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Gen­eral Voõ Nguyeân Gi­aùp's ac­count of the Viet­namese Pro­pa­ganda and Lib­er­a­tion Army's first bat­tle ap­pears in his first mem­oir, From the

Peo­ple On­wards, which be­gins in 1940 and con­cludes be­fore Vieät Nam's Au­gust 1945 Rev­o­lu­tion. In a chap­ter be­fore the one pre­sented here, Gen Gi­aùp quotes Hoà Chí Minh's in­struc­tions for the newly es­tab­lished army: "Within about a month, you must stage an ac­tion. Your first bat­tle must be a vic­tory." Three days af­ter the army's found­ing, Gi­aùp staged the first two bat­tles.

From the Peo­ple On­wards has never ap­peared in a for­eign lan­guage. I am fin­ish­ing an English trans­la­tion and was for­tu­nate to have a grant from the Luce Foun­da­tion to re­search the French side of the story. Now, we have the name of the un­for­tu­nate French com­man­der in the first bat­tle, while from Gen Gi­aùp, we have his ac­count of the French cor­po­ral's un­in­tended death.

This first bat­tle took place in Nguyeân Bình District, Cao Baèng Prov­ince in the moun­tain­ous far north of Vieät Nam. Al­though the bat­tle was very close to the Baéc Kaïn pro­vin­cial bor­der, the la­bel on the French file reads: "2nd Mil­i­tary District: Com­mu­nist Ac­tiv­i­ties in the Re­gion of Thai Nguyen, 19441945." The bat­tle was on Christ­mas Day, which is not of con­se­quence for most Viet­namese but may ac­count for the French com­man­der's de­par­ture from Phai Khaét for the district post in Nguyeân Bình.

Gen Gi­aùp men­tions the names of sev­eral mem­bers of the orig­i­nal army, which had thirty-four troops, only four of whom were eth­nic Kinh.

Thu Sôn (a.k.a. Nguyeãn Vaên Caøng, 1919-1998) was eth­nic Taøy from Hoàng Vieät Vil­lage, Hoøa An District, Cao Baèng. He be­gan his rev­o­lu­tion­ary ac­tiv­ity in 1936, joined the Party in 1941, and stud­ied at Wham­poa Mil­i­tary Academy in Can­ton (Guangzhou, China). Af­ter this bat­tle, Thu Sôn led units dur­ing the March to the South to op­pose the French re-oc­cu­pa­tion of south­ern Vieät Nam in late 1945, be­gin­ning three weeks af­ter Vieät Nam's Dec­la­ra­tion of In­de­pen­dence [on Septem­ber]. He sub­se­quently com­manded re­gional units in Cao Baèng and in Tuyeân Quang prov­inces. Thu Sôn re­tired as a lieu­tenant colonel.

Saâm (a.k.a. Traàn Vaên Kyø, 1915-1968) was eth­nic Viet­namese and came from Leä Sôn Vil­lage, Tuyeân Hoùa District in Gi­aùp's home prov­ince of Quaûng Bình in Vieät Nam's Cen­tral Re­gion (An­nam). At age twelve, he went to Thai­land, where Hoà Chí Minh trained him as a li­ai­son youth. Saâm joined the Party in 1933. He com­manded the army's first com­pany, which had four pla­toons and com­manded the 304th Di­vi­sion at Ñieän Bieân Phuû. Hoaøng Saâm was killed in com­bat while com­man­der of Trò Thieân (Quaûng Trò - Thöa-Thieân Hueá) Re­gion dur­ing the Amer­i­can War.

Luaän, who fired the army's first shots per­haps from im­petu­ous re­venge but con­trary to or­ders, was eth­nic Kinh from Quaûng Bình. We don't yet know any­thing more about the un­for­tu­nate French­man, Cor­po­ral Si­mon­neau.

Here is Gen Gi­aùp's ac­count in From the Peo­ple On­wards:

O ur sol­diers re­ceived their first com­bat or­ders on the af­ter­noon of De­cem­ber 24, [1944], two days af­ter we had for­mally es­tab­lished the army.

Dur­ing pre­vi­ous days, as the squads care­fully re­searched our plan for en­gag­ing the en­emy, they came to un­der­stand the im­por­tance of "Your first bat­tle must be a vic­tory." Now, all the squads wanted to lead the van- guard break­ing into an en­emy post.

Bright yel­low sun­shine spread across the moun­tain­tops. Our flag with its fresh star flut­tered over our troops in for­ma­tion. Soon, our armed sol­diers filed along a twist­ing path, which me­an­dered across the moun­tain­side. I fol­lowed the first squad. Even though we were only one pla­toon, we had never used such a con­cen­tra­tion of troops. I looked ahead and then

glanced back and saw our line of sol­diers stretch­ing into the dis­tance.

Be­fore we de­scended onto the plain, we stepped off the path and into the for­est, where we changed our clothes, dis­guis­ing our­selves as a unit from the en­emy's in­dige­nous forces. As soon as it was dark, we moved on down the moun­tain and onto the Kim Maõ Plain. Af­ter sup­per, ev­ery­one slept for a while along­side the rice pad­dies, breath­ing in the fields' fra­grance. At mid­night, we rose and silently climbed a moun­tain, which was lo­cated about a kilo­me­tre be­hind the en­emy post.

That night, I found it im­pos­si­ble to sleep. We had pre­pared our plan care­fully, but I still had to an­tic­i­pate the un­ex­pected.

Phai Khaét Vil­lage, which be­longed to Tam Loäng Com­mune, had about ten house­holds along­side a stream. A wide rice plain stretched in front of the vil­lage, which backed up against a clus­ter of moun­tains. Phai Khaét was a "com­plete" vil­lage, mean­ing ev­ery­one took part in our Vieät Minh As­so­ci­a­tion to Save the Na­tion [or the League for Vieät Nam In­de­pen­dence]. The en­emy had been un­able to shake a sin­gle vil­lager's will from the be­gin­ning of his ter­ror un­til now. The com­pa­tri­ots main­tained their li­ai­son con­nec­tions and dili­gently sup­plied food for rev­o­lu­tion­ary cadre work­ing un­der­cover. The en­emy had oc­cu­pied Com­rade Laïc's house to bil­let sol­diers. Since the en­emy was con­cen­trated in­side Phai Khaét Vil­lage, in or­der to en­ter the French post, we would have to cross two perime­ters. The en­emy forced the vil­lagers to pa­trol the outer perime­ter, while en­emy sol­diers pa­trolled the fort's in­ner and ma­jor perime­ter. This post had nearly twenty in­dige­nous sol­diers un­der a French of­fi­cer's com­mand.

We had care­fully stud­ied the post's lay­out, in­clud­ing the lo­ca­tion of its arms store­room, the com­man­der's quar­ters, the sol­diers' bunkroom, and the mess hall; we had also scru­ti­nized the en­emy's daily sched­ule. Lit­tle Hoàng had told us the guards took their weapons with them when they went to eat and then would hang up their ri­fles in the mess hall.

Our unit had made its plan. We would dis­guise our­selves as a pla­toon of en­emy in­dige­nous sol­diers com­ing from the district to check the lo­cal Phai Khaét Post. In that way, we could break in eas­ily. Once we'd blown in like a sud­den gust of wind, we would oc­cupy the arms store- room and force all en­emy sol­diers to sur­ren­der. If they re­sisted, we would use our weapons and kill them.

We knew the best time for ac­tion was around 5 pm, when the en­emy ate sup­per. It would still be day­light. How­ever, our dis­guises would make day­time en­try eas­ier be­cause the en­emy would be less watch­ful. By the time we fin­ished our op­er­a­tion, it would be dark. Even if the Viet­namese in­dige­nous forces alerted their su­per­vis­ing post in Nguyeân Bình, the district seat, the en­emy would be un­able to send re­in­force­ments be­fore morn­ing. We would have the night to tidy up the bat­tle­field, pre­pare the lo­cal peo­ple for the en­emy's re­tal­i­a­tion, and with­draw.

The en­tire next day, our sol­diers re­mained on the small moun­tain be­hind Phai Khaét. Sev­eral Lib­er­a­tion Army sol­diers dressed as or­di­nary vil­lagers stood watch at the paths' in­ter­sec­tions. The lo­cal self-de­fence com­rades had cre­ated a net of pro­tec­tion around our unit. Sev­eral un­wanted events could oc­cur. If the en­emy sent his forces up the moun­tain, we would se­cretly with­draw with­out leav­ing a trace. If lo­cal peo­ple started climb­ing the moun­tain to gather fire­wood or tim­ber, lo­cal self-de­fence guer­ril­las would usher them away in a dif­fer­ent di­rec­tion.

Early the next morn­ing, some women from the vil­lage se­cretly brought us rice and wa­ter. Around mid­day, just as we had pre­dicted, sev­eral vil­lagers de­cided to gather fire­wood, but the lo­cal self­de­fence clev­erly led them to a dif­fer­ent moun­tain.

Scouts kept us ap­prised of the en­emy's sit­u­a­tion. Lit­tle Hoàng re­ported that the French com­man­der had left on horse­back for the district town. The French of­fi­cer's de­par­ture re­lieved us of one ob­sta­cle.

That af­ter­noon, af­ter 2pm, the women once again se­cretly brought us rice. Af­ter eat­ing, Party mem­bers and of­fi­cers di­vided up to cau­cus with the war­riors, re­view each de­tail, and en­cour­age per­fec­tion in our army's first bat­tle.

At 5pm, the Phai Khaét vil- lagers were star­tled to see a unit of in­dige­nous sol­diers wear­ing in­digo-blue uni­forms with the trousers bunched up over their leg­gings. These troops sported blue hel­mets with white en­cir­cling the brims. A "chief" and two sol­diers from the spe­cial troops that the French used to squash in­sur­rec­tions led this unit, which marched to­ward the vil­lage from the di­rec­tion of Nguyeân Bình. The unit reached the vil­lage gate in the outer perime­ter. One of our ad­vanc­ing sol­diers handed the vil­lage guard an in­tro­duc­tion pa­per. Di­vid­ing into three groups, our sol­diers marched into the French post.

Vil­lagers who were Vieät Minh mem­bers as­sumed the en­emy was adding troops to the post. Surely, they said to each other, to­mor­row will bring more ter­ror. Some vil­lagers slipped off to re­port this news to the un­der­cover com­rades.

Squad com­man­der Thu Sôn wore the khaki uni­form of a spe­cial sol­dier for squelch­ing in­sur­rec­tions. He faced the Viet­namese sol­dier from the in­dige­nous forces guard­ing the gate to the in­side perime­ter of the French fort. Thu Sôn's squad stood in for­ma­tion be­hind him.

"Is the French com­man­der here?" Thu Sôn asked in a loud voice. "We've come to in­spect."

Leg­end: Gen­eral Gi­aùp, Com­man­der in Chief of Vieät Nam Peo­ple’s Army, at the Ba Ñình Palace on 29 Fe­bru­ary, 1975. VNA/VNS Photo Theá Trung

Naval boost: Sol­diers at­tend a flag-rais­ing cer­e­mony at the Cam Ranh Mil­i­tary Port in Khaùnh Hoøa Prov­ince to re­ceive two sub­marines, the first ac­quired by Vieät Nam. VNA/VNS Photo Ñöùc Taùm

Mak­ing his­tory: Gen Gi­aùp de­liv­ered ten hon­onary oaths for the Viet­namese Peo­ple’s Pro­pa­ganda Unit for na­tional Lib­er­a­tion (now Vieät Nam Peo­ple’s Army) at a found­ing cer­e­mony in Cao Baèng Prov­ince on 22 De­cem­ber, 1944. VNA/VNS file photo

Bap­tism by fire: Cadets un­dergo train­ing. VNA/VNS Photo Hoà Caàu

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