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Salient. Victoria University Student Newspaper. Volume. 34, Number 6. 1971

why them and not me?

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why them and not me?

Photo of three soldiers

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At the beginning of June Don McCullin was hit by mortar fire while on assignment south of Phnom Penh covering the war in Cambodia. He was hit in both legs. This is his account of what happened.

"There was a bit battle at Preyveng in Cambodia at the end of May. Preyveng was just outside Nixon's 30-mile limit, so the South Vietnamese went in with a sprinkling of Cambodians to relieve it from the Vietcong while the American marine advisers stayed behind. I hired a big white Mercedes-Benz in Phnom Penh and drove to the front. (Hertz had lost three hired cars to the VC - their prices went up according to the fatality rate of journalists.) I had to cross the Mekong and reach a ferry over a tributary river about an hour's ride from Phnom Penh. It was a hot sticky day, with a monsoon approaching. I reached the ferry at 2 p.m. and asked a Cambodian captain under a smoking sausage-stall if I could cross. He said all the bridges were down, so I got on the crowded ferry. It was a pleasure to ride this stinking hole because of the breeze: the heat buffets you, the smell of dired fish seems to hum in the sultry air like the mosquitoes.

"On the other side it was like a Hollywood scene: "Back to Bataan" played by little gold-teethed, throat- clearing spitters. American barges were landing troops and ammunition, and helicopters were lifting them into the re-supply zone. I asked a Vietnamese General with a huge cigar and a baseball cap if I could have a ride in a helicopter: he said "Sure, no sweat." He radioed for permission and I waited among the dust and dirt, the palm trees and bulldozers. You could see the Vietnamisation of Cambodia like before you'd seen the Americanisation of Vietnam: boys were cadging chewing-gum and cigarettes. A rainstorm lashed and belted the helicopters as they lifted shakily up like steel dragonflies. We flew into the last of the light, in a formation of five, carrying rations and ammunition to the re-supply base, and landed in a field with purple smoke grenades to mark our landing-zone. You could hear the crump of the mortars. A Vietnamese with a radio said "This way" and we ran over a couple of rice fields gone dry and cracked before the rain. I was told there was another foreigner, called John, in a field' and I saw this huge blond American sitting by a couple of figures who seemed uncomfortable in their seating arrangements - two Vietcong prisoners. The American said he was a construction engineer who'd got bored with Vietnam, but I thought he might be a CIA spook. I sat down by the prisoners: one was 16 and one was 17. I was slightly honoured to sit next to them. They seemed resigned in a pallid way to their fate. I gave them some chewing-gum and cigarettes - think they took them out of courtesy.

"The Vietnamese battalion I was with were called the Crazy Buffaloes: they were all about 4ft.9in. in their socks. Some of them were pulling back because night was drawing in and there's usually some evening action like spooky gunships or close air and artillery support. The evening seemed to centre round our little group. One Arvan (Vietnamese marine) drew his bayonet out and pointed to the prisoners and said "Number Ten", which means like "Rotten bum", and the American told him to push off. I felt ashamed to face the prisoners: we were the imperialists to them. I don't speak Vietnamese so there was no rapport beyond respect on my side. It's always the very young that are captured.

"We bedded down two by two. The Vietnamese are very superstitious about night and ghosts: one said to me "Eh you, you want to sleep me?" So we paired off in the stubble of the last crop of rice, little twosomes all over the field. My partner took out his 'indigenous ration' - two plastic bags of pre-cooked rice - and spread his ground sheet over us. By 8 p.m. it was intensely dark; you could hear tracer bullets from Preyveng, B40 rockets and 120 millimetre Chinese mortars. Then a droning old-fashioned aeroplane appeared in the sky with a faint red undercarriage which suddenly burst into an incredible yellow, like a huge sunflower in the sky, and the night became day only yellow. This parachut flare glided slowly to earth lighting up the evening and all the little twosomes restlessly moving to avoid the bumps in the field. Then the sky filled with an army of shooting stars directed towards the earth. The sound came afterwards. "It's O.K., it's old Spooky" - a gunship which fires 6000 rounds a minute. It stayed up an hour and a half, going round in a circle picking out targets by the light of the flare. The night had become the greatest theatre in the world: the Americans have turned humanity into a play. I couldn't sleep, but my Vietnamese slept deeply, moaning and chattering to himself.

"You wake with a rotten taste in your mouth and your heart speeds up. The soldiers unpacked their bags of rice and boiled up water in a little dirty black kettle on a fire made from old C-ration cardboard boxes. They eat all the time, they'd stop the bloody war to eat. One after the other took a spoonful of Vietnamese breakfast. Then somebody gave me a mug of hot cocoa and I felt I could take on the world. The Commander said they were going to send a platoon (which could be from 15 to 40 men) on a probing party to let the Cambodians know we were going to try to relieve them. "Don't go with them as these soldiers may break and run and you'll be in terrible trouble." It was 7 o'clock, the sun was up, light and crisp. Then the Cambodian element suddenly appeared behind us. They looked like a Gilbert and Sullivan army compared to the Vietnamese: gym shoes, old-fashioned army hats with ear-flaps, baggy trousers and ill-fitting shirts, they had AK47 Springfield rifles, and a standard-bearer proudly carrying the Cambodian flag. We lined up and the patrol moved forward as it to the seaside, the Vietnamese mocking at the Cambodians and calling out Number Ten!", walking with heads high and flag waving towards the enemy.