T omorrow, Sept 9, will be the 10th anniversary of Australian journalist Neil
Davis' death. John McBeth shares some thoughts in memory. All are
welcome to join the tribute. Check with Reuters or PPPost for details on
location and times.
IT doesn't seem like ten years. From the
government-held Supreme Command headquarters, I can still remember the heavy
fire coming from the direction of the army radio station where I had been a
half-hour before. Later, I was trying to find a taxi when a Thai reporter told
me a foreigner had been hit. He thought it was Neil Davis.
I hurried to
the nearby Seventh Day Adventist Hospital, hearing only that the old boy had a
shoulder wound. A distraught Gary Burns, Bangkok's Visnews man, was there in the
waiting room. "The Fox is dead," he said. I was so stunned nothing really
registered. We sat there on the bare wooden seat and Burnsie recounted brokently
what had happed.
Neil Davis dead? It just didn't seem possible. His
American soundman, Bill Latch, was upstairs undergoing surgery for a stomach
wound. We were told he would be fine. Then news came that he too had died, his
liver punctured by ricocheting shrapnel from a machinegun round.
next days, there was only one question we asked: How could a man who had been
through almost a lifetime of conflict in Indochina, Beirut, Angola and Rhodesia
die in a tin-pot coup attempt on a Bangkok street?
We never got an answer
and we didn't expect one. To me, the man who took calculated but never stupid
risks on the battlefield never figured on one thing: that the misguided soldiers
manning Col Manoon Rupekachorn's rebel tanks had never heard of fire
I remember the day of the cremation. We all gathered at the
Soi Saladaeng home of ABC correspondent Geoff Leach. We sat around in suits we
had barely worn, drinking Black Velvets and whiskies. Then when the time came,
our small disconsolate group walked around the corner to the Convent Road
Everyone was there. I suppose I was a bit drunk, but as I read
the eulogy I had typed on a scrap of paper in the office that morning, it all
hit me. I barely got through it. I said they had thrown away the mould when Neil
Davis was born. I still believe that. He was one of a kind.
Later we went
to the wat on Sukhumvit Road for the final Buddhist rites. I can still see the
late Korean cameraman Joe Lee, one of Neil's oldest and closest friends,
lighting a cigarette and placing it under the casket just before they closed the
I was a simple gesture, a last cigarette for a man who
had bludged more cigarettes than anyone I know. But God that tugged at me. Don't
ever be fooled by Koreans. They many be tough, they may seem brutal, provincial
and ill-mannered. They're also among the most sentimental people I
Eight years before, we had stood around Joe's bed in the Bangkok
Nursing Home watching the film he had shot after his leg was blown off in a
terrorist mine-and-gun ambush on a Thai Border Patrol team along the
Joe not only filmed the ambush scene and his dying
Thai soundman thrashing in the bushes. He also held up his own shattered leg and
filmed that too. And as they took him off the medevac chopper in Sadao an hour
later, he rolled the camera again.
Just like Joe, the man we all
affectionately came to know as The Fox kept faith with the advice he had
dispensed in "Frontline," the marvellous 1980 documentary that tells you all you
need to know about this modest Tasmanian: "Keep it rolling, no matter
It was almost uncanny the way Neil's camera fell on its side after
he was hit. The sound is gone, but in frozen silence it perfectly frames Burns
dragging Neil's lifeless body along the pavement, the mortally-wounded Latch
Bangkok was never the same after that. The trips to the
Cambodian border. The Friday lunches that began at noon and ended in the early
hours. The three hours of tennis in the heat of Saturday mornings. The "Year of
Living Dangerously" when the Fox headed the Foreign Correspondents
I've heard all the snide comments about our lifestyle, as if
somehow it compromised our ability to see Asia for what it really was. Sure we
had fun in a town that was made for it, but the stories were hanging off trees
and we worked as hard as we played.
There was a lot about Neil which I
admired and which I think went largely unappreciated. There was his work of
course and the raw courage that is so clearly on display in
Look at his final footage. He was standing directly in front
of the lead tank when the machinegunner suddenly opended up on at the radio
station. The rounds must have been passing just over Neil's head, but that
camera doesn't move an inch.
I've never had much time for television
journalists and their superficiality, but Neil had all the attributes of a fine
print man. He could write (in fact, he often contributed to the Review), he had
many well-placed contacts and, more importantly, he had great
Indeed, with all the hoopla surrounding the recent 20th
anniversary of the Vietnam War, nothing was said about one of its greatest media
ironies: that while an army of US correspondents may have covered the
decade-long conflict, crashing into Saigon's presidential palace was an
Australian called Neil Davis.
Neil never seemed to have much time for the
passing American parade. He was one of the few Western journalists who thought
well of the ARVN, the South Vietnamese Army. He should have known, he spent more
time with them - and the Cambodians, of course - than most of his colleagues
I was gratified to read a similar view by James Webb, a former
US officer who later went on to become assistant defence secretary during the
Reagan era. Writing in the Review last April, he said it was one of the war's
"great libels" that the South Vietnamese were a disaster on the battlefield.
"They often fought brilliantly," he said, "they suffered 254,000 combat-dead."
The Americans lost 58,000.
I can't even remeber when I first met Neil. I
think it was in Phnom Penh back in November 1971 when he was running the roads
with Kate Webb and the rest. Hell, it doesn't really matter. When he died, it
was like losing someone you had known all your life. That's the affect he had on
those around him.
What I liked the most about Neil was his generosity. Oh
sure, he was generous with his money - unless he was paying a bet. But where it
really showed was the way he would sit newcomers down in his Bangkok office and
give them an 80-minute briefing on Cambodia, the tortured country he knew and
loved so well.
He had time for everyone. They said he was carrying on a
running correspondence with 200 people when he died. I'd quite believe it.
Certainly the scores of messages we got from colleagues all over the world in
September 1985 testified to his following.
Neil also had a special
affinity with Asians - and particularly Asian officials. That Davis grin could
be pretty disarming, of course, but they all seemed to like him. He was a
non-threatening sort of man and I guess Asians were comforted by that and his
quiet respectful approach. I can't say I ever saw Neil really angry the whole
time I knew him.
One admirer was Thai police colonel Virat Jutimit, the
no-nonsense chief of the Thai Narcotics Suppression Centre. Neil filmed a heroin
bust with Virat one night and although the two met rarely after that, you
wouldn't have thought so. Every time I saw Virat, which was often, he asked
about Neil. Every single time. It was almost irritating.
On the day of
Neil's cremation, Virat was at the temple with us all. Don't ask me why, but
just to see the slightly-built policeman standing there quietly in his dark
safari suit and sunglasses on a hot afternoon was one of the saddest spectacles
It is probably Cambodians who have the fondest memories of the
Fox. Neil had such close relations with leaders of the Khmer resistence that we
often wondered whether they were considering him for a Cabinet post when it was
all over. I certainly think he would be living in Phnom Penh today if things
He was a determined cuss. In late 1979 a group of us
headed across the border into Vietnamese-held Cambodia to visit one of the
resistance camps. Although the Fox had come down with malaria, nothing would
stop him from taking the trip to Sok Sann.
We toiled over a steep
jungle-clad mountain ridge and I can still hear our Cambodian guide, a young
woman we called Madam Kaset, calling out encouragingly: "It's good to sweat in
the morning." Davis was sweating more than most. But he made it with a little
help from everyone.
His determination also came through in other places.
It showed on the tennis court, where he never, ever conceded defeat. It showed
in the way he wafted around Bangkok's Lumpini Park in the late afternoons,
putting in times at the age of 50 that I wouldn't have had a hope of matching at
He showed it in the way he competed with friends sometimes 20 years
younger than him for feminine favours.
Ah yes, the Fox was a lady's man.
That damned smile again. It got them every time. But there was also a personal
side to him which none of us ever really penetrated, or tried to for that
matter. I'm still ashamed at the way we treated his estranged wife, how we
resented the way she showed up at the funeral. How were we to know that Neil had
been visiting her on his trips to Australia? How were we to know that while
their relationship may have soured, Neil's committment remained strong. Out of
respect for his privacy we had never questioned him about his marriage. Damn it,
I think he should have told us.
I decided two years ago I would go to
Phnom Penh on the 10th anniversary of his death. Other friends will be lighting
joss sticks and otherwise remembering Neil in Bangkok and Australia and
elsewhere. But to me it just seems right to be in Cambodia. So that's where I'll
be on September 9. I'm betting that's where Neil will be as well. It's where he