The dense but colourful forest obscures the trail.
I decided to take an assistant out with me the next day, as my drone catcher. These things can flip over in an instant on landing, no matter how careful you are, so it’s well worth paying someone to grab it as it hovers. We spent a few hours in the early morning shooting the forest and I also tried to recreate an aerial photo I had seen of the nearby Firebase Brown, scene of a fierce battle on 13th May 1970. We went out again in the afternoon after I had finished recharging the batteries.
Some of the bamboo I had been through while looking for the radio.
Having used up 2 batteries we returned to HQ. I was playing around filming the hundreds of confiscated vehicles in front of the Seima office, when I foolishly forgot to take note that my battery was low. While trying a particularly tricky maneuver under some trees and a cable the low battery warning came on. When this happens you have about 10 seconds to hit the cancel button or it will try to ‘return home’, which entails going up to a preset height, in this case 200m, then returning to where you took off. I hesitated just a few seconds as I tried to avoid drifting into a tree and suddenly the aircraft shot up, straight into the welcoming branches above. Not good. I had to watch helplessly as the drone plummeted to the dirt. The plastic shell was cracked in a couple of places and one rotor blade was broken. A quick check showed everything else was working but one rotor was now hitting the shell so it was impossible to fly. Bollocks, there goes my plan to film a few of the beautiful waterfalls in the east of Seima. What with the boots, this trip was suddenly becoming a little expensive.
The US/ARVN invasion started in the area between Memot and Snoul, where they came across a base they called “The City”. The invasion caught the Vietnamese off guard and within a week the Americans started to head north east to Seima where they spent the next 7 or 8 weeks on their search and destroy mission.
Some of the stories from American pilots and GI’s are quite incredible, such as the story of Firebase Brown (Keo Seima), which was the size of a football pitch with 1 piece of razor wire and a 4 foot tall earth berm around it. Here just 2 company’s of GI’s armed only with small arms and 1 mortar, managed to fight off approximately 1,000 highly experienced NVA troops for 3 hours, until reinforcements arrived at dawn. Amazingly they suffered just 1 death and 8 wounded. This story is told in incredible detail in the book Raiding the Sanctuary: Redcatchers in Cambodia, written by Robert Gouge. His book also includes details of the helicopter attack on Gati village, which resulted in the Wat being destroyed. It also recounts the downing of the helicopter we seemingly found parts of (see below). It also tells a story of incredible bravery, of a helicopter pilot Robert Gorske and John Rich, who died on his 22nd birthday trying to save a company of men surrounded by NVA troops. The radio that I have been looking for is in the same area as this particular incident took place and may well be left over from that fight.
To give an idea of how fierce the fighting was in Seima, this was the main support base for the NVA and they had been developing the area for some 15 years. They were well dug in and they did not want to let it go. As one GI put it afterwards. ”I had done 2 tours in Nam already and thought I had seen everything, then we went into Cambodia”.
It’s hard to convey just how steep some of this area is.
I had also paid a guide to spend the day asking locals who still went into the forest if they knew of anything out there that might be interesting. I was aware that there were at least 5 helicopter crashes inside what is now the Seima protected area, but the chances of anything remaining was slim to say the least. Only one of those was in a fairly remote location.
A small section of a US topographic map of Seima, from the 60’s. One square is 1km. It gives some idea how insane it is on the ground if you don’t have a trail to follow.
In the morning the old boy who had sent me down the wrong moto track turned up and said he could take me to an area full of bunkers, “The American Base camp” where he said had seen some documents of some sort in a bunker. This all sounded very unlikely to me but I was stuck for things to do. In the end it turned out to be a wild goose chase. He took me on a roughly 5km ride through the forest (scaring off loggers as we went), which took about an hour. Now I have a very good sense of direction so I was pretty sure where we were. As we left the bikes and started to climb a very steep hill, I’m looking at my GPS in disbelief. This was Shakey’s Hill. Seriously? I know the place better than him and he’s been here all his life, some 60 odd years. We could have driven to within 500m of this spot without ever leaving the tarmac road and walked up a relatively easy trail. No need for a knackering ride through the forest or the slippery slog up through the bamboo. I’m not going to trust this guy again in a hurry.
Still, we did find something to film, albeit an old (used) artillery shell and a metal box that had contained fuses. I am assuming they were used to blow up the hundreds of bunkers that pepper the hilltop. Over 326 tons of weapons and ammunition were found on top of this hill, the second largest weapons cache of the entire Vietnam war. The biggest cache of all, named Rock Island East by the Americans, was found just a few km to the south, right on the border. While Rock Island had more tonnage of weapons it was more of a staging area to cross the border, whereas Shakey’s Hill, 5km to the North, had all the logistical support, communications, training camps, hospital etc. The Americans came across just about everything you can imagine in Seima, including bicycle repair shops, truck repair shops, medical caches and many thousands of tons of rice.
Sadly even these hills are now being stripped of the forest to be farmed. Without the trees the topsoil will wash away in a few rainy season. Madness.
When we got back to the HQ, I was told about someone who had seen the rotor from a helicopter just 3 months earlier. This was very exciting news but my boots were clearly not going to be up to the fairly serious walk involved. I decided to try my luck in the provincial capital of Sen Monorom, where locals told me I could find a Vietnamese man that could repair them. It took a whole day but it was well worth it as he did a great job. When I got back I found that no one had been able to get in touch with the rotor guy but I was told that someone in Gati village to the north knew where it was and plans were made for the next day.
It’s not very clear but this is where the turn off from the main trail crosses a small stream. The hospital was in the clearing behind and there are hundreds of bunkers in the forest all around. Nothing remains today except for the trail.
For the first time in a very long time I risked going on the back of someone’s moto. Generally I never do this in the forest as I have had a few idiots in the past and I don’t want to have someone else wreck my equipment or put me in hospital. This time my bike was simply not an option; with the road tyres it would have been a nightmare. I was more than a bit worried about the track as the last time I did it in the dry season and 1 small part was really scary to ride down. Very steep with rocks the size of a small car to negotiate. You were definitely getting badly hurt if you fell on that. Adding to my concerns the new Barang (foreigner) boss here and a few WCS staff tried to go there a few days earlier and gave up! Expecting a seriously hard slog I was rather disappointed to be honest. The road was a mess in parts but entirely manageable and we did the roughly 15km in only 2.5 hours, just hours after a huge storm. The road had been repaired in places since I was last on it and the nightmare bit was much easier despite being wet. I had to get off and walk here and there but I never even had to push or help drag the bike out of any big holes, as is often the case. We even passed a couple of very young girls on a bike, carrying a clearly new-born baby up the hill to Gati. I’m not sure why the others bottled out. Bunch of lightweights.
It turned out to be about a 5km walk from Gati to the crash site, the last bit was a real killer, almost straight up through bamboo. It’s far too steep to walk so you have to pull yourself up each step. I was feeling every one of my 51 years when I reached the top.
Boron Carbide armor plating from under the pilots seat.
At the site no sign of a rotor. We looked around the area for an hour and eventually gave up and headed back. It turned out these guys had not been up here in years. After a few hundred meters we came across some bits of green painted metal, some were clearly involved in an explosion and one of the Gati guys with us found a piece of some kind of armor plating. It was so heavy I couldn’t imagine it coming from a helicopter, but I decided to take it back as it was covered in mud and it wasn’t possible to get a good shot of it. I figured I might be able to work out what it was from. It’s made of 2 layers, the back is just plywood about ¼ inch thick with a layer of a very heavy brittle metal on top. After a little research online and some helpful replies on Facebook, it turns out the ‘metal’ was Boron Carbide and this was almost certainly part of the armor panels under the pilots seats in Huey. Frustratingly we were probably very close to the rotor.
This is all we could find of the helicopter, but it does prove the location in the official report is incorrect.
This helicopter site is interesting as it was mentioned by both people I interviewed in Gati and yet I can’t see it in the declassified docs. It’s quite possibly a typo because there is a crash site listed near Gati, but to the south, not the north. The villagers also don’t recall any other crash.
We took a very different route back, first heading away from the village and coming back via the old French road. It was certainly a lot easier than the direct route but it turned out to be just over 9km. At least I got some good exercise. On the wildlife front we saw another troop of Doucs and at one spot where we stopped to rest there were a couple of giant squirrels that seemed to be having a chat. It was quite odd as they didn’t seem at all bothered by us. I am assuming they were either having a neighborly dispute or it was a guy squirrel trying to chat up a lady squirrel. It certainly sounded more seductive than aggressive. The ride back from Gati was very uneventful and a half hour faster as the track had dried a fair bit. Ten out of 10 for my driver (I doubled his money I was so impressed), best moto driver I have ever had in 15 years in Cambodia, as for the others… Wimps!
The forest near the crash site was very beautiful and full of wildlife. Shame about the constant background sounds of chainsaws.
I didn’t do much the next day and spent most of it researching the armor and backing up everything. I decided to head back to Phnom Penh the next morning as I couldn’t do the other filming I wanted due to the dead drone and it was simply too hard to get to many of the places I wanted to visit. Additionally, plans to do a follow up on Sambo the elephant also went out the window as it turned out the interviewee I needed was not going to be back for a few more weeks.
The Ho Chi Minh Trail
Despite the setbacks it was a very interesting trip and I now know exactly how and where I want to go. As for this film(s), I have no idea when I will be able to put something together, for a start I need to find some work before I can spend anymore time and money up there. I estimate I need to spend at the very least another $2,500 on more filming and on proper translations of all the interviews, which are in Bunong. I doubt I will see any change out of $1,000 for the interviews alone and I can’t do much until that’s finished. Hopefully I can get back up there in December or January and get the rest of the footage and interviews I need to record.
I actually think there’s more than enough material to make a fascinating short series, maybe 4 or even 6 parts. It certainly would be good to be able to include some of the US soldiers stories as well as give the local’s accounts. I am still not sure where this will go but I am very keen to have a strong environmental side to the story too. I am not interested in getting into the politics at all, no patriotic bull, no glorification. It’s not needed as the various stories are so incredibly compelling. I think it could basically follow the events from start to finish over the 7 or 8 weeks that the American’s were in Seima. Who knows, I might even be able to end it with a good old fashioned love story. At the moment I am seeing Seima as a beautiful backdrop to the story. The all-important human element is certainly there to interest broadcasters and if nothing else it would be a great opportunity to show the incredible beauty of Seima and it’s wildlife to the world.
To end, some links.
A 10 minute film of mostly stills from FSB Brown and written excerpts from “Raiding the Sanctuary”. Warning to anyone squeamish, graphic images.
A trailer for a film about Shakey’s hill. I have not seen it yet, it was shot by a CBS cameraman who was on the ground when they were fighting for the hill. I understand he bought the footage back from CBS in 2007 and made this documentary. So far the only way I can find to buy it is a DVD, which is a bit silly in this day and age.