‘Old Hacks’ Return to Honor Journalists Lost on Highway 3

Baset district, Kompong Speu province – The river meanders through the sun-baked fields, parched for lack of rain. Two pairs of water buffalo loll past, their carts tinkering behind them. On the bank, a small boy fills and emp­­ties a plastic bottle.

Lon Nol regime Information Minister Chhang Song and a group of veteran war journalists visit a memorial site in Kompong Speu province on Tuesday to pay their respects to four journalists killed in an ambush and five more who were executed there in 1970. (Lauren Crothers/The Cambodia Daily)
Lon Nol regime Information Minister Chhang Song and a group of veteran war journalists visit a memorial site in Kompong Speu province on Tuesday to pay their respects to four journalists killed in an ambush and five more who were executed there in 1970. (Lauren Crothers/The Cambodia Daily)

Veteran journalists, including war photographers Tim Page and Roland Neveu and Dispatch News Service founder Michael Mor­row, gathered here Tuesday along with Information Minister Khieu Kanharith and Chhang Song, who was the Minister of Information during the Lon Nol re­gime, to un­veil a plaque in mem­ory of nine journalists who were killed during the war in Cam­bodia in 1970.

The journalists—six working for CBS and three for NBC—perished as the result of an ambush on Na­tional Road 3 by Viet Cong and Khmer Rouge soldiers. Amer­icans George Syvertsen and Ger­ald Mil­ler, Indian Ramnik Lekhi and Cam­bodian Yeng Samleng died when a B-40 rocket hit their vehicle; George Syvert­sen was shot to death after surviving the initial impact.

Later, Japanese journalists To­moharu Ishii, Kojiro Sakai and Yoshihiro Waku, American Welles Hangen and Frenchman Roger Colne, who were traveling b­e­hind, were taken to a nearby village and hacked and shot to death near to where Tuesday’s ceremony took place.

For more than 20 years, the ar­ea was unyielding, keeping a firm hold of its dead. Then, in 1992, it began to relinquish its ghosts until the remains of all but one—To­moharu Ishii, a Japanese CBS cam­eraman—were uncovered in a bend in the river.

“It’s very moving to be here,” Mr. Song said. “These journalists were close friends of mine.

“Every day we would hear of people killed or captured; it was very emotional for me.”

The area is quiet and typically rural; the atmosphere punctuated only by the crush of gravel under the occasional motorbike wheel. But its past makes it seem stark, desolate and lonely.

Near a thirsty looking Bodhi tree planted in remembrance in 2010, the plaque that was unveiled Tuesday reads: “In memory of the journalists killed at this place in May 1970 covering the war in Cambodia. Their words and images remain to remind us forever of the truth.”

Of all the years that claimed the lives of reporters covering the con­flict in Cambodia, 1970 was the most ghastly as 26 journalists perished—most in April and May.

After prayers were read out by monks and a group of kneeling villagers clutching pink flowers, CBS cameraman Kurt Hoefle began reciting the list of the nine newsmen who died as a result of the ambush. As he read the name of his friend, George Syvertsen, his voice began to quiver.

“It’s really an emotional moment for me, because they were my friends who were killed,” Mr. Hoefle said afterward, adding that he had managed to talk his way out of the clutches of North Viet­namese soldiers who apprehended him and two Americans the week before.

“We were one of the very few lucky ones who survived,” he said. “You didn’t know where the front was…. We were driving air conditioned Mercedes around listening to rock ‘n roll music, having cold drinks in the back of the car.”

The war in Cambodia was fresh and utterly volatile. Re­porters were thrust into a world of operating under very different circumstanc­es; they would leave the heady luxury of the Le Royal Hotel and drive out onto the highways in rented vehicles in search of the front. Unlike Vietnam, to which many were ac­customed, there was no U.S. military backup. The journalists were mostly left to their own devices, and while this afforded them new freedoms in searching for stories, it was al­so an ex­tremely dangerous way of operating.

But ultimately, according to Mr. Kanharith, it was a very cruel and vio­lent war—one that claimed more journalists’ lives in five years than 10 years did in the Viet­nam War.

“So we want to say to all these people who struggle to bring news to the public, that they are not wasting their time. We have to re­member them.”

Today, the “old hacks,” as they call themselves, will officially dedicate a memorial erected in front of Raffles Hotel to the 37 dead and missing.

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