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Posted on Nov 6, 2006 in Front Page Features, War College

Vietnam: Years of Glory and Grief

By Wild Bill Wilder

The French Leave

France initially did not take the Viet Minh as a serious threat and was slow in trying to eliminate the problem. Once things had gotten out of hand, however, it was hoped that the US would become concerned and get involved in the conflict. The United States had just finished their stint in Korea, and did not want to further commit themselves to the Far East. As a viable alternative, large amounts of Second World War surplus war material was given to the French with the hope that such a contribution would enable their ally to overcome the enemy.

Even with millions of dollars of war materials available, France still failed in Vietnam for two reasons. First, they totally underestimated the tenacity of the Viet Minh. They viewed the enemy as a backward society, totally incapable of dealing with modern weapons and strategy. To the proud French officers, it was simply inconceivable that such an opponent could win.


Secondly, they were lethargic in their military campaign to destroy the Communist army. Since in their mind, the enemy they faced could not possibly win, there was no urgency in dealing with them. After dozens of battles that stretched over the entire expanse of Indochina for over a period of four years, from 1949 to 1954, the struggle was culminated in the classic battle of Dien Bien Phu.

Ho Chi Minh

Located almost 300 miles west of Hanoi, the hamlet was only 10 miles from the Laotian border, and was the junction of three main roads. Located in a basin and surrounded by wooded hills, the French generals decided it would be the ideal spot for a final showdown with the Vietminh. Here the enemy would pound himself to death against stout French defenses. The armies of the Vietminh would suffer such horrendous losses that they would no longer be a threat of any consequence.

The troops that were parachuted into the area quickly constructed two airstrips to maintain a link with the capital. By early 1954, 12 battalions, including the famous French Foreign Legionnaires, and most of the French artillery that could be found were centered in Dien Bien Phu. In addition, 10 disassembled M-24 Chaffee tanks were flown in and prepared for battle at the base. Six Grumman F-8 Bearcat Fighters were stationed at the large airfield.

Once again the French underestimated the enemy. In what was seemingly an impossible feat, General Giap had dragged massive amounts of artillery into the hills surrounding Dien Bien Phu. After intensive shelling of the French base, Viet Minh soldiers relentlessly advanced upon the defensive positions. Poor construction of many of the buildings and bunkers at Dien Bien Phu allowed bursting shells to rip through them. The base was designed for offensive maneuvering, with little thought to stout defenses.

A week later, on March 18th, three of the eight fortresses had fallen. Giap, however, sobered by his losses to the valiant French defenders, began a new strategy. His troops moved forward at night and then dug in for the next day. At the same time, the troops at Dien Bien Phu were not being properly resupplied. A serious shortage of rations, medicine, and the all important ammunition resulted, due to deadly anti-aircraft fire from the surrounding hills, which prevented French artillery from decimating approaching troops.

Every night, French and national soldiers could hear the tunneling of the Viet Minh sappers as they approached. On March 30th, a massive assault was ordered by Giap, which lasted until April 5th. The remaining allied troops barely had a toehold on the remaining positions. Giap was forced to pause, however, and rebuild his forces, due to severe losses. On May 1st, the last great assault was begun, and 6 days later, the remaining 11,000 French troops surrendered.

This tragic defeat sealed the fate of France in Indochina. In July 1954, the Geneva Agreements were signed, which also partitioned Indochina at the 17th parallel, thus creating a North and South Vietnam. A new president, Ngo Dinh Diem, began his rule in South Vietnam. At the end of the year President Eisenhower promised direct aid to South Vietnam. This aid would be in the form of arms and ammunition for the South Vietnamese troops, plus the presence of the American military in the form of advisors sent to train and guide them.

As noted military historian Captain Shelby Stanton says, they were, “…the glue holding the South Vietnamese Army together. As the year closed they could be seen accompanying ARVN soldiers on routine patrols and in combat assaults, their tall lanky figures crowned with maroon berets or faded green, sweat-soaked baseball caps; carrying 45’s in shoulder holsters and World War II carbines. Wearing utility shirts adorned with brightly colored Vietnamese and American flag insignia crowding their gold-lettered U.S. Army tapes and white name tags, they represented an era that was rapidly slipping into oblivion on the eve of the "big war." These were the pioneers of a rising United States involvement in Vietnam, the pathfinders in a war destined to consume an entire American Army."

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1 Comment

  1. The Armchair General needs to get off his butt and do some research into the realities of the true Vietnam war.