The rear door of the SUV opened and the six of us stepped out into a fog-shrouded field in eastern Laos. My eyes peered through the haze, methodically scanning the horizon for the attraction that had brought my wife and me out into this remote corner of Southeast Asia. Then, a puff of fog swept by, enabling me to catch a brief glimpse of it in the mysterious blue-grey of the pre-dawn light. Straight out of the imagination of a science-fiction visionary, the mammoth machine, with its sleek white body, bullet-proof cockpit, and fierce rotary teeth, sat quietly in the reddish dirt – waiting. The crisp, immaculate flag of the world’s third largest economy and the symbol of the Japanese people adorned the side of the machine, right next to the flag of the host nation it was trying to assist, The People’s Democratic Republic of Laos. From 1964 to 1973, the United States waged a ‘secret’ war in Laos in an effort to stem the flow of communism into Southeast Asia. This conflict centered on the battles being waged between the pro-Western, Royal Lao Government, and the communist forces of the Pathet Lao and their North Vietnamese allies. In an effort to prevent American public opinion of the war from heading south, the CIA assumed control of the conflict in Laos and used a combination of special operations forces and massive aerial bombardment in an effort to turn the tide of the civil war. As a result, the United States Air Force dropped over 2 million tons of ordnance on the country, or approximately one plane-load every 9 minutes for 9 years.
Unfortunately for the people of Laos today, the war continues. A huge amount of the explosives dropped on Laos during the war consisted of cluster munitions, 30% of which failed to explode. Considering that the number of cluster bombs dropped on Laos was in excess of 260 million, the estimated number of active ‘bombies’ in Laos today is at least 80 million. It is this nightmare that the Japanese have come to help clear up with a new machine built by the Japanese construction conglomerate Kohmatsu.
After an extraordinarily successful run in Cambodia, where the legacy of landmines laid by the Khmer Rouge continue to pose a danger to the people, the Japan Mine Action Service (JMAS) had brought their $1 million machine to Laos to see if a similar success rate could be had in removing smaller cluster munitions. However, before the armored bulldozer could be put to work in Laos using its rapidly spinning plow that bristles with metal teeth and can clear the ground of hazards 30cm below the surface, JMAS would need to conduct a series of trials to see whether or not the machine could in fact destroy the cluster munitions. It was during these trials, where no live bombies would be used, that we were privileged enough to observe their noble work.
Gripped with a sense of purpose, our gracious Japanese hosts led us to a tent that had been erected to act as a command center for the machine’s trials. Inside we found computers, diagrams outlining their project, sample bombies, and a small Shinto shrine where the Japanese men could observe their native religion. Outside the tent, a group of Laotian men stood waiting for instructions. Once the trial and training period of several months was complete, it would be these men who would take over operations of the machine and allow the Japanese to return home to their families.
As is Japanese custom, the morning began with a brisk stretching regimen before the team could enter the field to begin testing the machine. Their movements, while militarily precise, were conducted with an air of good cheer and humor. With their blood moving, the team broke and took to the field to play in one of the most critical games that will decide the economic future of the Laotian people: industrial-scale demining.
Roaring to life, the giant demining machine, with its ability to clear huge tracts of land, and in the process plow the soil for farming, began rolling forward in the moist, red dirt. With a remote control for the machine fixed to his waist, the Japanese engineer from Kohmatsu turned to me and smiled.
“Always a kid at heart!” he exclaimed just before pressing a button that lowered the rotating blades into the earth, churning the dirt into a fine, red powder. As the machine began moving forward, he described how it could be operated either by remote control or by an operator inside the machine’s cab. Considering the sweltering heat of the Laotian summer, he indicated that the air conditioning in the cab would probably lead to an operator driving the machine from the cab for most of the year.
After watching the machine in action and enabling me to practice my limited Japanese, our generous hosts returned us to downtown Phonsavan where we could return to the burgeoning tourism facilities being developed in this remote corner of the world, but not before providing us with a souvenir of the day’s adventure. The small representation of the Kohmatsu machine may be a children’s toy, but it will be sitting on my desk as a reminder to ‘always be a kid at heart.’ It is a small memento to the Japanese efforts to save the children and people of Laos from the death and dismemberment delivered from above over 40 years ago. We wish them every success!
Photos courtesy of TriciaAnneMitchell.com