THE WAR IN CAMBODIA 1970-75
As early its September 1950, the US provided arms and equipment for three FARK battalions. More US equipment was being supplied indirectly through the French. After the US Military Advisory and Assistance Group was established in Phnom Penh in 1955 US equipment was channelled directly, allowing the FARK largely to standardise the use of US uniforms and equipment until 1964. After US military assistance was renounced, French, Chinese and East Bloc weapons, uniforms and equipment were received. However, graduates from the Officer Candidate School continued to receive surplus stocks of coveted American materials.
The basic FARK work uniform was the khaki shirt and pants. Shorts and short-sleeved shirts were worn as the weather dictated. Army officers were given a white dress uniform with gold buttons depicting the symbol of the kingdom. In the field, Cambodian soldiers engaged in civic action programmes wore a combination of US and French fatigue clothing. Only the elite Airborne Half- Brigade wore camouflage: this included French camouflage uniforms for paratroop officers and an indigenous spotted camouflage pattern for NCOs.
After March 1970 the FANK quickly adopted both US jungle fatigues and OG 107 uniforms. Camouflage tiger-stripe uniforms from Thailand and South Vietnam were worn by some units; Indigenous tiger-stripes and leaf-pattern camouflage were also developed. The paratroopers continued to wear French-style camouflage and the indigenous spotted uniform; shortages led to officers and NCOs using both patterns indiscriminately after 1973. The FANK dress uniform consisted of an olive green jacket and slacks with a white shirt and black tie.
FARK headgear was diverse. The most common item was a light khaki beret worn French style. A khaki peaked cap was issued to officers. Both were worn with a metal cap device bearing the royal crest, a Cambodian throne with two temple lions. Paratroopers were issued a red beret. In the field French bush hats, US patrol caps, and M1 steel helmets were worn. During the Republic khaki, camouflage, and dark green berets were issued in addition to US patrol caps and M1 steel helmets.
Footwear for the FARK initially came from both US and French sources; US jungle and black leather boots were standardised during the Republic. Belts were of black leather or canvas with a silver or gold metal buckle. After 1970, buckles sometimes bore the combined service insignia of the FANK Ceneral Staff.
Following several attacks on government airbases, the KAF trained security battalions to patrol major facilities. These troops carry an assortment of M1 Garands, M16s and an AK-47. Note 'Air Force' title above national flag shoulder patch; and cloth KAF wing insignia worn by all KAF personnel, above left breast pockets.
Nametapes were commonly worn during the Republic in both subdued cloth and plastic versions. They were usually worn over the right chest pocket, although officers were occasionally seen with nameplates on the left side. FARK rank insignia closely followed the French pattern. Shoulder boards were worn by officers, with rank similar to the French system except that generals wore stars above gold laurel-like leaf embroidery on the outer edge. Gold and silver bands were worn by other officer ranks. FARK shoulder boards were very dark blue or black for the army; paratroopers wore light green; and medics wore maroon boards. Officers also wore rank on chest tabs or shoulder loops. A royal crown design was incorporated on the inner end of shoulder boards. In the FANK the basic rank system was retained except for the royal crown being eliminated from the shoulder boards; the various coloured shoulder boards were also eliminated, being replaced by a standard black. In addition, black shoulder loops and collar rank insignia were in use by 1972.
Collar branch insignia were popularised in the FARK, in both brass and enamelled forms. Branch insignia were less frequently worn in the FANK. In 1972 yellow branch insignia embroidered on green tabs were seen worn over the right pocket. Armoured branch insignia in metal and silk woven forms were also worn above the right pocket.
Because of resistance by the royal government, the use of unit insignia was discouraged in the FARK. Those that were allowed to wear unit crests and insignia, such as the paratroopers, wore them French-style on the left breast or on the upper left sleeve. Metal and cloth parachutist wings were displayed above the right breast pocket. In the FANK unit insignia became more common, being worn on the right chest, left chest, or left shoulder. Paratroopers occasionally wore either FANK national insignia or metal wings on their berets.
The Aviation Royale Khmere was officially founded in April 1955 with a mixed inventory of six light transports, four trainers, and 22 light aircraft suitable for conversion to the ground attack rôle. Commanded by Prince Sihanouk's personal physician, the ARK was known sarcastically as the Royal Flying Club. In accordance with Cambodia's neutralist foreign policy, few combat missions were flown. There was one exception in March 1964, when two Cambodian T-28 fighters penetrated over two miles into South Vietnam and shot down an L-19 light aircraft in retaliation for a South Vietnamese strike into Cambodia.
Like most South-East Asian armies, FANK personnel often took their families with them on active service. This soldier relaxes in a traditional red and white male sarong.
After 1964 Cambodia turned to China and the Eastern Bloc for military aircraft. Five Soviet MiG-17 fighters were delivered on 9 April 1967. Student pilots were also sent to the Soviet Union for training. Not to be outdone, the Chinese sent 11 planes to Phnom Penh in January 1968.
In 1968 the ARK received its first sustained combat experience when it was tasked with bombing Khmer Rouge forces in Battambang Province; but it was not until the change of government in March 1970 that the air force, whose name had changed to the Khmer Air Force, was thrown into heavy combat. KAF MiG jets bombed and strafed NVA concentrations along the eastern border, while T-28S were used on combat sorties near Kompong Cham and north of the capital. During this period, Thai T-28S also began to provide air support in the west.
An initial expansion of the KAF was accomplished in late 1970 under US auspices, including a delivery on 6 September of six UH-1H helicopters with temporary South Vietnamese crews. In addition, KAF students were sent to Udorn Air Base, Thailand, for T-28 training conducted by Detachment 1, 56th Special Operations Wing - a USAF training group which had been providing support to the Thai and Lao Air Forces since 1964. In January 1971, however, a North Vietnamese sapper attack on Pochentong Airbase destroyed virtually the entire KAF on the ground, including all of its MiG fighters.
Khmer Special Forces captain at Pochentong Airbase, 1973. He wears Cambodian tiger-stripe camouflage uniform, a green beret pulled left with the Khmer Special Forces flash, three gold rank bars on black shoulder strap slides, and - over his right pocket - metal US parachutist wings, presented during 'Freedom Runner' training at Lopburi, Thailand. (Courtesy Thach Saren)
Starting from scratch, the KAF received a new influx of US aircraft. Among the most effective additions were two AC-47 gunships armed with .50 cal. machine guns, turned over to Cambodia in mid-1971. By the end of 1971 the KAF numbered 16 T-28S, 24 0-1D light aircraft, 19 C-47 transports, nine T-41 trainers, 11 UH-1H helicopters, 16U-1A liaison aircraft, and three AC-47 gunships.
In 1972 KAF expansion slowed slightly as organisational difficulties were encountered. Training remained a key problem: despite the loan of instructor pilots from Nationalist China, insufficient numbers of Cambodian pilots were available. KAF morale was also suffering, due mainly to 14 T-28 crashes being recorded in a twelve-month period. Confidence in the T-28 eroded, even though eight of the crashes were due to pilot error. In addition, because of plentiful US air support, the KAF was relegated to a minor role only.
In March of the following year the KAF suffered a further setback when a pro-Sihanouk T-28 pilot bombed the presidential palace, killing 43 people. A new KAF commander was appointed, who immediately began to enforce new programmes to improve the KAF before US air power was withdrawn on 15 August. The most important of these plans was the establishment of a KAF Direct Air Support Centre. Located in the FANK Combined Operations Centre, the DSOC was given responsibility for gathering current targeting information from US aircraft and FANK units in the field, and passing it on to the KAF. This new concept was resisted by the KAF Air Operations Co-ordination Centre, which continued to feed the KAF with pre-planned strike co-ordinates. In practice, the FANK had little faith in KAF close air support, leaving the DSOC to function primarily as a relay between the FANK Headquarters and US aircraft.
Despite an initial reluctance on the part of the ground commanders, the KAF continued to expand co-ordination with the FANK. In July the air force began providing forward air controllers to the new FANK Artillery Fire Coordination Centre. In addition, an Air-Ground Operations School was opened to train FANK forward air guides. During this same period the KAF broadened convoy protection operations when it took delivery of 14 Helio Au-24 mini-gunships and six UH-1H helicopter gunships. The Au-24, used only by the KAF in a military role, had a 20mm cannon on a side door mount and two hardened wing points for bomb dispensers. By the following month two Au-24S and four helicopter gunships were being assigned to every convoy travelling the Mekong.
On 15 August 1973 the KAF assumed full responsibility for air support in Cambodia. Air force morale was already strained, the result of an Au-24 crash on 10 August which killed the crew and grounded the mini-gunship fleet. However, confidence improved in October following the success of Operation 'Thunderstrike', the first KAF offensive operation. For nine days, the air force struck south of Phnom Penh between Routes 2 and 3, reaching a record 70 T-28 sorties in one day. Although the 1st and 3rd FANK Divisions failed to capitilise on 'Thunderstrike', the FANK remained impressed by the KAFs performance.
Successor operations to 'Thunderstrike' were postponed in November after a second renegade T-28 pilot bombed the presidential palace and deserted. A new KAF commander, Col. Ea Chhong, was promoted and immediately began to improve the performance of the KAF. This positive reputation continued to grow in March 1974 with a successful KAF operation against the NVA Dambe Transshipment Point: some 250 trucks hidden in a plantation were destroyed in a chain reaction, a record for the Vietnam War. Resulting in part from the Dambe victory, FANK requests for KAF close air support increased. The use of forward air controllers also increased, helping the KAF conserve ordnance.
FANK, MNK and KAF representatives attend a course on air-ground delivery methods at Udorn Airbase, Thailand, 1972. The Khmer Special Forces officer (foreground, second from right) wears Thai Army and US parachutist's wings on his left breast and Cambodian basic wings on his right breast. Rear, third from left is an MNK officer wearing light grey working uniform, and his peaked cap crown is pale khaki (the stone grey is so pale it appears very similar to khaki); the MNK cap badge is embroidered in gold on black. Rear, third from right is a KAF officer wearing medium blue overseas cap and trousers, and light blue shirt. (Courtesy Capt. John Koren)
MNK insignia: (top left) MNK breast badge - yellow on white, black outlines; (top right) SEAL parachute wings - white wings and SCUBA gear, gold leaves, yellow anchor, all on black; (bottom left) Fusiliers-Marina shoulder insignia - dark blue shield, white stars, white temple on red canton, yellow rifles and anchor; (bottom right) SEAL shoulder insignia - red disc edged black, yellow leaves, light blue diver and anchor, black mine, yellow SCUBA tank and rope, white and black script.
KAF competence continued to grow during the opening weeks of 1975. US Defence Attache reports written at the time judged the calibre of Cambodian pilots as fast approaching the skill level of their Thai and South Vietnamese counterparts. In an effort to further boost the KAF's capabilities, the US initiated three assistance programmes. Operation 'Rotorhead Express', started in June 1974, was a US Army programme to give a one-time repair to the KAF UH-1H fleet. Operation 'Flycatcher' was a similar USAF effort directed at the KAF T-28 fighter bombers: and in January 1975 a USAF Mobile Training Team worked with the KAF airlift wing to make it self-sufficient.
During its final months of existence the KAF exceeded all previous performances. Operating against relatively light enemy anti-aircraft defences, the KAF launched an unprecedented number of combat sorties against the insurgents massing around the capital. During a two-month period the 35 T-28D bombers in the KAF fleet logged over 1,800 missions. Using all available airframes to the limit, new delivery systems were created. Against the firmly entrenched 107mm rocket positions north of Phnom Penh, CBU-55 bomblets were dropped to great effect, killing an estimated 500 insurgents on 10 April. The smaller CBU-25 and 250 lb bombs were loaded aboard the Au-24 mini-gunship and also employed against the enemy rocket sites. In the most inventive adaption, pallets of 500 lb bombs and 25 lb fragmentation bombs were loaded aboard KAF C-123 transports and dropped by night.
Despite their best efforts, the KAF alone could not stem the tide of the advancing Communist forces. After expending virtually their entire ordnance resources, 97 aircraft escaped the country.
The ARK wore a white dress uniform and light blue work uniform. A dark blue peaked cap was worn by officers with a standard gold metal FARK badge. The KAF retained the blue peaked cap, but developed a distinctive silver metal KAF cap badge. A dark blue overseas cap was worn with the work uniform. KAF ground personnel were issued FANK-style patrol caps and fatigues. ARK rank insignia were worn on light blue shoulder boards, with a pair of stylised wings at the inner end. After March 1970 the KAF reverted to black shoulder boards or shoulder loops as worn by the FANK. ARK personnel wore gold metal wings surmounted by a royal crown on the left breast. After 1970 these were replaced with yellow wings embroidered on a blue cloth background. Both ARK and KAF pilots wore a circular gold badge on the right breast bearing Hongsa, a mythical Cambodian bird. Specialised support services within the KAF wore insignia- on their upper left sleeve. Pilots wore squadron insignia on the upper left sleeve or right pocket.