Danny Blomeley's veteran story

Danny Blomeley joined the Australian Army when he turned 17, after completing his leaving certificate at school. He remembers having wanted to join the army from the age of 12. Television shows like The Sullivans and the film Gallipoli only increased his fascination with the idea of joining the army.

After initial training, Danny entered the Royal Australian Armoured Corps and became an armoured crewman.

Danny was 23 years old, a corporal and an instructor at Corps Training Wing at the School of Armour when he had the opportunity to deploy to Cambodia. He spent 6 weeks at Randwick in Sydney, undertaking what he recalls as being thorough pre-embarkation training.

Danny arrived in Cambodia just after the elections in May 1993. He was a part of the last Australian contingent in Cambodia as part of the United Nations Transitional Authority in Cambodia (UNTAC) mission.

After arriving in Phnom Penh and spending a short time there, he moved to the province Kampong Speu where he spent a month with a troop detachment. Then he was sent to the Cambodia-Vietnam border on the Mekong River, at a location called Charlie Victor three Mike. Here, Danny spent 5 months as part of a small communications detachment. His role was to observe, patrol and staff a checkpoint.

While serving on the Cambodia-Vietnam border, Danny got to know some of the local people and customs. He also witnessed the appalling outcome of banditry along the Mekong River.

Cambodia veteran

Transcript

Enlistment

I was born and raised in Ballarat, Central Victoria or Western Central Victoria. So from about the age of 11 or 12, I was always going to join the army. So it had just appealed to me, the lifestyle outdoors, the physical side of it. So as soon as I turned 17, completed year 11 and then joined the army just after turning 17.

Yeah. So pretty well, Ballarat was my area of growing up… my  grandfather served in World War II in New Guinea. And I suppose something quite silly, but we all grew up watching The Sullivans. And of course The Sullivans, the boys were involved with the military. So I always had a fascination and then of course the movie Gallipoli came out. So I just had an interest and the lifestyle just appealed to me.

And so yeah, from age 12, thereabouts that's what I wanted to do. And then of course, being fairly active as well, playing sport also seemed to fit in with the defence force lifestyle… I  ended up becoming an armoured crewman, so in the Royal Australian Armoured Corps. So yeah. Look, I went in eyes wide open, not knowing, just general enlistment, so didn't really know what I was going to do.

So it was either engineering or engineer, sorry, or armoured. I certainly upon joining the military, I wanted to do something army-like. So for me that was something frontline in my view was if I was going to join the army, I wanted to be doing something army-like, so Royal Australian Armoured Corps certainly fitted that bill. So that ticked that box early on for me.

Cambodia: An opportunity

Cambodia started to get some momentum in around '91, '92. And we were aware that there was activity happening over there. So Somalia, I think was '91 and Rwanda in around the same time. I was actually an instructor at Corps Training Wing at The School of Armour at the time. So I was a young corporal, 23. And yeah, we were advised that there was going to be two positions sent from The School of Armour to Cambodia for a 12-month deployment.

So at my stage of life and where I was at, that certainly appealed. And of course, everyone at that point in time, there'd been such a long period between active service because everything that we'd been taught was really about Vietnam, so sixties into the early to mid-seventies. And all our training subsequently, particularly at Corps Training Wing was in and around the experiences learned from Vietnam. And then there was obviously a 15-year period where there really wasn't any major service required overseas. And then all of a sudden, Rwanda, Somalia and Cambodia came to the fore. So I was pretty keen to, well, that's what you join up for. It's using the analogy of training for a grand final in a game of football, but never playing your grand final so to speak. So to be given that opportunity, certainly both hands.

A basic understanding

As a 23-year-old and being, I suppose, what you call a fairly alpha type. You really didn't delve into the politics or geopolitical side of what was going on in the world. It was more about the opportunity to be able to serve in an active space.

So I was aware of Cambodia being formally named Kampuchea prior to the Pol Pot regime of '75 to '78 and the genocide that subsequently occurred in Cambodia, but that was about it. And I was aware that they were by the Paris Peace Accord, they were trying to instigate democratic constitution via democratic election. But that was about it.

Pre-embarkation training

We spent six weeks up in Randwick. So there was two of us that was selected to go from armoured corps at that point in time, or from school of armour there was other personnel that were from other locations that had gone or were over there.

So we had six weeks pre-embarkation training in Sydney where we were pretty well briefed on everything from geography through to culture and the geopolitical issues and what was going on there on the ground, through to the state of play with the Khmer Rouge and the government, the corruption that was evident in that part of the world and still is, I believe.

So yeah, if I reflect back on it, the pre-embarkation was pretty thorough. So we felt like we were well placed to handle what was to come, although we probably weren't, but we felt like we were equipped to go… We were all bundled onto a civilian aircraft and I think we flew, from memory we flew straight into Phnom Penh, I recall. It's over 25 years ago. So yeah, I think it was we flew into Phnom Penh, so direct.

A totally different environment

I think now, 25 years on and having spent a bit of time in Asia, I think the first thing that grabs you is obviously the smells. So just totally different environment to what we experience here in the Western world. Yeah, and the fact that it was really war torn. So there was remnants still of the urban or guerrilla environment that the Khmer Rouge had created. And it was trying to get back on its feet in Phnom Penh, but it was certainly, you could see that it had been through hell and just by the damage to the buildings and the roads and the people there.

There was people that we did see that had clearly been scarred physically from what had occurred. So landmine's are a major issue in Cambodia, which I still believe to this day, even after the work that's been done by several organisations just trying to clean it up, but that was a real issue. And it was evident in the people that we could see there, which was confronting.

Very raw for the locals

I think the first couple of days arrival in country, well, we went to the Australian base, Pattaya Australia, I think it was called. And we had a couple of days of going to see the Killing Fields and I think S11, which was the camp where they undertook some pretty atrocious activity. So that gave us a really good understanding of what had occurred, and then explained what we were seeing in the community and out in the general population.

So yeah, very, very confronting. But it equipped us with what we were dealing with, particularly the Killing Fields, what had occurred from young children through to the elderly and everywhere in between and mass grave sites. So fairly confronting, but it was all part of what we were preparing for and to do…. It was really raw. And when you reflect on when we visited that, we probably lacked a little bit of empathy or sympathy with what had gone on there. But I'd gone back to the Killing Fields only a few years ago, 25 years after when I first arrived in the country.

So I did just see it through a different set of eyes or different perspective, that's for sure. But yeah, it was very raw, very raw for the locals there, but they were trying to make money. And the same with having spent time in Vietnam as well, post serving. They need to move on. The population needs to move on and get their economy going. So yeah, they pretty well just deal with it and they see it as a bit of an opportunity. And obviously, now it's a full-blown tourist attraction there.

A fairly normal existence

I think we spent, it wasn't long, maybe a week in Pattaya Australia, which was the main military base or army base in Cambodia. And then we were assigned to a... Sorry, in Phnom Penh. And then we were assigned to a troop detachment, which was, I think it was some 25K away, another province called Kampong Speu. So there was about three or four of us from memory. We moved out to Kampong Speu, which was an established troop detachment consisting of troop leader, troop sergeant. And I was one of the corporals. I think there was two other corporals there. And then there was half a dozen signallers as such.

So I think spent only two to four weeks from memory out there. It was semi-civilised. So it was a compound type environment. We were staying in those relocatable huts. And obviously our role there was signals and communication. But it was a fairly normal existence. We had the Bulgabat (Bulgarian Battalion) detachment next door to us, which was quite interesting because they weren't anywhere near well as trained as what the Australian soldiers were. So that was interesting. I think a lot of them were there actually because they had to spend part of their time as part of their prison program. So certainly, completely different to what we were there.

So we spent a bit of time there and it was after, I think two to four weeks, I can't recall. But then I was posted to a remote location down on the Cambodia-Vietnam border on the Mekong River, location called Charlie Victor three Mike. And that's where I spent, I think four and a half months, five months down there on the border checkpoint, the only Australian down there. And that's where the real experience occurred.

A communications detachment

I can only speak for the location where I was located. So we were primarily there as communications, so we were responsible for maintaining the communication. So we had schedules at, from memory 6:00 AM, 9:00 AM. Midday was no good. We couldn't get comms via HF at midday. And then three, six and nine. So we just simply report in on any activity. And 99% of the time, there is nothing to report.

So that was primarily our role. So the detachment where I was, I was the only armed soldier. So there was serving military observers from other countries. So Philippines, UK, and New Zealand. So there was about eight other guys there, but they were a little bit away from the location where I was right on the river. And that was my accommodation as well.

So just a small little hut. Plenty of rats, plenty of snakes, plenty of spiders, all that sort of thing in which you get to learn to live with over there. But yeah, as I said, we were the only ones that were technically armed. So we were sort of the go-to if ever that was needed. Although, I'm convinced, well I know that the other military observers had acquired weaponry through their own means in case, or if in the event things kicked off.

A typical day

The general day-to-day was we'd go for, because we were right on the Mekong, myself and the two British Marines, we were pretty keen to be active and do what we needed to do and maintain a presence down that part of the world. Because you had the Cambodian Army, which appeared to have no structure or no direction. And they were doing their own things. You had the border police, customs, sorry. And then you had police.

So there was really a conglomerate of lawlessness down that part of the world, and then we were stuck in the middle. So myself and two of the British guys and one of the Kiwis, we would daily go on a boat patrol, so we had a Zodiac boat, and just remain a presence in the area to let them know that we were around and we were doing what we were doing. And we'd call in on different camps, I suppose you'd call it because as I said, they really didn't appear to have any structure. And we'd just take personal note of the weapon that were there. Yeah, basically essential elements of information.

We'd just keep an eye on what was there and just keep a record of who had what. It was quite amazing, the amount of leftover weaponry from the Vietnam War. So that was the mornings. We'd come back, we'd have a bit of lunch, often baked beans on rice for lunch. And then we'd head out on motorbike patrols in the afternoon, along the Mekong, up and down from the Vietnam checkpoint to the north on the Mekong. So that was generally the day-to-day operation.

A grisly hijack (part one)

One period there, we had, there was a word that a rubber boat had been hijacked by bandits and that they were coming back down through the checkpoint into Vietnam. So we were put on alert. And then over a three-day period, we recovered 22 of the bodies from the boat that had subsequently, they'd been shot. Most of them had been tied back-to-back, shot through the kneecaps, and then thrown overboard from this boat.

So I remember one afternoon, we out on a boat patrol, myself and two of the British guys. And the Mekong River's really quite wide. And it was really almost living what we'd learnt through Vietnam on the Mekong in terms of the whole experience. But the Mekong in some points was seven, 800 metres, maybe a kilometre in width, so quite wide.

And I remember one day we were out on the boat. And as I said, I was the only one that was really armed. And I had a radio back to Charlie, Victor three Mike. And we looked over and we just saw, it looked like two to three cows floating in the Mekong. We could just see what we thought were legs just floating. And then just beyond that, and this is probably an experience that still sticks with me, we just heard this howling and what it was was a community of probably 100, 120 people all crying on the other side of the Mekong. So we couldn't work out what was going on. So of course, we went over to investigate. And as we got closer to what we thought was the cattle, it was actually human bodies.

So I think it was four policemen or four military guys had been tied back-to-back. And then as we arrived there, just 30 metres away was this elderly man coming out to retrieve the bodies from the village. So probably from the village to where the bodies were may have only been 150 metres by the time we got there. So we assisted with recovering those bodies. So obviously, rigor mortis had set in by that stage and they were heavily bloated because they'd been drowned. But little did we know that poor elderly gentlemen, that three of the bodies were his sons. So that was, yeah, that was a pretty interesting period. So we assisted. We did the best we could. We dragged those bodies back into the shoreline there. And then we just, we reported it. We went back and we reported and left it.

But subsequently over the following 72 hours, we recovered 22 bodies floating down the river. So that was pretty interesting. And then I think 12 or 14 hours after the last body recovered, so we'd be sitting down having dinner at night and the next minute, the locals would come in and they'd be quite upset, obviously. And basically, they'd say there's more. So we'd down our knives and forks, jump in the Zodiac and head out to the river at all hours of the night and recover the bodies.

A grisly hijack (part two)

They were on a rubber boat. So they hijacked a rubber boat. So obviously rubber plantations are very prominent in along the Mekong there. So they'd hijacked the boat and their objective was to get it into Vietnam… So throughout the process, they'd obviously jumped onboard the boat, hijacked it and did whatever they needed to do to get rid of everyone that was onboard the boat. And their intention was to get back into Vietnam…

We're not sure whether it was a military type led operation or whether it was just purely banditry. But banditry seemed to be more prominent. Most of the Khmer Rouge were up north of the country and I was in the extreme south. So as I said, right on the border of Cambodia, Vietnam. So it was more bandit opportunists… So  they tried to make their way through the checkpoint 2:00 AM one morning, after they'd done what they had done to the crew on board. So we knew they were coming…So, as I indicated before, the Mekong's quite wide, so they tried to sneak through about 2:00 AM one morning.

And obviously, word had travelled with what had gone on. So as I said before, you had some detachment of the police, the customs and the Cambodian Army were there as well as our-selves as a checkpoint. So yeah, about 2:00 AM one morning it kicked off, because they tried to make it through. And I think it was the customs, or it might have been the police tried to apprehend them. And yeah, it kicked off. So it woke me up pretty quickly.

Getting on with the job

A couple of nights there we had rockets and RPGs go off very close to our building. I remember right next to where I was sleeping rockets were fired. So again, I wasn't sure whether that was from the army or the border police there. Generally felt safe, but everywhere I went, I carried my weapon, which was a Steyr. And whenever we went on the bike patrols and the boat patrols, which was a daily event, I was the one that was visibly armed.

So yeah, only that night the bandits came through was really the only time that we had received incoming fire and we delivered outgoing fire. So that was really the only time that things got pretty hairy, I suppose. But most of the time we just got on with the job. We didn't lie awake worrying about it. So you just got on with the job at hand.

Locals and rat delicacy

After we'd come back from our motorbike patrol in the afternoon in around three or four o'clock, quite often there'd be a torrential downpour because of the time of the year that we were there. But in my little room, we'd established a bit of a gymnasium. We had some weights and chin up bars and that sort of thing. So we'd try and go for a run. We'd have to stick to the tracks because of the prominence of mines in Cambodia.

So we'd come back and then we'd just do some weights and quite often we'd get some of the locals come over. So I remember we had one young lad that come and trained with us. He was only, what's say maybe 10 years of age. So yeah, we formed a little bit of a relationship with him, which was quite funny. Unfortunately, when I recently went back to Cambodia and went back to the village, I was trying to meet him as a young man. But unfortunately, as they put it, he'd expired, which means that he'd passed on. So that was a little bit sad.

And because we had a first aid kit, or we were set up with a toolbox type. It was a first aid kit. The locals soon realised that in order to get medical treatment, they'd be knocking you on the door at 7:00 AM. So we'd have a long line up of kids primarily and we'd be putting bandage on and swabbing cuts and doing all the basic first aid there. So that was a good experience. They'd realised, they didn't really have any medical support down that village at that point in time.

In hindsight, I probably should have immersed myself more in the village. If I was to go there now, it would be a different story, but we were pretty focused on what we needed to do. And we had a little bit to do with, we had a lady that cooked for us and that also washed our clothes and we paid her accordingly. And we'd head into the village every now and again, just to get some noodles or something just a little bit different, because the baked beans on rice each day or occasionally the delicacy of rat started to wear a bit thin…

That was the delicacy. So the rat lady had come along on a push bike with a cage full of live rats and you'd pick the one that appealed to you. So it wasn't something we did all the time, but on three or four occasions we did quite often after the event. That was nice chicken. That was really good meal. Yeah, that was rat… Every  night you go to bed, and you just set your rat traps because throughout the night you'd just hear whack, whack, whack. So there was quite a lot of rats around in the area.

Resupplied by helicopter

Generally on a Monday. We were located, their village was probably three to four kilometres from what they called the no man's land, which was patch of grass between Vietnam and Cambodian border and it had a helipad there. So we knew on Monday at some stage that a UN chopper would be flying in with our mail and weekly rations, my weekly rations. So the military observers were paid whatever they were paid. And they were required to fend for themselves, so to speak, but we would be sent in rations. So we'd be aware that, because if we missed the helo, then that was it for the week. So there was no food coming. There was no mail coming up…

So  we'd hear the chopper come in and we weren't allowed to ride motor bikes apparently, but being down in that part of the world, there was really no option. As I said, each day, we did motorbike patrols paralleling the Mekong, again just to keep an eye on what activities were going on. But so the helo would come in and we'd quickly get on the motorbike, because the helo would only land ten seconds max. And if you weren't there, they were gone because quite often, they'd receive incoming fire from the Vietnamese side of the border.

So we virtually had to get from there on the motorbike three or four Ks, but when you're heading down a track, there's people in the village, there's cows that move in front of you very quickly. You had to get down there right at that point in time. And quite often I was really fortunate because a good mate of mine would quite often be on the helicopter there, Andy Borland. And we're still good mates today, which is fantastic through that connection. So he'd often arrive and we couldn't hear each other purely because of the helicopter. Russians were flying the Mi-17s, I think they were.

He'd give me thumbs up, hand me a crate of food. There's your mail, and I'm out of here. And that was your only interaction really… But  we'd get the crate of food, throw it on the motorbike, go back to the village or back to our checkpoint and we'd share it for two days. So sausages, veggies, steak chops, all that sort of thing that had come from the mess in Phnom Penh. And for two days, our team or our detachment of Filipinos, the British, we'd all eat that because we couldn't keep it. There was no power or no electricity. So we'd eat that. And then we'd revert to your rice, baked beans and whatever other meat was served throughout that time.

Accommodation

There was a lot of thatch huts around, but it was a small Besser block type hut with a tiled roof, with a tarp that we had to relocate fairly regularly because of the rain, so that it didn't rain. But we were right on the Mekong River, probably 20 metres from the river, whereas the rest of the military observers, they had their accommodation probably a hundred metres back into the jungle, so to speak.

Yeah. So that was my accommodation. The room, just sleep on a stretcher with a mosquito net. The room was probably a metre and a half by two metres. That was your room. And then there was a small, or sorry, a larger area, which was where the radio was kept. And we'd created a bit of a gym to keep ourselves busy in there as well. But the building's still standing today.

Recreation

So recreation was really to keep fit. We had no power. There was a generator there. So we were fortunate enough that to receive VHS cassettes of music TV back here in Australia. So I was fortunate enough, my mum sent me over a couple of three-hour cassettes.

And we'd simply of a night-time once the work was done, we'd sit down and watch music video pretty well most nights. So that was our entertainment, that, reading and the physical side. That was about it.

End of the mission

So the elections had already taken place. So they'd taken place in late May 1993. And I'm talking really in around June, July, August period was where I was at now. So we arrived in country just after the elections. So we were the last group to serve in Cambodia there, which was going to be 12 months, but it only ended up being six months… So we were given notice that the UN was withdrawing from Cambodia. So in around end of September, October, we packed up our detachment there and headed back to Phnom Penh for final clean-up of approximately a week or two.

A friendly ransacking

It was interesting when we got on the boat, I still remember it vividly. At about 4:00 AM, we got on the boat, we packed what we wanted to take. We were left a lot. The moment we stepped on the boat, the village just came alive with torches, lights and they just ransacked whatever was left.

And there's a fair bit left behind anything, everything from water jerry's through to bits of equipment. But our key equipment of obviously radios, et cetera, we made sure we packed, but there was a lot of stuff that we were advised just to leave.

Mixed feelings

I remember wanting to get back home at that point in time. I think I had mixed emotions about it there. I wasn't sure whether we'd made a difference or not, because it was still very raw over there. And the history tells that the UN, or UNTAC in particular had certain levels of success in terms of implementing a democratic constitution. But there was also some failings at the UN.

So I suppose you'd just focus on what you had control over. And I feel we had a positive impact down there, but how lasting it was, I'm not sure…I think that the main objective was to disarm the Khmer Rouge primarily, which didn't occur, particularly up in the north of Cambodia.


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DVA (Department of Veterans' Affairs) ( ), Danny Blomeley's veteran story, DVA Anzac Portal, accessed 18 May 2024, https://anzacportal.dva.gov.au/stories/oral-histories/danny-blomeleys-story
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