One and only southern man joining Dien Bien Phu Campaign (Part 1)
PANO - Nguyen Tri Viet was the only man from southern Vietnam participating in historical Dien Bien Phu Campaign. He was also the youngest commissar of Companies under Brigade 312.
It was very easy to remember and recognise Viet thanks to his southern dialect. His military service was shorter than that of a few officers in regiments and brigade and longer than that of other officers in battalion. His military service started since the day French colonists took cover behind British troops after World War II, part of the allied forces sent to the South to disarm the Japanese fascists, with an aim of invading Vietnam again.
|General Vo Nguyen Giap checked the preparation for the attack on Him Lam
Nguyen Tri Viet, aged 15, volunteered to join the National Defence Troops in response to the appeal to defend the country in danger.
Viet was recruited in the regular Company of Ben Tre Province by the head of Company Nam Tat whose name at birth was Pham Ngoc Thao.
Viet’s first battle as a liaison man was a resounding victory. A number of weapons were seized and Viet received a short gun for his own protection.
At that time, fighting against French invaders was an inspiration to all, especially the youth in the South.
There was a day Pham Ngoc Thao explained the meaning of Uncle Ho’s saying to troops and people in the South through radio that the South was part of Vietnam, that truth would never be changed even though rivers might dry and mountains might be eroded. And then, he tenderly looked at Viet and said that “the superiors want to send you and some other comrades to the North for schooling. After your study, you will come back and continue the fight against foreign invaders. In the North, you will have a chance to visit Hanoi. If you are lucky, you will meet with Uncle Ho and say to him that Southern troops and people are wholeheartedly loyal to Uncle Ho”.
Viet and three other people sailed to Quy Nhon, Binh Dinh Province on a motorised boat. One day in October 1946, they got on a train to Hanoi.
One day after reaching Hanoi, they were taken to the Hanoi Opera House, took part in a solemn ceremony of the Government and clustered around Uncle Ho. Uncle Ho hugged them one by one and introduced them to other people as four delegates of the national iron bulwark at young ages.
Learning that Viet’s parents were in Ben Tre, Uncle Ho said that Viet and Nguyen Dinh Chieu, a Vietnamese celebrity, have the same home village.
Before the whole nation joined the resistance war on December 19th, 1946, the four youngsters left for Ha Dong town. There, Viet was introduced to a unit under a Warfare Department of the Staff. With a basic command of French language and experiences acquired during his participation in the My Tho Scout Association, Viet found it easier to fulfill his mission as a liaison man.
Once, he rode a horse from Thai Nguyen City to Van Lang in Lang Son Province where he left the horse at a local household and walked through Road 4, where many French military posts were erected, to Ninh Minh in Guangxi (at that time under regime of the Nationalist Party headed by Jiang Jieshi), China, to find a liaison base.
Two days later, Viet found the base and conveyed a message about the intended operation coordination between Vietnamese General Staff and representatives of the People’s Liberation Army of China there.
Coming back to Vietnam, Viet was assigned to study at Tran Quoc Tuan Military College. In early 1949, after graduation, he was promoted as a commissar in a Company under Kim Anh District armed forces in Northern Province of Vinh Phuc even though he was from the South.
When was the N-Day? It was sure that N-Day was coming, very soon.
Under military instructions, the N-Day and the G-Hour were kept secret from soldiers in Company and Battalion, who only knew one minute before their direct commanders gave order.
For soldiers during the Dien Bien Phu Campaign, the N-Day was coming nearer and nearer.
At 12:30pm on March 12th, 1954, General Conhi suddenly appeared at Muong Thanh Airport and checked some entrenched fortifications surrounding the Dien Bien Phu fortresses.
At 1:45pm, General Conhi flew back Hanoi.
At 4:20pm, he secretly instructed De Castries that Viet Minh would launch an attack on Him Lam at 5pm on March 13th.
Why General Conhi knew the N-Day and G-Hour for the attack on Him Lam by the Chief Commander, General Vo Nguyen Giap, remained unknown.
We did not underestimate the ability of French military intelligence and French intelligence service. However, General De Castries’s intelligence said that March 13th was a unlucky day, Viet Minh would not launch an attack. General De Castries’ Staff in Muong Thanh also confirmed that Viet Minh would attack in the evening of March 15th, 1954.
Yet, in the evening of March 12th, 1954, under Commander De Castries’ order, all French troops in Him Lam entrenched fortification were confined to barracks on high alert. De Castries’ order was under the command of General Conhi and also in response to the news received in the morning from Him Lam that two legionnaires ran away from the base and surrendered Viet Minh at somewhere in the east of the fortification.
The surrender of two legionnaires under Airborne Battalion 3 to Vietnamese troops on early March 12th, 1954 was a truth. After identifying their names and unit number and analysing their motive for the surrender, we knew that they did not pretend to surrender.
They said that in the evening of March 11th, 1954, through infrared binoculars, they clearly saw Viet Minh (Company 245) digging a trench near the farthest barbwire fence. It meant that Viet Minh would launch attack on Him Lam and they would be in the line of fire. If they reported that to their commander, they would be ordered to cover that trench and would become live targets. Therefore, they decided to surrender with a faint hope that Viet Minh would not kill an unarmed soldier.
With a few of valuable information provided by two the deserting legionnaires, we partly knew measures to defend the Him Lam entrenched fortification.
It might be that the surrender of the two deserted legionnaires was reported to De Castries by Him Lam commander and then De Castries reported it to General Conhi. So, General Conhi hurriedly flew to Dien Bien Phu.
Previously, General Conhi was daily briefed on Viet Minh’s activities around what they called Porcupine Dien Bien Phu. However, the information in the morning urged Conhi to take quick action. General Conhi had assumed that Viet Minh always knew how to grasp opportunities. The opportunity was that Viet Minh’s communication trench reached the farthest barbwire fence. The opportunity was that Him Lam offered Viet Minh a windfall, two deserted legionnaires (who were then sent back Algeria after the war). As a result, Viet Minh could attack Him Lam on March 13th, 1954.
General Conhi’s thought might coincide with the N-Day decided by the Headquarters of the Campaign in Muong Thang by chance.
On March 13th, 1954, the N-Day, Company 245, whose commissar was Viet, was ordered to launch an attack. From 1:30pm, the Company, in line and with guns, crawled along the communication trench created for two days now to Nam Rom River in dry season.
Each member of the command of Company 245 went with a regiment. Viet was side by side with Regiment 2. He carried a carbine and grenades like a true soldier.
Him Lam consisted of three hills in the east of Muong Thanh. At the beginning, De Castries chose Airborne Battalion 3 with elite paratroopers out of six Battalions of red- capped paratroopers present in Dien Bien Phu to take control of Him Lam. Each hill was occupied by a Company. The Headquarters of the Battalion in the centre of Him Lam was a strong one, becoming a steel door blocking the entrance to the centre of Muong Thanh.
At 4pm on March 13th, the front in the east was tranquil. In Muong Thanh, De Castries was sipping hi-class coffee. At the same time, a squadron of B24s appeared in the sky. Our 37mm antiaircraft guns opened fire, which made them fly away in confusion.
At 5:05pm, heavy artillery and mortars from surrounding battlefields shelled Him Lam. Him Lam was covered with flames and smoke.
In 45 minutes, French troops in the Him Lam entrenched fortification could not take action against our artillery.
After rounds of cannons and mortars by the enemy stationed in Muong Thanh, French troops in Him Lam recovered themselves and fired back with machine-guns of different sizes on the trench sheltered by Company 245.
The night fell.
Company 245 was ordered to go across the Nam Rom underground bridge created by sappers some days before. From that, they went across a trench dug in the evening of March 12th to an empty ground.
Commissar Viet and his liaison man, named Chan, observed firing-posts of the French troops ahead. Seeing a loophole from French blockhouse flashing out, Viet pulled Chan down. Unfortunately, Viet’s close liaison man died before we could open the Him Lam entrenched fortification.
During this time, French troops in Muong Thanh shelled our battlefield. For 5 hours, they shelled 6,000 rounds around Him Lam and thousands of rounds on our battlefield (the disguised one).
(to be continued)
Translated by Mai Huong