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A Domino Falls

June 2024
3min read

April 17, 1975, at 0100 hours, Utapao Air Base, Thailand. I’m a staff sergeant in the Air Force Security Police, supervising fifteen GIs and twenty-five Thais. Guardians of the night, we’re strategically posted throughout this sprawling air base, one of the last B-52 heavy-bomber ports in Southeast Asia.

I roll slowly past the shack guarding the entrance to the fenced storage area near the passenger terminal, returning the salute of the Thai guard. Headlights darkened, I maneuver my truck warily through the dark corridors of banded wooden shipping crates, on the lookout for thieves rifling the stacks of equipment.

My tour of the containment area complete, I circle back to the shack to exit. The guard motions for me to turn off my engine.

“Listen,” he says, pointing to the starless, overcast sky. “Not B-52.” Necks craned and eyes searching the gray morass overhead, we finally hear the faint drone of propeller-driven planes. He’s right; it’s not the familiar, reassuring roar of the eight-engine B-52 Stratofortress, the only sound that should be heard here at night.

Prop planes can mean only a couple of things, both bad. The Cambodian Communist Khmer Rouge, who are making their final push into the capital city of Phnom Penh, could have commandeered some old trainer aircraft with plans to invade our little piece of heaven in Thailand. Or the North Vietnamese, making their final push into Saigon, could have commandeered…well, you get the picture.

The guard and I scan the nothingness overhead. Slowly the dull, tingling sensation that’s been making my hair stand on end courses southward through my body, and I shiver in the eighty-degree Southeast Asian night.

The voice of the lieutenant snaps me back to earth, crackling out my call sign on the walkie-talkie hanging from my gun belt: “Go by the K-9 Section, pick up ‘bout six empty sentry dog crates, and meet me at the terminal ASAP!”

Minutes later I arrive back at the terminal and wheel out onto the tar- mac, my truck laden with the shiny six-by-three-by-three-foot metal crates. The lieutenant directs me to join about ten other camouflage-clad security police in a floodlit area under a large canvas canopy. Still puzzled, we wrestle the unwieldy crates onto the asphalt, setting them on end, their open gates yawning to the sky.

The lieutenant gathers us for a short briefing. All afternoon a rain of rebel rockets, grenades, and mortars has been pounding the shanty neighborhoods surrounding Pochentong airport outside Phnom Penh, the last holdout of Gen. Lon Nol’s U.S.-backed government. The ramshackle, demoralized, and badly beaten Cambodian Air Force, possessing the only form of transportation capable of safe passage out of the hellish capital, has retreated west across the border into Thai air-space and is circling overhead, awaiting clearance to land. The fall of Cambodia is only hours away, prelude to a nightmare of genocide in which more than a million gentle Cambodians will die by their countrymen’s hands.

The dominoes are starting to topple.

As the briefing draws to a close, the planes begin to touch down on distant runways. Buses will bring the refugees to our checkpoint to be searched for weapons and contraband. In the meantime new arrivals emerge from the shadows to join us in the light: a colonel from Clark Air Base in the Philippines, two whispering men in civilian clothes, a couple of high-level brass. An eerie bond unites us, sole witnesses to an event soon to jolt the world.

First to appear are the pilots of two Cambodian T-28 bombers, flying escort for a C-123 cargo plane packed with refugees. Wearing flying suits, red scarves, and leather gun belts gleaming with cartridges, these cowboys lean against the dog crates, smoking cigarettes while we prepare our paperwork. Motioning for them to approach and relinquish their pistols, we fill out property receipts, wondering aloud how they’re going to understand our instructions to sign them. With cocky smirks they sign their names, thank us in impeccable English, and are whisked away by the two “civilians.” It dawns on us they must have been through the intensive English-language course at Lackland AFB, Texas, a precursor to flight school.

Then the buses pull up, spilling fifty or sixty pilots into our arms. Earlier that day they had finished their last briefing at Pochentong and headed for their planes, ostensibly for yet another bombing mission against the Khmer Rouge. Instead they fled for their lives. Some have brought their wives; some their children—young, bewildered casualties blinking at our harsh lights.

The refugees queue up to our makeshift counter, briefcase in one hand, gun in the other. They thrust the weapons into our hands, eager to surrender them. We toss M16s, .38s, .45s, Ml carbines, magazines, and loose ammunition into the dog crates. The receipts we give them are meaningless; they won’t get their guns back. They don’t even want them anymore.

Women shuffle up and meekly proffer their suitcases and handbags. One is filled with dead fish and smelly meat, another with cash. Yet another has two fully loaded M16 magazines inside.

The clink of sledgehammers on metal pegs echoes from the east as engineers hastily erect a tent city for the newcomers. For hours we continue our disarming and searching. At last the entire group is cleared and huddles nearby, awaiting buses to the terminal. Uncertainty and apprehension show in their faces. Averting our eyes in sympathy, we collect the discarded gear and begin loading up the crates. At last the rasp of bus exhaust signals their departure. Their new life has begun. Our night has finally come to an end.

Our uniforms now limp with sweat, we sip warm coffee in silence, the meaning of the night’s events slowly sinking in. In every mind is one question: Will we in Thailand be the next domino?

The colonel from the Philippines gazes across the flight line at the tent city going up, watching the green panels flap in the morning breeze. Pointing with his chin, he says, with a smile, “We’re building one of those for you guys at Clark.”

—John Appel, after leaving the Air Force, worked for twenty years as a police officer in North Carolina.

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