It is important for people reading this manuscript to remember that these are the personal recollections of Mr Murch. Time and lack of resources have precluded the researching of facts to draw attention to any errors. The views expressed in this oral history are those of the interviewee only and not the NZDF, RNZN, and the Navy Museum.
First of all can you tell us the lead up to your deployment to Cambodia, did you volunteer, what were the circumstances that lead to you being sent up there ?
I think it was in October or early November I got a phone call from DDOPA in Wellington, Lieutenant Commander Rennie Vanderveld who asked me if I was interested in a UN Mission overseas. Initially he said to me “how would you like 12 months in Sarajevo, the former Yugoslavia, Bosnia”. I said “gosh that is something I would have to think about”, because prior to that Commander Gwyn Rees had been up there and he was a very good friend and I had kept in touch with him and I knew what was going on at the time. I went home, it was on a Friday actually, and I went home and discussed it with my wife and she was not too keen on the idea and having a young family I had to take that into account. I came back to work on the Monday morning and said “well look if you want to send me to Sarajevo, then that’s fine but I am not a volunteer for it. Well he said “the alternative to that is how would you like a deployment to Cambodia?” I said “well I would be quite interested in that” because I had also kept in touch with a couple of guys from my branch who were in Cambodia at the time. I discussed that with my wife that evening and she said “the best of two evils, so go for it”, so that’s how I volunteered for Cambodia. Not long after that they had the selection process up in the Fleet Posting Office and they announced a team of 40 people that would be going on the training. We had a meeting with FPO’S staff about mid December before we all went on leave and it was announced there who the team leader was, Lieutenant Commander Lawrence Milton from Wellington. I had known him before and we had a short discussion on the requirements such as the vaccinations, passports, allowances that sort of thing. That was the first time that the whole team had actually got together. We spent the forenoon together and discussed what was going on. Our biggest problem at that stage was that we didn’t know exactly when we were going to go up. The previous team had been there since June and it looked like they would probably come back to New Zealand sometime in May. It was about mid January or it could have been early February that the UN expressed a concern about doing the rotation of New Zealanders in late April early May because of the upcoming elections which started on the 23rd May. They were to last a week and they wanted some sort of continuity in theatre at that time. They actually brought the date of our departure forward to the end of March, rather than leave it later until after the elections. We finally got the go ahead to commence training which was a bit of a rush job and the team of 40 people all got together and we had our vaccinations and everything else and then we went up to Whangaparaoa for a week where we concentrated mostly on fitness. We did four wheel driving courses. We had all attended a one day workshop on outboard motor repair. There was going to be a week in Whangaparaoa and then we weren’t quite sure what we were going to do for the second week, they thought perhaps a second week in Whangaparaoa do things like mine clearance training and mine identification training. As it turned out we did all that at Whangaparaoa in the first week, mine identification, we did first aid, we did four wheel driving and then the second week we went down to the Waikato River, down to Mercer and stayed at the Mercer Rowing Club, the whole 40 of us. We did RHIB training, 4 wheel drive training, more medical lectures, orienteering and that sort of thing. The training on reflection was actually quite good a lot more than the first group got and I think in a lot of ways it prepared us quite well for our eventual deployment to Cambodia.
I remember one of the criticisms of the first people was that they didn’t have any specialist outboard motor maintainers, which you mention. Did you actually manage to correct those sorts of deficiencies?
Yes the engineers and electricians that were with us actually did a weeks course with OMC, which turned out in the end to be a great help to them because a lot of them actually got stationed in places where, not long after we arrived we started getting the RHIBs and outboards into Cambodia. They actually spent a lot of time putting them together and then sending them around to the various out stations. Yes it was a big help to us because we all then had sufficient knowledge on how to do emergency repairs on outboards. I think without a doubt the majority of guys after two weeks training were well prepared for what they expected to happen up there. After that we came back to Auckland, we finished off our inoculations, finished off the documentation that we were required to take with us and all we were waiting for then was the ticketing from the UN and the word to go. We had had lectures from the Army who had spent time with the UN and they told us about all the problems that we were likely to experience with an organization like the UN and as it turned out all their warnings turned true. We had a lot of problems trying to sort out when we were actually leaving. The idea was that Lieutenant Commander Milton, who was in charge of the contingent, and Chief Petty Officer Johnson who was the SA that was going up, actually went up a week earlier then the rest of us. I took the majority of the guys up the following week. They actually left New Zealand around about the 27th/28th March, it was a Wednesday.
Did they get there before the other team left or the first team left?
No they actually waved to them in mid air as they were travelling up the Gulf of Thailand. We were fortunate in that we left the day after the team, the first Detachment, actually arrived back, so we were fortunate that we had about three hours at TAMAKI Gunnery School with them to discuss what Cambodia was all about and that was a great benefit to us. It was then that we realized what we were walking into, so that was of good value. That came out of the blue, because we didn’t realize that we would have an occasion to meet and we expected that we would pass them in mid air as well.
Did you do any arms training before you left?
No we didn’t do any arms training, we were all going up there as military observers and as such were unarmed. We were told quite categorically that our whole job was dependent on the fact that we were unarmed and certainly that was true when we actually got there. The fact that we didn’t carry arms probably made us the safest people in Cambodia.
The advance party left on the Wednesday and we left on Friday morning. We actually got the tickets for the trip about 12 hours before we took off, or the ticketing came through about 12 hours before hand. We took off and we were handed the tickets when we arrived at the airport the next morning. That was typical of the way the UN operates, nothing ever happens particularly fast with the UN. We got out to the airport and that was really our first disappointment. We were told that they would have people out there to see us all through formalities, get rid of our baggage and we could spend some time with our families. We got out there and it was utter chaos. The Air New Zealand person that was supposed to look after us was late, we had to be out there at 6 in the morning for a flight that left at half past 8, we finally left our baggage at around about quarter to 8, wives and kids all standing around, you couldn’t go any where, you couldn’t sit down and have a cup of tea with them or any thing like that. After we got rid of our baggage through the check out system we only had enough time to go up stairs and go through Immigration and get on the plane. A lot of the guys felt pretty bitter about that and a lot of the families were pretty upset as well.
Did the local Defence Travel people have any thing to do with it ?
They had one Rep out there who really couldn’t have cared less and that was a disappointment to us.
However we got on the plane and to Air New Zealand’s credit they looked after us pretty well on the trip up. It was an Air New Zealand flight to Singapore and then we had a two hour stop over in Singapore and then a straight flight to Bangkok. We arrived at Bangkok at around about 5 o’clock in the evening and were met by the Dutch Movement Control people who were permanently stationed in Bangkok to meet the UN flights coming in and we were pretty swiftly put through Immigration and Customs there. The idea was that we were to stay there overnight and catch a local flight out in the morning for Phnom Penh. We spent the night at the Taipan Hotel which the UN had booked for us. It took us some three hours to get from the Airport to the hotel through the terrible traffic in Bangkok which has not improved over the years, it is getting worse. The next morning we were up at half past four, a fairly early breakfast to get out to the plane which was leaving at 9 o’clock and we certainly needed 2 to 3 hours to travel the 18 kilometres out to the Airport. We got out to the Airport and this was our second horror of the trip and we had only been away 24 hours. We realized that we were actually flying to Phnom Penh on a local Cambodian Airways flight which was a Russian built TU25 I think, I can’t remember the name of it. We were quite horrified when we had to walk out to the plane which was about 200 yards down the tarmac. Seat allocations didn’t mean any thing, the air hostess told us, in pigeon English, that we could sit any where. The air conditioning was on and you couldn’t see 10 feet in front of you because of the fog that the air conditioning had created. It was quite horrifying and we thought “hell our mission is going to end before it is even going to start”. Any way we got on the plane and flew down which was an hour’s flight from Bangkok and arrived at Poach Nanh Airport at Phnom Penh at around about 11 o’clock that morning to be met by Lieutenant Commander Milton and Chief Petty Officer Johnson. They were brilliant in the fact that they had arranged transport and they had arranged for our baggage to be picked up. One of our concerns was that we had an allocation of 120 kilos and we had a lot of baggage that we were taking up, uniforms and packs and stuff like that, that we would be separated like the last guys were who never got their baggage for five days after they arrived. Luckily our main baggage actually flew down by UN Herc that morning and by 5 o’clock that afternoon we had got all our bags back and we were all reunited with our kits.
I don’t want to keep harking back to the first team but I remember they packed up huge big boxes of every thing, including solar showers. I remember they took up bags of loo paper, did you do this sort of thing ?
No we were fortunate in that Chief Petty Officer Johnson, who had been looking after the first crowd, had been shipping a lot of stores and that up during their time and anticipated the problems that they had and had actually shipped quite a bit of our gear up about a month before to be held there for us. It wasn’t as much as the first contingent took up because by that stage they had pretty well organized themselves and they had got supplies locally through the UN.
We were met by the Dutch MOVCON there and we handed all our passports over and within 10 minutes we had been cleared by Immigration and Customs and we were right. We jumped on a bus and drove out of the Airport and that’s when we came face to face with the traffic problems of Phnom Penh. All of a sudden we were driving on the right hand side of the road and that took a bit of getting used to. The trip from the Airport to Kiwi House was quite horrific because there are virtually no traffic regulations in Cambodia and “might is right” there. It was quite a shock to the system to be driving in that sort of traffic and in fact it took us quite a while to get used to that. Eventually you deteriorate to their level in the end and drive like they do. We arrived at Kiwi House and spent the afternoon getting used to the place. There was 31 of us in our contingent, but unfortunately Kiwi House could only accommodate 23 people, so 8 of them had to stay at a local hotel which was just down the road from Kiwi House and right next door to Naval Headquarters, Otani Hotel. So we stayed in the house and the other group went to the Otani, but we all had our meals together. That day was unpack kit and meeting the household staff and getting used to the place. One of the things that struck us was the heat, it was quite horrific. When we walked out of New Zealand it was coming into autumn about 16 to 17 degrees and we were now in 35-36 and upwards to 40 degree temperatures and the humidity was quite horrendous.
What was the house like, did it have masses of home comforts or pretty barren ?
The first detachment had really set it up quite well. The house was very comfortable, they had video/TV, a stereo system, two big fridges, one for goffers, one for beer. They had two house-keepers, about 6 security guards and two cooks, so it was really quite comfortable. When we arrived, there was a meal waiting for us on the table, we expected rice and dried fish but we got bread rolls and salad and that sort of thing.
There were plenty of showers ?
There were plenty of showers, although there was only one room in the house that actually had hot water. The hot water was probably the least of your problems there, it was quite good to get into a cool shower.
Lots of fans and that sort of thing ?
Lots of fans, the house also had air conditioning in all the rooms, although the power in Phnom Penh at that stage was pretty intermittent. They had three or four old diesel generators that were constantly breaking down and with the movement of people back to the city there were more consumers than power so we were constantly having black outs. The house actually had a diesel generator as well which they ran when the shore power was off, but it was not big enough to run the air conditioning units. I must say for the first week even with the fans going it was pretty hard to sleep at night, the heat was really quite oppressive. One thing that struck us when we arrived there was how dirty the place was. It was not an uncommon sight to see mounds of garbage on the street, kids going to the toilet in the street, even adults were doing that. Coming from a country like New Zealand and having visited Asia before, Singapore and Bangkok I mean they are pretty civilized cities in comparison with Phnom Penh. The other thing that really struck us was the number of people in uniforms carrying guns, not the UN but the Cambodian Peoples Armed Forces and the Cambodian Police Force, every one was armed to the teeth and that was something to get used to as well.
We started the next day with briefings at Naval Headquarters and also the routine that the UN uses when people arrive in the country. There is a lot of documentation to do, ID cards, set up bank accounts, filling out personnel files, briefings, security briefings on Cambodia, briefings from the Squadron Commander, briefings from the Force Commander Chief of Staff. Unfortunately we screwed up badly with him and that was our first bollocking from the UN. Because we arrived earlier than the UN expected us the programme was a bit of a shambles and the Chief of Staff, who was an Indonesian Brigadier General, turned up at Naval Headquarters to brief 31 new arrivals from New Zealand and unfortunately myself and Lieutenant Commander Milton were the only ones there, so our first job was to write a letter of apology to him. That was really an introduction into the way the UN works and it very much remained flexible.
Prior to that we all knew where we were going to be stationed any way, we managed to get that information two or three days before we left New Zealand. We were all able to consult a map of Cambodia and know where we were going to be stationed. It was anticipated that we would spend 3 or 4 days in Phnom Penh, do our documentation, open bank accounts, ID cards, issued with berets and baseball caps, the UN badges and stuff like that, get all of those sewn on and sew name tabs on our uniforms in both English and Khmer, then we would head to our out stations. That plan was dropped as soon as we arrived there because Cambodia was faced with the situation where there had been a lot of killing of the ethnic Vietnamese by the Khmer Rouge in the Tonle Sap Lake area and along the Tonle Sap River and also the Mekong. There was a huge evacuation of Vietnamese coming down the various rivers to go into Vietnam until after the elections were over. Certainly the Vietnamese were pretty scared of what was happening to some of their numbers and we were faced with massive columns of houseboats coming down the rivers. The priority by the UN then was to make sure that the people got safely out of the country. We were more or less deployed straight away to the River Base at Phnom Penh which was right outside the UN Headquarters (SNC) in Phnom Penh. Probably the majority of us spent the next two weeks out on patrols on the Mekong and the Tonle Sap escorting the Vietnamese people down to the Vietnam border both on the Mekong and the Basaac. We were really thrown into the deep end with that and we really didn’t have time to acclimatize at that stage. We were out on patrol from 6 in the morning until sometimes 10 o’clock at night in the sweltering heat, having to drink gallons and gallons of water just to maintain some liquid in the body because we were sweating that much.
Just on RHIBs and Zodiacs ?
Open boats and a lot of us got pretty badly sunburnt. Even despite the fact that we had a pretty good medical kit that carried every thing, sutures to razor blades to suntan lotion, most of us got pretty badly burnt and that took a bit of getting used to.
After 10 days to 2 weeks the majority of the Vietnamese had actually left the country and with something like 20,000 people transiting the rivers. Following this we started to deploy to our own stations. Most of the guys who were stationed inland went by RHIB to their out stations or in fact drove down some of the roads there. We also had to do driving tests and all that as well which was quite interesting because we all had to have a UN drivers licence before we could drive the vehicles.
I stayed in Phnom Penh myself about 10 days and then myself and the other Kiwi guy that was going to be stationed in Koh Kong with me, Petty Officer Taylor, arranged a UN Helo flight up to Koh Kong. I think this was about the 15th April, we actually arrived in Cambodia on the 3rd and left on the 15th, so we had actually spent 12 days in Phnom Penh.
We didn’t really get a lot of time to see the night life in Phnom Penh at that stage we were kept fairly busy. We didn’t work 24 hours a day and we certainly got out to a few of the local night spots and introduced ourselves around the city. We also met some of the people from other nations that were there.
Who was running the Naval Cell at that time ?
The Naval Cell, there was 216 Naval personnel from 7 countries, there was Canada, New Zealand, the UK, the Philippines, Uruguay, Chile and there was some Russian technical officers who were based down in Sihoukville to repair the Russian craft that were being operated by the CPAF Navy, I think that was about it. The overall Commander of the Navy was a Uruguayan, Captain Canziani, he was known as the SMOO, Senior Maritime Operations Officer. He was actually in charge of the Naval Staff, who were the policy and the development people there. The person in charge of the actual squadrons or the out stations as such was a Brit Commander, Commander John Leighton and he had a staff of people under him, a Comms Officer, an Operation Officer and the Naval Co-ordinator who later became the Squadron Staff Officer. Prior to us arriving that position was filled by Lieutenant Commander John Campbell who was the first Detachment Commander. I don’t think too many of us were particularly impressed with Commander Leighton over the next couple of months while he was still the Commander there. He was not what we expected of a Brit Commander, he was pretty short to most people and that wasn’t a particularly good introduction to the organization there. However the organization was quite effective, there was a lot of hard work done by every one during that period of time. We got up to Koh Kong.
Just tell me where Koh Kong is ?
Koh Kong is a port town situated on the Cambodian Coast, its small in comparison by most western standards, but in Cambodia it is quite a large port where a lot of coastal trade is carried out and is situated 5 kilometres south of the Thai border, so it is on the north western corner of Cambodia. Koh Kong itself is the name of the province as well as the name of the provincial town. That name actually comes from the Island which is situated about a mile off the coast called Koh Kong Island. The port that is at the entrance to the harbour of Koh Kong is called, it will come to me in a minute. Its about 5 kilometres as the crow flies from the Thai border and Koh Kong is about 5 kilometres inland from the sea, but there is a fairly large estuary that flows from a couple of river that were part of our patrol area. Koh Kong itself is one of the larger provinces in the area and is one of the most sparsely populated provinces as well. Koh Kong township had something like 17,000 people including the port and the whole of the area of Koh Kong would probably be the size I guess of Lake Taupo, its fairly big, but most of it is pretty remote and rugged. There is a mountain chain that runs right along the coast which separates Koh Kong from the rest of Cambodia.
How big a naval team was there ?
When I arrived there was 12, there was myself as the team leader, I had a 2IC who was a Canadian Lieutenant and the rest of the team were made up of Brits, Canadians and the other Kiwi that came up with me.
All sailors ?
Yes all sailors, although some of the teams had Brit Marines in them as well, but not at Koh Kong. The Battalion that was based in the area who were there for security was the French Foreign Legion. They provided security over the whole province and their fort which was a partially completed CPAF Army camp was built like a French fort. It was quite ironic that the French Foreign Legion actually ended up in this place and they did quite an amazing job there to get it finished and to make it quite liveable. They provided security. We also had the Civil Administration people in there at the time which comprised Civil Admin Human Rights, the electoral components and also quite a large detachment of UN civilian police made up by a number of countries. The communications in and out of the sector were provided by Australian Comms, three of them.
Have you mentioned what sort of boats you had ?
When I arrived in Koh Kong, we actually had two civilian boats that had been painted white and carried UN flags and had radios fitted to them. They were quite unique. They were hand built and were a typical coastal boat for that area. The super structure was well aft and had a big flared bow on it and when I first looked at it I thought “God there is no way we could take these things to sea”, but in actual fact they were quite sea worthy vessels. I mean hells teeth they had been sailing these things for hundreds of years with an old diesel motor in them. We had two of these, one was a fairly large one which we used for the sea patrols and a smaller version of it which we used for the river patrols. We also had a steel tug boat, a river tug boat, which was not like any tug boat I had seen before. In its previous life it had been used for towing logging barges, so it was quite a powerful thing and it had a fairly shallow draft which was good for getting up the rivers. Then we had one of the Long Tail boats, I don’t know if you have ever seen them, but they have got big engines on the back with the long shafts and consequently got the name of the Long Tails. We used that for the Port Authority because not only were we there to mount patrols in the area but we also had to run the local port as well.
What civilian traffic as well ?
Yes we ran it, it was manned every day until 6 at night and all boats coming in and out of the port had to check in with the UN Port Authority before they could discharge or take on cargo.
That was your responsibility, that would be quite interesting wouldn’t it ?
Yes that was my responsibility and I had never been involved in the running of a port, it was a fairly quick learning curve. I was lucky that the team that were up there in Koh Kong at the time had been together for some months, so they pretty much had the organization going.
The only UN dedicated boat that we had was a small Zodiac, an inflatable with a 30 horsepower motor on the back. We used to tow it behind the boats that were going up the rivers and when the water got too shallow then we would jump into the inflatable and just go further up the river.
Now where did you live you, did you have another house ?
No there was two places in Koh Kong where the Navy were living. One lot had actually rented a house because as an UNMO observer you got paid a mission subsistence allowance (MSA). When we got there it was $130 US a day and from that you had to find your own accommodation and feed yourself. There was a house right in the middle of town that four of the team were living in and that was full by the time we got there. The rest of the team were living at a local hotel called the Dong Ton Hotel, run by a Thai and a Khmer. When you talk about a hotel, although we weren’t expecting any thing flash, you would certainly imagine something that was quite comfortable. We were a bit shocked when we got there and found that the room was, have a look at this room here, the room where we were living was half the size of that and it had a double bed, it had a concrete block partition and it had a cold water shower and a squat toilet. This was the first time that we had actually come across the squat toilet, because we were lucky in Phnom Penh they had European toilets, so that took some getting used to. No sort of flushing system. You used to have a big earthenware pot that would hold probably 40 or 50 gallons of water and every time you went to the toilet you had a little bowl and flushed the toilet with that. But nevertheless it was comfortable and that was costing us $300 a month and for that we got a meal in the evening as well.
You stayed in that place all the time ?
Yes we stayed there the whole time that we were there. That became home and in fact the Land Base Military Observers lived there as well, there was four of them in Koh Kong lead by Malaysian Lieutenant Colonel Bacheek, who was a nice guy. We had a Russian Marine who was Captain Sergi somebody or other, an Algerian Captain, he was a damn nice guy and a Romanian. We certainly had a mix of countries there and myself and 7 others lived in the hotel as well. As I said we were all Brits, Canadians and Kiwis.
So you had no language problems ?
Well in fact we did have a language problem with one of the Canadians, my 2IC was a French Canadian and although he spoke reasonably good English he spoke with a very heavy French accent and it was hard to pick up at times. It was fortunate having him there because he could speak to the French Battalion, the Foreign Legion, whenever I had meetings with them I always had to take him as the interpreter, although the Foreign Legion actually had a Polish guy who spoke very good English who interpreted for me.
You had an Administration Headquarters did you ?
Yes the hotel was actually about 2 or 3 kilometres out of town and as you can imagine an area the size of Taupo, the whole province had 25 kilometres of road in it and 20 of those kilometres were actually in the town. We were about 2 or 3 Kilometres out of town, so we had vehicles assigned to us. We had our Headquarters actually on the waterfront. We had leased a house there with a fairly large compound out front, all fenced, barbed wire and every thing else. The Military Observers had the ground floor and we had the top floor and we also had locally hired security guards there as well. The crew of the boats that we had were all locals as well. We had quite a well set up compound there, our biggest problem was that the distance between the compound itself and the hotel and we were doing a lot of running around.
Did you have radio communications or some form of communications ?
Yes all stations carried VHF radios and those that were pretty isolated also had HF, although we didn’t have an HF radio. There was no telephone in the Headquarters, but if we wanted to go and talk to Phnom Penh by phone we had to drive out to the Aussie Comms which was about 5 kilometres out of town. We had communications with all the boats and at all times the Team Leader, the 2IC, the Navy House and Navy Hotel always had a hand held radio so that we were pretty much in touch with each other.
Who was your boss ?
My boss was the Coastal Commander who was based down in Sihanoukville which was about a 10 hour trip by sea. By using one of their Naval boats, a Stenker or a 1400 class, it was about a 3 and a half hour trip. We had VHF communications with them as well, we operated on a channel that had a couple of repeaters along the coast, so we could actually talk to them by VHF, although most of the time we spoke to them by phone.
Who was he ?
When I arrived there the Coastal Commander was a Canadian Lieutenant Commander Dicky Dawe, a hell of a nice guy, a typical Canadian, very jovial but hard working, straight as a die guy and he and I got on very well. We were a wee bit funny on the coast because we were more isolated than any of the other stations. Although we were very close to the Thai border, the only way in or out of Koh Kong was either by helicopter or by sea. The other stations could jump into a vehicle and drive but we couldn’t do that and as it was coming into the raining season we got even more isolated because of the weather and the Helicopter stopped flying. There was a helicopter routine laid down, with 3 passenger flights a week and two air delivery service flights a week, but you could go for a week and not have a Helicopter over the place because the weather was just so bad. In comparison the climate in Koh Kong was a lot better than Phnom Penh where on the coast you got the sea breezes which really keep the temperature down. For the first month we were there we had no rain, it was very hot and it was only in the evening that things cooled down enough to be comfortable. During that initial period we were pretty busy, we were starting our patrols at first light, six in the morning and because we had such a wide area to cover a lot of times we were not getting back from patrol until 8 or 9 o’clock at night.
Were you going out yourself on patrol ?
As much as I possibly could. One of the things that amazed me a wee bit, even in that situation there was still a huge amount of paper work. The UN is an organization that is very much bogged down with paper work and it wasn’t just a simple matter of sending a patrol out and coming back in the evening and saying that’s it for the day, we had reports that had to be filed every day. We had to send out a Sitrep every night at 1800, we had to send out a Sitrep on our patrols and also a Movements Sitrep of the port every day, vessels in, vessels out, what their cargo was, how many passengers and things like that. The paper war continued and as things got closer to the elections and more paper work was coming in I unfortunately had to spend most of my time in the office. Although it was good having a 2IC that I could rely on we had to maintain one of us in the office there. Most of the time was spent patrolling and I guess for April through to the elections and even after the elections most of my day was taken up with meetings with the Electoral Components planning on how we would get all the Election Team around the various villages. To do the elections, they had to rely on our boats.
You were the transport ?
We were the transport. They did have a plan to use helicopters but because of the weather they couldn’t rely on that so we really had to plan to get them all there by boat which entailed leaving very early in the morning and not getting back until very late at night.
Every day at 4 o’clock in the afternoon I also had to attend what they called a CC Meeting which was a Command Control Meeting that was daily briefed on the security situation in the province, also the situation in the surrounding areas. That was conducted by the French, the Lieutenant in charge of the French Detachment there, there was 40 Foreign Legion guys. He was the Security Co-ordinator for the area and the meeting was attended by myself and the Land Base UNMO’s, the Civil Admin Director, the Field Service people who provided all the stores, the Transport Officer, you’ve got the Australian Comms and the Electoral Component. Those meetings were 2 to 3 hours a day, so I was not leaving there until 7 o’clock, sometimes half past 7 at night. We were working pretty long hours, we were up half past 5 and really not getting to bed much before midnight. As the election day got closer. We spent the month before the elections patrolling, going out to the places where the elections were to be held to time how long it would take us to get there and how long it would take us to set up and get back and every thing else. By the time the elections arrived we were supposed to have it pretty much down pat. Our biggest problem was that during the period of the elections, I don’t know who planned them, but they organized the elections for the week that the coast had its lowest tides. The spring lows were all occurring at 8 o’clock in the morning when the elections were starting. The coast is extremely shallow any way, you can travel 5 kilometres out to sea and there will still only be 3 to 4 metres of water. We had to be very careful all the time we went on patrol because we would often put our boats on sand banks, they changed so much. Although by the time of the elections the wet season had started it didn’t effect the coast because all the rivers on the coast were tidal, so it didn’t matter how much water was flowing inland, it didn’t worry the coast we still had very shallow water. So the urgency of getting RHIB’s up to us took on a new emphasis. Our whole plan for the elections was not going to work unless we got at least 2 RHIB’s up there. As we arrived at Cambodia the RHIB’s were only just starting to come into the country and the idea was that they would be deployed at least 2 weeks before the elections were on. We got our first RHIB five days before the election, we got our second RHIB the day before the election started, so none of us had much experience on these type of vessels and it was a real fast learning curve I might say. To the credit of the guys there we were very fortunate in that we got all our people to the polling places on time and in fact well before time because we had the job of carrying the security platoons with us. We had the IPSO’s, the International Polling Station Officers and the electoral teams which were mostly made up of local and also the CIVPOL who were there to check the voters before they voted. To each electoral site we were transporting something like about a dozen odd people, not an easy task to do in a 5.7 metre RHIB, but we got here. What we were actually doing was putting them on the big boats, putting a few of them on the RHIB, taking them off at speed down to these places, rendezvousing with the bigger boats, picking up more people and supplies and all that and just shuttling them from the boats with the RHIB’s. It was great, the elections were over a period of a week and we never had one incident where we were late opening the polling site.
Did the polling site stay open for a week ?
Well there were fixed polling sites and there were mobile polling sites. The fixed polling sites were in the big centres like the port and Koh Kong township and the mobile ones were going from village to village on different days. The polls closed at 4 o’clock every afternoon, it didn’t matter where it was, whether it was in the big town or in the villages the ballot boxes all had to go back to the French Fort for security.
Yes that’s really what I was leading up to, they didn’t have to camp out over night ?
No. There was some talk of some of the teams in the villages camping out over night, but we soon discounted that because there was a lot of rumours about Khmer Rouge attacks. Although we were pretty lucky in Koh Kong that there was no Khmer Rouge activity in that area, there were rumours that the Khmer Rouge were going to come into the area and disrupt the elections in Koh Kong province. At one of the CC Meetings towards the end we decided that the Navy would transport these people back to Koh Kong and that’s in fact what we did. They were packing up at 4 in the afternoon and we were spending the next 3 to 4 hours transporting them back to Koh Kong, staying in Koh Kong overnight and then we would collect them the next day. Our most distant polling site was up a river which was some 5 hours by boat from Koh Kong. We were leaving at 3 o’clock in the morning and transiting some pretty un-navigable rivers in darkness which was pretty scary because we actually had to go out to sea and then back into the rivers rather than go inland all the way. There are some huge fishing grounds out there and none of the local boats ever showed navigation lights and one of our biggest worries was actually hitting these boats at night. The elections went off smoothly, we had no problems there and we had a very good turn out in Koh Kong Province something like 90 percent of those entitled to vote actually turned up and that was one of the higher provinces. The turn out right through out Cambodia during the elections was pretty high. We only had two sites that were actually harassed by the Khmer Rouge during that time and although they were in Koh Kong Province they weren’t ones that we were doing. There was some down to the south of us who were actually serviced from Sihoukville and a couple of theirs had mortars fired into them, but after leaving the area for an hour and coming back they started polling again and no polling booths in our area were closed down because of Khmer Rouge activity. In fact through out the whole of Cambodia there was only ever half a dozen stations that had actually closed down because of the Khmer Rouge activity. Up to about a week before the elections there was a lot of Khmer Rouge activity, particularly up in the north west, north east area around Battambang and Sisophon, Siem Reap and in that area, we really thought that the Khmer Rouge were going to stop the elections in that area. The elections started and there was very, very little activity from the Khmer Rouge and I think that really amazed everybody and the elections went off and as history will tell you they ended up as being quite successful.
Some of the other tasks there besides running the port were also to observe and report on cease fire violations. These were very few in our area because we had very little Khmer Rouge activity.
We also had to monitor the UN Moratorium on logging and the export of logging and also monitor the smuggling of arms and other banned products like the export of rice. We were pretty busy in that area. When we went out on patrol every vessel that we would come across we would board and search for arms and the illegal export banned products. The majority of our time was spent reporting the violations of the Log Ban Moratorium. Koh Kong is a province that is very heavily vegetated. There is a lot of native timber, teak especially in that area and a lot of Thai, Malaysian, those sort of countries had gone in there and had started logging and taking the logs out mostly for Thailand and we were constantly mounting patrols through Koh Kong. We had to send patrols out at night because they used the cover of darkness to drag huge barges full of uncut logs across the border into Thailand. It was pretty dangerous, I remember at one stage when one of our RHIB’s without knowing it, went under a tow between two barges and had missed the tow rope by about 4 metres. It was so black out there you just couldn’t see them. On one occasion we got fired upon by tugs that were towing barges and also the local CPAF who were actually sanctioning it. There was a lot of corruption amongst the local administration and also the CPAF and local police. I remember on one occasion when one of my teams were out and had just apprehended two logging barges that were being towed by a tug, that was full to the gunnels with teak and clearly heading for Thailand. The patrol had pulled these up and directed them to return to port and the next minute they were being shot at with tracer coming from every where and it ended up being the CPAF Army vessel. Their story was that they were going to arrest this logging barge and actually take it into port and we were to carry on, that was the local way of attracting attention. As it turned out the CPAF boat actually escorted this barge across the border. I mean that is the sort of thing that we were faced with. Although we were there to stop the log export, we actually had no power to enforce it. We could pluck our way through these situations most of the time. The Captains of the tugs who didn’t know any better would actually go into port, but if they said no we actually had no power to enforce it. That took up a great deal of our time.
(end of Tape 1)
(beginning Tape 2)
You were going to tell us the name of the port I think.
Yes the port I was responsible for up in Koh Kong was Pak Klong. It was quite a large port by Cambodian standards, although it did not have the facilities that Sihoukville had, which was the major port of Cambodia. It had an arrivals jetty, a departure jetty and there was a typical Khmer village on the water front on stilts. We sent one guy across there every day who ran the port and that was rotated through the team although I had a Brit Chief who was responsible for all the port activities. Once a week I had a meeting with the local Port Authorities and Customs and Taxation Department, people like that and we discussed the running of the port, the meeting normally lasted 2 to 3 hours. To give you a rough idea each Province has a Governor and a Deputy Governor and each Province also has a Finance Minister, Customs and Taxation, Police and the CPAF. The local CPAF was run by a Khmer Colonel and stationed in Koh Kong Province there was probably something like 300 to 400 CPAF soldiers spread right throughout the province. The CPAF and the Governor really ran things in Koh Kong. The Governor was Thai, very, very corrupt with a Colonel in charge of the CPAF as his right hand man who was also very, very corrupt. Nothing happened in the province without those two knowing about it. There was a lot of smuggling of consumer goods, particularly cars and motor cycle and also a lot of smuggling of timber out of the country and also precious gems.
That wasn’t slowing up with the UN there, I presume it would never slow up ?
It would never slow up. There was no way that 12 people could control that and it was just too big an area. The majority of the logging was going from Koh Kong Island which is a deserted Island with the exception that the CPAF had a regiment there and also the Navy had a Marine Detachment there as well. A lot of the CPAF on that Island had been there since `86/87 and had basically lived on the Island all that time. You can understand the smuggling and the kick backs and all that was going on because you have got to remember that these people hadn’t been paid for 3 or 4 years and the only way that they can live is to exploit and to smuggle. A lot of extortion, CPAF and the Police had check points along the river every where and before a fishing boat or what ever could get down the river they had to pay extortion money at the check points. It was a fact of life there, the only way that the Army and the Police could survive. We were pretty ineffective at shutting these extortion points down, as soon as we shut one a day later there would be another one open up half a mile down the river, so they kept on going. Because we were so close to the Thai border we were getting a lot of Thai nationals coming into the area, a lot of Thai traders and the majority of people in the Province or in the township actually spoke Thai.
Were there proper border controls as such, I mean did you have to present a passport ?
No, well foreigners coming in had to present a passport and then pay for a visa which was basically extortion and we got a lot of backpackers coming in through the area because it was the closest entry point. There was too much activity in the rest of the country along the border for them to go through. Because Koh Kong was considered (safe), a lot of Australians, New Zealanders, Brits, Germans, Scandinavian countries all came through to the area and had their passports stamped and said “well I’ve been to Cambodia”, and we used to get quite a few of these into the hotel where we were living. It was good because it kept us up a wee bit with the outside world. The only news we were getting was what we were receiving on our short wave radios. Each guy had his own short wave radio and we used to listen to the BBC and Voice of America, radio stations like that and that was the only way that we were getting news from the outside world. We were fortunate in that one of my guys that used to work for me in New Zealand used to send me the papers up every week and so we were lucky that we were getting papers that were only 8 days old from New Zealand.
You couldn’t get Television News Services ?
We had TV’s in Koh Kong, but the only thing that we could pick up was the videos. I mean you could get videos of movies that had just been released for $2 down the market. There was a lot of pirating going on there, so that was our only entertainment.
We used to get regularly, the Bangkok Post, which would come in every day, so we were getting current news through that.
Koh Kong Island we used to use on a Sunday for R and R. We would use our boats to take down some Legion guys and the Civil Admin people. We would all go down on a Sunday morning have a barbecue and a swim at the beach. It was like a hot pool down there, the water was so warm that you could only swim for 10 or 15 minutes and then had to get out because it was too hot, it was very shallow. On our little excursions down to the Island we never got molested by the CPAF Forces there, they used to put in an appearance, have a piece of chicken from the barbecue and then go on their way rejoicing.
What happened after the elections, what were your duties then ?
Prior to the elections the majority of our patrols were concerned with the setting up of electoral stations. After the elections our priority got on to the Log Ban and anti-smuggling and we really concentrated on that a fair bit. We would send patrols out daily to check the logging sites. There were also timber mills up the rivers who were actually processing timber. The Moratorium only stopped the export of uncut logs. We were effective to the extent that they started setting up timber mills and cutting the logs and therefore getting past the moratorium. They were exporting a lot of sawn timber through Bangkok. Towards the end of the UN Mission in fact, the Thai’s started to come to the party and also started intercepting logging barges that were going through. A lot of pressure was put on from the outside world to stop this, because that is exactly how the Khmer Rouge and CPAF were making money. The other thing that happened after the elections was that there was a huge increase in car smuggling. The Navy actually mounted a couple of fairly large operations in the coastal area to try and stop the Singaporean car carriers bringing in second hand cars from Singapore and Malaysia. We had some pretty anxious moments with those. There was a lot of high powered people involved in the smuggling from the Provincial Government down and at one stage we had a lot of high powered people involved in the smuggling from the Government down. At one stage we had down in Sre Umbel, which is a port down the coast from us, we had a fairly serious situation where the CPAF surrounded the Naval Headquarters and were going to open up on them unless they released the vehicles that they impounded. By Mid July a new Government had been elected, a new Finance Minister had taken over and was starting to get fairly serious about the amount of revenue that was being lost with this car smuggling and started to clamp down on it. The Customs people in Cambodia were certainly the poor relations of the CPAF Army and the Police. We often had occurrences, at the port, where the Customs and Taxation people would collect revenue from the boats coming in and when my Port Authority guy was leaving the port at midday to come back to Koh Kong for lunch the CPAF and the Police would go in and rob these guys, take all their money and go. In July the Customs were being reinforced in Koh Kong and we actually got to the stage where we had impounded two vessels and in excess of 100 cars and had them locked up in the compound and they were not to be released until such time as tax and other duties had been paid. That certainly upset the Governor and the CPAF there. It was also around about that time that we started having a lot of intimidation in Koh Kong against the Navy and UNTAC as a whole. One of the houses where the Australian Signals lived was right next door to the Navy House and one Saturday night the CPAF Forces surrounded the place. The two houses next door to them, they took out with B40 rockets and ran about 500 rounds of AK47. That was a warning to the UN to stay out of the smuggling operations that were going on. We backed off a wee bit after that because that was really quite a serious warning to us that we were interfering.
Also around about that time we had quite a few murders in the township mostly for money and gold and stuff like that. Koh Kong was a fairly quiet provincial town prior to that but was starting to turn into a bit of a western frontier town and every man and his dog carried a gun and we had a few frightening experiences. I remember on one particular occasion one Saturday night, around about the beginning of July, across from the hotel where we lived there was a local restaurant, an outdoor affair and we got on very well with the guy who owned this pub. We made a sign for it and it said “Papas Place” and we kept the place running more or less and we used to go across there in the evening and have a beer and a meal and what have you. Right next door to the hotel there was a disco which was frequented by the locals. We had a situation on this particular Saturday night where we had one of the girls who frequented the disco came running across and said “I have just been robbed by a policeman, he’s just stolen my camera, can you do something about it ?”. We went across there to see what the situation was because we had actually heard a couple of shots as well. We were confronted by a drunken police Lieutenant who pulled a pistol on us and either rightly or wrongly he was going to shoot us for interfering. We backed away from that situation and we got the civilian police, but it took them three quarters of an hour to get there and resolve the situation which by then had resolved itself. Those sort of things were pretty frightening. We constantly heard shots being fired at night and it was never the Khmer Rouge because there was never Khmer Rouge close enough. It was always the CPAF or police. I had no doubt that a lot of the murders that took place there were actually orchestrated by either the Police or the Army.
Now you spent your whole time in this port did you?
I arrived there in April and I went on leave at the end of July and it was expected that I would go back there and remain there until such time as it closed down in September. I went on leave for two weeks. My family came up to Singapore and joined me for two weeks leave and I came back to Phnom Penh and arrived in Phnom Penh to be met by Lieutenant Commander Milton who was just leaving to go on leave and he said that I had been posted to Phnom Penh. Because of the fighting that had started up in the Stung Treng area which was in the North Mekong, they were looking at withdrawing a battalion and their equipment out to Vietnam. They wanted me to go down to Saigon and set up a shipping office down there to try and get the equipment out through the port of Saigon. I looked forward to that because it was fairly unusual and I had looked at going to Vietnam for a couple of days leave anyway during that period, so it was quite an opportunity for me to go down there with a team of civilians and establish a port authority down there. A Brit Lieutenant Commander was actually down there at the time doing the ground work with the Vietnamese authorities trying to establish this. I was told to go back to my station, pack my gear and come back to Phnom Penh and await my business visa to go into Vietnam and set up the port.
I went back up to Koh Kong, spent the week handing over to my 2IC. There had been another Team Leader appointed there, he was coming up from Sre Umbel, a Brit Lieutenant pilot, Dusty Miller, but he was arriving about 2 hours after I left, so I had to hand over to my 2IC and I did that and packed up and left. It was pretty hard leaving Koh Kong because I made a lot of friends amongst the locals there. I took a lot of interest in some of the families that were around the hotel. A lot of the kids used to come over and we used to teach them English and mend their cuts and bruises, so it was quite hard leaving the area. I must say that the local people there treated us pretty well. We used to eat at the only decent restaurant in the area Pappas Place which was a Thai restaurant in the town. We used to eat all our meals except our evening meals there and we had become quite friendly with them. In particular the woman who used to do my laundry I became quite close with her family, so it was pretty hard leaving Koh Kong. I really enjoyed my time there and I expected to stay there and shut the station down. I left and went to Phnom Penh, joined the Naval Staff in Phnom Penh as part of their Policy and Development Team waiting to go to Vietnam. As it turned out the Vietnamese Government were demanding too much from the United Nations to ship their equipment out from Vietnam, so that actually got squashed in the end and I remained on Naval Staff. I was there probably two weeks and thought hell this is not the job for me, it was a real paper war there and I thought I have got to get out of this. I approached the Squadron Commander who had changed by then, Commander Phil Hollihead who had taken over from Commander Leighton, a hell of a nice guy, who most of us got on pretty well with and was a real breath of fresh air after the previous Commander who was there. By this stage Lawrence Milton was his Squadron Staff Officer so we had a bit of influence in Naval Headquarters at that stage. The Team Leader at the River Base Phnom Penh was due to repatriate home and I said that I was interested in taking over as the Team Leader and he said fine go ahead. I arrived down there on the Friday at the River Base to take over on the following Monday. I spent Saturday out on patrol up the North Mekong and it was planned to go down the South Mekong on the Sunday, so I could familiarize myself with the area. I had actually spent some time there during the evacuation of the Vietnamese, but because the wet season had arrived the river had changed enormously and something that had started off as a trickle was now a huge river.
I set out on the Sunday morning to go down the South Mekong, went down probably about 20 kilometres. The idea was to come back around about midday and spend the rest of the day in the office handing over the equipment ready to take over on the Monday morning. We were coming back up the Mekong in 2 RHIBs, I was in charge of the party. I was in one of the RHIBs being driven by a Brit Marine Sergeant and a Brit Petty Officer was in it with me, I was sitting up the front of the RHIB. We came across one of the local ferries that was ferrying some people up the South Mekong up to Phnom Penh and as we always do we board the ferries and ask them if they had had problems with the extortion points and things like that and just to basically see who was on board and where they were going. We actually went up ahead of the ferry, turned around to come down to port side. The idea was that we were going to turn astern of it, the other RHIB was actually alongside the ferry at this stage, and come alongside the RHIB. We actually intercepted the ferry where 4 rivers meet, the Tonle Sap and the North Mekong and the South Mekong river all meet in the area of Phnom Penh. The huge flow of water that goes through there was actually quite turbulent especially with the combined wash of the other RHIB that was alongside the ferry and the ferry itself. As we went to turn around the boat heeled over to port, we hit a fairly large wave and as a result I got thrown backwards. I went to support myself on the forward pontoon, the pontoon collapsed and I went over the side. Unfortunately I was also holding onto the bow rope at that stage which actually threw me into the hull of the boat which hit my back and as I went to push myself away from the hull the outboard motor ran over my arm. As a consequence I basically cut my arm in half and I was sort of hanging there. I didn’t actually realize that I had been hit until I came to the surface, I was more worried about drowning at that stage because I was fully kitted up, boots and DPM and all that and it was a bit of a struggle to come to the surface. I realized when I looked around I could see all this blood on the water and wondered where it was coming from and then looked down at my arm and saw this bone exposure and thought hell I have really done it now. One of the Brits dived in the water, grabbed me, put me into the RHIB, saw the extent of the injuries and slapped a couple of field dressings on it. By this stage I was on the verge of going into shock. It was fortunate for us that we were only 10 minutes out of the River Base and they detached from the vessel and shot straight away to the River Base, called them up, told them that they had a casualty on board. They had a vehicle waiting for us, got me ashore, put me into the vehicle and took me south to the German Field Hospital which was just on the outskirts of Phnom Penh, in the old Phnom Penh University. Within half an hour of the accident I was in the emergency room. They cut my gear off and sedated me and took me straight to surgery. I woke up about 7 o’clock that night in the recovery ward with my arm in plaster and bandaged and every thing else. It was only then that I realized how lucky I really was, the prop had actually severed the muscles that run through the arm but had missed the major nerves and tendons by about a millimetre. I was also fortunate that day that the Duty Surgeon specialized in micro surgery and had done a fantastic job to repair the arm. What really brassed me off about that whole situation was that it happened the week I was due to take over as a River Base Team Leader and so that went out the door. It also happened the week that the Commodore Auckland was visiting Phnom Penh and I was involved in his programme to get him around the country to have a look. I spent that week in hospital recovering. On the Tuesday when Commodore Wilson flew into the country he stopped at the hospital on the way from the airport to Kiwi House and spoke to me and he also stopped at the hospital on the way out again on the Friday as he was flying out of Cambodia and actually presented my UN medal to me. That was quite a unique situation for me dressed in a pair of black shorts with a sling on my arm and he pinned the medal on the sling.
It all recovered quite quickly did it ?
Yes I spent the next week in Kiwi House and just basically took it easy.
Presumably a dose of Mekong River water in a wound isn’t too healthy ?
Yes that was the biggest problem, it had got pretty badly infected and it took about two weeks to get rid of the infection. I was quite lucky because I had images of losing the arm through infection. They were a wee bit concerned at one stage that that might actually happen, but anyway I managed to pull through that. I was supposed to have 5 weeks off, but after sitting around for a week or two in the house I thought bugger this its time to go back to work. In the meantime I had to go back to the hospital every day and get the dressings changed and what have you. I ended up going back to Naval Staff to the job that I was supposedly leaving and fumbled my way around there with one arm in a sling and what have you, but it was good to get back to work.
By this stage, we are looking at mid September now, the stations had all started to close down. On September 15th the UN Mandate ran out in Cambodia and our only mandate from then on was to withdraw from the country by the 15th November, we basically had two months to leave. The first stations started closing down mid September with the last of them shutting down at the end of October. I was involved at that stage of the planning of the shut down, although the plans for the shut down had been worked out, we were at that stage concerned with the minor details of getting these people out of the stations, getting the equipment returned and starting the repatriation routine for the various contingents that were leaving. The country itself had settled down very much after the elections, although the Khmer Rouge started launching attacks again from the east and north west of the country and also again were starting to intimidate the Vietnamese. There were a lot of Vietnamese people who had lived in Cambodia for generations. We were withdrawing people in that sort of atmosphere. One of the interesting jobs that I did while I was on Naval Staff prior to the accident was that the UN had decided that they would for three months pay the Civil Service which also included the Armed Forces. The Navy was involved in paying the Naval and Marine Units throughout the country. I went on a couple of these called Operation Paymaster as the Paymaster. I went up to the Tonle Sap to Tango Hotel one of our stations right at the bottom of the Tonle Sap lake. I went up to some of the out stations there where the CPAF Marines were located and was dishing up millions of Riels to pay these people who hadn’t been paid for years.
Individually to each sailor or soldier ?
Yes the first one I ever did I had 6 million Riels in a bag to pay 40 odd people. The US dollar was running at about 2 and half thousand Riels to the dollar at that stage, so six millions Riels was nothing, it was 5 or 6 thousand dollars or less than that. A lot money to them, but it seemed very little to us to pay 40 odd people who hadn’t been paid for 4 or 5 years. It was quite interesting because that was the first time that I had also had any contact with the Khmer Rouge. At the same time the CPAF Forces had started launching fairly major offensives up in the north west/north east of the country to try and control the Khmer Rouge problem and they had become quite successful. They had managed to split their lines of communications and also their logistic supply line. The Khmer Rouge were actually surrendering in quite big numbers. We were getting Colonels who were pulling whole regiments out and surrendering themselves to the CPAF. That was the first time I had any thing to do with the Khmer Rouge. As we were doing one Operation Paymaster the Khmer Rouge actually walked into the camp and some 40 or 50 Khmer Rouge gave themselves up, so that was interesting. That got a wee bit tense there for a while because we didn’t know how the CPAF were going to react to this. As it turned out the CPAF actually treated these people very well and as the word spread that things weren’t so bad, a lot more Khmer Rouge were surrendering as well. When I left the country something like 3 and a half thousand had surrendered and the offensive that the CPAF Army had launched was quite successful.
You stayed in Headquarters really until you left ?
I stayed at Naval Headquarters Phnom Penh until I left.
Did all the New Zealanders come out as one group ?
No the shut down was staggered, we were closing the stations at about one a week and that included the coast and the inland stations as well. My station Koh Kong shut down mid September and by the end of September there was only two stations on the coast left open and there was only about three inland stations left open, mainly on the Vietnamese border. Unfortunately what the Vietnamese anticipated doing was return to their fishing villages where they came from, but the new Government clamped down on them when they went back across the border. The Naval Stations on the Mekong and Basaac, particularly the Mekong, were actually involved with the World Food Programme, a UN Organization, in dishing out rice to these people, because things were getting pretty critical at that stage. There was no money, there was very little fish and there was certainly no rice. They were caught between a rock and hard place, so the Navy became involved in distributing food. We got involved for the planning of that as well. I spent the next couple of months until I repatriated back to New Zealand actually working at Naval Headquarters. By this stage there was a lot of Kiwis coming back into Phnom Penh waiting to be repatriated.
Did you push them on a plane to New Zealand as soon as they became free ?
More or less, we had a couple of guys, Master of Arms Bass and Warrant Officer Jackson who had established the Kiwi Repat Scheme. Typical UN Organization. it took twice as long to get out of the country than it took to get in. It took about a week to go around the various places to get signed out, it was worse than leaving the Navy really. Because the Team Leaders had been responsible for equipment, and pretty expensive equipment, we had to make sure that it was all signed off. The two guys did a great job of fielding all the problems for us and in fact in the end it wasn’t a matter of each person grabbing individual forms, the two guys had gone around and done it all for them. By the time the individual got involved, all he was concerned with then was get the last of his money and his air tickets out. I got a wee bit involved in that as well. I guess the last month was pretty boring for a lot of guys. They would come into the place and we had set up a Community Aid Project at the school opposite Naval Headquarters where we basically got rid of a lot of the rubbish around the place. We cut all the grass and put sand and every thing around and a lot of the guys were working on that project in the morning and having the afternoon off. They also used that opportunity to take a weeks leave and the majority of them went down to Saigon. I also took that opportunity, there was a group of five of us and I was fortunate it was the week I got the plaster off my arm. Lawrence Milton and myself, Master at Arms Bass, Warrant Officer Jackson and a Canadian Lieutenant went down and spent a week in Saigon and had a terrific time down there. Saigon is a pretty unique city in Asia, the last of the communist countries in Asia, but we found it quite westernized.
The French influence I gather is still there ?
Yes, not so much that you would notice now. Certainly there was still a lot of people still speaking French, but we expected more of a French influence than we actually saw. If any thing very much an American influence. Saigon is lucky I guess in that although it was controlled by the communists they didn’t really change a lot there. There are some very good Western hotels there. A lot of Japanese influence there. Vietnam is a country that is really waiting for the embargo to be lifted and it is going to take off, its got potential to be another Singapore. I think most of us felt that within a year of the embargo being lifted there, you wouldn’t recognize it, it will sky rocket. Yes the Vietnamese treated us very well. We went out and did all the touristy things. Went out to the Cho Chi tunnels and you were okay there as long as you weren’t American. The propaganda was pretty high, the American war criminals and all the rest of it. Vietnam was great in comparison to Phnom Penh because you could relax there, there was no curfew. I only ever saw one person with a gun the whole time I was there and it was an atmosphere you could really relax in.
There was no harassment of westerners ?
Not at all, in fact most Vietnamese bent over backwards. We expected Vietnam to be a fairly backward country but in comparison, was generations ahead of Phnom Penh. Flying back to Phnom Penh was like flying back to the stone age in comparison. Although Phnom Penh itself had improved drastically since we arrived there, they had made a fairly big effort to clean the city up. The streets were being cleared of rubbish and places were being painted. There was a lot of building going on. There is a lot of business coming to Phnom Penh and a lot of Japanese, Singaporeans, Malaysians, Thai coming in and starting to invest a bit of money in the place. We were getting more reliable electricity supply. Water was never a problem there, although you would never drink it. The drinking water we got came from the German Hospital in Phnom Penh and what they actually did was make a huge swimming pool there that they filtered water through. It was quite ironic we were drinking the water the Germans were swimming in, it was better than drinking the local water.
Talking about that sort of thing apart from your obvious injury, was health good ?
The majority of the time yes. I think most of us probably suffered from worms, most of what you eat and drink gave you that and we were constantly de-worming ourselves with tablets. The majority of us were taking anti malaria tablets. But in the end because a lot of the guys were starting to suffer a wee bit taking them and we also weren’t quite sure what effect the pills were going to have on our liver and kidneys, a lot of us stopped taking them about three or four months after we arrived in the country. We felt it would be safer to get malaria than it was to carry on with the medication that we were using. I think without a doubt most of us got food poisoning at some stage or other. The time that I was up there I probably had about three or four doses, pretty horrendous stuff too, it was pretty debilitating. I remember after the elections they established a big counting centre in Koh Kong where they were counting all the votes from the province and it was at the town hall which was right on the river. During the counting process which took several days we mounted patrol just outside the counting centre to make sure that no one tried to interfere with it. It was on that particular day I got quite ill when I was out there on patrol. If someone had shot me I would have thanked them for it. On the whole I think the whole contingent were pretty lucky. Besides myself we only ever had one other guy hospitalized the whole time that we were there and he had suspected appendicitis which turned out to be Delhi belly. Overall the morale and the health of the guys was tremendous.
No major skin problems ?
No not really, most of us got bitten by mosquitoes and that.
Were you eating mainly European style food or local style food ?
When I was in Phnom Penh we were predominantly eating European style food. The guys at the out station were mostly eating local food. We were lucky in that the quality of the food we were getting in Koh Kong was quite high because we were so close to a major Thai city and fresh food was coming in daily and the Thai restaurant that we used to eat had a mixture of Thai and European food. I think on the whole most of the guys stuck to the Asian food. I know that when I went on leave after four months of rice and fish and stuff like that, the first truly European meal that I had I just couldn’t handle. I went to McDonalds at the airport in Singapore and had a big Mac and could only get through half of it before I started getting stomach cramps. It was just too much.
You mentioned leave with your family and going to Saigon, did you have other leave or was that it ?
That was it. We were told when we arrived there that because we worked 7 days a week, basically 18 hours a day and each station was expected to mount patrol 7 days a week, we used to accumulate 6 days CTO a month which is Compensatory Time Off. You weren’t allowed to take leave for the first two months, but unfortunately we fell into the period of the elections and they stopped leave completely. By the time we were due for leave it was right in the middle of the elections and we couldn’t take it, so we actually lost leave.
Did you get help to get your family up to Singapore ?
Because we were away over six months the Navy provided half fare assistance.
I suppose its quite a nice perk ?
Yes in a lot of ways the Navy itself was pretty helpful to us. A lot of the personnel from particularly South American and Eastern European countries had been sent out there and then forgotten about by their countries. We were fortunate in that we had an excellent liaison with Lieutenant Commander Gary Metcalf who was running it from COMAUCK’s Office. He used to phone us on a regular basis and we had faxes all the time. Unfortunately towards the end as the stations were closing down the Communication Units were closing down as well, getting in and out of Phnom Penh by phone and fax was getting pretty hard and fairly unreliable. I was also fortunate that we had some fairly enterprising Thai’s in Koh Kong who brought in cell phones and we could make toll calls to New Zealand for $3 U.S. a minute as compared with Phnom Penh where they were charging $7 a minute. I had a weekly phone call and the Navy also paid for 6 minutes a week for the first month and then 6 minutes every fortnight thereafter, so we were getting that back as well. It was fortunate I had reliable comms with the outside world and we could just go down to one of these phone places and ring up 24 hours a day. A lot of the other Kiwis and other countries for that matter, had re-supply trips up to Koh Kong and once a week they would send up a landing craft with water and diesel and stores for us. A lot of the Kiwis and other countries got onto to these trips so they could come and use our phone because they had very little comms.
A big welcome when you got home no doubt from the family ?
Yes by the time it had come to repat, everybody was ready to repat. Our mission had finished. It was worse than the first one, because when they left the mission was still going and they left from a job, had a week in Phnom Penh and then went home. Most of our guys were hanging around waiting to go. The patrols had stopped. We couldn’t even get into a RHIB and go down the river. We were sitting around waiting to go home and by the time it came to go home everyone was pretty relieved to get out of the country. The security situation in Phnom Penh got a wee bit worse towards the end. We had an unfortunate set back about a week before I was due to leave when one of the German Medics was actually shot by one of the locals and that shook us up. It was too close to going home for something like that to happen. We kept a pretty low profile in Phnom Penh for the last week before we left. We completed our repat routine and the typical bureaucracy always made things hard. We got our final cheque 20 minutes before the bank shut, so there was a fair bit of rushing around. We got our tickets 2 hours before the flight left and we flew out of Phnom Penh on Saturday morning on a Kampuchean Airways Flight which was this time a 737 and it was luxury in comparison to the flight in. We spent the day in Bangkok and flew out by Thai Airways on a 12 hour trip back to New Zealand stopping at Sydney on the way home. Yes it was great to walk off the aircraft in New Zealand.
One of the complaints most of the others have made, the Yugoslavians as well, is that the Services when they got back home didn’t want to be de-briefed. There was a feeling that nobody was interested in them when they got home ?
Certainly we had that feeling as well. We were pretty disappointed that there was no Navy Rep at the Airport to meet us. I haven’t spoken to the other teams. The first team was great because they all arrived at once. There was 31 of them jumping on the plane and 31 of them jumped off the other end. We were sent home in dribs and drabs. In the first lot out there was 3, the second lot out there was 7 and in my team there was 10, it was spread over about a month and a half. We were pretty disappointed when we arrived in Auckland that there was no one from the Navy there to meet us. There was no publicity.
Did DDI and those sort of people de-brief you at all ?
Not at all.
Nobody from Defence Ops or anything like that ?
The only programme we had when we came back was a medical and a Psych de-briefing and that was it.
Did you enjoy it ?
Oh absolutely yes.
I suppose its an experience that will stick with you forever ?
Yes I have been in the Navy nearly 24 years now and without a doubt it has got to be the highlight of it. The work itself was very satisfying, we worked very hard and we also played pretty hard. For the first 5 months that we were stationed in Cambodia we worked 18 hours a day 7 days a week and all of us were doing it.
It sounds from what you say it would be quite satisfying to see the results of your labours ?
Yes I mean the election was very satisfying, that’s why the UN was there to elect a Democratic Government, and its the first success that the UN have had in its history and they can write Cambodia off now as a success. We all hope that it stays a success, but we can say that we conducted a fair and free election. Certainly the friendships that we made amongst the local people, the UN certainly boosted their economy that’s for real, with 22,000 people in the country earning US dollars, it certainly had that effect.
(end of interview)