A bitter battle of ambush and raid still racks Indo-China as Vietnam rebels fight France for the independce of their state

WILLIAM COSTELLO September 15 1949


A bitter battle of ambush and raid still racks Indo-China as Vietnam rebels fight France for the independce of their state

WILLIAM COSTELLO September 15 1949


A bitter battle of ambush and raid still racks Indo-China as Vietnam rebels fight France for the independce of their state


BANGKOK, SIAM—Under a mosquito net, the Saigon night was stifling. The only sounds were the sibilant whirring of the fan overhead and the distant shrilling of the cicadas.

It was midnight—an hour before curfew—and the streets of the city of a million and a half were deserted.

Suddenly in the distance there was a burst of gunfire, the rat-tat-tat of a machine gun, the bark of a 37-millimeter, sporadic rifle shots.

Crawling out from under the netting I opened the French doors to a little balcony outside my room. The lights of the city twinkled serenely. A mile to the southeast the firing swelled in sharp staccato bursts . . . probably centred around a French sentry post, a bridgehead on the Saigon River in the Chinese suburb of Chalón.

Gradually the bursts of fire grew shorter, the silences longer. After half an hour there was only the shrill, rhythmic monotone of iue cicadas.

Just another incident in the b^ody struggle in Indo-China by the rebel Vietnamese for independdence from France.

The next morning a cynical Frenchman shrugged: “The official report refers merely to guerilla activities in the Chalón area. No casualty figures are given, but it is known there were 10 on our side wounded, mostly Annamite. Just another harassing attack. They used to seek the capture of weapons. Now they have plenty. It is a war of nerves.”

Across the frontier in Siam the Vietnamese published a noncommittal report on their month’s activities around Saigon: 243 attacks; 530 enemy killed, including 235 French; 282 wounded, including 104 French; 22 taken prisoner. Equipmert captured included four light machine guns, 42 rifles, four pistols, 10 submachine guns, 53 grenades, one typewriter, 10 tons of gasoline, a 100-ton motor launch.

For more than three and a half years the struggle has gone on. The French call it the “resistance.” The Vietnamese call it the “liberation.” It is a bloody business with no holds barred on either side.

The French are wary of figures, but the Vietnamese claim they have fought 8,321 engagements. That means more than six battles a day, every day of the year, for nearly four years—ambushes, clashes with jungle patrols, night sorties, the burning of villages, guerilla raids in all parts of the country on sentry posts, sampans, towns, watchtowers and river patrols.

Two hundred thousand French soldiers have come and gone in France’s battle to keep control of its rich Asian empire. Perhaps 30,000 have been killed and wounded, besides 40,000 native auxiliaries. No one knows how many casualties the Vietnamese rebels have had, but guesses go as high as 250,000. A French leftist publication asserts bitterly that the war in Indo-China has cost 87 billion francs.

The issues in this forgotten war are clear. The three eastern provinces of French Indo-China (Tonkin, Annam and Cochin-China) today call themselves Vietnam—The Land of the South. The native People’s Front Party declared Vietnam an independent republic the day General Mac Arthur received the Japanese surrender in Tokyo Bay. Since then the Vietnamese have been fighting Franc* to make the label stick.

The French offer a constitutional monarchy under Kmperor Bao Dai, who fell heir to the kingdom of Tonkin and Annam in 1925. He collaborated briefly with the Japanese, was virtually forced to abdicate in 1945. Since then he has won a reputation as a playboy.

The Communist-led rebels spurn Bao Dai, spurn any French concessions outside of complete independence. Many nationalists don’t want to cut all ties to France but they demand—and are dying to achieve—equal status.

There are no slit trenches in IndoChina, no barbed-wire battle lines. There are only shadows flitting through jungles and along mountain trails, barefoot soldiers tilling their fields stolidly by day and oiling their tommyguns and rifles by night. They sing:

The Vietnamese troops are marching past

With the one will to save the country . . .

Overcoming all hardships and dangers,

They have built their strongholds,

Having sworn to tear to pieces the enemy

And drink up his blood!

The prestige of the French is lower than at any time in their colonial

history. An American businessman was recently on a train in northeastern Siam with a former Vietnamese guerilla chieftain. Down the aisle came a news butcher, selling fruit and lunches.

The ex-guerilla, recognizing the youth as a former member of his jungle band, stopped him and asked for some food.

The youth sneered and snapped, “I won’t sell you anything while you’re with that Frenchman!”

Death Comes in the Night

Today even Frenchmen admit the Indo-Chinese problem has been badly bungled since the end of the war. There was an initial miscalculation of Vietnamese national feeling, and there have been successive blunders on the part of French politicians in Paris who failed utterly to appreciate the changes taking place in Asia.

Today some farsighted Frenchmen are alive to the dangers implicit in the Ciiinese Communist revolution and are therefore increasingly willing to set aside partisanship, colonial bigotry and selfish ambitions in. favor of a workable settlement. And if the United States and Britain refuse to be stampeded into recognizing Bao Dai as emperor the French are likely to make realistic concessions.

Life in Indo-China today is tense with uncertainty. The French have effective control over perhaps 20% of the country, principally in the deltas of the Mekong and Red Rivers and along the Annam coast north and south of the imperial capital, Hue. The Viet Minh (People’s Front Party) has almost complete control over an area of equal size, in six scattered areas. The other 60% of Indo-China is no-man’sland where both sides collect taxes and shoot on sight.

Against 110,000 in the French forces, the Viet Minh is believed to have 80,000 armed and uniformed troops in its regular army, besides unknown thousands of armed peasants ready to serve on occasional local forays. With arms smuggled in from Hainan, Siam and the Philippines, their strength increases steadily.

A pessimistic Frenchman recently observed: “This war-in-the-night

could go on for a generation—how can they be defeated?”

The Frenchmen hate this jungle war. Once outside Saigon soldier Jacques is eternally on the alert. His bivouac is a fortress. He goes to bed listening for the rattle of gunfire. He rises before dawn, dons a uniform that always seems dank, hurries off to scan roads and rice paddies and the forests for an enemy who comes and goes like a wraith.

A Stronghold Is Destroyed

For hours or days at a time he stands sentry duty at a bridge or a blockhouse, occasionally slipping off on lonely patrols where a single shot from a hidden rifleman may mean death.

In tank or armored scout car he lounges in the hot bright sun, waiting interminably for radio distress calls. On main roads for 50 yards on either side the dense growth of trees and vines has been cleared away.

Occasionally the French foray to destroy a Vietnamese stronghold. On one such action French commanders assembled in force south of the Hanoi enclave—tanks, armored cars, artillery and truckloads of troops bristling with automatic weapons.

The target was Phu-Ly, a town in the foothills bordering the southern edge of the Red River valley. At Phu-Ly the Viet Minh had built up a major arsenal using caves in the mountainside for the manufacture and storage of weapons and munitions. From this centre they supplied their scattered forces in northern Annam, and even sent shipments into the northern mountain stronghold of Tonkin, traveling by streams and jungle trails west of Hanoi.

Fighting broke out as the French moved out of the rice-growing lowlands —scattered bursts of rifle and Bren-gun fire from jungle foxholes—but the attacking force drove straight ahead.

The operation had been launched with such speed and secrecy that there were no tank traps, no trees to block the road.

By the time the French neared PhuLy the Vietnamese had had time to organize their defenses, but they were still no match for the French either in numbers or in fire power.

A bitter battle took place near the munitions caves, but French artillery routed the defenders. Phu-Ly was captured, storage dumps were destroyed and primitive facilities for the production of shells, grenades and mines were razed.

Then the French withdrew; the Vietnamese began rebuilding their arsenal.

It is the same everywhere: by a show of force the French can take what they want, but they cannot afford to hold what they can take.

The Vietnamese lose no opportunity of disrupting estate production, knowing that France desperately needs the rubber, coffee and palm oil of IndoChina. French civilians are in the fight too. On a trip outside Saigon, my host wore a holstered pistol; on the seat behind us there was another automatic and spare clips, and a lieutenant of paratroopers in the front seat was similarly armed.

Plantation raids take varying forms. On one occasion, at the Terres Rouges rubber estate at Quanloi, guerillas slipped quietly into a workers’ village during the night, roused all the inhabitants, and herded them off into the jungle.

Every rubber planter knows he lives in constant peril. A typical incident is related by M. Mario Bouquet, general manager of the largest rubber plantation in Indo-China. Arriving one evening at the company’s headquarters he learned the local manager planned an inspection trip the next morning to an unworked portion of the enterprise six kilometers away. He decided to go along.

The party set out soon after dawn in two trucks and two armored jeeps, with four French soldiers and six native riflemen. The trip to the plantation was uneventful. Returning, the party ran into trouble.

As the leading jeep slowed down for a sharp right-angled turn on an upgrade it was met by machine-gun fire. The windshield had been armor-plated, but one slug tore through the bonnet and ripped the flesh above Bouquet’s ankle.

Massacre on the Highway

The driver slammed on the brakes and dived for the left side of the road, falling dead on the way. The estate manager and a soldier threw themselves out on the right and took cover in a natural foxhole just in front of the jeep.

Bouquet, his leg bleeding, fell back using the jeep for cover. Taking rapid pot shots with his pistol he dodged back to the truck which had stopped 50 feet behind.

The six riflemen vanished into the forest like shadows without firing a shot. Quick bursts from the concealed machine gun kept the estate manager and the soldiers pinned down.

Bouquet and three French soldiers ; defending the rear of the convoy soon exhausted their ammunition. Unable to communicate with the others, and fearing a rush which might have overwhelmed all, Bouquet’s group slipped into the forest and escaped on foot to the plantation headquarters.

The estate manager and one soldier left at the ambush were captured when their ammunition was exhausted.

The following morning the Vietnamese released the uniformed soldier, explaining that he was simply doing j his duty; the estate manager was kept prisoner and three months later the | French were still negotiating for his i release.

In the north, in the mountains of Tonkin, the rebels have been so sue! cessful in choking off the flow of food and munitions that the French have been forced to operate four airlifts, using 20 old Junkers planes, to their outposts at Lao Kai, Son La, Cao Bang and Moncay.

Savage fighting takes place regularly on Highway No. 4, which parallels the 1 Chinese border and connects Moncay with Cao Bang. This strategic highway, known as “the bloody road,” is hemmed in between jungle hills where rocks and tangled vegetation are made to order for ambushes.

The Viet Minh claim—possibly with some exaggeration—the destruction of one convoy of 32 vehicles on March 4 this year, with 325 French casualties. On April 24 they caught 144 trucks in a defile west of Lang-son; their rifles and machine guns were hidden along a stretch of 15 kilometers. When the French sent planes to the rescue the rebel ack-ack fire was accurate enough to damage three aircraft. The Vietnamese reported 607 French casualties and the destruction of 53 vehicles before the survivors fought their way out of that trap.

While this series of disasters goes on and on, the French in Saigon chafe. Sitting at their sidewalk cafés along their wide Parisian boulevards lined by graceful trees, they mutter to a visitor: “Saigon is a jail, a concentration camp. The great problem of Indo-China today is women-—10 men for every woman . . . and 15,000 kilometers to France!”

It Is a Race Against Time

The Vietnamese are led by 58-yearold Ho Chi-minh, who is already a legendary figure in southern Asia. He embraced Socialism while a photographer’s assistant in Paris, veered to Communism in 1920 and went to Moscow to study revolutionary technique. Then he turned up in China as a roving emissary of the Asiatic branch of the Comintern. He spent the war years forming the Viet Minh in southern China, then slipped south into Indo-China just at the right moment to head the Vietnam revolution.

There is some question today whether Ho, the “old revolutionary,” actually holds the reins of power in his organization. Before the war, when Moscow was minimizing its aims in Asia, he dissolved the Indo-China Communist Party and exhibited himself as a simonpure nationalist. Now his health is poor.

A Frenchman who once shared a Chinese prison cell with him for three weeks asserts Ho habitually smokes 50 pipes of opium a day—more than double the number needed to qualify as a confirmed addict.

Almost from the beginning the Viet Minh movement began to assume the character of a totalitarian regime. By arrest and assassination it crushed two opposition parties of the republic, the Vietnam quoc Dan Dong, and the Dong Minh Hoi.

It is ruled today by a central executive committee of five men known as the Tong Bo Viet Minh, the spark plug of which is Vo Nguyen Giap, commander of the resistance military forces.

If Ho were to disappear Giap would probably succeed him and the impression prevails that he would be not only willing but eager to align his propaganda and foreign policy with those of Stalin and Mao Tse-tung, the leader of Red China.

A high Catholic spokesman in Indochina recently estimated, however,

that more than 80% of the resistance movement is non-Communist, but if independence were achieved the tightly knit Communist cadre at the top might find Vietnam even more pliable than their fellow party members found Czechoslovakia.

For the Western allies it is a situation now painfully familiar: whether to lose by default to the extreme Left, or to embrace the Right in the hope of liberalizing its policies.

An American official in Saigon comments with a wry grin: “All Southeast Asia is now under the Red gun in China. For the French here, it is a race against time.” ★