A war correspondent in Indo-China

Name: Don Hook
Date: 1968-1970
Unit: Civilian
Location: Vietnam

I was fortunate that I'd had more than 16 years experience as a journalist in Australia, Britain and Papua New Guinea before becoming an ABC News correspondent in south east Asia in December 1967. I was also fortunate in having had quite a bit of military experience as a school cadet, a National Serviceman, as an NCO in the Papua New Guinea Volunteer Rifles, and as a Reserve officer at PNG Command Headquarters. Many of my fellow correspondents, including a few Australians, were far less experienced in journalism - and some had no military training whatsoever.

On the eve of the February 1968 Tet offensive in Vietnam, I was in a RAF Hercules flying to Singapore from Mauritius with cine-cameraman Neil Davis. We'd spent the previous week in Mauritius with British troops flown in from Malaysia to quell racial clashes between the island's Muslim and Creole communities.

About two hours out of Singapore, the captain of the Hercules called us onto the flight deck. An urgent message was being broadcast by the British Embassy in Saigon stating that a major attack on the city appeared to be underway.

When we landed at Singapore at 4am there was a message from the ABC to pick up new film stock, batteries and other gear and head for Saigon as quickly as possible.

A quick check revealed that all commercial flights to Saigon were cancelled. Six hours and numerous telephone calls later we flew by commercial airline to Penang Island in north-west Malaysia and then took a taxi to the RAAF Base at Butterworth on the mainland. The news from Saigon was bad with fighting in and around the American Embassy.

The RAAF kindly gave us space on its regular C-130 supply flight to Vung Tau that left early the next morning. We were over Vietnam when we were told the aeroplane had been loaded incorrectly and we would have to land at Phanrang with supplies for the Australian Canberra squadron based there.

It was 5pm by the time we reached Vung Tau. RAAF officers told us that there were no more flights to Saigon that day and arranged transport to take us to their mess. We'd just loaded 13 boxes of ABC gear - it was in the days before video tape, satellite phones and transistors - when the tower advised that a Thai C-123 was about to take off for Saigon. We literally threw our luggage and ourselves into the aeroplane moments before it became airborne.

Miles out from Saigon we could see columns of thick black smoke above Tan Son Nhut airport. Fighter planes flashed in and out of the smoke while American and South Vietnamese helicopter gunships patrolled the airport perimeter.

With the back door open, we dived steeply for our landing, pulled up quickly and taxied to a high, horseshoe-shaped revetment where the cargo and passengers were unloaded. Within minutes, the Thais were on their way back to Vung Tau.

We remained in the sandbag revetment until after dark. There was an almost constant thud of incoming mortar shells while the sky above was full of flares and tracers, helicopter gunships, and modified Dakotas blaring out messages in Vietnamese as part of the psychological war against the Vietcong. It was two hours before transport arrived to take us to an American officers club on the southern perimeter of the huge airport.

A short time later a mortar shell flattened the nearby chapel in which some recent arrivals had chosen to sleep. I never learned their fate. Welcome to Vietnam! Welcome to the war!

To work in Vietnam a correspondent required very little; a letter from one's employer and a valid passport - that was about it. One became accredited to the United States Military Assistance Command (MACV), Vietnam. This entitled one to full co-operation and assistance, within the bounds of operational requirements and military security. In other words one could obtain a uniform, rations and quarters and move about Vietnam using air, water and ground transportation.

Correspondents received a US Department of Defense noncombatant's certificate of identity, a detailed identity card that was supposed to be useful if one were captured by the Vietcong/NVA. No one believed it would be useful; some thought the opposite would be the case. But the card was handy, along with one's MACV card, in moving around the country with the Army of the Republic of Vietnam (ARVN), and was accepted by the Australian/New Zealand, Thai, and Republic of Korea (ROK) forces as well as "Free World" aid agencies. At times, it was also handy in Cambodia and Laos, although both countries issued their own accreditation documents.

One of the difficulties facing a newly-arrived correspondent was the military jargon, the acronyms, abbreviations, contractions and other verbal shorthand in wide and constant use. One had to become used to KIA (later KHA), WIA, MIA, DMZ, LZ, BDA, CA, BEQ, BOQ and terms such as hot insert, incoming, organic weapon and third world national.

In 1968 the number of foreign correspondents covering the Vietnam War peaked at 650, roughly the equivalent of an infantry battalion. The Americans allocated the equivalent of two battalions to look after them. It's interesting to note that only 27 reporters went ashore with the first wave at Normandy on D-Day 1944; almost 50 years later some 2,500 covered Desert Storm.

1968 was a bad year for the Americans as the number of US troops killed each month rose from 300 to 500. Television footage of the Tet offensive had a profound affect on the morale of the American people. These and other factors led to international condemnation of the war. The so-called My Lai massacre, involving troops of the Americal Division, also took place in 1968. It was a bad year too for correspondents. Several died in helicopter crashes and a number were killed, including three Australians and a British colleague in an ambush in Cholon on May 5.

The time zone was kind to Australian correspondents in Vietnam; there was only one hour's difference between Saigon and eastern Australia. For the Americans it was not so convenient; most had deadlines either late at night or early morning.

As an ABC correspondent in Saigon, my day began about 5am by checking with American and ARVN "briefers" (briefing officers) on overnight activities. This often provided stories for the ABC main breakfast/morning news and current affairs bulletins as well as for Radio Australia which, in those days, operated 24 hours a day.

The remainder of the morning and early afternoon was taken up with developing earlier stories, interviews with military and political people, occasional visits to the Australian Embassy and Australian military headquarters, planning trips outside Saigon, office administration, and shipping film and tapes to Australia or to the ABC's Asian Office in Singapore.

About 4 o'clock there was the ARVN daily briefing, which usually made extravagant claims about Vietcong/NVA losses, followed by the American briefing, The Five O'clock Follies, which made even more extravagant claims about Vietcong/NVA losses.

The American "briefers" were smartly turned out officers, mostly of major rank, who usually had served at least one tour of duty in the field.

In the main, they were articulate, experienced, knowledgeable and popular with the correspondents although they freely admitted that "some people are called to die for their country, while others are called to lie for their country".

It was usually nine o'clock and well past the 6pm curfew by the time I'd checked out facts and figures, written my stories, and filed them through the Reuter office.

In the field we did what the military did, apart from actually fighting. We carried a lot of broadcasting equipment in addition to water, rations and our personal gear. As non-combatant correspondents, we were not supposed to carry weapons and ammunition although we were often asked to do so. I didn't carry weapons but I knew correspondents who did...and I knew some who used them.

The relationship with troops in the field was usually very good. I was often asked if I had to be in Vietnam. I'd reply: "Not really". I explained that I'd applied for a posting to south east Asia with the ABC and Indo-China was part of the region. However, I could - if I so desired - return to Australia at any time. I remember one soldier shaking his head and saying to me: "Man, you are crazy. If I could go home now, I would. You must be crazy." Another often asked question related to my pay. "You must be paid a fortune to work here," they'd say. I'd tell them I wasn't (which was true) but they didn't seem to believe me. They'd just say things like "bullshit mate" or "tell us another".

In the main I found it was much easier to get the story, than to get it back to Australia. Written copy usually was sent through Reuter and that was quite reliable. The big problem was with voice and film reports. It was often impossible to get a phone line or broadcast circuit through to Australia. Sometimes I sent voice reports to the BBC in London and they were passed onto the ABC. On other occasions, such as when the transmitters were damaged during the Tet and May offensives, I sent reports on the Voice of America circuit to New York. They were passed to the ABC's correspondent in Washington who sent them to Radio Australia in Melbourne, who in turn sent them to ABC News in Sydney.

Apart from the military, correspondents found good contacts among the foreign diplomats, businessmen, French and Vietnamese journalists, aid workers, missionaries and Saigon Government officials. I also received a good deal of background information from members of the International Control Commission that was made up of representatives from India, Poland and Canada. At one stage I lived next door to an Indian Army signals officer; he was the source of several good stories as well as providing quick information on currency fluctuations.

The Vietnam War was "uncensored" in the sense that media people could move virtually anywhere they wanted and there was no outward censorship of stories, photographs, tapes or film. There were, of course, certain ground rules under which correspondents could not report on matters which might place operations in jeopardy.

It was a different story in Cambodia where outgoing stories had to be lodged with the censor's office. Correspondents soon learned to get around the censor, either by flying out to Bangkok with their stories, tapes and film or by having them carried out of the country by airline passengers.

During the early days of the Lon Nol takeover of Cambodia in 1970, several correspondents were killed as a result of poor military briefings. The aptly named Major Am Rong sent at least two of my colleagues to their death down the infamous Highway One, having assured them that the route was safe and under the control of Lon Nol forces.

There were also tragic misunderstandings with ARVN and US forces. A Reuter correspondent and I accompanied Lon Nol forces when they recaptured the riverside university town of Kampong Cham. The Khmer Rouge force was quickly driven out with only a handful of Lon Nol casualties. Minutes later, low-flying ARVN T-28s began strafing us, killing some 60 troops and wounding dozens more. For the first time in Indo-China, I thought that I, too, was about to die. Until then, I hadn't really considered that possibility; I was quite detached from it.

One of the great characters among the correspondents in Vietnam was the British journalist Donald Wise, a World War II infantry officer who was wounded and later captured by the Japanese in Singapore in 1942.

Wise liked Australians, possibly because of the Diggers he met in the POW camps; Australians certainly liked him.

One had to spend only a short time with two of his Aussie mates - the irrepressible Francis Patrick "Pat" Burgess and Visnews cameraman Neil Davis - and one would be splitting one's side laughing at stories involving Don Wise. Sadly, all three are now dead. Davis was killed covering a Thai military coup in 1985; Burgess died in Sydney and Wise in England, both in the 1990s.

Burgess and Wise were the most unlikely friends. Cambridge-educated Donald, a tall man with a bristling David Niven-style moustache and erect bearing, was very much the pukka Englishman abroad - dashing and dapper in his well tailored tropical clothing. Pat, an Irish-Australian born at Warwick, Queensland, on St Patrick's Day 1927, was big and noisy. Almost as tall as Wise, he was the bronzed Anzac, the Bondi lifesaver and the street-wise Sydney larrikin rolled into one. And as for clothing, it was usually Australian or American military fatigues; occasionally he would dress up in a well-worn correspondent's safari suit.

One of Pat's favourite stories (and mine) was about their visit to the first Australian infantry battalion to arrive in Vietnam. Donald was wearing a tailored Tiger suit of the (South) Vietnamese Marines when they arrived at the Bien Hoa base. Two Diggers were on guard at the entrance. One turned to the other and, cocking his thumb at Donald, said: "Geez mate, we're saved. Bloody Tarzan's joined us."

Wise later told colleagues that he met the Australian battalion commander and was flown by helicopter to a forward position. The CSM took him to a bunker and as evening approached found him a stretcher, mosquito net, and rations. "He did everything apart from tucking me into bed and kissing me goodnight."

Wise said that given his treatment, he could not believe reports that the Australians were anti-media and disliked journalists.

At dawn the next morning as the Australian troops were moving off on patrol, he heard the CSM being questioned by a young officer.

"Did you make Mr Wise comfortable and welcome?"

"Yes sir. We put him right out with the point platoon...like we do with all those bloody journalists."

Neil Davis and Wise made outrageous bets with each other as well as sharing a liking for "black" or sick humour. Tim Bowden, in his book One Crowded Hour, suggests this diverted them from the horrors that shattered other people.

Davis had a long standing bet with Wise that he would be killed before Davis. It was one of the few bets Neil lost.

This article was supplied by Don Hook of the Australian Capital Territory
8/01/2002 10:49:34 AM

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DVA (Department of Veterans' Affairs) ( ), A war correspondent in Indo-China, DVA Anzac Portal, accessed 19 April 2024, https://anzacportal.dva.gov.au/stories/australians-wartime/war-correspondent-indo-china
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