Sunday, August 19, 2018

Following Ho

Bùi Tín died last week.  He was a 90 year old former Việt Minh and later disillusioned dissident who fled to France.  He participated in the Battle of Điện Biên Phủ as a political officer.  After the Geneva Accords during Operation Passage to Freedom he continued as a political cadre working to convince North Vietnamese Catholics to remain in the north.  Next he helped to bring northerners and repatriated southerners below the 17th parallel to join the NLF aka the Việt Cộng.  But he found his true calling as a journalist working for both an NVA Army newspaper and then the People's Daily (Nhân Dân), the official newspaper of the Vietnamese Communist Party, formerly famously known as the Việt Pravda.

Tín came to international attention in 1973 when a member of the NVA contingent of the Four Party Commission at Saigons Tân Sơn Nhứt Airbase.   As a journalist himself he became a darling of the Western press and their first meeting with one of their own profession who was from the north.  He understood PR and milked the situation by shaking hands with the last U.S. servicemen boarding a plane to leave country.  And he gave to one of the last, Sgt Max Bielke USAF, a gift package of Ho Chi Minh postcards and a bamboo scroll painting of a pagoda while American TV cameras were rolling.

Tín defected to Paris in 1990 after becoming embittered by many of the policies of those that followed Ho into power in Hanoi, e.g. Đồng, Duẩn, Chinh, & Thọ. - especially their intrigues and infighting and repressive methods in land reform and military/political purges.   He continued as a journalist in France and became an author.  His memoir "Following Ho Chi Minh" published in Vietnamese, French and English.  A good read if you can find a copy.  He testified in front of the US Congress about American MIAs and helped to put to bed the "live-POWs-still-imprisoned" conspiracy theory pushed by many activists and a congresscritter or two at the time.  Following his PR savvy, he took the opportunity while in Congress to greet and embrace former POW John McCain, again while the cameras were rolling.

Back in 1954 at Điện Biên Phủ he was reportedly wounded during a French airstrike.  He was with the 304th Division, which had responsibility for 'Isabelle' the southernmost of the eight French striong points.  Isabelle held the reserve airstrip and was defended by a battalion of Foreign Legionnaires from the 3e REI, plus a battalion of North African tirailleurs from the 1st Algerian Rifle Regiment, two French artillery batteries, and a tank platoon (Chaffee M-24s).  Plus there were about 1500 auxiliaries many of them White Tai highlanders, some of them light infantry, others logistics personnel.  The 304th started light operations against Isabelle in mid February.  It was invested by trenches and isolated in late March and held out until early May before falling.  Tín's unit the 304th was line infantry but they were supported by a bountiful gift of 105mm howitzers that were left behind in Red China when Chiang's Nationalist Army deployed for Taiwan.

Fitting, or perhaps just a coincidence, that he died just a few days prior to the 73rd anniversary of the August Revolution, which is when he first joined the Việt Minh as a young 17 year old.


  1. Interesting guy, and pretty amazing lifestory. It's always depressing to me, the consistency with which "revolutions" so often devolve into repression and autocracy. Is there something inherent in human nature? Is it just the opportunity for disaster is so close when people are already primed for unaccountable action?

    One note on DBP; chances are pretty good that 3REI had only a scattering of North African natives. Those would have been concentrated in the "troupes des marine", the "ghoums" of Italian Campaign notoriety. The Legion of the Fifties is supposedly to have been full of expats and DPs from WW2 Europe; ex-Heer Germans, Poles and Ukrainians fleeing the Soviets, Spanish Republicans, that sort of guy.

  2. No, the North Africans at Strongpoint Isabelle were NOT part of the Foreign Legion. I certainly did not mean to imply that. They were a battalion of the 1st Algerian Rifle Regiment. They were in addition to, but not part of, the battalion of Legionnaires of the 3rd REI. I am updating the post to make that more clear. And I am deleting the reference to Moroccans. I had gotten that from another site that claimed both Algerians and Moroccans were at Isabelle, which is possible as there was undoubtedly a lot of unit movement between strongpoints at DBP early on.

    Here is a link to the 1st Algerians badge:

    As you say they fought in Italy as part of one-armed General Juin's FEC that broke the Gustav Line. Previously they had fought in the Tunisian campaign and in 1944 they fought in the Vosges.

    Many of those Algerian veterans of DPB became key officers and NCOs of the FLN during Algerian War of Independence.

    1. Ah, got it. What a bizarre fight that must have been for the Algerians; fighting Asian enemies for their European colonial rulers...

      The North Africans were tough fighters in Italy, but away from the fighting they were appalling. Their reputation for looting and raping civilians was so bad that Clark had to make Juin send the worst offending units out of theater, IIRC. A young Sophia Loren stars in a harrowing film in which she and her adolescent daughter are raped by a gang of random French North Africans.

    2. I should qualify the comment above. The atrocities were NOT committed by the regulars in the French Algerian or Moroccan infantry units, but by irregulars called "Goumiers Marocains" who were some sort of Moroccan montaigniards. So this wasn't a "North African" thing, but a war crime committed by a specific gang of Moroccan hillbillies not in any way connected to the Algerians of DBP

    3. The Loren flick is "Two Women", and it's brilliant. Harrowing, but brilliant.

  3. Rick Atkinson's book on the campaign in Italy says General Juin's FEC had 12,000 Goumier irregulars in addition to his Algerian and Moroccan divisions. The Goums, as the Yanks called them, were Berbers with braided hair & braided beards, sandals, striped woolen djellabas and a foot-long knife on their belt. One French officer said they "lived only for brigandage and war". Each wore his booty - dozens of wristwatches on an arm, collections of rings on all fingers, etc.

    After the Algerian Division cracked the Gustav Line, Juin sent the Goumiers into the Aurunci mountains to work their way 20 miles behind the new German line. They took to it like mountain goats over routes with neither path nor trail.

    But once they got down into the valleys they went wild raping women, girls, boys, and old men. Juin had 15 of them executed and another 54 got prison terms from five years up to life. The Italians retaliated also. Five Goumiers were castrated and beheaded by villagers near Cancello northeast of Naples.

    Fifth Army CG Mark Clark authorized the transport of Berber women to Italy in Navy LSTs in order to help stop the rapes. They reportedly wore men's uniforms to stay inconspicuous.