Sunday, April 27, 2008

The Last Man Out

A political argument you might hear tossed around during the closing days of the Vietnam War was, "Who will be the last man to die for a mistake?" Fortunately for us, Operation Frequent Wind was a success and there was no (American) "man left behind." (The South Vietnamese are another story.) Since it is that time of the year, Instapinch has an interesting video of the last flight out from Da Nang, while SJS has the story of an astonishing feat of airmanship involving a South Vietnamese pilot, his family, an O-1 Bird Dog, and the USS Midway.

However, while there was no American "man left behind," as the curtain closed on the French agony in Indochina, they were not that lucky. Again, from Bernard Fall's Street Without Joy:
The G.C.M.A.'s were organized on the basis of the experience gathered during World War II by the European maquis and by such Allied long-range penetration groups as the British "Chindits" of General Orde Wingate in Burma, and the United States "marauders" of Brigadier General Frank D. Merrill. However, contrary to the two Allied groups, the G.C.M.A.'s were not meant to return to bases situated behind our own lines but were to remain permanently in enemy territory. Individual men were to be returned via aircraft from secret landing strips if they were sick or wounded or, as often happened, had simply broken down physically or mentally under the strain of that kind of warfare. In other words, the G.C.M.A.'s were not "raider forces," but guerrilla forces; when the war ended in Indochina, they were also far larger than both the Chindits or the Marauders ever had been: by mid-1954, there were 15,000 of them, requiring 300 tons of airborne supplies a month.

The core unit of a commando group was usually up to four hundred strong, each such group being commanded by two or three French senior NCO's or perhaps by one lieutenant and a few NCO's. In some cases, even corporals found themselves at the head of a whole tribe at war with the Viet-Minh.


The cease-fire of July 1954 also brought an end to G.C.M.A. operations. Frantic efforts were made by the French to broadcast messages to all the groups operating behind Communist lines to fall back to Laos, the 17th parallel, or to the shrinking Haiphong perimeter before the Bamboo Curtain rang down on them for good. But for many, the broadcasts came too late, or the T'ai or Meo could not reconcile themselves to leave their families exposed to the Communist reprisals which were now sure to come. And the Frenchmen who were with them and who could not possibly make their way back across hundreds of miles of enemy territory, stayed with them, to fight with the tribesmen to the end.

This was a fight to the finish, and no quarter was given on either side. One by one, as the last commandos ran out of ammunition, as the last still operating radio sets fell silent, the remnants of the G.C.M.A. died in the hills of North Viet-Nam. There was no "U-2" affair, no fuss: France did not claim the men, and the Communists were content to settle the matter by themselves. French officers recalled with a shudder the last radio message picked up from somewhere in North Viet-Nam nearly two years after the fighting had officially stopped. The voice was a French voice and the message was addressed to the French. It said:

"You sons-of-bitches, help us! Help us! Parachute us at least some ammunition, so that we can die fighting instead of being slaughtered like animals!"

But the cease-fire was in effect and the last French troops left Indochina in April 1956, in compliance with the demands of the Vietnamese nationalists.


By 1959, the struggle was over. The mountaineers were thoroughly purged of all "reactionary" elements and whatever Frenchmen there had been left among them were now dead or captured. Only one Frenchman, Captain C-------, who was thoroughly familiar with several mountain dialects, is known to have made his way out of the Communist-occupied zone after a harrowing 500-mile trek through the mountains from tribe to tribe. And thus ended the French experiment of anti-Communist guerrilla warfare in Indochina.

But if there really is somewhere in the Great Beyond a Valhalla where warriors gather, I hope that it will reserve a small niche in a shaded place under a canopy of high trees for the sacrificed tribesmen and their French comrades from the Composite Airborne Commando Groups.
I don't envy those French officers who received that last radio transmission.