When Willie Phua began questioning his role as a war cameraman...
UNDER VIETCONG ROCKET FIRE ON THE SAIGON RIVER
Willie Phua had many brushes with death as a news cameraman in travelling throughout Asia. His coverage of the Vietnam war in seven separate assignments in 1972 and 1973 was perhaps the most dangerous, as extracts from Capturing Asia testify.
In Saigon in April 1972, the Visnews agency, of which the ABC was a partner, asked Willie to film with Hanns Joachim Friedrichs, a journalist working on a special report for the German national television network, ZDF. He was new to the war and they began their filming in a war cemetery near Saigon.
They joined a South Vietnamese gunboat the next day to film a patrol down the Saigon River. They had been told that the area was 'safe.' Phua, Friedrichs, the Visnews local manager Juliette Suong, acting as interpreter, and their local cameraman Kimso, who was then Phua’s soundman, were issued with bullet proof vests and helmets.
The boat quickly headed through timbered rural countryside, as Phua remembers in the book Capturing Asia:
"As we were sailing up river, we could see smoke in the distance. We were standing on the upper deck towards the bow. It was quiet as the boat sailed along and then all of a sudden, gunfire everywhere! Boom, boom, boom, boom! - very quickly - it was like Chinese New Year fireworks coming from everywhere. "We dived and hit the deck and were lying face down. Juliette was next to me with the German Friedrichs on top between us, his hand stretched out."
"The sound of firing around us was deafening. I began shouting to the captain ‘Where does it come from?’ But no reply. I wanted to know where to hide. It lasted for several minutes and it seems like hours."
The patrol boat’s gunner was the first to be hit by the Viet Cong. Juliette Suong saw the gunner hit in the leg and go overboard. "The captain ordered his crewmen to turn the boat back and pick up the man overboard. But in doing so, they accidently cut off the engine. We were sitting ducks." They pulled the sailor from the water. He was severely wounded in the leg.
The nadir of Willie Phua's life
Kimso, Phua’s Vietnamese soundman, was seriously wounded and bleeding profusely. "His leg was dangling and he was in agony" Willie recalled. "The shooting was still going on around us and we managed to get in the cabin and I was thinking, 'Why the hell should I be a cameraman covering this war?'
As Phua scrambled towards the cabin he saw, to his amazement, the South Vietnamese skipper standing up steering the gunboat with his legs while all the time firing a heavy machine gun.
The captain cried ‘Ammunition!’ and a surreal scene unfolded. Incoming fire was hitting the water and screaming overhead. Willie Phua frantically began to pass belts of bullets for the gun as the skipper blasted the shore in the direction of the fire.
As he worked above the din, in a surge of fear and hatred, Willie Phua feverishly fed ammunition up to the captain, screaming:‘Here! Here you are! Kill them! Kill them all, the bastards!"
It was a nadir in Phua’s life that gave him cause for deep contemplation and to seriously question again his reason for being in Vietnam. ‘I don’t know what got into me. They were trying to kill me and I wanted to kill them first. This is what happens to you.’
Back in Singapore, Willie Phua had plenty of time to reflect on the dangers of combat cinemaphotography. As Willie was filming in Singapore, Washington and Hanoi announced that after years of negotiation in Paris, a ceasefire in the Vietnam War would come into effect on 27 January 1973.
Willie was on the first flight to Saigon to join ABC correspondent Andrew Swanton. It was his seventh and last trip
to Vietnam while the war raged. He and Swanton worked on several film stories on the forthcoming ceasefire then wasted no time in leaving the city. Having spent only five days in Saigon, the pair travelled to Cambodia, scene of the new killing fields, on 23 January, four days before the Vietnam ceasefire came into effect.
After 1973, the ABC's Manager in Asia, Peter Hollinshead told Willie Phua that he would not be given any further assignments in Vietnam. But as Phua says in Capturing Asia, he continued dangerous assignments in Cambodia, Laos and on the Thai border with Cambodia (then Kampuchea under Pol Pot's Khmer Rouge).
A measure of the man...
Correspondent Peter Munckton missed Willie Phua in Vietnam mightily. He had spent years in Asia in the 1970s, travelling especially to war zones in Indochina.
Munckton was based in Singapore, Bangkok, Jakarta and New Delhi before being posted to London as chief correspondent. Peter's wife Ann often worried about her husband’s assignments, but had felt reassured if he was with Willie Phua, as she said in Capturing Asia:
"There were many times I wished Peter did not have to go on particular assignments for various reasons, danger being the main one, but when he was with Willie I felt quite calm about them going off together. Willie was ‘streetwise’ and I knew he would do everything he could to look after Peter and himself."
Peter Munckton remembers how the correspondents felt when Willie decided not work in Vietnam for some years:
"It was a great pity for those of us who loved working with him, [not to have] his wisdom on tap and his good commonsense. It was not that we were bereft of good cameramen... Assignments were offered but Willie just wouldn’t have anything to do with it. My first stint was in 1973; [I spent] 1974 and 1975 in and out of Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia, and on not one occasion did I work there with Willie.
"It’s a measure of the man that he could take a strong personal decision, have it accepted by the powers that be, and in the end have it respected by the others who were working up there. I think it was a really a measure of the man that he took the decision and he stuck by it. It was a personal safety matter."
After Vietnam: By the mid 1970s, friends Willie Phua and Neil Davis (right) pictured here on the Thai-Cambodian border, had become two of the best known and experienced cameramen in Asia. They are pictured with Peter Munckton (centre) a highly experienced ABC correspondent.
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