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Did the spy, Pham Xuan An, just miss death at Tet 1968?

The Vietnamese gentleman who opened the door to the Reuter office, on the eve of the most important festival of the year in Vietnam, was no stranger to the two correspondents sitting with head phones, taking dictation from two colleagues filing big news from the war-torn northern part of the country on 31 January, the second day of Tet.

Tet is Vietnam’s New Year, and this is the 50th anniversary of the 1968 event.    

The visitor was Pham Xuan An, now deceased, who worked as a journalist with Time magazine whose office was just 30 yards up the road from mine in central Saigon. 

As he normally did, Mr An stopped to talk to the Reuters jack of all trades, Pham Ngoc Dinh (also deceased) at his desk just behind the wire door that was meant to stop any hand grenades which might have been hurled in - though no-one had ever done such a thing.

Pham Xuan An softly withdrew after what he told to Dinh, and slipped out again. “It’s urgent,” Dinh told me as he walked over to my desk and I took off my headphones to listen. 

Anything An said was important - he was regarded as the best informed journalist in Saigon, the Vietnamese capital. 

Unbeknown to almost everyone including me An was a spy for the communist side. I just thought he had very good contacts. 

I knew that there was heavy fighting in northern South Vietnam - that’s why our two correspondents were in Danang, the second city of South Vietnam, and Hue, Vietnam’s most beautiful town, were now dictating stories to our office in Saigon.

“Mr An says be very careful tonight as there will be a series of attacks in downtown Saigon during the night. He says we should keep off the streets for sure.” Tet, the Lunar New Year celebration, is the most important time of the year for Vietnamese, including also for the communist Viet Cong (VC) of South Vietnam and those millions in North Vietnam. 

It’s like Christmas and Easter melded together. Lunar New Year depends on the cycle of the moon in late January - Tet was centuries old.

I was in the office with Hugh Lunn, an Australian, who was also taking copy from our two correspondents.

The day before, Lunn and I had taken a walk down town. Suddenly a young man pushed into us and his eyes were like thunder. “Bumping” was just something Vietnamese did not do. Other people we saw seemed unusual and unfamiliar with being in downtown Saigon - they were also from the VC as it turned out.

When Hugh Lunn’s girl-friend from the British Embassy looked in that night and seemed to be staying, I politely told her for her own safety to make her way home in her motor car. She became a bit huffy, saying we just wanted to get rid of her. 

“The British Embassy diplomats do not expect any attacks tonight or any other night,” she said. “You’ve got it completely wrong.” she added, flouncing out of the office on her way home two-and-a-half miles away.   

I felt that our office was in the best situation of any in Saigon where most other offices were in very central Saigon, inside big buildings. We were right close to important places and our door opened straight onto the street.

After all, the presidential palace was just 200 yards down the road to my left, and they were guarded by the Nung tribal minority, a minor group of Chinese who watched over from inside the grounds of the palace. They had the reputation of being ruthless and hotshots with their rifles.

The American and British embassies were 400 yards on my right on the other side of the red-hued Catholic Cathedral - there has been a minority of Catholics who have been in Vietnam since the 17th century when Catholic priests entered Vietnam for the first time, long before the French themselves grabbed Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos and held them until it was wrenched off them at the Battle of Dien Bien Phu in 1954. 

Hugh Lunn and myself finished our work at 2:00 am on 30 January, and I told Hugh I would drive him home in the office car to where his girl-friend would be waiting. Mine was the only car on the street, a potential grab for meandering Viet Cong but I saw no trace of anyone.

I thought of An’s warning but I rationalised that any trouble would be out, say, towards the airport but certainly not in Saigon’s centre. From the sound, it seemed some people were still letting off fireworks to celebrate Tet. As it happened, there were attacks all over Saigon - I just happened to be driving on a main street while the attackers were on the quieter streets.

At that moment, Ellsworth Bunker, the US ambassador, was being told “Saigon is under attack.” He was led away to safety in his pyjamas and bathrobe. 

I got home at just before 3:00 am and sank into my bed above the office, then fell into a deep sleep. Forty minutes later I jerked awake at the sound of incoming shells to somewhere not far away, and shooting on the streets further out. The US embassy had already been hit though the attackers were only in the grounds not having got into entering the embassy itself. 

But the Viet Cong were at the Navy HQ, the radio station, near the airport and a dozen places in and around Saigon.    

Hearing the sounds of fighting on waking, I ran downstairs to the door and opened the glass entrance with its anti-grenade protection.

At that very second, shots flew past in both directions just two or three feet away and I quickly closed it to shelter from the ever awake Nungs.   

Suddenly I heard a Vietnamese voice hoarsely calling urgently - it was just yards away from my door. 

I called for my Singapore telex operator, Alan Lee, who had come from Singapore to relieve the hard-working Vietnamese operators who were exhausted from typing stories, not just for Reuters but also for many other papers, like The New York Times and Newsweek

With the continued exchange of fire, I told Alan to “douse the lights and get under the stairs”. Then I told him to light a candle and I would write a story.   

The stairs were wooden and wouldn’t have provided much shelter but psychologically they helped us both.                          

I had just called around and heard from a government source that there were VC in the embassy grounds.

I kneeled on the floor but my hands were shaking so much I could not write down my brief story. I grabbed my right hand firmly with my left and held it until it had largely stopped shaking.

I wrote something like: “Flash - Central Saigon under attack. Viet Cong in US Embassy grounds. Exchange of fire with the Presidential Palace.” 

The last time “Flash” to alert readers had been used by Reuters was when Churchill died.

As the dawn broke and the shooting around the office stopped, I went along to the US Embassy and saw an unbelievable sight. American troops in heavy metal jackets actually charging their own embassy. God, am I seeing things!

I watched them for a while from behind a tree as bullets were flying everywhere, and then rushed back to the office and filed the situation at the embassy.

Not long after dawn Hugh Lunn joined me again and things got manageable in the office. 

It was not until sometime later, when thinking back again on that night, I became sure that it had been Pham Xuan An who had shot towards the presidential palace so close to my own office.

He had military training, after all, and was quite capable of doing it. The shooting had come from just outside the nearby Time office where he had a room. And a male cleaner in the office probably was on An’s assistance.

Later that day, while out with Dinh, we got into another firestorm with the Vietnamese army who were heavily shooting, at what I don’t know.   

Dinh tearfully asked me if I would look after his wife and children if he died. I was able to reassure him that the shooting was only going outwards, not inwards. The children would be fine. 

The VC in the US embassy grounds were finally killed, and after a few days something like peace began to re-appear in downtown Saigon, though not the suburbs.

Two weeks after leaving at the end of my 18 months at work, two of our correspondents, Australian Bruce Pigott and Briton Ron Laramy, were killed in an ambush in Cholon, Saigon’s Chinese city.

Despite that tragedy, it was not too long before I found myself in Vietnam for a second assignment of 18 months.

Nick Turner of Reuters, a New Zealander, was the only person I knew who really strongly believed An was a spy. He swore by it. Most people thought that An was just very well informed, as I did.

Turner worked as bureau chief of Reuters from 1962-64 (I was bureau chief in 1967-1968 and again in the early Seventies in 1971-73).  

Turner sacked An and then An went to join Time which was only 30 yards away from Reuters. That’s why it was easy to visit us on the eve of 31 January 1968.

Turner came back during the Vietnam war and spent a lot of time during my second assignment in the Seventies, as I recall, with American officials who were doing secret work. He sure as hell told them what he thought An was really doing.

But Turner was a bother to me on my second assignment, hanging around the Reuter office when he was no longer working for our agency.

I was not happy that he had sacked An who had then joined Time as I missed having An’s wide knowledge as my predecessors had.

I was sorry when Turner died. And I was sorry when An passed away. I had been to see An in North Vietnam and there he was, a general by this time, as usual with his big Alsatian dog. ■