This is part 3 in a 3 part story.
If you want to read part 1 click here.
If you want the read part 2 click here
With the constant chatter of machine-gun fire in the background, we waited for the ammunition truck in the only small copse of trees in what was basically a couple of hectares of rice paddies out in the open. With the aid of the Cambodian reporter, the Space Cadet and I made casual small talk with the boy soldiers. It was completely surreal, and everybody seemed quite relaxed, as they enjoyed a few moments of impromptu socialising. Every now and again the Space Cadet would punctuate the conversation with his mantra of “Wow this is all so real! This ain’t no movie!”
When the ammunition truck arrived, the soldiers that we had been chatting with, explained to the driver that he was to take us to the front. The back of the truck was fully loaded with ammunition of all kinds so all three of us (the Cambodian reporter, the Space Cadet and myself) piled into the cab with the driver. It was a bit cramped, but no one could ride in the back. Talk about getting into the most dangerous ride in the world. Being close to battlefront was bad enough, but getting into a truck loaded with explosives that might get detonated by a lucky shot, was probably the stupidest decision I’ve ever made in my life.
The dirt road was raised at about a metre higher than the surrounding rice paddy fields so the driver just put his foot to the floor and drove as though his life literally depended upon it. A full ammunition truck raised above all the surrounding landscape would have been the target of choice. About 1 km from where we got on the truck we sped past a dead burnt body by the side of the road. In the split-second that it took to pass the body, I could see that it was on its back with its arms and legs in the air as though it were some insect that had been sprayed with insecticide. His clothes had been almost totally burnt off, revealing shiny vitreous blackened skin. There was no one else around and the body was there all by itself like a pathetic discarded shop mannequin. It all happened so fast that I almost didn’t feel anything other than regret that I couldn’t stop and take a photograph. It makes me shudder when I think about how unfeeling and uncaring I was back then. So childishly selfish, hardly better than a hungry animal.
We sped down the road for about another kilometre or two until we got to a small village of battle damaged grass huts, which was our destination.
Our ride skidded to a halt, and we all jumped out as fast as we could and ran for cover behind coconut trees to wait for the commander. It took me a few seconds to realise that there were Cambodian government soldiers dotted around the village behind whatever cover they could find.
The sound of machine-gun fire was no longer a background noise. When I was in high school, I used to be in the army cadets and that involved training with rifles (Enfield 303) and machine guns (Bren guns). When we used to go down for rifle practice we all had to take turns in the bunker at the end of the rifle range to keep track of how well the other kids were shooting at the targets. It was during these times at the rifle range I became familiar with the different sounds bullets make. When one shoots a rifle and the bullet is moving away from you the sound is very similar to what one hears in the movies but of course much louder. When a bullet is travelling towards you it makes a cracking sound that is similar to a bullwhip. As we waited for the commander I could hear both types of bullets sounds. Incoming and outgoing.
Waiting behind the coconut tree in the company of soldiers who were similar in age to me, with the sound of gunfire all around, was the most scared I’d ever been in my life. I’m talking real fear that borders on panic, and not some milder type of fear like the type caused by someone threatening to punch you in the face. The fear that I experienced during that time has become a benchmark in my life that I use to compare how scary something is. I wasn’t the only one that was scared and as I looked around everybody I could see was hunched over in silent contemplation over how close they were to shitting themselves.
I found myself thinking about how I put myself voluntarily into such a situation, and then comparing how stupid I was in comparison to the poor Cambodian soldiers who had been drafted into the army and who were there, through no desire of their own.
Fear is a physical response to hazardous stimulus, and I’m pretty sure it serves the very important function of keeping us out of harm’s way. It was at this moment, I found myself thinking about how young men can be trained up to do very unnatural things like ignoring the very natural instinct to remove oneself from danger. In a flash, it became very obvious to me that it was this very fact that one could train up young men anywhere in the world to ignore their fear and the desire for self-preservation that was causing so much trouble in the world.
It would seem that there is always a group of young men, that you can train and give weapons to, who are willing without much informed thought to go and kill other people for whatever foggy reason. It’s happening in Iraq right now. Young Americans have been told that they are in Iraq fighting for some noble cause, when in fact; they are just helping the oil companies maintain their supply and profits.
In amongst all the noise and fear, the commander and his sergeant wandered casually into view like they were taking a stroll in the park. When the commander, who spoke English, saw us hiding behind the trees he laughed and waved his hand in a motion to get us to stand up and come out in the open like him.
The commander was saying it’s okay, it’s okay, the Khmer Rouge are about 200 m away and they can’t see us. The commander’s confidence eased our fear considerably, so we got up and made our introductions.
The Cambodian grunts stayed put, they weren’t stupid. The commander then called out to a few of the soldiers to unload the truck, and invited us to come to his command post and have a few beers.
The command post was a grass hut with a paved brick floor that had some of the walls and the roof blown off by a mortar round. There was so little of the structure left that it was almost like sitting out in the open. In the middle of the floor was a small folding card table, with a few ammunition boxes for seats around it. We were invited to sit down with the commander as the Sergeant yelled at one of the soldiers to get us some beers. Off to one side of the floor was a set of stairs down into a bunker.
So there we sat, in the open, making small talk and drinking warm beer, with the sounds of bullets coming and going, whilst the rest of the soldiers stayed under cover. The commander said that they had captured some Khmer Rouge soldiers, and that if I stick around, I can get some pictures of them. This would have been quite the coup as there weren’t very many photographs ever taken of Khmer Rouge fighters as the government soldiers rarely took them alive.
I guess the commander wanted to inspire his troops with his cavalier disregard of the danger. As for me, I was just going with the flow. I was so childlike in my trust and confidence in the commander’s ability to interpret the state of affairs. The way that I had it figured was that the commander was used to that sort of situation and was better able to evaluate how to behave under such circumstances, so I just did as he said.
We had been sitting for about 15 minutes, shooting the breeze and knocking back the beers when all of a sudden, BAMM!! A 105 (as I was told later) mortar round nearly blew me out of my chair. The pressure wave of the explosion was like getting smacked in the face with a plank. As the dirt from the explosion was coming back down and landing on us, all us noncombatants just looked at each other and as one, made a dash for the bunker. The commander grabbed me by the arm and said not to worry because the Khmer Rouge only shoot one mortar round and then move to another position, because they knew that the government forces could hear where the rounds were coming from and would go after them.
No sooner had the commander finished his re-assurances, when another round came in with a loud BAMM!! Another smack in the face with a plank, and this time, I just bolted down into the bunker, followed closely by the reporter and Space Cadet, so fast that the dirt from the explosion didn’t land on me. The commander and sergeant ambled in casually, like it was all no big deal. Which I guess for them it wasn’t but for the Space Cadet and I, things were getting a little bit too real. The Space Cadet was right, “it was all so real! It wasn’t no movie!”
The bunker was basically a square hole 4 m by 4 m (about 12ft by 12ft) in the ground with two army cots in it. The roof of the bunker was made of coconut tree trunks that had been piled up about three or four trunks thick. The height of the room was about 2 m (about 6’6”) and near where the wall meets the ceiling, there were two slots for each wall about 20 cm high (about 8”), and a metre (about 3’) long to shoot out of.
Just as we got into the bunker, another mortar round scored a direct hit on the top of the bunker and dirt from between the tree trunks fell to the floor, and just in case I wasn’t already terrified enough, two more mortar rounds came in very close to the bunker for good measure. In total, five rounds had come in. So much for only firing one round and running. That smug arsehole nearly got all of us killed.
The commander sat on his cot and waved to us to sit down and told us to relax as we were now quite safe. Next to his bed was an ammunition case that was serving as a bedside table and on it was a little tubular personal defence weapon for officers. It was a little bigger than a cigarette, fitting in the palm of the hand and it was loaded with a single small shotgun shell. I picked it up and cocked it (It cocks like one of those small toy cannons that fire matchsticks) and held it in my hand as I looked up at the slots thinking about what to do if a hand grenade got thrown in. I was totally freaked out, because I had been thinking that perhaps the mortar fire had been a prelude to an attack.
I sat in a corner with my back against the walls looking up at the slots thinking to myself about grenades, and how I should just pick it up and throw it out; pick it up and throw it out; pick it up and throw it out. The reporter and commander were deep in conversation and I can’t even remember what the Space Cadet was up to as I was in total self-preservation mode.
After what seemed like an eternity of me thinking, pick it up and throw it out; pick it up and throw it out; pick it up and throw it out, a soldier came into the bunker to let us know that the ammunition truck had been unloaded and that we could now go back. I didn’t give dam about that taking photographs of the Khmer Rouge prisoners, and I couldn’t get in the truck quick enough. I’m pretty sure the driver had the same idea because no sooner had we shut the doors of the cab, he put his foot flat down on the accelerator and we raced back down the road to where we came from.
As we were hurtling along as fast as the potholed dirt road would allow, small groups of panicked government troops came running out from their positions and tried to jump on the truck. Amazingly, one guy, was actually able to jump up on the running board on the driver’s side and was holding onto the open window frame. The driver started screaming at the terrified soldier and smacked him in the face with his elbow and knocked him loose from the door. More soldiers came running out, and the driver was yelling at them as he sped past them. The reporter told me that he was telling them to stay and fight and that they were a bunch of cowards. Pretty easy for him to say considering that he was leaving at high speed.
When we got to the T intersection where we met the two soldiers before, they were nowhere to be seen, so we took a left turn and headed back to the Army checkpoint were all the weapons had been piled up. As we are driving back to the Army checkpoint the Cambodian reporter had told us that the commander had informed him that his soldiers hadn’t been paid for months, and that he was pretty sure that some of his fellow officers had been stealing the payroll and wanted the Americans to know who they were.
We were dropped off at the checkpoint, so that the truck could be loaded with more ammunition. There were quite a few wounded soldiers being carried back, and we noticed one guy who had shrapnel wound to the face and upper leg and had no one to help him, struggling along barely able to limp, so we offered to give him a hand. At first, two of us each took an arm and placed it around our shoulders, to help him walk but he was in so much pain he just couldn’t bear it. We finally figured out the best way to carry him was for one person at a time to straddle him on their shoulder and walk with him up there until they got tired. The poor guy was so thin and light that carrying him was not that much trouble for the Space Cadet, reporter and I. The wounded soldier was in so much pain that each step we took caused him agony. When we changed him from one of our shoulders to the other person we could see how much pain it was causing him, but there was nothing we could do and we knew we had to get him back.
When we got to the ferry we handed him over to some other soldiers, and they took care of him from that point onwards. We were so numb that our ferry ride back over the Mekong passed without much conversation. I was so caught up in my thoughts about what had just happened that I hardly even noticed the battle sounds receding. Even the Space Cadet was quiet. It was a hell of a job that that Cambodian reporter had to do, day after day, and I feel ashamed that I can’t remember his name.
Everybody’s mood changed instantly as soon as we got off the ferry. As the wounded soldiers were disembarking, one could almost feel a palpable sense of their relief. It was like a weight being lifted off everybody shoulders. We knew all was right with the world, when the Space Cadet started off on his mantra once again, “Wow this is all so real! This ain’t no movie!”