Prey Kdei village, Svay Rieng province – The bomb crater, once wide, deep, and jagged, is now a serene algae-coated pond.
Torn into the soft sandy soil nearly 40 years ago, the crater has gradually retreated with time, collecting dirt, plants and water. But residents of Koki commune still remember its deadly, unannounced arrival.
“I usually talk about this with my sister and sometimes we cry,” said Mann Ran, 55, while standing at the edge of the gaping hole, one of many that are found throughout the eastern half of the country, remnants of America’s covert and illegal bombing campaigns of Cambodia that began 40 years ago today.
Between March 18, 1969 and August 15, 1973, US warplanes carpet-bombed, sometimes indiscriminately, “neutral” Cambodia, killing civilians, pulverizing the countryside and pulling the nation deeper into the conflict in neighboring Vietnam. Causality estimates range from as few as 5,000 Cambodians to more than half a million.
The March 18 barrage, however, was not the first.
The US Air Force actually began bombing rural regions of Cambodia along the South Vietnam border in 1965, making Operation Menu essentially an escalation of the prior air attacks. Overall, the long-range B-52 bombers flew more than 230,000 sorties over Cambodia and dropping roughly 2.75 million tons of ordnance on more than 113,000 Cambodian sites from October 1965 to August 1973.
The total payload, revised in 2000 after the release of declassified US military documents, is almost five-fold what was originally thought to be the accurate number and more than the total tonnage of bombs dropped by the Allied forces during World War II, counting the two atomic bombs used on Japan.
Staring at the bomb crater outside her brother’s home, Mann Phal said that although the crater has become smaller, her emotions from that time still remain strong.
“It was bigger then. Now it is getting shallower after all these years. It was a long time ago,” she said though quickly adding, “I’m still angry.”
For several months in the early 1970s, Mann Phal was a young girl who lived with her family under the constant threat of daytime air raids. Planes would drop strings of bombs for hours, she said, destroying rice paddies, scrub forests and villages. Fearing for their lives, her father eventually forbid the children from wandering too far from home.
“I had to be ready to run into the hole,” she said, referring to the family’s makeshift air-raid bunker.
One day, while trying to fix a flat tire on her father’s bicycle under the family’s house, then 10-year-old Mann Phal heard her father’s voice calling.
“My father said, ‘Child, run into the bunker, the plane is coming. Come to the bunker,'” Mann Phal recounted standing outside her childhood home in Prey Kdei village. “At that time, the bombs were too close.”
Before she could reach it, the bunker, a low pit covered with tree branches and dirt, took a direct hit. The explosion tore her family to pieces and hurled a chunk of her father’s leg on to a treetop. The bodies of her mother and siblings were eviscerated.
That bomb also sent searing hot shrapnel into Mann Phal’s head, legs and arms.
Her brother, Mann Ran, was driving the family’s cattle in the fields with another brother, when the attack began. He ran to their home and scooped up his unconscious 10-year-old sister, carrying her to safety as her blood soaked his shirt.
Mann Phal survived, but her arm was left dangling by bits of flesh and bone, and was later amputated at her armpit.
Their grandmother returned to the blast site hours later to collect body parts strewn about and buried them together in a single grave.
Both of Mann Phal’s parents and four siblings were among the uncounted people killed in that one tiny village that day.
Operation Breakfast was the code name for the US military’s first bombing campaign of Cambodia on March 18, 1969, which struck Romeas Hek district’s Koki commune within the 25 square kilometer target area. Named after a morning meeting at the US Department of Defense, the maneuver was one of six secretive missions aimed at destroying bases inside Cambodia used by communist troops fighting the US during the war in Vietnam.
Based along the Vietnam-Cambodian border, the first strikes zeroed in on the sanctuaries and later on the so-called Ho Chi Minh trail, the name given to the complex of pathways and roads down which supplies and communist soldiers passed from North Vietnam through Laos and Cambodia’s eastern borders and back into South Vietnam.
US President Richard Nixon authorized the campaigns-Breakfast, Lunch, Snack, Supper, Dinner and Dessert-in an effort to rout the Vietnamese as well as later assert the new administration’s tenacity and willingness to continue military action as the US wound down its military involvement in Vietnam. Attempting to pull US troops out of the Vietnam conflict, the rational was that the bombing helped keep the North Vietnamese at bay while America soldiers withdrew.
Under Nixon’s orders, the bombing of Cambodia was kept confidential with only a handful of military and political figures knowing the full extent of the strikes.
“[Nixon] wants a massive bombing campaign in Cambodia. He doesn’t want to hear anything. It’s an order, it’s to be done,” National Security Adviser Henry Kissinger told his then military assistant General Alexander Haig in December of 1970, according to a government transcript of the telephone conversation. “Anything that flies on anything that moves. You got that?”
As the bombs rained down on border villages, North Vietnamese forces took shelter deeper inside Cambodia. The B-52s simply followed them. Toward the end of the campaign, the bombings even tried to halt the advance of the Khmer Rouge on the tottering government of Lon Nol in Phnom Penh.
Seated under his home, Phork Sokhom recalled the difficult and terrifying days during the secret bombing. A bald man missing his front teeth, the 57-year-old said the explosions would start every morning at between 8 and 9 am and drive villagers into their foxholes.
“We lived like the frog,” he said Saturday in Prey Kdei village. “I lived in the bunker.”
One bomb landed about 20 meters from his house and tore the wooden structure asunder. Short sprigs of mint now grow in the 5-meter crater the blast punched into the ground.
The lasting impact of the Cambodia bombing campaigns has been the subject of much debate among historians and observers of Cambodia.
Many have argued the operations had the opposite effect of demolishing communist forces inside the country. Instead of breaking the backs of the North Vietnamese Army and turning Cambodian’s against their occupation of the countryside, Operation Menu prompted Cambodians to support the communists, including those who would later become the Khmer Rouge.
Ben Kiernan, a history professor at Yale University in the US and expert on Cambodia, has argued that Nixon’s bombing campaign failed by leading to the empowerment of the fledgling Khmer Rouge. Infuriating and shell-shocked, the bombed Cambodian villagers were inclined to back them over the Americans and South Vietnamese, who were responsible for the devastation.
“Civilian casualties in Cambodia drove an enraged populace into the arms of an insurgency that had enjoyed relatively little support until the bombing began, setting in motion the expansion of the Vietnam War deeper into Cambodia, a coup d’etat in 1970, the rapid rise of the Khmer Rouge, and ultimately the Cambodian genocide,” he wrote in an October 2006 article for The Walrus magazine with Taylor Owen.
That conclusion is also reached by author William Shawcross in his seminal book “Sideshow: Kissinger, Nixon and the Destruction of Cambodia,” where he writes that the US should shoulder some of the culpability for the suffering inflicted on Cambodia during the 1970s.
“In Cambodia, the imperatives of a small and vulnerable people were consciously sacrificed to the interests of strategic design,” Shawcross wrote.
Som Tuon, a soldier with the National United Front of Kampuchea, which was formed in 1970 at the behest of then Prince Sihanouk to oust Lon Nol, said the bombing radicalized villagers and turned them against the Khmer Republic, the Americans and the South Vietnamese. He said they began supplying the military coalition with rice and sheltering them when needed.
“The bombs intimidated people and they became supporters of the National United Front of Kampuchea, he said Sunday. “They backed the army very strongly.”
Living in the forests of Kompong Cham province Ponhea Krek district among the North Vietnamese troops, Som Tuon said soldiers would watch the bombs sink into the earth, kicking up dirt and uprooting trees. Sometime he would sneak into the smoking craters to smell the heavy stench of gunpowder and see the dead cut to ribbons.
Although memories of the bombardments are vivid among his generation, Som Tuon said time and the subsequent horrors wrought by the Khmer Rouge regime have led many to forget the US bombardments. Even those born just after the barrage are unclear about what happened, he said.
“My life was the life of war, suffering and devastation,” the 66-year-old said while smoking cigarettes and sipping tea. “Some children do not believe that this kind of tragedy happened.”
Not all, however, blame the US bombing for the rise of the Khmer Rouge.
David Chandler, a Cambodian historian at Monash University in Australia, said the air raids certainly gave the Khmer Rouge fodder for it propaganda, but he noted that it was the Vietnamese who trained, supported, armed and cooperated with the Khmer Rouge well before Operation Menu.
“I don’t think the Americans are responsible for the success of the Khmer Rouge. I think the North Vietnamese are more responsible for that,” he said Monday by telephone.
He also challenged the notion that Cambodia was a “neutral” country during Operation Menu since the presence of the Vietnamese in the country was no secret. Nonetheless, Chandler added, “I think it is a very dark spot in American foreign policy.”
Many of the villagers who survived Menu agreed. And in the interceding decades, emotions of those how lived under the raining bombs still remain raw and charged.
Putting on his reading glasses to inspect a map of Cambodia, Secretary of State for the Ministry of Cults and Religion Dork Narin recalled his stint in 1972 as commune chief of Krabao commune in Prey Veng province Komchay Mear district. Dork Narin, 72, called the attacks “unhumanitarian” and said the US should pay some sort of reparation to those affected.
“There was no alert and there was no warning for the bombing,” he said speaking in Cheach commune Sunday. “In my personal point of view, this was an unhumanitarian act.”
Working in the rice fields with one arm, Mann Phal is reminded daily of the US air attacks that took her family. She said she has learned to live with one arm, but has decided not to forgo her pain.
“If you bring [the American pilot who dropped the bombs] here now I would beat him,” she said, covering the stump of her amputated arm with a red-and-white checkered krama. “And I would cut off his arm to put it on my own body,” she said.