Disasterous consequences of the Cambodian military's incompetence

VPA 111 SR 2940
Take One
I would like you to tell about what happened at Neak Leung. I've heard that it was really something. What was it that you experienced?
Sok Sarren:
The situation at Neak Leung was that I personally was a warrior there. There was a violent see-saw battle with the damn Yuon, the Viet Cong, on the Neak Leung battlefield. The situation was that their assault was super-strong, a super-amazingly strong, unprecedented thing.
When they attacked, they did not deploy their troops as a concentrated force. They put twelve one place and twelve another place so that there were twelve everywhere!
When our soldiers traveled from one line to another, they kept their eyes peeled, but, strategically, the situation was one of inexperience, because most of our soldiers were new. There weren't very many veterans. So, strategically, our soldiers were weak. It was an easy thing for the Yuon to keep us under their thumb.
As soon as the Yuon and the Republican Lon Nol troops made contact, we were in completely disadvantageous position vis-à-vis the Vietnamese in the fighting. And they didn't fight in any ordinary way. They would just shoot – bang! – and then immediately crawl forward into our positions The new soldiers were literally thunderstruck, dropped their weapons right there and deserted en masse.
Under these circumstances, there was no such thing as a commander resisting what his troops were doing. There weren't any orders to stay put or be shot. Nothing like that. When they saw their soldiers running, they ran, too, ran right after their troops.
So there wasn't anything like command. The commander was the weakest guy you ever saw. It was like he wasn't even there. There wasn't a single courageous bone in his body.
The Neak Leung battlefield was a violent one. The Marines' amphibious infantry force tried to help, but couldn't. The Air Force came to help, but bombed us instead of the enemy. So what hope were we supposed to have?
We requested ammunition, but they didn't supply us with enough. They made parachute drops, but they weren't sufficient. Any anyway it all seemed to come down in Viet Cong territory.
And there wasn't any rice to eat, so the people panicked, and the troops panicked because the people didn't have anything to eat. In some areas, troop morale collapsed.
And if things weren't already bad enough, all the commanders began using compulsion against the villagers, press-ganging them into the army, instead of asking for volunteers. They were forced into the army to fight the Yuon, the Viet Cong.
So once the battle had begun and you saw that you weren't going to win, what did you do? Did you call in air strikes? Carry out counterattacks? Shell? And what kind of losses did you take?
Sok Sarren:
On this question, I can say that each of the branches of the army was well enough armed. There was artillery: 105mm and 75mm howitzers and canon. There was M-16s and AR-15s. There were 60mm, 81mm and 82mm mortars, and there were machine guns. There was enough of everything.
However, it was as if there wasn't anything courageous about the soldiers' morale. This was because there were only two or three veterans to a group. New soldiers were in the majority. Most of them were villagers who had been press-ganged in the army.
So when they went into battle against the Viet Cong, the veterans of many years of war, they were defeated. And when the fighting started and one of two were killed, there was panic. If there were some veterans among them, they were more confident, there was somebody to calm them down and keep them fighting.

Airstrikes rarely hit intended targets in Cambodia

During the fighting, when it became obvious that you couldn't hold them off, what did you think? Did you call in air strikes? Did they come to bomb? Did they help?
Sok Sarren:
When the troops formed up to go out onto the battlefield, when they formed up to march out of their barracks, everything was beautiful, perfect. They formed up properly into squads, teams and platoons.
And when they came face to face with the Yuon in battle, with the blood enemy of the Khmers for generations, they didn't give any quarter; it would be a bloodbath. Whenever contact was made, they would use their weapons. They would shoot. And when the two sides launched assaults against one another, there would be dead on both sides, but for the most part our casualties were greater than those of the enemy.
For every five shells we lobbed at them, they would lob only one at us. Indeed, you could say that in the shelling, they only fired ten rounds for every 1,000 that we fired. But their shells were on target and killed hundreds of our soldiers. The command was also immature. All of them were students who had just come out of school.
When the ordinary foot soldiers saw how effective the Yuon were against their units their morale collapsed in some spots. They made radio calls for help, calls up to Sosthene Fernandez's Supreme Command. The reply came back down, "You'll have to wait. Try to hold out. Hold out! Hold out!" But our attempts to hold out were ineffective.
Why did he ask you to wait?
Sok Sarren:
He said that we had to wait until food and ammunition could be transported, and that planes were being sent to help out. A day passed, and everybody kept looking at their watches to see what time it was, or looking at the position of the sun. But the reality was that nothing ever arrived. Meanwhile, people just kept on getting zapped.
So there wasn't any air power at the battle for Neak Leung?
Sok Sarren:
Oh, yes, some came. They came to do their work. And they had their coordinates. For example, they were supposed to bomb village "A" but they didn't bomb village "A." They bombed some other village instead. The enemy was in village "A" but they bombed some other village instead.
How were we supposed to win a war this way? How were we supposed to win a war when this was the way our big-shot leaders carried on? It was because the Air Force commanders were traitors that we were defeated by the damn Yuon. That's right.
Where was your commander during the battle for Neak Leung?
Sok Sarren:
My commander was An Nil, a Colonel, a full-bird Colonel. Each time he called in air power, called in the Khmer planes, they bombed the wrong places. They never hit the enemy positions. If the enemy were 200 meters from us, they would bomb almost a kilometer away. They would bomb the villagers, and the villagers would buy it.
Our strength was supposed to come from the people. But if they were bombing the villagers, how were the villagers supposed to support our side, the Khmers, the Republican Lon Nol forces? Nobody supported us because we were killing them!
So you mean our planes didn't help us with the bombing at all?
Sok Sarren:
The planes came to bomb, but they bombed, they bombed the wrong targets. Instead of the village they were supposed to hit, they hit some other village. So what hope did we have of winning? And each of our units was depending on the planes.
Whenever the attack was too heavy for them to handle, they placed their hopes on the planes, but the planes never bombed the targets they were supposed to. They would bomb some other place. Hopeless!
Where was the commander when the air strikes came?
Sok Sarren:
He was there, on the spot, but they weren't responding properly to his calls. Therefore, he had to send out his infantry. But using infantry meant taking a lot of casualties. So he figured it would be better to try the planes again, so things wouldn't be quite so bad.
The planes came, but were fired on. The pilots were scared, too, scared of being shot down, so they flew up high. So what hope was there? None at all.
You have to understand that the Neak Leung battlefield was the most violent anybody had ever seen. A lot of soldiers were killed. And a lot of villagers were wounded. Their shells were coming down everywhere.
For example, look what happened at Peam Reang. A whole brigade of infantry was sent down there, under the command of Jean Fernandez, a Colonel. But the units were not at full strength. There were only 200 per battalion. In a battalion there are supposed to be more than 500 men.
But in this case, there were only 200 fighting per battalion. So in a group, there were only six guys. How were they supposed to be able to fight? In a section, there were only fifteen guys. There are supposed to be between thirty-three and thirty-seven. But there were no more than fifteen to seventeen. So in a battalion there were only 200. How were they supposed to win any battles?
I would like to know what it was about Neak Leung that depressed you, that made you angry?
Sok Sarren:
First, at Peam Reang...
Take two.
Pix 983
Sok Sarren:
On the Neak Leung battlefield, when the brigade and the smaller units went out on operations to search for the enemy in the forest, my group and I were among those who went out into the forest, too. We had no idea where the enemy was.
When the enemy opened fire, the troops dropped to the ground and into crawl positions. The command then made contact with each of the group and section leaders by field telephone. I went out personally to inspect the troops in my capacity as a section commander.
Because the Yuon incoming fire was too heavy at that time, my troops held their fire on my orders and the orders of those above me. The battle went on constantly for three days and three nights.
Then when food rations had already run out, we called for help. We asked that each of the brigades beyond our perimeter come out to help us, but we were completely cut off from the rear due to the fact that the enemy had severed the roads. The various brigades couldn't come to each other's aid.
At that point we got on the radio and asked those at the rear to call in air strikes. But although the enemy was in a certain village, at certain coordinates, when the planes came, they didn't bomb that spot. Instead they dropped their bombs right on our command post, almost right on top of our Colonel, maybe about 100 meters from where our Colonel was.
The result was casualties among the troops on guard duty, as well as their wives and children. Meanwhile, the Colonel in his bunker, which was reinforced this thick and this high, could never be killed. It was the ordinary foot soldiers who got killed, and only them.

Starvation leads to cannibalism

Were you ever at Kompong Seila?
Sok Sarren:
Yes. I went down to Kompong Seila for a period of fifteen days. When I got out of the plane, a C-123, got out at Kompong Seila, the wives of the troops and the troops themselves ran up to me to welcome me and to thank Buddha for the help, because the Khmer Rouge had them completely surrounded. There was no escape route and nowhere for them to go. So they were living just on that little patch of ground.
That night when we went out on operation, at midnight, to fight the enemy, the Khmer Rouge, the offspring of that guy Khieu Samphan, we were able to push forward the perimeter about a kilometer or maybe a little more. Then we dug in.
After we had dug in, I walked over to visit some troops who were old friends of mine. I went from house to house, and they cried, saying that there wasn't anything to eat. I asked how that could be if there were parachute drops all the time. They said they hadn't ever gotten any of it. The proper ration from the government wasn't being properly distributed.
Each of the commanders was withholding a part of their pay. It was twenty cans per squad, and at the price at that time that would come to 350-370 riels. A low-paid soldier couldn't keep up with this situation. So there wasn't any rice for them to eat. So they started stealing from each other and there were strong mutual antagonisms.
The commanders hated each other and the soldiers hated the commanders. Solidarity collapsed. Things got so bad that there was almost an armed mutiny, but when the High Command heard about this, somebody was sent in to try and reconcile things.
Jean Fernandez was involved at Kompong Seila, too. I went in together with him. At that point, none of the soldiers' wives had any rice left to eat. I had this little sack of rice. So they begged me to give it to them.
Then somebody standing nearby came over and said, "Hey, you, go take a look over there." I went over and saw that there was a whole set of houses where they'd eaten their own children. There were three houses, houses of colleagues of mine, friends of mine. They had butchered their children and wolfed them down. Just like that. That's right. Buddies of mine.
After that, after I had carried out my operations on their behalf, an order came down from Muol Khleng to all the troops that all of the dependents should be transported out by C-123 aircraft, that only the troops themselves should be left there. And after I had expanded the perimeter by one or two kilometers by my attacks, I got into a C-123 with the wives of the troops from Kompong Seila. They went to stay right in the town of Kompong Som.
On this cannibalism thing, did you yourself see the bones?
Sok Sarren:
Well, a friend of mine made paté out of his kid, out of his own kid. His wife did everything she could to stop him. She really loved that kid. So the husband did it surreptitiously. So it wasn't the mother that did it, it was the husband. That's right. He was overwhelmed with hunger.
Why didn't he eat the flesh of the enemy?
Sok Sarren:
How could they eat the flesh of the enemy? Every time they went out, they were getting blown away. If they went out, they'd get blown away themselves. The enemy had the advantage. They were holed up on this little patch of ground, and were completely surrounded by the enemy. Go out and you were dead. Dead. They were just like rats caught in a trap, and so they ate each other; they ate themselves!

Details from the battle of Neak Leung

Let's go back to talking about Neak Leung. What about the tanks?
Sok Sarren:
Neak Leung is in Prey Veng, in the province of Prey Veng. In 1972, the 22nd Brigade, under the command of Colonel Thack Chan, launched the Operation Soriya I, fighting its way all the way to Rumchek. So then the 1st Brigade, under the command of Colonel Ith Suong, launched into follow-up operations and won victories on every battlefield.
At that time a battalion of the 48th Brigade, the "Tiger Head," Brigade, was wiped out. Every last one of them was killed, a whole battalion completely annihilated. Those who tried to make a run for it fell into Yuon ambushes. The annihilation went on for three days and three nights. They called for artillery support, but it didn't help.
At that time I was on the right flank. The 48th Brigade was on the right flank, but only one battalion was wiped out. The Yuon did not attack in my direction. They attacked only the 48th Brigade. They had engaged the entire Brigade and set up ambushes everywhere, and I could not go to their aid.
I could not go to their aid also because I was myself being strongly attacked from behind. The engagement continued for three days and three nights. We called for American air strikes to help us, but the strikes were ineffective. The bombs all fell way beyond our lines.
So in the end, the Yuon came in and massacred every last one of the survivors. At that point, the battalion had run out of food and ammunition. So a whole battalion of the 48th, of the "Tiger Heads," was killed.
After that happened, I fought forward again, but we were thrown back because we had run out of troops. All of our big-shot commanders had been writing all of these reports saying that there were so many troops here and so many troops there. But the fact was that they were lying to Sosthene's Supreme Command.
After the apparent victory of Soriya I, the first phase, Soriya II, the second phase, began. Soriya II pushed forward as far as the Phumi Kompong Trabak high school. I was in a fort dug in inside the perimeter of the Phumi Kompong Trabak military post. I stayed dug in there for seven days and seven nights.
On the first night, the Yuon shelled using 75mm. They shelled using 75mm. They shelled into the compound of the military post and of the school. The shelling started with 75mm and 122mm artillery. The first rounds scored direct hits on our artillery. At that point, the troops panicked and ran out towards their various defense lines.
About 3:00, there was the roar of tanks, of five tanks, of five T-54 tanks, which were being driven right up over the road. One cut through a paddy field smack towards our position. At this point, the troops didn't know there were any M-113s. Then they heard the sound of an M-113 about 100 meters away.
They saw the M-113, which was flying the Khmer Republic flag. All of my troops thought that our own armor had come to the rescue and stood up to welcome the M-113, shouting, "Long live the Khmer Republic!" The guy on top of the M-113 opened up with his machine gun, "budda-budda-budda-budda," and tossed a couple of grenades, tearing them all to pieces. Every one of the soldiers who was standing was dead before he knew what was happening.
Realizing that this was a Yuon armored personnel carrier, the rest of the troops ducked into their bunkers and foxholes. Our anti-tank guns opened up, but without effect, because the crews really didn't know what they were doing. The armor made its assault right on top of the command post of Thank Chan and Lt. Col. Chin Oh.
Both of them ran for their lives. They didn't care what happened to their troops. But the troops continued to resist. Six Vietnamese, their infantry, who were on the M-113, were killed by our gunfire, tumbling to the ground. We kept our fire on the M-113, and it pulled back.
The second night, the night of the next day, two M-113s came. They came together as a pair, like a pair of yoked oxen. They were making a frontal attack directly against my line. I was there with 1st Lt. Seang Ho Ling. I was the chief of a section in charge of defense of our artillery position, right in the schoolyard.
Then their T-54s came, trying to simply overrun our position with a frontal assault. We heard fire, "bang! bang! bang!", but we didn't realize it was the sound of a T-54. We thought it was just a .50 caliber machine gun.