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Fresh Air Remembers '60 Minutes' Correspondent Bob Simon

TERRY GROSS, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. We're going to remember Bob Simon, the longtime "60 Minutes" correspondent who was killed in a car accident last night. He was 73. Simon had been a CBS reporter for nearly 50 years. He covered wars in Vietnam, Lebanon, Israel and Central America and was the CBS chief Middle East correspondent. He joined "60 Minutes" in 1996. In 1991, while covering the Persian Gulf War, Simon was one of those reporters who broke away from the Pentagon press pool, but he was captured by Iraqi soldiers. For 40 days, Simon and his three-man crew were kept in solitary confinement in an Iraqi prison, at times, blindfolded, interrogated and beaten. They were released after the war's cease-fire. Simon wrote about his capture in his 1992 memoir "Forty Days." When it was published, he spoke with FRESH AIR guest host Marty Moss-Coane. We're going to hear an excerpt of their interview. Marty asked Bob Simon what he was looking for on the day he was captured.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)

BOB SIMON: We were just looking around because the system had already been put in place by the Pentagon's information bureau that restricted us from really doing anything, that put us all in packs that were to be led around by the nose by Pentagon information officers. So we just did - our whole idea was to find out what was going on on our own, and we had done so. A few days earlier, we'd gone up to another border position between Saudi Arabia and Kuwait and found an awful lot of things that had not been reported in the Pentagon pools. We found a Saudi oil refinery, which had been hit by Iraqi artillery, which was burning. We found Saudi positions which had been abandoned by their defenders. We found a U.S. Marine unit under fire. It was clear to us then that the only way to report the story was to go out on our own, so we just did that again. We did another take. We drove up to another road, another place, in Saudi Arabia, another place along the northern frontier, and we never got back there.

MARTY MOSS-COANE, HOST:

Tell us how you got captured.

SIMON: Well, we strolled across this border. We just were sort of - wanted to have a look at the no man's land, which is just another expanse of sand, which is all there is out there. There's nothing else, not the hint of a curve or a hill. We were just looking around. We were also - we also thought it would be sort of nice to have a Kuwait deadline - date line. So we wanted to see if we were actually in Kuwait and we were walking towards some signs in the no man's land, which we thought delineated the actual border between Saudi Arabia and Kuwait. When we got there, we found they were just directional signs pointing to parking lots. And we just started heading back. And my colleague Peter Bluff said, there's a vehicle heading towards us. And I glanced around and saw that there was something kicking up sand in the distance, but I couldn't tell what kind of vehicle it was.

It was - we were, at that point, about 200, 250 meters from the border, and we didn't really, I think, have a chance to make a run for it. And I think we were already into something which would become quite prominent in our lives for the next 40 days. We were already into fantasies. The Saudis had told us that a lot of Iraqis were defecting to their Saudi forces. In fact, one of our colleagues, a CBS cameraman and Iraqi soldier, had surrendered to him the day before. So I think our first thought was, maybe these were Iraqi defectors - won't that be fun? But at the precise moment that the jeep came up and - situation, as they say, evolved very quickly. Things were happening so quickly, I don't think there was anything that could probably be qualified as a thought.

MOSS-COANE: What was your greatest fear then?

SIMON: Well, I'll tell you, it took a while for real fears to set in. In fact, if I were to answer the question very candidly, I guess - I'm rather embarrassed to articulate it - I think my greatest fear at the very beginning was I wasn't going to make it back to Saudi Arabia that night to file a good story I had. And that's how distant my mind was still from the reality which was overtaking me, and it took some time.

And this was something I tried to focus on in the book - how long it takes for, I think, a fairly normal mind to really deal with a very, very oppressive new reality, that it took some time before I really realized that I wasn't a reporter anymore, I wasn't going to go back to some air-conditioned newsroom, that the Ministry of Information in Iraq didn't give a [expletive] about us and even if they did, had no power, that we were in a very, very serious situation.

MOSS-COANE: You were first taken to some bunkers.

SIMON: That's right, some bunkers outside Kuwait.

MOSS-COANE: And what kind of interrogation were you exposed to?

SIMON: First interrogation was very proper and very correct. In fact, there was a dichotomy for - during the 40 days. For the first - that first afternoon, we were in the hands of the Iraqi army, and they always behaved properly to us. We were never beaten up by the army, were never tortured by the army. When they interrogated us, it was - we were blindfolded. It wasn't pleasant.

MOSS-COANE: What did they want from you? What kind of information?

SIMON: Basically, they wanted to know who we were, what we were doing and who sent us. And the problem, their problem - and I could understand their problem - was they just being Iraqis, having no sense of a Western press corps and what a Western press corps does or tries to do, they just didn't believe it. They didn't believe that we were journalists just nosing around. They - oh, my God, you know, four guys - particularly we were sort of in quasi-army gear as well - that to them - it's a paranoid regime. To them, anyone nosing around like that must be a spy. Therefore, they wanted to know who we were spying for, who sent us, what we're looking for, and that was the focus of most of the interrogations for the next six weeks.

MOSS-COANE: Was there any answer that would satisfy that question about whether you were an agent of the CIA except for yes?

SIMON: No.

(LAUGHTER)

SIMON: Because we gave - I mean, we kept on telling the truth. And one of their lines in different interrogations, in different places, was, your answers are not satisfactory. And I would say, but they are true. It turned into a, like, Samuel Beckett kind of dialogue. They're not satisfactory. But they're true. But they're not satisfactory. But they're true. It was - you know, we were on entirely different wavelengths.

MOSS-COANE: By some kind of administrative snafu, the Iraqis didn't know that you were Jewish.

SIMON: That's right. The miracles in one's life, I think, turn out to be the most minute, incredibly trivial bureaucratic errors. I think miracles these days are exercised by bureaucracies because bureaucracies have such a power over our lives. When I - I took a - I was in Saudi Arabia from August at the very beginning. And once the Americans announced that there was a January 15 deadline, then for the first time, I felt I could take a break. I could leave for a couple of weeks and go home and see my family because the war wasn't going to start until the 15 of January. So I left for a couple weeks around Christmas, and then I came back the beginning of January. And when I got back to the international hotel in Dhahran, which was the international press headquarters as it was the headquarters of the military information bureau, they were very furiously preparing everyone for covering the war - "covering the war" in quotes. And they were handing out, among other things, Red Cross cards. And I lined up to pick up my Red Cross card. Now, a Red Cross card is something that anyone carries who is in a combat zone. It has your name and rank or position, if you're a newsman, and your picture and your blood type, in case you get hurt, or - and your religion in case you got to be buried quickly. And I saw that everything was right on mine, except religion. It said Protestant. And I said to the guy, who was a major, who was sitting at this wooden desk, I said hey, that's not right. I'm not Protestant. And he was very apologetic, very polite. He said I'm sorry, Mr. Simon, you were away, you were at home, when we printed these up, and we checked with your Saudi visa application and it said next to religion it was blank, so we put in Protestant because most people are.

(LAUGHTER)

SIMON: And I said, well, I'm not. I'm Jewish - fix it. And he said OK, sure. I'll have a new one for you tomorrow morning. And then he looked at me - and I wrote about this and it's something I'll never understand - but he looked at me with a very intense, disquieting kind of look and said, are you sure? And there was something about the way he looked at me that freaked me out. I said, oh, forget it and walked away.

MOSS-COANE: Well, if the...

SIMON: If that press card had said Jewish on it, they would've shot me right away.

MOSS-COANE: You have no doubt about that?

SIMON: No doubt about that, no doubt about that.

MOSS-COANE: Why?

SIMON: Because it is - would be impossible for anyone associated with the Iraqi regime to think that a Jew could be a bona fide American journalist. A Jew caught inside Iraq lines would necessarily be an Israeli spy.

GROSS: We're listening to a 1992 interview with Bob Simon, the longtime "60 Minutes" correspondent who died last night in a car accident. We'll hear more of the interview he recorded with FRESH AIR guest host Marty Moss-Coane after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. We're remembering Bob Simon, the longtime "60 Minutes" correspondent and CBS news reporter who died last night in a car accident. Let's get back to the interview he recorded in 1992 with FRESH AIR guest host Marty Moss-Coane after the publication of his book "Forty Days" about being captured by Iraqis while he was covering the Persian Gulf War in 1991. He was imprisoned for 40 days.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)

MOSS-COANE: One thing that you write a lot about is the cold - the utter cold that once you were imprisoned - really the inability to get warm. Was that in part the most brutal part of it, not being able to get warm?

SIMON: The cold and the hunger because they were both persistent, and they never went away. And this is one reason why I'm very glad that I wrote this book very quickly after I got out. The advantage to doing that - even though there you're losing some intellectual perspective, the advantage, I think, is you can still capture the immediacy of the experience. And right now for example, I find it a little bit hard to remember the force of the hunger - the force of the cold.

MOSS-COANE: And it's one when you're feeling hungry like that, you can't think of anything else because you fantasized a lot about meals, about chocolate - I mean, I assume part of that was a way of trying to occupy your mind.

SIMON: No, no it wasn't at all. It was uncontrollable. It was completely uncontrollable. And I thought it was also idiosyncratic. And then when I was released, a few weeks after I was released, and I went back to my home base in Israel - Israel was a good place to go to because there are a lot of people in Israel from both sides of the divide who have been prisoners. And I found that the only people I could talk to in talks that were useful to me were people who had been prisoners before because anyone else, it just required too much explaining and I don't think - frankly I don't think it's really possible to understand if you haven't been there.

But when I'd meet another prisoner - and a lot of both Israelis and Palestinians called me and said, hey, you know, I've been there - you want to talk? And I'd say, yes, and we would. And I found that a lot of things that I thought had been idiosyncratic were not, that these uncontrollable food fantasies are - is something that is human. It's something everyone experiences who is undergoing chronic starvation.

MOSS-COANE: Did you use sleep as an escape - a way of kind of exiting yourself from your cell?

SIMON: When you're in solitary and the conditions are as dismal as they were in this cell - I mean, there was nothing there. If I'd had a pad and I found - the other thing I fantasized about was having a pad and pencil, then I could have done that forever, I felt. That's what I really wanted, but there was nothing. And no light, no nothing. You want to sleep as much as you can. But there's a limit to how much you can sleep particularly since you're not getting any exercise. And yeah - the hunger is a force that keeps you awake, too.

What I tried to do - there was no window in this cell. But there was a shaft - an air shaft that let in a little light - just enough light so I could see my hands during the day. And with as very little amount of light I could, I got to be able to figure out sort of what time of day it was - what kind of day it was. And there's an enormous difference between just having this little bit of light and it being pitch black.

MOSS-COANE: Did you get disoriented about how many days were going by or were there ways that you could actually mark time?

SIMON: There was one way, and that's very fortunate because one of the things you discover is that it is crucial to your sanity to keep track of days. All the movies we've all seen with guys making scratches on walls - it's not just a trick, it's not trivial - it's crucial. The walls in my cell were very hard - hard red bricks, polished red bricks. And I didn't have any kind of instrument or implement that - they took everything away from me - that could have made a mark in that. But what they did give me - and here's, you know, Iraqi humor - what they did give me was a bar of soap - a fresh, new bar of soap. This is funny because there was no water. So I had a bar of soap, but no water. I managed when they stripped us and shoved - before they took us into the cells - I managed to save a button I had from my safari jacket and shoved it into a pajama pocket. And so I had - the only things I had in this cell were a bar of soap - a dry bar of soap and a button. So the most important part of the day for me was as soon as I saw that first light in the morning, I would take the bar of soap and make - draw a line in it with the button.

MOSS-COANE: And would you find yourself looking at that bar of soap?

SIMON: All the time.

MOSS-COANE: You describe Iraqi humor - I guess that's Iraqi humor to give someone a bar of soap without any kind of water. But there were also acts of kindness - Iraqi soldiers that would get food to you.

SIMON: There were two kinds of Iraqis. There were Iraqis - and Iraqis go into the army like people do everywhere. And the Iraqi soldiers were human beings and some of them were very, very fine human beings. And for the first six or seven days, we were being held - after the first day which was extremely brutal, we were then taken to an Iraqi army prison camp. We were in the hands of the military. And I can't say that they treated us well because - but they did treat us well. The facilities left quite a bit to be desired. But the four of us were together. We were in a cell that was freezing and wet, so we started getting very sick. But it wasn't because they were trying to make life bad for us. That's what they had. And they didn't have much food. But what food they had, they gave us. And some of the soldiers there - the enlisted men in particular - were sweethearts. And they gave us some extra food when they could, and one of them gave us an extra blanket. And one of them even - when he saw how sick we were getting - gave us a kerosene stove he had to put in our cell. And that was - I think that that was one of the third or fourth things that saved our life because I think we would have died of pneumonia without it.

GROSS: Bob Simon in 1992 speaking with FRESH AIR guest host Marty Moss-Coane who hosts the WHYY program Radio Times. Bob Simon died last night in a car accident. He was 73. He had been completing a "60 Minutes" report about the search for a cure for Ebola. That report will be broadcast as planned Sunday on "60 Minutes."

Coming up, Laurie Schwartz reviews a collection of reissues of heightened string quartets. This is FRESH AIR. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.