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Losing Ground to the Khmer Rouge

Originally published by Vietnam magazine. Published Online: June 12, 2006 
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The third year of the Khmer Republic's war, 1972, opened with a deceptive lull. Like a battered boxer after a punishing round, the U.S.-equipped Cambodian army (Forces Armées Nationales Khmères, or FANK) was still reeling from the disastrous Chenla II operation that had failed to break the Communist hold over central Cambodia (see 'Chenla II: Prelude to Disaster,' in the June 1992 Vietnam). The North Vietnamese Army (NVA), responsible for decimating FANK's best troops, was focusing on logistical preparations for its upcoming Eastertide Offensive against neighboring South Vietnam. Nurtured, trained and abetted by the NVA and Communist China, the Khmer Rouge (Red Khmer, or KR) was building up strength and planning its future strategy. Meanwhile America continued its policy of pulling out of Southeast Asia, begun in 1969, while wishfully pumping up South Vietnam and Cambodia to stand by themselves.

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On January 10, FANK's 22nd Brigade pulled out of Krek near the area known to the Americans as the Fishhook, on the Vietnamese-Cambodian border, leaving Route 7, one of the last remaining open roads linking Cambodia and South Vietnam, to the enemy. Farther south that day, the first FANK offensive of the year was launched below Route 1, leading through the area known as the Parrot's Beak into Vietnam. The 11 battalions of Operation Prek Ta, a FANKArmy of the Republic of Vietnam (ARVN) joint venture, made a lot of noise but the offensive proved inconclusive.

The next FANK offensive was designed to wrest control of Cambodia's most important national symbol, Angkor Wat, from Communist hands. Operation Angkor Chey (Angkor Victory) was an effort to encircle the long-abandoned capital of the ancient Khmer empire in northwestern Cambodia and cut off supplies to its Communist occupiers. Dating back to the 1st century, the 72-square-mile Angkor complex was undergoing restoration by a French team when an NVA regiment and several KR battalions took over the more than 600 vine-embraced ruins in June 1970. Aside from stray shell hits in 1971, the ruins had been largely blessed by an informal truce between the invaders in the jungle-shrouded complex and FANK troops in nearby Siem Reap. Irreplaceable pieces of antique carvings periodically appeared on the Bangkok, Hong Kong and Western art markets, however, as the Communists chiseled off select items to finance their occupation. Abruptly, in January 1972, the French archeologist overseeing the restoration work was expelled, and his Cambodian workers were arrested; 20 were executed 'for providing information to the Central Intelligence Agency.'

Unleashed January 29, Angkor Chey got off to a sluggish start with skirmishes east and west of Siem Reap along Route 6. Opposing troops exchanged fire on the four-mile-long road, marked by a theater and a sports stadium left unfinished from rosier tourist days, connecting the town with the Angkor ruins. A Communist counterattack 10 days later punched back the FANK advance, only to be repelled two hours later by airstrikes. Cambodian units inched north to the dikes and moat marking the boundary of Angkor Wat, the famous temple honoring the god Vishnu and southernmost of the major ruins. Then, on February 21, the advance stalled.

The Communists furiously struck back at the other end of the country toward the end of the dry monsoon season. On March 20, mortar and recoilless rifle rounds, accompanied by 122mm rockets, slammed into the provincial capital of Prey Veng. They were followed by ground actions to the south along Route 15 and in the rice flats to the west. Sixteen miles away, at the key Route 1 ferry-crossing town of Neak Luong, 122mm rockets turned a fuel and ammunition depot into a ball of fire. By the time things quieted down, 18 Cambodians were reported dead, 60 wounded and 10 missing, to the enemy's 33 fatalities. The assault both insulated the Ho Chi Minh Trail supply line from Cambodian interference and undercut a possible FANK linkup with an ARVN operation probing for the NVA in the Parrot's Beak 30 miles to the east.

Fire also lit up the night sky over the Cambodian capital for the first time since January 30. Then, during a lunar eclipse, FANK weapons had chattered for nearly an hour to chase away the legendary frog monster devouring the moon; over 200 were killed or wounded by flying metal. This time, enemy recoilless rifle shells and free-flight rockets streaked into the city from three directions for almost two hours. Seven sections of Phnom Penh were hit, with 150 and 200 rounds striking FANK positions near Pochentong airport. The fire and smoke blanketed 102 dead, 208 wounded and 400 homeless. Repeated jabbing kept the capital's defenders off-balance–grenades were lobbed into military dependents' housing and, two days later, at a soldier-laden bus, with 11 slain and 66 hurt. On March 23, frogmen sank a 5,000-ton freighter at the city's Tonle Sab river port and damaged another by the nearby Chruoy Chang War naval base on the Mekong River. Floating mines damaged two fuel barges moored in the same area opposite the city. On March 24, an old French pickup truck'stalled' midpoint on the 2,700-foot-long, 5-year-old bridge connecting Phnom Penh and the Chruoy Chang War peninsula. The fireball of 2,000 pounds of explosives blew the truck through the bottom of the bridge crossing the Tonle Sab, twisted the central span's steel girders and killed or wounded 11. Bailey bridging (prefabricated steel lattice sections) was used to regain the crossing, making it possible for the bridge–popularly known as the Japanese Friendship Bridge–to be reopened only days later.

On April 7, the KR cut Route 15 between Neak Luong and Prey Veng, and deflected FANK relief efforts. Isolated Prey Veng was to endure 127 separate rocket, mortar and recoilless rifle assaults during that month. Mid-April attacks between the Mekong and the Parrot's Beak to the southeast obliterated 22 FANK positions along the Route 1 Phnom PenhSaigon highway. A government column moved eastward from Neak Luong to clear the road as far as Kompong Trabek, only to be straight-armed by the battle-experienced Communists. Five FANK battalions were hastily pulled out of a U.S. training camp in South Vietnam to brace the column, which was barely holding on 31Ž2 miles short of Kompong Trabek. In southernmost Cambodia, elements of the 1st NVA Division outfought FANK-ARVN troops and surrounded Kompong Trach. Despite air-supported ARVN reinforcements from Ha Tien just across the border on the Gulf of Thailand, Kompong Trach fell on April 30, giving the NVA a new seaborne supply route and securing the rear of their ill-fated Eastertide Offensive.

In mid-May, FANK received intelligence indicating elements occupying the Angkor ruins were pulling out for operations elsewhere. During the night of May 17-18, Angkor Chey troops slipped eastward from their Siem Reap airport lines and noiselessly crossed two ancient dikes. Their objective was Phnom Bakheng, a 217-foot-high, temple-topped hill a quarter mile below the south gate of the Angkor Thom fortified city ruins. It was a short fight. There were only 30 KR and 7 NVA defending the hill. Peering across the early morning landscape, the soldiers who had given the government its first noteworthy victory of 1972 chattered excitedly. There, barely a mile to the southeast, soared the sculptured towers of Angkor Wat. The following night, three FANK units infiltrated the enemy positions to reach the walls of the 12th-century wat (monastery). One group double-timed to the east gate facing the Siem Reap River. The others aimed for the western main entrance opening onto the 1,560-foot-long causeway pointed arrow-straight to the silhouette that provided the emblem for the Khmer flag.

What occurred in the next instant is debatable; it all happened too fast. There was shooting–a sentry or a FANK soldier overjoyed at seeing the holiest of temples in the pre-dawn glow– followed by flares. Communist cross-fire slashed the intruders. One unit suffered nearly 75 percent casualties, including 17 dead. With 3-to-1 odds in its favor, FANK pressed fresh attacks from the west. Heavy fire from trenches and concrete bunkers slapped them back. Khmer Air Force (KAF) North American T-28 armed trainers loosed napalm and high explosive onto positions 600 feet from the venerable temple and against two former tourist hotels about one-half mile south. Another week's combat produced only a stalemate.

The political-economic scene was no healthier. Marshal Lon Nol, key player in the 1970 ouster of neutralist Prince Norodom Sihanouk, consolidated his hold on the Khmer Republic by adding the title of president to those of prime minister and defense minister in March 1972. In April, a new constitution augmented his power. The American-backed 58-year-old mystic president proposed elections to legitimize his office, but ballot tampering, violence and other irregularities marked the June voting. Lon won by 'a 55 percent majority.' The equally skewed national assembly fall balloting left the Socio-Republican Party–created by the president and his reviled brother Lon Non–in control of all the lower and upper house seats. Lon Nol, who had often used a wheelchair since suffering a stroke the year before, also was accused of 'haphazard, out-of-channel and ill-considered conduct of military operations.'

FANK, over 200,000 strong on paper by mid-1972, had its problems, too. First was the legitimate difficulty of creating overnight an effective fighting force to face the NVA and VC (Viet Cong) veterans. FANK's tactics, stated a CIA report, appeared 'based on a desire to permit enemy attack and to rely on air power and ARVN to inflict casualties.' Military organization remained a hodgepodge of American and French systems. Because of misuse, the Khmer Krom, combat-hardened Cambodians from South Vietnam who provided the backbone for 13 FANK brigades and the Special Forces, were virtually absent from the ranks by the end of 1972. Promotions and decorations were rarely based on merit. High rankers sold arms and supplies to the enemy, diverted troop salaries into their own pockets, charged their men for rice when they were not side-slipping it into the black market, and created a vast 'phantom' army by listing nonexistent soldiers so as to pocket extra pay.

The rake-off from padded rosters was more than $1,000,000 monthly. The government finally admitted that around 100,000 of its troops did not exist. To compound those problems, families followed their soldier-providers into battle zones, and pre-teen children were enlisted. Unpaid soldiers would be involved in food riots in Phnom Penh in September. But the government was not overly concerned. As Lon Nol had said earlier, 'It is very difficult for foreigners to understand developments in Cambodia. I would only advise that no one worry too much.'

U.S. aid kept the Khmer Republic alive. Until the training program was phased out in February 1973 with the implementation of the Paris Peace Accords, the U.S. Army trained 86 Cambodian battalions in South Vietnam. In-country, the American Military Equipment Delivery Team, Cambodia (MEDTC), which included 62 team members at the start of the year, was housed in temporary buildings behind the Phnom Penh embassy. In overseeing the use of equipment, MEDTC personnel sometimes stretched congressional taboos by assisting FANK units in combat. Detachments of the U.S. 46th Special Forces Company training FANK Special Forces units in Thailand also occasionally accompanied their wards.

The 1972 Khmer Air Force inventory showed 76 aircraft, including 16 T-28s, 3 Douglas AC-47 'Spooky' gunships, 10 Douglas C-47 transports, 9 Cessna T-41 trainers, 14 Bell UH-1H helicopters and 33 light aircraft. The 1973 inventory listed 154 planes, all U.S. provided. Because of KAF deficiencies (14 T-28s crashed in one year, for example, including eight crashes due to pilot error) and the American air presence, the Cambodian air force played a secondary role during 1972-73. The navy inventoried 69 vessels in 1972, 123 in 1973. The military assistance program was to total $1.18 billion by April 1975.

Combat disruptions and the loss of farmland made the republic equally dependent on provisions convoyed up the Mekong, offloaded on the Gulf of Thailand, or flown in by military and civilian aircraft. Incredibly, life in Phnom Penh–whose population had tripled in a decade to nearly 1.5 million–went on as usual, with no lack of luxury goods for those with the means.

On the rebel side, the Khmer Rouge's Parti Communiste du Kampuchéa (PCK) of Solath Sar, aka Pol Pot, followed a double agenda. One conformed to the concept adopted at a 1970 Indochina conference in Canton, whereby the KR would gradually take over the war from the NVA-VC. By 1972, the KR was ready to form battalion- and regiment-sized units utilizing NVA-VC cadres. At midyear, the KR had an estimated 40,000 to 50,000 regular troops and 80,000 to 100,000 irregulars.

By year's end, they would total about 200,000, benefiting from the sponsorship of Beijing-exiled Prince Sihanouk (who was popular in the countryside) and the devastation of aerial bombardments. The second, more ominous, agenda was the 'pure Communism' sought by Angkar (the Organization), as the PCK called itself, that would lead to the infamous massacres of 1975. Peasants were herded into collectives. Prisoners, whether FANK soldiers or Western journalists like actor Errol Flynn's son, were murdered. Then there was the gradual secret cleansing of rival groups, of KR 'tainted' by their train- ing in North Vietnam and of the satrev suorpouc, the Vietnamese 'hereditary enemy.' About 8,000 NVA-VC combat troops remained in Cambodia; another 30,000 manned the Ho Chi Minh Trail or otherwise supported operations against South Vietnam from eastern Cambodia.

June 1972 was a disaster for the government in Phnom Penh. On the 5th, a pink-curtained Volkswagen Microbus pulled to the curb near the Ministry of National Defense in Phnom Penh. Chinese 107mm rockets swooshed from its roof; two erupted in the ministry compound and a third meteored across town to explode 210 feet from the presidential palace, killing three girls at play. The rocketeers sped off on a motorcycle. At 1 a.m. on the 8th, 122mm rockets inflicted seven casualties near the defense ministry, railroad station, waterworks and airport. Simultaneously, six miles to the south, Takhmau was barraged, then assaulted by 200 invaders arriving in canoes on the Prek Thnaot River. Sixty-four died, including 14 Communists. But the worst for FANK occurred southeast of Neak Luong along Route 1 on June 25. Two road-clearing battalions of the elite 48th Khmer Krom Brigade were ambushed. The surrounded troops called for airstrikes. None came. Running out of ammunition, they radioed for artillery fire onto their position. Out of 600 troops, only 13 returned to friendly lines.

On July 4, following a three-day holiday for the presidential inauguration, joint FANK-ARVN Operation Sorya I was launched to unjam Route 1 and seize Kompong Trabek. At the same time, across the Mekong 42 miles south of Phnom Penh, about 2,000 Communists besieged Angtassom, subjecting the town to perhaps the largest single heavy-weapons bombardment of the war. Brigadier General Kong Chhaith, provincial governor and commander of a relief force, died in the ensuing battle. Angtassom was relieved on July 11, and Kompong Trabek fell to FANK 13 days later. On August 6, however, parts of two NVA divisions attacked the five 11th Brigade Group and the three 66th Brigade FANK battalions holding the Kompong Trabek area in readiness for Sorya II. NVA tanks, the first to be used in Cambodia, spearheaded a drive that severed Route 1 and isolated the 11th Battle Group's battalions. Two days later, an SA-7 missile, another first for the war, smoked skyward to kill 14 people aboard a refugee-carrying helicopter.

The soldiers of Sorya II jumped off on the 11th, adding relief of the five encircled battalions to their original goal of clearing the rest of Route 1. After 10 days, ARVN units reached the surrounded FANK battalions. More than 30 NVA armored vehicles had been hit, most by U.S. jets, but the highway remained cut to the east. On September 8, the Communists retook Kompong Trabek and pushed westward to about five miles from Neak Luong. They used tear gas against reinforcements rushed from the capital, including units of the 3rd Brigade Group led by Colonel Lon Non, the president's brother. In the pre-dawn darkness of Pchum Ben, the October 7 Buddhist festival honoring ancestors, the Communists made their deepest penetration into the capital. Sappers raced onto the Chruoy Chang War Bridge. One-third of the vital span tumbled into the Tonle Sab. Most of the 100 or so Vietnamese commandos, sprinting beneath a covering B-40 rocket swarm, stormed the municipal stadium just west of the bridge. It was FANK's M-113 armored personnel carrier (APC) park. The assailants 'plasticked' several APCs and clattered west in several others before they were stopped. In all, seven M-113s were wrecked. More than a dozen FANK soldiers and their families sought refuge in a bathhouse and were killed when it was hit. The commandos were intercepted before they could strike other installations during the six-hour fight, although the nearby French Embassy was damaged. FANK admitted 23 dead to the enemy's 83.

The KR undertook its first major'solo' operation on January 6, 1973, encircling a FANK battalion at Romeas, about 45 miles northwest of Phnom Penh. With American support, relief troops finally broke the two-battalion KR siege to enter Romeas on January 23. The KR had no intention of letting up pressure, despite the January 27 Paris agreement that supposedly ended the war and restored the peace in Vietnam. Article 20 of the agreement (which the KR regarded as a betrayal) called for an end to the fighting in Cambodia, provided the 'decent interval' between final U.S. withdrawal from and the inevitable collapse of South Vietnam. It calmed Laos, where Hanoi controlled the Communist Pathet Lao. It did not, however, despite a 'good faith' unilateral FANK suspension of operations, end the Cambodian War.

Whatever happened on land or at sea, though, the course of the war for the next controversial 187-day period would be determined by what was in the air. After a brief halt, U.S. aircraft were again sent into combat on February 9, 'only to avert actual loss of positions.' The Seventh Air Force, responsible for tactical operations and having just moved its headquarters from Vietnam to Thailand, started off with a dozen or so strikes daily. Its missions were complemented by two or three sorties of the 'Big Ugly Fat Fellows' (BUFFs)–the Strategic Air Command's B-52s–using the U-Tapao base in Thailand. In Phnom Penh, the U.S. Embassy would secretly control the bombing through a panel chaired by the deputy chief of mission. The operation moved to FANK headquarters after the April visit of a congressional investigative team. As the ground situation worsened, the pilots were given the nod 'to use the full spectrum of U.S. airstrike forces against targets posing a threat to friendly forces and population centers.' The NVA-VC in eastern Cambodia also were fair game.

By the time the six-month campaign ended, 257,465 tons of bombs–nearly 100,000 more than were dropped on Japan during World War II–fell on Cambodia. At one point, B-52 sorties reached 81 a day, compared to the Vietnam maximum of 60. U.S. air losses between January 28 and July 8 were 11. Shortly before the raids ceased, observed Seventh Air Force commander General John W. Vogt, Jr., 'the enemy began to pull back. He had suffered such heavy casualties…that he could no longer sustain the offensive.' Sadly, Communists were not the only casualties.

Neak Luong, the Route 1 ferry town on the Mekong between Phnom Penh and Vietnam, was the worst example. Just before 5 a.m. on August 6, a crewman neglected to flip off a switch tying his B-52's bomb release point to a homing beacon set up in the center of town. A mile-long string of bombs 'delivered' 30 tons of high explosives, hitting the hospital and marketplace, and killing 137 and wounding 268.

An earlier propaganda victory was handed to the Communists when a paranoid Lon Nol, using an assassination attempt as an excuse, alienated many by declaring a state of siege and arresting rivals. Another was Sihanouk's six-week, 625-mile, NVA-escorted 'Long March,' his first visit to Cambodia since his overthrow. A 'marriage had been realized,' the deposed 'god-king' said, 'uniting Sihanouk and the Red Khmers.' Lon Nol's high-profile visits to provincial capitals, complete with band concerts, were less successful.

While FANK, switching over from brigade to division organization, fought to hold urban centers and supply lifelines, the Communists, controlling the countryside, continued to hit at random, slowly gobbling up more territory. In the frenetic, inflation-rife capital–now more frequently under fire–gas and electricity were rationed, and embassies evacuated nonessential personnel. Critical Mekong convoys barely got through, often delayed by riverbank ambushes.

Pausing briefly to regroup and resupply, the KR resumed its uncustomary wet season offensive in early June 1973, fanatically persisting despite U.S. airstrikes that took advantage of every break in the weather. FANK's situation continued to deteriorate into midsummer, as nearly half of the KR army tried to breach the 3rd and 7th divisions' defense in poorly coordinated, air-pummeled assaults north, west and south of Phnom Penh.

Significantly, the attacking units were mostly non-PCK. The KR commander in chief, Khieu Samphan, kept his PCK-led elements safely east of the city across the Mekong. Having shot its bolt, the KR fell back. Although their dead probably numbered fewer than the 16,000 estimated by General Vogt, the Communists had been badly mauled in what marked the peak combat activity of the year. Little wonder that Lon Nol, confronted with FANK's shortcomings, could say, 'Calm down. The Americans are killing a thousand of our enemy every week.'

On August 15, 1973, acceding to congressional pressure, the Nixon administration called off its aerial watchdogs–12 years of American combat activity in Indochina officially ended. Henceforth, only military aid and unarmed reconnaissance flights were sanctioned.

The unprecedented bombing had given Phnom Penh a breather. Shifting north, the KR rolled up the seven towns involved in the 1971 Chenla II operation that broke FANK's spine. Three battalions, 19 territorial companies, eight 105mm howitzers, other weapons and 'large stocks' of munitions were lost as the enemy tried to overrun its first provincial capital, T-shaped Kompong Cham, 75 miles up the flood-swollen Mekong from the capital. Despite reinforcements by the 79th Brigade, two 5th Brigade battalions and two Parachute Brigade battalions, 56-year-old Maj. Gen. Sar Hor was unable to iron out the dents made in the city's outer defenses. On September 1, the KR advanced to barely half a mile from the city. Rushed to the scene, the 5th Brigade's two other battalions were unable to prevent neutralization of the airport and occupation of more than half of the city. Only on September 7, 1973, bolstered by troops transferred from the airport and by 16 naval vessels, was FANK able to counter the Communist inroads. Three days later, the newly arrived 80th Brigade made an amphibious landing behind the KR lines. FANK turned the tide on the 14th with a linkup of forces and a clearing of the city. At the airport, fighting continued until the end of the month.

On October 1, 1973, the FANK 3rd Division was shoved north of the Prek Thnaot River, the last physical barrier below the capital. The next day, it deserted the Kompong Toul intersection of Routes 3 and 4 just 312 miles from Phnom Penh after incurring 107 casualties. Only the 1st Division's 1st Brigade and a squadron of M-113s (FANK had no tanks) motoring from the southwest prevented a catastrophe. During November, vicious fighting shook southern Cambodia, Highways 3 and 4 southwest of the politically unstable capital, and the lake country across the Mekong. ARVN air and ground attacks did what they could for the failing Cambodians.

In control of most of the country and its 7.2 million population, and supported by a China eager to counter North Vietnamese influence, the Communists grew more powerful. The NVA-VC occupied virtually all of the eastern frontier. In contrast, FANK was squeezed into a thin corridor running northwest to the Thai border from the greater Phnom Penh area and into the gulf land to the southwest. The government, as the KR defense minister observed, 'cannot get fresh recruits' despite a June 1973 general mobilization aimed at boosting the armed forces from a questionable 220,000 to 300,000.

The war would go on until the spring of 1975. Standing back from the situation they could not control, the average noncombatant Cambodians sought comfort in the eternal Khmer optimism, believing that tragedy would be averted. Accommodation would be made with whoever won the war. As a 32-year-old refugee, freshly arrived in Phnom Penh, said: 'I don't care what happens. I only want peace, quickly.' Fate–and the Khmer Rouge–would not be so kind.


This article was written by Wilfred P. Deac and originally published in the December 1996 issue of Vietnam Magazine.

 

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One Response to “Losing Ground to the Khmer Rouge”


  1. 1
    Somanos Sar says:

    Hello,
    I'm a Cambodian-French writer. Looking information about Chela II operation, I found this article citing *Chenla II: Prelude to Disaster,’ in the June 1992*. It looks really interesting, but seems to be inaccessible on the Net. So, I would be very glad if someone could provide me the contents, in ant form, or even a link to it.
    Sincerely
    Somanos Sar



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