Sunday, July 26, 2015

Cambodia......the killing fields to be!

        Ever been scared...I have, a few times.

        I mentioned earlier in this blog about Cambodia...being driven south out of the capital of Phnom Penh and wondering who the soldiers were walking along the highway with really big guns. I said to my driver "I didn't think Cambodia had an army."
     "Oh those not Cambodia soldiers....those NVA!"
 North Vietnamese walking to kill Americans.
     "I hope you don't have a flat tire".
     " Oh you just tell 'em you Canadian!".
Yeh....sure.  with an American passport in my pocket.
     It's strange...I wasn't at all scared as we passed another small group.  This continued for awhile...just small groups of five or six NVA soldiers and then we saw no more.
     Some 87 members of the worldwide press were killed in that southeast asian conflict...including NBC's famed correspondent Wells Hangen along with his cameraman German born Peter Bellendorf.
     Peter was quite a guy...he kept a boa constrictor in his Saigon apartment as he was on long assignments and needed some kind of surety against break-ins!
     I chatted with him over coffee one morning and ask him if he was ever afraid out in the field.
He whipped out his wallet and slipped a picture of Ho Chi Minh out and showed it to me.
"My insurance out there.  They won't kill a guy carrying this!"
     Sad to didn't work.
     Regarding Wells Hangen...he came into the Saigon building that housed NBC, AP and several other news organizations on special assignment and made the mistake of taking the elevator which everyone knew didn't work well.  It took some time to get him out.  Moral to this...beware of French made elevators.
     As I said I wasn't really scared when passing the enemy solders on the fact it is strange that years later as I think and write about this I am more tense about it now...knowing now that a lot of press folks did not come out of Cambodia alive.
      On that same trip we stopped in a small Cambodian village to get some snacks and as we approached the entrance I noticed a tall man with a pink and white dotted scarf around his neck.  He looked intently at me...ignored a hello from my driver and I got a shivers as we entered the small store..  He looked like he was ready and willing to "eat my intestines"....and that made me nervous.   Later I asked the driver about the guy with the strange scarf...
    "Oh that guy you don't mess with...bad guy.
      "He part of Khmer Rouge.  Bad people."
     And they were...I would use the term viciously bad...when emptying the capital of all it's inhabitants and killing millions ala Hitler.
     But wait...there's more on this weird trip south to Sihanoukville....
     A big story broke down on the south China sea near Sihanoukville. About a week earlier a ships crew mutinied and took over the vessel and I figured this might be a great scoop so that's where we were headed.  We got there late afternoon and I went into the lobby of this huge resort hotel in the small city named in honor of the current King Of Cambodia.  After talking to the desk clerk and the manager I determined the ship had not put in there so there was no great scoop.  The manager invited us to see Prince Sinanouk's zoo which bordered the hotel so we drove around thru elephants...some tigers (we kept the doors locked and windows up) and whatever else animals which the manager said were gifts to the Prince and he had to find a place to put them.  We returned to the hotel and eat a good dinner and then headed out for Phnom Penh but it was getting dark.
     They are called water buffalo and they are the hugest animal you'll ever see...but hopeful not on the highway at night.  My driver said this was the only thing we had to worry about...not the NVA soldiers...not the fledgling killers named Khmer Rouge...but the big water buffalo who  he said, loved to sleep on the warm highway at night!  Well, we were in luck...not one time did we have to screech to a halt and go around one of these things.  We made it back...the trip was unfruitful from a news standpoint but historic in my life.
     I paid the driver and as I approached the hotel and saw one of the most beautiful girls I've ever seen in my life!   She was not a hooker...I guess the NVA didn't allow that.  She seemed be just walking by on her way home or someplace.  I said hello and she responded in English...and as exhausted as I was with all the day's activities I ask if she would like a drink.  That's a pretty unusual approach for me...I'm a shy guy but I was just too tired to waste time on the preliminares.
     Surprisingly...she smiled and said yes.  We went to the hotel bar and she seemed a bit uncomfortably there and I gleaned that she was not used to this kind of an offer.  I felt my time was wasted but halfway thru the drinks she asked if I had a room and, of course, I I went full force here..her beauty seemed to recharge my battery and I said would you like to go there and she nodded and off we went.  I will add here that she was as good in bed as she looked.   You don't find that too often in life.
     The next thing I know is there was a knock on the door.  It was morning and I wondered what this was about.  Maybe she was a hooker and this was her pimp to collect.  You never know in this part of the world.
     I opened the door keeping my foot and leg ready to block anyone I considered as trouble.
didn't need to worry was a guy from Newsweek magazine I'd met outside the hotel while arranging my drive south.
     "There's been a coup" he said.  "The Prince (in China at the time) is out and an Army General is in".
     I ask him in and he took one look at the girl in the bed and said "wow".  I agreed.
     He and I were the only American press people left here.  An ABC crew had been here yesterday but they went out early this morning (really bad timing don't you agree) They had snuck in through  Laos.   Press could not get into Cambodia.  We had all gotten the word...don't even try it...they'll put you right back on the plane.
     Let me digress and tell you how I conned my way into Cambodia
     I had almost completed my initial six month tour covering the war for NBC News.  I had some R & R coming so I made arrangements for visas to Hong Kong, the Philippines and even as a standby Australia.
     I had an early morning flight to Hong Kong which (surprise!) stopped in Phnom Penh!
    When some passengers began to disembark I joined them...trying to think of what I could do all alone here...even if I made it past customs.  The hell with it...they won't let me in anyway so I'll just make a meager effort.  I tried to think back on office discussions about Cambodia and what possible way there might be (ala ABC) to get into the country.  I did remember that the customs officer here would have a list of the Saigon press corp and check the names on it if he became suspicious.  Oh well...he can see my name and order me back on the plane...what the hell..I tried.
     Suddenly I remembered that the inside flap on my passport identified me as with NBC news.  Shit!
I dug out a pen and looked at the writing and began changing the letters...(I still have that passport if the newsmusem is ever interested).  I got the NBC News garbled enough so that nobody could work it out...especially a guy not raised in the English language.
     The guy took my passport and saw I was an American based in Saigon.  I hadn't messed with trying to change the address...didn't have time.  He checked to see if my name was on the Saigon press list.  He checked again...apparently it was not there!  I had arrived about six months earlier and his list was NOT up to date.
"You press from Saigon!"
"No sir...I'm a farmer from the United States."
"You press...I know it!  Yes?"
"No...I'm a tourist.....I want to see your fine country!"
He continued to eye me suspicious.  "Where you want to go here?
"Angor Wat" I answered...remembering the Jackie Kennedy venture there.  "I want to see Angor Wat."
He caved.....stamped me a three day visitors visa and waved me on.  I didn't believe it until I had gone back and bribed a airline clerk to get my bag off the plane.  I needed it not for clothes but my handy, always with me, NBC cassette recorder was in the bag.
     I still didn't believe it until I was in a cab about half way into the city.  Wow. 
     I told the cabbie to take me where most of the press corp were staying and he did.  The first guys I saw were the correspondent and crew from ABC.  They told me how they got in through Laos.  I showed them my passport and explained how the guy's Saigon list was not up to date.

     So...back to the coup d'état...the lovely girl and the Newsweek guy.  He said he was on the way to the American Embassy to meet someone for more information.  He ask me to join him and since we were not in direct competition I figured why not.  But my mind was racing...he said the phone lines out of the country were down...he tired to call Newsweek but nada.  I believed him and didn't bother trying to reach NBC News in Saigon or Bangkok or even at 30 Rock.  He said he'd wait for me downstairs and took another approving look at the brown eyed, brown haired Cambodian goddess sitting on my bed and flew out the door.
     And here I made what might be called a strategic mistake in life. I told her I had to go but for some strange reason I didn't ask how I could find her again.  I didn't ask for a phone number or address or even say "why don't you come back and check early this evening we can have dinner".  I did none of these...and even until now...I can envisage her great looks....and wonder what might have happened or wonder with the nasty future in Cambodia what would happen to her.  You remember the great line in that Paul Newman flick..."what we have here is a failure to communicate."
     Well...this was mine.  I could have gotten very serious over this girl/woman from Phnom Penh.
Sadly...duty called and I got so wrapped up in the coup happenings I didn't even check if she had left a message.  I don't even think I got her name..which is weird too as I can remember girls names in Saigon and Hong Kong and Germany to this day...but not hers.  Oh well...what might have been..everything happened so fast. Damn CIA...curse General Lon Nol.  What could I do?

   This coup smelled to high heaven 

   Later it would be obvious that this was instigated by the American CIA.  The military needed to be able to openly bomb and invade Cambodia...the key sanctuary for all those NVA soldiers I passed on the highway the day before.  So much for turning the war over to the South Vietnamese military!
   I found the freelance cameraman who shot film for NBC News and we went to work.  He didn't have audio capability so I just recorded stuff on my handy cassette recorder...and even tried to do a standup report that way as I knew the folks back in New York could match the audio to the video.
   We shot a bunch of film and recorded a lot of stuff but we had a couple of problems.  The first was my very presence with a cameraman and tape recorder.  I was not supposed to be that killed the possibility of doing interviews, etc.  I was nervous about approaching any of the Cambodian officers.  We did film General Lon Nol as he marched into what appeared to be the legislative building near the palace but I didn't know who he was at the time and didn't approach him.
   All communication in and out of Cambodia was down because of the coup. The only way we could get the film and tapes out was to drive to the Thai border and hopefully hand it over to a Bangkok staffer.  NBC news Bangkok could satellite to New York.  
   I found out that once you left you couldn't get back in.  And...border officers were not letting anyone new come in I had a hell of a scoop.
   I contacted my driver...told him of our project and advised him that we might have to sit at the bridge on the Thai border until someone from NBC News managed to show up.  He said he could probably bribe someone to let him go across and find a telephone to call NBC in Bangkok.
   We headed out for what could have been a long, long drive....not in miles...the border was only an hour away...but in wait time for the pickup. 
   When we arrived at the bridge that crossed into driver confirmed that the border guards were not letting anyone back we couldn't leave.  
   About a half-hour later some British journalists from the BBC pulled up...telling us they were headed for Bangkok.  I had met one of them back in Saigon so I ask him to hand carry our stuff to the NBC News office in Bangkok and he agreed.  
   The BBC had an ongoing deal with NBC news anyway so this was perfect and I knew he wouldn't abscond with my material. 
   So that was all settled nicely...and I turned to get back in the car to return to Phnom Penh when I heard someone yelling at me from the other end of the bridge.  
   It was a CBS news crew and the correspondent was begging me to help them get into the country.
   For probably the first and only time I can remember not being a nice guy...I just shrugged and turned back and got in the car.     Well,...what would you have done.
   About a month later I would be touring the CBS news offices in New York inquiring about a position.  The radio exec was interested in hiring me...when the fellow in charge of foreign desk found out I was there he went into a screaming fit about not helping their crew at the border... so my possible career at CBS with Cronkite and Rather was not to be!
   Everyone did make into Cambodia in a few days after things cleared up.  I got to get back on the plane headed for vacation before returning to the states. 
   Before I left Phnom Penh the correspondent for Newsweek ask me to read over his story before he got it out to wherever. I did and it was good.
   A week or so later I picked up a copy of Newsweek and read an entirely different version with no byline for him.  Someone back in New York decided they knew better than the guy on the scene as to what actually went on in Cambodia.  
   Since that time...I've not had much faith in what I read in either Time or Newsweek. 

   And...finally...this quirk of happenstance.
   My flight back from Vietnam to New York was the fastest and most direct but also the most tiresome I could take.  I flew to Bangkok and changed to a SAS 707 which flew directly to Copenhagen.  Well...more or less.  
   We flew OVER the Himalayan Mountains...the highest in the world and were told we would make only one stop to refuel in Russia...either Moscow or Tashkent depending on the weather. 
   But here's the kicker.
   Remember why I got off the plane at Phnom Penh?  I wanted to cover that story about the ship that had been hijacked in the South China Sea.
   Well,...the some crew members of that ship were on board this plane...headed back home.
   I chatted with a couple of them but they didn't say much.  Apparently they were wary of anyone asking too many questions at that point.
   Our refueling stop was sadly...not Moscow but Tashkent in the Soviet Union.  Russian customs officials looking very mean and more like police than anything else came on board and the flight attendant announced that we could deplane for the terminal for refreshments and shopping but only if we handed our passports over to the Russkies first.
  I did so as I wanted to stretch my legs after the first long portion of the flight.  Inside the terminal things were sparse...except for several very pretty girls sitting around...smiling and inviting possible interest.  I took this as a blatant attempt by the KGB for some reason or another and didn't pay much attention to them.
  After a short period..we went back to the plane...and I gratefully  retrieved my passport from the official as I came on board.
  The only other interesting note was that when we left southeast Asia it was the heat of summer and in the 90’s and when we landed in was winter and cold as hell.  I had to buy a coat before I left the terminal!
  I had been to Copenhagen once the summer.  Tivoli Gardens is just not the same in the snow.

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