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Operation Baby Lift

Aired April 29, 2005 - 22:00   ET


BILL HEMMER, GUEST HOST: Good evening. I'm Bill Hemmer. Aaron is off tonight.
And part of our program tonight reflects on a time that divided two countries and divided countless families. But in the midst of war, there was a plan, a plan to save thousands of young orphans. They were in Vietnam and their new life was here in the United States.

As Vietnam marks the fall of Saigon this weekend, we are reminded of how confusing and chaotic that time was. We'll focus on that tonight. We'll also look at what we've learned since then. And also what still divides us today.

But we begin tonight looking at a sweeter legacy of the war, a shining moment and some pretty dark days. Operation Baby Lift. Here's CNN's Betty Nguyen.


BETTY NGUYEN, CNN CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): April, 1975, thousands of Vietnamese swarmed the U.S. Embassy, frantically trying to flee the country as communist forces surrounded Saigon. Among the refugees were countless children, born of war to Vietnamese mothers and American fathers. Hoang Van Long was one of them.

His mother was dead and he remembers his grandmother taking him to an orphanage. She worried the communists would kill these mixed raced children.

LONG VAN HOANG/MATT STEINER, VIETNAMESE ORPHAN: It was on my birthday when I was 8 years old. So I remember her telling me that, you know, that she is going to give me up for adoption, and that it was very hard for her to do that, but despite of that, she wanted to see if I would have an opportunity to succeed in life. And, you know, have a family that I could call my own.

NGUYEN: Jim and Mary Steiner spent time in Vietnam, traveling to Asia in the 1950s as medical missionaries. Then they moved back to the U.S. to raise their three children.

MARY STEINER PSOLLA, ADOPTIVE PARENT: Rather than having another child of our own, say, we could adopt a child that was already in the world and experiencing difficulty in the country that he was living in. So that was all part of the motivation, I think, for helping another child. NGUYEN: Back in Saigon, the Americans organized a last minute orphan evacuation called Operation Baby Lift. And the little boy who had witnessed so much loss had finally won a ticket to a new life. He was on the first baby lift plane to make it to America.

M. STEINER: We had over 400 kids on the flight. And we had two or three kids to a seat, if not more. If there was any rules, they were probably broken -- every rule was probably broke than day.

NGUYEN: Placed in seats, on the floor, wherever possible these flights were packed with children headed to homes all across America. On that 20-hour journey, Hoang Von Long starred at a picture of his new parents, preparing for the moment when they'd meet.

M. STEINER: I wanted to find my mom and dad so badly. And then, you know as soon as I saw my mom, you know, I recognized her picture right away. And I can just, you know, I think I can remember just running as fast as I can and jumping into her arms and you know, just saying, here I am. I made it.

NGUYEN: That day, on April 6, 1975, he became Matt Steiner.

STEINER: And then to see this child walk out with this smile on his face, and he was so happy to see us, and it was like, he says, here I am, you lucky people! It was just like, he knew he wanted to be there.

NGUYEN (on camera): Matt you say your dream was to become an all-American boy. This picture you pretty well fit in.

M. STEINER: Well, it looks like I'm having fun, anyways. Like I said, I've never been, you know, seen what a basketball looks like but here they are showing me how to play basketball.

NGUYEN: These are your brothers?

M. STEINER: These are my brothers, yes. This is Dan, he is the oldest, and Doug, who is the next oldest and then Jeff.

NGUYEN (voice-over): He went on to play just about every sport that involved a ball, and became valedictorian of his 1984 graduating class at West Liberty Salem High in Ohio.

M. STEINER: Here's grandma. You what grandma wants to give you a hug.

NGUYEN: Today, Matt has a family of his own. And has become a father, something he never had before stepping on American soil.

(on camera): Do you ever wonder what life would be like, had Matt not made it out?

STEINER: It's hard to imagine. You know, we think about it, but you know, it's difficult to even think what it would be like. But I'm sure it would not be the success story that he has made it today. NGUYEN (voice-over): In 1995, Matt wanted to see his birth country, and the place where his luck turned around. The Holt Orphan in Saigon. This balcony, where he watched the sky light up with explosions, and the wall where he stood to take this picture 30 years ago.

M. STEINER: Just coming back, just kind of brought up a lot of feelings about my grandmother and my mother, and finding out just talking to different people there that they, you know, how much they really love me, to have to give me up.

NGUYEN: Still, he can't help but wonder, why me? Why is he one of the lucky ones?

M. STEINER: I do feel like that there were so many people over there that didn't make it out, that had to suffer.

NGUYEN: Which is part of the reason why he's followed his adoptive father's footsteps and became an emergency room physician.

M. STEINER: I definitely think myself and all of the other adoptees that had an opportunity for a family and another life, you know, that was the one thing that was good, that came out of the Vietnam War.

NGUYEN: A sacrifice was made to save his life. And now Matt works to save the lives of others.


HEMMER: Betty Nguyen is with me now. Great story.

NGUYEN: He is an amazing man.

HEMMER: What a journey he had, huh?

NGUYEN: Absolutely.

HEMMER: And there are countless thousands too, who have similar stories. And you have one of your own.

NGUYEN: Like Matt, I came out in 1975 as well. And I think for many of us who were able to get that ticket of freedom, we are just so thankful, so thankful to be living in America, in a land where there's opportunity. And thankful to be an American.

But you know what? It didn't come without sacrifice. April, 1975, marked both the beginning and an end. And here's a look at my story.


NGUYEN (voice-over): He was an American serviceman who fell in love with a Vietnamese college student. They married and had me, a child who was given life, when so many were losing theirs in the war. But our lives were also in danger. UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Panic swept Saigon.

NGUYEN: Anyone associated with the Americans were considered marked for death. That meant us.

On April 19, 1975, we fled Vietnam, crammed into a packed C-130 cargo plane. It was stepping into the unknown. Nothing was guaranteed except that turning back was not an option. And that meant leaving behind my grandparents.

I can't begin to understand how painful it was for my mother to say good-bye, not knowing if she'd ever see them again. But the land of the free wasn't a simple plane ride away. We spent a month going from one refugee camp to another.

It was there, when we learned the North had captured Saigon. The war was over. And just 23, my mother was without a country. She says there are many tears shed that day, a deep sense of loss. But as hard as it was, fleeing, not only saved my life, it gave me a new one, in a place called America.


NGUYEN: Here in America, we have been so so very blessed, all of us who got out in 1975. But I also think that we also have to recognize the sacrifice.

As I mentioned, my mother had to say good-bye to her parents. She was only 23 years old, had to say good-bye, not knowing if she would ever see them again. And we were in that refugee camp when we we found out that Saigon had fall on it communism. At that point she knew the possibility of going back to see them was very bleak. And so there's a lot of emotions that come with this anniversary every year.

HEMMER: 30 years. Have you been back?

NGUYEN: I have been back. I have been back several times. In fact, my family and I have founded a charity in which we go back every year to provide humanitarian aid.

And I think that goes with the fact that we feel blessed. And with that blessing we feel there's a sense of responsibility. We got out when so many weren't able to. So we go back to provide aid to those who are really struggling in the area. And struggling because of not just the economic situation, but also because of the environment and the monsoon season and all that comes with weather- related disasters.

HEMMER: Thanks for sharing, Betty.

NGUYEN: Absolutely, thank you.

HEMMER: Good story. Betty Nguyen, thank you.

Vietnam was a war fought just as much over dinner tables here in this country as it was the battle fields over there. I was 10 years old the day it ended. And watching the last chopper leave Saigon own the CBS evening news, I remember asking my own father, does this mean there's peace in the world?

Looking back it was just the kind a 10-year-old would ask. A simple question with no easy answer. Not then and not since then. Here's Bruce Morton tonight.


BRUCE MORTON, CNN CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): It ended 30 years ago, Americans scrambling to board the helicopters taking off from the embassy roof in what was still Saigon. The enemy's tanks rolling into the city.

It ended, and yet it didn't end. Look at the campaign hostility toward John Kerry, who came home from the war to protest the war. The Vietnam veteran waiting at a book signing to spit at Jane Fonda, still angry over her foolish visit to Hanoi all those years ago ended.

David Halberstam covered the war and wrote about it.

DAVID HALBERSTAM, AUTHOR: It some times seems to me that it is the second American Civil War, Bruce, us against ourselves as much as it was us against the VietCong and the North Vietnamese. And that there are opportunities both because of class, generation, whatever, to -- for political reasons to exploit those tensions. And so there's a sadness that it doesn't go away.

MORTON: We learned from it, some practical things with echoes today in Iraq.

HALBERSTAM: We subtracted the most important part of political background which was the French/Indochina War, and therefore we imposed ourselves in another country's historical process. Its own war of liberation.

MORTON: Defense Secretary Robert McNamara visited years later with Vietnamese, including General Vo Nguyen Giap. We couldn't understand he marveled, how you could stand those heavy casualties. The answer simply, it was our country, and, of course, it was.

And one more lesson. Vietnam for America was the end of innocence. If G.I. Joe's were good guys in World War II, the Americans in Vietnam were grumps and they didn't get killed. And they didn't get killed, the word they got was wasted. There was much waste. And good guys we learned in time about a massacre in hamlet called My Lai. American troops, a platoon commanded by Lieutenant William Calley killed many, unarmed men, women, children and babies along a trail in a ditch. And army photographer took pictures. Calley at his court-martial testified, they were all the enemies, sir. They were all to be destroyed.

And the pilots dropping bombs never knew who they'd hit. It was the relationship we wondered between altitude and reality. There is a memorial park at My Lai now, I visited it on assignment for CNN 10 years ago. One of the things they have is a book visitors can write in. One American wrote, that he had been in Vietnam during the war. The lesson he wrote was, we need to realize we are all one, we all carry with us the potential to be the killer and the victim. Not good guys only, but good and bad all mixed up like everybody else. A hard lesson and one we have just been taught again at a place in Iraq called Abu Ghraib.

Bruce Morton, CNN, Washington.


HEMMER: Reflections, three decades later.

Still ahead tonight you'll meet the man who drop the first atomic bomb on Japan. Learn how he is coping today. We'll get to that a little bit later in the hour.

First, almost quarter past the hour, time for the other news from Erica Hill at Headline News. Good evening, Erica.


A deadly Friday in Iraq, where there were at least a dozen bombings across the country. Twenty-eight people at least killed, most of them Iraqi security forces. One hundred others were wounded. Among the dead, three American soldiers. The violence comes a day after the Iraqi National Assembly choose a new cabinet.

The men considered a major force behind the violence in Iraq, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi has apparently issued another call for more attacks. The 18-minute audio message was posted on two Islamic Web sites. It's believed to have been made a few weeks ago. No confirmation yet that the voice is actually Zarqawi's, but journalists familiar with his previous messages say it sounds authentic.

After a rough week in court, the prosecution in the Michael Jackson case scored a significant victory today. The judge allowing them to introduce into evidence two books containing nude photographs of adolescent boys. The books were found in Jackson's bedroom at Neverland Ranch during a search in 1999. They are legal to have in California.

They said they found buried treasure in a back yard. Old money bag notes worth $100,000 or more. But police now say their story told on national television was nothing but a hoax. The two men were arrested today and accused of stealing the money from a home in Massachusetts, where they'd done roofing work.

At Cape Canaveral, Florida, a launch delay forced Space shuttle Discovery. Next months planned lift off has now been pushed back to July. NASA officials say they need more time to ensure foam chunks or ice won't break off during a launch. Two years ago, a chunk of debris hit Columbia's wing at lift. It is blamed the shuttles disintegration.

And that's the latest from Headline News at this hour. Bill, back to you. HEMMER: They're being careful and for good reason, too. Erica, thanks for that.

In a moment starting with a family tonight with incredible pressure this weekend.


HEMMER: The bride is missing. The cops are stumped. Where is Jennifer Wilbanks, and why did police want to strap her fiance to a polygraph?

Also tonight, school kids, a needle and HIV.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I can't sleep right. Neither can my wife. To have that on you is very uncomfortable.

HEMMER: And he's not the only parent who are worried, not by a long shot.

Is it OK to cheat on your spouse? Americans say, no, but their online habits say yes.

His actions ended one terror and ushered in another.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: We didn't figure we were out making history. That was for the old guys to do, make the history.

HEMMER: Sixty years later we talked to the man who dropped the first atomic bomb in war time.

And finally tonight...

AARON BROWN, HOST: So are you Spencer?


HEMMER: But he is Robert B. Parker, the best selling father of that hard-boiled detective. And this is NEWSNIGHT.



HEMMER: Tomorrow should have been one of the happiest days of Jennifer Wilbanks' young life. Saturday was supposed to be her wedding day. Instead, family and friends are now planing a church vigil on that day, praying for her safe return. And today, they were begging for information, any clue that might bring her home.

Here's Jonathan Freed tonight.


JONATHAN FREED, CNN CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): The families of Jennifer Wilbanks, and her fiance John Mason, step before the cameras Friday to plead for help and to offer a $100,000 reward.

MIKE SATTERFIELD, WILBANKS FAMILY SPOKESMAN: We love Jennifer very much. We would give our life and everything that we own to have her returned.

FREED: The 32-year-old woman disappeared Tuesday evening. She went out for a jog, and never came back. Wilbanks and Mason were supposed to be married on Saturday. And when asked if the ceremony had officially been postponed -- emotions were raw.

SATTERFIELD: Our faith and our prayer, our friends -- and we are a close-knit family. And we'll make it through this.

FREED: Police say the investigation has so far turned up no evidence that a crime has been committed. The families announced John Mason passed a polygraph test, one conducted by a private examiner. But police still want him to take one through the Georgia Bureau of Investigation.

CHIEF RANDY BELCHER, DULUTH, GA POLICE DEPARTMENT: We have requested that he take a polygraph now through the GBI. He has agreed to take the polygraph, but under certain conditions.

FREED: Mason wants to take the test at a neutral location with a video camera rolling, but police are saying no camera. Mason's father says the would-be groom is in pain.

CLAUDE MASON, JOHN MASON'S FATHER: He is grieving so bad right now, and to be the center of an investigation is just almost more than he can take. He wants her back. He wants her back. He wants people to know that number one, he had nothing to do with it, but he wants her back real, in the worst way.

FREED: Police say the only things they found after an extensive search of the area are a few articles of clothing, and a clump of hair that investigators say is similar to Wilbanks. Hair that appears to have been cut, not pulled. They're still waiting for lab test results.

BELCHER: At this point, we have searched what we can search. We've exhausted our manpower. We've turned over probably every leaf in this city.

FREED: The search called off, police say they're now relying even more on any information the public can provide.

Jonathan Freed, CNN, Duluth, Georgia.


HEMMER: And more on this story throughout the weekend as we follow it here at CNN.

Meanwhile, every day millions of Americans send their children to school believing they will return home safe. To believe otherwise would make life impossible. But schools are not immune from danger. We have seen that over the past few years, and those dangers can be entirely unexpected, as is the case now in the city of Philadelphia. Here's Jason Carroll tonight.


JASON CARROLL, CNN CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): On Friday afternoon, Mike Gonzalez is usually at work. Not today. He picks up his daughter and son from school. He's worried about them.

MIKE GONZALEZ, PARENT: I'm very concerned. Like I said, you know, my daughter, you know, the way she was yesterday, so emotional, crying, and the way my son was.

CARROLL: They're two of 19 children at Bayard Taylor Elementary School in Philadelphia, stuck by a diabetic pin-prick needle used for testing blood. A third-grader brought the needle to school. It belonged to her mother. Students say she poked her classmates as a joke. Many parents are frightened after finding out one of the students was HIV-positive, fearing their children could become infected.

GONZALEZ: That's falling heavy on me and also on my wife, because she tells me, what if this, what if that? Everything is just a hypothetical question.

CARROLL: Maritza Ponce's son Jonathan was poked twice. He summed up his feelings in one word.


CARROLL: Ponce is angry at school officials, saying they ignored students' complaints.

MARITZA PONCE, PARENT: They let 14 other kids get poked by the same needle by the same girl. Once one student told her they got poked, she should have taken that away from that girl and put it away. Maybe so many kids wouldn't get poked, and now mothers don't have to suffer and worry about something that their kid might have or might not have.

CARROLL: Parents were visibly upset after they met with school administrators Thursday night.

(on camera): District officials met with parents again on Friday and tried to ease their concerns, saying health officials told them the risk of infection by the needle prick is very small.

PAUL VALLAS, DISTRICT SUPERINTENDENT: It's extraordinarily remote. I think it's a third of 1 percent. You know, and -- but again, if it's a third of 1 percent, you still take -- you still exercise precaution.

CARROLL: The district is paying for all related health care. The superintendent says disciplinary action is not out of the question. He'll be asking for a timeline, explaining the delay in stopping the student, and reporting the incident to the principal. All 19 students will be retested possibly several times in the coming months.

GONZALEZ: I can't focus right, I can't sleep right. Neither can my wife. It's just constantly, constantly thinking, what if this, what if that. And that's -- to have that on you is very uncomfortable.

CARROLL: All parents, like Gonzalez, can do for now, is wait, and for them, waiting is the hardest part.

Jason Carroll, CNN, Philadelphia.


HEMMER: Just ahead on NEWSNIGHT tonight, from shopping to banking and everything in between. The Internet has changed the way we live. It's also changed and wrecked a lot of marriages in this country. Cheating has never been easier.

And a bit later, Aaron's conversation with the great mystery novelist Robert B. Parker. How much of Parker is reflected in Spencer the Private Eye? We'll find out. First a break, though. From New York, this is NEWSNIGHT on a Friday night.


HEMMER: It is a disappointing fact in America that 50 percent of all marriages end in divorce, and infidelity is one of the main reasons why.

There is one new study estimating that more than half of all married couples experience cheating in the relationship, and this weekend "CNN PRESENTS" explores the issue of infidelity. Why spouses cheat, where they do it, and how cheating hearts are easy to find. Today it's just a point and a click away. Our preview tonight from Kathy Slobogin.


KATHY SLOBOGIN, CNN CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): It's late. Your spouse is sleeping, and you want to play. You can meet anyone, be anyone, and go anywhere. All without ever leaving home.

DR. DAVID GREENFIELD, ONLINE INFIDELITY EXPERT: I call it an electronic bedroom.

The Internet is a sexual smorgasbord. I mean, you can find anything. And if you have a particular fantasy or desire or fetish, something that you'd never even consider talking about with your spouse, you can find somebody that's into it online.

SLOBOGIN: Dr. David Greenfield specializes in addiction, and lately he's spending a lot of time treating a new and addictive brand of adultery, what he calls crossing the line online. GREENFIELD: This is the perfect affair for a married person. Think about it. They don't have to go anywhere. They don't have to try to find a hotel room. They can suck you in, and you can end up in places doing things and saying things that you might not ordinarily do. And you're playing with fire.

SLOBOGIN (on camera): Cyber cheating is the latest threat to marriage. In a survey, two-thirds of divorce attorneys said the Internet played a significant role in the divorces they handled. Take a look at any online dating service. They're supposed to be for singles. But the people who track these sites say half the visitors are actually married.

CHRISTINE: He was opening a Pandora's box. And by opening it, he got the taste, and he got a flavor, and he liked that taste.

SLOBOGIN (voice-over): Christine, who asked that we not use her last name, says her marriage was destroyed by a computer. A marriage to a man she thought was perfect.

(on camera): What did you see in him?

CHRISTINE: Blue eyes. He had the prettiest blue eyes.

He was six foot. He was thin, and he could dance. I was 43 years old. I'd never been married. I waited, because I wanted the perfect man. And I thought I had him.

And we're smearing cake all over each other.

SLOBOGIN: Her husband sold real estate, and installed a computer at home. At first, the hours online were reasonable. Then, she says, it changed.

CHRISTINE: It was getting worse and worse. He'd spend longer times there. His personality would change. And I kept asking him, because I'd see the e-mail addresses, and I said, you know, what's in here? And he'd change the subject. He didn't want me to even think about it. He'd go, that's no big deal.

SLOBOGIN: She believed him, until the day she says she stumbled onto his other life.

CHRISTINE: My sister had sent me a picture of her on vacation. And so I downloaded the picture, and then I couldn't find it. And I said, OK, I've downloaded it somewhere. Where is it? So I started looking in the history. And I found pictures, and it wasn't of my sister. There were pictures that he had downloaded of women, housewives, and they were so lewd and disgusting, they would make "Hustler" magazine look like Disney.

SLOBOGIN: She says her husband played down the pornography, denied he was cheating, but her suspicions grew. Finally, she decided to beat him at his own game, in cyberspace.

(on camera): The Internet is not only inspiring adulterers, it's providing a way to catch them. Software like Spector Pro is a kind of electronic detective. You can actually spy on your spouse's e-mails, capture their conversations, keystroke by keystroke, and that's exactly what Christine did.

CHRISTINE: I started tracking and opening up his e-mails and seeing what was in there. And that's when I discovered what he was doing.

He was going into adult personal ads. He was asking for local loose women. "What do you look like? I'd really like to know."

SLOBOGIN (voice-over): Armed with the e-mails, Christine filed for divorce two years ago. Her husband wouldn't talk to us.

(on camera): The cheating, the interest in pornography, how much of that do you attribute to the computer?

CHRISTINE: All of it, all of it. Totally changed his personality. It allowed him to do things that he wouldn't have to have anybody see him do. He could go into sites quietly, secretively. He could look at things and he'd never have to tell anybody he did it.

SLOBOGIN (voice-over): For Christine, there's a final chapter, and one with a happy ending. She's met someone new. Where did she meet him? You guessed it, an online dating site.


HEMMER: Tomorrow night, on Saturday, "CNN PRESENTS: Infidelity," 8:00 Eastern, 5:00 on the West Coast. It will air again on Sunday, same time, 8:00 on the East Coast, 5:00 out West.

Still to come tonight on NEWSNIGHT, an old soldier's story. His story is about a mission that ended the war in Japan 60 years ago. Was he heroic or was he just doing his job? And did he realize then how his actions would change history forever? First a break. This is NEWSNIGHT in New York.


HEMMER: Sixty years ago this week, Nazi Germany, fell. Months later, Japan would be next. But at the time, Americans were terrified of the human cost of yet another invasion. The atomic bomb would put an end to that argument. Over the years, many have grappled with the following paradox, how one horror could eliminate the possibility of another. But there is one man who has lived with that the longest. Miles O'Brien tonight has his story.


MILES O'BRIEN, CNN CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): He's known as the man who ended the war and he is now nearing the end of the line.

BRIG. GEN. PAUL TIBBETS (RET.), ENOLA GAY COMMANDER: There it is. Liberty bell. O'BRIEN: And as he turns 90, Paul Tibbets is speaking out, trying to set the record straight about the brutal dawn of the nuclear age 60 years ago this year.

TIBBETS: No, no, we didn't figure we were out making history. That was for the old guys to do, make the history.

O'BRIEN: Of course it was history. August 6th, 1945. Tibbets commanding the B-29 bomber he named after his mother, Enola Gay, cast its shadow over Hiroshima, Japan at 8:15 in the morning there. The bomb known as Little Boy fell on an unsuspecting city.

TIBBETS: When the bomb exploded, I was just bringing my nose up on the horizon, and the whole thing lit up in pinks and blues and white. Oh, God, you never saw anything like it. It was instantaneous.

O'BRIEN: Dutch Van Kirk was the navigator on that fateful mission.

THEODORE "DUTCH" VAN KIRK, ENOLA GAY NAVIGATOR: You didn't see anything except a bright flash and the airplane. You saw white cloud hanging over the city. You saw the -- underneath the cloud the entire city was just entirely covered with smoke and dust, and it looked like a pot of boiling oil down there.

O'BRIEN (on camera): What did you say at that moment?

TIBBETS: To myself, I said, "that was a hell of a big bang. Nobody could stand up to that." And we'll all get to go home.

O'BRIEN: Do you remember your thoughts at that moment?

VAN KIRK: My thoughts, "God, I'm glad it worked." That was number one, because there was a real possibility it won't work. I'm glad it worked. Number two, the thoughts were, "this war is over." And that was good. That was good.

O'BRIEN (voice-over): Of course, it was not quite the end yet. Three days later, another bomb fell on Nagasaki. With just two bombs dropped, over 100,000 people were dead, and the war was over.

The planned invasion of Japan would not happen, and who knows how many lives were saved.

(on camera): How do you square it? How do you square the lives you saved with the lives that were lost that day?

TIBBETS: Based on personal experience, I seldom go anywhere, over the years, that somebody doesn't come up to me and say, "I was scheduled for that invasion. You saved my neck." And I said, "that's good news. I'm glad I could."

No use talking about it any further.

O'BRIEN (voice-over): While Tibbets celebrated his birthday surrounded by family and former crewmates, complete with a World War II vintage air show, veterans of the Iwo Jima invasion remembered the bloody hell they endured 60 years ago. Seven thousand American Marines died, just to seize that single volcanic island from the Japanese.

LEWIS B. THOMPSON, WORLD WAR II VETERAN: We were scheduled to go to Japan in November. I would have had to go on if it hadn't been for Paul Tibbets and his bomb, or our bomb, I'll put it that way.

O'BRIEN: But these veterans do not consider Tibbets a hero.

FRANK CALDWELL, WORLD WAR II VETERAN: I'm not taking anything away from him. I wouldn't dare to that. It took a lot of courage to do what he did, and I admire him. But he was flying. He was doing his job.

O'BRIEN (on camera): Would you consider yourself a hero?


O'BRIEN: Why not?

TIBBETS: Because I didn't go out there to do something to show off, you know, doing that sort of thing. I was put in a place to get the job done, and I did it, and I don't think it took a hero to do that. It took somebody who knew what the hell they were doing, and that was me.

O'BRIEN (voice-over): Paul Tibbets IV has followed in his grandfather's footsteps. An Air Force officer, he flies B-2 stealth bombers.

PAUL TIBBETS IV, GRANDSON: He's a hero. And you're exactly right, you know why? My grandfather says he was not a hero because he was a soldier serving his country just like every other soldier serving with him. They were all serving their country trying to take care one another to make sure they made it through. That's what it was about. Let's defeat the enemy, make it through and survive.

TIBBETS: I just want to be remembered as a man who was given a job and he did it. No explanation, no nothing. I was given a job and I did it.

O'BRIEN (on camera): Simple as that?


O'BRIEN: Are you proud of that in statement?

TIBBETS: Yes. Nobody did it before. And nobody done it since.

O'BRIEN: And no one, including his grandson, may ever have to face that awful moral dilemma again, because Paul Tibbets did his duty and helped distill the awful cruelty of human beings into a moment they cannot and should not be forgotten.

Miles O'Brien, CNN, Atlanta.


HEMMER: Just ahead here on NEWSNIGHT we'll check the latest headlines for you on a Friday evening.

Also, CNN's anniversary series "Then & Now" remembers a firefighter tonight caught in the headlights of history. He was there for a president to lean on. It's a Friday night in New York and this is NEWSNIGHT.


HEMMER: Almost a quarter before the hour. Time for another look at the headlines making news tonight. Erica Hill is back in Atlanta with us again. Erica, good evening again.

HILL: Good evening again to you, Bill.

We start off with a report from the AP that the lawyer for Private First Class Lynndie England now saying she will plead guilty to abusing Iraqi detainees at Abu Ghraib Prison. Private England became the face that came to symbolize the abuse scandal. She faces a maximum sentence of 11 years in the stockade.

Jack Abramoff, the lobbyist at the center of a controversy over House leader Tom DeLay's ethics violations, tells "Time" magazine he regrets the language he used to describe his Native American clients in e-mails. He referred them as monkeys, troglodytes, morons and quote, "the stupidest idiots in the land."

A heartbreaking story out of Illinois tonight where a mother is charged with killing her two children. Police say in Hoffman Estates say Tonya Vasilev stabbed her 3-year-old daughter and 9-year-old son each over 100 times. It happened in their home while their father was at work.

And a committee of the United Methodist Church today voted to reinstate the lesbian minister who was removed from her position after admitting a relationship with another woman. She was defrocked and relieved of her duties more than two years ago despite the support of her congregation in Pennsylvania.

And that is the latest from Headline News on this Friday night.

Bill, back to you. Have a great weekend.

HEMMER: Erica, thank -- hey, you the same. Thank you much. Talk to you later.

He was a retired firefighter determined to help when tragedy struck, a chance encounter that secured him a place in history. As part of CNN's anniversary series, "Then & Now," the story tonight of Bob Beckwith.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE) GEORGE W. BUSH, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: I can hear you. The rest of the world hears you.

HEMMER (voice-over): Just three days after 9/11, he stood at the left hand of a president, and squarely in the minds of Americans.

BUSH: The people who knocked these buildings down will hear all of us soon.

HEMMER: Retired firefighter Bob Beckwith arrived at ground zero on Friday, September 14, determined to help in the search for survivors. That day, he just happened to help the visiting president stand on the burned remains of a fire truck.

BOB BECKWITH, FIREFIGHTER: I started to get down. He said where are you going? I said, I was told to get down. He said no, no, you stay right here.

HEMMER: Beckwith became the symbol that helped rally a city and a nation. He's now 73, and has become a kind of ambassador for firefighters, traveling the country and the world, making appearances and raising money for the New York Firefighters' Burn Center Foundation.

BECKWITH: I just go and tell my story how did I get to be with the president.

HEMMER: Beckwith saw the president in the Oval Office and is immortalized in the presidential wax museum in the President Wax Museum near Mt. Rushmore in South Dakota. He lives on Long Island with his wife of 48 years, Barbara. He's a father of six and a grandfather of ten, but in his heart, he will always be a fireman.

BECKWITH: Fireman is a fireman. You're in a family of great people.


HEMMER: One of the great stories Bob Beckwith tells is how on that day when he tried to get to ground zero, he kept on asking for permission between police after police after police and they kept allowing him and he kept going and look where he ended up.

Up next here on NEWSNIGHT, Aaron's conversation with a novelist Robert B. Parker. He's written more than 30 books featuring Spencer as the Boston private eye. He talks about his famous character, about the mystery genre and when he realized he wanted to be a writer.

First, let's take a break. On our Friday night, this is NEWSNIGHT. Back after this.


HEMMER: When it comes to the American crime novel, Robert B. Parker is a master tory teller -- story teller. In all, Parker's written 50 novels. His newest book called "Cold Service." The latest in his long running series, featuring the street smart Boston private eye Spencer. He stopped by for a recent conversation with Aaron.


BROWN: Well, Spencer and company had been a meal ticket, a good meal ticket for a good long time.


BROWN: How do you think of him? Is he real to you?

PARKER: No, he's probably less real to me than he is to almost anyone else, because I make him. I put the ingredients in the mix every day. I have no sense that he's real at all. It's just a process.

BROWN: Are there things about him that you don't like?

PARKER: No. I wouldn't spend as much time in my life as I do with his company and make him someone I don't like.

BROWN: I don't mean in total but are there aspects of his personality personality...

PARKER: He's probably too big of a wise guy, less so in his mature years. When he started out, he was probably to big a wise guy. Probably too to solve problems with a punch in the mouth.

BROWN: But his changes, as one who's read a lot of these, all of them I think, the changes have been pretty subtle.

PARKER: I haven't made it on purpose. I have changed. I was more of a wise guy when I was...

BROWN: So are you Spencer?

PARKER: Oh, God, no.

BROWN: But there are things that, about your life.


BROWN: That are also things about his life.


BROWN: Your relationship with your wife of a good long time. Most people might find it a little quirky.

PARKER: Yes, it is a little quirky, it works very well for us. But we live together and separately. She lives on the second floor. We have a big house in Cambridge right across the river from Boston for comic effect, as the line goes. And we share it, well it's Joan's house and I live in my office. There nor closed doors, but she lives on the second floor. I live on the first. Susan and Spencer made a try at cohabitation and found it impossible and Spencer happily moved back out. BROWN: Has mystery writing changed over time? Or is it essentially, if you go back to the great American mystery writers, essentially the same. Find a great character, find a pretty good plot, let it go?

PARKER: Yes, it's about the guy. It's about the hero. Down these mean streets a man must go who is not himself mean, who is neither tarnished nor afraid. That was Chandler on Marlowe.


BROWN: Marlowe's a great character.

PARKER: Yes, he's a great character. What has changed, and modesty forbids me from saying who was instrumental in that change is that a character like Spencer now has a context, Marlowe was alone. Spencer has Susan. He has Hawk. He has a host of friends.

BROWN: What is the significance of that?

PARKER: In terms of -- it gives you -- it gives you -- it gives me me more stuff to work with. I can bring characters in and out. I have a stock company of 25 or 30 people that come and go, and it helps, I think, me to think up a plot. It pleases readers sometimes, Jessie Stone, another character in another series, showed up with Spencer once in a forthcoming back. Sonny Randall will be in Jessie Stone's town. And you play with those things there.

BROWN: Man that's synergy.

PARKER: Yes, you're called it right. Synergy is pleasing. It pleases me.


PARKER: And I hope it pleases the audience.

BROWN: How old were you when you knew you wanted to write?

PARKER: Grammar school someplace, you know, I was always sort of good at it. I always wanted to do it.

BROWN: We talked about how you do the books. It sounds like it actually comes fairly easy to you.

PARKER: It does. It's not the old Red Smith line about bleeding sweat. No, it comes fairly easy. It doesn't mean it is easy. And if you can't do it, it's impossible. But given the fact that there's a certain innate ability to do it, it's much -- as Dutch Leonard used to say, it's the best job in the world.

BROWN: Have you ever had writer's block?

PARKER: No. No. I'll quote that again, Dutch Leonard again, writer's block is another word for lazy. No, some days it comes easy. Some days it comes hard. I do my 10 pages. BROWN: When you sit down to start the book, what do you know?

PARKER: I know in this book, "Cold Service," which I won't spoil for you, that Hawk was hired to protect a bookie, and was shot in the process, and that's what I know.

BROWN: And do you know when you sit down who the shooter was?


BROWN: Do you know whether any of these other kind of supporting characters, the homicide cops from here or there who appear in and out will appear in the book?

PARKER: No. No. No. They may or may not. Some of them do in this book. But as, required, and I don't know when I start whether that will happen or not. That's all I know. And I would get the first chapter where Hawk gets shot and sits up in the hospital. And then the second chapter grows out of the first one. And then the third chapter grows out of second one and off we go.

BROWN: And six weeks later you're done.

PARKER: By and large, yes. If I -- if I'm not doing anything else, but I write my 5 pages -- my five days a week, 10 pages a day, it's takes about six weeks.

BROWN: The books are great fun reading, and I look forward to a new one every year, and all of the other things. Nice meet you.

PARKER: Nice to meet you.

BROWN: Been a long time. Thank you, sir.


HEMMER: Never gets writer's block. Aaron the novelist, Robert B. Parker the story teller tonight.

We'll wrap things up after a break. Back in a moment.


HEMMER: Before we leave you tonight, there is serious weather to talk about in the southeast. And Chad Myers is watching that closely. What do you have, Chad.

CHAD MYERS, CNN METEOROLOGIST: Bill, long day for you, long night for the people here in the southeast. Brand new tornado watch until 5:00 a.m. You have tornado warnings going on here. Had a tornado on the ground southeast of Shaw in Mississippi. Mississippi Valley State very close to you. And Greenwood, tornado warnings for you.

HEMMER: Keep us posted Chad. Thanks for that.

We've got run. Enjoy your weekend. I'm Bill Hemmer and good night.


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