​Neil Davis tribute in P. Penh | Phnom Penh Post

Neil Davis tribute in P. Penh


Publication date
08 September 1995 | 07:00 ICT

Reporter : Post Staff

More Topic

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.

Over the

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

crematorium door.

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

Thai-Malaysian border.

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

crawling behind.

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

ever did.

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

of all.

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

were different.

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


Contact PhnomPenh Post for full article

Post Media Co Ltd
The Elements Condominium, Level 7
Hun Sen Boulevard

Phum Tuol Roka III
Sangkat Chak Angre Krom, Khan Meanchey
12353 Phnom Penh

Telegram: 092 555 741
Email: [email protected]