In 1971, Spencer Dale was a 26-year-old flight attendant. Over the next few years, during his time off, he took extended trips to Kampong Speu, where he fought the Khmer Rouge alongside legendary General Norodom Chantaraingsey. The footage he shot on those extraordinary trips, which has remained unseen until now, will soon be made into a documentary.
In 1971, when the civil war in Cambodia between the Lon Nol government forces and Khmer Rouge was in its early stages, Australian Spencer Dale was in his twenties and working as a flight attendant for Qantas.
On his days off, for reasons which neither he nor the people who know him can fully understand, he flew to Cambodia, where he joined the entourage of a legendary General in Kampong Speu province and hovered somewhere between being an observer in the civil war and an active participant.
The some seven hours of film, and hundreds of still photographs he shot are now – almost 20 years later – being turned into a documentary that filmmakers believe is a story that will “go down in history”.
Scenes from the documentary show vivid firefights in the countryside; bullets whipping through palm leaves; the gory deaths of soldiers and their superiors alike.
And, in some of the frames, a lone Westerner: a young man in a crisp shirt leaning from a helicopter as rice paddies slide by underneath. Pen in hand, dressed in combat uniform and poring over a map with soldiers, there’s Dale.
He was able to secure an unusual level of access to the frontlines thanks to the friendship he developed with General Norodom Chantaraingsey, a flamboyant independent warlord who controlled a 200-square mile “fief” in Kampong Speu province, encompassing 60 villages and an estimated 100,000 people.
Known as much for the lavish parties he threw, awash with fine French food, wine and women, as his military accomplishments, Chantaraingsey took Dale under his wing and out on military expeditions.
Over the years that followed, Dale returned to the country around 15 times on trips ranging from three or four days to four weeks, resulting in around seven hours of footage from the frontlines of the war. None of it was sold to a media outlet.
In 1983, Brisbane documentary maker Evan Ham attempted to make a documentary from Dale’s film but the project collapsed. Dale was left so dejected that he laid the project aside, and nearly 20 years passed before it came into the hands of Mike Brown in December 2011.
“As I was performing the digital conversion I was totally amazed at what I was watching - these weren’t your average family home movies,” said Brown.
“My first impression was that Spencer must be very high up in the Australian or US military to have been given access to such close combat, and Cambodian commanders and generals.”
He was nothing of the kind – an Australian flight attendant who simply decided to, in his own words, “do the Sean Flynn thing” and fly into Cambodia while he had time off in Bangkok in 1971. He even got free tickets.
Sean Flynn, son of actor Errol Flynn and a photojournalist known for his coverage of the Vietnam War, had disappeared the year before while travelling by motorbike along Highway One. He is believed to have been captured and killed by Khmer Rouge forces, one of at least 37 journalists who died during the conflict.
“After seeing the stories on TV I decided to buy a lot of cameras and photograph the war. At that time he’d just disappeared and there was a lot of mystery and I just wanted to get in and see this myself,” said Spencer in a phone interview from Brisbane, where he is retired.
“I just wanted a quiet, peaceful but adventurous life. I didn’t want to go to war and have people shooting at me. But that’s exactly what happened in a way.”
It was the threat of violence that brought him to General Chantaraingsey. A few days after he arrived in Phnom Penh he spent the night in a pagoda that was, unbeknownst to him, close to General Chantaraingsey’s Kampong Speu base, where he was head of Brigade 13.
That night, the Khmer Rouge launched an all-out offensive against the pagoda. The General, having heard about Spencer, sent troops to beat them back. The next morning the pair were introduced and a firm friendship developed.
“He was revered as a God – as he was humble, he was a gentleman, he was a very giving man,” Dale said, adding that his days in were spent on picnics and weekend getaways to villas, as well as watching the fighting.
He came close to death – the film shows a colonel shot and killed beside him - and carried several guns as a precaution, he said.
“Chantaraingsey told me that I should always carry a concealed pistol. I was armed all the time.”
On several occasions, he was forced to use it, he said, including once when he was attacked by three Khmer Rouge recruits dressed as Lon Nol soldiers.
“It was in a jeep, in the late afternoon. They had a lot of weapons. I walked away and they didn’t.”
They also plotted to remove Lon Nol in a bloodless coup, he said – a plan that was never carried out.
“I stayed up all night with him [Chantaraingsey] at his father’s villa, we secretly mapped out a path for Cambodia,” Dale said.
The General himself was “personally very rich and a charming man with a very French demeanor,” said a former US diplomat, posting on an online forum for journalists who covered the wars in Vietnam and Cambodia.
He recalled indulgent embassy parties hosted by Chantaraingsey.
“Apart from lavish food there were games of various sorts, including volleyball, elephant rides, dancing and additional amusements with the ladies (who were professionals),” he wrote.
“He claimed that he had purchased most of his weaponry himself and that he was not allocated much of anything by the government. In this sense he was something of an independent warlord but without the negative connotations that thus term usually conveys.”
Different narratives have emerged surrounding Chantaraingsey’s fate after the regime took the capital.
According to Chhang Song, a former information minister under the deposed Lon Nol government, the General was shot in the leg and killed by the Khmer Rouge as he tried to escape from his headquarters in Kampong Speu shortly after the fall of Phnom Penh.
Dale, however, said during subsequent trips to Cambodia he has spoken to former Khmer Rouge soldiers who say they saw him caught in a booby trap with two grenades.
“There are people in Cambodia who were present at the murder but they won’t admit to it,” he said.
As for Dale himself, he returned to Australia, continued working for Qantas before working importing goods to the country, and held onto his footage.
“I just returned to a mundane existence and tried to forget everything because really all the friends I had made in Cambodia – the generals and colonels – my very, very close friends, all of them died. None of them escaped.
“I look back at the film now and I see all these great people, who were greater than me, and they’re all dead and gone.
“I think about it constantly – it was probably the highlight of my life but also the most horrible time.”
What puzzles the people who knew him in the 70s, or have heard his extraordinary story since, is why a 26-year-old flight attendant from Australia would choose to become embroiled in another country’s war.
After all, he seemed to be simply an “ordinary” and “nice Australian bloke”, as Alan Dawson, the former Saigon bureau chief for United Press International, who was involved in the 1983 documentary, remembered.
“I could never get from Spencer or anyone who had ever met Spencer why he had this admittedly strange hobby,” Dawson wrote in an email from Bangkok.
“He just liked to do it. Some people read, some people try different restaurants, some people do woodworking, some people fly off to Cambodia to get involved in the war...”