Some 50 years after assisting journalists covering the Vietnam War, David Brown, a public relations officer (PRO) in the Australian Army is pulling together his personal memoirs and in part reconnecting with those Australian correspondents he helped on the frontline.
The 74 year-old Mr Brown based in Nui Dat recently reached out to AAP as part of his research. He recalls the bond of friendship with those reporters, many of whom were there for AAP.
“I enjoyed the company of Chris Nixon, John Mancy and Terry Downy,” he told us during his search for names on AAP’s war-time honour roll.
AAP sent 14 war correspondents to Vietnam during the conflict, including Mike Birch who was killed in action.
“Looking back down your list of AAP correspondents, I now realise I briefly met both Keith Smith and Mike Birch, who were at Nui Dat at various times in March 1968 when I arrived,” Mr Brown said.
“I landed in Vietnam in the middle of the Tet Offensive, and our PanAm flight had to circle Tan Son Nhut airport for more than an hour because the runways were being subjected to heavy enemy mortar and RPG fire.
“Both Keith and Mike left for Saigon shortly after I arrived because Saigon was where the action was.”
Mr Brown and Captain Peter Thomas were this year awarded the Unit Citation for Gallantry for their work in Vietnam. “I only had to wait 50-odd years for the recognition, but better late than never,” he said.
Michael Birch and Mr Dinh
On May 5, 1968, four reporters including AAP’s Michael Birch, 24, were killed in a jeep ambushed by the Viet Cong in Saigon, now Ho Chi Minh City.
Also killed were Time magazine correspondent John Cantwell, 29, from Sydney, and two Reuters men, Bruce Pigott, 23, from Melbourne, and Cornish-born Ronald Laramy, 31.
The group left from the Reuters office in 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.
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. 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.
It was then when one man volunteered to go in and see if they could be saved.
The man who walked one kilometre alone into the battle zone was not an Australian or an American or even a government official. He was Pham Ngoc Dinh, later described as “a friend to every Australian journalist” during the Vietnam War”.
Dinh, who would one day become an AAP employee himself, got in by pretending to be a Viet Cong sympathiser.
When he was eventually spirited out of Vietnam in 1980 he had no hesitation in nominating Australia as his preferred destination.
He was tickled by the notion that a whole country could be descended from convicts - or, in Dinglish “All Australian man coming jail people”.
AAP helped persuade the federal government to approve Dinh’s admission as a special case for “extraordinary services to Australian journalists in Saigon”, and he worked for the national news agency as a clerk in Sydney until his retirement in 2002.
He died the following year, aged 64.
In return for the information about AAP’s correspondents, Mr Brown offered a number of pictures from the war that show AAP’s staff in action. We welcome his research which gave us an opportunity to look back on an important part of AAP's history.
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