• French Indochina

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    FRENCH INDOCHINA

     

    “I’m going to die here in this God-forsaken valley,” said Colonel Gerard Duran, the monsoon rain pelting his face.

                                                        *****

    Just under two feet long, the creature was born off San Cristobal in the Galapagos Islands. Grotesque, vicious, already hungry.  The thing’s mother turned towards him – and attempted to swallow him whole.  But he was too quick, dodging away while others fell prey to her and other predators.  Finally there were just five left – already they could feel the pull of the kelp beds and safety.  Within a day, they were down to three, one bitten almost in half by a monster that came flashing from above.  The other, sliced open by a moray eel while looking for food among the coral.

    The three stayed near the coast, devouring clams, lobsters, fish and anything else they could rip apart with two-inch teeth. When attacked, they confused pursuers by scattering in different directions.  And they grew, and grew. By the second year, they were five feet long — and cannibals — ganging up and rendering their sister to bite sized lumps.  Then the creature went south alone, along the west coast of South America until the ocean turned frigid.  The thing’s hunting skills improved day by day.  It could smell blood – one part per million of seawater — six miles away.  Its sonar could sense the thrashing of wounded prey within a three-mile radius. It would then race, at up to sixteen miles per hour, to track down the victim.  Seven feet long and weighing over 1100 pounds – it continued to grow; especially its serrated fangs — more fantastic and terrifying in appearance each day.

    *****

                                                        

    For 1125 years, Indochina was ruled by Chinese dynasties.  After centuries of slavery the indigenous peoples finally gained independence around the year 938. While little trade with the outside world existed, a Catholic mission in Hanoi was established in 1615 by the Society of Jesus (Jesuits). By the 1702, ten percent of the population was Catholic. But regional rulers were concerned with the high rate of baptisms, and finally they banished all missionaries. In 1787 a priest petitioned the French government to send French military volunteers to help a regional leader retake his territory – but in reality it was to get a major foothold in the most productive, coastal country, Viet Nam, which was divided into thirds – Tonkin, Annam, and Cochinchine.

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    From that point on, France was heavily involved, under the guise of protecting the work of the Paris Foreign Mission Society. Admiral de Genouilly came to Vietnam in 1859 under orders from Napoleon the Third.  He had fourteen gunships and 3350 troops.  Hanoi was besieged and occupied.  Next the flotilla sailed south to Saigon and took the city.  Eventually some of the rulers in the three regions asked France to become their protector.  The French controlled and administered not only what is now Viet Nam, but also Laos, Cambodia and parts of Siam (Thailand).  The area was officially recognized as “French Indochina” around 1887. 

    Other than when Japan took control the during the Second World War, France ruled the area continuously, with an iron fist — the schools, the missions, the taxes, the offices and all aspects of government. They built railroads, bridges, highways, communications systems, and the greatest structures in the country.  The rulers, both local and national, were all figureheads, just like those in India under the British Raj.

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    “After World War II, rebel leader Ho Chi Minh returned from his base in China, declaring independence for a Democratic Republic of Vietnam. He began resistance against France, who attempted to hold on, for reasons unclear – other than national pride – since its Indochina reign bled the national treasury every year.  The people hated the French foreigners, and looked on them as conquerors. Viet Minh guerrillas got better and stronger – but the French were superior in discipline, weapons and air power. 

                                                    *****

    The monster was now sixteen years old, having survived attacks from other denizens of the deep; it traveled all the oceans – but stayed mainly 3000 miles on each side of the equator along the continental shelves.  Curious, and always looking for new prey, it dived deep into the Marianna Trench just east of the Philippines.  At 9000 feet, it found two problems – it could not stand the pressure, and there were creatures larger and more terrible than itself.   It liked the shallows – scaring prey into the rocks along the shore, then pouncing when they finally emerged.  Once it smelled carrion two miles away.  The flesh was unlike any it had ever tasted – sweet and soft.  Then, during a typhoon, a boat overturned and the sailors drowned.  He recognized the flavor from before, and studied the creatures before devouring them. 

    After that, he began to follow splashing from coastal shore waters where he hadn’t hunted before.  He was never still, except when it rested on the sea bed, with the current gently moving past, just waiting for a victim.  It never slept; the black lidless eyelids were always open.  Every few months, especially in the Malaysian Archipelago, the creature would find one of the big soft fish.  As time went on, it recognized that whenever a hurricane, typhoon, cyclone or tsunami passed above him, there were likely to be these man things in the water.  Some dead, some still alive.  He preferred the fresh ones – bleeding and still moving.

                                                       *****

    “I think we’ll die here,” said Colonel Duran. The screech of the artillery shells ended in a “whump, whump” as they hit.  The mud beneath their feet rippled, and clotted earth cascaded down the bunker walls. The shadows from the candle flickered in the twilight, revealing two men, one whose hands shook as he pulled a Gauloises from its pack.  The previous stub was still smoking in the hand-carved ashtray, almost guttered by the rain.  He was a mess.  His uniform dirty and torn, hanging on a gaunt frame, scars on his arms, and one on his face about three inches long in front of his left ear, fingernails bitten to the quick, lips tightly pinched—he was forty but looked fifty.  Strangely enough, at six foot two, he was still vital and handsome. He had just come back from leading part of his Brigade in an unsuccessful counter-attack.  The two men were seated on sandbags, their bunker overlooking the Nam Rom River.  They were at the French outpost of Bien Dien Phu in extreme northwest Vietnam – a garrison of 19,000 men.  The Chinese border was 125 miles north, Hanoi 265 miles to the east, Laos just 18 miles west. The valley was 12 twelve miles long and three miles wide.

    It was April 15th, 1954.

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     “Sir, didn’t I see you at the military training facility before the ‘36’ Olympics?” said the second man, Captain Jacque Montel, a newly arrived officer who was equally haggard. “I think I recognized you from there.” 

    Colonel Duran, the man smoking the cigarette, said, “You might have, but very shortly after I was in French Equatorial Africa, in northern Cameroon.  It was my initial posting.”

    “So you did not make it to Germany for the Olympics. 

    “No, of course not, I was four weeks from the coast, down with a yellow fever attack, and I was needed in Maroura to maintain order.  My captain would have never let me go.” 

    “Why do you ask?” said Duran. 

    “Just wondered if you made it to Berlin. I was able to go to some of the summer events.  In fact, I was an alternate on the mile run.  I just couldn’t quite reach an Olympic level.  I met you once, but that was long ago – no reason you would remember me.  I know you did very well in the freestyle, and also in the backstroke, during the tryouts in Paris.  I was sure you would represent France.  As for myself, I had great hopes, but I never had the chance to put a foot on the Berlin track.

    “Would you like to know what happened – why I wasn’t there, and why I said we’ll probably die here?” Gerard said, softening his voice.

    “Of course,” said Jacque.

     

    “I came from a village just south of Saint Etienne in the mountain district.  My father was a schoolteacher and my mother helped on our small farm selling milk and eggs.  I swam in the river Furen, even on the coldest of days.  With my father’s help, I did well in school. My mother’s brother, a captain in the legion, encouraged me to apply to the Ecole Speciale Militaire de Saint-Cyr in Brittany; it was founded by Napoleon in 1802. I began my studies at sixteen, and spent four very difficult years – just barely passing my final exams in order to receive my commission. But I was the best swimmer at the academy. During those years, I had continued to improve my speed, especially the backstroke.  My long arms and legs made a big difference as I grew.  It looked as if I would be able to represent France in the backstroke and probably the freestyle in 1936.”

    “Other than my studies and training, my only other interest was Gisele, who I met in my senior year.  I fell in love, and to my amazement, the feeling was mutual.  I met her father, who was a General de Brigaide.  I could see immediately that he thought I was below Gisele’s station, and he treated me coolly.  Nevertheless we were committed to one another; and while not yet engaged, we were talking about a marriage date as soon as we knew where my first post would be.”

    “During my last year at the academy, I had become acquainted with another cadet, Charles Bovier.  He was from a wealthy military family and assumed he would have his choice of posts.  He was a friend, not a good friend, but the joint interest in swimming brought us together.  He had a girl, Esme’, and the four of us would occasionally go out on weekends.  Charles was charming, funny and sophisticated, pretty much everything I was not.  My swimming continued to improve, and I was second on our Olympic team in the backstroke.  Charles was number six in the breaststroke, and could only expect to be an alternate.” 

    “Yes, I met him in Paris five years ago,” said Jacque.  “I thought him a pompous ass.” 

    “The Olympics began the first part of August.  We graduated on June 12th.  There were several athletes at the academy that had qualified in various sports.   All of those expected to have their postings deferred until after the games.  That was my expectation – the Olympic Committee had already asked for my deferment.”

    “Then the Commandant of the school made me an offer I dared not refuse.  I would be posted to French Equatorial Africa, but I had to leave within two weeks – I was needed immediately.   My tour there would be for one year, then back to Paris for a possible appointment to a Brigade staff.  I would arrive in Cameroon as a 1st Lieutenant, to compensate for missing the Olympics, a promotion that would have normally taken three years.  Little did I know that Charles and Gisele’s father were behind the offer.” 

    “I talked with Gisele about the opportunity, knowing I could not take her with me.  We decided to become engaged and then to marry when I returned.  Charles assured me he would keep any suitors from making her acquaintance.  I could not refuse the appointment without damaging my military career, although I would have loved to compete in the Olympics.” 

    “Little did it matter, the Japanese dominated the aquatics. Our home country did not medal in a single swimming event. The Germans won eighty-nine medals, topping all countries, giving Hitler more fuel to proclaim his Master Race.  But the black man, Jesse Owens, from the US, won four medals in the sprints.  His success took the smug look off Hitler’s face for a few days.” 

     

    “When did you come out?” asked Gerard.

     “Three weeks ago next Tuesday,” said Jacque. “My father was here in 1898 as a major in the Premier Réegiment d’Infanterie.   He died of dengue fever. I really don’t know much about this wretched country, especially this valley we are trying to defend.?”

     “But what happened to your plans for marriage, and how did you end up here in Indochina?” asked Captain Montel

    “Charles took care of Gisele by convincing her that I would have never left if I really loved her.  While I was in the jungles of Cameroon getting bitten, shot at, and almost dying of fever, he convinced her to marry him.  Communications were so bad that I didn’t find out until three months after they married.”

    “She met me two years later at a small cafe – asked for my forgiveness and cried as she told me of the terrible mistake she had made, marrying Charles.  She had twin boys by that time.  Nothing I could do but accept the situation as a consequence of life.  As you know, her husband, now General Charles Bovier, is our new division commander.  He will arrive here in ten days.  He will be our direct superior, so it should be interesting after all these years.” 

    “Where did you serve after Cameroon?”  “I was sent to The New Hebrides, then to Gabon where I lost this.  Charles held up his left hand to show the missing little finger.  “What happened?”   “I put down my hand to push away a branch and felt a sting at the end of my finger.  I looked and there was a black mamba.  I started to suck the venom out, but my sergeant and two troopers threw me down, pulled out a machete, and once they located the puncture marks, chopped off my little finger.  They informed me that within two minutes I would have been dead.” 

    “My commander transferred me to New Caledonia right after that.  Then to French Guiana, where I caught malaria, then back to France in 1940. I was evacuated from France at Dunkirk along with the other 330,000 troops.  Egypt was next, chasing Rommel’s Africa Corps.  At the end of the war, I was in the expeditionary force that routed the Japanese from Indochina; I learned to speak Vietnamese fluently during that two-year period.  Got shot through my left lung, and then had a large piece of shrapnel rip into my face – that’s where this scar came from,” he said, touching his cheek.  “With one lung, my swimming is not quite the same as when I thought I was headed for the Olympics.”

     “I had one fantastic post right after the war, to the Society Islands.  I was on Bora Bora some of the time – there is not a more beautiful place in this world.


    When I finally leave the army in five years, I intend to live on that island there the balance of my life. I met a girl shortly after I came back to Viet Nam in 1951 – Anne Marie is half French and half Vietnamese – a good Catholic girl. All my memories of Gisele disappeared in a heartbeat as soon as I met her.  I just have to get myself, and her, out of this country before Ho Chi Minh is my Commanding Officer.  We lost 2200 men last week, and as you know, our only supplies are coming by air – if we don’t surrender soon, the garrison will be overrun – leaving only the dead.”

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                                                                *****

    The creature grew and grew, until just its odd pinkish appearance and nineteen-foot length would cause everything in the water to scatter and hide.  More and more it depended on the soft brown and white flesh it dragged under.  It feared nothing, except Great Whites and Killer Whales.  The thing found that fresh water carried just enough oxygen for it to survive, and it began going farther and farther up the rivers flowing into the South China Sea.  There was a massive population of the soft creatures and they were abundant in the shallow feeding areas.  Only once was it in danger, when its jaws became entangled in a fisherman’s net.  He freed himself and attacked the boat, tipping it over with his massive snout and then eating three of the victims.  The creature needed a full stomach every three days to satisfy its hunger.

    *****

    Brigadier General Charles Bovier tried to land via a Sikorsky H-19 Helicopter in Dien Bien Phu on April 22, 1954 amid a thundering barrage of artillery fire from the surrounding hills.  The airport had been severely damaged and was closed to fixed-wing aircraft.  His helicopter was hit by flak, and he eventually had to jump with ten other paratroopers. He sustained bruises and cuts on a rough landing. Immediately he held an officer’s meeting underground – as the new Commander in Chief of the thousands of men in the Dien Bien Phu valley.  He was overweight – and nervous, as well he should be.  A quick tour showed that there was no way out for the garrison.  After that, he never left his underground bunker unless absolutely necessary – and he began plotting his own escape.

    The division was under constant bombardment by the Viet Minh, whose heavy artillery, rockets, and anti-aircraft pieces were concealed in caves on both sides above the valley.  The division continued probing attacks each night, sometimes gaining a few yards. But they were losing more than than they gained – it was becoming trench warfare, just like WWI.  The original plan had been to draw the Viet Minh in, and then attack from the air with a massive bombardment.  Little did the senior officers know that surrounding them were 49,000 troops, with fifteen thousand more in reserve.

    General Bovier came up to Colonel Duran and greeted him –  with a spongy handshake, his paunch bulging over his belt.  “I hope that there are no hard feelings between us after all these years – as they say, the best man won Gisele’s heart. I shall expect the very best from you,” he said with a weak smile.

    Reluctantly Duran said,  “You are the commandant and I am ready to carry out whatever orders you give.”  He quickly found that his orders put his brigade in the forefront of the heaviest fire, especially at night.  But other than a few shrapnel scratches, he was unscathed.

    Day by day, towards the end of April, the perimeter shrank dramatically and casualties increased.  The bombardment never ceased, and the helicopters came in at their own risk after dark;  by the first of May, none dared land there.  The only relief was from a few arriving paratroopers.  Supplies were down to dried fruit, instant coffee and cigarettes. Ammunition was running out, and morale was the worst Colonel Duran had ever seen – four thousand of their own troops had deserted or surrendered, most slipping across the border into Laos. 

    The officers, non-commissioned officers, and even the enlisted men wondered if they should lay down their weapons. They were especially vocal about their commander, since they rarely saw him. The word “coward” began circulating.  There was a good chance that the enlisted men would refuse to obey their officers. 

     

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    The thing made its way up the Red River, past Hanoi where it met the Da river, feeding on the increasing number of corpses that were swept downriver.  There were live man-things also, but they were on guard and hard to catch along the banks.  But feeding was easy where the two rivers met. The wounded succumbed, to be dragged below.  It was now fifty miles upriver.

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                                                                                                             ***** 

    Finally, on May 5th, Commander Bovier made a decision.  He called his senior staff and line officers and ordered them to get their gear ready for that night. He had an H23-A that would take thirteen of them out of Dien Bien Phu at 2:00 AM in the morning, but he told no one. There might be a Courts Marshall, but it was better than being bayoneted through the chest. He expected an massive attack at any minute from General Giap’s army which would overrun what was left of the entire division. Colonel Duran protested and said he wished to stay with his men to the last. Charles had two other officers throw Gerard into the helicopter and restrain him.  He left the remaining 7300 able soldiers to be captured; they would later face a 500 mile march through the jungles to the east – only half survived.

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    The helicopter was under fire coming in, and then for the first two minutes after takeoff. There were some minor hits but the craft continued on its way, headed for the secure base at Hanoi. Then oil began streaming along the left side, and smoke trailed behind them. 

    “We’re probably going down,” yelled the pilot, “The hydraulics have failed.  I may have to land in the Da River if I can’t keep altitude.” 

    Faster and faster they descended. Colonel Duran turned to Charles and said, “If we are going to crash into the river, we need to jump when we are about 100 feet above the water. Otherwise the impact of the craft will kill us.” 

    Charles looked terrified, but Duran said, “I’ll tell you when to jump.”  A minute later they both leaped, feet first, legs crossed, arms locked to their sides.  Gerard landed awkwardly as he hit something in the water and found he had broken his right leg – he could feel the broken bone just beneath his skin.

    Three hours later, they were lying across a small log. It was not yet day, but the light of the stars had dwindled.   They slowly drifted downstream, when something bumped the log.  Charles looked over and thought he saw something roil the water twenty feet away. Just then the log was lifted violently, the two men losing their grip. 

    They both stroked down river as fast as they could, heading for the south bank;, Duran using only his arms.  Spotlights played over the waters from the north side, and they continually ducked to miss the beams – in a few more minutes dawn would break. 

    What the hell was that?” asked Charles.  “Did we hit something?” 

    “It was alive; I could feel some sort of skin,” said Gerard.  “But it can’t be a shark this far from the ocean?.” “Look!”  Both could see something very large coming toward them; it looked almost pink in the near-dawn. It had a long sword-like snout, and somehow, somehow, it looked as if its jaws were emerging from its skull.

    Next month there will a short conclusion.  What was the creature, and what happened to the two men?  All revealed in October.

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