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The Maelstrom, From Above

Cover of Call Sign Rustic. Call Sign Rustic by Richard Wood
Smithsonian Institution Press, 2002

In any war, it's tempting to dehumanize the combatants if we feel that their cause was wrong. Many of those on the Right want to believe that the Viet Cong were cold-blooded murderers; many of those on the Left want to believe that the Americans were vile oppressors. Accurate history, however, resists such tidy and simplistic classifications.

Few scholars dispute the devastating effects of the US bombing of Cambodia. Perhaps it is natural, then, that those scholars wouldn't be inclined to view those who flew the missions as heroes.

What makes Call Sign Rustic so worthwhile is that it provides a different perspective on the bombing: this is the air war, seen from the cockpit.

Immediately after the 1970 coup, when Lon Nol and Sirik Matak aligned Cambodia with the Americans, the war shifted into high gear. As Lon Nol's forces came under heavy pressure from the Communists, it became clear that the government's survival would depend in large part on American aid. Since the White House was not enthusiastic about committing ground troops to Cambodia, the bulk of the US support had to come from the air. Hence, the Rustics were born.

The "Rustics" were Forward Air Controllers (FACs). FACs are employed when air bombardment must be used in close support of friendly ground forces. The Rustics' role was to locate and mark the positions of enemy soldiers, allowing either US or Cambodian bombers to attack without endangering friendly forces. Locating friendly forces was not always easy; often the troops on the ground would not know exactly where they were. Sometimes the FACs were forced to rely on landmarks which could be seen both by the troops on the ground, and by the pilots from the air. More often, however, troop positions would be determined by having the ground forces set off smoke grenades so that the flyers could establish their position, and the position of enemy forces.

The idea behind the Rustics was simple enough, but in practice there were a number of difficulties. The first problem was the language barrier. Initially, since few Cambodians spoke English and none of the pilots spoke Khmer, French-speaking personnel were recruited from other Air Force units to serve as interpreters. Serving as "backseaters" for the Rustic pilots, the interpreters passed on their observations and relayed instructions between the pilots and the Cambodian forces on the ground.

Since the transmissions between the Rustics and the Cambodians on the ground were not encrypted, the Communists soon learned the call signs and procedures for calling in air strikes. Using their own radios to masquerade as rebuplican soldiers, they often tried to cancel requested air strikes, or even call in strikes on Lon Nol's soldiers. Ultimately, the Rustics were often forced to rely on a low-tech solution: they relied on recognizing the voices of the Republic's real radio operators.

Not surprisingly, the Rustics sometimes established close relationships with the Cambodians on the ground, expecially the radio operators. One in particular, Lt. San Sok, was well-liked. Known to the Rustics as "Sam," he constantly expressed his gratitude and his concern for the safety of the flyers. A radio exchange recorded by one of the Rustics captures this emotion:

"'Roger, Rustic Redeye, this is Hotel Sam. You know all Rustics and Shadow that is our friends. We have received a debt, but we never repay them. We are very sorry that we couldn't repay them.'

'Roger, Sam, I understand, but we are very proud to do it and don't worry about paying us back. We are very proud to do it.'

'Understand, sir. Understand you very much. But, anyway, Sam is still on your side, during whole of his life, anyway and anywhere and at anytime. He is always on your side.'"

The close relationship between the Rustics and Lon Nol's beleagured defenders sometimes led the Rustics to bend the rules. In the early days of the Rustics' mission, Lon Nol's troops were not being supplied with arms by the US. After seeing a well-armed guerrilla unit chasing government soldiers armed with only aging carbines, one of the Rustics, Major Robert Thomas, decided to circumvent the bureaucracy to provide some impromptu aid. By chance, he happened to see some US Army personnel preparing to destroy a pile of weapons captured from the Vietnamese communists. He mentioned that the Cambodians were fighting without reliable weapons, and "it would be a real payback" if they could turn the Viet Cong's weapons over to the friendlies. Word quickly got around, and soon the Major was getting jeeploads of weapons, all of which were funneled to Republican army.

Wood does a fine job of capturing the predicament of soldiers on the ground, overmatched by more experienced, better-equipped Vietnamese regulars. The NVA's tactics were highly effective. First they would isolate a town by cutting the only road in, leaving the defenders with no means of resupply or reinforcement. Then they would surround the town and bombard it with mortars and artillery. Typically, they would leave one portion of the encirclement open just enough to present an apparent escape route. When the Cambodians tried to use that route, however, the NVA would close in around them, destroying them in the open coutryside.

With the Vietnamese and the Khmer Rouge rapidly conquering territory, Lon Nol declared that the entire area east of the Mekong and north of Kompong Cham had fallen under enemy control. Giving the area the rather odd name of "Freedom Deal," he then announced that any personnel or vehicles within Freedom Deal should be considered enemies, and could be attacked without Cambodian approval.

This policy, needless to say, was not well-received by peasants who happened to live in those areas.

It should be noted that the Rustics were not generally involved with the extensive B-52 bombing of Cambodia. FACs were used when bombing was used in close support of ground troops. The high-altitute B-52s, however, were used against areas where there were no friendly forces or (supposedly) no population centers. Targets were selected by the Cambodian military in Phnom Penh, and then approved by the Seventh Air Force.

The problem, as William Shawcross notes in his excellent book Sideshow, was that it was nearly impossible for a B-52 to avoid hitting populated areas. "...[M]aps used by the bombing panel were only 1:50,000 in scale and several years out of date; the embassy had no recent photography to show the location of new settlements in the massive forced migrations that the Khmer Rouge were now imposing on the areas they controlled.... Inside the embassy, [Political Officer William] Harben was appalled and did what others might have done. He cut out, to scale, the 'box' made by a B-52 strike and placed it on his own map. He found that virtually nowhere in central Cambodia could it be placed without 'boxing' a village. 'I began to get reports of wholesale carnage,' he says. 'One night a mass of peasants from a village near Saang went out on a funeral procession. They walked straight into a "box." Hundreds were slaughtered.'" (Sideshow, pp. 271-272.)

Still, the US military command did understand the ramifications of careless bombing, and the Rustics were bound by specific "Rules of Engagement" (ROE) that defined what could and could not be attacked. At one point, the US commanders decreed that pagodas could not under any circumstances be bombed. Only days after the policy was implemented, one of the Rustics came back from a mission and submitted his film for processing. Jim Gabel was the intelligence officer who reviewed the film:

"'When I saw the pictures, I burst out laughing. He had picture after picture of rice storage sheds with PAGODA neatly painted in large letters on the roof. It had taken just a few days for peasants in the countryside to learn and understand the new ROE.'"

The pagoda problem was complicated by the fact that the Khmer soldiers didn't hesitate to use them for military purposes. The Rustics learned to work around the restriction by never referring to the temples as "pagodas." Instead, they simply began referring to them generically as "large buildings."

As the war progressed and Lon Nol's strongholds became more isolated, Phnom Penh's only links to the outside world were by air, and by ship convoys brought up the Mekong. The Rustics were sometimes assigned to provide air support for the convoys, which were in danger of constant ambush from soldiers along the riverbanks. In the summer of 1971, the Rustics defended one such convoy as it neared Phnom Penh, with heavy combat raging from late afternoon and well into the next day. They were later infuriated to learn that it was delivering not food and munitions, but rather two hundred Honda motorscooters for a local dealer.

Corruption, in fact, is often cited as one of the primary factors leading to Lon Nol's downfall. Particularly troubling was the presence of "phantom soliders" in Lon Nol's army. This came about in part because Cambodian commanders were expected to recruit their own troops:

"According to [Col. Lieou Phin] Oum, if someone told the Army that he could raise a battalion, the Army said "OK" and made him a colonel. He would then report nonexistent soldiers and receive pay and supplies for them. The money went to the corrupt officers and the supplies including weapons, munitions, rations, and medicine, went to the black market and found their way to the NVA. 'Sometimes,' according to Oum, 'a battalion would actually have only one company instead of three and the company would only have fifteen soldiers instead of three hundred. Army headquarters could not understand how a company that supposedly had three hundred soldiers could be overrun by a platoon-sized enemy force.'"

One could criticize Call Sign Rustic for failing to provide much context for the events described in the book. It should be pointed out, however, that the book doesn't pretend to provide a high-level view of the war in Cambodia; it's a history of the Rustics, nothing more, nothing less. More troubling, perhaps, are the comments in the Introduction by retired Lt. Col Mark Berent. Berent served as a combat pilot in Vietnam and later as the Air Attache in the American Embassy in Phnom Penh. "In January of 1973," he writes, "much to Ho Chi Minh's delight, a cowardly Congress stopped American combat in Vietnam." Aside from the casual slander of branding the war's opponent's "cowards," the statement seems to imply that everything would have worked out fine in Cambodia, if only the US had kept dropping bombs. That's a dubious sentiment, to say the least.

Call Sign Rustic will not change anyone's opinion on the US role in Indochina. It might, however, allow readers to see the pilots' role in a different light: They were brave men, risking their lives for a doomed army.

Call Sign Rustic, fittingly, is dedicated to the Cambodians who lost their lives in the defense of their country, and to the Rustics killed in action: 1st Lt. Garrett Edward Eddy, 1st Lt. Michael Stephen Vrablick, and 1st Lt. Joseph Gambino Jr..

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