Meeting Vietnam war legend Tim Page

A 1966 combat operation in Vietnam

By Jeremy Miles

Among war photographers Tim Page is a legend. He is part of that lunatic elite who cruised into Vietnam and surfed through the whole crazy, horrifying nightmare on a high-roller of drugs, adrenalin and rock n roll. Other members of the Press Corp thought him completely mad. He pushed his luck to the absolute limit, was wounded again and again, but kept returning with pictures that no one else could possibly have got.

He took insane risks but at the same time achieved a documentation of the war that will stand forever as a historic testament to its terror, sadness, brutality and awful glory. Working as a freelance for UPI, his photographs were received with relish by huge news corporations like Time Life who published hundreds of them. In return for the incredible pictures they received, they pandered to this Mad Brits’s apparent need for a near-suicidal work schedule and lifestyle.

The first time he was flown back to their office in Danang still clutching his precious film. He received a hero’s welcome. Page’s physical involvement with the war effectively ended at precisely 2.02pm on April 19, 1969. That was the time showing on his shattered wristwatch when he was pulled out of the carnage that resulted when the platoon he was patrolling with walked slap into a booby-trap mine.

A soldier just a few steps in front him was blown to pieces after stepping on a 105mm shell hidden under leaves on the jungle trail. Page was felled by the shrapnel and with a hole in the base of his brain the size of a grapefruit, medics were convinced that he was fatally wounded and announced that he probably had no more than 20 minutes to live. Astonishingly he not only survived but refused to believe  the prognosis when doctors told him that he would be permanently paralysed down the left side. Over the next decade he literally forced himself to learn to walk again.

When I ran into Page in the mid 1980s he was living in London and working again. I wrote a piece when he visited the Metropole Arts Centre in Folkestone to show his famous Nam pictures.There was also a telling collection of photographs taken in a post-war America that was rapidly gaining an unenviable reputation for the heartless treatment of its physically and mentally damaged veterans.

Talking of his experiences and taking questions from the small audience, it was clear that Page remains an extraordinarily driven individual. The craziness was still there but somehow offset by an inner-peace and an unwavering sense of purpose. Page the adrenalin junkie who got off on the thrill and dangers of war and grown into a man with a mission – to tell the unpalatable truth about political regimes.

I met him once before, on the edge of  a jungle in Sri Lanka. He was holed up in a tiny wooden shack on the coast with a large woman, tripping on acid, smoking dope and listening to Buddhist chants on a clapped out old tape-recorder. It was a strange evening. We had both been covering the Esala Perahera – the torchlit parade of dozens of decorated elephants and exotic dancers. This psychedelic carnival that meanders through the ancient city of Kandy honouring a mysterious relic that is said to be the tooth of the Buddha himself, is a heady mix of sights and sounds. Perfumed with incense and the smell of burning copra the Perahera is like nothing else on earth. I was writing a never tio be pub listed book and Page was being Page

After a stampede of frightened elephants some years earlier camera’s with flashguns had been banned at the Perahera but sitting in his jungle shack, Page showed me a letter he had acquired, apparently from the President himself, giving him special dispensation to use a flashgun. I wasn’t sure that I believed him but in the context of our long and long, rambling conversation it seemed to make sense. We covered much ground discussing the psychology of elephants, the mystical ability of the BiC biro to dematerialise at will, the special quality of light at 5.00am and why Page still needed to travel.

Frankly he seemed both as whacked out as the journalist and counter-culture fanboy within me could have hoped for. He was also in pretty bad physical shape and if I’m honest I really didn’t think he’d live for much longer. I was very wrong on that count. To this day Tim Page is very much a going concern living in Australia and still, giving lectures and holding exhibitions across the world.

Of course our encounter happened 40 years ago. I was 30 and though I was a veteran of CND marches and thought of myself as a peacenik, I was very much in thrall to the glamour of war. After all I had grown up surrounded by so many books and movies about battles and adventures under fire. From Bridge on the River Kwai to the Dambusters, Reach for the Sky to The Great Escape. It was really exciting.

When I was a teenager in the late 1960s my parents moved to Hong Kong. I spent a couple of amazing summer holidays at their old colonial apartment high on The Peak overlooking the city and harbour, a strategic stop off point for troops being shipped in an out the Vietnam war.

Those steamy hot evenings spent hanging out on their balcony listening to Hendrix or The Doors while surveying the teeming city below; the days spent hitting the strangely exotic streets full of bar girls, swaggering young American servicemen and the inevitable chancers, dealers and pimps who followed them around. It’s a memory that is seared into my brain.

Tim Page was part of that Crazy Asian madness that I was witnessing from the sidelines when as a 17-year-old in 1968 I was trying to make sense of what was happening to these American boys – soldiers and sailors, many of them barely older than me. The fear, the bravado, the sense that they had seen so much in such a short space of time was tangible..

Fast forward 13 years and I’m working as a journalist, travelling around Sri Lanka and have added Apocalypse Now to my list of favourite films. Running into Page, who was at least partly the inspiration for Dennis Hopper’s renegade photographer gone-rogue, is pretty exciting.

Even more thrilling is the fact that he seemed perfectly happy to chat. I’m a fairly confident individual but I have no doubt that had I approached him in a similar manner – “You’re Tim Page, aren’t you?” in an urban setting in the UK our conversation would have been embarrassingly brief. Somehow just being in an Asian jungle had bestowed me with a degree of credibility.

Travels in Cambodia and Vietnam

Halong Bay

Cambodia and Vietnam (2006)

Words: Jeremy Miles Pictures: Hattie Miles 

FOR someone whose earliest memories are of torture and genocide   Sothy laughs a great deal.  The cheery 32-year-old works as a freelance tour guide helping to establish Cambodia on the tourist map. 

He specialises in taking English and American travellers to Angkor Wat and other ancient  temples near his home town of Siem Reap. His informative lectures about the kingdoms, wars and civilisations of the past are punctuated with little jokes and he always seems to have a ready smile.

Yet despite his cheerful demeanour and relatively tender years Sothy is a survivor of Pol Pot’s brutal regime, the crazed dictatorship that, in the mid to late 1970s, saw literally millions starved, beaten, interrogated, tortured and put to death. 

Sothy

Sothy was only a child when the Khmer Rouge came for his mother.

Accused of trying to  exchange a shirt for a bowl of rice, she was thrown in jail. They took the boy too.  And, with his mother’s screams echoing in his ears, Sothy was stripped naked, tied to a tree and smothered in ants. 

He remembers the fear and confusion and he remembers the sores that festered until he was half crazy but he can recall little else. Three months later they were released. 

 “My mother says I cried all the time,” he told me. “That I had a big head and a little skinny body but  when I ask her about it she cries.too” He says he doesn’t know why they were spared but there’s a haunted look in his eyes as he talks about it.  

Cambodia is a fascinating, beautiful and rewarding country to visit. It’s magnificent emples are its main attraction but tourists are also confronted with the  ghosts of the all too recent recent past and the legacy of Pol Pot’s insane Maoist-Leninist experiment. 

We had arrived in this beautiful but battered country at the end of a fascinating 10 day, top-to-toe tour of Vietnam with the holiday company Archers Direct. That trip had taken us from Hanoi in the north  to Ho Chi Minh City in the south.  With knowledegable guides and extremely comfortable accomodation, it was a great way to see a fascinating part of the world.

Touching down in the Cambodian capital Phnom Penh at the start of a three night Kingdom of Cambodia extension to our holiday we found oureslves embarking on an eye-opening experience. The first thing you realise is how extraordinarily poor the place is. The escalator at the airport  (one of only two, we were told, in the entire country ) is a prime destination for family outings. Not surprising perhaps. For when a schoolteacher is lucky to earn US$25 a month, a ride on a moving staircase must represent a rare and affordable luxury 

Photo by Michiel Verledens  Pexels.com

Next stop was the Genocide Museum – a thought-provoking guided tour of Pol Pot’s feared S21 secret prison. Housed in an unremarkable  looking  former Secondary  School building, it still boasts the iron bedsteads that they manacled the prisoners and a gruesome variety of instruments of torture that led to the deaths of almost all who were taken there. Of the 14,000 plus men, women and children dragged through the doors of S21 only seven emerged alive. Inside the old schoolrooms the dead  are still present in the form of hundreds, maybe thousands of  prison photographs. The victims – Pol Pot’s supposed political enemies – each hold a number. Their crime was being educated, able to read, inclined to question. Some were tortured and executed simply because they wore glasses. Others because they had nicely manicured nails. They were beaten to death. Bullets were deemed too expensive to waste on mere prisoners.

Around both Phnom Penh and Siem Reap the notorious Killing Fields are easy to find. They are not, as I had naively imagined, remote, discreet and distant but right there on the edge of town. In fact those same fields – the last resting place of literally hundreds of thousands of innocent victims – are now sprouting four and five star hotels: a cash crop to feed the burgeoning tourist industry.

Such information can of course prove disquieting  to holidaymakers who simply believe they are jetting into an, until recently, hard to visit place to see some old and interesting temples. And so it should. I was impressed and proud of the fact that the party we were with embraced the fascinating and salutary history lesson that was Cambodia with enthusiasm and intelligence. 

The temples too of course were quite amazing. Lavishly  carved and dating back a thousand years or more the most impressive are  clustered around the ancient Khmer capital of Angkor. 

Vietnam

There was the magnificent jewel in Cambodia’s tourism crown – the towering, beautiful and well-ordered Angkor Wat – so much bigger than we had imagined – in fact an entire city five miles in circumference.  But there were many other treasures too, like the massive carved heads and huge gateways at Angkor Thom and the Bayon with its bas reliefs showing ancient battles, real and mythological.  Best of all perhaps was Ta Prohm which is still half-consumed by the jungle. It’s ravaged walls and tower’s entwined in the roots of giant self-seeded banyan trees.

Cambodia offers astonishing sights, including some places that even the locals have been unable to access for years. Away from the tourist trail, the country is still heavily mined. Hidden explosives continue to claim between 600 and 700 lives a year and until very recently travel in the leading carriage of the local trains was free of charge because it doubled as a minesweeper. 

In Vietnam they also bear scars of terrible times but, while what they call The American War is far from forgotten, this is clearly a young, vibrant country looking to the future. Sure ageing hippies can still find The Doors and Jimi Hendrix on countless juke boxes and you can buy  “battle scarred” Zippo lighters,  scuffed and battered and bearing such legends as “When I die bury me face down so the whole world can kiss my ass.” It’s tourism though, not history.

Girl on a motorcycle, Saigon

Flying into Vietnam via Bangkok, our  journey started in Hanoi, a bustling city with quite literally a million mopeds. Having learnt to cross the road – an art that requires courage, blind-faith and and the acquisition of a deep sense of fatalism, we spent a couple of happy days exploring street markets and stalls, temples and tourist sites.  

We then drove briefly north towards the Chinese border for a sailing trip among the towering limestone pillars, rocky outcrops and caves of Halong Bay.  

After an overnight stay we flew down to Da Nang – base for a huge US military presence during the war and still  a magnet for  veterans revisiting their past. We spent a couple of days in the idyllic  and ancient riverside town of Hoi An where tailoring is a speciality – they’ll knock you up a perfect suit, shirt, dress, you name it in next to no time – we also ate perhaps the best croissants of our lives – an indication of the culinary impact left by years of French rule. 

We drove form Hoi An  to the ancient capital of Hue.  Packed with history and war damage, it delivered some haunting images, not least the shattered remains of its astonishing 16th century Citadel most of which was smashed to dust and rubble by American troops during the Tet offensive in 1968. 

Hoi An, Vietnam

“What a pity!” said our guide. Ironically this  had been the exact phrase used by a previous guide back in Hanoi when informing us that Uncle Ho was not receiving visitors in his mausoleum because his mummified body was undergoing “technical maintenance”. It all seemed a rather undignified for fate for a man who specifically asked that he should be cremated. 

We did however get the chance to visit the Presidential Palace  and the “simple house” in its grounds where  Ho Chi Minh, president from 1954 to 1969 and leader of the Democratic Republic of Vietnam through the height of the war, chose to live. 

He claimed that it proved he was truly a man of the people. I’m not so sure . While based on a traditional peasant stilt house, it is relatively spacious and very attractive with lots of highly polished wood and a pleasing open-plan design.  If it hadn’t been for the special shelf for Ho’s tin hat and hotline telephone and the padded door next to his bed leading to the bomb bunker it wouldn’t have looked out of place in Homes and Gardens. 

Finally we flew to the vibrant and buzzing melting-pot that bears his name. Ho Chi Minh City, or Saigon as the locals still insist on calling it, is a brilliant, bustling metropolis full of sights, sounds and sensations. To reach them required more death-defying road crossing.  It really is difficult to get your head around the concept of stepping in front of 70 or 80 motorcycles which you know are not going to stop.  The instruction was “Just walk slowly and they’ll go round you” Astonishingly they do. 

Hattie in Vietnam

In 10 days in Vietnam we saw a beautiful country, wonderful street-life, pagodas and palaces. We enjoyed river trips and the hospitality of gentle friendly people, wonderful food  and of course many reminders of a war-ravaged past.  In Ho Chi Minh City we spent an afternoon at the diplomatically renamed War Remnants Museum (it used to be called The War Crimes Museum). After viewing, among other horrors, exhibits and first hand accounts relating to the My Lai massacre there was something particularly chilling about  returning to a very comfortable four star hotel switching on CNN and seeing footage of an American Marine casually blowing away a wounded and unarmed insurgent in Falluja.  Nothing, it would seem, changes.  Just the names and the places.