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CAMBODIA: Bitter Round in a Senseless War

5 minute read

For nearly two weeks, Kompong Cham−Cambodia’s third largest city−has been besieged by Khmer insurgents. During the initial onslaught, government forces were split in two and Communist-backed troops invested more than half of the T-shaped Mekong River town. Late last week the tide of battle turned. The besiegers began to drift away, and the Phnom-Penh government claimed a significant victory. TIME Correspondent Barry Hillenbrand rode a Cambodian helicopter into Kompong Cham, left the scene two days later with a convoy of wounded for the 75-mile voyage downriver to Phnom-Penh. His report:

The chopper spiraled down from its 4,500-ft. cruising altitude, darted over the flood-swollen Mekong toward a riverbank landing spot. Cambodian soldiers sucking Buddha amulets for luck leaped from the helicopter, lugging cases of food and ammo as they sprinted for shelter. As I jumped out of my seat and sloshed through knee-deep water toward the shore, insurgents began firing at us: the pilot had ill-advisedly put us down in a no-man’s land between the two forces. We were lucky. No one was hit.

Later, at the government command post, Major General Sar Hor, who was in charge of the city’s defenses, spelled out the problems. At that point, government troops held less than a third of a square mile; the insurgents controlled 60% of the city and were pressing for more. But Sar Hor, a roly-poly man of 56 who wore several large oval rings on his fingers, was confident. “The situation was once very critical,” he said, “but now it is merely critical. We will recapture what has been lost.” There was reason for his growing optimism, and it became plainer over the next several days. River convoys and helicopters brought in enough troops and supplies to more than replace government losses.

Next door to the heavily fortified command bunker is the town hall. A small group of tough Cambodian special-forces troops walked in, exuberantly displaying a .50-cal. machine gun recovered from an enemy position that they had just destroyed. General Sar Hor pulled a wad of riels from his map case and handed the reward to Major Kim Phong, the group’s commander. “Special forces, can do!” he shouted. Kim Phong, a tall, strapping Khmer with a stubbly beard, who looks a bit like an Asian Lee Marvin, has been a soldier for 20 years, first for the French, then for U.S. Special Forces in Viet Nam, now with the Cambodian army. He speaks loud, brash G.I. English sprinkled with obscenities, leads his team on special missions and helps direct the local forces. He is one of the heroes of Kompong Cham’s defense.

At night the city was alive with the crash of battle as opposing forces lashed out at each other’s defenses. The insurgents were lobbing 750 to 1,000 rounds of artillery and mortar into government-controlled areas every 24 hours, but many shells fell harmlessly into the leafy parks of the city. At 5:10 in the morning, a storm of fire began: red tracers flashed past the windows of the town hall, and a few mortar rounds landed in the compound. The soldier in the next cot jumped up: “Time to get up,” he said. “It’s their alarm clock. It happens every morning. After two hours they take a break and then give it another go later.” Indeed the firing stopped by 7 o’clock. Walking along the streets of the city, I heard a babble of everyday sounds: cocks crowing, babies crying, people chattering. But the streets were empty of civilians. Families were locked behind the metal screens of their homes. Under the colonnades bordering the marketplace, soldiers cooked breakfast rice over fires made from ammo boxes.

With a government squad, I dashed into a building held by government troops. Inside were women and children, tensely listening to the firing, while the soldiers discussed plans to rocket the insurgent-held house next door. Alarmed, the women picked up their children and scurried off. So did the government troops, who decided that more reconnoitering was necessary.

Getting into Kompong Cham was a matter of a 35-minute chopper ride; getting out was not so simple. Deterred by ground fire, the choppers had stopped landing. I decided to ride out with the night convoy. The trip upriver takes 24 to 30 hours, because the boats are heavily loaded, but the return trip to Phnom-Penh is only five or six hours.

At the quay, the wounded began arriving in midafternoon. All night long, they were loaded aboard old U.S. landing craft. By 4 in the morning, we were under way. There was no water or food aboard, nor were there any trained medical aides. A few men moaned and called out; one vomited blood and twisted in pain. Most suffered silently. At three points on the voyage, insurgents fired mortar and machine-gun rounds at the boats, providing a fearfully beautiful display of red and yellow flashes in the clear moonlight. By the time we arrived at Phnom-Penh, some of the 400 wounded had died; others were unconscious as they were loaded onto trucks for the trip to the jampacked hospital.

Some have called the battle of Kompong Cham a dress rehearsal for the expected siege of Phnom-Penh. Others have said that it was a diversion to drain off the best of President Lon Nol’s troops. Still others have insisted that it was a major insurgent effort in which the rebels were soundly beaten. Some or all of these theories may be true. What is certain is that it was another bitter round in a senseless war.

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