How Journalist Bill Cunningham, a Wartime Friend, Talked the Khmer Rouge Out of Killing Us in Cambodia

Canadian correspondent, who died in February, is remembered and applauded by his many friends at a service at Toronto.

Via Agota Cunningham
Canadian journalist Bill Cunningham. Via Agota Cunningham

Bill Cunningham, who died at Toronto four months ago, was  among the best friends I made during the war in Vietnam. I first met Bill and his wife, Agota, a ballet dancer in her youth in Hungary, in a crowd of demonstrators in 1967 in Hong Kong at the height of Mao’s Great Cultural Revolution. He was with CBC, Canadian Broadcasting, and I was with the late, much lamented Evening Star in Washington. I owe him my life.

In Cambodia one day in 1970, we were looking for war on a run down a road south of Phnom Penh. Cunningham’s cameraman, Maurice Embre, was with us. An hour or two down the road, we  turned onto a dirt lane — and there  were Viet Cong and Khmer Rouge guerrillas. They plied us with propaganda leaflets and let us go — a few weeks before our colleagues were getting killed on similar forays. Cunningham talked us out of trouble.

It was this encounter that cemented a relationship. Over the years since, Cunningham interviewed me numerous times as a talking head for specials on Korea and Vietnam as well as Cambodia. Then, in retirement, he had me to his and Agi’s lovely home in Toronto and their vacation place at Boca Raton. We also met on his visits to Washington, seeking out restaurants that purveyed his favorite oysters and getting in touch with Don North, another Canadian I had known from his years in Indonesia and then Vietnam for American TV networks.

War breeds lasting relationships among those who witnessed and wrote about it as well as participants. Years later, a few friendships endure among the characters you once knew, some of whom you admired, others not so much. Not a few of these bonds would be unlikely in any context but that of war.

Bill, 92 when he died, led a long life as a leader and innovator in Canadian TV news. It was because of our episode in Cambodia that Bill’s widow Agi asked me to talk at a memorial last week in Toronto. She wanted me to tell the story of our adventure in Cambodia. I remembered it as if it had just happened.

We knew we had a problem when we saw men with leaves stuck into their pith helmets for camouflage, hefting AK-47 rifles. They had to be bad guys, but we couldn’t turn around or they’d shoot at us. We drove into their base camp, got out and were greeted by a thin, wiry man who handed us propaganda leaflets.

A few feet away guerrillas, including some young women, were pointing their rifles at us. Bill chatted briefly while I took notes. He said we were all Canadians and showed his Canadian passport. I had my American passport in my pocket. Cameraman Maurice was shaking, but Bill was diplomatic, calm. I thought it was exciting to run into these guys and wanted to ask questions. Bill told me to forget it. We left down the same side road while the guys with the rifles were staring at us, silent.

We were among the first to encounter the enemy. Others were not so lucky. A few days later I saw the photographers Sean Flynn, son of Erroll, and Dana Stone on Route One leading to the Vietnam border. We were at a roadside stand. I’d come back from near the border, where old ladies told my interpreter the Khmer Rouge were not far away. Sean and Dana, hell-bent for images, pressed on. They were never seen alive again, their bodies never found.

Next month, May 1970, a CBS correspondent George Syvertsen and his crew left Phnom Penh looking for war, and Welles Hangen of NBC and his crew left after them, not wanting to get scooped. They were all killed. Others also died. I remember UPI photographer Kyōichi Sawada and correspondent Frank Frosch. I had often seen Sawada, who had won a Pulitzer, and had met Frosch, newly arrived, proud of his crowning achievement, an article in Playboy, both killed in October 1970 south of Phnom Penh.

Memories of all of them ricochet along with those of others whom I knew for years, with whom I went on stories in Vietnam and Cambodia. 

They were a varied lot, a loud-talking Australian, with the Sunday Times of London, Murray Sayle; a Scripps-Howard correspondent, Don Tate, looking for material for a novel he wrote when he got back, which my then-wife Susie edited at Scribner’s; a Los Angeles Times correspondent, Arthur Dommen, later the author of a major book on the war, which he had me read while he was still writing it.

 Others blur into the mass that showed up for briefings, backgrounders, helicopter flights and rides to war.

I had a suspicion, not founded or proven, that only good guys got killed, those I knew, who died in Cambodia, among them. I have fast-talking, unflappable, sensible Bill Cunningham to thank for avoiding a similar fate while I was saying I needed to take notes. At his memorial, though, I said I valued much more the hours we spent sipping his favorite rum and coke, resolving the world’s problems. 

I said I was sure he’s up there, somewhere, still solving the world’s problems. His Canadian TV friends burst into applause.


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