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In Memory of the Cholon Four

AAP
Apr 23, 2008



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This Anzac Day, the 90th since the end of World War 1, precedes the 40th anniversary of a black day for journalists covering a much later war in Vietnam.

On May 5, 1968, four reporters including AAP correspondent Michael Birch were killed in a jeep ambushed by the Viet Cong in Saigon, now Ho Chi Minh City.

Birch's AAP colleague in Saigon, Keith Smith, had declined a lift in the jeep carrying Birch, 24, from Melbourne; Time magazine correspondent John Cantwell, 29, from Sydney; and two Reuters men, Bruce Pigott, 23, from Melbourne, and Cornish-born Ronald Laramy, 31.

That decision may have saved his life.

Mr Smith, who now lives in Sydney, recounts the events of that fateful Sunday morning.

_________________________

By Keith Smith

SYDNEY—Five young men set off in an open white Mini-Moke at 8am, and by 10.30am four of them were dead.

The fifth, Frank Palmos, 28, a freelance journalist from Perth, escaped during the shooting and returned unwounded.

The group left from the Reuters office at 15 Han Thuyen St, Saigon, to check on plumes of smoke rising from the Chinese area of Cholon which had been overrun by Viet Cong guerrillas.

Cantwell was at the wheel, with Birch in the passenger seat beside him.

The others were squashed together in the back seat, Palmos with one leg hanging over the left rear mudguard.

Nearing Cholon, they passed crowds of South Vietnamese fleeing from the fighting.

Cantwell turned the vehicle into a narrow alley near a fortified bridge over the Saigon River.

According to Palmos, it was all over in a few minutes.

Teenage Viet Cong opened fire from behind petrol drums as the Moke turned and backed out of the alley, riddling the four with bullets.

Pigott had formed a close friendship with Reuters office manager Pham Ngoc Dinh, known to us simply as Dinh.

Later that morning Dinh bluffed his way into the area past Viet Cong clad in black pyjamas.

There he found the bodies of Pigott and Laramy, slumped across the car seat.

He could not see the bodies of Birch or Cantwell, which were later found under the vehicle.

South Vietnamese forces reoccupied the Cholon area later that afternoon, when a Time correspondent recovered all four bodies.

They were taken to the US Army Morgue at Tan Sun Nhut airport.

They could not be officially identified for a few days because fighting continued in the area.

On May 8 I went there with Jimmy Hahn, the Korean Reuters bureau chief who flew in from Hong Kong.

Their bodies by this time were swollen and black, but I had to identify them.

The remains of Michael Birch and Bruce Pigott were flown back to Australia for burial by the air force.

Mike Birch, a promising young reporter from Melbourne, had just returned from leave in Bangkok.

We shared the first floor AAP flat at 57 Phan Dinh Phung St, close to the American Embassy.

On the Saturday night before the attack, Mike and I went upstairs to the Reuters flat, where we had dinner with Pigott, Laramy, Palmos, Anton Wills-Eve from Reuters and Don Hook from the ABC. John Cantwell was not there.

There was lots of food, drink and laughter and we exchanged war stories and made our usual toast of 'War is Hell'.

We talked about what we would do if the Viet Cong came into Saigon, or if we were captured.

I said I would say 'Ho Chi Minh', the name of the North Vietnamese leader.

Michael Birch said he would say 'Bao Chi', meaning 'press'.

Frank Palmos said if the VC fired on him, he would take off his shirt, rub mud over his chest and hide among the dead bodies, as he said his uncle had done in the Greek-Turkish wars.

It was a happy, memorable night.

Next morning, we were awoken at 4am by the crump of mortars and the rattle of gunfire, followed by the whirr of helicopter blades.

Flares and flashes lit the night sky.

"It's on," said Michael, who quickly dressed and went out in the curfew to see an Australian general who lived nearby.

We were both at the Reuters office at 8 am when a BBC reporter turned up with his TV crew and said:"Let's go to Cholon and see where the action is."

My friends jumped into the Mini-Moke.

I refused their offer of the remaining mudguard for two reasons: I was afraid, and someone had to file the stories of the outbreak.

Bruce Pigott, who had reported from the front lines in Khe Sahn, Danang and Hue, had returned three weeks earlier from leave in Hong Kong, where he told a fellow journalist: "I'm going to work out my contract and get out. Vietnam is too bloody dangerous."

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