Jim Laurie’s The Last Helicopter: Two Lives in Indochina (FocusAsia, 366 pp. $18.95, paper; $9.99, Kindle) is a book that almost demands that a reader, upon completing it, sits back and digests what has just happened.
The book begins with Laurie, a budding, 22-year-old foreign correspondent, stumbling into Cambodia in early 1970 on one of his first assignments. While attending a military briefing he meets and befriends Soc Sinan, a young Khmer woman who was working for a French tractor company. The relationship that developed endures, often at a distance, off and on, for more than 50 years.
Laurie covered the last years of the Vietnam War for NBC News, and later for ABC News. In 1975, he witnessed the fall of Cambodia to the Khmer Rouge, and left Soc Sinan behind as he fled on the last helicopter out of Phnom Penh. This was the first—but not the last—time that Laurie’s career, hubris, and self-interest combined to separate the couple.
After leaving Indochina, Laurie went on to report on wars and political upheaval throughout the world in a career what would span more than five decades.
In his book Laurie offers the reader his views of the hostilities that took place in Southeast East Asia, China, and elsewhere. In that regard, we get a foreign correspondent’s look at things that most people only get to see from a distance.
After the fall of Phnom Penh, Soc Sinan was forced into Khmer Rouge labor camps for more than four years. Laurie’s interviews with her provide a stunning look into the inhumanity that took place. Her commentary alone is worth the price of the book.
During the intervening time, Laurie continued to search for Sinan, and finally found her. The story of her rescue and departure from Indochina makes for page-turning reading.
Jim Laurie honored Sinan’s request for her ashes to be spread upon the Mekong River off the banks of her native Cambodian village birthplace. Her Buddhist spirit, he writes, reached back to those in attendance.
This is an interesting book. It’s well written and edited, and is a rare and refreshing departure from the usual battle-heavy books about the Indochina wars.
The book’s website is jimlaurie.com/the-last-helicopter