Cambodian Rice Airlift

by Daniel L. Haulman

Operation Name: Cambodian Rice Airlift
Location: Cambodia
Date: October–December 1973
Emergency: Fighting around Phnom Penh cut overland supply routes to the Cambodian capital, producing a food shortage.
Organizations: 374th Tactical Airlift Wing
Airlifted: 3,000 tons of rice.
Aircraft Used: C–130 (number unknown)

The Cambodian government of Premier Lon Nol fought Khmer Rouge rebels in 1973. Fighting reduced the country’s food supply and impeded food distribution, and by autumn serious food shortages affected Phnom Penh as insurgent forces interdicted supply routes to the capital.

Although the Air Force had halted bombing missions in Cambodia, U.S. C–130 cargo planes from the 374th Tactical Airlift Wing continued to fly military supplies from Thailand to Lon Nol’s forces. The U.S. embassy in Phnom Penh requested an emergency airlift of rice in addition to ammunition already being flown to the city. In October, C–130s began hauling rice from Battambang, an area of Cambodia where rice was still plentiful, to Pochentong Airfield near Phnom Penh. Between October 2 and 12, the planes hauled 847 tons of rice to the capital. By Christmas, they had delivered 3,000 tons.

The food airlift faced hazards. On October 8, Khmer Rouge forces fired a Strella SA–7 surface-to-air missile at a C–130 as it departed Pochentong. Although the missile did not hit the plane, the incident halted the rice airlift for two days. Monsoon rains also delayed operations.

Despite such problems, the rice airlift succeeded in temporarily ending the food shortage in the Cambodian capital. Opening of land routes to Phnom Penh and boat deliveries up the Mekong River from South Vietnam increased rice stocks and made further food deliveries by air unnecessary.

1 Comment

  • William R Ferguson

    C-130s operated out of a Forward Air Location (FOL) established at Utapao, Thailand. There were approximately five at Utapao at any given time, as they were rotated routinely from the 374th TAW located at Clark AFB in the PI. USAF crews flew air drop missions into Cambodia in late 1973 and 1974, but by Oct 1974 the C130 missions into Cambodia were all flown by civilian aircrew. The FOL was operated by the 374th and the C130s were maintained by personnel from the Wing. USAF flight crews only flew a daily mission in Thailand and a weekly flight to Hanoi ( As part of the peace agreement negotiations). In early 1975 C130s were supplemented by commercial carriers. Resupply missions of rice to Phnom Phen began in January and lasted only a few months until it became to dangerous to land at Phnom Pehn. The resupply missions ceased entirely when Phnom Pehn fell to the Khmer Rouge on 17 April 1975.
    Urgent deliveries of rice to the capital probably lasted only a few months.
    The Khmer Rouge forcibly empty the capital city, and it would be many years before any semblance of normalancy was restored to Cambodia.

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