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The Americans Who Joined the Khmer Rouge

If you ask someone what the most brutal regime in recent history was, while telling them that saying Nazis is cheating because it’s too obvious, there’s a decent chance they’ll invoke the Khmer Rouge. In a little over four short years of rule, Cambodia’s life expectancy from age five decreased to a scant 14.4 years for males and 22.0 for females. Now, you might notice that this is absolutely fucking cataclysmic and by all accounts, should mean there’s hardly any Cambodians left. The reasons are multifaceted, from a combination of intense famine, international blockade, mass export of what little food there was and… Y’know, murder on a mass scale.

Not all of this was the Khmer Rouge’s fault necessarily, given Cambodia had been shelled with more American bombs than had been dropped on Japan during WW2, with the rice fields utterly destroyed and the populace mostly subsisting on American aid right up until the capture of the capital by the Khmer Rouge guerrillas. This doesn’t excuse the immediate brutal campaigns to force the civilian populace into the countryside, regardless of age, health or farming experience, plus the savage reprisals against anyone and everyone connected with the former government, intellectuals and ethnic minority groups. From there, mismanagement of the agriculture and general mass incompetence led to Cambodia becoming a hellscape with anywhere up to a quarter of the country having died from starvation or violence. For Pol Pot’s regime, the only acceptable people were rurally focused, uneducated Khmer Rouge cadres. Everyone else was untrustworthy and expendable, with charges of being an American agent being one of the most common causes for execution in the infamous killing fields.

So! With all that context explained, why in the fuck did Americans defect to them? Well, I’ll tell you. While the Cambodian genocide began with the establishment of ‘Democratic Kampuchea’ in 1975, the Khmer Rouge had been around far longer than that. They had been formed in 1951 and had been fighting a guerrilla war campaign against the state for quite a few years at the point our intrepid defectors come into the scene. Many people would conflate them with the Viet Cong, their far more well-known colleagues in neighboring Vietnam who were fighting US imperialism. Though, at first, it didn’t seem like that’s what was on their mind. After all, the year was 1970, a whole five years before the Khmer Rouge would take control. What’s more, this was before the US-backed military regime of Lon Nol overtook the softly pro-Chinese government of Norodom Sihanouk, who would later become a supporter of the Khmer Rouge… Despite being a prince, but y’know, you take your allies where you can get them, even if they’re genocidal crazy people.

It’s entirely possible that the defectors simply wished to be in a pro-communist country without… Y’know, all the baggage of the intense Vietnam war. This is where our two defectors come in, Clyde William McKay Jr and Alvin Leonard Glatkowski. The two of them were merchant mariners, ferrying military equipment around southern Asia at the height of the Vietnam conflict. Both had bonded over their mutual left-wing anti-war sentiment and hated being a part of the US war machine. Together, they hatched a plan and smuggled several guns on-board their ship, the SS Columbia Eagle, while it was en route to Thailand with a cargo of explosives and napalm. They waited for their moment and struck on the 14th of March 1970, overpowering the crew, forcing them onto lifeboats and setting course for the coast of Cambodia. This act of mutiny was the first mutiny in 150 years for America, making it quite a story at the time.

Two days later, on the 16th of March, the two had handed their ship and cargo over to the Sihanouk government and declared asylum, hoping to be welcomed as heroes. To their delight, it was granted! Good times were had by all! Until two days later, when military general Lon Nol overthrew Sihanouk in a coup and sharply changed course from a softly pro-communist monarchy to a feverishly pro-American military dictatorship. This put our intrepid mutineers in an awkward position, with their ‘asylum’ now turned to imprisonment. Even worse, the awful timing led to Sihanouk branding the mutiny as a cover for supplying military equipment to Lon Nol for the coup. In the eyes of the world, the two had become what they hated most, pro-war CIA stooges! It’s hard to imagine any situation turning from gold to complete fucking dogshit more dramatically.

Still, it’s not all bad. The two may have been imprisoned in what was apparently a rusty WW2 era ship docked in the Mekong river, but their life apparently consisted of smoking weed and making bizarre statements to media about the Manson family. After several months, the Cambodian government must have figured they had better things to worry about and Glatowski was released while McKay remained in custody. Glatkowski tried to seek asylum at both the Chinese and Russian embassies, showing flagrant disregard for the severity of the Sino-Soviet split, being subsequently denied by both. Seeing few other options and without his pal in tow, he turned himself to the US embassy and was eventually sentenced to ten years in prison for mutiny, of which he served seven before living happily ever after.

Now… That story very much does not include defecting to the Khmer rouge, so you’re probably asking for your unspent money back. Let’s not forget about our pal McKay who was still languishing in that rusty old boat! And I did say that more than one American defected, so enter US army deserter Larry Humphrey. It was perhaps Humphrey who turned the tide of opinion for the other imprisoned Yank, leading to the decision to break out of jail. Glatowski later attested that in those last few weeks of imprisonment, his fellow mutineer had explicitly spoken of intents to join the Khmer Rouge to fight against the forces of imperialism. In October of 1970, they broke out and were promptly regarded with shrugs of disinterest by the warring Cambodian government. It was on the 29th of October that the two found themselves motorbikes and promptly rode in the direction of Kampong Cham province, a heartland of Khmer Rouge territory at the time. The two were never seen again.

When the Cambodian government fell, a curtain of silence shrouded the nation until its eventual liberation by Vietnamese forces in 1979, unveiling the sheer scale of brutal carnage left behind by the Khmer Rouge. To this day, only one westerner is known to have been captured by the guerrillas and survived, a journalist in the very early days who I may have to write about another time. Xenophobia rapidly dominated the movement and fear of CIA agents subverting from within only intensified this. The idea that they were executed and thrown to the killing fields is an easy place to leave things, but there is some more concrete evidence of what may have happened…

A February 2005 article by Penthouse does a good job of cataloguing the information that came out next, all from varied sources over a long period of time. CIA documents of the late 70s report eyewitness accounts in 1971 of two American prisoners in Khmer Rouge camps that fit the description of our two defectors. There’s no proof of what actually happened to them after this, but let’s be real, the historical record is not in their favour. Even more damning information came out in 1990, in the TV documentary ‘Darkness at the Edge of Town’, Cambodian villagers were interviewed stating that two American ‘journalists’ were sheltered at the home of one Lek Lang for several months. Glatowski claimed that McKay had always intended to claim to be a journalist as his cover story should he be captured, so this seems to evidence things somewhat… But then what? Well… Lek Lang claims that the two were then savagely killed with blows to the back of the head with a hoe, so… Not exactly promising. And very in keeping with the Khmer Rouge’s modus operandi.

A later book in 2001 called ‘The Eagles Mutiny’ later went back to interview Lek Lang with knowledge of McKay and Humphrey in mind. When shown a picture of McKay, Lek Lang claimed to recognize him, definitely making things seem more conclusive, but it still wasn’t exactly proof. At last, in April of 2002, there appeared to be a breakthrough. A team visited another village and interviewed witnesses who testified that two Americans fitting McKay and Humphrey’s descriptions were led behind a pagoda and shot in the back before being buried in a hole nearby. It just so happened that remains from this site had previously been given by the Cambodian government back to the US on the belief that they were the skeletons of two entirely separate genuine reporters who were likely executed there. The DNA didn’t match with those two journalists, but another attempt was made to try and match the DNA with McKay’s mother.

Sure enough, a report on the 8th of May, 2003 confirmed that these remains were almost certainly those of Clyde William McKay Jr. As for Humphrey? …Fuck knows. The fact that even McKay was ever positively identified is an absolute miracle in light of just how many anonymous thousands and millions perished in the killing fields of Cambodia. Humphrey will likely never be identified, as is the same for those other two journalists mentioned earlier. Even today, just finding the people who survived is near impossible, with popular Cambodian TV shows consisting of reuniting families separated by the carnage, only now able to find one-another with modern DNA technology.

Is there a moral to this story? …Not really. Maybe one could draw a parallel between the ambitions of McKay and some of the youths who ran off to join ISIS, but even then, at least we know what ISIS is now. McKay had the excuse of not knowing the true extent of the Khmer Rouge’s brutality, skipping merrily into the belly of the beast with the hopes of being the next Che Guevara. It’s very easy to view this as a tale of complete and utter unabashed stupidity that led to an obvious death, but they do say there’s a fine line between bravery and stupidity. …It might seem strange to call an attempt to join a xenophobic, genocidal death cult ‘brave’, but thems the breaks in this bizarre, often unknown tale.

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