Truth seeking's terrible toll: Seventies war reporters remembered

Journalists who covered Vietnam and Cambodia prior to 1975 gathered from around the world in Phnom Penh recently to give a heartfelt salute to the sacrifices made by their contemporaries _ some of whom paid the ultimate price to bring what they witnessed to the world

The thinning ranks of war correspondents who covered the Indochinese conflicts prior to the communist takeovers of 1975, have rounded out a rare pilgrimage to Cambodia through a series of reunions and twin dedications to the fallen.

Sixteen reporters, photographers and cameramen made the journey set against the extraordinary backdrop of the cremation for the late king father, Norodom Sihanouk. All had worked in Cambodia or Vietnam in the 1960s or 1970s and many of them like James Pringle, James Gerrand and Don North had known or personally dealt with Sihanouk over their many decades.

Pringle, who spent his early years in Vietnam and Cambodia for Reuters, said Sihanouk's funeral had provided a historical perspective and encouraged members of the Vietnam Old Hacks club to make the long trip from North America, Europe and Australia.

"Sihanouk, after all, was a press groupie," the softly spoken Scotsman said, adding the former monarch could speak for an average time of two hours and 20 minutes during interviews.

"He genuinely enjoyed the company of journalists, and liked being interviewed, and was a master at press conferences what with his knowledge, his jokes, his sense of humour, his love of scandal, and the scores he had to settle with people," Pringle said.

Reunions among the Old Hacks _ as they like to be referred to _ are common in Vietnam with members meeting every five years to mark the overthrow of Western-aligned governments on perhaps the bloodiest of all battlefields in the Cold War.

In Cambodia, the first reunion was held just three years ago but unfinished business in the form of two war memorials brought them back.

The first included the planting of a Bodhi tree at Phnom Penh's Wat Po where nine journalists working for American televisions networks were killed in one day on May 31, 1970. The second was the dedication of a memorial near Hotel Le Royal for the 37 who died while working in Cambodia between 1970 and 1975 when Lon Nol's government was under persistent attack by the marauding Khmer Rouge.

Hotel Le Royal was much less salubrious and more affordable in the 1970s when it served as home and office for many of the correspondents working out of Phnom Penh. Pringle remembered how the journalists would count themselves off "like Spitfire pilots in World War II" before heading off to the front lines in the countryside.

They would count off again upon their return, and sometimes not everybody came home.

"The 37 names here represent the core of our craft; our raison d'etre, the reason why we did and still do it," photographer Tim Page read from a soliloquy.

Much of the organisation fell to Australian independent producer Marianne Harris, known by some as Page's better half, who picked up the reins after long-time stalwart Carl Robinson opted to remain at home in Sydney for family reasons.

She said the dedications were an opportunity to shine a light on the correspondents who lost their lives while trying to report the truth.

"Forty-odd years is a long time and in most wars the fate of the dead or missing are mostly resolved. In Cambodia [after 1970] there was five years of war, nearly four years of Pol Pot, 10 years of Vietnamese occupation and then a landscape littered with mines and UXO [unexploded ordnance].

"The result of that is that the dead and missing faded from the memory of everyone but their family and friends, so we hope that the coverage has reminded people of the high price that is sometimes paid in the search of the truth," she said.

Like many witnesses in wartime, most of the correspondents preferred not to tell war stories, simply because they did not want to be seen as glorifying war, or themselves, in the process. Some have had to deal with post-traumatic stress disorder.

Pringle said war stories tended to sound the same but he said the B-52 strikes and the napalming of villagers and the deforestation were "pretty upsetting", while journalists were angered by troops calling Vietnamese "gooks", "slopes" or "dinks".

"I did see a US Marine fingering his trigger and saying, 'I want to get me a gook before I leave the 'Nam' _ and he was watching allied South Vietnamese troops moving past in a single file as he said it."

Pringle and Harris both said that meeting Yoko Ishiyama, husband of Japanese correspondent Koki, was overwhelming. Koki died after delivering medicine to villagers near Oudong in 1973. He was trapped by the fighting, fell ill and died.

"I found that incredibly sad," said Harris.

French photographer Roland Neveu, who was in Phnom Penh when the Khmer Rouge marched into the capital, said his most poignant moment came during the dedication on a dusty roadside near Wat Po where the nine journalists were surrounded and killed by the Khmer Rouge.

It was the worst ever single massacre of journalists, until November 2009 when 34 journalists were among 58 people slain and mutilated in Muguindanao, in the Southern Philippines.

"In Wat Po, where those guys were cut down, this brings back the sense of futility of it all," Neveu said.

It was also here that German cameraman Kurt Hoefle had a lucky escape. He had been captured and inexplicably freed by the Khmer Rouge just one week before the nine met their tragic end.

"Kurt was captured at the same place they were ambushed," said Harris. "The emotion where they died such terrible deaths was obviously overwhelming for Kurt _ who read the names of the dead _ and for Chhang Song who would have been with them had he not slept in."

Harris added that numbers attending had fallen by half from three years ago. Sadly former correspondents American Stanley Karnow, who authored Vietnam: A History, and Australian Barry Wain, former editor of the Asian Wall Street Journal passed away while the reunion was under way.

Former information minister in the Lon Nol government Chhang Song, current Information Minister Khieu Kanharith and Australian ambassador Penny Richards impressed as the highest ranking political and diplomatic officials at the Le Royal dedication. Envoys were sent from France and Japan, however there were some criticisms of the American embassy whose ambassador was not present.

"I must admit that I was surprised and disappointed that the American ambassador whose embassy is less than a block away from where the memorial was placed, could not attend the ceremonies either at the Le Royal or at Wat Po," said Canadian broadcaster and author Don North.

Richards was also spotted in deep conversation with American combat photographer and US army veteran Al Rockoff who more recently again proved his mettle, this time before the Khmer Rouge Tribunal where he gave evidence surrounding the first days of the ultra-Maoists in Phnom Penh.

During a final dinner at Le Royal, glasses were raised in memory of a who's who of international correspondents. Names like Kate Webb and Horst Faas have also passed away while others like Elizabeth Becker, Jon Swain, Sylvana Foa and Matt Franjola were toasted also alongside Sihanouk.

Pringle added that he preferred to remember his friends and colleagues the way they were and at their best. He counted Sihanouk among them: "I'd prefer to remember them ebullient and in full cry."

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Writer: Luke Hunt
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