Wednesday, May 07, 2008


I marked the beginning, now it is time for the end. From Hell in a Very Small Place:
There are several versions as to the very last words of the official radio traffic between Dien Bien Phu and the outside. According to the French press agency the conversation ended with an inspirational:

"The transmitter shall be destroyed at 1730. We shall fight to the end. Au revoir, General. Vive la France!"

But it places the final brief exchange of words at 1730 precisely, in the course of which de Castries said: "I'm blowing up all the installations. The ammunition depots are already exploding. Au revoir." There is an indication in the Headquarters journal that a short conversation of that kind may well have taken place at 1730. All other sources seemed to agree that the conversation ended on a banal: "Well then, au revoir, old boy." It was General Rene Cogny, the French commanding general in North Viet-Nam, who had said those banal words as a fitting epitaph for the dying fortress.

But a few instants after 1730 the assembled generals and other observers in Hanoi heard a voice with which they were unfamiliar. It was that of Sgt. Millien who, after seven months of total anonymity, was signing off and thus entered history:

"In five minutes, everything will be blowing up here. The Viets are only a few meters away. Greetings to everybody."

And the background cackling of the transmitter ceased. In the staff room in Hanoi the heat was stifling, and that was fortunate, for it was impossible to distinguish the sweat from the tears which were running down everybody's face. The one American present, David Schoenbrun, who had been a keen observer of the French scene for almost a decade and who had met with Ho Chi Minh shortly before the Indochina War had broken out, distinctly felt that what he was witnessing here, as day turned into dusk on May 7, was the end of the French adventure in Indochina and, indeed, the end of the French Empire.

But, somehow, this was not the last message to come from Dien Bien Phu. Prosaically, the Combat Engineers were still passing their traffic to the last minute. According to the records, it was at 1750, or eighteen minutes after the last message from de Castries' transmitter, that 9-DMO signed off with a quiet:

"We're blowing up everything. Adieu."


In the failing daylight, the valley of Dien Bien Phu represented an incredible mixture of complete human misery as friend and foe alike made their way through the deep mud, and of pristine luxury as in some places mounds of rotting dead, the agonizing wounded, and foul-smelling trenches were covered with the immaculate whiteness of the last misdropped parachutes. A total of 82,926 parachutes had been dropped into the valley, included 3,763 huge cargo parachutes. Dien Bien Phu was the first battlefield in history in which not only the dead combatants but even the ground itself wore a white silk shroud.

The western flank of the fortress was the last to be occupied by the Viet-Minh, since its positions were still covered by extensive mine fields and barbed-wire entanglements. Some of the strongpoints on Claudine were occupied as late as 1820. One of the last to be occupied was strongpoint Lily, still held by a handful of Moroccans under Major Jean Nicolas. As Nicolas looked out over the battlefield from a slit trench near his command post, a small white flag, probably a handkerchief, appeared on top of a rifle hardly fifty feet away from him, followed by the flat-helmeted head of a Viet-Minh soldier.

"You're not going to shoot anymore?" said the Viet-Minh in French.

"No, I am not going to shoot anymore," said Nicolas.

"C'est fini?" said the Viet-Minh.

"Oui, c'est fini," said the French major.

And all around them, as on some gruesome Judgment Day, mud-covered soldiers, French and enemy alike, began to crawl out of their trenches and stand erect as firing ceased everywhere.

The silence was deafening.

While the main fortifications had fallen, strongpoint Isabelle to the south had not and would attempt a breakout later that night:
The sortie was undertaken in three waves. The first, made up of 12th Company and Wieme's tribesmen, quietly slipped southward along the winding riverbed of the Nam Yum and covered nine kilometers before it ran into a Communist blocking position at Pom-Lot at around 0200 of May 8. Had there been more strength in that spearhead force, chances might have been good for more men to break out. In the ensuing fire fight, the small force was destroyed and Wieme was captured, but ten of his tribesmen and Sgt. Beguin, and two of the Legionnaires from 12th Company, managed to slip through.

The rest of the column never had a chance. The platoon formed by the tank crews, along with 11th Company, fell into a double ambush just one kilometer south of Isabelle. The Algerian riflemen who followed behind were barely out of their barbed-wire entanglements when they were attacked. And since they, in turn, were followed by a horde of walking wounded and other unarmed service personnel who had refused to be left behind, all discipline suddenly collapsed as part of the men attempted to go forward while others, including now Col. Lalande and his staff, attempted to regain the bunker line for a last stand. But the very chaos of that last battle, in total darkness except for the occasional glare of flare shells, gave those units who had retained some sort of cohesion a small chance. The tank crews veered sharply to the west into the nearby dark hills with a speed that surprised the enemy. Lieutenant Preaud and two of his men were capture, but the rest of the platoon managed to break away as a unit. Although they were to suffer casualties later, 2nd platoon of Composite Squadron, 1st Regiment of Armored Chasseurs, was the only unit to leave the valley as an organization rather than as a mob of individuals.

From where Algerian Lt. Belabiche was trying to keep the eighty men of his 8th Company together, the situation looked completely hopeless. He could not even order his men to shoot for fear that the shadows in front of his were friendly rather than enemy. The Viet-Minh seemed to have a similar problem, what with its troops now swarming all around the French, and it became suddenly clear to Belabiche that the Viet-Minh were no longer shooting at the men but rather were aiming over their heads. It would not be surprising that, as Jules Roy indicates, a small group of Viet-Minh officers under a flag of truce found it extremely difficult to make their way through that compact mass of humanity in order to meet Lalande and tell him to cease fighting, as further resistance was useless.

At 0150, the command aircraft picked up the very last message a Frenchman would send from Dien Bien Phu:

Sortie failed-Stop-Can no longer communicate with you-Stop and end.

It was the end, indeed. The end of the Indochina War. The end of France as a colonial power.
Although Dien Bien Phu may have been "the end," there still remained the long trek to and stay in the prison camps, where out of 10,863 men taken prisoner only 3,290 would survive to be repatriated at the end of hostilities. There also remained the agony of G.M. 100 on the Central Highlands of Vietnam. And of course, it would be a much longer time before peace would come to much of Indochina.