Kratie town, Kratie province – Under its brown and muddy waters, the Mekong River in Kratie province hides what local authorities hope to turn into a 700-ton tourist attraction. After spending 60 years resting on the bottom of the Mekong, the Francis Garnier, a 59-meter-long French gunboat sunk by Japanese forces during World War II, may find its final destination in a museum in the middle of Kratie town.
Just outside the town in Prek Krakor commune, where the sunken vessel is lying under several meters of water and sand, residents claimed that they have been protecting the ship from scavengers for years.
“If I had not prevented it, the ship would have been scrap already,” said Nuth Narin, Prek Krakor commune’s 70-year-old commune chief.
Four people have been arrested for trying to steal parts of the vessel in recent years, Nuth Narin said, adding that the job now is to raise the ship from the river.
The idea of salvaging the Francis Garnier picked up steam a few weeks ago when Im Chhun Lim, minister of land management, urban planning and construction, denied a local company’s request to scrap the gunboat and approved a local authority’ s plan to raise it.
“This warship cannot be moved from [Kratie]. It is a rare piece of history from the Second World War,” said Im Chhun Lim, who was born in Kratie.
Though he did not know the exact cost of the project, the minister said he was currently seeking funds from French and Japanese donors and local businesses.
He added that the first step, pumping out sand from the sunken hulk, which has already begun, was financed by the governor of Kratie.
With boyish enthusiasm, elderly residents on Tuesday gathered in Prek Krakor commune to reminisce about the the French protectorate when the Francis Garnier plied the Mekong.
Lim Heng, 78, said he remembered how children in Kratie town were taken on board the coal-burning Francis Garnier to meet the French marines stationed there. But that was to change when war came.
In March 1945, after sporadic fighting in the province between the Japanese and French, the emperor’ s troops closed in on Kratie town, Lim Heng recalled.
In a surprise attack one night in March, Japanese forces drove the French out and occupied the town. Then they continued up the Mekong and sank the Francis Garnier, he said. However, some naval history Web sites say it was scuttled.
“In the morning, people woke up and I saw two French soldiers lying dead in the street,” Lim Heng said, adding that the marines were still wearing their white uniforms.
Ever since the boat came to rest on the riverbed in 1945, villagers have been diving down to it. However, not much has been taken, they said, and today one of the few objects from the vessel is an old lantern kept in a wooden house behind the pagoda in Prek Krakor commune.
Muth Chhin, an 88-year-old monk, said the lantern has been kept in the pagoda for decades, though he did not know exactly how it came to be there. He said it may have been the result of novice monks swimming out to the boat when some of it was still above water.
On Tuesday, some boats and pipes used to pump out sand were the only visible signs of the salvage operation, though officials involved in the project estimate that the boat could be on solid ground within six months.
A final decision has not been made on where to put the boat, but a clear possibility is a riverfront park a few hundred meters from central Kratie, said Kratie Deputy Governor Thun Kry.
The park, a grass field about half the size a football pitch, was not being used for much on Tuesday, except as a grazing pasture for a few local cows.
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