Operation Cambodian Pull784, 6/1/2001
Cambodian Eagle Pull
By LTC Dick Darcy
The inscription on the fly leaf of my Webster’s New World Dictionary of the American Language stirred a memory I had buried.
I had flown out of Phnom Penh’s Pochaton airport many times in the five moths since I had arrived in the Khmer Republic in November 1974 to relieve Sid Johns as the Comptroller of the Military Equipment Delivery Team, Cambodia (MEDTC). This trip, on 2 April 1975, promised to be the last.
On other routine flights from Pochaton to Uda Pao Air Base, in Thailand, I was generally headed to our rear headquarters in Sami San as excess in-country personnel; that is, I was sent out-of-country by the 200-headcount limitation of the so-called “Cooper-Church amendment.” At the time, Congress was so intent on not letting the Executive Branch turn Cambodia into another gradual Vietnam build-up, it had limited the US mission to Cambodia to a presence of no more than 200 executive branch personnel. That limitation was interpreted locally as 200 people overnight. Thus, if a given organization (MEDTC, CIA, Defense Attachés, etc.) within the embassy were going to be over strength, the organization headcounters went about their staffs looking for supernumeraries to send out of country. The MEDTC administrative sergeant would come down the hall, poke his head in various offices looking for volunteers, and, in the event he found none, generally selected me as the least essential person on the team. Sometimes he’d alert me early in the day so that I’d pick up my “dop” kit at the BOQ at lunch but other times the call would come so late in the day as to cause me to jump in an M151 ¼ ton truck and head for the airport to catch the 1700 hour daily flight without so much as a tooth brush. (I learned to keep a kit at the MEDTC building.) In fact, the earlier he would notify me, the more unsettled my day would be. This because the schedule would change and he’d call off my alert; I’d stand-down, and then, apologetically, he’d alert me again. I think I remember one day when I stood-down five times after five alerts. By the end of that day, I had lost track of whether I was up or down.
The flights to Thailand were quick enough and the rear headquarters met the plane with ground transportation and arranged for a BOQ room. Moreover, I recall the meal in the Officers’ Club was generally topped off with ice cream, a delicacy that was not available in Cambodia. The next day was routine enough—coffee, a quick trip to Uda Pao, and a ride on the bird to Phnom Penh. It all seemed rather silly, but I was told at the time, the American ambassador to the Khmer Republic was determined to meet the letter of the law so as to prevent readily available Congressional criticism.
The Team had been under various indirect fire at the embassy since January 1, 1975, and the MEDTC staff had learned to quickly grab helmet and flack jacket on the way to the bunker after the first rockets crashed. What a bizarre site it was to see officers and non commissioned officers in mufti wearing olive drab steel headgear and making weak jokes while waiting for the all clear. Men trained to fight withdrawing to a bunker. But, of course, we weren’t there to fight. We weren’t even there to advise. Heaven forbid! We were there to deliver military equipment so our friends could fight. Interestingly, our personal arms, M-16s and .357 magnums, were kept in our rooms at the BOQs for protection in the event of a night attack. Thus, even if we wanted to fight during the day, we would likely have been less than effective.
On April 1, 1975, the American Embassy in Phnom Penh received a flash message from CINCPAC to evacuate all non-essential personnel. There were early signs that the FANK (French acronym for National Khmer Army Force), our Cambodian friends, couldn’t hold the line against the infamous Khmer Rouge’s spring offensive. This had been predicted in the spring of 1974, as well, but the FANK had held. This time, though, there were signs that South Vietnam was also in trouble (as indeed it was) and the Unified Commander wasn’t certain he had the assets to execute two “Operation Eagle Pull” (as the evacuation plan was known) at the same time.
It was no surprise to me that the one-man Comptroller Office fell under the umbrella of “non-essential personnel.” I wasn’t alone. The evacuees-designate were told to be ready to go in the morning. Our instructions: take only enough to give the impression to your house staff that the leaving is temporary and that you are coming back. Do not say farewell to any Cambodians. Leave enough of your personal belongings to support this impression.
I spent a very short part of the afternoon shopping for a few things. (These would become grim souvenirs of the forthcoming human and geopolitical disaster.) In the morning, as I left the house, I grabbed the above-mentioned dictionary—in a futile, and perhaps irrational, effort to save some vestige of Western civilization from the onslaught of the infidels. Oddly enough, we “non-essentials” had been told to take our helmets, flack jackets, and weapons, so that when we left the embassy compound headed for the airport, we certainly didn’t look like a group on administrative leave.
Pochaton was under intermittent rocket and mortar fire when we arrived and we went for the bunkers while we awaited the arrival of the C-130. The four-engine propeller driven cargo carrier would be on the ground just long enough to load us without much protocol. The plane arrived with the tailgate down and got within 50 yards of our bunker. One at a time we got the shoulder tap that meant our turn. The dash for the rear of the olive drab plane was over quickly. We strapped ourselves in silence, our facial expressions revealing a mix of melancholy, grief and guilt. The heavy-lifter’s engines roared, and we taxied and quickly rose over Phnom Penh with the tailgate barely raised. As the pilot banked the Hercules into a sharp turn, we had one last look at the capital city surrounded by verdant jungle from which, that same month, would emerge an enemy so vicious, so amoral, and so bereft of humanity that it would callously murder two million of its fellow countrymen. I opened the dictionary and wrote on the flyleaf: “Rescued from certain burning and evacuated from Phnom Penh, Cambodia, (signed), 2 April 1975.” In light of subsequent events, would that I could have done more.
Writer’s note: Some of the spelling of Thai, Cambodian and Vietnamese sites may be misspelled. The author apologizes for his faulty memory.