On the 28th July 1969 Sanongpanyakun Yomcharoen, now 77, along with a company of infantry made up of Thais, Australians, Koreans and Americans, stood poised ready to run as soon as the carrier plane doors opened on a Vietnamese airstrip. As the rear door dropped, the dinging sounds of bullets on metal signaled to the troops that the Viet Cong had opened fire. An order to jump and roll was called, and like a scene from a movie, a hundred men rolled out of the plane and jumped into the back of a few GMC trucks which hurtled into the nearest cover of forest. As the sounds of gunfire faded and the dirt tracks disappeared under overgrowth, the trucks slowly came to a stop in a dense spot of jungle with nothing but the sounds of cicada screeching and the pitter-patter of tropical rain beginning to fall on the canopies above. For the next year, Sanongpanyakun and his squadron wouldn’t see a town or a city, bound to the jungle on a seemingly never-ending mission that would have a profound effect on them all.
Dangers and Alliances
In the wake of World War Two, Thailand and her neighbours saw the rapid growth of communism in the region under the influence of China and the Soviet Union. With the escalating problem in Indochina, the anti-communist government of Thailand was on guard. In spite of having been in a formal alliance with the United States since 1954 after joining the Southeast Asian Treaty Organisation (SEATO), Thailand did not officially join the Vietnam War until 1963 — though the country acted as a strategic base throughout the Vietnam War, providing air and ground bases to the US military.
Due to proximity to Vietnam, and the alliance with the United States, Thailand closely monitored the war from the side-lines. When the communist North Vietnam launched a large-scale attack on South Vietnam, which spread into Cambodia and Laos, the threat was just one border away, so in 1963, the Thai government declared their support for South Vietnam. However, it would not be until 1967 that the first Thai infantry would be sent into Vietnam to support the South Vietnamese forces. By the end of the war, around 40,000 Thai military personnel would serve in South Vietnam, becoming the third-largest, and much forgotten, provider of ground forces to the war effort after the United States and South Korea.
The Black Panthers
By 1969, the Thai government had deployed more than 12,000 troops which included a voluntary regiment called the Queen’s Cobras and the Royal Thai Army Expeditionary Division which was nicknamed the Black Panthers. Sanongpanyakun had drawn a red card on his national service lottery after new conscription laws came into effect and soon found himself a Panther.
Sanongpanyakun joined the 11th Thai Infantry in Bangkok and trained with the US military before being deployed near Saigon with one of the first Black Panther artillery battalions that was supported by B52 bombers. “One of the first things we were taught was that you could identify the Viet Cong because they wore flip-flops,” he said. “I later learnt that the flip flops were chosen not because the communist forces were too poor to afford boots for their soldiers, but because if they stepped on a landmine or trap, they could feel it through the thin sole of the shoe and have more time to plan an escape.”
Sanongpanyakun and fellow panthers photographed in the field.
Life in the Jungle
“My first deployment lasted exactly one year in the Vietnamese jungle,” Sanongpanyakun said as he sat down next to old army portraits of himself juxtaposed against posters of the Buddha. “Our orders were to eradicate as many communists as we could find, and flush them out from their underground tunnels.”
The Viet Cong relied heavily on a series of underground tunnels and networks to avoid the US and South Vietnamese forces. “By moving underground, they escaped the bombs of US fighter jets, as the bombs they dropped exploded upwards,” described Sanongpanyakun. “We learnt from those we captured that they were not afraid of bombs or aircrafts, except the hum of the B52 bomber, whose bombs exploded downwards, often obliterating their underground bases.” It was the Black Panther’s job to find these bases and call in the bombers before ‘cleaning up’ whoever remained with their M16 rifles.
Every day, Sanongpanyakun and his squad would continue their endless journey through the jungle to find the hidden tunnels of the Viet Cong, often teaming up with US and South Vietnamese soldiers. They were trained to spot the most camouflaged of openings — trapdoors covered with leaves and hidden tunnel openings under trees. “The Viet Cong would snap branches to show their fellow soldiers which way they were going, but we soon learnt to understand these invisible signposts,” he continued. “If we found a trap door, we’d drop a grenade down the hole. After the explosion, men would pour out of the tunnels like ants and we would mow them down, killing each and every one of them.”
Some traps however, were made for the US soldiers. “These traps would work like bear traps, once you step on a nail the trap would spring, crushing your leg,” he said. “The Viet Cong were intelligent, as they made the traps long enough to close over the top of the boot, often piercing just below the kneecap.” Both spring traps and spiked pits that were several metres deep, full of sharpened bamboo spikes smeared with human faeces, were so common that 11% of all deaths during the Vietnam War were attributed to traps alone.
Some Viet Cong would surrender, and according to Sanongpanyakun, it was down to the officer in charge whether they lived or not. If they did, they would be sent back to a nearby camp and given a rifle and South Vietnamese uniform and put back into the jungle to fight. “What I learnt was that the Vietnamese themselves all felt that they were one, so an enemy was not an enemy, just another man under the command of the wrong person.”
The Viet Cong also used women in an attempt to flush out American soldiers. “The enemy would often make women walk around the jungle in a bikini trying to flush out lonely American soldiers,” he said. “They were like Pied Pipers, screaming when a solider got close so that they could be shot from a hidden position. Sometimes they’d just shoot, and the woman would be collateral.”
According to Sanongpanyakun, rape was common. “If one of these women were spotted, the Americans would draw straws to see who would go first,” he said matter-of-factly. “They’d corner her so even if she screamed the Viet Cong wouldn’t show themselves. After the deed was done, she was either let go or executed. Sometimes she’d have poison or a bomb inside her, I saw a few men die like that.”
The Thai Way
The Thai forces were famous during the Vietnam War for being resourceful, generous and lucky. Out of the 40,000 men deployed in the war, only 351 died, and the Black Panthers were soon seen as lucky by the US troops who swore that if you had a Thai on your mission, you’d survive. “There was a lot of very scared men in the jungle,” he continued. “They were not like us, they had no experience of the jungle.” The Thai troops had great faith in their amulets and their sak yant tattoos — claiming that the charms worked as a force field around their bodies. Sanongpanyakun’s head is covered in a sprawling sak yant, and he even showed one covering his heart. “If the Viet Cong bombed us, the ants would die around us but we wouldn’t even have a scratch,” he laughed. “The Americans were so scared they often asked us for one of our amulets to protect them too, and we were always happy to share.”
The Thai way of sharing became famous among the US soldiers, who often would approach the Thai infantry with a big grin and shout “Thailand, cigarette number one!” while holding out their hand asking for a smoke. “If we Thais had one cigarette, we’d share it around, but the Americans never shared anything. And if they wanted something, they’d ask us for our one so we’d just give it to them,” Sanongpanyakun laughed. “We felt sorry for them really, most of the men were going crazy and couldn’t handle the jungle — we were ok trading our canned food for ant’s eggs or jungle food from time to time, food the Americans wouldn’t touch.”
Thanks to their generosity and lack of animosity for the enemy, the Thai soldiers found great admiration and appreciation among the South Vietnamese who welcomed their presence. The Thais and Vietnamese would share stories, cook for each other and swap clothing with each other when they met in military camps or in civilian villages. This warm relationship that grew during the war would lead to the Thai troops having a unique perspective on the war, many thinking all Vietnamese — civilian and military, friendly and hostile — as friends. This contradicted the official stance of the Thai Government and military, which was to be distrustful of the Vietnamese in Thailand and abroad, in fear of the Domino Effect.
“We would often come across villages filled with men, women and children,” said Sanongpanyakun. “We had to be wary as there were sometimes a Viet Cong base below ground. The South Vietnamese villagers would often speak of the Viet Cong and sometimes we wouldn’t know if we were talking to the enemy or not, but when nightfall came we would have to retreat to the forest before the mortar began firing on us from the village itself.” Sanongpanyakun would often be ordered to call in a B52 bomber to flatten the village they were just in — women, children and all. “In the mornings we would survey the damage and see corpses wearing the shirts we gave them the day before.”
Despite suffering the horrors of war, Sanongpanyakun claims that he never lost his mind and just accepted the war for what it was. “I was used to the jungle so it was less of a shock to my system, unlike the Americans,” he reiterated. “The war was hard core, and there was no escape.”
During his first year in the jungle, Sanongpanyakun was injured twice in the field but was forced to stay in the jungle while he recovered. “One time, a bomb exploded nearby and the shockwave was so powerful it broke both my legs immediately. A medical helicopter was called and I was operated on in the middle of the jungle and then left to recover alongside my fellow soldiers,” he described. “Another time I was shot in the shoulder and I had to undergo two operations in the field, but the Vietnamese nurse was cute so I spent the whole time flirting with her which helped numb the pain.” It appears that he wasn’t invincible after all.
Sanongpanyakun was deployed four more times during the war. He told stories of roadsides being littered with the bodies of men women and children killed in the war, which were bulldozed into mass graves by the US military. He talked about how wasteful the US was, demanding all M16 rifles must be discarded after just three months in the field. “The guns were still new and we were just given more, so the Viet Cong ended up getting the weapons we discarded and used them against us,” he laughed. “If the war lasted 1000 years, the Americans would still have lost. Fuel was so cheap the Americans used it as a toilet, cutting open a barrel and doing their business in there before setting it alight at the end of the day. It was just madness.”
Sanongpanyakun being awarded a medal.
When Sanongpanyakun returned to Thailand for his first rest and recuperation (R&R), he decided to visit Chiang Mai to deliver a letter to the wife of one of his fellow Panthers killed in action and avoid Bangkok all together. “I had the army pay my brother my salary for safe-keeping, but when I returned he had brought ten cars and started a business with my money. To this day I still have no idea what I earned during my time in Vietnam,” he laughed. “Although we didn’t fall out as such, he now has Alzheimer’s and can’t remember a thing so maybe that is karma.”
Once the Vietnam was over, Sanongpanyakun had no clear direction so made the strange decision to leave Chiang Mai once again and become a mercenary in Laos, fighting against the communist forces as a gun for hire. “The deal was I had to leave Thailand and claim Lao nationality so I could join their forces. I fought there for about a year before the war was pretty much lost to the communists and I had to make my way back to Thailand.” As he was now ‘Laotian’, Thailand would not let him back in, but as the communists closed in, he had to escape. “I ended up swimming across the Mekong River back into Thailand and making my way back to Chiang Mai. Once home, I requested a new ID card after proving I had served in the Thai army in Vietnam and was once again a citizen,” the Thai government none the wiser for his foray into Laos.
After years of fighting in the jungles of Southeast Asia, Sanongpanyakun finally retired and settled down with a new wife and spent his life tending to a small farm in Mae On. Today, he recollects his time in the Vietnam War with great clarity but is un-phased by the horrors he had to endure. “I never once had a nightmare after I returned from the war,” he explained. “Many of my fellow infantry men suffered terribly, but I just took a peaceful Buddhist approach by making merit for those I had killed. This kept me sane, but I just hope I have done enough to make up for the sins of war.”
Some suggest that Thailand was perhaps the only real ‘winner’ of the Vietnam War. With close relations to the United States, Thailand was granted more than $2 billion dollars in financial assistance which totalled 26% of total US exports to Thailand, greatly boosting the economy. In April 1975, North Vietnam was successful in reunifying Vietnam, and both Vietnam and Laos have remained communist to this day. Despite the wrath of insurgents felt in Thailand post-war, which proved very costly for the nation in terms of of political, economic and human losses, the country was able to fight off the revolts and stay democratic, opening up doors for further foreign aid and assistance which later revived the Thai economy. As a key strategic base in the region, the R&R culture also attributed to the boom in tourism the country experienced in later years, forever fortifying it as one of Thailand’s biggest economic sectors. For Sanongpanyakun, the war is just a dark memory that fortifies his opinion that the west is wasteful and unpredictable. “By telling my story, I want to go against the propaganda we still read today suggesting the US somehow won the war. They didn’t. They spent millions on bombs, guns and planes and eventually burned out and lost the war. I’m no commie, but I am not surprised the Viet Cong won.”