The extraordinary career of Neil Davis, one of the world's premier combat cameramen, ended in tragedy today when what appeared to be another of Thailand's periodic bloodless coup attempts suddenly erupted in violence.
An Australian cameraman and correspondent who covered conflicts in Asia, the Middle East and Africa, Davis, 52, the Bangkok bureau chief for NBC Television news, was killed while filming tanks manned by rebel soldiers firing at a radio station held by troops loyal to the Thai government. To the end he remained true to the cameraman's maxim: keep the camera rolling no matter what.
"He died filming his own death," said fellow Australian cameraman Gary Burns, who came under fire with Davis at the scene.
Seriously wounded with Davis was his NBC soundman, William Latch, 35, a native of Abilene, Tex. Latch was rushed to a nearby hospital, where doctors pronounced him out of danger after an operation. But he died in the hospital about six hours later, leaving a Thai wife and two children, 7 1/2 and 2.
Davis and Latch had gone to cover an attempted coup by about 400 rebel soldiers backed by about 20 tanks after an announcement early this morning that key government installations were in rebel hands.
They became caught in a cross fire when at least three tanks opposite a loyalist radio station opened up with their cannons and machine guns, and troops within the loyalist military compound replied with automatic weapons fire.
According to Burns, a cameraman for the British Agency Visnews, the first tank fire sent the handful of reporters at the scene sprawling on the pavement and crawling for cover. But Davis was crouching low and continuing to film the firing tanks when he was hit either by shrapnel from a tank round or machine-gun bullets, Burns said.
"When there was a lull I tried to help him up," Burns said. "Then I saw that he was dead."
Davis was born on the island of Tasmania off southern Australia and became known as a leading Australian rugby player before taking up journalism.
He went to Vietnam as a cameraman for Visnews in 1964 and except for a stint in neighboring Cambodia, stayed until 1975, when he covered the fall of Saigon to Vietnamese Communist troops.
Declining evacuation before the Communist takeover of the South Vietnamese capital, Davis positioned himself at the presidential palace and filmed the arrival of North Vietnamese troops who battered down the palace gates with their tanks and took the surrender of the Saigon government. According to an NBC spokeswoman, Davis, who was free-lancing for NBC, was the only U.S. network reporter to continue filming in Saigon during the Communist takeover.
Seven years before, during the 1968 Tet Offensive, while working for Visnews, Davis had filmed the dramatic public execution of a Vietcong suspect on a Saigon street by the capital's police chief.
He also covered the war in Angola for NBC, and was in Vietnam this spring to cover the 10th anniversary of the end of the war.
Some of the footage most admired by other journalists was his remarkable and courageous front-line coverage of South Vietnamese, U.S. and Cambodian troops in combat.
Some of these sequences were shown in a 1980 documentary called "Front Line" that was made for U.S. public television about Davis. In it, he described his philosophy of covering combat and the empathy he evidently felt with the troops called upon to fight and die in their countries' wars.
Davis was wounded several times while trying to capture the often shocking reality of these situations. Once he survived by being given coconut milk intravenously to compensate for loss of blood from a serious wound.
Since the end of the Vietnam War, Davis has been based in Bangkok but has traveled widely to cover stories in such trouble spots as Lebanon and southern Africa.
Davis is survived by a wife and son, living in Taiwan, and a sister and brother who live in Australia, according to a network spokeswoman.