French commanders decided to establish their presence in northwest Vietnam at an abandoned WWII Japanese airbase. They assumed a fortified base at the bottom of a valley would prevent the Vietminh from supplying their forces in Laos. With their modern air force, advanced technology, and professional soldiers they could easily defeat General Giap in a pitched battle.
Believing our side was in the right, I recall the sickness in my gut when 8,000 Frenchmen were marched off as prisoners.
That’s why I included “A Prayer for Pierre” in Rory O’Donnell and the Kennedys.
A Different Outlook, by Rory O’Donnell, July, 1954, Evening Bulletin
For the remainder of my life, I’ll wonder about my brother Liam’s last thoughts when in 1945 his plane plunged into the Sea of Japan. So too, will I wonder about the last thoughts of those valiant defenders of Dien Bien Phu. To understand their frustration, we need to put
ourselves in their place. Imagine yourself as Pierre, a fictional officer—veteran paratrooper, small of frame, as Frenchmen tend to be.
The light fog lifted and the Dakota readied in position over the drop zone, deep in communist-held territory. Pierre faced his squad of foreign legionnaires, repeating the dream of General Navarre, “We secure the borders of Laos, engaging the Vietminh on our terms, cutting their supply and communication lines, defeating them in a battle that’ll be remembered by Frenchmen for generations.” Taking his place at the front of the line, gazing downward at the dense jungle whizzing past, Pierre swallowed to calm his anxiety. With a silent prayer on his lips, he jumped into the void.
The young officer’s spirit exhilarated over the near perfect drop and the minimal casualties from a short-lived firefight. “Operation Castor will be celebrated at Hanoi headquarters tonight,” he proclaimed loud and often. Little did Pierre know or care that the assault to retake Dien Bien Phu occurred without Paris’ approval. Rather, he appreciated General Castries’ French humor when he named the satellite defensive lines, protecting the main fort, after seven of his former girlfriends. Day after day as more troops poured in, Pierre’s feeling of confidence rose. He knew the ten-mile long, bowl-shaped valley could easily provide space for two airfields. With the nearby major roads, their superior training, technology, and air power, his troops would radiate forth, driving the insurgents from Northwest Vietnam. He wasn’t bothered in the least that the surrounding heavily-wooded landscape hadn’t been secured because construction within the fortified areas continued unabated. None knew that 50,000 Vietminh had secretly disassembled heavy-weapons, moving them with mountains of supplies and ammunition into position.
Months elapsed before an astonished Pierre dove for cover when the hidden foe shelled the encampments from the surrounding ridgelines. A sick feeling in his stomach made him aware the siege had begun, and their efforts to deter a foe, unworthy of a Frenchman’s steel, were in vain. Six weeks of cat and mouse engagements occurred before Pierre and his compatriots realized they were surrounded by thousands of highly-trained Vietminh. The long awaited set-piece melee would soon commence. As the Ides of March approached, French intelligence warned the fortress to expect an attack because settlers were being evacuated from the valley. On March 13th, strong points Beatrice and Gabrielle were the first to endure the enemy’s offensive under an unrelenting bombardment of 9,000 shells. After bitter hand-to-hand fighting, redoubt Beatrice fell.
Dumfounded that his opponents could maintain such a continuous barrage, Pierre had his confidence shattered when shortly thereafter, the 5/7 Algerian Rifles evacuated Gabrielle. Next, the airfield came under constant fire making daytime landings hopeless. Then the dreaded impossible happened. With both runways destroyed, the field was closed to all incoming and outgoing traffic. The French were trapped in a place of their own choosing. Pierre tried to console his men by telling them the Vietminh could not possibly maintain their murderous pace. Deep in his tired soul, he prayed to keep his own despair at bay. To hide their desperate situation from the rank and file, officers of Pierre’s rank weren’t told that artillery commander Colonel Piroth had pulled the pin of a grenade and committed suicide.
Reinforcements continued to arrive. But despite their presence, strongpoint Anne-Marie capitulated, shaking the faith of the remaining defenders. Pierre, who endured communist loudspeakers inciting the legionnaires to desert, derived his limited courage from the only woman on the base. The Angel of Dien Bien Phu, Nurse Genevieve de Galard had remained steadfast at her station.
In their one moment of success, the French recaptured the Dominique and Eliane strongholds. An action that failed to raise Pierre’s diminishing hope.
While Pierre’s comrades remained on the defensive, Vietnamese General Vo Nguyen Giap’s men dug a trench around the main compound with spokes spreading toward the French fortress, enabling the communists to avoid detection while placing themselves in position to attack at will.
For the bone-weary defenders, the situation continued to deteriorate. Pierre lost his Catholic faith when his God opened the heavens and deluged the compound with monsoon rains, filling the trenches with hip-deep muck. Meanwhile, the French continually ordered reinforcements into the besieged stronghold. General Giap countered by setting up Russian, WWII, six-tube rocket-launchers, devastating the remaining fortifications. While the destitute Pierre starved, supplies dropped by parachute went awry, falling into enemy control. Even massive air attacks could not deter the camouflaged foe, patiently waiting for the air raids to halt before resuming the shelling. Unknown to the besieged, negotiations to get America’s Secretary of State John Foster Dulles involved came to naught, and this lonely outpost, far from civilization was on its own.
Under orders to hold out at all costs, the survivors exhausted the last of their ammunition then waited for the inevitable. As Pierre was led into captivity, Dominique and Eliane fell simultaneously. Knowing that only fortress Isabelle remained, Pierre realized that his country was finished as a colonial power. The following day, Isabelle was overrun, and France requested an armistice. What were Pierre’s last thoughts?
Did he have time to scream?
Did he have time to pray?