Tuesday, June 10, 2014

On Borrowed Time: Brian Ellis Remembers the Fall of Phnom Penh

Wounded Cambodian soldier and CBS News cameraman Norman Lloyd with Correspondent Ed Bradley who was wounded in Cambodia on Easter weekend in 1973. Ed suffered shrapnel wounds to his left arm and to his back. When his wounds healed, Ed returned to Cambodia.[Photographer Unknown.]

Brian Ellis
(CBS News Bureau Chief Saigon and Phnom Penh, 1972-1975).

I always knew that covering the war in Cambodia was dangerous. But in early 1975, in February and March, I was getting messages from our people in Phnom Penh telling me that covering the war had become even more difficult and dangerous. The teletypes from Ed Bradley, Bruce Dunning, and Haney Howell were painting a rather bleak picture of not only what was happening in Cambodia, but what they thought was likely to happen. Bradley said the Khmer Rouge were much closer to the city than they had ever been before and that the government’s mostly phantom army just wasn’t any match for Pol Pot’s soldiers. I was anxious to work out what our needs in Phnom Penh might be in the coming weeks or days, so I decided to make a quick trip over there.

The only practical way of getting to Phnom Penh from Saigon was by air. You had to fly first to Bangkok and then back to Phnom Penh] You couldn’t go overland that’s for sure. I did rather foolishly once agree to let Dick Wagner and Mike Marriott go from Saigon to Phnom Penh by river. It damned near cost them their lives…great footage of their cargo boat being fired at by Khmer Rouge on both sides of the Mekong… but not worth that kind of risk.

Anyway, by default Air Camboge became the only way in and out of Phnom Penh and even that had become riskier. Passengers had to cope with what we nervously called the airline’s falling leaf landing pattern. The Khmer Rouge weren’t all that far from the airport and when they heard a plane landing or taking off, they’d lob mortar rounds or fire rockets at the runway.

Brian Ellis arriving in Phnom Penh, early April, 1975.(Photo by Joe Poey).

To reduce the possibility of being hit by Khmer Rouge gunfire, when the Air Cambodge jet was at about eight thousand feet or so and directly over the airport, the pilot would put the plane into a tight spiral. Everything inside the plane shifted forward and to one side; hand carry luggage, passengers, food and drinks, your stomach. The spiral would last for what seemed an eternity, then the plane abruptly leveled off, hit the end of that runway and continue taxing, at some speed, right up to the terminal building. There was none of… “this is your captain speaking please remain in your seats with your seatbelts fastened until the plane has come to a full stop.” That plane was still rolling when you unhooked your seatbelt and headed for the exit door. And when you got out you found yourself surrounded by walls of sandbags—sometimes ground crew staff would come out and offer you a flak jacket or helmet. So, just getting into Cambodia had become a white knuckle event.

And once in Phnom Penh itself, always high on my list of concerns… worries if you will…were the night-time rocket attacks. Some nights I slept in the bathtub.

I remember the time when Jim Bennett of ABC News, a friend, a tough as nails newsman and fierce competitor came out of the Monoram Hotel one morning, after a night of rockets, to find a number of cylo-drivers that he knew lying there dead or badly wounded on the sidewalk. Jim, who’d seen more than his share of wartime carnage, was shaken up by what he saw and for some reason those deaths seemed to touch a special nerve…Jim didn’t hide his emotions…he said he’d seen enough killing and talked about leaving Cambodia and vowing to never cover another war.

I don’t know if Jim did quit being a war correspondent. The last I heard of him was about three years ago and I think he was the news director at a TV station in Florida, or maybe it was North Carolina.
Cambodia really was a place in which it would have been abnormal not to worry. Things there really did go bump in the night.

For me, worry and Cambodia became synonymous … and the country’s infamous highways were by far the most worrisome of places. Even though I never spent anywhere near as much time out on those highways as the folks who were permanently based in Phnom Penh, I think it’s fair to say that just about everyone in Cambodia worried about being on those highways. You could get wounded---as Ed Bradley and others were. You could even be wounded by friendly fire as cameraman photographer Dieter Ludwig was. Dieter occasionally shot film for us and one day he stepped too close to a government mortar…and just as it fired. The camera was a write off and we gladly paid for all of Dieter’s dental work.

On those highways you could also end up being caught and taken prisoner as AP’s Kate Webb was and you’d have to hope that, like Kate, you were caught by the North Vietnamese and not by the Khmer Rouge. You could ride out of town on motorcycles and just disappear… in 1970 photographer Sean Flynn and CBS’s Dana Stone both rode out of Phnom Penh and were never seen again. They were most likely killed where they’d been stopped, no one knows for sure, but their bodies were never found and over the years a number of journalists have gone out in the countryside looking for them.

Sean Flynn (left) with Dana Stone shortly before they disappeared in Cambodia, April 6, 1970. Neither was ever seen again.

By far, the largest one day loss of newsmen occurred in 1970 when two American network correspondents and their camera and sound crews were killed along the main north/south highway out of Phnom Penh. CBS News Correspondent George Syvertsen and his crew of four were killed when a rocket propelled grenade hit their jeep. Welles Hangen and his NBC crew arrived at the scene of the initial incident a short time later and were captured. They were said to have been kept prisoners by the Khmer Rouge for three days and then Hangen and the four members of the crew were reportedly beaten to death.

Cambodia was always a deadly place for journalists, but there were a handful of lucky ones and one of those has to be photographer Al Rockoff, who was reported to have died at least twice that I know of. Thankfully Al is still with us…but somehow he and all those other journalists in Phnom Penh found a way to just suck it up…the fear… and to this day I still don’t know how they did it.

I ‘m sometimes asked if I came to sympathize with the Cambodian government in the war and I suppose I did. Given a choice between the militarily and politically inept Lon Nol government and the sub human Khmer Rouge, I’d have to say that I hoped the government would win.

Khmer Rouge soldiers, Spring of 1975.

Cambodian government troops, spring of 1975. (Photo by Brian Ellis).

Ed Bradley had said he always preferred being in Cambodia to being in Vietnam, but you know, my feelings about Cambodia were entirely different to those I had about Vietnam. Firstly, I never saw the two places as being the same war. There was this tendency in New York and elsewhere to sometimes lump the two conflicts together, calling it an Asian war, or an Indochina war. Geographically correct I suppose… but I never lumped the two wars together. The people fighting the two wars, or three wars if you include the one in Laos, were different, culturally, politically…yes you’ll find Buddhists in all three places and at one fairly recent point both Laos and Cambodia were monarchies…but they really didn’t have very many things in common.

Ed Bradley typing out script, early 1975. [Photo by Brian Ellis]

The reasons for the wars, the objectives, the politics were similar I suppose given that the communists were the bad guys in all three places…but the way we, the press, covered each war, our interaction with the people, the governments, our relationship with the soldiers involved in each place was different.

In Vietnam, for example, if you went out on the road or up country, you could be gone for a day, a few days, a week or more and if you found yourself in trouble, there was always a good chance that American or South Vietnamese troops were nearby and they’d help bail you out. Whereas in Cambodia, you almost always went out on your own, unless it was with other journalists, but you rarely, if ever, went out with Cambodian army units, or stayed with them in the field.

To cover the war in Cambodia you’d simply walk out front of the Phnom Hotel, get into a Mercedes and tell the driver to take you out to wherever there was fighting…or to where all the other journalists had gone.

Phnom Hotel, April 1975. Joe Poey's Mercedes parked at far left. (Photo by Joe Poey).

You knew there were no Americans out there and you certainly couldn’t count on the ragtag Cambodian army to be of much help if you found yourself in trouble. So, for me at least and I suspect for most journalists in Phnom Penh, those trips outside Phnom Penh were always spooky. But that’s where the war was. And no one was better able to sense the dangers out there on those highways than our Cambodian driver Joe Poey. You would be driving along and Joe would suddenly slow down and pull to the side of the road. We'd be sitting there for a few minutes and you'd ask Joe what was wrong and he'd say "nothing." But the nothing Joe was talking about was the road being completely deserted... there were no cars, no trucks, no one on bicycles, no people working in nearby fields. Nothing. To Joe this meant the Khmer Rouge probably had a road block up ahead. Spooky!

And it was rare for anyone to stay out in the country overnight… the risks were far too great. But there were some who took those risks…and sometimes they came back with incredible stories and sometimes, regrettably, they just didn’t come back.

Compared to Phnom Penh and Saigon, Vientiane [the capital city of Laos] was a separate place entirely. In fact you could be in Vientiane and not think you were even in the same hemisphere. Vientiane was far less frenetic than Saigon and more peaceful downtown than Phnom Penh. The few times I was in Vientiane there really wasn’t very much that visibly told me that there was a war going on. There were of course the US bombing missions in the North, around the Plain of Jars and the CIA was busy supplying Hmong and Meo tribesmen, but they were military activities that were near impossible for television correspondents and crews to cover.

For some reason the Laos war was always referred to as a Civil War. I assume that was because Laotians were fighting Laotians, but I often wondered why the same label wasn’t used to describe the wars in Cambodia and Vietnam. I mean in Cambodia weren’t Cambodians fighting Cambodians? And in Vietnam weren’t Vietnamese fighting Vietnamese? Those, of course, are rhetorical questions.

The war in Laos was not covered as extensively or as thoroughly as the wars in Vietnam and Cambodia. In fact I’ll bet you that not very many people, other than the Laotians themselves and a few journalists even know when Vientiane fell to the communists, the Pathet Lao. It was in December 1975, eight months after Phnom Penh and Saigon fell.

We had correspondents and crews go to Laos from time to time for specific stories, the last time was in 1974 when we covered the release of Emmet Kay, a civilian pilot who had crashed landed in Laos in 1973 and he was believed to have been the last known American POW of the wars in Vietnam and Laos. But we really didn’t cover the war in Laos, at least not as we covered the wars in Cambodia and Vietnam. We had our hands full in both those places and I’m not sure that there was much interest in New York for stories out of Laos after the Americans essentially pulled out in 1972. But I do believe now that we really should have covered that war more than we did. Americans fought and died there.

You know Vientiane wasn’t really an unpleasant place to have to spend time; it had some incredible Buddhist temples and monuments an interesting culture, a few good restaurants and some nightclubs you couldn’t write home about. It was often a welcome respite from Phnom Penh and Saigon.

And as surprising as this might sound, there were brief moments in Phnom Penh when life could be pleasant, almost normal, provided you were a Western journalist staying at The Phnom Hotel. I recall times when a group of us, after a long day of trying to find bits and pieces of the war, would sit in the Phnom’s poolside restaurant and we’d swap stories about who went where and what we’d seen. We’d be drinking cold imported beers, or sipping French wine, or drinking Pernod…definitely an acquired taste….or you’d be telling Neil Davis for the umpteenth time that you didn’t have any cigarettes. There was frequent laughter when stories were told by Denis Cameron or about Don Webster of CBS.

Comic relief in Cambodia. At one of those end-of-the-day dinners. CBS's Don Webster in checked shirt tries to retrieve his hotel room key from Denis Cameron. Dennis Gray of AP waves a napkin to get Webster to surrender. Woman at right unknown.

But you know I often suspected that one of the real reasons for those end-of-the-day gatherings wasn’t so much about enjoying some good food, wine, or the special camaraderie they afforded everyone, it was an opportunity for a silent head count, a moment to check and make sure that people who went out to cover the war that day, came back. That would help explain all those little exchanges between the journalists about who went where and what they saw…no, make that, who they saw. But, then again maybe I’m just romanticizing those gatherings, reading some wishful thinking into them.

By far the weightiest decision most evenings was where we’d have dinner…at the hotel or La Taverne. And all the while, not far off in the distance you often could hear gunfire. It was surreal, a Fellini movie… a make believe space in an abnormal place…sometimes made even more unbelievable when blonde, very tall and very pretty freelance photographer Sarah Webb Barrell would appear poolside in a bikini. She would walk slowly around the pool like the New York fashion model she once was…and stretch out on one the poolside lounge chairs.

Sarah even remembered, much to the delight of the USS Okinawa crew, to pack her beach towel and that bikini when she was evacuated from Saigon in 75. Tragically, four years after this photo was taken, Sarah died in Rhodesia --now Zimbabwe -- at the very young age of 33.[Photo by Brian Ellis]

I should really point out before we go any further that in no way did I ever consider myself to be a veteran of, or an expert on, the Phnom Penh news beat. I was at best a journeyman hack. I came, I reported and I left. The true war correspondents in Cambodia were people like Neil Davis, Norm Lloyd, Al Rockoff, Denis Cameron, Sydney Schanberg, Liz Becker, Dennis Gray, Jon Swain, Kate Webb, Matt Franjola, Ed Bradley, Bruce Dunning…the terrific correspondents and crews for both ABC and NBC…they were the ones who covered that war day in and day out and had to cope with all of its madness. And I cannot say enough about the CBS News cameramen and sound men who kept our network's coverage second to none --Thanong Hirunsi, Derek Williams, Mike Marriott, Joe Yue,and Udo Nesch to mention just a few. I envied each of them his or her particular expertise and their incredible courage, but I never once envied their being in Cambodia.

Going back to what I said earlier about the countryside around Phnom Penh being spooky, I remember very clearly the first time I went out there as a cameraman…yes, that’s right, as a cameraman. Now this isn’t a war story, only real cameramen like Davis or Lloyd are entitled to tell those, but I believe my little tale might help illustrate just a few of the things that journalist sometimes had to deal with in Cambodia.

I’d flown to Phnom Penh; this would have been around July of ’73 because our resident cameraman told me he’d seen enough war and that both he and his wife wanted to leave. We didn’t have a backup crew so I decided that I would cover for him until a real cameraman could be found and sent in. It’d been many, many years since I’d last used a camera, but I figured that if I pointed it in the right direction and stayed in focus, it would be better than CBS not having anyone in Cambodia shooting film. Now, as I said, I’d been out on those highways before, but never with a camera on my shoulder.
Haney Howell, our staff reporter in Phnom Penh, had heard that some government troops had been in a fierce overnight battle with the Khmer Rouge in a small village just a few miles north of the city. Figuring that the fighting would probably be long over by the time we got there…Haney, Cambodian soundman Put Sophan and freelance French photographer Christine Spengler and I all rode out to the village in Joe Poey’s Mercedes planning to do a day after story.

(Note: In addition to his being the CBS driver, Joe Poey was a very good still photographer. Some of the photos in this piece were taken by him. Joe sold his photos to Cambodian and Thai publications. He would also occasionally sell photos to European news agencies.)

Brian Ellis with Joe Poey.

Brian Ellis with sound man Put Sophan, Cambodia, 1973. [Photo by Joe Poey]

When we got to the village the fight was still on. The Khmer Rouge was still firing into a cluster of mostly wood and sheet metal huts and a small government artillery unit nearby was returning the fire. It wasn’t by any means a unique or significant battle…there were dozens of such clashes every day in Cambodia, most of them I’m sure far worse than the one we found ourselves in. Again, keep in mind this was my Cambodia baptism as a cameraman.

Cambodian government troops fighting Khmer Rouge outside the village. [Photo by Joe Poey]

We all got out of the car and took cover under one of the huts.

Filming in Cambodian village during fighting. Left to right: Cambodian military officer, CBS reporter Haney Howell in cap), Brian Ellis with camera and CBS sound man Put Sophan. [Photo by Joe Poey, CBS News.]

When the shooting finally stopped we saw that some villagers had been killed and many more wounded. I began filming and as I moved between the huts and the wounded villagers I happened to notice that Christine, while taking pictures, would pause every now and then to help some of the wounded. She was wrapping wounds and comforting terrified kids. This was my first road trip with Christine and it struck me that she obviously saw more than simply images of war when she looked through her viewfinder.

Christine Spengler and wounded villagers. [Photo by Joe Poey]

Soon it got to a point in the day when we had to start thinking about leaving. I didn’t want to be on that highway after dark…as Haney frequently reminded me, when the sun went down in Cambodia the highways belonged to the bad people. But Christine was upset about our leaving, saying “we can’t just leave these people like this.” She suggested that we take some of the wounded back with us.

I thought, Wow! Is this what journalists in Cambodia normally do? What they are expected to do? Are there different rules here in Cambodia for the press? I looked to Haney for guidance and he was slowly shaking his head from side-to- side. I reminded Christine that there were already five of us in the car and that if we took someone, one or more of us would have to stay overnight in the village. Without missing a beat, she said okay “I’ll stay and you can send the car back for me.” I could tell Sophan didn’t like that idea one bit and he points out that it would be dark before the car could get back to the village and I sure wasn’t about to ask our driver Joe Poey to take that risk. I reminded Christine that the Khmer Rouge would be back after dark and that she wouldn’t survive the night.

I was the newcomer and I wanted to do what was right, what my colleagues back in Phnom Penh would do and possibly expect me to do. I asked Christine who she thought we should take. She said, Let’s take one of the most seriously injured...and she pointed to a woman whose arm was hanging by a thread and her body peppered with shrapnel wounds. I said, Christine you’ve seen the hospitals in Phnom Penh, they have people stacked in the hallways, they’re literally being piled up for doctors to see, doctors the hospitals don’t even have. I told her that if even if we did take the woman back to Phnom Penh she’d probably bleed to death on the way. We all felt bad about leaving, after all we had a car and it seemed only right that we should take someone with us.

I don’t remember too well now all the things I was saying to Christine to try and convince her that she couldn’t stay. Here I am worrying not only about our own safety, where the Khmer Rouge are, I’m also fretting about my camera skills or lack of them and I’m concerned about how long it would take us to get back to Phnom Penh. Now I have to think about what we should do about some wounded villagers. This was quickly becoming a decision way above my pay scale.

Christine went back among the huts and the wounded and after a few minutes she returned, got into the car and we all drove off. I don’t know what changed Christine’s mind, but I sure as hell was relieved that I didn’t have to think any more about leaving her or anyone else in that village. Christine didn’t say a word on the long drive back to Phnom Penh. Haney said he’d call someone in the military command when we got back, but I think we both knew they wouldn’t do anything about those wounded villagers.

Yes, I did feel bad…guilty if you like…about leaving those people, but I couldn’t imagine leaving Christine or anyone else there in that village to make room for someone who would probably have died before we got her to Phnom Penh. Rationalizing a difficult choice, perhaps, but there we were with our big air-conditioned Mercedes, a driver and we were about to drive to Phnom Penh and we couldn’t take anyone with us? When I retell the story that way it does make our behavior seem as cold-hearted as those villagers must have thought we were.

Treating wounded Cambodia Villagers. [Photo by Joe Poey]

Treating wounded Cambodia Villagers. [Photo by Joe Poey]

And so, my very first assignment as a cameraman in Cambodia taught me a number of important things, not least among them being that in Cambodia there were no easy choices and I knew for sure that I’d never make it there as a cameraman.

Christine Spengler with Brian Ellis in Cambodia, 1975. [Photo by Joe Poey]

I’d love to know what Christine thinks today about what we did, or didn’t do that day. She is a remarkable woman, a great photographer and in all likelihood she’s still out there somewhere taking great photos in another war. I’m glad our paths crossed.

As for the Cambodian people we left in that village, I hoped they’d survive, but I knew the Khmer Rouge didn’t take injured civilians to hospitals. And while those villagers may have been angry with me, I was angry about a lot of other, admittedly less important things that were happening in Cambodia and not just what the Americans were or weren’t doing.

New government troops being shuttled to the "front" in the Spring of 1975. (Photo by Brian Ellis)

One of Lon Nol's young soldiers on guard duty in Phnom Penh (Photo by Brian Ellis)

There were Cambodian generals making all kinds of money off their phantom soldiers and politicians cashing in on the city’s black market. I remember seeing all those American planes coming in with the all that food and thinking, this is all so pointless. There was a lot of talk—talk of a last-ditch efforts to raise $200 million in Congress—talk of a ceasefire---talk of settlement with the KR. Those flights into Phnom Penh were barely keeping the place going, it all seemed so futile. America was simply propping up Lon Nol’s government until Congress voted on that money. There was no attempt to-- or there did not appear to be any kind of plan for winning or ending the war.

The Khmer Rouge probably wouldn’t have agreed to any plan anyway because they were winning….but a ceasefire might have helped end some of the suffering.

I thought there’d likely be a bloodbath, another “Night of Long Knives,” but not at the level, or the severity which eventually was the case. So yes, I knew that Cambodia was not going to be a place for anyone who wasn’t Khmer Rouge…I could only guess at what would happen to all those men I saw every day walking around in those saffron robes, the tens of thousands of people lying in hospital beds and the doctors and nurses who tended them. I knew that a lot of people, particularly government and military officials, were going to pay a huge price, but I never for a minute imagined just how high or dreadful a price that would be.

I had fairly strong feelings about wanting the government side to win, but, as I said earlier, I can’t say I that I was a great fan of Prime Minister Lon Nol or his government. But yes, I had incredible sympathy for the ordinary people, like the civilian populations in all wars, they were the ones caught in the middle, terrified and trapped and just hoping to survive. You could very easily get caught up in all that, as we did in that village I spoke of earlier. It just seemed that whatever was headed their way it could only be more bad news.

By April 1975 I felt a sense of doom about the place. I really thought there was…the place was on borrowed time---first it was by the month, then by the week and ultimately ---by the day.
I left Phnom Penh before it fell, but before I did I got into the business--if you can call it a business-- of helping to evacuate people. When it looked like it was going to be just a matter of days before the Khmer Rouge entered Phnom Penh, I flew back to Saigon and sat down with the heads of some of the other news organizations and we talked about arranging for a plane to be on standby in the event things in Phnom Penh went sour in a hurry and we couldn’t count on the American Embassy to help us get our people out.

We agreed to arrange a charter with Jim Eckes who ran Continental Air, a small company in Saigon that actually did a lot of business with the CIA-- flying agents around Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia. Initially there nine news agencies interested in being in this charter pool but that eventually dropped to five. The New York heads of five or six news agencies agreed to our paying for a plane, a C-46, to be on permanent standby.

It was going to cost us about $19,000 for the standby alone, but we’d get 18 hours of free flying time with that. Additional flying time would cost $400 an hour. Costs didn’t end there, I had to arrange for insurance and I was told we’d needed at least $10-million in coverage. Just keeping up with all the paperwork on this charter was time consuming.

And just when I thought I had everything in place, a new problem popped up.

I don’t remember who I spoke to first about all of this but I have a feeling that it was again George Esper of AP…one of my Saigon mentors. George and I became good friends during the years we were in Vietnam and I often looked to him for counsel and guidance. We worked out an arrangement whereby George would let us send coded non news messages to Phnom Penh over the AP news wire. We’d send messages letting, usually AP’s Dennis Gray in Phnom Penh, know that the charter would be coming over either to bring in supplies that news agencies might have requested, or coming over to pick up someone who wanted to leave.

So five, or maybe six agencies or maybe it was five, three networks, AP, the two wires and three networks were involved.

The plan was that we’d send the charter to Phnom Penh right up until the moment America pulled the plug. By circumstance mostly, I became chairman of this evacuation charter group. Having never done anything like it before, I wasn’t too sure how it would work so a group of us agreed on a set of rules, circumstances under which the plane could be used, who would be entitled to use it, to ride on it and so forth. Including how much this would cost each of us. We also had to come up with a way to get around the fact that most of the Cambodian evacuees wouldn’t have visas to enter Vietnam. A problem that could have defeated the sole purpose of the charter, but we found a way around this problem by having those without visas carry letters guaranteeing onward passage from Vietnam. We used the Phnom Penh plane a few times in Vietnam, but the Phnom Penh flights were our most important and frequent

Phnom Penh charter flight filled with passengers.

Sometimes we’d bring out just a handful of people and at other times an entire plane load. Mostly they were Khmer employees of various agencies who wanted to come out. And we (I) allowed a few non pool people to get on, I wasn't counting heads and I wasn’t asking people who they worked for. If there was a seat and someone wanted to fill it, I said fine, climb aboard. That upset one or two of the other pool members, but…the exceptions to my sometimes open seating policy was that no one still in the Cambodian military could have a seat, nor could any active government ministers, but we weren't bringing out anywhere near the number of people that we’d eventually have to evacuate from Saigon.

Even when I thought I had everything in place, a new problem would always crop up. Getting people out of Cambodia was beginning to look like the easy part. Getting an okay from the Cambodian and Vietnamese governments to let us fly the plane in and out of Phnom Penh and Saigon was not so easy.

A number of people, fearing what was coming, had already left Phnom Penh well before the end came. I remember the embassy telling us-- I think Ambassador Dean (John Gunther Dean) told all the news agencies in Phnom Penh that they should get their people out, that the Embassy might not be able to help them if and when that time came.

On the last day of Phnom Penh, when it looked like the place was finally going to collapse---we sent the plane on one last run. I remember getting a message, via the embassy in Saigon, from Ambassador Dean telling me not so send the charter that day because things on the ground had gotten worse and I’d only be putting more people in danger. But the plane had already left Saigon and it was probably sitting on the ground when I got Dean’s message. I had no idea how many people we’d bring out.

Just before that last flight I received a message from Richard Threlkeld telling me that Denis Cameron wanted fly between 300 and 500 Cambodian orphans out on the charter. I can only imagine what that scene would have been like at the Phnom Penh airport and the kind of reception those children would have received in Saigon. [I mention this episode only because it illustrates how well intentioned, but unrealistic some folks sometimes were about that charter...it only carried 70 and Denis is going to bring 500 orphan babies out to the airport? But there were never any orphans waiting at the airport and no sign of Denis. I don’t even want to think about what might have happened to all those babies after the Khmer Rouge took over.]

Chrstine Spengler with Denis Cameron in the countryside near Phnom Penh

I knew there were a few correspondents and photographers who were going to stay behind. I’d heard that Syd Schanberg of the New York Times was one of them, as well as Al Rockoff…maybe Neil Davis –Jon Swain and Denis Cameron…and---I’m sure there were others… perhaps Matt Franjola

Interestingly, one of the final messages I received from Phnom Penh said that Matt Franjola of AP and perhaps others---would give us smoke signals from atop the Monoram Hotel or Sukulay Hotel to indicate to our charter pilots whether or not they should attempt another landing in Phnom Penh. The message said that if they saw purple smoke they could land---no smoke would mean they were to circle or stand by---red smoke would mean they should abort any landing attempt. I don’t know if any of this was true, but that same telex message also claimed that a freelancer named Doug Sapper, a true gung ho type, had returned to the by-then vacated US Embassy and was going to raise an American flag. The message further said that Sapper would be “armed to the teeth” and would fight to the end.

By mid afternoon on the 12th our Cambodia evacuation had ended but on the 13th it was agreed by the pool that Ed Bradley and Norm Lloyd could take the plane to Phnom Penh. We hoped that Bradley could talk to Syd Schanberg via some rather sophisticated hand-held radios Ed had and that belonged to cameraman Mike Marriott. We didn’t know for sure that Syd even had a radio or if he’d have it on. It was admittedly a long shot. Bradley and the pilots decided against landing given that Ed was unable to establish radio contact with Schanberg. So Lloyd, not wanting to come back completely empty handed, decided to shoot some aerial footage of Phnom Penh and some of the plane’s crew and the plane’s interior. When they got back we offered the footage to other press pool members but none was interested. A pool member actually accused CBS of taking unfair advantage of the flight by shooting the film. Since the footage was offered to everyone and the five pool members had approved the flight, it wasn’t exactly a secret that Ed and Norm were on the plane.

Later that day I got a call from George Esper who said the New York Times was interested in using the charter and also wanted to try and make contact with Schanberg, to perhaps bring him out. Mal Browne, the Times correspondent in Saigon, said he’d be on the plane. I thought it was worth trying, I mean Schanberg would certainly have information helpful to us all and our C-46 pilots said they were willing to make the flight. So I voted yes to the Times having the plane as did three other pool members. ABC voted no.

Here’s what Mal later wrote about the incident in his book Muddy Boots and Red Socks.(1993)

Mal was disappointed, I was pissed. Why ABC voted no was never entirely clear, although it was suggested by another pool member that ABC felt The Times could have been in the charter pool from the outset and that pool rules clearly stated that no one could come in at the last minute and expect to use the plane. If that was indeed the reason for ABC’s no vote, then its vote was more about fine print than journalism.

While we could still fly over Phnom Penh, by the 14th or 15th of April that had become far too risky, so I told Jim Eckes and the charter pilots that we were done with Cambodia. The crew said that if we changed our minds, they’d be available. They were truly great guys. All the flying they’d done for the CIA made them fearless I guess, but that was the end of the charters. I’m ashamed to say that I only knew the first name of one pilot, Daryl I believe was his first name , but I’m sure in my charter files I have their names.

As far as news people in Cambodia, pretty much everyone got out who wanted to get out. Actually there were several phases of evacuation. There were some who left before the Americans did…on commercial or fixed wing military planes. When the official evacuation happened, a large number came out on the helicopters, including Ed Bradley, Norman Lloyd of CBS and correspondents and crews of other news agencies. CBS News did not order its people to leave, they were given a choice. I knew that staying would be very risky and in a phone conversation with Dick Salant, the president of CBS News, I asked if anyone was required to stay and he said no.

Coded teletype sent by Brian Ellis to Phnom Penh about leaving."Eyebrows" is the nickname for Murray Fromson, "Ong Big B" is Ed Bradley" and "RiceFlight" refers to the evacuation charters.

So I’d taken it upon myself to tell our people in Phnom Penh that they were okay to leave. There might have been some who wanted to stay and they could have if they’d chosen to, but I never questioned anyone’s decision to leave. They’d all demonstrated extraordinary courage many, many times in Cambodia and Vietnam and I assured all of them that it was okay with CBS News if they left. So all the CBS personnel in Phnom Penh, with exception of our Cambodian cameraman-soundman Put Sophan and our translator driver Joe Poey, everyone left with the Americans. Sophan, I was later told, continued to shoot film for CBS for about another week.

There hadn’t, of course, been a public announcement, there was no advance warning from the Embassy that an evacuation was about to take place. When those Marine helicopters landed [Operation Eagle Pull] they landed in a small soccer field near the Embassy and unless you were privy to that information, you wouldn't have known to go there. I did hear much later that around 600 people were evacuated on the choppers and that the Embassy had expected there to be a lot more.

A number of correspondents applied to go back into Cambodia after the Khmer Rouge took over, but very few got to go. Elizabeth Becker of the Washington Post was one of those who did get a visa. A terrific writer and someone who knew Cambodia more intimately perhaps than most old hands, Liz is writing what I’m sure will be a must read book about what happened in Cambodia after the Americans left. [Update: Liz did write that book and it's titled When The War Was Over: Cambodia and the Khmer Rouge Revolution[1986].

Many months after the Khmer Rouge had taken over Phnom Penh, Ed Bradley, cameramen Kurt Hoefle and Derek Williams and I went to the Thai Cambodia border. Ed and I were putting together a documentary on what was happening inside Cambodia. Unfortunately, or perhaps fortunately, we never got any closer to Cambodia than a closed border crossing. Even there Khmer Rouge soldiers began firing at us. Bradley was doing his on camera standup when the firing started and I told Ed that the Khmer Rouge had probably recognized him.

Dith Pran, a Cambodian who worked for the New York Times, stayed as did our soundman-translator Put Sophan. Sophan could have gotten out. He was at the airport when the final charter flight landed and he could have gotten on it. But he didn’t. Like a number of Cambodian men, Sophan had two families, two wives and several children. He couldn’t find all of them and he said he wouldn’t leave any of them behind. So he made the decision to stay.

I didn't hear anything more about Sophan until well after the evacuation, after the evacuation of Schanberg and the others from the French embassy in Phnom Penh. What I learned about Sophan came in a phone conversation I had with Dith Pran of the New York Times not long before he died here in the States and that I believe was in 2008.

Dith Pran

(Pran was the subject of the 1984 Academy Award winning film “The Killing Fields. He was portrayed in the film by Cambodian physician turned actor Haing S. Ngor.)

Haing S. Ngor

I’d called Pran to see if he could help me update some information I was putting together on Sophan for the Newseum in Washington DC. The Newseum, an interactive museum of news and journalism, has a Journalists Memorial that lists the names of all journalists who were killed covering wars and I wanted to be sure that Sophan was on it. (The Newseum claimed that it never received the new information I’d sent about Sophan, but his name is on the roster, but accompanied by some inaccurate information.)

It was during this phone conversation with Pran that he told me about the last time he saw Sophan. He said it was in a town called Prek Kdam and it was a very brief encounter; Pran, dressed in old tattered clothes to look like a poor farmer, said it was brief because he couldn't risk being seen by the Khmer Rouge talking to Sophan.

He said Sophan told him that he'd given his camera and film to the Khmer Rouge and that he had told them he'd been a cameraman for CBS News. Pran said Sophan seemed relaxed and he was convinced that the Khmer Rouge was going to let him be a cameraman for the new government. Pran said he told Sophan that he himself did not trust the Khmer Rouge and warned Sophan that he shouldn't believe anything they promised him. Pran said he then had to move on or risk being caught. Pran, who had stayed behind in Phnom Penh with Syd Schanberg, later escaped to Thailand.

Pran told me he later heard from Cambodian friends that the Khmer Rouge had killed Sophan, his two wives, the sister-in-law and the four children. Pran said they likely had all been beaten to death.

While sorting through some photos of Cambodia for possible use in this piece, I happened to look at the back of one of them and I shuddered. The town in which Sophan and his family were murdered, Prek Kdam, was where Sophan, Christine Spengler, Haney Howell, Joe Poey and I found ourselves in 1973 under Khmer Rouge fire and having to decide what to do about some wounded villagers.

Just more of that horrid Cambodia "spooky."

Put Sophan(Photo by Tse Wang of CBS News.)


In the limited time I spent in Cambodia I was fortunate and privileged to work alongside some incredible journalists. Sadly a number of them have now passed, but I will remain forever grateful for their unconditional help and their friendship.

Ed Bradley (65) died in 2006 of leukemia. Richard Threlkled (74) died 2012 in a New York auto accident. Bruce Dunning (73) died 2013 from injuries he suffered in a fall in his New Jersey home. Neil Davis (51) shot and killed in 1985 in one of Thailand's serial coups. Don Webster (67) passed away in 1995 at his Chicago home. Denis Cameron (78) passed away in 2006 at his home in London. George Esper (79) passed away in 2012 shortly after retiring as a journalism Professor at West Virginia University. Dith Pran (65) died of cancer in 2008 in a New Jersey hospital.

Haing Ngor, (55) a Cambodia killing fields survivor, whom I'd never met, played Dith Pran in The Killing Fields movie. Ngor was shot and killed in the driveway of his Los Angeles home in 1996 by 3 members of an Asian gang when they tried to rob him.

Put Sophan (40) Prek Kdam, Cambodia

[In his next interview, to be posted soon, Ellis provides a rare insider's look at the evacuation of some 700 Vietnamese from Saigon. He shares copies of internal documents which detail his search for alternate ways to get people out and talks about the surprises and the many difficulties he encountered during those final days. He also shares details of the last minute deal he made with Graham Martin the US Ambassador in Saigon and he includes Graham Martin's feelings about that deal.]


Anonymous said...

Enjoyed this account a lot. Thanks from N.Z.

Roland Neveu said...

Thanks for remembering this period, this is now a great read for the novice photographer I was at the time! But I was fortunate enough to bring back pictures from the 17 April… Roland Neveu

peter kent said...

Thanks Brian for a great chronicle.
Great memories..some tragic..of those final days before evac Op Eagle Pull and three weeks later Op Frequent Wind.
I was with CBCTV in those days..camera was the late Ian Wilson.
All the best...p

Ly Moly said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Ly Moly said...

Thank you very much Mr.Ellis for giving us more insight of what was going on before the fall of the country. Yours and other journalists' bravery were extraordinarily remarkable. By any chance, had you known of a man named Ly Eng? He was one of the Khmer journalists believed to be killed by the Khmer Rouge right after the fall of Phnom Penh. He is my older brother whom I had looked up to while I was growing up.

James williamson said...

Dear Brian,
I enjoyed your account thoroughly. I was also in Phnom Penh in late March 1975 , with partner Philip Brooks. We were working / freelancing for an Australian newspaper called "The Digger" which was a forum for investigative journalism , in similar in style to Rolling Stone in its heyday. Here is a link to our account..http://www.klektik.com/klektik/Cambodia_1975.html
As an aside, Have you read "for The Sake of All Living Things" by DelVecchio. ? It is an interesting treatment of the this period of time in Cambodia. With a character that I imagine is a thin disguise of Elizabeth Becker. It is extremely violent and makes Cormac McCarthy's work almost soft by comparison. Thank you again for your account..Its a great cast of characters and events.