‘I’m OK .’ Moments later, He Was Shot

THREE Singapore photojournalists who died on assignment during the Vietnam War were honoured in Requiem, an exhibition that opened last month at the Newseum in Arlington, Virginia.

Former Straits Times photographers Sam Kai Faye and Terence Khoo, and Charles Chellappah, who worked for a short period for the now-defunct Malayan Times, were among the 135 brave men and women from 11 countries remembered by their colleagues.

Requiem, a book edited by Horst Faas and Tim Page, was also launched by Random House at the exhibition.

Chellappah, whose full name was Canagaratnam Chellappah, was born in Indonesia but emigrated to Singapore so he could find a job as a news photographer. His lifelong dream was to cover the war.

Arriving in Saigon on Jan 21, 1966, he headed straight for the action and was baptised into the scary world of war photography when he followed American GIs into a dense jungle full of Vietcong tunnels.

His close-up shots of casualties and combat from this outing north of Saigon were so dramatic that Horst Faas, his picture editor at Associated Press, warned him to be more careful.

17482_10152556891830057_1097413424_nOn Valentine’s Day, 1966, he was with a troop on a road-clearing mission when a claymore mine went off. Chellappah and a company commander and medic, went to the rescue of the wounded. A second mine exploded, killing them all.

Just before his death, he had written to his businessman-father about his plan to return to Singapore a month later to start a news photo-agency.

Chellappah was the third AP photographer to die in a year and Faas was ordered to write a report for the president of his agency.

“This last roll of film was released by the authorities today along with his other personal effects,” Faas writes in Requiem.

“The pictures show, better than any words could, how close Chellappah was to the action up to the moment of his death.”

Sam Kai Faye and Terence Khoo were 48 and 35 respectively when they were killed in a similar incident on July 21, 1972. They were working for American television network ABC at the time and had a lot in common.

Both were former staffers of The Straits Times. Khoo was known for his bravery and suaveness and was frequently in the news.

In the book, Steve Bell, a former ABC correspondent, tells how Khoo had saved his life.

They were both captured in April that year and a Vietcong offered to let Khoo and other Asians go — but not Bell. Khoo persuaded the soldier that the act would make the Vietcong look bad in the eyes of the world. The argument worked and they were all spared.

Sam had collected many prestigious international journalism awards. Both men were bachelors but Khoo was engaged to marry Winnie Ng, a secretary from his company’s Hongkong bureau, at the end of 1972.

After seven years in the trenches, he was to leave for a safe posting to the ABC News bureau in Bonn the next day.

“I was to join him there later,” his fiancee said in a newspaper interview at the time, “and we planned to be married there in December.”

But he and Sam, his replacement, decided to spend the day on the battlefield instead. It proved to be a fatal decision.

Not long after setting out, Sam was shot by a sniper near Quang Tri. Khoo stayed behind to help him. His last known words to a Korean soundman who managed to escape were: “I’m OK.” Moments later, he too was shot. Their bodies were recovered a few days later.

Ali Yusoff, a Straits Times photographer, remembers that the sadness in the newsroom was almost palpable when word of their deaths reached Singapore.

Sam had worked for the paper from 1950 to 1955. Khoo had joined in 1954 and left two years later to freelance.

Sam Yoke Tatt was only a child when his uncle Sam Kai Faye’s picture of a plane crash won the top award in an international press photography competition in 1955, but he was well aware of its significance.

“As far as I know, no other Asian has won the award,” the nephew said.

When his uncle died in 1972, Yoke Tatt was in his early 20s. He brought his uncle’s casket back from Saigon. For many years, Yoke Tatt helped his late father, ex-Straits Times photographer Sam Kai Yee, in their family business.

Khoo’s mother, Sim Geok Kee, who was 73, described him in a newspaper interview after his death as a “very brave and famous boy” who knew his own mind.

Khoo had bequeathed one-third of his insurance money of $62,500 to the University of Singapore. Yearly awards of $1,300 were given to the medical research fund for good students from poor families.

The first award went to Lim Meng Kin, a final year medical student who later joined the army after his housemanship, rising to the rank of brigadier general.

Now chief executive officer of Health Corporation of Singapore, Dr Lim was filled with deep emotion when asked about the man who had helped him but whom he knew little about. “Yes, I was one of his beneficiaries,” he said, “and I’m very grateful to him.”

He said the little he knew about Khoo came from newspaper reports and a small write-up in the scholarship prospectus.

“I met somebody who knew the family and was hoping to meet and thank them personally,” he said emotionally, “but the opportunity did not arise.”

Apart from Khoo’s bequest, ABC, the US TV network Khoo and Sam had worked for, also set up fellowships for Asians to study at Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism.

 

Footnote

Shortly after the article appeared, family members of Charles Chellappah called to point out a few discrepancies in this article.

Chellappah, according to his younger brother, Kandasamy, was born and raised in Singapore. (The book said he was born in East Indies, which later became part of Indonesia.)

The family also believes that he was killed by a sniper bullet instead of claymore mine explosion. His elder sister remembers his body was very much intact, apart from a severed face, which would have been impossible if he had been killed by the mine.

Attempts to contact the family before the publication of this article was futile as there were very few reports about Chellappah.

The author apologises unreservingly for the errors.