By: Our Correspondent

vietnam-saigonIt 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.