Air America in Cambodia - LMAT and the Khmer Air Force

A) The historical background

While the cease-fire agreements of 1973 meant the official end of hostilities in South Vietnam and Laos, for Cambodia, that year was only the beginning of a civil war. Lon Nol had ordered a unilateral suspension of offensive operations by government troops, effective 29 January 1973, but this was ignored by the Communists, as were other offers made on 6 July 73 and on 9 July 1974. So fighting continued, and USAF F-111As continued bombing Cambodia until 15 August 1973, when all US air strikes in Cambodia were ceased upon request of the US Congress. This was Congress' Cooper-Church Amendment, which stripped the US President of authority to commit forces into Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia, including a congressional ban on use of aerial weapons in South East Asia. But in late 1973, a military assistance and advisory program organized by the Thailand Liaison Detachment, Bangkok, commanded by Major General Mellen, was created, a special task force reporting directly to the Pentagon and with order to coordinate on the war in Cambodia. On 8 October 73, Brigadier General Aderholt became Mellen's deputy, and one of the first steps taken by the detachment was to take the Water Pump unit out of the 56th ACW and to transform it into a training unit for Khmer Air Force pilots, reporting to the Thailand Liaison Detachment, and this Khmer Air Force training program was carried out at Udorn, Thailand. This was a wise decision, as without US air support, Lon Nol's government was in grave danger to collapse, as popular support had been undermined to a very dangerous extent by rampant inflation, corruption, and lack of security. But there was the hope that sustained US airlift support and improved Khmer tactical air capabilities might give the Lon Nol government a chance of survival. So even before the end of US air strikes in Cambodia, that is since 11 April 73, USAF C-130s had been flying both air-land and airdrop missions to Cambodia out of U-Tapao, hauling weapons, ammunitions, fuel, and rice to Phnom Penh and the besieged provincial enclaves in Cambodia. But maybe encouraged by the end of US air strikes and by this critical situation, the same year, the left-wing extremist faction, backed by China and calling itself the Khmer Rouge, began a fanatical and vicious civil war in the entire territory of Cambodia, during the end of which the capital of Phnom Penh had to be nourished by a continuous air bridge made by some 25 very short-lived cargo charter airlines known as the "pig pilots", the most famous of which being South East Asia Air Transport and the TRI-9 Corporation. This air bridge had become even more essential, as after the bombing halt of August 73, US officials became concerned that USAF C-130s might be shot down, with a loss of US armed forces personnel. Already in May 74, Brigadier General Aderholt recommended Bird Air (BirdAir) to be offered an airlift contract to operate USAF C-130s out of U-Tapao. So, on 26 August 74, the primary flying contract with Bird Air was signed, and on 4 September 74 a contract with Thai Airways covering support services, and 5 unmarked USAF C-130Es were handed over to Bird Air, who promptly hired retired USAF C-130 crewmen and reservists to provide 5 aircrews, capable of making five delivery sorties into Cambodia daily or as many as ten if necessary, and the first airdrop made by the contract crew was flown on 26 September 74.

In January 1975, the Khmer Rouge bombarded the city of Phnom Penh with rocket and mortar shells. As the Mekong River route had been cut off for supplies, the city had to rely on a heavy airlift now done in great part by Bird Air crews flying in C-130s obtained from the USAF, whose maximum gross weight for operations was upgraded to 185,000 pounds. When the siege on Phnom Penh tightened in late February and March 75, the airlift was expanded to include commercial DC-8s of Airlift International and World Airways hauling rice between Saigon and Phnom Penh. On 1 April 1975, President Lon Nol left the country. On 11 April 75, Bird Air C-130 air-land-missions were suspended, because the following day, on 12 April 75, Operation Eagle Pull, carried out by USMC CH-53As, brought out of Phnom Penh the remaining US Embassy staff and some private American citizens. On 13 April 1975, Lieutenant General Sak Sutsakhan, Chief of the General Staff, Khmer Armed Forces, became the last Chief of State of the Khmer Republic. But the situation was already dramatic: On 12 April a T-28 tried to bomb the new government, and on 15 April 75, the airport of Pochentong fell to the enemy. Between 11 April and 17 April 75, 97 Khmer aircraft were evacuated to Thailand, including 50 T-28s, 7 AC-47s and 10 C-123Ks. On 17 April 1975, the situation had become desperate: That day, the government surrendered to the Communists. What followed was to be the most barbarian regime South East Asia knew in the 20th century: In the new state called Democratic Kampuchea, the Pol Pot government ordered the population of the cities to be evacuated to the surrounding countryside, mostly rice fields, so that nearly the entire country became a labor camp. More than one million people were either executed or died from hunger, disease, or maltreatment in what became known as the Killing Fields. On 25 December 1978, Vietnamese troops conquered Cambodia, establishing a puppet government under Heng Sam Rin and proclaiming the People's Republic of Kampuchea on 7 January 1979. But at that time, the population had already been reduced by perhaps 30 per cent. A civil war began, in which three armies fought against the Vietnamese invaders - the KPNLAF or Khmer People National Liberation Armed Forces of Son Sann backed by the United States, the ANS or Armee Nationale Sihanoukiste lead by Prince Sihanouk's son Ranariddh, and the Khmer Rouge of Pol Pot supported by Red China. The Vietnamese troops withdrew from the Cambodia only in September 1989. A peace-treaty was signed at Paris on 23 October 91, and a Supreme National Council of Cambodia was founded, destined to unite the four parties of the civil war. From 15 March 92 to 28 May 93, Cambodia was governed by the UNITAC or United Nations Transitional Authority in Cambodia. As a result of the elections of 23 and 28 May 93, on 24 September 93, Prince Sihanouk was proclaimed King of the new Kingdom of Cambodia.

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