Thursday, June 20, 2013


Rugged mountains surround Dien Bien Phu
When the French Army decided to establish this far away military base called Dien Bien Phu, France’s top general in Vietnam believed the rugged landscape would make it impossible for Viet Minh rebels to bring heavy artillery to this remote place. In a feat of incredible military logistics, the Vietnamese proved them wrong. Viet Minh soldiers managed to haul heavy cannons, and other heavy weapons many miles over harsh dirt trails, over mountains and through thick jungle to get here. They were even able to cross remote rivers that lacked bridges to reach this remote northwestern Vietnam valley.

I’m now looking at the cannons that they hauled over those mountains more than half a century ago. Walking into town, I’ve come across a display of Viet Minh heavy weapons outside a museum. Most are Chinese or Soviet made guns given by the communists, but I spot a 105 mm howitzer that’s American made. Used by the Vietnamese in Dien Bien Phu, weapons such as this were key to the Viet Minh’s victory over the colonial army and the French Foreign Legion. 

Viet Minh weapons used against French in Dien Bien Phu. US made howitzer is at right.
Following a battle plan developed by Vietnam’s General Giap, thousands of Viet Minh soldiers swarmed into the surrounding mountains. They eventually outnumbered the French, and put Dien Bien Phu under siege. Once the Viet Minh had enough artillery and ammunition stocked up, they opened fire down into this valley.
As they returned fire from the valley below, French gunners found themselves at a disadvantage. After days of bombardment,  they were unable to knock out the Viet Minh’s heavy guns.

The French artillery commander knew they were doomed, and he committed suicide.

It occurs to me that this US made 105mm weapon had a long road to get here, even beyond the long jungle trail trek. This howitzer may have been used by many different armies. The Viet Minh used it here in Dien Bien Phu to kill French soldiers. Before that it was captured from the French, who brought it to Vietnam to kill Viet Minh soldiers. Since this was American made, it may have even been used by the US Army even earlier during World War II, to kill Japanese soldiers in the Pacific.

Some of the weapons in Vietnam have had a very long career of death.

I end my day in Dien Bien Phu, in the place where the long siege and battle ended. As the fighting raged on for almost two months, surrounding hills were lost, retaken, and then lost again. French forces fell back to the command center near the lone bridge over the Nam Yum River. The final post to fall was here: the command bunker of General Christian De Castries.

Propaganda photo of battle for bridge(Source:Museum)
Same bridge today, still used by local residents

A light rain is subsiding, as I approach the old bunker. An unlikely headquarters for a commander, it doesn't look prestigious. Half cylinders of corrugated metal form the fortified roof, which slopes downward into the ground to form the bunkers. Sandbags fill in gaps for protection.
Interior of command bunker, where French General surrendered to Vietnamese

Walking down the steps, I enter the commander’s last refuge. The bunker beneath has four rooms; headquarters for the besieged French forces. As opposed to other glorified monuments I’ve seen dotted around Dien Bien Phu, this one is low key. There are no large communist statues, and no propaganda photos posted inside. There is just a gloomy, nearly bare bunker. There are maps on the wall, along with a few tables and chairs. When the General still lived down here, his furniture was far more comfortable. He even had his own bathtub down here; it now sits in a local museum.

It has a quiet, a morose atmosphere. I’m the only one down in this old bunker. But this is perhaps the most important location in the whole valley. When this bunker was finally captured by the Viet Minh, the French surrendered, and the bloody battle ended.

I watch water drip down from the ceiling from today’s lingering rain. Seasonal rains gave the French Army a lot of trouble back during the siege, and the foul weather was a major factor in the battle. Although French planes dominated the skies overhead, air power did them little good when bad weather kept their planes grounded. Without planes in the air they couldn’t be resupplied, and fog kept the Viet Minh safe from air attack.

Couple the foul weather with Viet Minh anti-aircraft fire, and even air supremacy couldn’t save the French soldiers surrounded at Dien Bien Phu. The runway I had landed on where I arrived yesterday, was continually targeted by artillery back in those days. Soon the runway was littered with craters and wrecked cargo planes.

Viet Minh soldier waves flag over French command bunker (Source:Museum)
Same command bunker, preserved today

In the closing days, France even requested help from American bombers to save their troops. Always opposing communists, the US had already been clandestinely aiding French forces here with resupply flights and air drops by parachute. President Eisenhower seriously considered the French request. But in the end he didn’t approve aerial bombing, and the French colonials were doomed.

When the French finally ran out of ammunition and supplies, their surrender soon followed, and the carnage ended. By that time more than 1,700 French soldiers were dead. Exhausted and weakened from their ordeal, more than 11,000 French soldiers surrendered. It was a dark day for the French empire, and a humiliating defeat. The surviving prisoners of war were marched off to distant camps. Less than half survived their captivity.

A rainbow is seen over the mountains of the now peaceful Dien Bien Phu

For the Vietnamese, their casualties were far higher. After Giap used trench warfare and human wave attacks to overwhelm French positions, more than 10,000 Viet Minh were left dead on the battlefield. It was a costly and bloody victory, but victory nonetheless. In negotiations that followed with France, North Vietnam won their independence.

There is an eerie feeling about this quiet, empty underground bunker. Despite the spartan conditions, real history took place here. While I sit and ponder the past at a table in the bunker, the bare overhead lights dim. Then they brighten, and dim again.

Then the lights go out completely.

The symbolism isn’t lost on me. With the surrender of the French forces in this very bunker, the lights went out on the French empire in Indochina. 

**NOTE** My other related story is here: DIEN BIEN PHU: BORN FROM THE ASHES OF WAR

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