Death in Saigon’s Cholon District
|May 5, 2008|
It was the telltale drifting smoke that Sunday morning in the sky over Cholon, Saigon's teeming Chinese sector, that first alerted correspondents to the possibility that the second shoe was about to drop in what had become a decisive turning point of the Vietnam War.
The first wave of the Tet (or Lunar New Year) offensive in southern South Vietnam had begun on early 31 January, 1968, following a series of attacks the previous night on military targets further north. What famously became known as the Tet Offensive was finally driven back after weeks of fighting.
On May 5, 1968, 40 years ago today during a year of political mayhem worldwide — reporters, photographers and television crews started heading towards Cholon. One small group of five journalists jumped into a small open Jeep-like Mini-Moke, painted white, outside the office of Reuters, the British news agency, on tree-lined Han Thuyen street, 200 yards from the then-presidential palace, in central Saigon.
There were two Reuters men, Bruce Pigott, 23, an Australian, and Ron Laramy, 31, a recently-arrived Brittish correspondent. Also squeezing into the vehicle were Michael Birch, 24, from the Australian news agency AAP, John Cantwell, 29, another Australian representing Time-Life, whose vehicle it was and who drove it, and Frank Palmos, a freelancer from Perth, Western Australia. Within two hours all but Palmos would be dead in one of the biggest single journalistic tragedies of the Vietnam War - or any war, for that matter.
The offensives were the brainchild of North Vietnam's brilliant defense minister, General Vo Nguyen Giap, a former schoolteacher who had masterminded, in 1954, the decisive battle of Dien Bien Phu, which finally drove French colonialism out of Vietnam.
At the end of January, 1968, Giap - who is still alive today in his 90s in Hanoi - had used a buildup of North Vietnamese forces around the remote American firebase at Khe Sanh to lure American forces towards the demilitarized zone dividing North and South Vietnam. His aim was to carry his forces into the principal cities of the American-backed Saigon government and strike a mortal blow against the Americans.
The first wave was driven back by the Americans and the South Vietnamese at great cost to both sides, with the North Vietnamese and their southern guerrilla allies, the Viet Cong or National Liberation Front suffering especially heavy casualties.
The Viet Cong (the name was originally used as an insult but the NLF later adopted it as a badge of honor) had suffered especially high military losses, but they had scored a stunning psychological blow that finally drove the American public, and the Lyndon Johnson administration, to consider the war a lost cause, and ultimately led to his decision not to run again in upcoming presidential elections.
As the Reuters bureau chief, and with four foreign-born correspondents and two Vietnamese reporters, I had covered the first-wave offensive, when fighting raged close to Reuters' office as the presidential palace was attacked, and the US embassy compound was penetrated 600 yards away in the other direction. Two weeks before this 'second wave' offensive, I had completed my assignment in Vietnam, and returned to the UK.
On May 5, the five correspondents reached Cholon and watched US helicopter gunships flying just above the rooftops firing rockets at presumed guerrilla positions. They passed Vietnamese civilians fleeing from the scene of fighting who shouted at them in the mixed English, French and Vietnamese patois of the war: "VC, VC, beaucoup VC. Di di mau (get away quickly). Go back, go back!"
But moments later, they turned a corner and Cantwell drove the tiny vehicle into a narrow lane and came upon a roadblock of oil drums. Suddenly several Viet Cong guerrillas stood up and started firing wildly. Four of the correspondents were either wounded or already dead. The VC commander, wearing tiger pattern jungle fatigues and not the usual black pajamas of the guerrillas, walked forward. Birch, as Palmos told it, had been sitting next to Cantwell in the front seat, and cried in an anguished voice: 'Bao chi, bao chi' ('press, press.')
The commander repeated 'Bao chi' derisively, walked towards Birch and shot him at point blank range with a .45 before pumping bullets into Cantwell on the ground nearby.
Then Palmos, who was unhurt after playing dead as the VC leader finished off his colleagues, picked himself up and dashed to the corner with the guerrillas firing wildly - and widely - at him with their Kalashnikovs. He was able to reach the still fleeing Vietnamese, daub himself with mud, and hunch his body so that he did not look taller than the much smaller Vietnamese.
The VC fired over the heads of the Vietnamese, trying to make them hand over Palmos, but not one Vietnamese turned his or her head. "They held with me," Palmos told a press conference a few hours later in Saigon. "They didn't look. They let me go along."
In the hours after the shooting, the Reuters Vietnamese manager, Pham Ngoc Dinh, went at the risk of his own life to that tiny street to see if there were survivors, or to at least identify the bodies. "I came to see the dead imperialists," Dinh told the VC commander in the political jargon of the time.
When, safely in Scotland, I heard the news of the deaths of my friends and colleagues on the BBC, I thought back to the start of the Tet Offensive, of which this was the 'second wave,' as it became known. I thought of the youngest, Pigott, who was already a seasoned correspondent, and had shown great potential as a journalist.
In fact, I had been fortunate to survive that first night, as at 2am on 31 January, after taking down dispatches by field telephone from our correspondents, including Pigott, in northern South Vietnam, I drove another Reuters colleague, Australian Hugh Lunn, to the apartment where he was staying on the fringes of Saigon. At 2.40 am, just as I fell asleep in my bedroom above the bureau, I was suddenly awakened by heavy gunfire in the street outside as the attack on the presidential palace was launched. Tracer bullets streaked the office windows. I reflected that half an hour before, the Viet Cong must have seen my car passing in the deserted streets.
Our office was just 40 yards from the Time-Life bureau, and a former Reuter staffer called Pham Xuan An, who was working now for Time as an accredited correspondent, had warned Dinh to advise our staff to take care 'as there may be dangerous developments late tonight.' In fact, An was a communist agent and had actually taken part in the VC's military planning for the attack, including the assault on the American Embassy compound.
None of us suspected then that An was spying for the opposing forces, though it seemed obvious in hindsight - we just considered him a particularly plugged-in journalist, one whom many foreign correspondents consulted about the war.
In the early hours of that morning, with all office lights doused, and with the sound of Vietnamese voices - probably Viet Cong - in the street outside, I crouched on the floor under a staircase and wrote the first urgent dispatch under a lighted candle held by an employee with an understandably shaking hand. My own hands trembled as I wrote.
Two days later, Dinh and I were on the border between Saigon and Cholon, near South Vietnamese troops in armoured personnel carriers. Suddenly, all hell broke loose, with bullets from rifles and machine guns seemingly spraying everywhere. We had no time to seek shelter, but just lay on the cobble-stones of this particular street, hoping for the best.
"If you get out of this, and I don't, please look after my family," Dinh shouted above the tumult. I assured him I would.
Eventually, the communist side was driven back, and the Americans claimed a great military victory, probably rightly, but were unaware of the psychological despair and defeatism that the penetration of the cities had evoked in the US, which had been told so many times the war was being won.
Some days after the deaths, I set off for Laramy's funeral, but missed a train connection in London and arrived late. I stood at his grave in a quiet corner of a Devon churchyard under a tree wondering what might have been for him if he had survived this.
Some time later, there was a packed memorial service at St. Bride's just off Fleet Street, headquarters then of the principal British newspapers. A Fleet Street luminary (not from Reuters) used the occasion to attack the communist side in Vietnam, and score political points.
I could not speak for the others, but I had known Pigott well enough to be believe he understood that in Vietnam, one risked death from both sides, either from the VC in an ambush, landmine or booby trap, or the Americans from airstrikes, artillery fire and napalm attacks that frequently went astray.
We believed firmly that it was Reuters' job to report the war without fear or favor. After all, Reuters itself was not at war with anyone. As non-combatant correspondents, we did not carry weapons. We had volunteered to go to Vietnam knowing the risks, and accepted them.
This bigwig, long since deceased, brought in the name of another 'foreign journalist' killed in recent days in Vietnam, and said we should be mourning the loss of five colleagues, not just four. This fifth man had been a serviceman in the Vietnam theatre, and I saw him several times in the field, carrying a camera and a whole armory of weapons. He saw me looking once at his weapons with distaste while we were on a helicopter - distaste because his carrying guns and grenades made life more dangerous for all us other correspondents if the VC thought we were armed. He had stared at me menacingly.
One mourns every death in war, but when this individual died, shot through the head, he was firing a pistol at VC holed up in a cemetery and we all know the adage 'He who lives by the sword.'
I held my peace during the memorial service listening to the luminary's ill-informed nonsense about the war, but not wanting to upset any family members there.
In the end, about 85 journalists of all nationalities died covering the conflict in Vietnam and neighbouring Cambodia, yet May 5 was one of the deadliest days for journalists ever, anywhere.
Three years ago, on 30 April, 1975, the 30th anniversary of the day the communist side captured Saigon and brought the war to an end, the now ageing, grizzled correspondents of the Vietnam War - and I obviously include myself in that number - gathered in Saigon outside the red-brick cathedral, and read out the names of the ones who did not make it home.
When in London once a year, I usually visit St Bride's, a beautiful little Wren church just off Fleet Street - damaged by a bomb in World War II - and look at the brass wall plaque commemorating the two Reuters correspondents killed in Vietnam that morning four decades ago and think of all our colleagues who did not make it back. I also thought of our Vietnamese staff, and the Vietnamese who on that day did not betray Palmos.
Their action, and subsequent events among ordinary Chinese after the Tiananmen massacre, has made me always feel good about Asia.
I also visit Vietnam most years, and it's good to see things improving year by year, especially economically, if not yet in terms of greater political opening, Usually I pass by the house in Han Thuyen which was our office and from where the correspondents left on 5 May. For years it has been occupied by a Viet Cong family and they once invited me in on a visit to our former premises, including the telex room from which our Vietnamese operators sent so many stories, where I had sat under the staircase at Tet writing my report.
Dinh lived a full life and much later died in Australia surrounded by his family. An, the communist spy, has also passed away. After the communists won, and I was eventually allowed back to visit Vietnam, I had been permitted to go back with a minder to see him at his home. He was now a general in the People's Army of Vietnam.
Yet he was and is honored by his former colleagues because he helped save lives - his warning to our bureau on the first night of Tet. We didn't heed it ourselves but sent the girl-friend of one of us home early (she was miffed at the moment, thinking we were trying to get rid of her, but was later grateful.) Then, there were his successful efforts to secure the release of Robert Sam Anson, a young American correspondent for Time captured by the VC in Cambodia.
I also went to Australia to see Pigott's father and mother and to talk to Palmos, whose version of the killings some correspondents did not accept. But I found Palmos' story of the fateful morning had the ring of truth.
On May 4, most of those who died the next day held a dinner and discussed what they would do if the Viet Cong came into Saigon, and what they would say, if captured.
One said he would invoke the name of Vietnam's leader, and say 'Ho Chi Minh.' Birch said he would say 'Bao chi,' which he did next morning without it working.
Anson had been forced to dig a hole he thought was his grave, and as he stood beside it expecting to be shot, he said "Hoa binh,' the Vietnamese word for 'peace.' The Vietnamese soldier lowered his weapon, Anson escaped death that day and was ultimately freed. I wish our boys had thought of that one themselves - it may not have worked, but who knows?
A few months ago, I was again in Saigon, with my wife and sister, and showed them our office. I briefly met the owner, but a family member - probably his wife - was gravely ill inside, so I quietly excused myself and left him in peace.
In 1970, I had gone back to Vietnam on a second tour, covering the pointless but bloody US invasions of Cambodia and Laos, the former ending up with Pol Pot in power and 1.7 million Cambodians dead, including our Cambodian reporter, who was bludgeoned to death by the Khmer Rouge.
Like many of my colleagues, I subsequently covered wars in the Middle East, the Gulf and Africa, but there was never another war like that in Vietnam. I never again found the camaraderie among correspondents and photographers as existed in Vietnam. And never was a war fought in such a beautiful country, and among such extraordinary people as the Vietnamese.
James Pringle worked for Reuters, Newsweek and the Times of London, in Indochina, China, the Middle East, Africa and Latin America.