Inside the precincts of the French Embassy in Phnom Penh on Friday, Cambodian war veteran Danh Som received the highest award given by the French Republic for outstanding military service.
French Ambassador Jean-Francois Desmazieres awarded Sergeant Danh Som, 79, with the Legion of Honor during a ceremony marking the 70th anniversary of Charles de Gaulle’s renowned radio appeal to his compatriots to resist the Nazi occupation of France.
“I am so happy that I received this medal because the French needed and respected me,” said Sgt Som in an interview shortly after receiving his prestigious award.
“I devoted my life to fighting for them and now they pay me back.”
Sgt Som, 79, who served in the French army between 1952 and 1967, participated in two French military campaigns and is one of only two known Cambodian war veterans still living who fought for the French army during the Indochina colonial period.
Today Sgt Som lives a modest existence in Phnom Penh and is barely able to hear, the result of a roadside bomb that exploded while on a foot patrol with his platoon in Vietnam in the early 1950s.
But the memories of an incredibly tumultuous period of French military history are still very real to him.
Sgt Som encountered fierce fighting against the Viet Minh as they fought to liberate their country from French rule. He later encountered an equally bloody war fighting against the nationalist movement in Algeria between 1956 and 1960.
Despite the dangers, Sgt Som said he found refuge in the French military as a young man. At the age of 11, his family was killed in fighting between Vietnamese and Khmer forces.
“That’s why I embraced the French army,” he said.
Sgt Som joined the French colonial forces in 1952 and initially fought Viet Minh revolutionaries in Vietnam near the border with Cambodia’s Svay Rieng province. In 1953, he was dispatched to fight in some of the most tenacious fighting in north Vietnam, and even came close to participating in the Battle of Dien Bien Phu.
“It was at Dien Bien Phu where French soldiers parachuted in and were totally surrounded by the Viet Minh,” he recounted on Friday. My unit “was called to parachute at Dien Bien Phu but when we arrived the situation was not going well. So the commander of our company ordered us to return to base,” he said, reminiscing on the disastrous battle that was a singular defeat for French forces and marked the end of French Indochina.
“Every time the soldiers jumped they were all caught,” he said of the parachutists who jumped as reinforcements into the beleaguered valley of Dien Bien Phu before the French bases were captured.
After the French lost in 1954, Sgt Som went to live in France. But it wasn’t long until he was back in action, this time in the highly politicized Algerian War.
In 1962 when then French President Charles de Gaulle granted total independence to Algeria, Sgt Som said that General Raoul Salan, who commanded the French army in Algeria, was “greatly upset.”
“We’d won the war. So why give independence,” Sgt Som said, still noticeably perturbed by the decision.
The Algerian War split France in two, positioning more traditionalist pro-colonialists against those who favored Algeria’s right to ‘self determination.’
In April of 1961, the pro-colonialist Gen Salan helped organize a failed coup d’etat to overthrow de Gaulle, who was already considering granting Algeria independence.
Lieutenant-Colonel Damien Besombes, a French Foreign Legionnaire based at the embassy in Phnom Penh, said Sgt Som was an historic character in so far as he is one of only two former French soldiers from Cambodia still known to be living.
“He is most definitely a unique case in Cambodia,” Lt Col Besombes said.
“Abroad we try and associate our former war veterans so they are recognized and remembered for their services,” he added.
At the French Embassy on Friday a young boy from the French school Lycee Rene Descartes read aloud de Gaulle’s appeal of resistance against the Nazis.
Also marking the historic day, French President Nicolas Sarkozy visited London in recognition that de Gaulle made his speech from the BBC’s studios.
“Whatever happens, the flame of the French resistance must not and will not be extinguished,” de Gaulle said at the time.
With his medal pinned to his chest, Sgt Som stood proud as he listened to those words on Friday.
Asked if he still felt loyalty to France after having spent so many years soldering for the country, Sgt Som said: “I’m still loyal to France. I have French nationality now. I always embrace the French.”