Through a break in the clouds, plumes of black smoke stretched skyward from where the napalm had spread a molten red, oxygen-sucking inferno over the Cambodian village several hundred meters below.
Until that point, the two Cambodian air force pilots had toyed with the South Vietnamese L 19 Cessna observation plane, flying close underneath and catching the small, unarmed aircraft in the “wake” caused by their powerful propellers.
A single-engine, two-seater airplane, the L 19 “Bird Dog” wasn’t their intended target.
As an observation aircraft—a “forward air controller” in military parlance—the L 19 was guilty only of spotting the ground targets for the South Vietnamese A-1 Skyraiders and their payloads of bombs, rockets and napalm.
But the burning village and Cambodians incinerated by napalm in Svay Rieng province fortified, if not justified, the Cambodian pilot’s decision to arm the 50-mm cannons of their T-28 fighter-bombers and rake the smaller plane with bullets.
The L 19 pilots were as helpless as the Cambodian village they had earlier helped destroy from the sky.
Later that year, then-Prince Norodom Sihanouk pinned the Cambodian Gold Star medal to the chests of both the Cambodian flyers who took part in the mission: Sok Sambaur and Prince Sisowath Chivan Monireak.
That the two L 19 pilots killed that day in March 1964 were reportedly US airmen doesn’t trouble the former Cambodian air force pilot who claims sole credit for shooting them down.
What does trouble the old pilot is that another has taken credit for the kill, and Cambodia’s royalty are re-working history and tailoring it to their own acclaim ahead of the July 27 election.
“I spotted the village in Chantrea [district] was still burning with napalm,” Sok Sambaur, 68, recounted last week over a fruit drink in Phnom Penh.
“Then it was my turn to [fly] behind the plane and I gave a burst of bullets and the plane went on fire and fell down,” said Sok Sambaur, re-telling his version of the event that took place almost 40 years ago.
Sok Sambaur has a photocopy of the French-language, photo-reportage weekly Paris Match from 1964 containing an article on the South Vietnamese incursions—largely directed by US military advisers—into Cambodian territory.
Photographs in the Paris Match story show South Vietnamese troops atop an armored personnel carrier looking with displeasure on farmers comforting two young children, their skin blackened and melted to curled sheets, who have been burned horribly by napalm.
Another photograph shows the smoldering village, which Paris Match photo captions claim was inside the Cambodian border. The next photograph shows a crashed South Vietnamese airplane with a US soldier apparently trying to sift through the twisted wreckage.
Sok Sambaur says the aircraft was the one he shot down and the images in Paris Match explain why he did it.
“It’s war. It’s war. Besides, before I decided to shoot him, [I] looked down to the ground and I saw the smoke coming from Chantrea [district],” he said.
“Later on, you know, I saw my people wounded by napalm attack. That justified what I did,” he added.
Sok Sambaur and Prince Chivan Monireak, who the former referred to as his “wing man” during the mission, both received medals. They were both well-trained pilots, having studied in the 1950s under the French air force in Marrakech, Morocco and in France.
Few living in today’s Cambodia would have remembered the obscure war story if Funcinpec President Prince Norodom Ranariddh hadn’t jogged memories of long past battles while campaigning in Kompong Cham province last month.
Part of the Funcinpec campaign spectacle was an air-drop of thousands of leaflets over villages in Kompong Cham province.
Piloting one of the campaign aircraft was Prince Chivan Monireak, a Funcinpec pilot who was “the only Khmer pilot” to shoot down a Vietnamese aircraft, Prince Ranariddh said in a speech broadcast on royalist radio.
Shooting down a Vietnamese aircraft sat well with the prince’s campaign message, which has continues to tap into the deep-seethed, historical animosity many Cambodians feel toward their larger neighbor, Vietnam.
But Prince Ranariddh’s words opened an old, and more personal wound.
It was an insult added to an almost 40-year-old injury Sok Sambaur says he suffered when he shared a medal with Prince Chivan Monireak for downing the aircraft in 1964.
It’s now time to straighten the record, he said.
“[The prince] didn’t have time to arm his machine gun. Then it was my turn,” said Sok Sambaur, adding that he doesn’t think the prince fired a shot.
The prince had the opportunity to shoot the aircraft, but he didn’t take it, said Sok Sambaur, adding it was he who fired with deadly effect.
Crippled and burning, the Vietnamese aircraft nose-dived and “I told [the prince] not to shoot it again,” said Sok Sambaur, adding that it was royal politics that earned the prince a medal.
“The royal family always takes credit. The Khmer kings reigned [in Angkorian times] but it was the Khmer people who built those temples. Now it is the same way, just to glorify the royal family at the election campaign,” Sok Sambaur said.
Prince Chivan Monireak, first deputy president of the Senate, was reluctant last week to discuss the issue.
It happened almost a half century ago, said the prince by telephone, adding that it was not he who brought the event to the public’s attention.
On the conflicting account, Prince Chivan Monireak said: “[Sok Sambaur] was flying with me when we were in the team. He took the first shot. I finished it.” The events were not worth recounts in any further detail, he said.
“I don’t like to talk about the killing. I am not proud about it…. I find no pride in killing,” he said. “I have a principle, I look forward, I never look back,” he added.
Friend and colleague of both the former pilots, Dien Del, Funcinpec parliamentarian and military general during the Sangkum Reastr Niyum regime, the Khmer Republic and the 1980s resistance, said he doesn’t know who shot down the aircraft.
“I don’t know exactly. But [Sok Sambaur] was a star pilot,” Dien Del said of his old friend.
“You know, people said he flew his plane under the Monivong Bridge. I don’t know if it’s true. But the people, they said that,” he said.
That a Cambodian pilot shot down a South Vietnamese aircraft—flown by US pilots—was, under the circumstance of the time, not unusual, Dien Del said.
Dien Del remembered clearly the war on the Cambodian border, the Vietnamese communists who sought refuge on Cambodian soil and the US efforts to root them out.
A battalion commander in the mid-1960s, Dien Del said the Viet Cong had firmly entrenched themselves in Cambodian territory.
The Ho Chi Minh trail cut through Ratanakkiri and Mondolkiri provinces and the Viet Cong and North Vietnamese forces operated as though “it was like their own territory,” he said.
But the war in Vietnam was not yet Cambodia’s concern, said Dien Del, adding that at the time US aid to fight communism was rejected by Cambodia.
“At that time Cambodia had the capability to defend the security of the country and were proud to do that. Now, you know, they have a White Book,” said Dien Del, referring to a document outlining the role and task of the Royal Cambodian Armed Forces.
Lamenting the present-day condition of RCAF and the country’s inability to deal with border encroachment, Dien Del said the situation was a far cry from how the country once was.
“We had some pride you know. We were very proud of our officers corps,” said Dien Del.
“Now [the Ministry of Defense] talk well, write well. But in reality they don’t resolve the problems,” he said.
Sok Sambaur was awarded a second Gold Star medal in 1964 for shooting down another South Vietnamese aircraft that allegedly attacked targets on Cambodian territory.
That time, Sok Sambaur said, he was flying a MiG 17 and took on the more formidable South Vietnamese Skyraider, a fighter-bomber of the Korean War vintage.
By the time Phnom Penh fell to the Khmer Rouge on April, 17, 1975 Sok Sambaur had risen to full colonel, flown 720 combat missions and logged some 538 hours of flying time.
He escaped the Khmer Rouge regime by flying his T 28 air force plane to Bangkok on April 13, a day after the US pulled its embassy staff out of the country.
Sok Sambaur spent the 1980s in the US doing menial work and even taking part in a doughnut shop venture until returning to Cambodia in 1993, when he took up a post at the State Secretariat of Civil Aviation.
He maintains he is still friendly with Prince Chivan Monireak, but feels telling his story has been “long overdue.”
Cambodia was different before, he says.
The country had an air force and it was willing to “hit back”, “tit-for-tat” during encounters with the South Vietnamese, Sok Sambaur said.
Now the airforce doesn’t “have any [aircraft] only a few choppers for the prime minister and all the rest of the planes are on the ground,” he said.
“It’s a sad situation. I know the air force will cost money, but we should have one for the honor of the country.”
(Additional reporting by Michelle Vachon)