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Australian Journalist Relives the Hell of Fleeing for His Life in a Viet Cong Ambush

September 16, 1990|CHRIS PETERSON | REUTERS

HONG KONG — In Saigon's Cholon district at breakfast time in May, 1968, Frank Palmos came as close to death as any man can and survive physically unscathed.

Against all odds, the Australian managed to flee the scene of a May 5 ambush in which Viet Cong guerrillas shot four of his fellow journalists to death, including Reuters correspondents Bruce Pigott, an Australian, and Ron Laramy, a Briton.

The other two journalists in a small jeep, driving in Cholon to check reports of fighting in what became known as the Battle for Saigon, were Australians John Cantwell of Time magazine and Michael Birch of the Australian Associated Press.

For Palmos, then a 28-year-old free-lance writer covering the Vietnam War, the nightmare did not end until Jan. 15, 1988, when, after an extraordinary piece of detective work, he came face to face with the man who had led the Viet Cong ambush team.

Palmos, who admits that the years leading up to the 1988 confrontation left him emotionally scarred, has written of the ambush and his subsequent search for the leader of the squad that killed his friends in a newly published book, "Ridding the Devils."

His description of the moment he came face to face with Co Van Cuong, the ambush leader, in a Ho Chi Minh City hotel 20 years after the event is gripping.

"Forcing myself to look at him, I felt an ancient adrenaline rush, as if my body were saying, 'You will have to deal with this man. There is no retreat'," Palmos wrote.

Later, after an Australian television journalist filming the encounter had asked Cuong what it felt like to be sitting opposite a man he had tried to kill, Palmos said, "I had hunted down the quarry only to discover I was no hunter at all; there was no man to kill, but there was much that was left unsaid.

"I found myself less concerned with Van Cuong's culpability or otherwise than with the fact that we were unable, in these circumstances, to open our hearts to each other. . . . Far from wanting to hurt this man, I found myself wanting to make it easier for him to tell his story."

Palmos, who said he escaped by feigning death and then running for safety with a Viet Cong guerrilla chasing him for 75 yards and firing at him, says in his book that he established that Cuong, although leader of the squad, was not the man who pursued him.

In his description of the trauma of the ambush, the years in between and his successful tracking down of the Viet Cong squad leader, Palmos said he finally has put to rest rumors that circulated in the months after the ambush, that he had jumped out of the jeep just before it turned into the square where the incident took place.

Palmos wrote that he got details of the last moments of the four journalists, details that only Cuong, as the squad leader, could know.

In their dramatic confrontation, Cuong confirmed the details that Palmos had carried in his mind over the years, and he quotes the former Viet Cong squad leader as saying, "I didn't see the first part of the ambush. . . . By the time I came out, I saw there were two killed instantly, two wounded.

"One wounded man was starting to crawl to the side of the road."

Palmos himself wrote: "The wounded man he saw crawling was the driver, John Cantwell. I had certainly reported him dead, killed by the man who eventually chased me."

The book establishes that the guerrilla who chased Palmos was then killed by rockets fired by a U.S. Cobra helicopter gunship.

"In my flight, I had drawn him into the open and brought about his death," Palmos said.

For Palmos, now free-lancing out of Perth, there was a postscript to the story.

After Palmos had met Cuong, Vietnam issued a statement Feb. 1, 1988, expressing its profound regrets over the incident.

"Our sympathy goes to all families with losses, just as I am certain they would have sympathy for our own losses," said Gen. Nguyen Tuot of the Vietnamese Department of Defense Military History Division.

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