War correspondent recalls the events that led to the deaths of nine colleagues.
Working as a cameraman for CBS in May 1971, Kurt Volkert did something that under different circumstances he would have considered unthinkable: He told his boss that a story wasn’t worth the risk.
The next day, he and a group of stunned fellow journalists sat by the pool at Hotel Le Phnom, mourning those killed in the most ill-fated expedition undertaken by journalists covering the war in Cambodia.
Today, more than two dozen journalists who covered the war will visit the site where five of their colleagues died that day, May 31, 1971. Four others were killed at a separate location the following day in a related incident of violence.
Sitting poolside at the same hotel on Wednesday, Volkert told the story he helped unearth of how they lost their lives nearly four decades ago.
Journalists here exposed themselves to extraordinary dangers. What was the primary motivation to do that: the competition, the pressure of your bosses, pure gung-ho enthusiasm or a simple desire to pursue stories?
I think it’s a combination of all. There was a desire to get the story out, otherwise we wouldn’t be doing this job.
But there was also competition, and what we call the mahogany foxholes in New York certainly did exert pressure. And if the competition – I’m talking about television now – NBC or ABC would have a better story, then we would get what’s called a rocket from New York; you know, we would get hit by this rocket.
We beat the others, and they beat us. And there certainly was an aspect of competition, an aspect of adventurism and an aspect of professionalism. I think these things did come together, but competition certainly did play a role and should.
Can you take us through the events of Wat Po?
The CBS crew ignored the last warning by a Cambodian roadblock maybe 10 or 15 kilometres out of town. That wasn’t atypical, because sometimes these roadblocks knew less than we did. But the CBS crew came upon a small stream and a wooden bridge that was destroyed. That actually should have been the cause for all bells to start ringing: Stop now, don’t go any further.
But the CBS correspondent crew, for reasons known only to God, took the jeep with the correspondent and the drivers, the interpreter, and to have a cameraman he took the freelance Indian cameraman who had a silent camera, and bypassed the broken bridge and went down and got back onto the highway after the bridge.
They went down another 500 meters and there was a team of [Viet Cong] and Khmer Rouge – I don’t know what exactly the makeup was – infantrymen with a rocket-propelled launcher. And they hit the jeep with that rocket-propelled grenade. It killed all of them except the correspondent. He staggered out, and he was gunned down.
In the meantime, the CBS Mercedes with the Japanese camera crew waited before the bridge. They couldn’t ford the little stream. And then NBC came upon them, and then they were all captured by the advancing Viet Cong and Khmer Rouge troops and taken to Thnal Bat, which is a few miles down the road from Baeng Ksain.
They were kept overnight in a teacher’s house, and early in the morning they were driven in the NBC Opal, I think, to Wat Po ... and they were led 500 yards west of Wat Po into a bamboo grove, and I was told that the village idiot from Kandal, which is a little village between the turnoff and Wat Po, he beat them to death. They had to kneel down in a circle, and ... they were beaten to death by the village idiot.
When we found them 22 years later, we found holes in their skulls up front.
You’ve spoken before about how strange it must have seemed to Cambodians to see you coming back in 1992 looking for the remains of five people when so many people died here. Can you elaborate on that?
The Cambodian villagers were great. First of all, there was an economic side to it – they had a job for a month. The army hired people carrying buckets and digging and doing all kinds of supportive work there, and I think they were well-paid.
I think it was hard for them to understand that in a country where you had a holocaust killing millions of fellow citizens, that we would care so much for the remains of five people. I think that was a learning process to go through for them, that we showed so much respect and interest to recover these remains.
In the end there was a very good relationship. Even in ’92, it was still a bit of a dicey area and we had about 100 Cambodian soldiers guarding the whole digging operation. And we rewarded them well for it.
But the villagers, I think, went through their own process, from shaking their heads that we cared so much about five people in a country where millions died, until they came around to thinking every life is worth something, and it just cannot be just thrown away the way it was during the Cambodian holocaust.
Interview by David Boyle