No white flag - Dân Làm Báo

Bài Mới

baimoi

No white flag

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Điện Biên Phủ - May 7, 1954

The shelling suddenly stopped, but sporadic explosions could still be heard from the eastern part of the valley center. Beams of weak sunlight shone through clumps of low clouds in the sky, reflecting in huge puddles formed from the early morning rain. Entangled pieces of barbed wire, shell fragments, white parachutes, and corpses were scattered over the muddy earth. Behind thin mists of smoke, ghost-like heads of men appeared and disappeared above crumbled trenches and dugouts.

The arched steel roof of the command post bunker of Brigadier General Christian de Castries, the commanding General of the Điện Biên Phủ garrison in the center of the valley, stood stoically above the ground, surrounded by bent but remarkably intact barbed wire and packed layers of sandbags. A badly torn white cargo parachute, stuck on a nearby tree stump, curled in the warm breeze.

Inside the bunker, a meeting of the garrison commanders was about to take place. 

Fifty-one-year-old Christian de Castries sat on a chair behind a small table, flanked by his chief-of-staff, Lieutenant Colonel de Seguins-Pazzis. He gazed at his battalion commanders, Colonel Pierre Langlais, Lieutenant-Colonel Marcel “Bruno” Bigeard, Lieutenant-Colonel Maurice Lemeunier, and Major Michel Vadot, who were entering the enclosure through the curtained door.

Castries had distinctive facial features that nobody could forget at first glance. His thick eyebrows arching over big hollow eyes and a prominently curved aquiline nose were distinctive, although few would call him handsome despite his notoriety based on a string of scandalous affairs with society ladies. It was rumored that the centers of resistance scattered across the valley were named after his mistresses, although it was unfathomable that somehow these names followed exact alphabetical order like military codewords: Anne-Marie, Béatrice, Claudine, Dominique, Eliane, Francoise, Gabrielle, Huguette, Isabelle, and Junon. 

Handsome or not, Castries certainly looked his part behind his table, which was cluttered with papers, maps, pens, and an ashtray full of cigarette butts. He wore a neat tan uniform with a two-star badge sitting proudly on his shoulder. He was not a large man by any measure, but his posture was imposing. His gray hair spoke of experience, life and military. Handpicked as the commander at Điện Biên Phủ by General Henri Navarre, commander of French Far East Expeditionary Corps, and Lieutenant General René Cogny, commander of North Vietnam Land Forces, Castries had been thought by some observers to be ill-suited for trench warfare due to his cavalry background. But his distinguished military career, aided by his close association with Navarre, had fully justified his appointment, at least at the beginning. 

The past fifty-five days had proved that Castries was indeed the wrong man for the job. After weeks of suffering heavy artillery bombardments, ferocious close combat fighting, and diminishing supplies and reinforcements, Điện Biên Phủ was now facing imminent total collapse.

Earlier this morning, Castries had had a radio conversation with Cogny, his immediate superior in Hanoi, to report the hopeless situation at the garrison and the tightening enemy troop movements. Castries was expecting airdrops of ammunition and supplies, which would make it possible to hold out at least until the following day. But the moment Langlais and his battalion commanders entered his office with somber faces, he knew the situation was not pretty.

Langlais, Lemeunier, and Vadot took their seats opposite Castries, while Bigeard chose to lean against the wall; a burning cigarette dangled from his mouth. As soon as he sat down, Langlais took out a wrinkled cigarette from his pocket and lit it. 

“Any new developments?” Castries asked, focusing his eyes on Langlais.

Forty-four-year-old Langlais, a chain smoker, inhaled deeply. “We reviewed the latest aerial photographs and concluded that a break-out would be suicidal.”

“What did the photographs show?”

“Three new trenches by the Viets south of Junon.”

Bigeard stepped close to the table and flicked the ashes into the ashtray. “It’s not just because of the Viets. Our men are exhausted.” 

Castries nodded in silence. He had known how exhausted his men were. The nonstop artillery bombardments and the ferocious human wave attacks by the enemy in the past few weeks had worn down the most thick-skinned defenders, including Bigeard’s elite 6th paratrooper battalion. 

He leaned against his chair, feeling awkward under the eyes of his commanders. They didn’t come to ask for his decision. They had already decided. They just wanted him to send their decision on their behalf to the commanders of the centers of resistance around the camp.

“So, Albatross is dead?” Castries asked, realizing that it might be a rhetorical question. Operation Albatross was designed to initiate a breakout toward Laos.

Langlais glanced at Bigeard. “Not completely. Lalande’s unit could still push through. I talked to him earlier and he agreed.”

Castries lit up his pipe and stared at an invisible target in the air, pursuing some vague thought while puffing on his pipe.

“General, we must act now,” Langlais said, obviously annoyed by Castries’ silence.

Castries shifted his gaze to Langlais. “Yes, I will contact General Cogny.”

Langlais shook his head. “No, there is nothing he can do that he hasn’t already done. Besides, there is no time. The longer we wait, the more our men will die. Our wounded men need urgent medical care. We have to inform Giáp that we will cease firing at 1730.”

Langlais spoke with the assured authority of a commanding officer in charge of the entire defense. He left no hint that he wasn’t asking for Castries’ approval. It was not a last minute act of insubordination or exceeding authority in the face of an imminent defeat. That Langlais had been the de facto commanding officer in charge had been well known since the collapse of Béatrice, Gabrielle, and Anne-Marie. But this was the first time he spoke with such determination in front of the battalion commanders.

Castries showed no sign of resentment or anger. He nodded with a dignified calmness that surprised everybody. “Alright then, we will order our commanders to cease firing at 1730.”

He glanced at his watch. It was 2:45PM. His men would have at least two hours to destroy all weapons and equipment before surrendering. 

He turned to Bigeard. “Bruno, you must get out of here with some of your men. I don’t think the Viets would let you live if they lay their hands on you.”

Bigeard shook his head. “Thank you, General. But it’s not necessary. I’d rather stay with my men.”

The battalion commanders exchanged smiles. It was no secret that Bigeard and his men were hated by the Vietminh. They had inflicted serious damage on the Vietminh over the years. His valorous reply didn’t surprise them. He had been known for his insane disregard for danger and utmost loyalty to his men. 

The commanders stood up and saluted Castries, who saluted them in return. As they headed to the door, Castries called out, “Pierre, may I have a word with you?”

Langlais turned back. “Sure.” 

He nodded to the rest as they walked out.

Castries shot a glance at Seguins-Pazzis, who nodded and stepped out, leaving him alone with Langlais.

Castries took a long pull on his pipe. “I am sorry that we have now come to this.”

“It’s not totally unexpected.”

“We did our best.” 

“Of course.”

“I am not blaming this disaster on anybody. As the garrison commander, I take full responsibility.”

Langlais paused. He was anxious to get back to his command post to contact his officers and wondered why Castries was telling him this. But Castries’ sudden effort to redeem himself surprised him. While its futility was obvious, a sense of camaraderie overcame him. In three hours, the enemy would storm the command posts. He might never see his superior commander again.

“It’s not your fault, General,” Langlais said. “We all know the plan was doomed from the start. If history has to blame somebody, let the blame fall on Navarre.”

Castries nodded. “I agree, but it’s also my fault for allowing myself to share his delusion.”

“You are not the only one. Whoever was selected for this job would do the same thing, perhaps even worse than you.”

Castries appreciated Langlais’ remark. “Thank you for your kind words.”

“Besides, nobody could predict the Viets’ capabilities.”

Castries nodded. A poignant feeling rose inside him. Yes, that’s true. He was reminded of his own blind enthusiasm at the beginning of the battle, bolstered by Navarre’s confidence. Who could ever imagine that Võ Nguyên Giáp, the Vietminh Commanding General, could mobilize five divisions, a massive force of almost fifty thousand regular troops, to surround a remote garrison manned by some sixteen thousand men? Who could ever speculate that they would be able to transport heavy artillery pieces, including 105-mm howitzers, through treacherous mountain passes and hide them in caves in the hills around the valley? Who could ever predict the incompetence of the French Air Force for not being able to spot the ground targets and for failing to cut off the enemy’s supply lines of workers carrying huge loads on bicycles and mountain mules? There were always excuses and explanations, but regardless how good these explanations were, it was the end result that counted.

Castries sighed. “I just feel bad for our men.”

“Me too. Let me go tell them it’s all over now.”

Langlais stood up. Castries put his pipe into the ashtray and stood up.

“Pierre,” Castries said, “I don’t know if the Viets will follow the Geneva Convention regarding treatment of prisoners, but in case we don’t see each other again, I want to apologize to you for not following your advice. Our men deserved to see me more often around the fields and in hospitals. I am guilty for destroying their fighting spirit by hiding myself in this bunker.”

Langlais gazed at Castries. In one brief moment, the genuine sincerity in Castries’ voice shook him. 

Troop morale had been plaguing the camp ever since the start of the battle. By now, Langlais had lost count of the number of deserters, but he knew it was more than two thousand. For a garrison defended by a combatant force of some ten thousand men, this number was staggering. Most of them, the so-called “Rats of Nam Yum,” simply refused to fight and stayed around on the cliffs looking over the Nam Yum River because they couldn’t leave the valley. Worse yet, resources, food, supplies, and even prostitutes had to be expended to support them. How could his men maintain their fighting spirit when they knew more than two thousand of their comrades were enjoying life in the hills right next to them?

Langlais didn’t know if Castries’ rare appearance outside his command post was the source of the rock-bottom morale and the increasing number of deserters. At this point, he was in no mood to consider the question. He had raised the issue several times with Castries, sometimes escalating to angry confrontations and insults, only to be flatly told to forget the idea. He had been fed up with Castries’ inexplicable behavior that bordered on cowardice and irresponsibility. 

But it didn’t matter anymore.

The two men looked at each other in silence. 

Then, Castries opened his arms wide and after a brief awkward embrace, they saluted each other solemnly.

*

Fourteen kilometers from the center of Điện Biên Phủ, General Võ Nguyên Giáp sat alone at a table in his well-hidden fortified bunker, part of a long tunnel inside a beautiful hill covered with green grass and tall chestnut trees and enchanted by a fresh stream trickling through the rocks.

At forty-two, Giáp looked young and fit. With a diminutive posture and a benevolent face dominated by a massive receding forehead, he didn’t project an image of a military commander, let alone the top ranked General of the entire Vietminh army of more than a quarter of a million regular soldiers. No wonder his General title had been mockingly referred to by the French in quotation marks. But beneath that soft appearance, “General” Giáp, a history teacher turned military commander, possessed dogged determination and a cold-blooded character.

Điện Biên Phủ was his first multidivision-level offensive assault against the French, and he was determined to win at any cost. 

Over the past six weeks of intense fighting and merciless artillery bombardments, hills had been taken and retaken, but in the end, at this hour, almost ninety percent of Điện Biên Phủ had fallen into his army’s hand. Victory was near. The entire Điện Biên Phủ garrison would collapse soon, perhaps in a matter of days or even hours. Comrade Chairman Hồ Chí Minh would be pleased. The Geneva Convention, already underway with the discussion on Indochina starting tomorrow, would have to yield to demands of the Vietnamese Communist delegation, especially when the Russian and the Chinese were on their side.

But political victory was not on his mind at this moment. He was more interested in a total military victory. Let the politicians exploit his military victory any way they saw fit with diplomatic maneuvering in closed door meetings and deal-making discussions over lunch and dinner. He now had a more urgent task at hand. 

His eyes focused intensely on the valley map spread on the table. The map was full of colorful symbols around the centers of resistance stretching in the southeast-northwest direction. Large arrows showing his troops’ movements now converged on the center of the valley.

The strongholds of Him Lam (Béatrice), Độc Lập (Gabrielle), Bản Kéo (Anne-Marie), and others had been marked with red X marks, indicating that they had been captured by his army. Early this morning, General Hoàng Văn Thái, his chief-of-staff, had informed him that the French strongholds of A1, C1, and D1 had also been taken. Red lines, representing trenches dug by his troops, now circled around Mường Thanh bridge on the Nam Yum River, about two hundred meters from the command post of Castries. 

Giáp tapped a red pencil on the table. He had studied the map day after day in the past few months and had memorized every single location, but the single most important location had always been the command post of General de Castries. When he’d heard of Castries’ promotion from Colonel to Brigadier General three weeks earlier, he exulted. A two-star General. Never mind that ranks of the French army hadn’t had a one-star General since 1793 - nobody would know that particular detail. Capturing a two-star General certainly sounded better than a Colonel. 

But what if Castries escaped? What if he sneaked out of his command post and escaped to some secret location? The center of resistance Isabelle, six kilometers south of Castries’ command post, was still holding despite heavy artillery bombardment and troop attacks. Colonel André Lalande, the commanding officer there, had been known to be a competent commander. Castries could leave his post and join Lalande on their escape route toward Laos.

His army had to attack the remaining strongholds around Castries’ command post quickly. But when? His original plan called for a night time assault, but Castries might take advantage of darkness and escape undetected. 

Giáp put down the pencil and pondered his options. 

A knock at the door interrupted his thoughts. 

“Come in,” he yelled out, still gazing at the map.

“Anh Giáp, they are disintegrating,” a familiar voice said. “Their airplanes flew by but didn’t drop any ammunition or supplies. Their pilots turned back to their base after saying good-bye to the ground.” 

Giáp looked up. “When?” 

A bright smile flashed across thirty-nine-year-old General Thái’s handsome face. “Just now. It appears that they are ready to surrender. Several of them have already raised white flags.”

“But those are just individual soldiers.”

“Castries and his commanders will surrender sooner or later. Bravery is not the same as stupidity.”

“They will not surrender unless we force them to face reality.”

“I don’t know if they will continue fighting. Our men saw a massive flight of their men from the eastern bank of the river.”

“It might be a diversion for a break-out.” 

“But they have no other routes.”

“We should not take any chances. I want our men to close in on them from all directions.”

“We are staying close to them, but the turn-around of the airplanes and the massive flight certainly say something.”

“It may be a sign of confusion in their command.”

Thái pulled out a chair and sat down. “Should we keep our original plan to launch the general assault at nightfall?”

Giáp paused. “Yes, let’s keep our original plan. I don’t want to create confusion for our commanders.”

Thái hesitated. “Wei Guoqing may not like it.”

Giáp glared at him. “What the hell does he know?”

“It’s not what he knows, but what he wants.”

“I don’t care what he wants. This is our war.”

“But we would not have this war without the Chinese.”

Giáp fell into silence. Thái was right. Without the Chinese, there would have been no war against the French. His army would have been crushed from the start because of poor training and lack of weapons. The Chinese had provided training, advice, and had transferred their fighting experiences in the Korea War to his army. Without them, his army would not have known how to use snipers to weaken the enemy’s morale and how to use trench warfare to penetrate the enemy’s defense lines. More importantly, the Chinese had equipped his army with artillery pieces, antiaircraft guns, ammunition, submachine guns and vehicles captured from the Americans in the Korea War. They had shared intelligence information with the Vietminh. It was Wei Guoqing who had hand-delivered the secret Navarre plan obtained by a Chinese spy agent to comrade Hồ Chí Minh well before the start of the battle. Without that secret document, he and his comrades would not have committed almost their entire strength to the siege of Điện Biên Phủ.

Thái softened his voice. “Anh Giáp, you know Luo Guibo is not very fond of you. You don’t want him to use any negative comments from Guoqing to discredit you.”

Giáp nodded. “Yes, I know. Thank you.”

Luo Guibo? Giáp thought. That asshole believes he is the big boss as chairman of the Chinese Political Advisory Group. What does he know about politics and advising? He now has the audacity to claim credit for the mobilization of the two hundred thousand peasants in the transportation of supplies to Điện Biên Phủ. What an idiot! Because of him and his comrades, the Vietminh army suffered heavy casualties in attacking a French stronghold in the Red River delta a few years ago. It was also their idea to mount an all-out assault at the beginning of this campaign that cost the lives of thousands of Vietminh troops.

But as much as he detested the man, Giáp knew he couldn’t afford to cause friction with the Chinese. Mao Zedong trusted Zhou Enlai and Liu Shaoqi, who in turn trusted Luo Guibo and Wei Guoqing. The Chinese leaders would believe everything Guibo and Guoqing reported to them. 

“What do you think Guoqing wants?” Giáp asked.

Thái frowned. “You know what he wants. He wants us to wrap up the battle as soon as possible so they can make demands at the conference table.”

“What difference does it make if we wait till nightfall?”

“It may not make any difference militarily. But if we capture Castries this afternoon, which is morning in Geneva and Paris, the news will instantly be communicated at the conference.”

Giáp gazed at Thái. “OK, let’s start the general attack in all directions toward Mường Thanh by three o’clock this afternoon.”

“Good. I will prepare the order and have it delivered to our commanders.”

“Tell them there is no point in waiting till nightfall.”

“We may have a hard time mobilizing our men, but I hope they will follow our orders.”

Giáp frowned. “What do you mean ‘hard time’?”

Thái paused. “Anh Giáp, you know our combat morale is very low right now. We’ve suffered heavy casualties.”

Giáp sank into silence. He was well aware of the troop morale. Some commanders had reported several instances when soldiers refused to follow orders until they were threatened with being shot.

Thái observed Giáp. “Maybe you should visit the troops in the battlefield. Our men will be thrilled to see you, just a glimpse of you.”

Giáp shook his head. “You know I can’t do that. Who knows what will happen in the field. I hate to run for cover when the French fire their cannons or drop bombs. It doesn’t look good for a Supreme Commander to be seen running like a duck.”

“It will be a short tour. Your appearance would show them that you care. Anh Giáp, seven thousand young men have died and more than ten thousand have been wounded.”

“I don’t care how many men die in battles. Their deaths are insignificant compared to the freedom of our people. Tell those political cadres to work harder to rally the troops.”

Thái knew his superior would not change his mind. He nodded. “You are right. I will prepare a special order for the political cadres.” 

“We have to move fast. I don’t want to give the enemy time to regroup. Victory is imminent.”

Thái grinned. “Of course. Victory is imminent.”

Giáp leaned against his chair and closed his eyes. The music of Beethoven was echoing in his mind with its soothing melodies. He saw the colorful hue of the sleeping sunset, smelled the sweet scent of the wildflowers, heard the rhythm of the drizzling rain, and let his soul float in the air. In that brief moment of joy, victory didn’t matter anymore.

*

At around 1500, Seguins-Pazzis transmitted Castries’ order for cease-fire to all commanders. All weapons, ammunition, equipment, supplies, and papers had to be destroyed. Nothing of value would fall into the hands of the enemy. Amidst sporadic firing, large and small explosions caused by deliberate destruction of ammunition, artillery equipment, gun barrels, and tanks filled the air like firecrackers in a New Year’s celebration. 

Castries was ready. He wore a remarkably clean tan uniform. A bright red Spahi cap, his favorite reminder of his old cavalry regiment, sat tightly on his head. Colorful ribboned medals hung proudly on his chest. He had debated with himself about what insignia he should wear. He had wanted to wear his colonel’s insignia because he didn’t like the forged two-star badge when Cogny’s insignia and other medals had been parachuted but fallen into enemy lines three weeks earlier. But he had no colonel’s insignia. His had been given to Langlais for Langlais’ own promotion.

“We can forge a colonel’s insignia for you,” Seguins-Pazzis said jokingly.

Castries smiled. “If I have to use a forged badge, I’d rather take the two-star one.”

He had finished smoking a pipeful of Dutch tobacco when Sergeant Millien called him for the last conversation with Hanoi. Langlais joined in by listening with his own earphones.

General Pierre Bodet, the air force General adjutant to General Navarre, was on the line. “How is the situation?”

“We’re submerged,” Castries said with resignation. “The three centers of resistance east of the Nam Yum have been overrun. They are now firing the Stalin Organs.” The Stalin Organ was a nickname for the fearsome Soviet-built Katyusha rocket launchers modified by the Chinese.

Bodet’s voice was interrupted by crackling sounds on the airwaves. “Let the battle expire in its own course. If Lalande wants to continue Albatross, let him do it. You have done a magnificent job. We will not let you down.”

‘We will not let you down?’ You must be joking. Where are the battalions you promised to send to us? Castries wondered. 

Castries changed the subject. “My wounded men are everywhere. They are desperately in need of medical attention. I will request that the Viets let the Red Cross airdrop supplies for the wounded.”

“Are they willing to talk to you?”

“I will send my men with a white flag to talk to their commanders.”

A brief silence ensued, broken by static noise. Castries glanced at Langlais, who shrugged.

Cogny’s voice was loud and clear on the airwaves. “Did you say ‘white flag’?”

“Yes, General. We’ll let them know . . .”

Cogny cut him off in mid-sentence. “Old boy, of course this has to be finished, but not in the form of a capitulation. No white flag. No surrender. That would ruin the magnificent work you have done.”

Castries was momentarily speechless. No white flag? No surrender? If it’s not a surrender, what do you call this? He searched his confused memory, his days at Saumur Cavalry School, the military books that he occasionally read, and his conversations with other officers who’d graduated from Saint Cyr, the elite military academy. What do they call it? A truce? Impossible. How could it be a truce when the defenders of the garrison decided to stop fighting and let the enemy take over the fort? As proud as he was as a Frenchman, he found this utterly absurd.

If memory served him right, the 1949 Third Geneva Convention clearly stated that soldiers who fell into the power following surrender or mass capitulation of an enemy would be protected as well as those taken prisoner in the course of fighting. The only way for his men to be treated under the provisions of the Geneva Convention was to surrender. A white flag was a common symbol of surrender. If I am not allowed to raise a white flag or surrender, how will my men be treated? He knew the Vietminh was not a party of the Third Geneva Convention and they might claim that they were not bound by its rules. But at least a surrender would force them to think twice about mistreating the prisoners. They would not want bad publicity.

As if reading his mind, Cogny spoke earnestly, “Old boy, surrender is out of the question. It’s forbidden. I have a piece of paper right here and I am not authorized to allow you to surrender.”

“General,” Castries said, “I just want to protect the wounded.” He was not in the mood to argue with Cogny about the Geneva Convention provisions. He was fed up with the indifferent attitude of Navarre and the politicians in France.

“Do the best you can, but do not hoist a white flag. Do you understand, old boy?”

Castries paused. “Understood, General.”

“Very good. Let the fire die on its own.”

“We are blowing up all the installations. The ammunition depots are already exploding. Au revoir.”

Cogny’s dull voice was mixed with the background crackling sounds. “Well then, au revoir, old boy.”

Castries put down the earphone. No white flag. That was it. While our men are dying, they don’t want the world to see a white flag on the command post. In a brief moment, he broke into a bitter smile. Cogny’s order was actually unnecessary. Some of his men had already raised white flags from their dugouts. Besides, he would not have time to hoist a white flag above his bunker. The enemy had already swarmed the garrison in all directions. They were probably approaching his command post right at this moment.

He turned around, seeing the grim faces of his staff.

In silence, he saluted each of them. Langlais returned his salute and hurried out the door.

The radio transmitter echoed the final words from Sergeant Millien. “In five minutes, everything will be blowing up here. The Viets are only a few meters away.”

*

Thirty-year-old Tạ Quốc Luật, captain of company 360, battalion 130, regiment 209 of the 312th division of the People’s Army, stood in a narrow swampy trench and looked at Mường Thanh Bridge with tired eyes. The small wooden bridge with cross-braced rectangular steel panels erected on the sides looked deceptively peaceful. Earlier this afternoon, at least two quad .50 caliber machine guns located on the other side of the bridge had fired relentlessly at his troops. But in the last hour or so, the barrage had almost stopped. 

From where he was standing, he couldn’t see the guns or the men manning them. The area was unusually quiet. Rumor had spread that the French had requested a ceasefire at 1700; that must have been the reason for the sudden calmness. 

He turned around and glanced at his men, the remaining troops of his once one-hundred-fifty strong company, who stood sleepily along the narrow muddy trench. Yesterday, after ferocious fighting at hill C2, known as Eliane 4 by the French, his company had suffered heavy casualties and was down to thirty-four men. This morning, his men had joined with units of other regiments to overrun the hill. They eventually captured the remaining survivors of the stronghold and their officers. The victory was costly. Of the thirty-four men in his company, five remained, including himself. 

Luật had ordered his exhausted men to rest in preparation for the final assault on the command post of General de Castries. Moments ago, he had received an order from his battalion commander that his company would join other units to advance directly to de Castries’ headquarters via Mường Thanh Bridge. They would link up with units of the 308th division moving in from the West.

Luật leaned against the rough wall and bent his knees in an effort to relax his muscles. The sun had descended, but the heat still suffocated the smoke-filled air. Low white clouds floated overhead, a sight rarely seen in the monsoon-battered valley. He needed some rest. He had slept only thirty minutes in the past thirty-six hours. He closed his eyes, his mind wandering with vague images and thoughts. The grotesque dead bodies. The slimy mud. The blazing napalm bombs. The long march through the jungles and mountain passes. The green meadows in his home hamlet. The pretty face of his wife of three years. He drifted into a momentary doze.

The shrill sound of flying artillery shells from the 57mm ĐKZ (Đại Bác Không Zật - recoilless rifles) ripped the air, waking him up. A series of large explosions ensued, blowing up dirt and sending clumps of smoke in the air on the other side of the bridge. He opened his eyes and grabbed his submachine gun by reflex, instantly remembering his mission as signaled by the 57mm shelling.

Four men hunched their shoulders and made their way toward him through the narrow trench. Bùi Văn Nhỏ, Đào Văn Hiếu, Hoàng Đăng Vinh and Nguyễn Văn Lam, the last survivors of his company. 

“Is it time, Captain?” Vinh asked.

“Yes,” Luật said.

He surveyed the bridge for the last time and jumped out of the trench. “Let’s go.”

Sub-machine guns at hand, the five men crossed the bridge with cautious steps. As he reached the other end of the bridge, the absence of enemy activity emboldened Luật. He picked up his pace; his men followed him closely. 

They ran past trenches and dugouts, ignoring the stench of piles of dead bodies. The heat of the late afternoon was unbearable, but the thought of capturing the enemy General fueled their energy. Luật tightened his grip on the Chinese-supplied American-made Thompson submachine gun, feeling adrenaline surge inside him. He smelled the burning fire, saw thick black smoke ahead, and heard sporadic explosions from a distance. 

He caught sight of two tanks on the ground near a low mound. The turrets revolved in jerky movements as if they were receiving intermittent power. Luật signaled to his men to run away from the tanks and toward several dark structures on their left. As they came close to the structures, the sight of several steel curved roofs appearing above the ground behind a veil of smoke excited Luật. He stopped. 

“Are those their command posts?” Hiếu asked, catching his breath.

“Yes,” Luật said.

“Which one is de Castries’ bunker?” 

“I don’t know.” 

He turned around and saw a group of his comrades trotting toward them. He spotted Lieutenant Chu Bá Thế and his platoon. 

“We have to find de Castries before anybody else,” he said to Hiếu.

Hiếu grinned. “Yes, Captain.”

“Too bad we don’t have a flag with us,” Nhỏ said.

Hiếu nodded. “It would be nice if we could put our flag on his bunker right after we capture de Castries.”

“Nobody carries a flag around,” Lam said. “We are busy fighting for our lives.”

“I am sure our political cadres have one,” Vinh said.

“Yes, but they are not here.”

“They will arrive sooner or later, along with the photographers.”

Luật frowned. “Stop talking nonsense. Let’s figure out which one is de Castries’ bunker.”

A soldier in a French uniform suddenly jumped out of nowhere. Seeing Luật and his men, he raised his arms high above his head.

“Where is General de Castries’ bunker?” Luật shouted, pointing his gun at the trembling soldier.

Without saying a word, the soldier pointed to a bunker surrounded densely by barbed wire entanglements with clusters of antennae on top. Thrilled, the five Vietminh troops ignored him and darted to their target. They quickly turned to the entrance below ground. 

Luật paused when he realized there were two entrances to the underground tunnel at either end of the bunker. He motioned to Hiếu and Lam to take the north entrance and he waved to Nhỏ and Vinh to follow him to the south end. 

At Luật’s signal, Nhỏ fired a round of bullets and tossed two grenades through the opening below. The explosion shook the ground and blew up dirt and small rocks, but as the dirt settled, silence returned. The men looked at each other.

Luật bit his lip. He didn’t know if there were people inside the bunker. With all of the explosions, somebody had to come out, unless they were all deaf. 

“You two stay there,” he shouted to Hiếu and Lam. “Don’t let anybody escape.” 

Hiếu nodded and gave him a reassuring hand signal.

Luật turned to Nhỏ and Vinh. “Let’s go.”

They rushed through the door, pointing guns forward and shouting, “De Castries, where are you?” 

They passed through an empty and dark compartment, and realized why the grenade explosion at the entrance had no impact. Luật saw light from the next compartment through a curtained door. He signaled to his men to slow down, used the tip of his submachine gun to lift up the curtain, and stepped through the door.

The bright vast compartment with a huge white canvas stretched across the ceiling startled the young Vietminh captain. A group of Frenchmen gathered in one corner around a beak-nosed officer who wore a red cap and sat with a stone face behind a small table. They looked calm and dignified, showing no emotion. Two men were burning a stack of papers behind them. They stopped as they saw the Vietminh troops.

“Haut les mains! (Hands up!)” Luật shouted, pointing his gun directly at them.

Nhỏ and Vinh spread out, raising their guns at the Frenchmen in a ready-to-fire position. The Frenchmen looked at each other and after some hesitation, they raised their hands up. But the red-capped officer and a few other men remained motionless.

Luật swept his eyes across the Frenchmen, searching for a two-star insignia, but he couldn’t find one. He was almost certain the beak-nosed red-capped French officer was General de Castries because of his stately demeanor, but he didn’t recognize the insignia. Luật remembered well the order from his commander that he had to make sure it was General de Castries. General Giáp had made it clear that he didn’t want to capture an imposter. 

“Which one of you is General de Castries?” Luật asked in almost perfect French.

“I am General de Castries,” Castries said in an unemotional tone.

Luật motioned to Vinh. “Get him out of there.”

Vinh moved hesitantly.

“Show your authority,” Luật said. “Let them know who is in charge.”

Encouraged by his commander’s permission, Vinh thrust out his chest, glared with his eyes, directed his gun to the Frenchmen and stepped toward Castries. Castries, surprised by Vinh’s menacing action, stood up and extended his hand for a handshake. Vinh hesitated at the friendly gesture of the enemy officer. Without knowing what to do, he poked his gun into Castries’s chest. 

Castries was stunned at the Vietminh soldier’s aggression. Instinctively, he stepped back, screaming, “Please don’t shoot! We already surrendered.”

Vinh lowered his gun and glanced at Luật with a stupefied face. “What did he say?” Haut les mains was the only French phrase he understood. 

Luật nodded and motioned to Vinh to step back. 

He turned to Castries. “Tell your men to drop their weapons and surrender. Radio to Hanoi and ask them to stop dropping bombs on Điện Biên Phủ.”

“I already did that five minutes ago,” Castries said, widening his eyes.

Luật paused. “Good! Then all of you get out of here.”

Castries inched out from behind his table, his hand holding a stick, and, without looking at his captors, limped straight outside, leaning heavily on his stick like a wounded man. One by one, his staff followed him.

The weak sunlight faded, casting a grayish color on the muddy ground dotted by hundreds of white parachutes. Plumes of thick black smoke rose everywhere. A burned truck lay forlorn near a crumbled ditch covered by piles of sands from ripped open sandbags.

Mud-covered men, the defenders of the Điện Biên Phủ garrison, slowly emerged from their shattered trenches. They looked in disbelief at the enemy troops, some in fresh French combat fatigues, swarming the ground in small groups. More and more Vietminh troops crawled out of their trenches in dull green cloth uniforms and flat helmets. They rushed toward the defenders’ trenches and dugouts, and shouted at them to come out. Frenchmen, Algerians, Tunisians, Moroccans, and Nationalist Vietnamese eventually formed into slow moving columns, hands raised above their heads, some still holding small white pieces of chiffon. They passed by the Vietminh troops, many of them only teen-agers, who waved their submachine guns and shouted orders in French and Vietnamese. Wounded soldiers in tattered uniforms lay scattered on the ground, trenches, and sandbags; their faces were blackened with smoke and dried blood. Some begged for water. Some moaned in pain. Some lay motionless, presenting the vacant stares of death. Nobody paid attention to them. The Vietminh troops walked by, poked their bayoneted rifles at those who lay immobile, and laughed when the bodies jerked or screamed.

A light breeze carrying the nauseating odor of rotten corpses and burning smoke touched Castries’ face. He stopped momentarily and looked at the curved steel roof of his command post bunker. He was sure the Vietminh would plant their yellow-starred red flag on his bunker as a symbol of victory for their political propaganda. But for now, the bare rugged roof stood in silent defiance of the enemy, lonely and dignified. The nearby huge white cargo parachute, which had been stuck on the tree stump for days, waved gently as if smiling at him. 

He smiled back. 

“No white flag,” he whispered.



________________________________________

Note: This is the short story “NO WHITE FLAG” (Cao-Đắc 2014, 156-176) in the short story collection “FIRE IN THE RAIN,” written by Tuấn Cao-Đắc and published by Hellgate Press, Oregon, U.S.A. The book is available from the Websites of Hellgate Press (www.hellgatepress.com), Amazon, and other booksellers. Every story in “FIRE IN THE RAIN” is accompanied by relevant historical and factual notes. This is a copyrighted material. The author has the publisher’s approval to send the story for publication on Danlambao Website. The Vietnamese version is translated from the English original text, “FIRE IN THE RAIN,” and has additional notes on spelling (for example, phản ánh/ phản ảnh, xụp đổ/ sụp đổ, sử dụng/ xử dụng, lập lại/ lặp lại) and the translation approach of the translator, also the author.

HISTORICAL AND FACTUAL NOTES

The following is taken from Cao-Đắc (2014, 355-367).

Many books have been written about the battle of Điện Biên Phủ and its role in ending the First Indochina War. Most sources agree on the major points and important details but a few details have not been well reported. These include the extent of the Chinese assistance and specific details about the last day, May 7, 1954. 

The Chinese assistance:

The Chinese assistance to the Vietminh in the battle of Điện Biên Phủ has been widely acknowledged. The Chinese provided technical advisors, 37-mm antiaircraft guns, 105-mm guns, machine guns, automatic rifles, submachine guns, ammunition, and trucks (Fall 2002, 266, 298, 337; Morgan 2010, 115; Simpson 2005, 117; Windrow 2006, 148, 152, 294-295; Zhai 2000, 45-49). In particular, “the Chinese applied the sniping and fortification experience they had gained in Korea” (Zhai 2000, 47). “A dozen Chinese army engineering experts who had fought in Korea were dispatched to Dien Bien Phu to assist in the construction of trenches” (ibid.). Wei Guoqing was the chief military advisor and Luo Guibo was the political advisor (Morgan 2010, 181). In addition, Wei Guoqing handed “to Ho Chi Minh a copy of the Navarre plan that China had obtained” (Zhai 2000, 45). Wei Guoqing was later credited by the Chinese as the brainchild of the victory (Colvin 1996, 145).

The Chinese also helped the DRV in the land reform campaign which “was successful in satisfying the need of the poor peasants for land... as would be demonstrated during the Dien Bien Phu campaign, when over 200,000 peasants carried supplies over mountains and valleys to help the PAVN” (Zhai 2000, 41-42).

The relationship between the Vietminh and the Chinese “was not always characterized by cordiality and trust” (ibid., 64). “Giap once complained to [Geng] Chen about Luo Guibo’s criticism of him” (ibid.). However, it is clear that without Chinese and Soviet assistance, the Vietminh “could not have defeated the French” (ibid., 62).

Vietminh combat morale and casualties:

The combat morale of the Vietminh was lowest during the week of April 11-18, 1954. Certain units even refused to obey orders (Fall 2002, 237). In some cases, Vietminh troops were forced to advance under threats of being shot by their own people (ibid.). Giáp admitted that he had to resort to “unremitting and patient political and ideological education” on the front line (O’Neill 1969, 155; Morgan 2010, 520-521). 

The French losses were: 2,204 dead, 6,452 wounded, and 3,610 missing. The Vietminh casualties were not known exactly, but were estimated at 7,900 dead and 15,000 wounded (Fall 2002, 484, 487).

Võ Nguyên Giáp:

On October 4, 2013, Giáp died at the age of 102. Opinions about him differ vastly. At one extreme, many historians regard Giáp as a brilliant military commander and strategist in his role as the communist chief military commander in two wars: the First Indochina War and the Vietnam War. Giáp has been described as a “military genius” (Currey 2005, xviii). At the other extreme, many consider him an incompetent military commander who had a brutal and cowardly character. He was “a general of limited talents” (Windrow 2006, 115) and was loathed “for ruthlessness and repression” (Logevall 2012, 197). To many, he was a traitor and an evil person (Đặng 2013). 

Giáp was born in 1911. Despite his anti-French stand, Giáp received significant help from the French in his younger years. He and Đặng Thai Mai, who later was Giáp's father-in-law, were protégés of Louis Marty, director of the Political Affairs and General Security Services of Indochina (Colvin 1996, 30; Currey 2005, 27-28; Hoang 1964, 54, fn 5). It was Marty who helped Giáp complete his education, sponsoring him to be accepted in the prestigious Lycée Albert Sarraut (Currey 2005, 28). With Marty’s help and influence, Giáp “seemed to lead a charmed life during the late 1930s” while his comrades were arrested, exiled, imprisoned for lengthy terms, and even executed (ibid., 29). Giáp’s later denial of this relationship was considered “a callous attitude toward one who provided a way for him to complete his schooling” (ibid., 27). He studied at Hanoi University, failing his fourth year entrance examination, but subsequently received his licence en droit, a degree falling between a bachelor and master of arts (Pike 1986, 340; Hoang 1964, 54, fn 5), or equivalent to a Bachelor of Law degree (Currey 2005, 36), with the help of a French professor named Kherian (ibid.,) or Quirian (Colvin 1996, 31). He taught history at a high school and was known to be fascinated with Napoleon’s military campaigns (Currey 2005, 34; Pike 1986, 340). He met Hồ Chí Minh for the first time in 1939 and became an ardent follower. In the 1940’s, Giáp ran a network of agents throughout northern Vietnam to “systematically liquidate rich landlords who opposed the communists” (Pike 1986, 340). Without any formal military training, Giáp was made Commander-in-Chief of the communist army, holding a four-star rank. He held his post throughout the First Indochina War against the French and the Vietnam War until he was replaced by Văn Tiến Dũng in 1974. 

Together with Hồ Chí Minh, Giáp deceived the Vietnamese people by claiming to have support of the Allies in their illegal seizure of power in 1945. On September 2, 1945, Giáp, immediately after Hồ's speech declaring the independence of Vietnam and the creation of the Democratic Republic of Vietnam (DRV), delivered his own speech, declaring, "The United States of America . . . has paid the greatest contributions to the Vietnamese fight against fascist Japan, our enemy, and so the great American Republic is a good friend of ours" (Chen 1969, 113; Currey 2005, 105; Jamieson 1995, 196; Patti 1980, 248-255). In reality, the U.S. merely employed Hồ as an agent to provide intelligence information on the Japanese (Bartholomew-Feis 2006, 155; Logevall 2012, 85). A small team from the Office of Strategic Services (OSS) trained Vietminh operators to use radio equipment and firearms, including carbines, submachine guns, mortars and grenades (Bartholomew-Feis 2006, 166, 209). Calling this insignificant assistance “the greatest [contribution] to the Vietnamese fight against fascist Japan” is a blatant lie. Hồ and Giáp exploited the American assistance and utilized it as a powerful psychological weapon to win the faith and confidence of the Vietnamese people. Without the claim of American help, the Vietminh’s seizure of the government and Hồ’s declaration of independence would not have emerged so quickly and strongly (Lacouture 1968, 269). 

Giáp was responsible for the deaths of thousands of Vietnamese nationalists at the beginning of the First Indochina War. In 1946, Hồ went to France to negotiate with the French about political issues regarding a free Vietnam. During “[his] absence and on his instructions, Vo Nguyen Giap proceeded with a systematic elimination of anti-Vietminh nationalists” (Huyen 1971, 163). Many nationalists had to flee the country during the 1946 purge (Nguyễn Công Luận 2012, 49-50; Currey 2005, 120). “During the purges that began in March 1946 and peaked in the summer, thousands of potential leaders of non-communist Vietnamese nationalism were murdered” (Lind 1999, 241). Thousands of nationalists, their relatives and friends, were buried alive (Colvin 1996, 51; Nguyen 1983, 121). One of the techniques used by Giáp’s men “was to tie victims together in batches, like cordwood, and toss them into the Red River, the victims thus drowning while floating out to sea” (Pike 1986, 340-341). Giáp even ordered the execution of the famed Vietminh leader, Nguyễn Bình (ibid.; Colvin 1996, 71-72), and later confessed to a friend that he was forced to do it (Pike 1986, 341). 

Giáp’s competence as a military commander has been brought under serious scrutiny. French historians are known for writing about Giáp in larger than life terms, perhaps “as a salve for [the] bruised French ego” (ibid.). Giáp had victories and defeats. His victories have not been attributed to his brilliant thinking, but rather to his energy, audacity, and meticulous planning (ibid.). His defeats, however, “clearly are due to serious shortcomings as a military commander” (ibid.). General Nguyễn Sơn condemned Giáp as a “military illiterate” who “had achieved high rank only through his political connections” (Colvin 1996, 145). Lê Duẩn insisted that Giáp was not a real leader and “in fact, he does not lead at all.” (Currey 1996, 75). Trường Chinh “consistently maintained that [Nguyễn Chí] Thanh was a more competent general than Giáp” (ibid.) and “claimed that Giap was insufficiently competent to command an army” (ibid., 76). The battle of Điện Biên Phủ, hailed as Giáp’s greatest victory, was won not by Giáp’s skills or leadership, but by massive assistance from communist China and deceptive ploys that took advantage of the Vietnamese peasants and appealed to the patriotism of the Vietnamese soldiers. Giáp’s tactics “had failed to reveal any flashes of originality” while “[i]n terms of tactical skill, the French commanders at every level were clearly superior to their opponents” (Windrow 2006, 493). The Chinese assistance has been well reported (see above), but the contribution of the Vietnamese soldiers and peasants has not been well known. To mobilize logistical support forces, Giáp relied on poor peasants with a call for patriotism and promises of land in the land reform campaign (Zhai 2000, 38). Two hundred thousand peasants participated in the massive transportation of supplies over mountains and valleys to help the Vietminh troops (ibid., 42). With the increasing support of Chinese communists, including trucks, ammunition, artillery pieces (e.g., 105-millimeter guns) (Macdonald 1993, 133; Simpson 2005, 117; Zhai 2000, 47-49), a massive mobilization of 47,500 troops organized into five divisions, 70,000 coolies and laborers, and an eventual supply force of close to 300,000 (Simpson 2005, 35), thanks to the deceptive call for patriotism (Lind 1999, 230) that forced the intellectual and worker “to put their differences aside,” (Nguyen Lien-Hang T. 2012, 100) the Vietminh besieged Điện Biên Phủ, defended by a combined force of some 20,000 combat troops (Fall 2002, 479-482), for fifty-five days. 

Giáp’s disregard for human lives, including his own soldiers, has been well reported; he even admitted to it. He was well known for his tactic of using “human waves” in battles. After the war with France, Giáp reportedly said, “Every minute, hundreds of thousands of people die on this earth. The life or death of a hundred, a thousand, tens of thousands of human beings, even our compatriots, means little” (quoted in NYTimes 2013). During the First Indochina War against the French, Giáp was willing to sacrifice thousands of his troops’ lives in a single battle. In January 1951, Giáp’s forces attacked Vĩnh Yên but were “repulsed and lost between six and nine thousand dead” (Macdonald 1993, 100). They were further defeated in subsequent battles near Hải Phòng and Đáy River, "leaving several thousand dead on the battlefield" (ibid., 101; Colvin 1996, 91-94; Currey 1996, 77; Windrow 2006, 115; Woodruff 2005, 116). The battle of Điện Biên Phủ cost the Vietminh 7,900 dead and 15,000 wounded (Fall 2002, 484, 487). During the Vietnam War, Giáp’s forces brutally killed tens of thousands of civilians, including women and children, in South Vietnam. Most notably, at least 3,000 innocent victims were killed in the 1968 Huế massacre and more than 1,000 in the 1972 Highway of Horror in Quảng Trị. Giáp’s forces were defeated in almost every battle during the Vietnam War, from the Tết Offensive in 1968 to the Easter Offensive in 1972. The final offensive in 1975 was not a communist military success. Rather, it was mainly a political battle won on the soil of the United States. Giáp “was handed a victory he neither expected at the time nor deserved” (Pike 1986, 342). In fact, “in terms of distributing laurels, . . . none was deserved by any PAVN general” (ibid.). The communist losses during the entire Vietnam War were staggering. The communists suffered 1,100,000 deaths; the U.S. suffered 58,286 deaths and the RVNAF (Republic of Vietnam Armed Forces) lost 220,000. Commenting on Giáp, General William Westmoreland said, “[S]uch a disregard for human life may make a formidable adversary, but it does not make a military genius. Any American commander who took the same vast losses as General Giap would not have lasted three weeks.” (quoted in NYTime 2013; quoted in Đặng 2013).

While incompetence, brutality and cold-bloodedness are Giáp’s basic traits, his cowardice is also legendary. He was criticized even by his own comrades. Lê Duẩn attacked him “viciously as ‘fearful like a rabbit,’ and ‘trembling in battle.’” (Currey 1996, 75). For over thirty years as the Commander-in-Chief, he had been known widely for seldom going to the battlefields. Even during the battle of Điện Biên Phủ, he stayed mostly inside a cave, outside enemy artillery range, for over four months (Bùi 2013; Morgan 2010, xv, xvii, 521; Simpson 2005, 51-52). He was known to avoid confrontation with political rivals. He turned a blind eye to the campaigns launched by his rivals to eradicate his friends and subordinates (Đặng 2013), most likely to protect his own job. The Nhân Văn - Giai Phẩm movement was a movement of intellectuals, writers and poets who opposed Stalinism and Mao Zedong’s political ideology (Thụy 2012, 809). When it was crushed by Hồ’s government in 1955, several writers and poets were arrested and sent to re-education. Many of them were Giáp’s friends and comrades. For example, the poet Trần Dần participated in the battle of Điện Biên Phủ and the journalist and poet Nguyễn Hữu Đang was Giáp’s close comrade. Giáp kept total silence during their persecution although he had the power to help them, being at the peak of his career. In the 1960s, during the campaign launched by Lê Duẩn and Lê Đức Thọ to re-examine the people opposing the Party, several of Giáp’s close associates (e.g., General Đặng Kim Giang, General Nguyễn Văn Vịnh, Colonel Lê Trọng Nghĩa, Colonel Lê Minh Nghĩa, Deputy Minister Lê Liêm) were accused of committing acts of opposing the Party or espionage (Nguyen Lien-Hang T. 2012, 91-92). Giáp knew these accusations were fabricated but he didn’t lift a finger to help his friends (Đặng 2013). Together with Hồ, Giáp was marginalized by the powerful politburo headed by Lê Duẩn, but he remained silent and even temporarily disappeared, citing health reasons, during Duẩn’s rise to power (Nguyen Lien-Hang T. 2012, 97, 104-106). In 1974, after the Americans withdrew from Vietnam, Giáp was replaced by Văn Tiến Dũng as PAVN commander in chief. After reunification, Giáp was stripped of his position as Minister of Defense in 1980 and his seat in the politburo in 1982 (ibid., 303). He “was tossed away like an old shoe” (Currey 2005, 313). The Party politburo further humiliated Giáp by appointing him to head a committee on science and technology, a peculiar post considering his supposedly brilliant military career. Instead of retiring or yielding the post to somebody with better qualifications, Giáp accepted the job. In 1984, adding insult to injury, the Party politburo appointed Giáp to head a committee on family planning (Currey 2005, 314). Such an appointment was so humiliating that many people ridiculed him in verses, such as:

Ngày xưa Đại Tướng cầm quân,
Ngày nay Đại Tướng cầm quần chị em.

(In the old days, the four-star General held command of the army,
Now, he holds women’s silk trousers.) 

(Đặng 2013) 

Although he fell out of favor and was even humiliated by the government when alive, Giáp was given an elaborate state funeral. Tens of thousands of people lined the highway to the airport where the coffin was to be flown to his home province of Quảng Bình. While thousands of Vietnamese publicly mourned his death, millions of others silently mourned the deaths of their loved ones who were killed by Giáp and his comrades. 

The last day, May 7, 1954:

Several sources describe many details of the last days, including the meeting between de Castries and his troop commanders and the last conversation between de Castries and Cogny (Fall 2002, 400-408; Morgan 2010, 549-554; Roy 2002, 278-282; Simpson 2005, 164-166; Windrow 2006, 608-609). Certain specific details, however, are not known with certainty about the last day, May 7, 1954. Some of these details are: (a) whether a white flag was raised on Castries’s bunker; (b) identities of the Vietminh squad members who entered Castries’s bunker and took initial custody of Castries and his staff; (c) the exact exchange between the squad commander and Castries in the bunker; in particular, whether Castries said “Don’t shoot me,” or “Please don’t shoot;” (d) whether a Vietminh flag was raised on Castries’s bunker immediately after Castries was taken into custody. As shown below, the answers to the above questions are, respectively: (a) No; (b) Tạ Quốc Luật, Bùi Văn Nhỏ, Hoàng Đăng Vinh, Đào Văn Hiếu, and Nguyễn Văn Lam; (c) Tạ Quốc Luật asked Castries to order his men to surrender and radio to Hanoi to request the French to stop bombing Điện Biên Phủ, and Castries did say, “Please don’t shoot (me).”; (d) No. 

Sources that receive almost no mention in Western books are the news articles on Vietnam posted on the Internet as approved by the government. The reservation, reluctance, or lack of using Vietnamese sources by Western authors may be due to several reasons. First, Vietnamese sources published with the approval of the government have little credibility unless the contents of the sources are politically neutral. Second, Vietnamese sources are usually published in the Vietnamese language, not easily accessible to Western readers. Third, Internet postings are known not to be totally accurate. For at least these reasons, Vietnamese sources published under the control or with the approval of the government of SRV are not reliable. However, there are cases that using these sources may be useful, especially for politically neutral information such as the identities of the team members who entered Castries’s bunkers. 

1. Whether a white flag was raised on Castries’s bunker:

There is no question that the French placed high importance on raising the white flag. Navarre and Cogny refused to order Castries to surrender, let alone raising a white flag on Castries’s bunker. The significance of raising a white flag during the last conversations between Castries and Cogny has been well documented in the transcript of their actual radio conversation. The conversation appeared to focus on the display of a symbol of surrender, and not on the corpses littering the ground or the survival of the living. While Navarre and Cogny focused on the symbolism of military honor, Castries appeared to be more concerned about the wounded (Windrow 2006, 615).

Although it was clear that Castries received the order not to surrender or to raise a white flag, there is still a debate as to whether a white flag was actually raised on Castries’s bunker, either till the end or temporarily before being taken down. Most Western sources agree that no such white flag was raised (Fall 2002, 410; Simpson 2005, 167). Sergeant Kubiak believed at the time that he saw a white flag flying on Castries’s bunker, but some say it wasn’t a white flag but was a large white cargo parachute that was hung on a tree stump (Fall 2002, 404; Roy 2002, 280, 283). Some sources maintain that a white flag was hoisted, though not specifically on Castries’s bunker (Currey 2005, 203).

2. Identities of the Vietminh squad members who entered Castries’s bunker:

The identities of the Vietminh troops who captured De Castries are not clearly recorded (Windrow 2006, 616), and might have been incorrectly recorded in Western books, but they are well known in Vietnamese sources. Western sources attribute the team leadership to platoon commander Chu Ta The (Roy 2002, 283) or Capt. “Ta Quang (sic) Luat” (Simpson 2005, 166-167). In a series of news articles, Vietnamese sources identify these members with full names: Captain Tạ Quốc Luật, Bùi Văn Nhỏ, Hoàng Đăng Vinh, Đào Văn Hiếu, and Nguyễn Văn Lam (Phạm 2011). Since the names of the squad members have no real political significance, it is safe to accept the Vietnamese sources, especially since there is evidence of actual interviews with these members (e.g., Vinh and Hiếu).

3. Exchanges between Castries and Tạ Quốc Luật and whether Castries said, “Don’t shoot me!”

What was said between Castries and the Vietminh troops was not recorded clearly in Western sources, but the Vietnamese sources describe it in great detail. One Western source merely states that it was a brief exchange regarding the cease-fire (Simpson 2005, 167). Fall (2002, 410) writes that Castries asked the enemy officer whether he could tell his own troops to cease fighting and Captain Luật answered that his request was superfluous because the French troops had already given up without his order.

Sergeant Passerat de Silans reportedly maintained that at the sight of the submachine guns aimed at him, Castries cried, “Don’t shoot me” (Roy 2002, 283), but according to Roy, this didn’t sound like Castries, who might have expressed a question if the Vietminh soldier was going to shoot in an attempt to change the squad’s threatening attitude (ibid.). However, Roy doesn’t explain why what Castries reportedly said didn’t sound like Castries. There is no reason why Silans would lie, and there is no evidence suggesting that Silans suffered a memory lapse or that Silans’ hearing was impaired. Most importantly, Silans’ statement is corroborated by the statement of the Vietminh soldier who pointed the sub machine gun at Castries at the time (see below). While the French may consider a General screaming “Don’t shoot me” a cowardly expression, it may not be the same from the Vietminh’s point of view. 

According to Hoàng Đăng Vinh, the Vietminh soldier who pointed his sub machine gun at Castries, Tạ Quốc Luật ordered Vinh to take custody of Castries (Phạm 2011). Vinh stepped forward and Luật reminded him to show force. Vinh glared at Castries, threw out his chest, put his finger on the trigger and approached Castries, who stood up and extended his hand for a handshake. Vinh didn’t understand why Castries offered a handshake, and shouted, “Hands up!” and poked his gun into Castries’s stomach. Castries took two steps backward, trembled, and spoke to Vinh in French. Vinh didn’t understand what Castries said at the time because he didn’t know French, but Luật later told him that Castries said, “Please don’t shoot (me). We surrender” (Phạm 2011).

Đào Văn Hiếu, another soldier in the squad, recalled that Tạ Quốc Luật said to De Castries in French, "You must surrender now. You already lost. You must order your men to lay down their weapons and radio to Hanoi asking them not to drop bombs onto Điện Biên” (Thái 2011).

4. Whether a Vietminh flag was raised on Castries’s bunker immediately after Castries was taken into custody.

According to the story told by one of the five Vietminh troops who captured De Castries, the Vietminh didn’t plant the gold-starred red flag on De Castries’s bunker immediately after the capture of De Castries. However, Bernard Fall (2002, 410) appears absolutely certain that three Vietminh soldiers, including platoon leader Chu Bá Thế, planted the gold-starred red flag on the command bunker at Dien Bien Phu at about 1740 of May 7, 1954 because thousands of men saw it and many of them mentioned it to him. Martin Windrow (2006, 616) asserts that by 5:40 pm a large red, gold-embroidered Viet Minh flag was raised over the command post, installed by General Vuong Thua Vu of Division 308.

However, Hoàng Đăng Vinh, one of the Vietminh soldiers who captured Castries, said that no gold-starred red flag was planted on De Castries’s bunker right after Castries was captured. Vinh informed the General Political Directorate (Tổng cục Chính trị) in May 1984 to inform the cadres at the Institute of Military History of Vietnam and at the Conference of the News Organizations at Điện Biên in March of 1994 about this matter. According to Vinh, the capture of De Castries took place at about 5:00PM in the mountainous area where there was no more sunlight and nobody planted a flag for picture taking. The picture taking and movie/video making were done by movie maker Karmen (U.S.S.R) in collaboration with Vietminh film makers in making a movie/video. During the filming, the script included the flag planting scene to emphasize the victory theme. The three soldiers who were selected to wave the flag and carry guns on the Castries’s bunker as seen in the popular picture were not members of Luật’s team. They were the soldiers from the 316th Division who merely recreated the glorious time of victory (Nguyễn 2004). Since planting a flag on Castries’s bunker immediately after his capture represents national pride and glory, the fact that a Vietminh eyewitness soldier refuted it and the Communist government allowed his statement to be publicly printed clearly affirms the veracity of Vinh’s statement. Furthermore, Vinh’s statement appears to be consistent with the situation at the time. It was late in the afternoon, the Vietminh troops were exhausted, and the French fighting men were emerging from the trenches and dugouts. In the excitement and confusion of sorting out the surrenderers, nobody would remember planting a flag, assuming one was available.

De Castries:

Several books detail the life and person of De Castries (Fall 2002, 54-56; Morgan 2010, 208; Roy 2002, 63-65; Simpson 2005, 25; Windrow 2006, 300-301). A newspaper article published on April 17, 1954 (PalmBeach 1954) described De Castries as a man who enjoyed smoking Dutch pipe tobacco, kept his appearance impeccable, wore a red Spahi cap, and lived like a “gentleman general” during the siege.

LIST OF REFERENCES

(Edited for this excerpt.)

Bartholomew-Feis, Dixee. 2006. The OSS and Ho Chi Minh: Unexpected Allies in the War against Japan. University Press of Kansas, Kansas, U.S.A.

Cao-Đắc, Tuấn. 2014. Fire in the Rain. Hellgate Press, Oregon, U.S.A.

Chen, King C. 1969. Vietnam and China, 1938-1954. Princeton University Press, New Jersey, U.S.A.

Colvin, John. 1996. Giap: Volcano Under Snow, Soho Press, New York, U.S.A.

Currey, Cecil. 1996. Giap and Tet Mau Than 1968: The Year of the Monkey, in “The Tet Offensive,” Eds. Marc Jason Gilbert and William Head, Praeger Publishers, Connecticut, U.S.A.

_________. 2005. Victory at any cost, Potomac Books, Inc., Virginia, U.S.A. 

Fall, Bernard B. 2002. Hell in a Very Small Place: The Siege of Dien Bien Phu, Da Capo Press, U.S.A.

Hoang Van Chi. 1964. From Colonialism to Communism. Frederick A. Praeger, New York, U.S.A.

Huyen, N. Khac. 1971. Vision Accomplished? The Enigma of Ho Chi Minh. The Macmillan Company, New York, U.S.A.

Jamieson, Neil L. 1995. Understanding Vietnam. University of California Press, California, U.S.A.

Lacouture, Jean. 1968. Ho Chi Minh: A Political Biography. Translated from the French by Peter Wiles. Translation edited by Jane Clark Seitz. Random House, New York, U.S.A.

Lind, Michael. 1999. Vietnam: The Necessary War. Simon & Schuster, New York. U.S.A.

Logevall, Fredrik. 2012. Embers of War. Random House, New York, U.S.A.

Macdonald, Peter. 1993. Giap: The Victor in Vietnam. W.W. Norton & Company, New York, U.S.A.

Morgan, Ted. 2010. Valley of Death: The Tragedy at Dien Bien Phu That Led America into the Vietnam War, Random House, U.S.A. 

Nguyen, Lien-Hang T. 2012. Hanoi’s War. The University of North Carolina Press, North Carolina, U.S.A.

Nguyen Van Canh (with Earle Cooper). 1983. Vietnam Under Communism, 1975-1982. Hoover Institution Press, Stanford University, California, U.S.A.

Nguyễn Công Luận. 2012. Nationalist in the Viet Nam Wars: Memoirs of a Victim Turned Soldier. Indiana University Press, Indiana, U.S.A.

O’Neill, Robert J. 1969. General Giap – Politician and Strategist. Frederick A. Praeger, New York, U.S.A.

Patti, Archimedes L.A. 1980. Why Viet Nam? Prelude to America’s Albatross, University of California Press, California, U.S.A.

Pike, Douglas. 1986. PAVN – People’s Army of Vietnam. Da Capo Press, New York, U.S.A.

Roy, Jules. 2002. The Battle of Dienbienphu, Second edition, Carroll & Graf Publishers, New York, U.S.A.

Simpson, Howard R. 2005. Dien Bien Phu: The Epic Battle America Forgot, Potomac Books Inc., Virginia, U.S.A.

Thụy Khuê. 2012. Nhân Văn Giai Phẩm và vấn đề Nguyễn Ái Quốc (Nhân Văn Giai Phẩm and the issue of Nguyễn Ái Quốc). Tiếng Quê Hương, Virginia, U.S.A.

Zhai, Qiang. 2000. China and the Vietnam Wars, 1950 – 1975. The University of North Carolina Press, North Carolina, U.S.A.

Windrow, Martin. 2006. The Last Valley: Dien Bien Phu and the French Defeat in Vietnam, Da Capo Press, U.S.A. 

Woodruff, Mark W. 2005. Unheralded Victory: The Defeat of the Viet Cong and the North Vietnamese Army, 1961-1973, Presidio Press, New York, U.S.A. 2005.

INTERNET SOURCES

It should be noted that Internet sources may not be permanent. A blog may be taken down by the author, a news article may be deleted, or a Website may be closed.

Bùi Tín. 2013. Tướng Võ Nguyên Giáp, Như Tôi Từng Biết (General Võ Nguyên Giáp, as I once knew him). Posted October 4, 2013. http://www.voatiengviet.com/content/dai-tuong-vo-nguyen-giap-nhu-toi-tung-biet/1763195.html (accessed October 18, 2013).

Đặng Chí Hùng Truths That Must Be Known (part 19) – The truth about Võ Nguyên Giáp). Posted September 5, 2013. http://danlambaovn.blogspot.com/2013/09/nhung-su-that-can-phai-biet-phan-19-su.html#.Ul0Flirn_mQ (accessed October 15, 2013).

Nguyễn Đoàn. 2004. Về lá cờ chiến thắng trên nóc hầm Đờ Cát (About the victory flag on the bunker of De Castries), April 24, 2004. http://www1.laodong.com.vn/pls/bld/folder$.view_item_detail(99381) (accessed September 29, 2013).

NYTimes. 2013. Gen. Vo Nguyen Giap, Who Ousted U.S. From Vietnam, Is Dead. Published October 4, 2013. 
http://www.nytimes.com/2013/10/05/world/asia/gen-vo-nguyen-giap-dies.html?pagewanted=3&src=recg (accessed October 9, 2013).

PalmBeach. 1954. Between Cologne And Tobacco, De Castries Defends Bastion. The Palm Beach Post, April 18, 1954. 
http://news.google.com/newspapers?nid=1964&dat=19540418&id=EdsiAAAAIBAJ&sjid=DM0FAAAAIBAJ&pg=2954,3168383 (accessed September 29, 2013).

Phạm Hoàng Hà. 2011. Gặp lại người cùng bắt sống tướng Đờ Cát – Xtơ ri (kỳ 3) (Meeting with the men who captured General De Castries (Part 3), April 23, 2011 
http://www.qdnd.vn/qdndsite/vi-vn/61/43/296/296/296/147053/Default.aspx (accessed September 29, 2013).

Thái Dương. 2011. Gặp người bắt sống tướng De Castries (Meet the man who captured General De Castries), May 8, 2011. 
http://www.nguoiduatin.vn/gap-nguoi-bat-song-tuong-de-castries-a4393.html (accessed September 30, 2013).
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