1934 - 1985 | Tasmania | Cameraman & War Correspondent
Neil Davis’s frontline filming of combat in Indochina inspired a generation of foreign correspondents. In 11 years working for VISNEWS, a British international news film company, his work was shown in more than 100 countries. He was the only Western correspondent to film the Vietnam War from the Vietnamese perspective. Later, working for NBC, he was the only cameraman from the West to capture the moment North Vietnamese troops arrived to take over Saigon in 1975, filming a tank crashing through the gates of Independence Palace. In 1985, Davis was killed by shrapnel during a coup in Bangkok.
When Neil Davis and his soundman Bill Latch were gunned down on the streets of Bangkok on 9 September 1985, journalists in newsrooms all around the world were stunned and aghast that “The Fox”– as Davis was widely known among the profession – could have been killed in an inconsequential Thai military coup.
Davis’ death made every working foreign correspondent feel vulnerable. Many journalists had died in combat over the years (63 reporters, photographers and cameramen died covering the Vietnam war in the 20 years to 1975). But Neil Davis, who had covered frontline combat in Vietnam and later Cambodia for eleven years from 1964, was the icon.
Although wounded so many times he could not recall them all – once so badly he nearly lost his right leg in Cambodia in April 1974 – he always survived. The Cambodians called him Mien Samnang, “The Lucky One”. But his famous luck had run out.
Sometimes accused of having a death wish for taking so many risks, Davis believed that the more you experienced frontline combat, the better you were at surviving. He believed that the adrenalin of combat heightened perceptions, and that he developed a “sixth sense” in those moments that sometimes made him drop to the ground before an aimed shot had been fired. But he once conceded he “could always be unluckily killed”.
The life and career of Neil Davis began in his beloved native Tasmania where he lived and worked for 30 years before getting his break to work as a roving cameraman and correspondent for VISNEWS, the international news film agency.
He secured an apprenticeship to the Tasmanian Government Film Unit at 14 years of age. He was too young to leave school, but somehow managed it. There he learned photography from the basics, processing black and white photographs and working with 16mm black & white and colour film.
In 1961 he joined the Australian Broadcasting Commission as a news cameraman. When he won the VISNEWS job, based in Singapore in 1964, he was 30, super-fit and highly trained in his craft.
The Vietnam war was then the biggest story in the world, with President Johnson building America’s troop commitment to half a million men. When Davis arrived in Saigon he quickly realised he could not compete with the major American television networks, with their unlimited resources and obsession with only covering what the US soldiers were doing.
He was aware that the South Vietnamese army (ARVN) was then doing most of the effective fighting, taking 50 percent more casualties than the Americans. Realising that no Western cameramen or journalists were covering their combat, he made the critical but dangerous decision to film with them. There would be no Medivac choppers; he had to take his chances on foot in the paddy fields with the ARVN.
Davis had a natural empathy with the rural Vietnamese, whom he felt reflected his own farming upbringing in Tasmania. He was appalled by the American attitudes to the Vietnamese people, who they called “Gooks, Dinks, and Slopes”, and regarded as “funny little animals running around”. Neil, in his coverage, tried to profile individuals to “show them as compassionate people with a feeling for their fellow human beings, for their families and for life itself.”
The combat film he took was syndicated all over the world by VISNEWS, as his coverage of the ARVN was unique. Nothing stopped him. He got over a bad bout of hepatitis, and then slipped a disc in his back that made it agony to carry all his gear in the field. He had two special corsets made of canvas reinforced with metal strips, to keep going.
In the field he used a spring-loaded Bell and Howell 16 mm camera, with a Philips cassette recorder (only just invented) strapped to his belt to capture wild sound. Paradoxically he felt that the safest place to film was the front line. “That was where the best spontaneous film was,” he said. The most dangerous place, he believed, was the second or third line several hundred metres behind the action, where the troops were more likely to be shelled, rocketed or mortared. Also, he believed that frontline combat brought out the best in people.
His film was never just a collection of shots – feeling was always there, expressed in shots of tight, taut faces, children, close-ups of burnt hands – using the humanity of war to underline its basic inhumanity. He was a film essayist, with his stories composed economically in his camera using minimal film.
In 1973, Neil Davis secured the most important scoop for VISNEWS since he had arrived in Vietnam. Always keen to cover both sides of conflict, and using Viet Cong double agents in the Saigon bureaucracy and help from an American colonel in the Delta region of Vietnam, (whose Vietnamese interpreter was also a double agent in this “Alice Through The Looking Glass” war), Neil Davis made arrangements to cross into Viet Cong-controlled territory to film “the other side”.
The Viet Cong made him welcome as long as he did not film any of their dead. There were some casualties, as South Vietnamese helicopter gunships strafed the group he was with, and Davis was lucky to escape unharmed.
He smuggled his film back to Saigon, and off to VISNEWS. When the story broke, the Americans were furious and threatened to withdraw his accreditation, which did not concern Davis a great deal, as he knew his accreditation with the ARVN was secure.
In 1974 Davis spent most of his time in Cambodia, covering combat at its most perilous. The Cambodian army was poorly trained, and in the early stages was led into combat by boy soldiers proudly carrying the Cambodian flag. Cambodia was special for Davis. He loved the humor and off-the-wall combat strategy of the Cambodians, which sometimes, but not always, succeeded against the battle-hardened North Vietnamese troops advancing towards Phnom Penh, joined later by Pol Pot’s ruthless Khmer Rouge.
Always determined to film no matter what the circumstances, Davis later agonised about footage he took when a Khmer Rouge rocket attack devastated a primary school in Phnom Penh and Davis filmed the carnage as the dead and dying children were carried by their distraught parents from the burning wreckage of their school.
He returned to Saigon to witness the last gasp of the war he had covered for 11 years, by now working for the US network NBC. So it was that he was the only cameraman to get the now famous footage of North Vietnamese Tank 843 breaking down the gates of Saigon’s Independence Palace and the North Vietnamese troops hauling down the South Vietnamese flag.
It was ironic that the greatest scoop of his long war coverage in Indo China was to be the actual moment of victory – an eventuality he had foreseen, and made sure he was positioned and ready, knowing that he risked death by continuing to film when no one else in the Palace grounds dared lift a camera. That footage remains the only record the North Vietnamese have of their moment of victory, on 30 September 1975.
With his reputation of even-handedness – the North Vietnamese knew about his coverage of the Viet Cong in the south – he was one of the few western journalists allowed to remain in Saigon (renamed Ho Chi Minh City) for three months after the end of the war.
And his ultimate scoop was to film his own death in Bangkok.
Tim Bowden is a journalist, a former ABC radio and television producer, foreign correspondent and the author of 16 books. In 1994 he was made a Member of the Order of Australia for services to public broadcasting.
Neil Davis Neil Filmng from a de Havilland Chipmunk. Courtesy of Tim Bowden
ARVN troops inspecting shrapnel wound. Courtesy of Tim Bowden
Neil Davis carrying a wounded Cambodian. Courtesy of the Australian War Memorial
Neil Davis. Courtesy of Fairfax
Davis marries Julie Yen. Courtesy of Tim Bowden
One Crowded Hour: Neil Davis Combat Cameraman 1934-1985, Tim Bowden, Collins, Sydney, 1987
Neil Davis Collection, Australian War Memorial
Frontline, documentary by David Bradbury, Frontline Productions website