As America's involvement in Indochina came to an end in the spring of 1975, the Khmer Rouge closed in on Phnom Penh for the kill.
By Wil Deac
January 1974: The three cauldrons of Indochina were boiling at different rates. Despite a year-old truce, fighting raged for control of South Vietnam, now without the participation of U.S. combat troops. In Laos, where America's secret war had ended, Communists and Royalists were trying to form a new government. And Cambodia was in its 46th month of a conflict that had become a civil war. The Khmer Rouge -- the organization of Cambodian insurgents -- had evolved to the point where it could fight the war with minimal North Vietnamese assistance. Its opponent, the Forces Armées Nationales Khmères (FANK), was concentrated in largely besieged urban centers, kept alive by water and airborne resupply.
An all-out effort by the Khmer Rouge to storm Phnom Penh, the capital and the key to control of the country, had been shattered by U.S. air power in mid-1973. Then, when U.S. congressional action ended direct American military intervention, the Communists had been too weakened to do more than force a lopsided stalemate on President Lon Nol's Khmer Republic. By the end of the year, the insurgents had recovered enough to try once more to isolate and take Phnom Penh. They started with a terror campaign aimed at destabilizing the government. Rockets arced into the capital from the northwest even as 1974 began. These were followed by 105mm artillery barrages from captured artillery pieces. The bombardment resulted in 1,277 casualties during the first four months of the year and razed sections of the city.
On January 6, 1974, the day the Khmer Rouge finally launched its offensive, a Communist hit team tried to kill FANK Commander in Chief Lt. Gen. Sosthène Fernandez. Two missiles from a shoulder-fired launcher streaked one after the other toward the general's villa. They burst in the branches of a tree shading the house. The would-be assassins fled after throwing two grenades and wounding a guard.
Retreat And Attack
Ponchentong, the capital's combined international airport and air force base situated 412 miles west of the city center, was the Khmer Rouge offensive's initial objective. Two insurgent regiments swarmed across the sparsely treed flatland to gouge a pocket out of Phnom Penh's northwest defense perimeter. Instead of pinching the pocket at its base and then surrounding the attackers, FANK's 28th Brigade and 1st Division pushed in from the south and east, respectively. A 7th Division element was ordered to move in from the north. Predictably, when the Khmer Rouge troops were jackhammered by artillery shells and air bombardment, they slipped away to the west before the 7th Division could even make contact. Among the 26 prisoners the FANK was able to rake in were a half-dozen youngsters from the Communist all-female 122nd Rifle Battalion.
In the southeastern defense sector, meanwhile, the FANK's 3rd Division's line on the far bank of a river south of the capital was penetrated by a handful of Khmer Rouge infiltrators. The sudden outburst of gunfire spread panic from one battalion to another. By the next day, most of the south side of the waterway was in Communist hands. It was not until February that the government regained lost ground and stabilized its lines south and northwest of Phnom Penh. The fighting vividly illustrated the weaknesses of the Cambodian army, which was in fact more numerous and better armed than the insurgents. Thrown into a war it had not expected, the FANK's increase from 35,000 soldiers to a questionable strength of 250,000 men resulted in inadequate training and organization. Established by the French, who had occupied Cambodia for nearly a century, the FANK was still undergoing restructuring and rearming according to U.S. standards. Unfortunately, American tutelage also was causing the FANK to be overdependent on mechanization, artillery and air support.
Very Different Armies
While the individual FANK soldier was an excellent fighter, his leader left much to be desired. Too many of the officers were incompetent and corrupt, chosen on the basis of cronyism and nepotism rather than for ability. High-level corruption included the pocketing of pay for thousands of nonexistent troops, charging underpaid soldiers for food and equipment (which meant that their families were sometimes forced to accompany them into combat zones to survive), and trading with the enemy. Those factors, along with a politically unstable regime, contributed to a dissatisfied, poorly motivated army.
The Khmer Rouge, conversely, was determined, strictly led and accustomed to spartan warfare. The insurgent group numbered perhaps 50,000 main force troops in early 1974. Its weapons mainly came down the Ho Chi Minh Trail from China or were captured. Most of its soldiers were youths from the countryside who were traditionally suspicious and resentful of their urban counterparts. Some of the Khmer Rouge troops were angry victims of FANK combat callousness or had suffered because of the 539,112 tons of American bombs that had cratered village fields between 1969 and 1973. The majority supported Prince Norodom Sihanouk, the "god-king" ruler who had been overthrown in 1970 by the urban elite and who, from exile in Beijing, exhorted his countrymen to avenge him.
The Parti Communiste Khmer (PCK), an extremist faction of the Khmer Rouge, kept a low profile and let the insurgent masses believe in a united pro-Sihanouk front while secretly upstaging and gradually eliminating competing elements within the Khmer Rouge. It would not be until the late 1970s that the world would learn that the PCK chief was Solath Sar, better known as Pol Pot. It is little wonder, given the FANK's fatal weaknesses and Khmer Rouge fanaticism, that the Khmer Rouge was able to take over most of the country and maneuver the government to fight a defensive war after a disastrous military defeat north of the capital in 1971 (see "Chenla II: Prelude to Disaster," in the June 1992 issue).
The Khmer Rouge also intensified attacks on shipping in the Mekong River, the 60 mile-long umbilical cord through which the capital received more than 90 percent of its supplies. During February 1974 alone, there were nine assaults from the riverbanks on 11 passing convoys, the worst occurring on the 18th. Recoilless-rifle and machine-gun fire slammed into the tug Bannock and the barge Mt. Hood. The explosion of the $1.4 million cargo of munitions turned the waterway into a Fourth of July look-alike. More than 50 tons of munitions on a second barge, towed alongside the tug Saigon 40, was ignited by B-41 rockets.
Trumped at Phnom Penh, the Communists turned their wrath on two more vulnerable provincial capitals -- Kampot, to the southwest on the Gulf of Thailand, and Oudong, northwest of the capital. Khmer Rouge troops hit Kampot, noted for its pepper farming, from the north on February 26. By the end of the first week of combat, hundreds of government soldiers had deserted, and the outer defenses had crumbled, enabling the attackers to take the city's waterworks. Rockets and mortar shells cascaded into Kampot, forcing half of the frightened civilian population into the countryside. Army howitzers, naval guns and strikes by the nation's modest air force held the enemy back long enough for reinforcements to be helicoptered in from the capital.
Early Spring Defeats
At the beginning of March, the FANK's 12th and 20th Autonomous Infantry brigades were directed to punch out to the northeast along the Kampot*Phnom Penh highway -- their objective the country's only cement factory. The counterattack fizzled. During the following week, more reinforcements were flown in -- two army battalions, naval marines, more 105mm howitzers and a new commander. An unseasonal rainfall and navy supply vessels shuttling between the besieged city and the nearby Ream naval base kept the defenders from succumbing to thirst. Yet government positions continued to fall.
April seemed even less promising, as the insurgents chewed more chunks out of Kampot's northern and western defense perimeters. After pushing back the marines defending the southeastern sector, the Khmer Rouge blocked the two arms of the Kossla River that linked the city to its supply source on the Gulf of Thailand. Further trouble came from weather that hampered air operations. The final straw seemed to be a shell that dropped into the FANK artillery battery's ammunition cache. Some 3,500 shells exploded with a fiery roar that knocked out eight of the howitzers bunched around them. Only the timely arrival of two additional battalions reversed the situation.
Assaults on Kampot And Udong
On April 8 and 9, in fierce house-to-house combat, the FANK's 28th Autonomous Brigade in the southeast and the 20th Autonomous Brigade on the industrial west bank of the river muscled the Communists back. Heartened, the Phnom Penh high command committed further reinforcements. By April 25, the FANK had more than 4,500 men in Kampot. The insurgents pulled back. Between March 3 and May 3, the battle cost the government 416 dead (including 25 civilians), 2,363 wounded (88 of them civilians) and 79 missing. Enemy fatalities reportedly were more than 2,000.
But if Kampot was given a reprieve, the same was not true for Oudong, on Highway 5, some 24 miles northwest of Phnom Penh. Cambodia's royal capital for 212 centuries until the French occupation, Oudong remained a religious center noted for its Buddhist temples and relics. Combined forces from the PCK northern and southwestern zones moved into position at the beginning of March. They began their assault from the northwest and southwest at 3 a.m. on Sunday, March 3. Communist troops punctured the city's defenses. Within hours, they not only were fighting for control of Oudong but also had more than 700 defenders and 1,500 civilians penned in a pocket just south of the city.
Fall Of Oudong
The government dispatched two brigades from Phnom Penh to relieve Oudong. The 7th Division's 45th Brigade moved to the FANK supply/training center at Lovek, a few miles north of the battle-torn provincial capital. Naval vessels ferried elements of the 80th Autonomous Brigade up the Tonle Sap River to a landing point just below Kompong Luong, three miles east of Oudong. No sooner had the first troop carriers nosed into the western riverbank to unload than they were hosed by automatic-weapons and rocket fire. The vessels pulled back, two listing badly, and continued upstream to Kompong Luong. With 124 of their comrades dead or injured, the survivors disembarked and the boats returned for the rest of the brigade. Under heavy fire and demoralized by the ambush, the assembled brigade was unable to advance. In the meantime, a blown bridge and Khmer Rouge blocking also prevented the 45th Brigade from reaching Oudong.
Overrun on March 18, Oudong was the first major urban center to fall to the insurgents in three years. While continuing to hammer the surrounded FANK perimeter south of town and to hold off the two government relief columns, the Khmer Rouge gave the world a preview of what would come to be called the killing fields. More than 20,000 inhabitants of Oudong were marched out either to be executed or put to work in communes. Corpses of hundreds of others remained beside the slaughtered FANK defenders in the burning ruins of the once-peaceful city.
The encircled government perimeter south of the town, swollen by the arrival of more refugees fleeing the Communist roundup, was bombarded day and night, and ammunition and supplies soon began to run low. Then, early on March 28, a rocket screamed into the FANK munitions storage area. Shells erupted in a miniature Vesuvius, and in the ensuing panic, the insurgents attacked. It was a massacre from which only about 650 out of several thousand escaped.
Reins Of Power
Lon Nol told his army to retake Oudong "at any cost." Elements of two brigades, a squadron of M-113 armored personnel carriers (APCs) and a howitzer battery arrived to bolster the 80th Brigade stalled at Kompong Luong. When the brigade finally moved westward along Highway 5, it was at a snail's crawl. Despite numerical superiority and a monopoly of armor and aircraft, the advance ground to a halt because of overcautious and unimaginative leadership. A month later, the Khmer Rouge surged into Kompong Luong and threw a chain-and-log anti-shipping barricade across the Tonle Sap River. The FANK beat a speedy retreat northward to Lovek, leaving behind APCs, howitzers, all their mortars and machine guns, boats and vehicles. Lovek, intended as a jumping-off point to relieve Oudong, was now surrounded. Its 5,260 troops, 891 paramilitary personnel and 46,254 civilians had to rely for survival on supplies dropped by Khmer aircraft and Thailand-based U.S. Air Force C-130 Hercules cargo transports.
Approximately 60 percent of Cambodia's population of more than 7 million were jammed in government-held urban centers. Phnom Penh's prewar 600,000 inhabitants had burgeoned to around 2 million. The initial enthusiasm of the Cambodian majority for the chance to evict the Vietnamese Communists from their border sanctuaries and to regain their self-respect had been eroded by four years of military defeat and personal privation. They had lost faith in their leaders. Lon Nol -- semicrippled by a 1971 stroke and obsessed with mystical beliefs -- held the reins of power with an increasingly authoritarian grip.
The American goal was to make the Khmer Republic strong enough to coax the Communists into a negotiated peace. There were hopes that its new U.S. ambassador, John Gunther Dean, would be able to replay his earlier role in Laos, where he helped form a coalition government. U.S. military and economic assistance, although affected by congressional blocking, was considerable. Military aid alone was costing taxpayers more than $1 million a day.
At the beginning of 1974, the Cambodian army inventory included 241,630 rifles, 7,079 machine guns, 2,726 mortars, 20,481 grenade launchers, 304 recoilless rifles, 289 howitzers, 202 APCs, and 4,316 trucks. The Khmer navy had 171 vessels; the Khmer air force had 211 aircraft, including 64 North American T-28s, 14 Douglas AC-47 gunships and 44 helicopters. American embassy military personnel -- who were only supposed to coordinate the arms aid program -- sometimes found themselves involved in prohibited advisory and combat tasks.
In April 1974, the Khmer Rouge triggered what would become continuous fighting for control of the two rivers flowing southeastward from the capital to Vietnam, the mighty Mekong and the Bassac, a continuation of the Tonle Sap. Moving parallel to Route 30 and the Bassac, the Communists shoved the FANK 2nd Division back to the northwest. By mid-month they had come within rocket range of Phnom Penh.
In May, during seesaw warfare in the triangle between the two rivers, Khmer Rouge units raised havoc with traffic on Highway 1 along the west bank of the Mekong, made behind-the-line raids and fired 107mm rockets into the capital from only three miles away. To the north, while surrounded Lovek trembled beneath a relentless bombardment, government elements from Phnom Penh struggled to stabilize a front and organize a relief effort. The 7th Division and 5th Autonomous Brigade made some progress up Highway 5 along the Tonle Sap River during heavy May fighting.
In June, the 15th Brigade was sent to join the engaged units. They turned the tide on the 19th and rolled over enemy defenses to reoccupy Kompong Luong, just east of devastated Oudong. Meanwhile, the besieged Lovek garrison had managed to punch a corridor eastward from their perimeter to the Tonle Sap. From there, the navy, which had reopened the river, evacuated thousands of civilians farther upstream to Kompong Chhnang.
On June 29, the 28th Brigade reoccupied the ruins of Oudong. This psychologically important victory was followed 10 days later by the linkup of the main force with the Lovek garrison. Between late April and June 9, the FANK reported 104 dead and 786 wounded, with enemy losses of 1,366 killed, 45 captured and 18 defecting to the government side (including the commander of the Khmer Rouge 114th Battalion).
Political infighting in Phnom Penh continued to undermine the war effort, however. Civil rights were further constricted. The national assembly lashed out at the top leadership. Public protests resurged, led by draft-deferred teachers and students. A June 5 student demonstration in the capital included the kidnapping of Education Minister Keo Sangkim and his deputy. An initially good-natured confrontation turned ugly when police aggressiveness and student rock-throwing led to mass violence. While the two sides clashed in a high-school courtyard, a youth ran into the second floor classroom where the kidnapped officials were being held hostage for the release of previously arrested activists. He fired three shots from a .45-caliber pistol, killing Sangkim outright and mortally wounding his deputy. A 1981 report indicated that the murderer was part of a Khmer Rouge hit team.
Although the onset of the 1974 monsoon season in midsummer generally slowed down the war, fierce fighting continued in the Mekong-Bassac sector east and south of Phnom Penh, as the government tried to push its foes out of rocket range of the capital. The FANK loosed its first major wet-season offensive on August 21. Its goal was the seizure and sealing off of the triangle of land across from Phnom Penh between the two rivers. Elements of the 1st Division moved down the Bassac while 3rd Division units churned through flooded fields from the Mekong in an effort to join up.
The planned linkup was foiled by more than two months of stubborn enemy resistance. It was not until Christmas Eve, after further reinforcements were brought in, that a defensive line was established between the two rivers. In a desperate effort to terminate the offensive, the FANK committed elements of the 1st, 2nd, 3rd and 7th divisions to sweep the west bank of the Bassac behind squadrons of APCs moving abreast on both sides of Route 30. They completed their task on the last day of 1974.
On January 1, 1975, the Khmer Rouge launched its Mekong River Offensive, what the Communist leadership called the "decisive offensive to liberate Phnom Penh and the entire country." Rockets and howitzer shells showered the capital. More than 100 battalions threw themselves against the city's four defense zones and their river supply line. Before long, Phnom Penh was encircled by a noose of fire and steel with a radius of just over nine miles. On January 26, seven vessels of the third Mekong convoy of the month limped into the broad basin known as the Four Arms -- where the Mekong, Tonle Sap and Bassac rivers meet in a crooked X at Phnom Penh. Air cover and protective shielding had not prevented three supply ships from being sunk and six others from turning back to South Vietnam. After the convoy passed, the Khmer Rouge laid Chinese wire-detonated mines in the narrowest parts of the river. The Mekong line of communication was severed.
With many of the roads cut as well, the capital's continued resistance now relied entirely on the largest U.S. emergency airlift since the 1948-1949 Berlin operation. For most Phnom Penh residents the food and fuel situation in the surrounded capital had become critical. The problem was exacerbated by the endless influx of refugees.
To make matters worse the United States had become a reluctant ally. President Richard Nixon, the most vociferous of the few calling for continued participation in the Vietnam and Cambodian wars, had succumbed to the Watergate scandal and resigned the previous August. The administration of Gerald Ford -- although lobbying for another $222 million for Cambodia -- was being pressured by the public and Congress to cut and run. Washington had lowered the profile of its supply flights by chartering Bird Air, which used civilian crews, to replace the U.S. Air Force and the CIA-tainted Air America and Continental Air services. As the resupply challenge increased, private shoestring airlines sprang up that used old C-47s and C-54s. Then government chartering was expanded to bring in stretch DC-8 jet transports. Soon some two dozen airlines were flying in and out of Ponchentong Airport despite the growing number of enemy rounds being fired at their aircraft.
Seemingly blind to the abyss before them, Khmer Republic leaders wallowed in squabbling and blame-shifting that alienated everyone and isolated Lon Nol. Cambodian politicians eventually persuaded their president to temporarily leave the country while a cease-fire was worked out.
Even the expectation of a truce was unrealistic. The Khmer Rouge had rejected peace feelers in 1973 and 1974. They had repeatedly demonstrated their fanaticism and intent to seek total victory. And they were, in fact, on the verge of victory. On April Fool's Day 1975, Lon Nol and his entourage flew into exile, ending up in the United States. The president of the senate, 61-year-old Saukham Khoy, became acting president of the republic. On April 12, seeing the end in sight, the U.S. Embassy evacuated its staff and a number of non-Americans, a flight that would be repeated on a larger scale in Saigon 17 days later.
That same morning, Cambodia's congress transferred all power to the military. A Supreme Committee composed of four officers and three civilians was selected. The next day, the committee members named Lt. Gen. Sak Sutsakhan as their president. A futile cease-fire proposal was sent to the Khmer Rouge leadership.
On April 14, for the third time during the war, a defecting Cambodian pilot attempted an aerial assassination of the nation's chief executive. At 10:25 a.m., a T-28 armed trainer flown by the defector released four 250-pound bombs over the FANK headquarters. Two landed about 60 feet from where General Sutsakhan was chairing a cabinet meeting. The officials were unhurt, but seven others were killed and 20 were hurt. Less than 24 hours later Takhmau, the fashionable capital of Kandal province only seven miles below Phnom Penh and a keystone of the FANK defenses, was overrun. So was the east-west dike that formed the main defense line to the north. Ponchentong Airport was next. On April 16, the United States arranged six air-supply missions to the smoke-shrouded capital, whose streets now teemed with leaderless soldiers and homeless civilians.
Year Zero Begins
The plug was pulled on the 17th. General Sutsakhan and a handful of others helicoptered out, subsequently finding temporary refuge in Thailand. The remaining FANK strongholds throughout the country fell like dominos. Despite the confusion reigning in Phnom Penh that April 17, most of its citizens were elated. The five-year war finally was over. Surely the victorious Communists, after making whatever changes they wanted, would permit life to go on as before.
Black-uniformed youths entered the capital, exchanging greetings with the joyous population, accepting the surrender of the FANK soldiers and even leading a triumphal parade along the waterfront. It was all a charade by student activists who had decided to join the revolution by taking over the city and handing it to the Khmer Rouge. By midday the real Communists, streamed into Phnom Penh. The students were arrested as "CIA agents." Government officials were rounded up for execution. City residents, including refugees, were forced into the countryside to labor or die. It was the beginning of the Khmer Rouge's Year Zero and the notorious killing fields in which millions perished.
The Mayaguez Incident
The principal Communist leader, 46-year-old Pol Pot, returned to the capital on April 23 after a 12-year absence. He was so paranoid and secretive that it was not until 1977 that he publicly admitted that Angkar (the organization), which ruled the renamed democratic Kampuchea, was synonymous with the PCK. As purges of the Khmer Rouge ranks added to Cambodia's death toll, Pol Pot and his clique arrogantly threw away their victory by seeking war with Communist Vietnam.
U.S. military involvement in Cambodia did not end with the April 12 evacuation, however. On May 12, 1975, American-built Cambodian gunboats seized the U.S. container ship Mayaguez in the Gulf of Thailand. With the political defeat in Southeast Asia still fresh, Washington felt a need to react promptly with military force while also seeking a diplomatic solution. The hijacked ship was located anchored near Koh Tang Island, just south of the Cambodian mainland.
Unknown to the impatient American policy-makers, its crew had been taken first to Poulo Wai Island and then to the mainland. A controversial two-part, joint-service rescue operation was launched on April 15. One phase resulted in the uncontested recovery of an abandoned Mayaguez. The second barely accomplished a landing on heavily defended Koh Tang Island. As ferocious fighting raged between Khmer Rouge and U.S. combatants, the ship's crew, released unharmed, was picked up from a fishing boat by a destroyer. In the meantime, aircraft from the carrier USS Coral Sea blasted targets on the mainland.
By nighttime, when they were pulled off the island, the Americans had lost 18 men and 49 were wounded. An additional 23 Americans died earlier, when their helicopter crashed en route to a Thai assembly point. Three U.S. helicopters were destroyed in combat and 10 others were damaged. The Khmer Rouge lost an estimated 47 dead and 55 wounded. American aircraft destroyed 10 Khmer Rouge vessels and five T-28 aircraft and damaged four gunboats and numerous ground installations.
A Tragic "Sideshow"
The Cambodian war may indeed have been what has been called a sideshow -- arguably less important in the long run than the fighting in Laos and Vietnam -- but it nevertheless was a vital part of America's effort to combat communism in Southeast Asia. The Khmer Republic received $1.85 billion in U.S. military and economic aid and Americans were killed in the conflict. U.S. air bombardment there cost another $7 billion. Washington's less tangible influence was equally crucial -- from its effect on Phnom Penh's strategy, politics and economy to Cambodia's retaining its United Nations seat despite aggressive Communist lobbying. Cambodian resistance diminished North Vietnamese power and facilitated America's withdrawal from an unwanted war. Sadly, the cost to the people of Cambodia was prohibitive. The drawing out of the conflict enabled the Khmer Rouge to gain supremacy while its North Vietnamese mentors concentrated on conquering South Vietnam. Clearly, the Cambodian War of 1970-1975 is a tragic episode in America's Southeast Asian military heritage.