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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, , 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