The U.S. Military Assistance Command regarded Esper with wariness, respect and even affection. He was relentless. He recalled "pounding them with questions: 'Why don't you know? You should know this. I know you know it.'" After the war, one retired public affairs chief included Esper's photo in a wall montage of "all the commanders I served under."
When President Lyndon B. Johnson made a hastily planned trip to Australia in 1967, it was widely assumed he would stop in Vietnam to visit U.S. troops.
Guessing that the coastal base at Cam Ranh Bay was the likely venue, Esper managed to phone the airport control tower, where an officer not only confirmed Johnson's visit but had tape-recorded his speech. Hours later, the secrecy-bound White House press corps arrived in Bangkok to find the story — their story — already on the AP wire.
Esper found his best stories through perseverance and guile. In December 1972, he landed an exclusive interview with a U.S. Air Force B-52 pilot facing court-martial for refusing to fly missions over North Vietnam. Tracked down in Thailand, the pilot gave Esper the full story. When he later told Esper he had been officially "muzzled" from further comment, Esper reported that, too.
Esper wrote his most memorable story on April 30, 1975, the day the war ended with the fall of Saigon to the North Vietnamese. He and two other AP reporters declined to join the frantic evacuation of foreigners from Saigon as the North Vietnamese army drove toward the city.
Two North Vietnamese soldiers entered the bureau, accompanied by a longtime freelance photographer for the AP who on that day revealed that he had been a communist spy. He assured the reporters they were safe. Esper offered them Coca Cola and stale cake — the only food on hand — then interviewed the soldiers. Hours later, AP's communications were abruptly cut, but not before the story got out. The New York Times ran it on its front page.
Esper said afterward he was struck by how similar the young Hanoi soldiers were to the American GIs he had covered.
On his return to the United States, Esper became an AP special correspondent — the news service's highest writing title — based in Columbus, Ohio, and later in Boston. He covered major stories such as the Jonestown massacre in Guyana in 1978 and the 1991 Gulf War.
In 1993, two years after the United States restored diplomatic ties in Indochina, he was chosen to open AP's first postwar Vietnam bureau in Hanoi and was bureau chief for more than a year.
Esper retired from the AP in 2000 to become a professor of journalism at his alma mater, West Virginia University, where he was beloved by his students.
"He loved his students, who kept him young," Thomas Esper said.
Esper was a member of the university's P.I. Reed School of Journalism faculty for more than 10 years.
"He shared his vast professional experience with our students, but more importantly, he was their coach and mentor," said Maryanne Reed, dean of the journalism school. "Beyond being a dedicated faculty member, George also was a wonderful person who took a personal interest in the lives of his students, colleagues and friends. ... They broke the mold when they made George."
Chris Martin, the vice president of university relations who as dean of the journalism school arranged for Esper to become a professor at his alma mater, said: "I would paraphrase a good friend's assessment: George Esper was a celebrity who made everyone he met feel like a star. It made him a great reporter but an even greater human being."
Funeral arrangements are incomplete. Esper's body was being brought to his hometown in Pennsylvania for burial.
Esper is survived by his ex-wife, Nancy Ha, of Fountain Valley, Calif.; and three sons: Thomas of Wakefield, Mass.; Michael of Brighton, Mass.; and George of Sacramento, Calif.
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