Chronicler of Universal Experience

By Emily Gold Boutilier / September / October 2003
June 22nd, 2007

In his best-selling book Bloods, Wallace Terry offered readers of all races insight into the unique struggle of African Americans who served in the Vietnam War. Terry, who also covered the war for Time and reported on civil rights for the Washington Post, died on May 29. He lived in Reston, Virginia, and had Wegener’s granulomatosis, an inflammation of the blood vessels.

Bloods: An Oral History of the Vietnam War by Black Soldiers, won critical acclaim when it was published in 1984. It was a New York Times notable book of the year. The Washington Post predicted, “Bloods will find its way into the conscience of America.” Even Walter Cronkite joined in the praise, writing that Terry “fills a yawning gap in the record of our Vietnam experience.”

The word bloods, a shortening of blood brothers, is the name black soldiers in Vietnam used to describe themselves. The book traces the experience of twenty such soldiers of various backgrounds and ranks, shedding light on the injustices they suffered in the battlefield and back home. “It was a traumatic period,” Terry told the Washington Post in 1984. “To be eighteen or nineteen, to be in the war, to get the news of King’s death, then to watch your brothers in arms raise Confederate flags and burn crosses—it was a devastating experience.” The book was adapted for National Public Radio’s All Things Considered and for Frontline on public television.

In 2000 the BAM named Terry one of the 100 alumni with the greatest impact on the twentieth century. “Bloods achieved what I’ve always tried to achieve as a journalist,” he told the BAM at the time. “[It showed] that the black experience is first and foremost a universal experience.”

Terry got an early start in journalism at the Brown Daily Herald, where he became the first African American editor in 1958. A year earlier, he scored an exclusive interview with Arkansas Governor Orval Faubus, who was in Newport, Rhode Island, to talk about court-imposed desegregation in his home state with President Eisenhower. A photograph of Terry and Faubus shaking hands ran on the front page of the New York Daily News.

Terry, who was ordained in the Disciples of Christ Church, joined the staff of the Washington Post in 1960, reporting on civil rights and the emerging black power movement. He became a Time correspondent three years later. He made his first visit to Vietnam in early 1967 to write a cover story for the magazine on the black soldier, then returned that fall as deputy Saigon bureau chief, a position he held for two years.

While reporting on civil rights, Terry got to know the major leaders in the movement, including Martin Luther King Jr., who became his son’s godfather. Terry also went undercover to write about the Nation of Islam. A Nieman fellow at Harvard for a year, Terry was appointed the first Frederick Douglass Professor of Journalism at Howard University in 1974.

Three years after the publication of Bloods, Terry spoke out against Oliver Stone’s Platoon. “Platoon shows blacks as lazy,” he told People, “implying that they have to be pushed to fight or that they lack leadership ability. That is contrary to the war I covered for two years and have studied and written about for twenty. It’s a slap in the face.”

Terry was a member of Phi Beta Kappa and is survived by his wife, Janice; two sons; a daughter; two grandchildren; and a sister.

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September / October 2003