Chaos in Phnom Penh's fall

Voice of B.P.: Sound 2941; Picture 984; Vietnam Project, Program 11
Peng Thuon:
In 1972, when their tanks, their T-54s, started shooting, we thought it was just their automatic weapons, and so we didn’t bother to get excited. But when they started putting these huge holes clear through the walls of the school building and the Yuon were bombarding the city, the people would panic.
For example, if the shelling came down in the neighborhood of the Monk’s Hospital, the people would run over to the neighborhood of the Chinese hospital, to Tuol Tampoung. Then when the shells would come down in Tuol Tampoung, there would be chaos.
The people were in a state of chaos, running back and forth and every which way. They didn’t stay anywhere for long. They would lug their few belongings from point A to point B, and then back. Whenever the shelling was heavy in one spot, they would leave for someplace else. And when the shelling was heavy there, they would move on, again and again. Everybody was scared.
Sometimes the shells would come down right in the middle of town, and everybody would come down to the river bank. Then the shells would come down along the riverbank, and everybody would head for the middle of town. It just went on and on chaotically like this. People’s lives were very chaotic in Phnom Penh during the Republican era, by 1975-75.
People couldn’t stay in one place. They’d lug their stuff to one spot and then lug it to another. They’d stay wherever there was no shelling. And then when the “ka-booming” started in that area, they’d look for another spot where there wasn’t any shelling. And back then a lot of people had come into the city from the provinces, from the countryside, putting themselves up in the city.
Phnom Penh was solid with people, and so when the “ka-booming” hit one place, it would be a movement en masse to some other place. That’s what it was like when the rockets were coming down into Phnom Penh.
And what was it like in the last few days before the end? Where were you and what did you see?
Peng Thuon:
On the day before the end, before 17 April, I was in the military fortification at the airport. This was because I was a soldier. I was right inside the military fortification. There was shooting inside the fortification. And there were incoming rounds falling onto the warehouse where aircraft equipment and aircraft engines were stored, setting it on fire.
The battle started at one or two o’clock and went on until about five o’clock before the fortification was overrun. The Khmer Rouge first attacked from the Vihear Khuor Pagoda side, approaching the airport from the front and along the sides. They had to press the attack for a long time before getting in.
And the fortification, a fortification like the one at Pochentong Airport shouldn’t have fallen. It only fell because all the big shots in charge ran for it. The base commander, the technical commander, the [incomprehensible] commander, all these gentlemen had followed each other in flight to Thailand, one after the other!
All that were left were the middle-ranking types, and they couldn’t hold off the Khmer Rouge. There were some Majors and Colonels from the technical side, maybe one commander. There was the guy from [incomprehensible] there, too. But he wasn’t very enthusiastic about resisting and took off with all his people.
It was because of things like this that there was no way to resist. Otherwise, the airport shouldn’t have fallen. American experts had come to inspect the airport defenses. It was no piece of cake. It was encircled by rings of barbed wire and there were really big fortifications.
An American expert had personally supervised the construction of these defenses. There was something every hundred meters. It was really something. And there was a lot of ammunition, too. But what could we do? There was certainly going to be a breakthrough. We had already lost. So everybody ran for it. And the big shots, these Majors and Colonels, they were running, too.
By this time I was no longer in the airport itself, but on the perimeter, at one of the entrance points. All the big shots were gone. There was only me, a Colonel who was the deputy chief of the [incomprehensible] and a single battalion commander. These guys who were Majors and Colonels, like this commander [incomprehensible] Prum Po, he was already changed into civilian clothes and ready to run. But I said, “Nobody’s deserting! Deserters will be shot! Now’s not the time to run. Now’s not the time to abandon your subordinates, your troops!” He tried to drive out in a car with the engine roaring, but he was stopped.
But then by five o’clock, everything was out of control. People were surging through, the dependents of the troops and everybody. Nobody was listening to orders. Everybody was pressed up against the fence, and he ran for it. The enemy shells kept dropping in. And there were planes from Kampong Som, Kampong Chhnang and Battambang, which came to help, to make air strikes. A moment after the air strikes occurred, the enemy was in.
It was almost five before I left. I spent that night near Stung Meanchey. It was impossible to get into Phnom Penh. After spending the night in Stung Meanchey, the next morning when it got light, I headed into the city. I only got as far as the Monk’s Hospital.
I hadn’t even reached my house, but the Pol Potists were already there. If I hadn’t run into a friend of my, the Pol Potists would have made me pull down my pants and parading me round the streets in a truck. The officers who had thrown away their weapons, these lieutenants and majors, who were all split off from each other, were being rounded up by this Khmer Rouge who made them pull down their pants. If a friend of mine hadn’t shown up and given me a ride to my house in his car, I would have been up there with my pants down like the rest of them!
When you were still at the airport, was there anything that was really amazing happening? What about when you ran, when people were changing into civilian clothes?
Peng Thuon:
At the airport before it was overrun, there was fire, fire from the shelling, fire and shelling. All the big warehouses were on fire. And people were killed by the air strikes. The planes coming were coming from other airbases were bombing. The people who were trying to escape were running across the fields in front of the airport, flat fields that were in front of the airport and stretched out for about one kilometer. While they were running, the planes came and thought they were the Khmer Rouge and so bombed them.
The corpses were all mixed up: some soldiers’ wives, some ordinary people, some Khmer Rouge. Those who survived jumped across the bodies to get past. But once they got past, there was shelling and everything was on fire. The whole place was on fire. The shelling was scoring direct hits on the hangers and the warehouses.
And all this running was going on when it was already dusk and people could hardly recognize each other. Then, when everybody was gone, the Pol Potists came in and it was theirs from then on. The next morning, they went on to Phnom Penh.