From July 1971 until August 1972, I was a member of the Military Equipment Delivery Team Cambodia (MEDTC), committed to the re-formation and building of the Cambodian national armed forces (Forces Armees Nationales Khmeres, or FANK).
How I arrived in Cambodia is a story unto itself. In 1963, my wife and I were at the Army Language School in Monterey, Calif., to study German for an Olmsted Scholarship at the University of Freiburg. Because I spoke German from my earlier days in Bamberg, I finished early and was permitted to monitor the French class for about 1 1/2 months.
As I was about to leave, I asked to take the French test to see how I had done. Upon opening the test, I found the pictures and questions were identical to those on the German test I had taken earlier, only in French. The instructor who graded my test was amazed at how well I had done after just 1 1/2 months and gave me a “fully fluent” mark that was forwarded to my records in Washington.
In 1971, I was on my way back to Vietnam for the second time. My family went on ahead to Thailand, where my wife, Barbara, had obtained a teaching position with the Bangkok International School. When I reported to the clerk at Travis Air Force Base in Fairfield, Calif., for the flight to Vietnam, he said my orders had been changed. Because I spoke French, I was being reassigned to an embassy someplace else in the world. Although he didn’t know where, he said I should report in the following day and there would be more information. With my family on the way to Bangkok, I had visions of ending up in a French-speaking country in Africa.
When I returned to Travis, I was told I should catch a flight to Saigon, report to the Military Assistance Command Vietnam (MACV) headquarters and find the office marked MEDTC. Thinking they had the wrong person, I said I was not a medical officer but an infantryman. Didn’t make any difference, the clerk said, just go to Saigon.
Upon arrival at MACV headquarters in Saigon, I found the office marked MEDTC. Brig. Gen. Theodore C. Mataxis greeted and welcomed me as the “French speaker” of the team he was forming to raise, train and arm the new Cambodian armed forces. He immediately sent me to Phnom Penh to set up a team house for him, his chief of staff and me. Initially we were just authorized to have 16 military personnel in the country, but after I left, that grew to 62. The first months were spent getting organized, becoming acquainted with our Cambodian counterparts and finding out how to contact our support, e.g. Air America and others.
I had many, many “once in a lifetime” close encounters, combat skirmishes and narrow escapes during the year with the FANK, but the following stands out.
In September 1971, Adm. John S. McCain, commander in chief, Pacific Command, and father of then-POW Lt. Cmdr. John McCain, visited our team. Of course, being the boss of the entire theater, he paid a call on the leader of the country, Marshal Lon Nol, whom we had installed a few months earlier to replace Prince Norodom Sihanouk.
Lon Nol presented Adm. McCain a token of his appreciation - an elephant named Chamrocun, which means prosperity in the Khmer language. He was not fully grown, but he was quite large.
Now, what does an admiral do with such a gift in a far-off country with no means to take care of it and no way to refuse it? Naturally, he turned to the one-star general, who then turned to me and said, “John, handle it.”
As I later learned from the admiral’s staff, the zoo in Hawaii had no use for a bull elephant. However, the admiral was good friends with Los Angeles Mayor Sam Yorty, and I learned that the Los Angeles Zoo could use another bull elephant. I arranged for a zoo manager and a veterinarian to travel to Phnom Penh and for their visit to coincide with the arrival of a C-141, loaded with 105 mm howitzers destined for the FANK artillery.
I had two huge steel containers welded together and had the interior lined with plywood with bumper pads all around at the elephant’s shoulder height. At the base of the container, I had holes drilled for the elimination of fluid wastes. I had notified the Air Force what the return cargo would be, so the crew was prepared with a large rubber tarpaulin to cover the aircraft floor.
The day of Chamrocun’s journey arrived, and I led the zoo representatives to the field behind our team house, which backed up to a FANK compound where Chamrocun was being kept. The extra-large container had been delivered on a low-slung truck.
After introductions, the zoo veterinarian took out his pellet gun and prepared to tranquilize the elephant for the journey. The FANK guard raised his AK-47 and aimed it at the veterinarian - it was a terrible sin to kill an elephant.
I quickly managed, in French mixed with broken Khmer, to convince the guard that this would not kill Chamrocun but only make him tranquil for the trip to the United States. When the guard lowered the rifle, we all breathed a sigh of relief.
After that, things proceeded as planned, and we bade farewell to the zoo representatives and to Chamrocun as they left Ponchetong airport bound for California.
Years later, I visited the Los Angeles Zoo and called on Chamrocun, but he didn’t recognize me. Who said elephants have great memories?
JOHN R. HOCKER