A Book Excerpt From Mike Benge

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Vietnam? Where and the hell is that?

I was just finishing my first year at Oregon State College and living as a fledgling pledge at Delta Chi Fraternity. Pledges such as myself had to follow strict dress code for different days of the week: suits – ties, slacks – sports coats – ties, slacks – dress shirts – ties, and casual, while serving dinner to the members four days a week (members had the same dress code rules). However, on Friday night (aka hell night), everyone (members and pledges) was allowed to dress super casual (some took it to the extreme such as jockstraps and “wife-beater” under-shirts; or not), and dinner was no holds barred. The presence of upperclassmen was usually low, for a great share of them were out and about doing their thing. It was an unusually hot that night for that time of the year, and the very informal dinner erupted into a water fight launched by four of us pledges; and after we had expended our supply of our water balloons, we took it outside to the lawn. There, we had set up an ambush for the few members that remained with some buckets of water, and I had commandeered a water hose to ward off an attack by the upperclassmen. By that time, both sides were soaked and covered with mud from what used to be a lawn which had turned into a swamp when someone shouted “Time out!” All at once, for some strange reason, everyone stopped in place, remaining stark-still, and there was a pause of deadly silence. Then we could hear a short-wave radio broadcast blaring from an open window on the second floor. Someone turned the radio up, and we could hear some kind of an on-site news report with a real-time battle in the background with the thunder of bombs, artillery explosions, and other dins of war.

Điện Biên Phủ

The broadcast highlighted the heroic actions of Geneviève de Galardc, a nurse and officer in the French medical service, one of 15 French female nurses who had been tending the wounded on the multiple med-evac flights out of Điện Biên Phủ but became stranded when her assigned plane was being repaired on the runway. The runway, the plane, and the airport had been all destroyed by intense anti-aircraft and artillery fire. Geneviève had been dubbed l’ange de ofĐiện Biên Phủ (the Angel of Dien Bien Phu)1 by the press and other media in Hanoi, although in the camp, she was known simply as Geneviève. At the time she was the sole “French” woman there2 and continued tending the wounded in the field hospital until the last. After a two-month siege, the garrison was overrun on May 7, 1954. The coup de grâce came when an all-out human-wave attack was launched against the remaining 3,000 French units by over 25,000 communist Việt Minh. The last words of the radio broadcaster were, “The enemy has overrun us. We are blowing up everything. Vive la France!” 3  “This is ‘…’ reporting from Điện Biên Phủ, in Northwestern Vietnam; it’s May 7, 1954!” It was a broadcast of the fall of Điện Biên Phủ — the last bastion of the colonial French forces in Indochina, lost to the communist Vietminh and Chinese. 

The four of us who had been listening to the broadcast, almost in unison, cried out, Vietnam! Where in the hell is that? I then said I know whose radio we were listening to; it was my friend Serge’s. Let’s go, so we can find out from him where Vietnam is and took off for the second floor. Serge was sitting at his desk with a geography book in his hand when we showed up dripping wet with muddy shoes. Much to his chagrin, he invited us in, and after ensuring my hands were clean and dry, he handed it to me, already bookmarked to the section on Vietnam. Serge was a STRACK-brevet-captain in the army’s ROTC program.4 I thanked him, and we read the section on Vietnam and its location, and we got educated – it was the first time any of us had heard of it or that it was one of three countries of the French Colony of Indochina. The next day, I went to the school library to see if they had any books on Vietnam. They had none on hand; however, the librarian said if I came back in a couple of days, she might be able to find one or two that she could obtain on-loan from another library. Unfortunately, the one she had for me was written by a guy who had been on an official three-week whirl-wind tour of Indochina with five days with boots on the ground in each country in French Indochina – Vietnam, Cambodia, and Laos.5

Footnotes: 1On 29 April 1954, Geneviève de Galard was the recipient of the Légion d´honneur (as a knight) and the Croix de Guerre TOE  [Croix de guerre des théâtres d’opérations extérieurs (War Cross for foreign operational theaters)] presented by General de Castries as Điện Biên Phủ was collapsing around them. The Angel of Điện Biên Phủ was taken prisoner along with an estimated 11,000 French forces in the Điện Biên Phủ complex (the numbers varied greatly depending on the sources). Although offered early release, she voluntarily stayed to care for other prisoners until she was ordered to leave on May 24, 1954, when the reluctant Geneviève was evacuated to French-held Hanoi. Geneviève was also the recipient of the silver medal of honor from the French armed forces. She refused to voice an opinion on the war, and protested against the commercial use of her experiences. She received a personal letter with a rosary in it from Pope Pius XII. In 1954, French President René Coty honored Geneviève by making her a Knight of the Legion of Honor. In July 1954, Geneviève was received as a state guest of the USA by President Dwight D. Eisenhower who awarded her the Presidential Medal of Freedom, and on July 29, she was recognized before the U.S. House of Representatives as a “symbol of heroic femininity in the free world. In 2004 she received the Commander’s Cross from the French President Jacques Chirac and, in 2014, the Grand Cross of the Legion of Honor.

2Geneviève was truly the sole “French” woman there; however, the French forces came to Điện Biên Phủ accompanied by two bordels mobiles de campagne, (‘mobile field brothels’) served by Algerian and Vietnamese women. When the siege ended, according to Viet Minh propaganda, the surviving Vietnamese women were sent for “re-education”.

3One can be assured that the esprit de corps expression — Vive la France!”– was not widely appreciated at that time among the bulk of the forces under the command of Gen. Navarre since they were French Union‘s colonial Far East Expeditionary Corps, i.e., French Foreign Legionnaires, Algerian and Moroccan tirailleurs (colonial troops from North Africa) and locally-recruited-conscripted Indochinese; i.e., Laotian, Vietnamese and Cambodian..

4Ironically, Serge was assigned as my military escort officer from the Pentagon, a “Bird” Colonel in the Army, after I was released in “73 and in Washington, DC for a short period of time. I was I happy to have him around. 

5Later, the “official” was hired by USAID as the USOM director in Vietnam. 

Where were you at the time of the fall?

Very few people probably remember where they were at the time of the fall of Điện Biên Phủ and the defeat of the French by the Vietnamese communists; after all, it was not a great historic event for the American people. However, for the author, it is imprinted in my mind in indelible ink, and like most Americans, I knew little of nothing about Vietnam.

Diện Biên Phủ – Prelude to a Tragedy

By the time of the Korean War armistice in 1953, there were strong Communist governments in China, and North Korea and powerful Communist insurgencies in Malaysia, Indonesia, the Philippines, Vietnam and Laos. TheViệt Minh had already overrun vast swathes of Laos, Vietnam’s western neighbor, advancing as far as Luang Prabang and the Plain of Jars. The French were unable to slow the advance of the Việt Minh, who fell back only after outrunning their always-tenuous supply lines. 

At a press conference on April 7, 1954, President Eisenhower explained the link between Vietnam’s status and that of the rest of Southeast Asia through the metaphor of falling dominoes: if one country fell to communism, the rest of them would follow. The fall of French Indochina (Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia) to the communists would be the “domino” to cause the others to tumble. Thus, the U.S. was irrevocably committed to supporting the French against the increasingly aggressive Việt Minh forces. The theory was often held up as justification for United States intervention in South Viet Nam.

Though Eisenhower, and other Presidents that followed, were determined to prevent a communist victory in Vietnam, the U.S. Congress and officials in the Administration were equally determined not to intervene unless they could do so as a part of a larger coalition. Britain and other members of NATO declined to participate in rescuing what they thought was a lost cause and perhaps another Korea fiasco.

Joseph Goebbels, Nazi Germany’s chief propagandist, professed: If you tell a lie big enough and keep repeating it, people will eventually come to believe it.

The Big Lie!

The battle for Điện Biên Phủ was not a nationalistic indigenous people’s war; it was but an extension of the “Korean conflict,” a proxy confrontation in an ideologically driven Cold War between the Communist bloc and the West to further world communism. It was all mapped out in late December 1949 and early 1950 in Moscow among Stalin, Mao, and Ho Chi Minh, as post-USSR archival releases and numerous recent Chinese studies have shown. After Chinese communist forces arrived on the border of Vietnam, they revived the fortunes of the Viet Minh and transformed it from a guerrilla militia to a standing army

Điện Biên Phủ was but a small Vietnamese town situated in the bottom of a narrow oval valley surrounded by jungled mountains deep in the northwest highlands, sixteen kilometers from the Laotian-Chinese border and about 350 kilometers from Hanoi. There, an isolated airbase had been built and used by the Japanese in World War II. General Henri Navarre commanded French forces in Indochina, and his plan was to establish a base in the middle of Viet Minh territory and use it as bait to draw the enemy out from their mountain positions and defeat them with superior Western military tactics; surely a combination of the French military’s arrogance and ignorance. Điện Biên Phủ was selected, and in November 1953, thousands of French paratroopers dropped in and took possession of the small airstrip and began creating a military stronghold that included a chain of outposts. In December, Navarre put Colonel Christian de Castries in charge, transforming it into a centrally located fortified headquarters to serve as an anchoring point for seven separate mutually supportive satellite outposts; a chain of fortified garrisons on a 40-mile perimeter around the airstrip.

Allegedly each satellite outpost was named after de one of Castries’s former mistresses – Huguette, Claudine, Dominique, Anne-Marie, Beatrice, Gabrielle, and Isabelle. The complex would eventually garrison roughly one-tenth of the total French Union manpower in Indochina, some 16,000 troops. They included elite paratroop and artillery units, Foreign Legionnaires, colonial troops comprising Moroccan, Algerian, Tunisian Arabs/Berbers, Black Africans; Laotian, Cambodian, Vietnamese, and Indochinese ethnic minorities such as the Tai and Nung. The chink in Navarre’s and de Castries’s armor was that they forgot the cardinal rule of warfare, take and hold the high ground.

The French strategy was to fortify Điện Biên Phủ in order to lure the seemingly disorganized, spread-out Việt Minh insurgents to converge upon the newly-built French fortress so that with superior firepower, the Việt Minh could be destroyed in large numbers and the war could be won. Col. de Castries would rely upon air power to suppress the communist forces and resupply the complex, believing that the Vietminh would have no anti-aircraft capability.

According to historians, the French knew Chinese Chairman Mao was providing vast amounts of weapons to the Việt Minh; however, no one fathomed that the Vietminh could actually accomplish the seemingly impossible task of transporting the heavy artillery through the jungle to play a major role in the battle at Điện Biên Phủ. Surely this showed a complete lack of common sense among the French military and others. Chinese-provided Russian and American equipment began to arrive in North Vietnam from China en masse, reportedly to have been captured from Nationalist Chinese forces at the end of WWII and American forces in Korea; it included large numbers of light and heavy artillery pieces. The Soviets also provided Katyusha multi-tube rocket launchers and anti-aircraft guns. They were disassembled and transported by Chinese coolies from China through the difficult terrain into the rear slopes of the mountains surrounding Điện Biên Phủ.

The People’s Republic of China (PRC) provided some 50,000 coolies to transport about 1,500 tons per month of artillery pieces, ammunition, rice, and other supplies1 from China for the siege of Điện Biên Phủ. Under the direction of Chinese military engineers, the coolies tunneled through the mountains to the forefront to dig caves and create camouflaged fortified casemates on the brim of the “rice bowl” overlooking the valley below. Two Chinese People’s Liberation Army (PLA) artillery battalions (typically consisting of 300 to 1000 soldiers) would participate in the siege of Điện Biên Phủ, one to operate the Soviet Katyusha multiple-rocket launcher systems (MRLS), and the other to direct the operation of the other artillery pieces and anti-aircraft guns. Since local Vietnamese laborers were used to help the French build the complex, they also provided the Chinese and Giap precise information on the location of each and every French artillery piece situated below. The artillery and anti-aircraft guns had been dug in by single pieces in camouflaged, shellproof dugouts making it near impossible for French artillery and support aircraft to pinpoint their location. and at support aircraft, the airfield, and other targets below with optimum effect. The artillery could be used in a direct-fire mode against French positions firing point-blank from portholes while being nearly impervious to French counter-battery fire and effective aircraft weapons delivery. Their artillery outnumbered that of the French by about four to one; it would be like shooting fish in a barrel.

General Võ Nguyên Giáp, commander of Việt Minh forces, compared Điện Biên Phủ to a rice bowl2 surrounded by rain forests and jungles. He had 50,000 regular Vietminh troops, comprising five divisions, at his disposal and poised in the hills surrounding the valley, while the French had only 16,000 troops at the bottom of the “bowl.” Giáp was considered by some to be a brilliant military strategist; however, Chinese scholar M. M. Yu calls into question Giap’s military ability in regards to Dien Bien Phu: “Without the Chinese supply of these weapons and the Chinese military delegation headed by generals Wei Guoqing and Mei Jiasheng, who directed General Giáp’s every order, the Vietminh could not have won the battle so easily, or perhaps at all.”3

The siege of Dien Bien Phu began on March 13 when all hell broke loose with a massive artillery bombardment by the Việt Minh /Chinese on French forces below. They knew exactly where each French artillery piece was located, while the French had no idea how many guns Giáp possessed (historians record at least two hundred pieces of artillery, including cannons, anti-aircraft guns, and rocket launchers). Chinese artillery officers supervised the positioning and firing of these weapons. The 16,000 French troops were encircled and contained in the Dien Bien Phu valley by more than five Vietminh regular divisions, totaling 50,000 men, who took all the commanding heights overlooking the French in the valley and pounded their enemy with a heavy artillery bombardment of extreme ferocity and optimum effect. It wasn’t long before artillery and anti-aircraft batteries shut down the airport, making it impossible for the French to bring in reinforcements and supplies; everything had to be dropped by parachute, but so much of it fell into Việt Minh hands. The French were out-gunned, out-numbered, and out-smarted.

Footnotes: 1Library of Congress, HistoryLearningSite.com

2As the siege wore on, Điện Biên Phủ’s defenders began referring to it as the la cuvette (the toilet bowl) bonded.

3Miles Maochun YuThe Lessons of Điện Biên Phủ. 12.22.2017. Hoover Institute.

Tenacious ground battles ensued, and as in the past, Giáp relied on shock and awe tactics of human waves of troops to breach the wire and attempt to overrun individual satellite outposts; however, that left his troops vulnerable to effective artillery support from other satellites and exposure to deadly strafing and bombing, especially napalm, from the plethora of French aircraft. On April 5, there was a long battle where French fighter-bombers and artillery inflicted particularly devastating losses on Việt Minh troops that had been caught on open ground. At this point, the morale of the Việt Minh soldiers was greatly lowered due to the massive casualties they suffered. The French intercepted enemy radio messages which told of whole units refusing orders to attack, and Việt Minh prisoners in French hands said that they were told to advance or be shot by the officers and non-commissioned officers behind them. While in North Vietnam, freelance journalist and longtime member of the Communist Party of Australia Lorraine Salmon documented this in her book Pig Follows Dog.1 Worse still, the Việt Minh lacked advanced medical treatment and care, with one captured fighter stating that “Nothing strikes at combat morale like the knowledge that if wounded, the soldier will go uncared for.”2

Concerned about a potential mutiny from his troops, Giáp was ready to call in fresh reinforcements from Laos until Chinese generals Wei Guoqing, and Mei Jiasheng conferred with Giáp and convinced him to use trench-war siege tactics. To bolster his dwindling and dispirited forces, he agreed, for the trenches would shield thousands of soldiers until they were virtually under the noses of the French. Việt Minh officers and non-coms received a “short course” and retrained in trench-war siege tactics by Chinese military engineers. To give Giap’s troops a break, under cover of darkness, Chinese coolies dug miles of trenches up to, and sometimes under the barbed wire surrounding the fortresses. In a few cases, they tunneled under outposts and gun emplacements so Vietminh sappers could set charges and blow them up. Loyal communist Việt Minh leaders at Điện Biên Phủ identified those who were true nationalists, others possessing leadership qualities, as well as ethnic minorities who were not trusted as being loyal to the party, and they were chosen to be sappers and cannon fodder to lead the charge and breach the wire of French fortifications. They were told that they were being selected to be honored as war heroes; however, if they survived, they were shot by loyal communist cadre.After Việt Minh forces adopted this type of trench warfare, not seen since World War I, they knocked off the isolated French garrisons one by one. It was only a matter of time before game over.

On May 7, 1954, Giáp ordered an all-out attack against the remaining French units with over 25,000 Việt Minhagainst fewer than 3,000 garrison troops. By nightfall, all French central positions had been captured. Điện Biên Phủ had fallen after a four-month ferocious battle; another domino toppled by China. Just before the end, Colonel Christian de Castries was promoted to brigadier general. After the defeat, the French pulled out of the region. Concerned about regional instability, the United States became increasingly committed to countering communist nationalists in Indochina. For the next twenty years, the United States did not pull out of Vietnam until defeated not by the communists but by the U.S. Congress.

Footnotes1Salmon, Loraine. Pig Follows Dog,  Foreign Languages Publishing House. Hanoi.1960.

2Davidson, Phillip. Vietnam at War: The History 1946-75. Oxford University Press. 1988.

3Loc. Cit. Salmon.

U.S. Assistance to France in Indochina

France had been fighting the Việt Minh since 1946, but the US didn’t start send aid until 1950. The United States was officially not a party to the French Vietnam War, but it was secretly involved by providing financial and material aid to the French Union. An accurate amount of U.S. support to the French for the Điện Biên Phủ fiasco is hard to come by and varies widely.1

— The USS Agenor (LST 490) was transferred to the French Navy in Indochina 0n March 2, 1951. 

— The USS Belleau Wood, (CVL-24) a light cruiser converted to a small aircraft carrier with the capacity to host two dozen fighters and nine torpedo bombers was loaned to France in 1953. (In August 1954, she joined the Franco-American evacuation operation called Passage to Freedom.)

— During the siege of Điện Biên Phủ, twenty US M24 Chaffee surplus light tanks (each broken down into 180 individual parts) were flown into Điện Biên Phủ from Japan and re-assembled. 

— In April 1954, 25 Korean War AU-1 Corsair aircraft were loaned to the French to support the besieged garrison. The aircraft were known for their low altitude speed and ability to carry a bomb load equal to that of a B-17 bomber. 

— A total of 94 F4U-7 Corsairs were built in the U.S. for the Aéronavale (French Navy) in 1952. They were actually purchased by the U.S. Navy and passed on to the Aéronavale through the U.S. Military Assistance Program (MAP).  

 — In 1951, the French air force had ordered 200 Grumman F6F and F8F Bearcats for six fighter squadrons based in the three colonies in Indochina; however, only 160 were delivered (perhaps acquired through MAP or under the Lend-Lease program). It is unknown how many flew against the Vietminh in Dien Bien Phu. The French used napalm extensively with the Bearcat in Indochina, and by 1952 this was the standard weapon.

— The USAF also provided C-124 Globemasters to transport French paratroop reinforcements to Indochina, 12 Fairchild C-119s for Operation Castor (Flying Boxcars painted with France’s insignia), 41 B-26 light bombers, and 28 C-47 transports in support of Điện Biên. Phủ.

— A wide array of supportive ordinance was also provided, including 250 conventional bombs and napalm bombs.2

— Some 24 CIA pilots assumingly military officers (although two were listed as CAT asset pilots) who had been “sheep dipped” and provided new identities, flew for the French2 and completed 682 airdrops under anti-aircraft fire at Điện Biên Phủ between March 13 and May 6.

— “U.S. aircraft mechanics were requested by France and 200 were provided.”  

— Of the 420 aircraft available to the French in all of Indochina, 62 were lost (six Bearcats destroyed on the ground by artillery during the 1954 battle) in connection to Dien Bien Phu and 167 sustained hits.

— Two CAT pilots, Wallace Bufford and James B. McGovern Jr. (aka, Earthquake McGoon) were killed when their Fairchild C-119 Flying Boxcar was shot down on May 6, 1954 and crashed in Laos.3 During the Dien Bien Phubattle, the French lost 62 aircraft.

Footnotes1In 1950 the US provided $10 million in military aid[a][b]; that aid was increased in 1951[c], and continued to increase each year after that, so that, in 1954, the US was providing 78% of the aid for French efforts[d]; however, the total US support to the French in Indochina at that time was 8-11% of their total expenditures[e]; in 1952, the US provided 40% of the French budget[f]; and in 1954, the US increased its commitment by $385 million, which amounted to 78% of its budget in the last year that France was in Indochina.[g]. Compliments of Paul Schmehl:

[a] The Pentagon Papers, Gravel Edition, Volume 1, Chapter 4, “U.S. and France in Indochina, 1950-56”, 

Boston: Beacon Press, 1971, https://www.mtholyoke.edu/acad/intrel/pentagon/pent9.htm

[b] Establishment of Military and Economic Aid: Statement by the Secretary of State. 05.08.50 

https://www.mtholyoke.edu/acad/intrel/milext.htm

[c] Department of State Bulletin, 10.8.51, p. 570. https://avalon.law.yale.edu/20th_century/inch011.asp#1

[d] France (location: Indochina) 1950-1954, US Foreign Policy in Perspective.

http://www.us-foreign-policy-perspective.org/index.php?id=301

[e] Myth: The USA paid 80% of all the costs of the French war against the Vietminh.

https://www.vvfh.org/index.php/34-research/myths/66-http://www.gia-vuc.com/frenchindochina.htm

[g] Indochina – Additional United States Aid for France and Indochina: Joint Franco-American

Communique, 09.30.53Department of State Bulletin, 10.12.53, pp. 486-487

https://avalon.law.yale.edu/20th_century/inch017.aspmyth-31

[f] French Indochina,  

2In February 252005, the seven still living U.S. pilots were awarded the French Legion of Honor by Jean-David Levitte, ambassador of France in the U.S. France honors U.S. pilots for Dien Bien Phu role. Agence France Presse. 02.25.2005. and –Covert U.S. aviators will get French award for heroism in epic Asian battle. Burns, Robert. Associated Press Worldstream. 02.16.2005. In the mid-1990s, the author was provided by anonymous source the coordinates supposedly for the graves of Bufford and McGovern and passed the info on to DPMO (Defense Prisoner of War/Missing Personnel Office) and JTFFA (Joint Task Force Full Accounting). Evidently, only McGovern’s remains were recovered in 2002 and interned in Arlington Cemetery and Bufford’s have never been found.

Scruggs, Mike. Earthquake McGoon and the Battle of Dien Bien Phu: A legendary hero and the shadows of a forgotten war. USMedia. 03.29, 2018.

Sources

Fall, Bernard. Hell in a Very Small Place: The Siege of Dien Bien Phu. Lippincott Publishers. 1966.

Miles Maochun YuThe Lessons Of Dien Bien Phu. Hoover Institution. 12.22.2017. 

Moyar, Mark, Moyer. Triumph Forsaken: The Vietnam War, 1954-1965. Cambridge University Press. 2006.  

Davidson, Phillip. Vietnam at War: The History 1946-75. Oxford University Press. 1988.

Turner, Robert F. Vietnamese Communism: Its Origins and Development. Hoover Institution Press, 1975. 

Salmon, Loraine. Pig Follows Dog,  Foreign Languages Publishing House. Hanoi.1960.

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http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Battle_of_Dien_Bien_Phu#cite_note-losses-62#cite_note-losses-62

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https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Battle_of_Dien_Bien_Phu https://www.hoover.org/research/lessons-dien-bien-phu

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https://factsanddetails.com/southeast-asia/Vietnam/sub5_9a/entry-3342.html

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Chinese_Communist_Revolution

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Communist_revolution

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Korean_War

https://www.thoughtco.com/what-was-the-domino-theory-195449

https://www.jdsf4u.be/aeronavale-french-f4u-corsair?lightbox=dataItem-irc1tyvo