“…ordinary people who risked their lives…” – part of the forgotten history of Phnom Penh

The Meta House in Phnom Penh has at present an exhibition of photographs and corresponding testimonials of stories about moral courage of ordinary people who risked their lives to save others. These are related to actions during the Holocaust to the periods of violent conflict in Bosnia, Rwanda, and Cambodia. The exhibition is also an effort, as described in The Cambodia Daily, to provide the “narrative of rescuers instead of the constant narrative of perpetrators and victims.”

I take this occasion to add here information from a book about the “rice lift” to Cambodia in March 1975, which I found recently: Larry Partridge: Flying Tigers over Cambodia – An American Pilot’s Memoir of the 1975 Phnom Penh Airlift (McFarland & Company, Jefferson/North Carolina, and London, 2001, 196 pages).

Though I live in Cambodia since 1990 and try to learn about the old and the recent history as background for the dynamics in present day Cambodian, I had never heard about the “rice lift.” I read this book with great attention, appreciating the many details described. It is written by an American civilian pilot, who writes:

“…we were officially listed as noncombatant personnel, but nobody mentioned that to the people who attempted so many times to do us harm. What ‘noncombatant ‘ meant, in our case, was we weren’t allowed to shoot back.”

The book contains much more than a simple description of a terrible period of history. The author shares his own inner struggles about his involvement in an almost impossible task – and he describes how many other people, Cambodians and other foreigners, lived through this period – or lost their lives. In the following, I let Larry Partridge speak, for large sections, in his own words.

On 1 March 1975, a Flying Tiger cargo plane – this company was the first scheduled cargo airline in the United States – was on the way from Manila to Bangkok, with a one-hour stopover planned on the ground in Saigon. The USA had already announced in 1969 to withdraw all troops from South Vietnam, but the situation in Cambodia had become more and more critical. During this stopover, while the pilot – Larry Partridge – and the co-pilot – Jim Winterberg – were looking forward to a nice seafood dinner in Bangkok, things changed completely. The station manager of Flying Tigers informed them that the Khmer Rouge had completely surrounded Phnom Penh: “The airport was still open but was now within range of rebel artillery, and normal air traffic had come to a halt. There were at least one million refugees as well as residents in the city and starvation was rapidly approaching.” Rice was available, Flying Tigers had assigned an airplane – but they needed a crew; would they volunteer, instead of continuing to Bangkok? They could stop again any time. “Under the circumstances, neither of us felt that ‘no’ was an option.”



© By Piergiuliano Chesi (Own work from slide) [GFDL (www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html) or CC-BY-SA-3.0 (www.creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons from Wikimedia Commons

Next morning at 4:00 they were woken up to take a car at 5:00 to the airport, where a DC-8-63, already loaded with 48 tons of rice, was waiting for them to be taken to Phnom Penh.

They got the local standard flight instructions: After takeoff, circle over the airport while climbing to 15,000 feet [approx. 4,600 meters], an altitude considered to be safe from ground-to-air missiles used. The first words they picked up on the air traffic control radio on the way to Phnom Penh was the warning “incoming” – which meant that artillery, rockets, or both were hitting the airport where they were to land soon. They had been told that “if an incoming rocket was going to be a hit-or-near-miss, someone at Tailpipe Bravo [the special bunker with the air traffic control on the ground] would usually see it falling, giving everyone a few precious seconds to get behind or under something. The 105 mm artillery was dangerously different in that it gave no warning! If it had your name on it you would never know what hit you.”

“The one thing that did kind of confuse the issue was the shelling was now light enough to allow most of the usual air traffic to come and go again. This was great for moving goods and people, but there was little coordination between all the different operators, both military and civilian… ‘be advised that there is traffic all over the place – high, low, fast, and slow.’”

Thus started the daily routine. Depending on the military situation at the Phnom Penh airport, there were up to four flights between Saigon and Phnom Penh per day: ‘…incoming – you’ll see some smoke off to the right, you want to go around? – Um… we just saw two hits by the terminal, is that it? … We’ll land OK…’

One problem after the other appeared: “While the unloaders were happily doing their thing,” a check revealed “that the brakes were still very hot. This was caused by landing a heavy airplane on a fairly short runway on a hot day. If we were going to take off and spend some time at a cool altitude this would not be a problem, but after the short flight back to Saigon the brakes would still be hot and the risk of blowing a tire would be very real. The typical family car carries around 30 psi [air pressure] in its tires. The DC-8-63 main wheel tires used 200 psi and if the internal temperature reached a high enough point, the tire would explode with the force of a sizable bomb… Normally, the solution would be to spend an hour or so on the ground, but that was totally out of the question.”

“Just as we started up the runway, two T-28 fighters landed, facing us and turned off on the terminal ramp to await our passage. This was definitely not standard procedure for a peacetime airport, but somehow it seemed safe as all the pilots involved were highly skilled and on top of the situation.”

“As we ended our first day on the job… we had a lot to think about. A quick, unremarkable dinner and it’s off to bed we go.”

Most of the following days follow a similar pattern: flight preparations and loading – or unloading in Phnom Penh – observing ‘incoming’ shooting while preparing to land or when on the ground, reflections on what is going on – especially related to other people in this situation.

“As we sat on the ramp unloading we could see the Khmer Rouge were trying to do their job as hit after hit thumped into as small farm about 400 yards [approx. 350 meter] off to our right and forward a bit. That’s a clean miss, but the way they are hitting in the same small area worried us a lot as an adjustment in our direction would have been deadly… Silently, we wondered about the family that had once lived there. Were they still alive? One can usually come up with some reasons a warring faction does this or that, but blasting a gentle little farm to bits while trying to destroy an airplane full of food?”

One of the ground staff “pointed out an old couple on the ramp and told us their story. Probably in their seventies, she had something in her apron and he was carrying a small pail with a handle. The ‘something’ in her apron was sand and his pail held thin tar. Every time an incoming round pecked a small hole in the ramp they would quickly fill it with sand and tar (a regular crew patched the large ones). They just showed up one day and started filling holes while everyone, military and civilians alike, assumed that someone of authority had allowed them into the area. Questions were finally asked and it became clear that they had just quietly arrived on their own. This caused a big row among the Cambodian troops who were supposed to be enforcing a super-secure perimeter around this ramp. The Old Couple just ignored all this and stayed on the job they created while shouts were shouted and fingers were pointed. Finally, everyone cooled down and after it was decided that they were not KR agents, an officer asked them where they lived. The Old Man stood quietly while she gestured toward a small pile of belongings… Using scrap corrugated sheet metal, some troops assembled a lean-to and the Old Couple had a humble home again. Their ‘pay’ for the job was whatever spilled rice they could sweep up plus handouts from Tailpipe Bravo [the air traffic control bunker].”

Once the head of the US Federal Aviation Administration Southeast Asia Region came to inspect the operation and went also along on a flight to Phnom Penh. He understood that the shrapnel on the runway took a heavy toll on the wear of tires which had to be changed more frequently than normal. He wondered “why we didn’t ask for a truck with an electro-magnet under it (they’re used for picking up metallic foreign objects that could damage the aircraft). I pointed to a wrecked and burnt-out vehicle that was the magnet bearer. The man who had been driving it was dead. The runway was just too dangerous a place for any length of time.”

Some flights were routine without trouble: “Land, taxi in, park at Tailpipe Bravo, shut down number 1 and 2 engines [but leave number 3 and 4 running, as there was no electricity supply on the ground to start up the engines again], wave at the Old Couple, offload, restart 1 and 2, taxi down the runway, do a u-turn, line up, and we were off and headed back to Saigon.” But time on the ground had to be kept short: the unloading of 48 tons of rice took less than 10 minutes, and the record of the shortest time from landing to liftoff achieved once was only 13 minutes.

There was always reason for such haste.

“We were lined up on final approach… I saw a few people walking or riding on bicycles… A group of monks in their saffron robes! It all looks so normal! This isn’t a war zone… We got a gentle landing but it was accompanied by the ugly rattling of shrapnel as we passed through a double cloud of black smoke! A brown puff just to our left, then ‘Krack!’ We were on the taxiway facing the ramp when a large cloud of brown smoke appeared right in the offloading area. I said, ‘Aw shit, someone got hurt by that one!’

After we were parked I looked to the right and spotted the Old Woman. Tears rolled down her face as she looked at me. I had no trouble spotting the blood and body parts the was trying to hide.

The score was: Four killed outright, two lost both legs and died on the way to an aid station, and one more died at the station. Several others were wounded.

Bad news, good news. The good news was the Khmer Rouge shooter didn’t put two or three more rounds into the same spot. That probably would have ended the Ricelift.”

The Ricelift staff did a lot of thinking: “All the work, the hot days, the discomfort, and the risk were now just silly things that probably, in the end, would mean nothing. – Sure we got paid, but we would also get paid for flying a load of toys from Hong Kong to Seattle, or a bunch of tourists from New York to St. Martin. I think, to our credit, neither Big John [from the flight control bunker at Tailpipe] nor any of us ever seriously considered turning our backs on these people in spite of the doubts and the probable outcome. Where there is a grain of hope there is … hope.”

After surviving another attack – “waiting for hearts to either restart or to stop forever” – “John asked how much longer we were going to stay on this lousy job. I told him a long as he and Tailpipe Bravo kept up their end we’d do the same. He smiled and said: ‘That’s the answer I had for you if you asked first.’ He was going to say more but was rudely interrupted by the usual ‘incoming’ and a thump.

Offload completed, we quickly taxied to the west end and commenced our last takeoff of the day. We hadn’t really talked about it but we all had come to the same conclusion about the same time. We were trapped!

If we continued to fly supplies into Phnom Penh, our friends at the airport and the city’s occupants might eventually die. If we (everyone in the airlift) decided discretion was the better part of valor and pulled out, the wholesale killing of thousands of men, women, and children would start within a matter of hours. The situation was that critical. A handful of civilian volunteer aviators had been unwittingly endowed with powers normally reserved for Gods and Generals!”

Various companies and planes were flying to Phnom Penh

From Saigon:

  • Airlift International – C-130 Hercules – fuel oil and rice
  • Flying Tiger – DC-8 – rice, having started the Ricelift
  • World Airways – DC-8 – truck parts, fuel oil, some rice

From U Tapao in Thailand:

  • Bird Air – C-130 Hercules – ammunition to Phnom Penh, ammunition and food to Neak Loeung (dropped by parachute)
  • Trans International – Curtis C-46 – gasoline and parts, meat, canned goods, some fresh vegetables

The Flying Tiger team had made a realistic appraisal of the limited value of their efforts of carrying 48 tons of rice per flight.
“At the office someone had totaled the poundage flown on our flights alone, not counting other crews or airlines. It came to 2,737,600 pounds of rice. That would have been impressive, except for the depressing fact that the estimated population (including refugees) of Phnom Penh was around three million souls. In ten hard days we had managed to deliver less than a pound of rice per person, not per day, but total.”

There were also regular personal contacts in Saigon. Their 13 year old newspaper salesgirl had asked them: “’How long you gonna go to Phnom Penh?’ I had to tell her we didn’t know. ‘Anyway, nobody tries to kill me, but you better stop going to Phnom Penh.’”

“One of us remembered her asking if we were going to church on Sunday – when we answered no, she said if we fly airplanes and fly them to Phnom Penh, we really should go to church, and we could go to hers. When I said that we weren’t Catholic she just said, ‘That’s okay, you be with me.’ – ‘You keep goin’ to Phnom Penh somebody’s gonna make a hole in you.’

When the time comes, how the hell are we going to extract ourselves from this ‘Family’ we are gathering around us?”

As early as 18 March 1975, the director of Flying Tigers Flight Operations, Oakley Smith, had started to talk to the two pilots about being replaced – at that time they had completed 46 flights. “’As soon as I can dig up a couple of replacements. You guys are outta here.’” Why wasn’t I happy about what I had just heard? What the hell is wrong with me?! I had done some thinking and I said I would gladly go home on one condition: I would be allowed to return in two weeks. Jim said: ‘Me too.’ Jim and I had never talked about this and I was pleasantly surprised to find he felt the same. It would be a shame to break up a team. Oakley seemed genuinely puzzled so I added to Jim’s nods that we felt we were helping our friends. ‘It’s a very hard thing to explain.’

We had often talked about the day we could get the hell out and go home, but when Oakley actually offered it that day I almost panicked. I didn’t understand what had happened to me (us) but something had screwed with our good sense. After I stumbled through this silly explanation Oakley said he thought he understood, but when our replacement arrived we would go home. After two weeks, if we still felt the same way he would personally arrange our return to Saigon.”

On 23 March 1975 information came in that “two pilots were on their way to relieve Jim and me. We could plan on flying tomorrow if Phnom Penh was open, and we’d probably by leaving for home sometime on Tuesday.

I felt it again. Panic was too strong a term, but close to what I felt when I thought of leaving.

I thought about Maria attending Mass in the morning and the comfort she and others must be enjoying by having at least that age-old ritual to rely upon. I envied her.

I wondered how my family was getting along. If I miss them so much, why am I almost afraid to go home. Am I not ‘me’ any more? How could I change so much in just three weeks?

When Jim [the other pilot] and I talked about going home, I mentioned my strange reaction to the thought. Jim was surprised to find that e wasn’t alone in feeling this way. He didn’t understand it either but agreed it was very real.

I had a double lump in my throat. A big one for the family I would be coming home to and one only a little smaller for the family I would be leaving behind.

24 March 1975 would still be a normal working day. “The first news of the day wasn’t pleasant. A C-47 carrying fuel oil into Phnom Penh was hit by a SAM-7 missile while approaching to land – it “turned into a ball of fire and plunged into the ground a few miles west of the airport. As this was in Khmer Rouge territory there was no way to check, but it was assumed that all four souls on board had returned to earth for the last time.

Soon, we were on our way into the shooting gallery. We came sliding in at 15,000 feet and spiraled steeply down for our landing. If we did take a bad hit, at least our remains would end up in friendly territory.

Our Cambodian boss had a full crew again. Several soldiers had volunteered to leave the relative safety of the bunkers and learn how to unload DC-8s. Everything seemed to click and we were back to the speedy offloads.

Then a large ‘Thump’ as we turned and headed for the runway. Very quickly we were airborne. Just two more trips without mishap would mean Jim and I were done. Fifty-three ‘missions’ completed without a scratch. No more ‘Thumps’ followed by the harsh rattle of metallic hail. No longer would we have the ‘pleasure’ of learning what fresh human blood smelled on a hot day.

If we were lucky, we could stop trying to think of some way to help the thousands of gentle people in two nations who were strangling on the putrid fumes generated by the fallout of battles between so-called left and right.

Yes, I was in a very somber mood on this, our last (one way or another) day.”

Then again the standard air traffic control radio on approaching Phnom Penh: “…descend and land your discretion … active is runway 05 … traffic is Blue 46 inbound, you’ll both be here about the same time so maybe you can work together on landing sequence … incoming is still pretty quiet.”

The pilots of the two planes radioed each other – they were lined up so that Blue 46 would land first, the DC-8 second.

“Blue 46 showed a puff of blue tire smoke as she touched down. The timing looked perfect, they would be turning off to their ramp well before we passed that spot. Then the day turned bad. Really bad – a large blast of brown smoke erupted just in front of their number one (left) engine and beside the cockpit. Blue 46 began a slow turn to the left and ended up in a cloud of dust.

Later we compared notes and it was unanimous we all felt we would very likely have been in Blue 46’s place had they not asked to go ahead of us, thus slowing us down.

As we left, we saw an Air America helicopter had landed beside Blue 46. We knew then that if necessary, Blue 46’s crew would soon be in Saigon for medical attention.

On the way back, the next words from Saigon were: “’You guys are through for the day. Phnom Penh is shutting down for a while. Enjoy it, this will be your last landing in Saigon.’

Damn, it felt strange to gather up my stuff and prepare to leave my job here. Fifty-two times on the bull’s-eye was enough.

[As for the Blue 46:] Shrapnel had bounced off the pavement and punched holes in the lower left side of the cockpit. A large piece entered just below the Captain’s ribcage and after doing grievous damage exited just below his right shoulder. Amazingly, he was still alive. The co-pilot had less severe but painful wounds to his left neck area.”

The following day, on 25 March 1975, the pilots would be on a flight to Hong Kong, proceeding to Tokyo and Anchorage, then home.

When a stewardess on the China Airlines plane saw the Flying Tigers stickers on the luggage of the two pilots, she asked if they new anything about the airlift to Cambodia. “’Ma’am, we are the airlift.’ I assured her there were others involved, but we were the first pilots to start the ‘Ricelift’ out of Saigon. ‘You guys look pretty tired. Was it bad?’”

Departure was delayed until a man in a co-pilot’s uniform with a large bandage entered from the back entrance, and then another heavily bandaged person was carried on a stretcher.

“Our stewardess friend said the patient was a Chinese pilot who had been severely wounded in Phnom Penh and was on his way to Hong Kong for special surgery. ‘Do you know anything about it?’ she asked. Jim turned and stared out of the widow, leaving me to answer the question.

They had been blown off the runway right in front of us as we landed in Phnom Penh.

I looked toward the rear and I noticed the medical attendant and our stewardess friend were having a serious conversation with the Chinese co-pilot [of the Blue 46]. He turned and when he saw my concerned expression he came up to me and said: ‘He is dead now.’”

“When I left Saigon, I expected to return in two weeks, so I just said ‘See you later’ instead of good-bye. This book will be my closure and a way of finally saying good-bye to the many people we tried so hard to help.”

Larry Partridge never came back again. On 17 April 1975 the Khmer Rouge took Phnom Penh. The foreign air control ground staff at Tailpipe left before, flying to U Tapao in Thailand. It was later reported that the Cambodian staff unloading the Ricelift planes were beheaded for having cooperated with the enemy.

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  1. John Weeks says:

    Similar tales appear in the 1990 book:
    “The Phnom Penh airlift : confessions of a pig pilot in the early 1970s” (Charles W. Heckman) http://catalogue.nla.gov.au/Record/269014

    • Anonymous says:

      Thanks – I will try to get this book also. Or do you have it? – Still hoping to get also the WiFi-Cyclo picture file.

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