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Chhang Song slept in on the morning of May 31, 1970. A then-information minister, Song had agreed to escort recently arrived journalists down National Road 3, a couple hours south of Phnom Penh. The tardiness ultimately saved his life. His new friends, the journalists, weren’t so lucky.
It is believed that as the group of eight NBC and CBS news reporters – plus one Cambodian driver – drove on, Khmer Rouge fighters fired a B-40 rocket that sailed right into one of their vehicles. Those who were travelling in a different car were captured and executed in a nearby field.
“The Khmer Rouge did that all the time. You never knew whether they were villagers or Khmer Rouge. That’s why many were killed then, because they didn’t know,” Song said yesterday during a trip to the site at Wat Po, where friends and former colleagues checked up on the health of a Bodhi tree they planted there in 2010 as a memorial to the slain reporters.
“The Khmer Rouge could care less about publicity. They were savage, ruthless killers. They had no policy. Their policy was to kill.”
At the ceremony, locals and monks kneeled down to pray, while a handful of veteran reporters who had spent years covering conflicts in Southeast Asia placed incense sticks behind a new stone addition to the site carved with a few words explaining the memorial.
A DANGEROUS YEAR: MEDIA CASUALTIES IN 1970 TOTALLED 26
Gilles Caron, Gamma
Claude Arpin, freelance/Newsweek
Guy Hannoteaux, L’Express
Akira Kusaka, Fuji TV
Yujiro Takagi, Fuji TV
Sean Flynn, freelance/Time
Dana Stone, freelance/CBS
Dieter Bellendorf, NBC
Willy Mettler, freelance
Takeshi Yanagisawa, Nihon Denpa
Teruo Nakajima, Omori Institute
Tomoharu Iishi, CBS
Kojiro Sakai, CBS
Ramnik Lekhi, CBS
Gerald Miller, CBS
George Syvertsen, CBS
Yeng Samleng, CBS driver
Welles Hangen, NBC
Roger Colne France, NBC
Yoshihiko Waku, NBC
Raymond Meyer, ORTF
Rene Puissesseau, ORTF
J. Frank Frosch, UPI
Kyoichi Sawada, UPI
Johannes Duynisveld, freelance
SOURCE: DOCUMENTATION CENTER OF CAMBODIA
German photographer Kurt Hoefle, who went out to the site in 1970 to try to ascertain what happened to his murdered colleagues, read out their names in a tearful and shaky voice.
George Syvertsen, Gerald Miller, Tomoharu Iishi, Kojiro Sakai, Ramnik Lekhi, Welles Hangen, Roger Colne, and Yoshihiko Waku. Yeng Samleng was the name of the driver.
Hoefle was part of a team that discovered the remains of three of the journalists in the ensuing days, and cremated two of them during a ceremony in Phnom Penh.
Almost every journalist from the original group was found in 1992 by the American Joint Prisoners of War, Missing in Action Command.
“All bodies were found, except Iishi,” Hoefle said, referring to the former cameraman who was one of the three Japanese nationals on the trip. “And that was very painful, because Iishi was such a gentleman.”
Whether gentleman, journalist, or, like Iishi, both, Cambodia in 1970 was not a safe place for the curious-minded. In the summer of that year – the same year Lon Nol took over in a coup – 26 journalists and their aides were captured and killed. Twenty died in April and May alone.
There were Khmer Rouge guerrilla forces, Lon Nol’s Khmer Republic military and the North Vietnamese communist troops who had come over from Vietnam, trailed by the US-backed South Vietnamese Army. Combat journalists in Vietnam, whose job it was to follow the sounds of the guns and get close to the front lines, followed the action over the border and into Cambodia.
“The war was coming to Phnom Penh. The good news was that driving to the combat areas took less time; the bad news was that you might not make it back,” wrote Kurt Volkert and T. Jeff Williams in A Cambodian Odyssey and the Deaths of 25 Journalists, which is largely about the quest to find the remains at Wat Po.
Covering Vietnam could mean travelling on military transports and with forces protected by massive amounts of firepower on ground and in the air.
“In Cambodia, on the other hand, our transportation was a rented four-door Mercedes diesel sedan. That was it. There was no backup. If the Mercedes stalled on an empty road, you were stuck,” Volkert and Williams wrote.
The first reporter to fall victim to this new state of affairs was Gilles Caron, a French photographer who left Phnom Penh on April 5 and never came back. Ten more journalists were captured in the following days. One day after Caron disappeared, Sean Flynn, son of the movie star Errol Flynn, and reporting companion Dana Stone drove around a suspicious roadblock on National Road 1 and vanished.
The situation got so bad that a Committee for the Safety of Foreign Correspondents in Cambodia was formed. In the five years between the coup and the fall of Phnom Penh, 37 local and international journalists, photographers and cameramen were killed or went missing in action.
“During five years of war in Cambodia, more journalists were killed in action than in 10 years of Vietnam,” said Minister of Information Khieu Khanharith.
Several of the self-styled “old hacks” were at the ceremony. They recalled scrapes of their own in which, for some reason, fate was kinder.
Mike Morrow was captured in Kampong Cham province in May 1970 by what he believed to be North Vietnamese forces.
A battle broke out while he was detained, and he thinks the military discipline of the soldiers was one of the reasons he’s alive today.
“I consider myself very lucky, because I was one of the few who was captured and lived to talk about it.”