Friday 9 August 2013

The story of Charles, Terry and Sam

By Toh Yong Chuan, The Straits Times, 8 Aug 2013

IN JUNE, my 15-year-old son and I went looking for World War II heroes at the D-Day beaches of Normandy in France.

Our search ended this week at an old terraced house in Paya Lebar, the Chua Chu Kang Christian Cemetery and the Mandai Columbarium.

We went to Omaha beach looking for the Nirland brothers who inspired the movie Saving Private Ryan. Instead we also found Charles, Terry and Sam - three Singaporeans who are remembered in an obscure memorial park less than 10 minutes' drive from Omaha.

The trio are Singaporean journalists who were killed covering the Vietnam War. Their names are found in the Reporters Memorial that the Normandy town of Bayeux and Reporters Without Borders built in 2007 to remember every journalist killed on duty since the 1944 D-Day landings.

They are among the 2,100 reporters whose names are engraved in 3m-tall white granite stones lining the park's grassy paths.

My son found "Charles Chellappah" in the 1966 section - the year he was killed - and I found "Terrence Khoo" and "Sam Kai Faye" on the 1972 block. It turned out later that the first two names were misspelt or wrong.

The park did not provide any clue on how the trio died and we did not find much information online, so we put our curiosity aside.

After our holiday, we started a father-and-son project to piece their story together. A handful of books and old newspaper reports provided useful clues. I also tracked down some people who knew them. Although we had little to work with, we put together a picture of how the trio went to Vietnam and died there.

Canagaratnam Chellappah

CANAGARATNAM Chellappah was born on May 2, 1940. He was the fourth child in a family of 10 children.

I met his eldest brother Canagaratnam Tharmalingam, now 79, at an old two-storey terraced house off Upper Paya Lebar Road last week. Mr Tharmalingam remembers his brother's fondness for climbing coconut trees even as a child, which showed his fearless and adventurous streak.

Chellappah studied at Monk's Hill Primary and Gan Eng Seng Secondary. He landed a job as a sports reporter with the Singapore Free Press after secondary school and taught himself photography. Mr Tharmalingam was unsure exactly when his brother went to Vietnam, but knew that he had worked as a reporter in Kuala Lumpur, Hong Kong and Sabah. "The family was out of touch with him," he admitted.

Mr Tharmalingam said that his parents were caught by surprise when they learnt that their son had gone to Vietnam as a freelance photographer with the Associated Press, but there was nothing they could do. "He was brave and hence reckless. He was very daring in what he wanted to do, and he had no fear of the outcome."

Chellappah was killed on Valentine's Day on Feb 14, 1966, when on a road-clearing mission with American soldiers. He was single.

When I asked whether Chellappah's fearlessness could have got him killed, Mr Tharmalingam looked away in silence. But he was quick to dispute accounts on how his brother died. News reports had said that Chellappah was killed by a Claymore mine, but Mr Tharmalingam saw the body and thought a mine could not have killed his brother. "He was shot in the head. His body was clean - no injury at all."

The Associated Press had arranged for the body to be flown back. The family cremated the body and scattered the ashes in the sea off Bedok. "That's all that we have to remember him now," said Mr Tharmalingam, pointing to a framed A4-sized photo on a wooden table at a corner of the living room. "He pursued his dream, and died doing it."

Sam and Terence

IT IS not known whether Chellappah met Terence Khoo or Sam Kai Faye in Vietnam, but their paths could have crossed some time between 1964 and 1966 in Saigon where most war correspondents were based. Retired journalist and war correspondent Chin Kah Chong recalls that Terence, or Terry to his friends, first went to Vietnam as a freelance photographer in 1964. Sam followed soon after.

The duo were colleagues in The Straits Times in the mid-1950s. Sam had joined the newsroom in the late 1940s and Terence in the mid 1950s. Sam was an award-winning photographer, snagging the top World Free Press Photo award in 1955 for his close-up picture of a plane that crashed at the then Kallang Airport.

They left The Straits Times in 1957 but remained steadfast friends. Sam joined Chin at the Pana News Agency, while Terence was hired by Agence France-Presse.

Mr Chin, now 82, remembers arranging for Terence and Sam to visit Saigon in 1960, flying there on a British military transport plane that was on a flood relief mission. The duo fell in love with the city on their first visit. They overstayed their four-hour stopover and did not make the return flight.

Mr Chin was part of a search party to round them up, but he looked the other way even though he spotted them. The air force arranged another return flight for them the following day.

"Both were independent and free-spirited, although Sam was the more restrained one, likely because he was 12 years older than Terence," said Mr Chin.

Terence even trained as a paratrooper with the South Vietnamese army so that he could jump off planes into war zones.

Mr Chin told me of his last meeting with Sam and Terence, two months before they were killed. In early May 1972, he met both at his hotel when on a reporting assignment to Saigon. Sam's contract with the American Broadcasting Corporation (ABC) was ending that August, while Terence was assigned a coveted job of covering the Summer Olympics in Munich, Germany to be held in August.

Both were looking forward to leaving Vietnam. But fate intervened to stop them, said Mr Chin.

They were killed by North Vietnamese soldiers on July 20, 1972. They were not even supposed to have been on assignment in the first place. Sam was a last-minute replacement for another cameraman, while Terence insisted on tagging along with his best friend for one more reporting assignment before leaving for Germany, irking the ABC bureau chief.

Sam was shot in the stomach while crossing a field. Terence and two others in the group - a Korean soundman and a Vietnamese cameraman - took cover. The Korean crawled away to safety while Terence stayed with Sam, only to be killed by more gunfire. The Vietnamese was also killed, and only the Korean survived to recount how Terence did not leave his best friend.

Mr Chin was not surprised by Terence's act: "He's loyal and would not abandon his friend."

Their bodies were recovered only three days later due to heavy fighting. Sam was 48 when he died and Terence, 35. Both were bachelors, although Terence had a fiancee from Hong Kong.

Their journalist friends put up a sign, "Terry and Sam Hill", to mark the spot they died.

Terence's only brother Khoo Kiam Soon, a police officer, went to Vietnam to bring his body back. Sam's brother, Sam Kai Yee, also a Straits Times photographer, was unable to make the trip due to a passport glitch. The task fell on Sam's nephew, Sam Yoke Tatt, who was in his 20s.

Last week, I asked the younger Sam, now 64, how he felt bringing his uncle's body back. He replied: "Words cannot describe my sorrow, even after 41 years."

The duo could not be buried next to each other in Singapore because Sam was a Buddhist while Terence was a Christian. Sam was laid to rest at the Pek San Theng cemetery and Terence at the Chua Chu Kang Christian cemetery.

They were brought back together in 2007, even if it was just symbolically, when their names were engraved in the same stone at the Reporters Memorial in France.

Terence's brother died in 1991. The widow Wong Lai Kuan, now 72, does not have much recollection of her brother-in-law. "He was in Saigon most of the time," she said.

NUS bursary

BEFORE Terence died, he willed one-third of his life insurance payout of about $20,000 to the then University of Singapore. The university used the money to set up the Terence Khoo Medical Bursary to provide financial aid to poor medical students.

After over 40 years, the bursary is still giving out money.

A National University of Singapore (NUS) spokesman told me that the bursary is now valued at $1,850 per annum and four medical students received it in the last 10 years. The university could not release names of the recipients due to privacy concerns.

Final resting places

MY SON and I visited Terence's grave at Chua Chu Kang on Tuesday. Mr Chin had taken me to the grave last week to show me where his friend was buried.

The tomb cuts an arresting presence even after 41 years. Inscribed on its black marble are the words, "A fine and courageous journalist who died as he had lived - tenacious yet passionate… truly a man with courage of soul".

The head stone was covered by a six-foot-tall shelter, standing taller than surrounding graves. Does it reflect Terence's larger- than-life experience when he was alive, or how he stands tall even today? I wondered.

Sam's Pek San Theng grave site was acquired by the government in the early 1980s to build the Bishan housing estate. Sam was exhumed, cremated and his ashes placed at a niche at the Mandai Columbarium.

We also visited Sam's niche with directions given by Mr Sam Yoke Tatt. In contrast to Terence's striking tombstone, Sam's niche was strikingly plain. It is inscribed with his Chinese name and dates of his birth and death from the Chinese zodiac calendar, giving no hint that he was an award-winning photographer who gave his life to his job.

My son was unusually quiet at the cemetery. "We went so far to France, when the story is found right here," he mumbled, adding: "And it is a story of adventure, loyalty and sacrifice."

"Sacrifice?" I asked.

"Ya, sacrifice, because they were gunned down doing their jobs," he replied with uncharacteristic thoughtfulness.

This year's National Day Parade theme is "Many stories, one Singapore". As we celebrate National Day, we do not need the yearly staple of new songs or well-choreographed parades to inspire Singaporeans.

The inspiration can be also found if we look deeper into our history for more stories such as that of Charles, Terry and Sam.

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