A Cambodian Odyssey and the Deaths of 25 Journalists
by Kurt Volkert and T. Jeff Williams
In May 1970, 25 journalists lost their lives in a sun-drenched corner of the Cambodian countryside. A Cambodian Odyssey tells the story of eight of those men, and the story of a colleague's determined effort to learn their fate.
Odyssey is divided into two parts: T. Jeff William's introductory history, and Kurt Volkert's account of the journalists' disappearance, and his notes from a 1992 effort to recover the bodies. The authors write from firsthand experience: both men covered the war in Indochina.
Williams does an excellent job setting the stage, concisely capturing the madness of the Lon Nol era. Descriptions of Lon Nol's brutal pogroms against the country's Vietnamese minority are particularly vivid, and Williams notes that the brutality ultimately backfired:
"News stories about the massacre sparked outrage in Saigon, particularly among South Vietnam air force pilots. These pilots, who had regularly attacked North Vietnamese positions in Cambodia, now took special delight in strafing and bombing Cambodian villages in retaliation. As international opinion swelled against the Lon Nol government, it declared that 450,000 Vietnamese residents in Cambodia represented a subversive risk. More than 200,000 Vietnamese were eventually rounded up and shipped to South Vietnam while thousands more were held in detention camps."
"A few weeks later I was with Cambodian troops trying to dislodge a large Khmer Rouge and North Vietnamese unit from the Elephant Mountains between Phnom Penh and the Gulf of Thailand. The battalion commander implored me to have the U.S. send American pilots to support them, not South Vietnamese. 'The South Vietnamese pilots are not as accurate, not as careful as the Americans,' he said. What he was really saying was that the Saigon pilots didn't give a rat's ass who they bombed, Cambodians or North Vietnamese. As far as they were concerned, both were enemies."
Lon Nol's soldiers seemed to have trouble understanding the distinctions between allies and enemies as well. At one point, Williams asked a government commander if the villagers in the area were cooperating with the Cambodian army. No, the officer replied. "'We do not have enough guns to provide them security. We need more guns.'" Williams asked why the government didn't try to build support, "'perhaps by not shelling them indiscriminately?'" The officer scoffed. "'You don't win wars with people, you win with guns,' he said with some frustration. It was an unwitting reversal of one of the basic rules of guerrilla warfare as laid out by Mao Tse-tung."
In this milieu of violence and madness, Williams sums up the journalists' experience nicely, in a brief chapter called "Mercedes Marauders":
"In Vietnam, journalists traveled on U.S. or Vietnamese military transport... you were always surrounded by well-armed troops with lots of support, including artillery, helicopter gunships and fast-movers like F-4 Phantoms loaded with 250-pound bombs and napalm canisters. In Vietnam, you might be surrounded by the NVA, too, but you were among superbly trained and disciplined American soldiers. Finally, if the situation turned desperate, U.S. Army helicopter pilots would fly through unbelievable amounts of enemy fire to get everybody out.
"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. No one was coming to pick you up. The primary goal in covering Cambodia was to travel to the combat areas and back without being shot or captured. To do that, you had to drive from Phnom Penh down long, empty highways with no security to wherever you believed a battle was going on. You didn't know what you would find when you got there, if you got there."
"Enroute, you first went through some slipshod army checkpoints, which were usually just some empty 55-gallon oil drums in the middle of the road with a bamboo pole across them... If the soldiers smiled and waved you through, that could mean a) it was calm out there, b) they didn't know what was out there, or c) they wanted you to check it out for them. But if they made shooting sounds and drew their fingers across their throats, it might be time to reconsider your travel plans.
"Still, you couldn't accept government claims of victory; you had to check it out yourself. So you drove mile after mile past dreary rice fields and through small villages that clung to each side of the road. To survive, you had to learn to read the landscape: were people working in the fields or were they empty? Why had the oncoming traffic, sparse as it was, suddenly stopped? Did the people in the village you drove through appear relaxed or afraid? You also drove at high speed, particularly if the tropical darkness seemed about to overtake you. Never wanting to be caught in the countryside at night, you raced through empty towns, swerving or stopping for nothing short of a human or a barricade. Chickens and little swaybacked pigs scurried across the road in front of you at their peril."
Against this backdrop, Kurt Volkert describes the events leading up to the death of his colleagues... and nearly his own death as well. Competition among the journalists was intense, and Volkert believed that his own boss at CBS, George Syvertsen, was pushing too hard. "We argued for long hours... I said I was fed up with our unappreciated but highly dangerous assignment in Cambodia... George disagreed and strongly implied that he intended to go on following the Cambodian army on a daily basis." The next morning, knowing that Syvertsen and Volkert had argued, producer Gerry Miller suggested that Volkert accompany another reporter to Neak Leung, instead of travelling with Syvertsen to Takeo. Accompanied by their Cambodian driver, Syvertsen, Miller, and three other journalists - Tomoharu Ishii, Kojiro Sakai, and Ramnik Lekhi - left the hotel at 8 AM. They never returned.
Volkert later reconstructed what happened from witness accounts: travelling in two cars, the journalists passed a series of government checkpoints; at the last checkpoint, they drove past a roadblock, possibly in the mistaken belief that the front line was still farther down the road, where it had been a few days earlier. They drove straight into an ambush. Miller, Syvertsen, Lekhi, and Sam Leng, their Cambodian driver, were killed almost immediately. Ishii and Sakai, farther back, were initially unharmed. Meanwhile, three more journalists from NBC - Welles Hangen, Roger Colne, and Yoshiniko Waku - had set off after the CBS crew, afraid that they would be scooped by the competition. They caught up with Ishii and Sakai just as Khmer Rouge and Viet Cong soldiers appeared. All five were captured and later executed.
In the final section of the book, Volkert conveys the herculean magnitude of the 1992 search for the bodies. We're captivated by the team's dogged efforts to bring closure to the missing men's families. Volkert notes that there is a certain irony to undertaking such a massive effort to find a handful of bodies in Cambodia. After all, the Cambodians themselves had lived through a holocaust; no family was untouched. How would the Cambodians react to the search? Would they resent the time, the money, the effort expended by the Americans in a search for a mere five people? Initially, Volkert imagined that the Cambodians would see the entire task as absurd.
"But the villagers of Wat Po, as Bun Wat and Peter tell me, see it differently. Mistreated and ignored for centuries by whomever ruled in Phnom Penh, they and their ancestors were used to being treated as a nameless mass of peasants barely worthy enough to set the tables of the rich and noble.
"Respect for life and the dignity of the individual were never part of their lives. And then we came after 20 years to look for five people, showing that we care for the fate of every individual, a respect they were never accorded."
This is a fascinating book, but one wishes it had been refined a little more. Volkert's journal, kept during the recovery effort in 1992, makes up the final section of the book. Unfortunately, it lacks the polish of the earlier chapters, and it feels a bit disorganized. Still, the story is compelling enough that the reader will overlook the book's rough edges.
As the search for the lost men nears completion, Volkert reflects on the nature of war reporting:
"Recounting the incident of 1970, I relearned how unimportant and temporal the products of my profession can be. No one remembers the story our people died for. Is it only the continuity of our reporting that counts, as if our daily stories were bricks in a huge wall? Would this wall, representing the total information of our lifetime, collapse if the Cambodian stones were missing?"
Missing bricks, missing journalists. One forgotten story in an avalanche of news. Five missing bodies in a land of two million corpses. Maybe the villagers of Wat Po had it right: respect for the individual meant that recovering the bodies really did mean something. And maybe the twenty-five journalists who lost their lives in Cambodia had it right, too: respect for the truth meant that covering the story really did mean something.
The journalists killed or missing in Cambodia in 1970 were:
Gilles Caron, French, working for Agence Gamma, who disappeared near Svay Rieng, April 5, 1970
Sean Flynn, American, a freelancer, near Svay Rieng on April 6, 1970
Dana Stone, American, from CBS, Svay Rieng, April 6, 1970
Claude Arpin, French, Newsweek, Svay Rieng, April 6, 1970
Guy Hannoteaux, French, L'Express, Svay Rieng, April 6, 1970
Akira Kusaka, Japanese, Fuji TV, Svay Rieng, April 6, 1970
Yujiro Takagi, Japanese, Fuji TV, Svay Rieng, April 6, 1970
George Gensluckner, Austrian, freelance, Svay Rieng, April 8, 1970
Dieter Bellendorf, German, NBC, Svay Rieng, April 8, 1970
Willy Mettler, Swiss, freelance, Kampot, April 16, 1970
Takeshi Yanagisawa, Japanese, Nippon Denpa, Kampot, May 10, 1970
Terro Nakajima, Japanese, Omori Research, location unknown, May 29, 1970
George Syvertson, American, CBS, Takeo, May 31, 1970
Gerry Miller, American, CBS, Takeo, May 31, 1970
Ramnik Lekhi, Indian, CBS, Takeo, May 31, 1970
Tomoharu Ishii, Japanese, CBS, Takeo, May 31, 1970
Kojiro Sakai, Japanese, CBS, Takeo, May 31, 1970
Yoshiniko Waku, Japanese, NBC, Takeo, May 31, 1970
Welles Hangen, American, NBC, near Takeo, May 31, 1970
Roger Colne, French, NBC, Takeo, May 31, 1970
Rene Puissesseau, French, ORTF, Siem Reap, July 7, 1970
Raymond Meyer, French, ORTF, Siem Reap, July 7, 1970
Johannes Duynisveld, Dutch, freelance, location unknown, September 18, 1970
Kyoichi Sawada, Japanese, UPI, Takeo, October 28, 1970
Frank Frosch, American, UPI, Takeo, October 28, 1970