or "BT" as everyone called him. BT was Governor Jerry Brown's flamboyant chief of staff, the man who drank a beaker of malathion to prove it was safe. When Stan Atkinson was working for KCRA in the late 70's and early 80's, Stan and BT would get together late at night to talk and to drink, and always the talk turned to Vietnam.

Stan Atkinson: Vietnam marked a turning point in my life, and in the life of New York native BT Collins.


  During Stan's trip to Vietnam with LBJ in 1961 his ambition was born to cover the struggle against communism.

It was during my trip to Vietnam with LBJ in 1961 that my ambition was born to cover the struggle against communism. And it was in Vietnam where I made my first foreign documentary, for KCRA, about a priest and freedom fighter, Father Hoa.

It was a documentary that BT had seen during his officer's training. Vietnam was a profound experience for Collins. He always said he had been re-born at age 27, in the Delta on June 20th, 1967. That's when a grenade exploded, tearing off his right arm and leg.

BT Collins: "I never regretted one iota the events that led up to my almost leaving this world, June 20th. But I do know that there is a June 20th, and it is a dividing point in my life. Every thing that happened before June 20th, 1967, is really of little or no consequence."

And so it was fitting that after years of dreaming about going back and months of official negotiating, our KCRA news crew was one of the first local news teams allowed back into Vietnam. And my subject was my friend, BT Collins.


  B.T. almost died as he and Stan walked through a military cemetery outside Saigon.

And to seal the meaning of it all even more so, during our time there BT marked the 20th anniversary of the day he almost died as we both walked through a military cemetery outside Saigon.

BT Collins / 1987: "This fellow was killed June 20th, 1968. Looks like he was born in the north, a long way from home."

Stan Atkinson / 1987: "You were almost killed here yourself."

BT Collins / 1987: "Yeah, 20 years ago. I was thinking about that this morning when I woke up."

At the time of our trip, there were still no official relations between the United States and Vietnam. We had official government keepers - or minders, as we called them - as guides and would-be censors. But we would sneak shots of things they didn't want us to show.

Stan Atkinson / 1987: "As we drive out of Hanoi, we sneak a shot of the infamous Hanoi Hilton, a prison for American POW's."


  They had official government keepers as guides and would-be censors. But they would sneak shots of things they didn't want them to show.

We soon discovered the north and the south were by no means united. That translated to our only major disappointment of the trip.

BT wanted to visit the base where he served during his first tour, in the highlands above the southern town of Ankay. The southerners didn't like the northerners trying to get them to do it, so the local officials said no. It was a major disappointment.

BT went silent for two days. And I vented at our minders.

Stan Atkinson / 1987: "To bring them all the way here - telling them that they're going to be able to go freely to places where they were - and expect them just to go on the tourist route and not be able to go see areas that are outside of the cities and towns where they were based. And that's what you're doing, and that's why it's a big disappointment, and it's dishonest. [Vietnamese minder replies off camera] No, I'm not saying you're lying. I'm saying you're not telling us the whole situation. That's the problem."


  Everywhere they looked, America was still tied to Vietnam. Still in place, the tunnels the Vietcong built, even beneath the feet of US troops.

Everywhere we looked, America was still tied to Vietnam 15 years after the war's end. Still in place, the tunnels the Vietcong built at Cu Chi, even beneath the feet of US troops. Soviet MIG's practicing touch-and-go's on US built runways. Vietnamese farm boys driving US military trucks. A crippled US warbird serving as a Vietnamese war memorial. And amputees, using shell casings for artificial limbs.

As we neared our destination, BT was paired with a former Vietcong captain. He remembered the battle nearly 20 years ago that almost took BT's life. In fact, he and his men had wiped out the special forces unit that had been there before BT's.


  B.T. died in 1993 of a sudden heart attack.

I watched as the two bonded as only old soldiers can, and later the emotions came spilling out as BT re-visited the spot that changed his life forever.

BT Collins / 1987: "I was dying. I remember because, you know, I'm starting to go into deep shock, and I'd lost my blood. I was sitting, it was hot, I remember how hot it was, and it was running out of me. And he said, 'Give the old man my morphine.' We each carried one morphine. I said, 'T-bird, T-bird, am I gonna die? Am I gonna die?' and he said, 'No, no. You're not gonna die. You're not gonna die.'

"And he was lying through his teeth, which he admitted to me. And in 1968 when I left the army and drove cross-country, I stopped down at Fort Bragg, special forces, I said, 'T-bird, you lied to me.' he said 'No, I didn't. You're here.'"

But six years later - BT then serving as a California State Assemblyman - was no longer here. He died in 1993 of a sudden heart attack.

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