Siem Reap Cambodia Part 2 – The War Museum of Cambodia

Cambodia: Angkor Wat. Parade Police guard1992

Cambodian Police Honour Guard line the causeway to Angkor Wat Temple, 1993. Collection: Julian Tennant

In addition to the excellent Cambodia Landmine Museum, which I covered in last week’s post, there is another military museum close to Siem Reap town and the Angkor Temples.

Formerly known as the Siem Reap War Museum, the War Museum of Cambodia is located near National Highway 6 between Siem Reap and the international airport. It dates back to 2001 and was built in ‘partnership’ with the Ministry of National Defence. The museum’s stated purpose is to keep the memory of the civil war in the history of Cambodia alive and to preserve the unique collection for posterity. However, at the time it was widely believed to be little more than a business opportunity for local powerbrokers to dip into the pockets of the lucrative tourist market who were flocking to the nearby Angkor temples. There may well have been merit in this scuttlebutt as for many years the museum was little more than a collection of deteriorating rusted old vehicles and weapons with little attempt to preserve or contextualise their history.

Siem Reap War Museum

Tail of a Chinese made Shenyang J-6 copy of the Soviet MiG-19 (Farmer) fighter aircraft featuring the distinctive three-turret Angkor symbol used by the Khmer Rouge. A Soviet Mil Mi-8 helicopter can be seen in the background. Photo: Julian Tennant

In recent years, under the leadership of a new management team, things have begun to change and whilst many of the objects on display are still left exposed to the elements or without solid contextual information, attempts have been made to provide a better overview of the three decades of war represented in the museum. Parts of the museum are being rebuilt and the first of these, the ‘Landmine House’ which is a huge improvement opened to the public in 2018.

After paying the US$5 entry fee visitors are free to explore (and play with) most of the objects in the museum. Guides are available to accompany visitors and whilst they are described as ‘free’, tips are expected for their service. In the early days of the museum many of the guides had first-hand experience of the war, fighting for one side or the other but most have been replaced with younger guides. This new cadre have better English language skills and could be useful for tourist visitors who only require a cursory understanding of the conflict and the exhibits but could lack the depth of knowledge that somebody with a deeper interest in military affairs could be looking for in a ‘guided tour’.  If time permits, an option is to use a guide to get their perspective and then spend time by yourself examining the objects in more depth.

Being largely outdoors and exposed to the elements, many exhibits are in very poor condition, rusting and in various states of disrepair. Textile items are particularly vulnerable when left outdoors in a tropical climate such as Cambodia and unsurprisingly there are few uniforms, flags or insignia on display. Most of the exhibits consist of vehicles, weapons, ordnance and some equipment.

Siem Reap War Museum

A pile of deteriorating Soviet era ShM-41mu Gas Masks rotting in an unprotected display area at the War Museum Cambodia. Photo: Julian Tennant

Siem Reap War Museum

A tourist hams it up for the camera with a couple of rusted WW2 era Soviet PPSh-41 Submachine Guns. Photo: Julian Tennant

If you choose not to use a guide and explore the grounds by yourself, signposts and captions accompany most of the items, identifying the object and in some instances,  who used them, or where they were recovered from. All the information is in English and there does seem to be a lack of descriptive information in Khmer, which to my mind once again suggests that this may be less about preserving the knowledge and history for future generations, but a venture that is aimed directly at the tourist market. Maybe I am being overly cynical about the museum’s intended function, but for a museum that is run ‘in partnership’ with the Ministry of National Defence, until recently there did not appear to be much investment in actually preserving or presenting the exhibits in line with the museum’s stated aims. For many years the museum did look like a rusting junkyard that was being used as a cash-cow to line the pockets of some local military or government officials.

But thankfully the museum is undergoing some changes, with the aforementioned ‘Landmine House’ display being a good start, so hopefully this is the first of many improvements. And whilst I think that Aki Ra’s Cambodia Landmine Museum provides a better understanding of Cambodia’s recent past, the War Museum of Cambodia is also worth visiting to see the range of vehicles and weapons used during the conflict.

The museum is quite easy to reach being in Siem Reap town enroute to the airport. If you have time, I would suggest hiring a car and driver (for about US$50 per day) and heading out to the Cambodia Landmine Museum in the morning, possibly after visiting the nearby Banteay Srei Temple, (which is best early in the morning or late afternoon and much less crowded than other temples), then returning to Siem Reap for lunch. Then, after refreshing and avoiding the worst of the midday heat, the driver can take you to the War Museum of Cambodia for a couple of hours before returning to your hotel or heading out to Angkor Wat to watch the sun go down.

A Cambodian (L) and two Vietnamese soldiers converse outside the Angkor Wat temple in Angkor, Siam Reap, Cambodia, in 1982. Photo by Vietnam News Agency

A Cambodian (L) and two Vietnamese soldiers converse outside the Bayon temple in Angkor, Siam Reap, Cambodia, in 1982. Photo: Vietnam News Agency

War Museum Cambodia
Kaksekam Village
Sra Nge Commune
Siem Reap
Cambodia

Website: www.warmuseumcambodia.com
Email: info@warmuseumcambodia.com
Phone: +855 (0)97 457 8666
MRT: Silom

Open: 08:00 – 17:30 daily (Temporarily closed due to COVID-19 restrictions)

Admission: US$5 foreigners and US$1 for Cambodians.

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If you like what you see here, please FOLLOW this page via email or by using either the buttons below or in the column on the right.  I try to post NEW content every Sunday and knowing that somebody is looking at this gives me the encouragement I need to go through my archives and collection to develop the content for the page. And of course, feel free to contact me here, via email or by visiting my Facebook or Instagram pages

Siem Reap Cambodia Part 1 – The Cambodia Landmine Museum

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Army buddy and fellow militaria collector, Trevor ‘Spud’ Couch looking for a cold beer whilst visiting Angkor Wat in the late 1990’s. Photo: Julian Tennant

For most tourists visiting Cambodia, the ruined temples of Angkor near Siem Reap are the main, if not only, reason to visit the Kingdom. Listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1992, Angkor attracted 2.2 million visitors in 2019 and plays a vital part in the Cambodian economy where the tourism sector accounts for 12 percent of Cambodia’s GDP.

At its peak between the 10th and 13th centuries, the Khmer Empire which stretched across much of South East Asia, used Angkor as its capital before finally going into decline after it was sacked by the Kingdom of Ayutthaya in 1431. In 1863 Cambodia was placed under French protection and then became part of French Indochina in 1887. In 1953 the Kingdom gained independence from the French but by the latter half of the 1960’s it was becoming increasingly embroiled in the Vietnam War. Then, in April 1975, after a seven-year struggle, the communist Khmer Rouge forces captured Phnom Penh. During the three and a half years that followed at least 1.5 million Cambodians died during the genocidal reign of the Pol Pot regime. Repeated incursions into Vietnam by Khmer Rouge forces tested the patience of the Vietnamese and in December 1978 a Vietnamese invasion ousted the Khmer Rouge regime from power within weeks. However, the subsequent Vietnamese occupation caused a civil war that would last until the end of 1997 when the remaining Khmer Rouge finally accepted a government amnesty and laid down their arms.

Khmer Rouge soldiers march at Angkor Wat. — Documentation Center of Cambodia

Khmer Rouge at Angkor Wat. Photo: Collection of the Documentation Center of Cambodia

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A corrugated plastic core Unexploded Ordnance warning sign from Japanese Demining Action (JDA) which I bought at the Cambodian Landmine Museum in 2000. JDA had a small team undertaking EOD work near the Thai border at the time. Collection: Julian Tennant

 

After nearly three decades of conflict, Cambodia has been left as one of the poorest countries in Asia with the scars of its recent history still visible. For visitors to Siem Reap, there are a couple of military museums in the area that provide a welcome break from scrambling over the temple ruins.

The Cambodia Landmine Museum is located 25km north of Siem Reap, near the Banteay Srey Temple complex and whilst it is further away from the town, it is worth visiting. The museum was started by Aki Ra, a former child soldier who was taken from his family by the Khmer Rouge when he was just five and who fought for various factions, including the Khmer Rouge and the opposing Vietnamese army before UNTAC arrived in 1993.  He then went on to help them with their EOD activities and then, when he finally returned to his village, he used this experience to defuse and clear the mines in his community using homemade tools.

Whilst clearing the ordnance, Aki Ra often encountered orphaned, wounded or abandoned children which he took into his care. To help pay for their upkeep, he displayed some of the mines which he had diffused at his home near the ticket booth for Angkor Wat Park and charged tourists a dollar to view them. I recall visiting this, the original, Landmine Museum around 1999 and listening to Aki Ra tell his story. It was a very humbling experience.

In 2006, the local authorities ordered it closed supposedly on safety grounds, however Siem Reap expatriates told me that the real reason was because local authorities felt that Aki Ra’s museum was attracting more tourists (and money) than the Siem Reap War Museum which had been started in 2001 as a ‘partnership’ with the Ministry of National Defence. This may well be little more than idle gossip, but given the high level of corruption that permeates Cambodian officialdom, this would not surprise me in the least and during one of my early visits to the Siem Reap War Museum, one of the guides did offer to sell me some of the exhibits that I expressed an interest in. Behaviour that I found strange for a museum supposedly existing to preserve the history of the conflict for future generations of Cambodians, so who knows… but I digress.

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Vietnamese made fragmentation grenade/mine and anti-personnel mine on display at the Cambodia Landmine Museum. Photo: Julian Tennant

 

With the help of Canadian filmmaker, Richard Fitoussi, a charity the Cambodian Landmine Museum Relief  Fund was started.  Donors raised funds to buy a block of land and build a new museum which opened at its current location in 2007. In addition to the museum, the land also housed a Relief Centre for children including a small school. In 2008, with the help of the charity, Aki Ra established a formal de-mining NGO, Cambodian Self Help Demining, which is a separate NGO and apart from the Museum. They clear un-exploded ordnance throughout Cambodia, generally at sites deemed to be a low priority by the larger de-mining agencies, but where the presence of the UXO’s pose a real threat to the farmers who are attempting to work the surrounding land.

The Cambodia Landmine Museum gives visitors a good overview of the problems caused by this un-exploded ordnance and also some insights into Cambodia’s recent conflict. After paying the entrance fee, visitors are provided with a headset and audio player which provides some additional contextual information for the exhibits on display.

Exhibits include a variety defused ordnance, weapons, uniform items plus equipment such as de-mining tools and also artwork created by the children from the Relief Centre. There is also a small shop selling souvenirs including books, t-shirts and DVD’s.

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1990’s period uniforms and weapons on display at the Cambodia Landmine Museum. Photo: Julian Tennant

As previously mentioned, the museum is some distance away from Siem Reap town and the best option to visit is to either grab a tuk-tuk, which will take around 30 minutes and cost about US$20 for a round trip, or hire a local driver and car for the day, which should cost up to US$50. This second option allows you to also visit the nearby Banteay Srei Temple which is much less crowded than the other temples closer to Siem Reap.  You can then return to Siem Reap at your leisure and have the driver take you to visit the War Museum Cambodia  (which will be the subject of next week’s post) after lunch.

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Various EOD team patches from Cambodia in my collection. Top row left to right: Mines Advisory Group circa 1999, Cambodian Mine Action Centre, Mines Advisory Group type 2. Bottom row left to right: US Special Forces UXO Detachment Cambodia (2002), Cambodia Mine Action Centre variant, Australian Mine Clearance Training Team patch circa 1994. Collection: Julian Tennant

 

The Cambodia Landmine Museum
67 Phumi Khna
Siem Reap Province
Cambodia

Website:  https://www.cambodialandminemuseum.org/
Email: bill@wmorse.com
Phone: +855 (0) 15 674 163

Open: 07:30 – 17:30 daily (Temporarily closed due to COVID-19 restrictions)

Admission: US$5
Free for children under 12 and all Cambodian citizens

 

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If you like what you see here, please FOLLOW this page via email or by using either the buttons below or in the column on the right.  I try to post NEW content every Sunday and knowing that somebody is looking at this gives me the encouragement I need to go through my archives and collection to develop the content for the page. And of course, feel free to contact me here, via email or by visiting my Facebook or Instagram pages

The Patpong Museum – Bangkok – Thailand

patpong museum collage

The Patpong Museum is not strictly a military museum per se, but the history of Bangkok’s Patpong Road is closely connected to the activities of the OSS, CIA, the Vietnam War and of course the thousands of servicemen who have passed through Thailand on R&R and subsequent military exchange programs.

The 300-square-meter Museum, which opened in October 2019, reveals why Americans fighting on the battlefields of Indochina flocked to Patpong for business, friendship and to let their hair down. It also shows how Patpong evolved over time to attract hundreds of thousands of tourists and expats, before most of the action moved across town to bars elsewhere in Bangkok — namely Soi Cowboy and the Nana Entertainment Plaza.

Patpong’s story begins when Chinese immigrant, Luang Patpongpanich purchased a banana plantation on the edge of Bangkok in 1946 for $300. Prior to this, Patpongpanich’s son, Udom, had been studying in the USA and then during WW2 was recruited by the Office of Strategic Services (OSS) to be one of the Seri Thai (“Free Thai”) insurgents resisting Japan’s occupation. He undertook special operations and radio training before completing the parachute course at Fort Benning in 1945.  Udom was then sent to the OSS camp at Trincomalee, Ceylon where, under the supervision of Jim Thompson (who is best known as the businessman who helped revitalise the Thai silk industry), he prepared to infiltrate back into Thailand.

Patpong Museum Udom Patpongpanich

OSS ‘Seri Thai’ (Free Thai) recruit, Udom Patpongpanich undertaking parachute training at Fort Benning in 1945. Photo: The Patpong Museum

 

However, the war ended before he was inserted, but Udom had made new connections which he put to use. In 1950, Luang Patpongpanich passed away and Udom who inherited the family business transformed the land into a road lined with shop houses,  which he then rented to his OSS and CIA friends. The road that Udom built remains one of the few privately owned thoroughfares in Bangkok and he encouraged foreign companies, including Caltex, Shell, IBM, United Press International and Air France  to set up offices in the area.

Jim Thompson, Udom’s old OSS boss founded the Thai Silk Company across the road and in 1958, legendary CIA operator, Tony Poe (Anthony A. Poshepny), joined the  South East Asia Supply Inc (colloquially known as Sea Supply) , a CIA front company operating out of Patpong, Bangkok, supplying arms to Chinese Kuomintang Nationalists in Burma. By 1964 Patpong had become the Central Business District of Bangkok  and also included the included the US Information Service library and CAT (the CIA owned Civil Air Transport company), which later evolved into Air America and until 1972, had its office in the Air France building on Patpong.

patpong road-Edit

Patpong Road in the late 1960’s. CAT, the CIA owned Civil Air Transport company, which then evolved into Air America had its office in the Air France building on the left of the photo. Directly across the road is a small circular sign designating The Red Door bar and next to that is Max’s bar, the preferred watering hole of the Air America pilots when they made it down to the head office in Bangkok.

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Legendary CIA operator, Tony Poe (Anthony A. Poshepny) who co-ordinated many of the CIA’s secret operations in Laos from Patpong Road. He is with Hmong General Vang Pao (middle) plus another unidentified Hmong and an American.

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CIA financed Laotian Hmong guerillas.

 

Patpong became a hub, not only for businessmen, but also for spooks, correspondents and off-duty military types who also took advantage of the growing nightlife entertainment options that were becoming available on the strip after dark. Contrary to popular myth however, Patpong was not a magnet for US troops on R&R during the Vietnam war. Most of the GI’s went to New Petchburi Road which, at the time, was nicknamed “The Golden Mile”.

Tony-Po-back right at the Madrid-Edit-2

Former ‘Secret War in Laos’ veterans, including Les Strouse (blue shirt), Jack Shirley (yellow shirt) and Tony Poe (back right) at a reunion in the Madrid Bar on Patpong Road.

The Madrid, which was opened by Vietnam veteran, Rick Menard in 1969 was one of the early bars which, not only became the preferred watering hole for the spooks and SF types but also had a CIA safe-house located upstairs. Around the same time Menard also opened the now-defunct Grand Prix Lounge & Bar, the first go-go bar in Thailand. Within a few years more bars would spring up and the entertainment area spread from Patpong Soi 1 to the smaller Patpong Soi 2 as the area gained popularity with expats and visitors who became aware of its ‘attractions’ through movies, travel guides and the media. Longtime Kiwi expat and blogger Stickman wrote an interesting piece about some of these old venues  back in 2013 when he was still living in Bangkok and I fondly recall the weirdness of finding an island of tranquility in a quiet British themed pub, Bobby’s Arms, by entering the Foodland carpark (the first steel-framed carpark in Thailand) on Patpong Soi 2 after an army exercise back in the early 90’s. Some of these venues were like stepping back in time and a stark contrast to the craziness that was going on all around.

The Patpong Museum, documents all this history, charting Patpong’s development from banana plantation through development as a business hub to its notoriety as a red light district. Museum founder, Michael Messner spent a decade scouring archives and acquiring hundreds of artifacts to include in the museum which tells Patpong’s story through documents, models, objects, photos and interactive displays. Special attention is given to its role in the Cold War era with a section devoted to Tony Poe and Patpong’s importance during the ‘secret war’ in Laos. Exhibits are captioned in Thai and English and the 350 Baht entry fee includes a free drink inside a recreation of  Rick Menard’s Grand Prix bar.

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Rick Menard’s Grand Prix Bar in the 1970’s and the replica (below) where visitors to the Patpong Museum can enjoy a complimentary drink.

 

Unfortunately due to COVID-19 the museum suspended its normal operations in March, but whilst it may be difficult to visit the museum right now, they do offer a nice virtual tour here on the museum’s website.

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Patpong related novelty insignia. Collection: Julian Tennant

Patpong Museum
No. 5 Patpong Soi 2
Bang Rak, Bangkok
Thailand

Website: https://www.patpongmuseum.com/
Phone: +66918876829
BTS: Sala Daeng
MRT: Silom

Open: 11am – 8pm daily

Admission: THB350 per person, which includes a 50-minute guided tour and standard cocktail at the bar. Tours are offered in Thai, English, French, Spanish and Italian. Japanese and Chinese tours will be available in the future.

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If you like what you see here, please FOLLOW this page via email or by using either the buttons below or in the column on the right.  I try to post NEW content every Sunday and knowing that somebody is looking at this gives me the encouragement I need to go through my archives and collection to develop the content for the page. And of course, feel free to contact me here, via email or by visiting my Facebook or Instagram pages

Help preserve the Musée Somme 1916

5AIF Montauban Road Picardi Dec 1916

Unidentified diggers of the 5th Division AIF having a smoke and resting by the side of the Montauban road, near Mametz approximately 7km east of Albert, while enroute to the trenches. December 1916. Photograph: Herbert Frederick Baldwin. Australian War Memorial Accession Number: E00019

 

ANZAC Day, the 25th of April, is a day where Aussies and Kiwis remember the sacrifices made during times of war. Dawn service commemorations are held around the country and at memorials across the globe. This year, lock-downs due to the COVID-19 pandemic have had a huge impact on the way 2020’s commemorations and also on the places we visit to remember. Memorials, museums and local businesses have been forced to close their doors to the public and for some, who rely on the patronage of tourists making the pilgrimage to the sites where their forebears fought, the impact may be fatal.

This morning, whilst checking Facebook I stumbled across a cry for help from the non-profit Musée Somme 1916 in the French town of Albert, approximately 7km southwest of Pozieres, in the Somme region. Albert would be familiar to thousands of Australians who have made the pilgrimage to the battlefields of the Western Front and many may have visited the museum which is located in the tunnels under the Basilica of Note-Dame de Brebieres.

The Basilica was home to the famous leaning Golden Virgin statue of Mary and the infant Jesus which was hit by a German shell in 1915 and knocked to a near horizontal position. A number of legends developed among the thousands of soldiers who passed through Albert around the ‘Leaning Virgin’ including the myth that whichever side caused the statue to fall, would lose the war. It was eventually knocked down and destroyed by allied shells in April 1918 after the Germans recaptured the town during their Spring Offensive. After the war, the Basilica was faithfully rebuilt according to its original design, complete with a replica of the statue.

1916 Basilica of Notre-Dame de Brebieres

1916 postcard of the Basilica of Notre-Dame de Brebieres, France. The postcard is folded in half and opens up to twice the size of a regular postcard, with text ‘Guerre 1914-1916’, and featuring black and white photographs on the front, with the Basilica of Notre-Dame de Brebieres in Albert, France on the right, and on the left a photograph of the Basilica showing the destruction done to the building after 15 months of bombardment. The postcard was sent by No. 171 Private Philip George Pittaway of the 27th Battalion AIF to his sister back in Australia a few months after arriving in France. George Pittaway enlisted in South Australia on 14 January 1915 and served in Egypt and Gallipoli for three months before being sent to France in March 1916. He was killed in action on 5 November 1916 in France during the 27th Battalion’s attack on German positions in Flers, and has no known grave. State Library of South Australia Artifact Number: PRG 1675/6/4/R

 

The Musée Somme 1916’s entry, which is on the side of the Basilica, takes visitors down into tunnels that were first built in the 13th century, before being converted to an air raid shelter in 1938 and then finally the current museum in 1992. Its tunnels and dozen alcoves stretch for 250m and provide visitors with an overview of what life was like for soldiers during the July 1916 offensive. The photographs of the museum that you see here were taken during a pilgrimage that I made to the battlefields of the Somme in 2015. The trip was a humbling and moving experience, made even more poignant by places such as the Musée Somme 1916 which contextualise the sacrifices that were made by all sides during that terrible period in history. If you are able, I encourage you to give the museum whatever support you can, to help preserve the history for future generations.

The museum’s crowd funding page can be found here and you can find them on Facebook here.

Lest We Forget!

 

Musée Somme 1916
Rue Anicet Godin
80300 Albert
France

Phone: +33 (0)3 22751617
Email: musee@somme1916.org
Website: www.musee-somme-1916.eu

Open:                                                                                                                                                         The Musée Somme 1916 is usually open everyday 09:00 until 18:00 (last entry at 17:30). However due to the COVID-19 pandemic it is temporarily closed until further notice.

Entry Fees:
Adults –  7.00 €
Children 6 to 18 years old –  4.00 €
Children  under 6 years old –  Free
Veterans –  5.00 €
Disabled –  6.00 €
Adult groups (10 pax or more) –  6.00 €
Guided tour (25 pax maximum) –  50.00 €

 

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Note that this site has NEW content posted every Sunday! If you like what you see here, please follow this page via email or by using either the buttons below or in the column on the right. Knowing that somebody is looking at this gives me the encouragement I need to go through my archives and collection to develop the content for the page. And of course, feel free to contact me here, via email or by visiting my Facebook or Instagram pages

Memorial Pegasus – The Pegasus Bridge Museum, Normandy

On the night of 5 June 1944, six Airspeed AS 51 Horsa gliders carrying 181 men from the 2nd Oxfordshire and Buckinghamshire Light Infantry and 249 Field Company (Airborne) Royal Engineers departed RAF Tarrant in Dorset. Under the command of Major John Howard, their mission, code-named Operation DEADSTICK was to capture two road bridges near Normandy across the River Orne and the Caen Canal. This was the first action of D-Day in the British sector and would allow the allied troops landing on Sword Beach to exit and advance east of the Orne.

One of the six gliders went astray and landed a dozen kilometers from the objective, but the other five landed within meters of their objectives. The bridge over the Orne was guarded by only two German sentries and was captured without firing a shot. The more heavily guarded Bénouville bridge over the Caen Canal was taken after a short but intense firefight. Both bridges had been captured within 10 minutes. Reinforced by soldiers from the 7th Battalion Parachute Regiment during the night, Major Howard’s men held the bridge despite repeated counterattacks until they were joined in the early hours of the afternoon of 6 June, by the commandos of the 1st Special Service Brigade, who had landed at dawn at Sword Beach.

Imperial War Museum Video – Operation Deadstick The Airborne Assault on Pegasus Bridge

Shortly after the engagement, on the 26 of June 1944, the Caen Canal bridge was renamed Pegasus Bridge as a tribute to the British airborne troops involved in the action. In 1974 the Airborne Forces Museum was opened on the west bank of the canal, opposite the glider landing site and close to the original Bénouville bridge but closed in 1997. A campaign started for a new museum and on 4 June 2000 Memorial Pegasus was opened by HRH Prince Charles, Colonel-in-Chief of the Parachute Regiment.

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Weapons, including a ‘Liberator’ pistol and other objects relating to the clandestine operations undertaken by the French Resistance and SOE operatives. Photo: Julian Tennant

Spread over three acres, the museum grounds contain the original Pegasus Bridge, which was purchased from the French authorities for just one Franc in 1999, along with a full size replica of a Horsa glider.  The main exhibition building features a very interesting selection of artifacts related to the British 6th Airborne Division and the D-Day landings. There are guided tours of the museum conducted in both French and English which last for about an hour and a half. These are worth doing in addition to taking your time to browse the exhibits. Visitors can also scan the QR code panels to get information about the exhibits in ten languages, French, English, German, Dutch, Spanish, Italian, Portuguese, Swedish, Danish and Czech.

6th Airborne Armoured Reconnaissance Regiment unofficial badge.

Unofficial beret badge worn by Sergeant Jeremy H. Barkway (3rd Kings Hussars) 6th Airborne Armoured Reconnaissance Regiment. On D-Day, Barkway commanded a “Tetrach” light reconnaissance tank which had been transported by a Hamilcar glider. He subsequently saw actions in the Ardennes and on the Rhine crossing. Photo: Julian Tennant

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Unusual one-piece, printed, Airborne and Pegasus patch on display at Memorial Pegasus. Photo: Julian Tennant

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Battledress jacket and beret of Lieutenant John Hughes of the 1st Canadian Parachute Battalion. Photo: Julian Tennant

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Beret belonging to bagpiper Bill Millin who landed at Sword Beach with the 1st Special Service Brigade on D-Day. Millin subsequently led the brigade, commanded by Brigadier The Lord Lovat, up to the town of Benouville where they linked up with the Airborne troops at Pegasus Bridge. Photo: Julian Tennant

Memorial Pegasus
Avenue du Major Howard
14860 Ranville
France

Phone: +33 2 31781944
Email: info@memorial-pegasus.org
Website: https://musee.memorial-pegasus.com/en/

Open:                                                                                                                                                         The Memorial Pegasus is open everyday from 1st February to 15th December. A visit, with guide, lasts about 1h15.
1st February to 31st March from 10.00 to 17.00
1st April to 30th September from 9.30 to 18.30
1st October to 15th December from 10.00 to 17.00

Entry Fees:
Adults –  8.00 €
Children/Students –  5.00 €

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Note that this site has NEW content posted every Sunday! If you like what you see here, please follow this page via email or by using either the buttons below or in the column on the right. Knowing that somebody is looking at this gives me the encouragement I need to go through my archives and collection to develop the content for the page. And of course, feel free to contact me here, via email or by visiting my Facebook or Instagram pages

Dropping into the Cu Chi Tunnels

In January 1966, the 1st Battalion Royal Australian Regiment (1RAR), which had been attached to the US 173rd Airborne Brigade (Separate) after arriving in Vietnam the previous year, participated in  Operation CRIMP. This was an operation involving over 8000 allied troops and is described in detail in Bob Breen’s book, First to Fight and in Blue Lanyard Red Banner by Lex McAulay, whose customised Australian Army lighter that he carried during the operation was featured in a previous post. CRIMP was the battalion’s first major foray into an area which has become synonymous with the famous Củ Chi Tunnels and the pioneering ‘tunnel rat’ work carried out by its sappers.

For 1RAR, the objective of this operation, which involved over allied 8000 troops, was a series of underground bunkers believed to be in the Ho Bo Woods area of Củ Chi district. Intelligence indicated that these bunkers housed the headquarters for the Communist committee that controlled all Viet Cong activity in the Capital Military District and a large complex of tunnels was subsequently uncovered by the battalion. For the first time, engineers of 3 Field Troop, Royal Australian Engineers (3 Fd Tp RAE), under the command of Captain Alexander (Sandy) MacGregor breached the network recovering large quantities of  weapons, food, equipment and documents.

Sandy MacGregor recounts the experiences of the sappers from 3 Fd Tp as they entered the tunnels for the first time in his book, No Need for Heroes.

We had three tasks. The first was to investigate the tunnels as fully as possible to discover what they were being used for. The second was to try and map the tunnel system so that we could work out its extent, and if need be, dig down to a soldier who might be trapped. The third, once we discovered what a treasure trove the tunnels were, was to recover everything we could – weapons, equipment and paper – all of which was invaluable for the intelligence boys.

Op CRIMP tunnel rat demo

Photograph by Captain Alex ‘Sandy’ MacGregor, OC of 3 Field Troop, who developed the ‘tunnel rat’ concept first used during Operation CRIMP. Here, soldiers are demonstrating a “Tunnel Exploration Kit”, which was developed as a result of the developments made by MacGregor’s soldiers. Note the ear plug in the soldier’s right ear, the throat microphone and the switch in his mouth used to operate the torch strapped to his forehead. He is armed with a Smith & Wesson 38 calibre revolver equipped with a silencer and pinpoint-light sight. Photograph: Alexander Hugh ‘Sandy’ MacGregor. Australian War Memorial Accession Number: P01595.021

It was not an easy mission to accomplish as this was a departure from the American policy of sealing and destroying any tunnels found. Captain MacGregor had previously recognised the inadequacies of the American approach and had begun training his engineers to enter and clear tunnels. The 3 Fd Tp sappers had built a mock tunnel at their base, experimented and developed clearance techniques but they were still entering somewhat untested territory when they commenced the operation. The “Tunnel Rats” as they would come to known, had their work cut out for them. As soon as 1RAR hit the LZ they came under fire from snipers hidden in underground firing positions, trenches and tunnels. Bob Breen describes the situation in First to Fight,

There were snipers and small groups of Viet Cong everywhere – in and behind trees, popping up from spider holes and tunnel entrances at ground level, and scrambling away after firing quick bursts. The area was seeded with numerous booby traps. Diggers (Australian soldiers) noticed the ominous wires and saw shells and bunches of grenades dangling from trees and clumps of bamboo.

In an ambush on the first day of the operation, a Viet Cong firing position was discovered inside an anthill. When the sappers blew the anthill, a tunnel was discovered leading away from the position. Clearance teams from 3 Fd Tp began entering the network but breaching and securing the tunnels was no easy task.

We blew smoke into the tunnel and I divided the men into smaller sub-units of twos and threes and sent them off to investigate Once we’d blown smoke, then tear gas, then fresh air down the tunnels, I sent a couple of men down to investigate. The entrance was so narrow it was hard to imagine it was intended for people at all. There was a straight drop then it doubled back up, like the U-bend under a sink. The tunnel turned again to go along under the surface and became a little wider, but there still wasn’t room enough to turn around. It was terrifying down there, armed only with a bayonet to probe for booby traps and a pistol to defend yourself.

Once you’d negotiated the tight entrance and the U-bend, you had to crawl along tiny passages, rubbing your shoulders on each side of the tunnel, on all fours, with no way of turning around if you got into trouble. Often, you’d find larger ‘rooms’, sections of tunnel that were big enough to crouch or kneel in, but you weren’t to know that when you first set out. The further the men went, the more complex the tunnel system was revealed to be. There were drops, twists and turns, corners around which the whole North Vietnamese Army could be waiting, for all they knew. The men burrowed away, ever further, ever deeper, until they discovered a hidden danger in the operation. Some of them began passing out in the tunnels due to lack of air. But, despite the fact that there was no room to turn they were all dragged back to the surface, usually after we’d blasted more fresh air down to them.

A Sapper of 3 Field Troop emerges from a Viet Cong (VC) tunnel by way of a trapdoor in the ground ...

A Sapper of 3 Field Troop emerges from a Viet Cong (VC) tunnel by way of a trapdoor in the ground during Operation Crimp in the Ho Bo Woods with troops of 1 Battalion, The Royal Australian Regiment (1RAR). The trapdoor of concrete is covered with earth and grass and saplings are grown in it so that it carefully blends in with the rest of the vegetation, and is virtually impossible to detect. Photo: Peter Kelly. Australian War Memorial Collection Accession Number: KEL/66/0021/VN

Unfortunately, one of the sappers, Corporal Bob Bowtell, succumbed to the lack of air in one of the antechambers and had died of asphyxiation by the time his body could be brought back to the surface. The operation took its toll on many of the sappers as George Wilson recalls in Gary McKay’s book,  Bullets, Beans & Bandages,

Those long periods spent underground, often in total darkness, where at times the only ‘light’ was the luminous face of your watch, were my most vivid memories of Viet Nam… Our troop casualty rate was particularly high on that operation with only 12 out of 35 men remaining until the end… of the operation.

During the six days that 3 Fd Tp spent on Operation CRIMP, the sappers had investigated tunnels for 700m in one direction and another 500m across that line, recovering truckloads of documents and equipment, including photographs of the Viet Cong’s foreign advisors. On the final day of the operation, the sappers found a trapdoor which led to a third level in the system, but before they could investigate it further the Americans decided to end the operation and pull out. The tunnels that had been discovered were lined with explosives and tear gas crystals in an attempt to either destroy or make them uninhabitable. Later, long after the end of the war Sandy MacGregor finally learned what lay beyond that final trapdoor. It led to the military headquarters of the Viet Cong’s Southern Command.

They had been that close.

However, Operation CRIMP had uncovered a massive amount of equipment and intelligence information and as a result, American units throughout Vietnam received orders to clear tunnels before destroying them. The tunnel system breached by 3 Fd Tp was later discovered to consist of over 200 kilometers of tunnels in multiple levels, and included living, working and storage areas, forming part of the much larger Củ Chi tunnel complex. For his contribution, Sandy MacGregor was awarded the Military Cross by the Australian government and the Bronze Star by the Americans. He recounts his experiences developing the ‘Tunnel Rats’ concept and service in Vietnam in an interview that was recorded for the Life on the Line podcast series, which is worth listening to.

Viet Cong haversack : Sapper P M Cachia, 3 Field Troop, Royal Australian Engineers

Viet Cong locally made canvas haversack captured by Sapper Peter Cachia of 3 Fd Tp RAE during Operation CRIMP. It consists of a central compartment made from light brown canvas with fold-in weather flaps. This compartment is closed by a large external flap secured by tying together lengths of synthetic cord. The flap has a large external pocket of green canvas with a plastic button closure. The straps are of light brown canvas 60 mm wide tapering to 12 mm wide. The narrow end of each strap is passed through a loop of synthetic cord sewn to the bottom of the haversack and knotted. This is how the length of the straps can be adjusted. Lengths of synthetic cord have been machine sewn to the both the straps and the haversack along the joins as a means of reinforcement. The haversack, which originally contained an aluminium lighter and a large quantity of documents and other printed matter. The printed matter was taken by army intelligence for analysis, and Cachia was allowed to keep the haversack and lighter. Australian War Memorial Collection Accession Number: REL43475

cu chi tunnels model-01

The district of Củ Chi lies approximately 60 kilometers northwest of Saigon bordering an area known as the Iron Triangle, the heartland of the Viet Cong guerrillas operating in the region. The tunnel system took advantage of the hard, red, soil which was suitable for digging and did not become waterlogged during the monsoon season.  It was first developed by the Viet Minh in their fight against the French and in 1947 only 47 kilometers of tunnels existed, but with the formation of the Viet Cong the system expanded. By the end of 1963 it was estimated that around 400km of arterial tunnels, trenches, connecting tunnels and bunkers existed in an area that covered 300 square kilometers. The Củ Chi Tunnel complex was big enough to conceal an entire regiment, some estimates put the figure at 5000 troops, enroute to its area of operations and proved to be an ongoing problem for the allied forces. Later, they were used as a staging area for the attack on Saigon during the 1968 Tet offensive and their utility was only somewhat restricted after a heavy bombing campaign by B-52’s in 1970.

During the course of the war it is estimated that at least 45,000 Vietnamese died defending the tunnels and after 1975, the Vietnamese government preserved sections of the tunnels and included them in a network of war memorial parks around the country. Today, visiting the Củ Chi tunnels are rated as one of the top five tourist destination activities in Vietnam, with some estimates placing the number of visitors as high as 1000 tourists per day.

There are two different tunnel display sites, Bến Đình and Bến Dược. The tunnels at Bến Dược are smaller attracting fewer visitors than the Bến Đình site which is closer to Ho Chi Minh City and is more popular with the multitude of tour groups offering the Củ Chi ‘experience’. Both tunnel sites offer a somewhat sanitised experience, allowing visitors to crawl around a ‘tourist friendly’ modified section of tunnel, check out displays depicting life for the occupants, boobytraps, weapons, equipment and be subjected to the usual pro-communist version of events. Personally, I think that the visitor parks are somewhat over-rated in terms of education or real historical value, but for a visitor with an interest in the military history of Vietnam they are worth visiting, just to check them out.

It is quite easy to reach the tunnels and there are lots of half-day or full day tours that include the Củ Chi Tunnels on their itineraries. Trip Advisor list several on their website which will give you an idea of what you can expect, however I think that it is best to visit them independently instead of an organised group tour. This can be done by bus or private taxi/driver, which is easily arranged and allows more flexibility with stops and timings.

Some of the organised full-day tours include a visit to the Cao Đài Holy See at Tây Ninh, approximately 96km northwest of HCMC as part of their package tour. Visiting this site is actually the main reason why I have made return visits to the tunnels at Củ Chi as its proximity makes for a good day trip and is worthy of consideration if you are organising your own visit.

The Cao Đài is a Vietnamese religious sect that was founded by a French colonial bureaucrat named Ngô Văn Chiêu and based on a series of messages he received during seances in the early 1920’s. Its doctrine is a fusion of Buddhism, Taoism, Confucianism, Christianity and occultism which deified an unusual mix of figures including Joan of Arc, Victor Hugo and Sun Yat Sen. Officially recognised as a religion in 1926, it adopted a clerical organisation structure similar to Roman Catholicism, established its headquarters at Tây Ninh.

In the years following its establishment, the Cao Đài became increasingly active in politics and at its peak, during the French period, had a militia of around 20,000 troops under its command. The French Indochina wars form a large part of my interest in Vietnam and the sect was a major player in the south during the French era.

cao dai illustrated london news 9 june 1951

An article about the Cao Dai from a 1951 edition of the Illustrated London News which talks about the support of their militia in battling the Viet Minh alongside the French.

 

In 1933, the Cao Đài commenced construction of its main cathedral, the Holy See, which is described in Graham Greene’s book, The Quiet American as “a Walt Disney fantasia of the East, dragons and snakes in technicolour.”

Completed in 1955, the temple is a rococo extravaganza that mixes the architectural idiosyncrasies of a French church, Chinese pagoda, Madam Tussaud’s and the Tiger Balm Gardens in Hong Kong. Prayer services are held four times per day, when uniformed priests and laity enter the building to perform their rituals. Visitors are free to enter the balcony section of the temple during these prayers and it is a very colourful spectacle to watch the priests and dignitaries carry out their observances. The best time to visit is just before the midday prayers (held every day except during Tet) and then head on to the tunnels as the second stage of a full day trip.

Cao Dai Holy See-11

An usher takes a nap during the midday prayer service at the Cao Đài Holy See in Tây Ninh. The yellow, blue and red stripes on his armband are the colours of the Cao Đài. Photo: Julian Tennant

In the next few weeks I’ll take a closer look at the Cao Đài’s political and military activities as I begin a series of posts devoted to some of the French Indochina period insignia that I have in my collection.

A selection of items related to the initial deployment of 1RAR to South Vietnam from May 1965 until April 1966 when they were attached to the US 173rd Airborne Brigade (Separate). The WW2 era Australian Military Forces lighter which has been modified with the addition of the enameled 173 Abn and Viet Cong badges was issued to Corporal Lex McAulay, who was with 1RAR during this time. Collection: Julian Tennant

Items related to the initial deployment of 1RAR to South Vietnam from May 1965 until April 1966 when they were attached to the US 173rd Airborne Brigade (Separate). The WW2 era Australian Military Forces lighter in the middle of the picture has been modified with the addition of the enameled 173 Abn and Viet Cong badges. It was issued to Corporal Lex McAulay, who was with 1RAR during this period. The Viet Cong badge attached to the lighter was found in one of the tunnels when he was participating in Operation CRIMP in January 1966. Collection: Julian Tennant

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The Ho Chi Minh Campaign Museum – HCMC, Vietnam

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Entry to the Ho Chi Minh Campaign Museum and statue commemorating the communist People’s Liberation Forces Victory of April 30 1975. Photo: Julian Tennant

The Ho Chi Minh Campaign Museum (Bảo tàng Chiến dịch Hồ Chí Minh) is a military museum in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam, that recounts the final months of the Vietnam War, culminating in the communist’s  victory over the South Vietnamese in April 1975.

The North Vietnamese 1975 Spring Offensive was initially envisioned as a two-stage strategy that would take two years to complete. However, an early victory at Phouc Long (Route 14) on 6 January caused the communists to speed up their offensive. The People’s Army of Vietnam (PAVN) then launched “Campaign 275”, also known as the Central Highlands Campaign, which climaxed in March with the capture of  Buon Ma Thuot cutting South Vietnam in two. Surprised by the rapid collapse of the Army of the Republic of Vietnam (ARVN) forces, the communists then turned their attention north, commencing the Hue-Danang Campaign, securing the isolated coastal regions by April 3.

Refugees during the last days of the Vietnam War

Refugees clogging the roads as they flee towards Saigon during the last days of the Vietnam War. Photo: Hiroji Kubota

Most of the South Vietnamese army  had been routed, but with the communist forces closing in on Saigon, the ARVN made a spirited last stand at the Battle of Xuan Loc, 60km northeast of the capital. Xuan Loc, a vital logistical hub for the South Vietnamese, sat at the intersection of Route 1 and Route 20. They believed that if they could hold there, the situation could be stabilised,  their units re-grouped and the country saved from defeat. However, despite the heroic efforts of the ARVN’s 18th Infantry Division, Xuan Loc fell and by 21 April the road to Saigon was open.  The PAVN victory at Xuan Loc, allowed the communist forces to encircle Saigon, moving 100,000 troops into positions around the city by April 27.

ARVN Newport Bridge 1975

An ARVN Soldier hangs on to his wounded comrade as they both stay flat on the pavement of the Newport Bridge during a Communist attack on April 28, 1975. Photo: Hugh Van Es Bettmann/Corbis

Despite fierce resistance from troops of the 12th ARVN Airborne Battalion at the Newport Bridge (Cầu Tân Cảng) and from the 81st Ranger Group at Tan Son Nhut, the situation for the South Vietnamese Government had became untenable. At 10:24, on 30 April, South Vietnam’s President Minh announced an unconditional surrender to his troops. Shortly after, at 10:30 after hearing Minh’s orders, the paratroopers at the Newport Bridge stood down allowing the PAVN to cross and at 11:30 PAVN forces entered Tan Son Nhut Air Base after the Rangers also laid down their arms. Around noon, PAVN tanks crashed through the gates of the Independence Palace. Later that afternoon, President Minh publicly announced that the South Vietnamese Government had been dissolved at all levels. The Vietnam War was over.

War of Vietnam. Saigon's fall. Taken of the presid

PAVN armour entering the grounds of the Independence Palace, in Saigon on April 30, 1975. Photograph: Francoise De Mulder

The Ho Chi Minh Campaign Museum commemorates this successful 1975 offensive by the communists and was established in July 1987. It is housed in a two-story building (that once was the former Republic of Vietnam’s National Defence College) in District 1 close to the Vietnam History Museum and a few blocks away from the famous Notre Dame Cathedral.

The museum is divided into outdoor and indoor display areas, with the outdoor area displaying vehicles, artillery pieces and aircraft related to the campaign including the F5E fighter flown by Nguyen Thanh Trung when he defected from the South Vietnamese Air Force and bombed the Presidential Palace on 8th of April 1975. It also features T54 tank No. 848 of the 203rd Brigade, which was one of the tanks that entered the grounds of the Palace on the 30th of April. Other outdoor exhibits include an M113 APC captured in January during the Phuoc Long Campaign and then subsequently used by the 7th Division for the remainder of the conflict, plus the usual assortment of artillery pieces, wrecked ARVN aircraft and equipment.

Ho Chi Minh Campaign Museum-06

T54 tank No. 848 of the 203rd Brigade, which was used to enter the grounds of the Presidential Palace on the 30th of April. Photo: Julian Tennant

Entering the museum building brings visitors into the Ho Chi Minh Campaign rooms. Here, visitors are shown a large ‘mud map’ model giving an overview of the offensive plus other exhibits relating to the final stages of the war such as the official Ho Chi Minh Campaign diary. This is followed by rooms detailing each stage of the offensive, beginning with the Battle for Phuoc Loc (Route 14) and followed by the Tay Nguyen Campaign ( Campaign 275) and the battle for the Central Highlands which resulted in the destruction of ARVN forces in the II Corps zone. The focus then shifts to the Hue-Danang Campaign which isolated then defeated the South Vietnamese troops in I Corps.

Ho Chi Minh Campaign Museum-16

The Ho Chi Minh Campaign exhibition room. Photo: Julian Tennant

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Chinese Type 63 (renamed the H12 by the Vietnamese) 107mm rocket launcher that was used in the attack on Ban Me Thuot on 10 March 1975. Photo: Julian Tennant

The second floor has two main rooms. The first deals with the South Vietnamese high command and ARVN forces including insignia, medals, records and documentation captured from the Army of the Republic of South Vietnam. Other exhibits related to the campaign and activities of the Viet Cong local forces are also shown in the upstairs areas whilst the final room is dedicated to the Ho Chi Minh Campaign Headquarters and leadership group. This includes some unusual collections including several sets of spectacles used by various communist leaders and an old extendable car aerial which is described as the “Swagger-stick of General Tran Van Tra”.

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Captured ARVN officer’s personal files. Photo: Julian Tennant

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Captured Air Force F-5 Vietnam novelty patch and an unconfirmed (by me) black panther patch. I think it may be a 1st ARVN Division Strike Company (also known as Hac Bao, Black Panthers) patch variation, but am not 100% certain of this identification. Photo: Julian Tennant

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People’s Army of Vietnam (PAVN) cameraman with a Bolex H 16 SBM 16mm movie camera. Photo: Julian Tennant

Overall, the museum is well laid out with an interesting selection of exhibits that are accompanied by English language descriptions. However, the victors write the history books and as can be expected, the museum gives a very warped perspective that reflects the communist rhetoric. This is evident in both the language used, with the usual “imperialist puppet troop” type descriptions and also how the artifacts appear. The ARVN and South Vietnamese exhibits always seem to be broken (such as the scrap metal wrecks outside), run-down or looking rather aged and disheveled when compared to the PAVN artifacts which are kept fresh and look almost new. The museum is definitely worth visiting because of the material being displayed, but don’t rely on it giving an accurate representation of the conflict from an even remotely unbiased perspective.

Ho Chi Minh Campaign Museum-10

Officer of the Vietnam People’s Ground Forces (Lục quân Nhân dân Việt Nam) on duty at the museum. His insignia identifies him as a Senior Lieutenant (Đại úy) from the Corps of Engineers. Photo: Julian Tennant

Ho Chi Minh Campaign Museum (Bảo tàng Chiến dịch Hồ Chí Minh)
2 Le Duan Street
District 1
Ho Chi Minh City 70000, Vietnam

Phone: +84 (0)336 578 946

Website (Vietnamese language): Ho Chi Minh Campaign Museum

Open: Monday – Friday 07:30 – 11:00 and 13:30 – 16:30
Note that the museum is frequently closed without notice.

Entrance Fee: Free

 

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Note that this site has NEW content posted every Sunday! If you like what you see here, please follow this page via email or by using either the buttons below or in the column on the right. Knowing that somebody is looking at this gives me the encouragement I need to go through my archives and collection to develop the content for the page. And of course, feel free to contact me here, via email or by visiting my Facebook or Instagram pages