Vietnam Rewrites Vietnamese-Australian History: Cameraman Neil Davis’ historic 1st tank renumbered

‘This was the first tank,’ I protested, pointing to the Russian-built No 843, which I saw as ‘Neil’s’ tank’.

‘No, the Chinese tank was first,’ insisted the Vietnamese guide, directing my gaze back to No 390, which stood ahead of 843 inside the grounds of the renamed Ho Chi Minh City’s Reunification Palace.

‘But 843 was the one filmed by Neil Davis, an Australian, and his exclusive footage of the first tank crashing through the gates at the fall of Saigon was shown around the world.’

‘843 was the second tank,’ he repeated, hustling us in heat across the circular drive, past pristine lawns, up steps into the cavernous interior of the former Presidential Palace, a 1960s edifice with glistening chandeliers and other luxurious fittings, monitoring centres and a rooftop sporting a helicopter like that which whisked American-backed South Vietnamese President Van Thieu to safety days before Davis captured the moment of liberation.

Helene Chung beside tank 843 15 January 2010 (Susan Alexander)

Helene Chung beside tank 843
15 January 2010 (Susan Alexander)

Surely I can’t be so wrong, I mused, irritated at being misled on a Melbourne University study tour for fourteen Australians, all except me teachers. Our courageous group leader, who fled threatened communist incarceration to teach in Sydney but regularly returns to Vietnam, puzzled me by a blank expression when I mentioned Davis. Now the local guide flatly dismissed him.

I recalled Tim Bowden’s best-selling One Crowded Hour, documenting his fellow Tasmanian’s euphoria and anxiety as he positioned himself on the palace lawn on 30 April 1975. As the first tank pushed the wrought-iron gates Davis ran towards it, his camera the only one rolling.

‘I started to film as that tank, No 843, smashed through … The soldier on the front holding the huge [red, blue and yellow] Viet Cong flag jumped off and ran towards the palace … But out of my left eye – the one not to the camera – I could see a very determined Communist solder racing straight towards me … with his rifle pointing at me and shouting …

Tank 843 smashes through gates 30 April 1975 (Tim Bowden)

Tank 843 smashes through gates
30 April 1975 (Tim Bowden)

Davis poses on tank 843 Hanoi 1984 (Tim Bowden)

Davis poses on tank 843
Hanoi 1984 (Tim Bowden)

That was the last big decision I made in Indo-China … I thought, well, after eleven years of covering this war I’m here alone, and I have what the Americans like to call just about the greatest scoop one could imagine … and I’m going to keep filming. Maybe it’s wrong, and maybe I’m going to die, but that’s my decision.’

He kept filming until poked in the guts by the rifle, the soldier screaming ‘Stop! Hands up!’
With hands up, still holding his camera, Davis uttered his rehearsed, ‘Welcome to Saigon, comrade. I’ve been waiting for you.’

Although assumed to be American, he established his Australian identity and continued filming. Afterwards, because the trailing official Communist crew failed to film the event, he gave a copy of his story to the new Vietnamese government. Then in 1984 Davis squatted atop 843 for a photograph in Hanoi’s War Museum, before the tank was returned to Saigon.

Reunification Palace 15 January 2010 (Helene Chung)

Reunification Palace
15 January 2010 (Helene Chung)

‘I think Vietnam just wants ownership of its own history,’ Bowden responded when I raised the issue with him back in Australia.

I wanted to visit Vietnam partly because Davis determined the course of my career. While covering the Indo-China War in Saigon and elsewhere in 1970, he wrote letters to me – some of them reproduced in Ching Chong China Girl – in which this fair-haired son of a Tasmanian farmer dissuaded this fourth-generation Tasmanian Chinese from heading straight to London: ‘First, report from Asia.’ (January 2010)