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The Mini-Moke: For Reuters, a vehicle forever associated with tragedy

Journalists who covered the Viet Nam War have been reminiscing on a web group called Vietnam Old Hacks about the Mini-Moke, a small utility vehicle popular at that time.

The Mini-Moke is a fun vehicle but I have remembrances of it that are tragic.  

It was in a Mini-Moke from Time magazine, a few doors from the Reuter office, that five journalists headed down towards Cholon on the first day of the second round of the Tet Offensive one fateful Sunday morning in May 1968. 

I had left Saigon two weeks before, after my first 18-month assignment, and having covered the main Tet Offensive, and was still monkeying around at 2 o’clock on the morning of Tet. The attack on the US embassy started 40 minutes later.

At the second and lesser Tet, John Cantwell, an Australian who worked for Time, was driving the Mini-Moke (probably belonging to the Time office) when the group headed off from the front of the Reuters office. Besides Cantwell, there were two men from Reuters, the experienced Bruce Pigott, also Australian, and Ron Laramy, a Brit, who had just joined the four-man Reuter team and was the new boy. 

Also in the jeep was Mike Birch, an Australian correspondent, and Frank Palmos, a freelance Australian who sat on the back of the small, tough but elegant vehicle.

The new bureau chief was covering something elsewhere in Saigon with the senior office Vietnamese staffer, Pham Ngoc Dinh

The second group headed off towards Cholon, but instead of keeping to the main roads, they diverted into the small streets where the Viet Cong were lurking that morning.

Despite desperate warnings from Vietnamese civilians yelling “Go back, VC, VC” they kept driving the Mini-Moke and turned a corner into a VC roadblock. Without warning, as Birch desperately shouted Bao Chi, Bao Chi (journalist), the VC opened fire. The front four journos were hit by a hail of bullets - the bodies were penetrated with from 10 to 26 bullets each. 

Fortunately, Palmos at the back was unscathed and, as the VC moved forward to see what they had done, he escaped round the corner, and dived in amongst the Vietnamese civilians, and quickly covered his face with dust. None of the Vietnamese gave him up.

Later Palmos filed the first story.

Also later, Dinh who was by then back at the Reuter office, set out on the dangerous mission to find out if all the correspondents had died.

The VC stopped Dinh, and he said he just wanted to see the bodies of the CIA, as the VC were calling the four dead men. Dinh felt for the pulses of the two Reuter correspondents, Pigott and the new man, Laramy, but they were lifeless. He saw Cantwell and Birch were obviously dead, and he managed to walk away from the VC without being challenged again.   

The late Mr Dinh had shown incredible resourcefulness - and courage.

Palmos was accused later of having jumped off the Mini-Moke and started running and thus drawing VC fire, but I went to see him in Australia months afterwards and found that Palmos appeared to be on the level as far as I was able to ascertain.   

Later, in postwar Vietnam, Palmos was allowed by the communists to interview the head of the VC group who said again he thought they had been CIA.

Safely home in Scotland, I heard the BBC speaking about four men including two from Reuters, reportedly killed. I called Reuters in London and they confirmed the appalling news.

Later, I was sent to Cuba where I discussed with Fidel Castro the Vietnam War - he was always surrounded at receptions by little Vietnamese girl students who each held one of his fingers. After going to see the end of war in Biafra, I did another 18 months stint with Reuters in Vietnam.

Time’s Mini-Moke had been destroyed in the shooting, and I did not see it again.

I had always liked the Mini-Moke, and indeed l had earlier driven with Sean Flynn for far too many kilometres along the main road from Vientiane to Luang Prabang that was safe from the Pathet Lao. 

Ominously, we saw no traffic and then suddenly an enormous King Cobra lunged at me (who was driving) over the windscreen of the Mini-Moke. 

As I was transfixed in suppressed terror - as they say happens when confronted by such a snake - quick-acting Sean grabbed the wheel and the Mini-Moke skidded round the huge cobra.

The giant cobra struck but it missed me and struck the side of the Mini-Moke with a clang. We decided soon afterwards it was time to head for Vientiane before the Pathet Lao - or another huge snake - got us. After all, there was nothing else on the road.  

Although I had wanted one, you will have seen why I never did get round to purchasing a Mini-Moke, though earlier I had bought the small car that was related to it. After all, those two ventures with the Mini-Moke ended in tragedy including the one with Sean in that he later disappeared for ever.  

I’m unlikely to get a Mini-Moke now, but would recommend the Old Hacks to this fine little vehicle. After all, for most of you, it won’t carry sad recollections of lost friends and colleagues.

Bruce Pigott and Ronald Laramy ■