Most people in Europe and the USA today are accustomed to thinking World War II more or less ended on August 14, 1945, when Japan surrendered unconditionally without knowing much about the facts that all over Asia, in the vast arc of countries and territories stretching from Manchuria to Burma, peace was at best a brief interlude.
In the first months of the Pacific War, the Japanese armies had rolled easily over the British colonies in Malaya, Borneo, and Burma and the Dutch in the East Indies. The Europeans suffered humiliating defeats and many of their former colonial subjects welcomed the Japanese. As for the French colonies in Indochina, these were granted to the Japanese without a fight.
The world saw only one exception to this pattern of collapse and collaboration in Asia. In the Philippines, Japanese troops had been stalled for almost four months by the stubborn defense of Filipino troops fighting alongside the American forces, and even after the latter were forced to surrender, groups of Filipinos continued to wage guerrilla warfare in many parts of the archipelago. To most of those in Washington, the lesson was obvious. The Philippines had been treated well by the United States, had become a self-governing commonwealth in 1935, and had been promised independence in 1945. The result was that Filipinos had rejected Japanese anti -imperialist propaganda, while old-style European imperialism in Southeast Asia had encouraged colonial peoples to side with the Japanese. "Our course in dealing with the Philippines situation ... offers, I think, a perfect example of how a nation should treat a colony or a dependency," wrote President Franklin Roosevelt in 1942. (Roosevelt to William Philips, 19 November 1942, cited in William Roger Lewis, Imperialism at Bay (New York: Oxford University Press, 1987), p.180.)
At the time, Indochina had also become an important target for air attack by the China Theater's 14th Air Force. American planes operating from south China frequently bombed targets in Vietnam, and by the middle of 1944, B-24 bombers were ranging as far south as Saigon to attack dockyards and rail centers. These air operations required reliable intelligence on weather, air defenses, targets, and Japanese troop movements. Information on troop movements was of special importance because the transfer of Japanese forces in or out of northern Indochina could affect military operations in south China.
There were, therefore, good military reasons for SEAC and the China Theater to conduct clandestine intelligence and guerrilla operations in Indochina, and both had been doing so since 1943. As time passed, however, and the political disputes surrounding the future of colonial Southeast Asia became progressively more bitter and confused, the issue of Mount batten's operations in Indochina became a subject of heated controversy.
believed that he had secretly received tacit approval for his clandestine
missions from both President Roosevelt and Chiang Kai-shek. Others like for
example General Wedemeyer responsible for China, however, claimed to have
no knowledge of such understandings, but noted with suspicion that many of
SEAC's secret operations appeared to involve the French. Mindful of Roosevelt's
charge to "watch carefully to prevent any British and French political
activities in Indochina," Wedemeyer feared that secret intelligence
missions might be a cover for efforts to help the French influence the
political situation in that country. (Operational Report by Lt. Col. D. K.
Broadhurst, Galvanic GLO, [no date] 1945, SOE, Far East, Malaya, HSI/119,
Public Record Office, London.)
When the French refused to provide Wedemeyer with the details of their planned operations in Vietnam, the American general closed Kunming airport in southern China to SEAC planes supporting the clandestine operations. This touched off an angry exchange of messages between Kandy (Mountbatten's Ceylon headquarters) and Chungking.
On March 9, 1945, the Japanese ambassador to French Indochina, Matsumoto Sunichi, presented Governor-General Decoux with a note. "The possibility of invasion by hostile forces" obliged Tokyo to demand that all French land, sea, and air forces in the colony, as well as the police, be placed under Japanese control. The French were given two hours to comply.
The Japanese takeover, decided on in February, was motivated by fear of an Allied invasion and by increasing evidence that the French colonial government, aware of the course of the war and prompted by:> the newly established de Gaulle government in Paris, was preparing to switch sides at the opportune moment. With the French disarmed and French leaders behind bars, the Japanese persuaded Bao Dai, the titular emperor of Vietnam, to proclaim his country's "independence." Bao Dai appointed Tran Trong Kim, a well-known author and educator, as prime minister. Kim's Cabinet, consisting mainly of lawyers, physicians, and other well-to-do professionals with no political following, had little real power, but the disappearance of the French security apparatus and the preoccupation of the Japanese with preparing for an Allied invasion encouraged an increase in patriotic and nationalist political activities of all types.
The organization best positioned to capitalize on this situation was the Vietminh, a coalition of nationalist and anti-French groups dominated by the Indochinese Communist Party. Its leader was Ho Chi Minh, a veteran revolutionary who had battled French colonialism for decades. Ho, a founding member of the French Communist Party, had trained in Moscow during the 1920s and guided the establishment of the Indochinese Communist organization in Vietnam in 1930. A patriot and nationalist as well as a revolutionary, Ho combined tenacity of purpose with flexibility in action. A man of great personal charm and magnetism, he left a positive impression with almost everyone he encountered, including those who strongly opposed his politics and purposes. In the final analysis, it was almost certainly due to Ho's extraordinary leadership that the Communists of Vietnam, unlike their counterparts in the rest of Southeast Asia, never strangled on their own dogmatism, brutality, and ineptitude.
By early February 1945, thousands of residents were dying of starvation. Others set off along the roads to other towns and villages in hope of finding food. "They move away in endless file by families," wrote one Frenchman. "The aged, the children, the men, the women, bent under the weight of their misery, shivering all over their denuded skeletons ... stopping from time to time either to close the eyes of one of theirs that has dropped to get up no more or to strip him of some unnamable rag that occasionally still covers him .... To behold these corpses curled up at the roadside having as clothes and shrouds only some stalks of straw one is ashamed of mankind."41 In the city ofNam Dinh, about ninety miles from Hanoi, oxcarts collected the bodies of the dead for burial in mass graves. "At the height of the famine," recalled Duong Van Mai Elliott, "my mother saw carts piled with dead bodies passing our house every morning .... Peasants who could no longer feed their children tried to give them away or just abandoned them in the streets of the city. These emaciated children would rummage through garbage piles for food scraps or they would steal to survive. They would lie in wait and then snatch food packages from people as they left the markets or stores." (Duong Van Mai Elliott, Sacred Willow,Oxford University Press, 1999, p.107.)
Even well-to-do middle-class urban residents felt the impact of the famine. Mai Elliott's family subsisted on two meals a day, one of which consisted of thin rice gruel. In all, about one and a half to two million people probably died in the famine, although accurate figures are impossible to come by. Some villages and hamlets lost 30 to 50 percent of their population. In Tay Luong village in Thai Binh Province, more people died as a result of the famine than during the next thirty years of war against the French and Americans. (Motoo Furuta, "A Survey of Village Conditions During the 1945 Famine in Vietnam," in Kratoska, Food Supplies, p. 237.)
Vietminh leaders saw the famine as an opportunity to organize the peasants to seize the rice granaries of the colonial regime and to direct popular resentment against the French and Japanese. It was not a tough sell. Everyone knew that the forced requisition ofland, compulsory rice sales to the government, and unreasonable taxes had contributed to the dire state of the food supply. The casual cruelty of the Japanese further fueled popular anger. One story told of a woman who had her hand cut off for stealing canned food from the Japanese. Another told of an old woman in Hue who had a job feeding horses for the army. To help her starving family, she had taken some of the rice grain out of the horse feed and replaced it with husks. When her actions were discovered, the Japanese cut open her stomach and stuffed it with husks. (Thi Tuyet Mai Guyen, The Rubber Tree: Memoir of a Vietnamese Woman Who Was an Anti-French Guerrilla, a Publisher and Peace Activist (Jefferson, N.C.: McFarland, 1994), p. 56.)
Even more than the downfall of the French, more than the impending defeat of the Japanese, it was the famine that enabled the Vietminh to transform their fugitive guerrilla organization into a mass movement. As a respected historian of Vietnam has observed, "The revolution of 1945 matured among the wretched rural population long before the city dwellers perceived it." (Nguyen Thi Anh, "Japanese Food Policies," p. 221.)
Throughout northern Vietnam, months of Vietminh organizing and propaganda and dissatisfaction with the ineffectual Tran Trong Kim government had laid the groundwork for a swift takeover. In Hanoi, where the Vietminh had an estimated hundred thousand sympathizers, a large crowd gathered in front of the municipal theater to hear speakers proclaim that a general insurrection was under way. Large bands of Vietminh supporters took control of government buildings and police posts with little opposition. Within a few days, most of Tonkin in northern Vietnam and a good portion of Annam in the center were in the hands of the Vietminh. (William J. Duiker,Ho Chi Minh: A Lift (New York: Hyperion, 2000), p. 312.)
The Japanese discreetly remained in the background and, aside from a few minor confrontations, made no move to interfere. Consul General Tsukamoto reported that Japanese officials "were working without stint on measures for protection of the resident Japanese" and were attempting to achieve a compromise with the new government. By the end of August, the Japanese had handed over responsibility for police and for order and control of transportation and public utilities to the Vietminh. They refused, however, to turn over control of the Bank of Indochina. (French Indochina (Political Situation), 11 October 1945, SRH-094, National Archives Record Group 457. Marr, Vietnam 1945, pp. 516-17.)
On August 25, Ho Chi Minh arrived in Hanoi from Thai Nguyen and immediately began planning for a mass ceremony to formally declare independence and establish the new government. A few days later, in Hue, Emperor Bao Dai formally abdicated and turned over the imperial seal to representatives of the Vietminh government, indicating that the "mandate of heaven" had now passed from the throne to the nationalists.
On Sunday, September 2, a crowd swollen to three or four hundred thousand by arrivals from the countryside gathered in Ba Dinh Square, near the former governor-general's palace in Hanoi. In the center of the square, organizers had erected a tall platform decked with the new red and gold flags. Vietminh soldiers with drawn pistols encircled the platform and a band in Boy Scout uniforms played military tunes as Vietminh dignitaries mounted the stairs. Vo Nguyen Giap, a former history teacher who now commanded the Vietminh "Liberation Army," introduced Ho to the crowd. As an assistant held a parasol over his head-the traditional symbol of royalty-Ho read the brief declaration announcing Vietnam's independence.
The Vietminh government did what it could to eliminate its opponents. Hundreds of nationalist supporters were tried as "counterrevolutionaries" or disappeared into the hands of specially formed "honor squads for the elimination of traitors." Prominent members of Bao Dai's government, including the pro-French intellectual Pham Qyyen and the Catholic minister Ngo Dinh Khoi, had been executed at the time of the emperor's abdication. Decrees issued on September 5 and 12 outlawed the Qyoc Dan Dang and the Dai Viet parties and established military tribunals "to punish counterrevolutionaries." Yet Ho's government dared not go too far in the face of the impending arrival of the occupation forces since many of its rivals, especially the Dong Minh Hoi, had close ties to the Chinese.( Francois Guillemot, "Viet Nam 1945-1946: l'elimination de l'opposition nationaliste et anticolonialiste dans le Nord: au creur de la fracture vietnamienne," in Christopher E. Goscha and Benoit de Treglode, eds., Le Viet Nam depuis 1945: etats, contestations et constructions du passe (Paris: Les Indes Savantes, 2004), pp. 1,5-9.)
Never mind that the French colonial regime had collaborated with the Japanese for almost five years; the de Gaulle government insisted that the brief, desperate, and disorganized French response to the Japanese coup of March 1945 constituted "resistance," and France had a right to expect its allies to help her regain what was rightfully hers. If Chinese troops had to take the Japanese surrender in the north, then they should at least be accompanied by the French and colonial troops that had retreated to China in March. The British and Americans should also provide transport to move French troops and equipment to Indochina. The British were sympathetic to these demands, at least in principle, but the Americans, preoccupied with the enormous postsurrender problems in China, Japan, and Korea, not to mention war-devastated Europe, had little time for them. As for the Chinese, they had their own agenda and some old scores to settle.
To Wedemeyer abd Chiang Kai-shek preoccupied witht the desperate race to reoccupy northern China and Manchuria before the Communists could fill the vacuum created by the Japanese surrender, Indochina appeared a fairly unimportant distraction. Chiang's best troops in southern China were those of General Chang Fa-kwei, who had been Ho's jailer and then patron in 1944. Chang Fa-kwei and his troops in Kwangsi (Guangxi) and Kwangtung (Guangdong) would have seemed the natural choice to undertake operations in Indochina, but his relatively well-trained soldiers with their new American weapons were more urgently needed in the north.
Instead of Chang Fa-kwei, Chiang chose General Lung Yun, commander of the Chinese forces in Yunnan Province on the northern border of Vietnam. Like many warlord generals, Lung had done well from the war. He and his cousin General Lu Han, who commanded the field army, had carried on a profitable contraband trade with the Japanese Army and with the Vichy French in Indochina.
Accompanying Lu Han were Amencan liaison teams of the Chinese Training Combat Command, an American military advisory organization that had been training Chinese units in southern China. All of the teams were under the command of Brig. Gen. Philip E. Gallagher, Lu's adviser. Like Patti, General Gallagher was seen by many French and Vietnamese as some sort of American proconsul with vast powers to resolve all problems. In fact, Wedemeyer's directive to U.S. units with Chinese occupation forces limited their mission to "advising and assisting the Central Government military forces during their movement to their areas of occupation" and "acting in an advisory capacity ... in the provision of necessary supplies and the administration of civil affairs in the areas occupied by these troops." (Headquarters, United States Forces, China Theater, Occupation of IndoChina North of 16° N. Latitude, 11 September 1945, copy in National Archives Record Group 226, entry 48, box 7.)
"The U.S. advisory group ... had no directive ... as to who we were to support politically," Gallagher recalled. (Gallagher to Bernard Fall, 30 March 1956, Philip E. Gallagher Papers, U.S. Army Military History Institute, Carlisle, Pa.)
The price paid by the Vietminh for this arrangement was high. The entire cost of feeding and maintaining the "Allied" occupation forces in the north was to be born by the Vietnamese, to be compensated later at a "fair" rate of exchange. Despite the famine conditions, ass reported that the Chinese were actually shipping rice out of the country or selling it on the black market for ten times the Saigon price.According to rumor, Ho Chi Minh also kept the Chinese well supplied with opium and at one point presented Lu Han with a gold opium pipe. (SIGEX Kandy to Director of Operations, X-2 R&A, National Archives Record Group 226, entry 58, box 3.)
Furthermore the exchange rate between the almost worthless Chinese dollar and the Indochinese piaster was arbitrarily set at 14 to 1, thus making the dollar worth more than three times as much as in southern China. Millions of Chinese dollars soon began to arrive in Indochina. In one instance, $60 million was reported on a single flight from Kunming. "Chinese officers in Viet Nam with business connections at home organized themselves into a closely knit syndicate associated with merchants, bankers and entrepreneurs to buy out at ridiculously little cost, every profitable enterprise they could .... Front companies and trusts were quickly formed to acquire outright ownership of or controlling interests in Vietnamese or French-owned plantations, farmland, buildings, mines, and factories, even the small merchant was not spared .... If they protested or dared to resist any offer made by the syndicate, the military had ways to persuade." With their bargain shopping and other financial activities, the Chinese, according to one estimate, managed to extract some 400 million piasters from the poorer half of a country whose total gross national product in 1939 had been around 1.1 billion piasters. (John T. McAlister, Vietnam: The Origins of Revolution (New York: Center for International Studies, Princeton University, 1969), pp. 225-26.)
In return for these concessions, the Chinese and their American advisers dealt with the Vietminh as the de facto government. "He [Ho] and his provisional government were the only existing semblance oflaw and order as far as FIC [French Indochina] north of the 16th parallel was concerned," Gallagher recalled, "and the Chinese and I dealt with him accordingly." (Gallagher to Bernard Fall, 30 March 1956.)
On September 19, Major General douglas Gracey leader of the British occupation forces, notified the Vietminh government that he intended to issue a proclamation banning all processions and demonstrations, imposing a nightly curfew, and prohibiting the carrying of arms by any forces not authorized by him. All newspapers were to be closed, and the provisional government was to supply a list of the TIS and locations of all Vietnamese police and military units. Begining on September 21, Gracey's troops began evicting the Vietminh government from public buildings and police stations and disarming etminh police and paramilitary forces.
French officials however convinced Gracey that former French soldiers in the Saigon area who had been imprisoned by the Japanese shcould be rearmed and easily take control of the city governent and services. The Vietnamese would be overawed and offer no resistance. The information about e French was that Cedile [de Gaulle's representative in Cochinchina] had tight control over them, that this was not at all a difficult task ... once done it would provide a substantial useful step forward for the furerance of the gradual take-over from the British by the French."Thus on the morning of the twenty-third, residents of the city awoke to find that "Saigon was French again." (Memo No.1 of the Subcommittee of the High Commission for the Southern Zone, "Principles a observer a l'occasion de la reprise du travail," 23 September 1945, dossier 1, 10H161, SHAT, Vincennes, Paris.)
The French of Saigon ce1e'ated their victory by going on a rampage in which they expressed all leir pent-up feelings of fear, anger, and resentment at the Vietnamese and humiliation at their incarceration by the Japanese. As one of Mountbatten's staff officers reported, "There were wild shootings and Annamites were openly dragged through the streets to be locked in prisons. Generally speaking there was complete chaos." (Memo for Adm. Mountbatten, subject: FIC Political and Internal Situation, 3 October 1945, W0203/5562, Public Record Office, London.)
Mountbatten, to whom unfavorable press reports were especially unwelcome, suspected that "the stronger we are [in Indochina] the more the French will feel they can take provocative action against the Annamites." (Quoted in Peter M. Dunn, First Vietnam War, 1985, p. 198.)
This was far more than a public relations disaster, however. "The Annamites are now thoroughly disillusioned with the British," reported the 0SS. The clumsy French coup had led to the very situation Gracey had intended to prevent. Vietnamese of all political persuasions united in a general rising directed at the British and French. The food markets were burned out and there was a sharp increase in kidnappings, murder, and arson. "Life in Saigon was brought to a standstill. Shops and cafes were closed. Many parts of the city were without water." (Force 136 detachment, Saigon, to Headquarters, Force 136, subject: Saigon Control Commission, 19 October 1945, HS1/104, Public Record Office, London.)
From that point, civil war was general in the Saigon area. By September 26, the OSS was reporting that many parts of the city were without food or e1ectricity. (Memo for the Secretary of State by William J. Donovan, 27 September 1945, ational Archives Record Group 226, microfilm reel M1642.)
"Sniping is a nerve-wracking affair in the lightless city," wrote an American reporter. "Shots may be fired from any building or doorway. Half-naked Annamites may suddenly whip out knife or gun from a loin-cloth." (Emery Plaice, New York Daily Herald, September 29,1945.)
"For a time Saigon was a city under siege," recalled George Wickes, communications man for the small OSS detachment in Saigon. "Mostly we heard rather than saw the action. Things were generally calm during the day, but after nightfall we began to hear the sound of gunfire, beginning with the occasional stray shot by a jittery French soldier .... Every night we could hear Vietnamese drums signaling across the river and almost on the stroke of 12, there would be an outburst of gunfire and new fires breaking out among the stocks of tea, rubber and tobacco in the dockyards." With limited numbers of British troops, and French forces few and unreliable, Gracey called on the Japanese to assist in patrolling the city and clearing Vietnamese roadblocks. Rather than being concentrated and disarmed, the Japanese were now informed that they would be responsible for certain areas and for the security of any Europeans needing their aid. One Indian officer recalled that the "Japanese were chiefly used for protecting food convoys which they did with efficiency." (Brigadier M. Hayaud Din, "With the 20th Indian Division in French Indochina," Journal of the Royal United Service Institute of India 78, July 1948, p.253.)
How large a role the Japanese played in repelling the Vietnamese attacks on Saigon and breaking the blockade of the city has always been obscure. The British and French had no interest in highlighting their role. However, it is known that by the end of October the Japanese had lost forty-four men, including seven officers, with seventy-nine wounded and fifty missing. (SIGEX Kandy, message, 9 November 1945, National Archives Record Group 226, entry 53, box 3.)
By the beginning of December, the Japanese reported a total of 406 casualties in fighting the Vietnamese) including 126 killed. (SIGEX, Singapore to X-2 R&A, 27 December 1945, National Archives Record Group 226, entry 53, box 3.)
While the British and French were turning to the Japanese, so were the Vietminh. Somewhere between one thousand and three thousand Japanese soldiers deserted their units and joined the nationalists during August and September 1945. A few joined out of conviction, men who wished to continue the fight for Greater East Asia or who simply could not accept the idea of Japan's defeat. Captain Kanetoshi Toshihide found defeat "unthinkable." He could not bear the thought of returning to Japan when most of his comrades had died for the empire. Many Japanese intelligence officers spoke good Vietnamese and had extensive contacts with Vietnamese organizations, especially the Cao Dai and Hoa Hao. These men, some of whom were graduates of the supersecret Nakano School for espionage and political warfare, were strongly imbued with a Pan-Asian ideology. The fact that most were also excellent candidates for war crimes trials must also have been an important consideration. Besides intelligence officers or members of the Kempeitai, any soldier a8sociated with the construction of the notorious Burma-Siam Railroad knew he was likely to be tried for brutality or atrocities. (Activites Japonaises, 22 March 1946, dossier "March 1946," 10H606, SHAT, Vincennes, Paris. Rapport sur la collusion nippo-vietnamienne, 9 August 1946, dossier 1E11224, 10H160, SHAT, Vincennes, Paris. "1,000 Deserters in Southern Indochina," Hayashi, et al., Nihon Shiisenhi, p. 118. Christopher E. Goscha, "Belated Allies: The Contributions of Japanese Deserters to the Viet Minh (1945-1950)," in Marilyn Young and Robert Buzzanco, eds., A Companion to the Vietnam War (Malden, Mass.: Blackwell, 2002), pp. 37-46.)
A larger number of Japanese deserted because they had begun to suspect they might have to wait years before repatriation to Japan or saw no economic future for themselves once they did return. Others had married or were involved with Vietnamese women. Of thirty-five deserters captured by the French in 1945, sixteen had Vietnamese or Eurasian wives, and several had children. 50 Vietnamese women working in hospitals or as interpreters for the Japanese Army reportedly also acted as recruiters for the Vietminh. Some soldiers joined the Vietminh reluctantly through force or blackmail or the promise of relatively high pay-which Japanese deserters did receive.
Soldiers of the Vietminh Army in the south were short of weapons and largely untrained; many were armed only with axes or bamboo staves. The addition of experienced Japanese soldiers to their ranks provided an enormous boost in military effectiveness. Japanese officers and NCOs trained Vietnamese in the use and maintenance of weapons, small unit tactics, and communications. Specialists provided training in field medicine, staff work, and administration. Junior officers were trained in company and battalion exercises. Japanese instructors introduced Vietnamese soldiers to the guerrilla tactics they had intended to use against the superior Allied invaders in the last months of the war. Japanese officers also led Vietminh forces in battle. Nguyen Thi Tuyet Mai's platoon had a Japanese adviser referred to as "Brother Hai" and had been armed by the Japanese one day after the surrender. (Nguyen Thi Tuyet Mai, The Rubber Tree, pp. 78, 80.)
A French intelligence report concluded that "arms, cadres, specialists and instructors furnished by the Japanese were of very great combat value" to the Vietminh. "As fighters they represent the most aggressive and formidable elements among the rebels." (Rapport sur l'activite du Corps Expeditionnaire Franc;ais en Indochine, juin 1946, boite no. 18, dossier 1, travail Dronne, pp. 14-15, Fonds historique Leclerc, Memorial du Marechal Leclerc de Hautclocque, Paris.) The French did their best to convince the British and Americans that Japanese help to the Vietminh was part of a larger Japanese scheme to reestablish their empire. "The Japanese are continuing the great War of Asia clandestinely," concluded one French report.
Gracey and his newly arrived political adviser H. N. Brain of the Foreign Office decided that it might be a good idea to talk to the Vietnamese after all. The Vietnamese agreed to a cease-fire, and talks were held between Cedile and representatives of the southern revolutionaries. Neither side had much to offer the other. The Vietnamese leaders knew that only a promise of independence would satisfy their followers. The French declared that Paris had an enlightened program for Indochina but that French officials in Indochina, even Leclerc, were not empowered to discuss the question of independence or make any modifications to French policy.
On October 10, a British Indian reconnaissance party was ambushed outside Saigon, convincing Gracey that the truce was at an end. British, French, and sometimes Japanese forces now took the offensive, against the Vietnamese in order to "clear" Saigon and its surrounding areas. By late October, French forces had swept into the Mekong Delta, establishing control of the towns of My Tho, Vinh Long, and Can Tho.70 As if to signal a return to normalcy, the "Cercle Sportif," the center of French colonial social life, was reopened, and French sportsmen could sip their drinks "while the sound of cannon fire boomed regularly in the background and ashes from burning Vietnamese villages drifted down on the tennis courts." (India-Burma Intelligence Sitrep, 18 December 1945, Record Group 9, box 42, Douglas MacArthur Memorial Archives, Norfolk, Va.)
Throughout November, French troops continued to arrive. French Foreign Legionnaires, many of them former members of Rommel's Mrika Korps, spent their off-duty time in bars and cafes singing German drinking songs. If the presence in Indochina of these former adherents to the Nazi cause embarrassed the French, they hid that embarrassment well. Only 30 percent of the Legion in Indochina were German, they pointed out. Former SS men who could be identified were refused enlistment. "The others, by asking to enlist in the Legion must absolutely abandon their beliefs about 'race' and adopt the tradition of their corps which are solely the traditions of the soldier." There could be no comparison to the Vietminh recruitment of former Japanese soldiers; those who joined the ranks of the Vietminh were "working toward the establishment of a totalitarian regime." ("Utilisation de la Legion etrangere" [no date], dossier 2, fiche no. 9, 10H602, SHAT, Vincennes, Paris.)
During the autumn evenings, "the streets of Saigon would fill with French soldiers and sailors and civilians, Indian soldiers, a few British tommies, a few scattered Chinese. French or metisse girls would pair off with the troops walking arm-in-arm or sitting across tables at the few open bars and cafes. Housewives, carrying their children with them, would comb the few open markets where fruits and vegetables could be had from Chinese vendors .... When the occasional straggling lines of trussed up or manacled Annamite prisoners would pass, French men and women would stop to stare .... 'It is really nothing,' said a Frenchman watching, 'some agitators brought by the Japanese. We'll kill them off' "(Harold R. Isaacs, No Peace for Asia (New York: Macmillan, 1947), p. 136.) SIGEX, Kandy to War Department Special Services Unit, 10 November 1945, National Archives Record Group 226, entry 53, box 3.)
Captured Vietnamese who had now begun replacing the French and Legonnaires in the prisons usually received a ten-minute trial. American newsmen covering the trials reported that "often the proceedings in court and sometimes the indictment itself are not understood by the accused persons .... The average defense plea, as timed by the correspondents, takes under 4 minutes. In many cases the accused appear to have been subjected to very severe 3rd degree measures and some of them made the plea that they had signed their confessions under conditions of duress." Those found guilty of circulating subversive leaflets received on average five years' hard labor. Those convicted of possessing arms got ten to twenty years. (SIGEX, Kandy to War Department Special Services Unit, 10 November 1945, National Archives Record Group 226, entry 53, box 3.)
The French correspondent for Paris- Presse, an experienced journalist named Desaurrat, claimed to have witnessed the brutal beating and murder of a prisoner and the cold-blooded killing of sixteen wounded Vietnamese by French troops. "Returning to Saigon, Desaurrat went to Leclerc protesting as a veteran of World War I and of the Resistance of World War II. He told Leclerc he was ashamed to be a Frenchman and that Germans were being condemned to death for the same atrocities. Leclerc exploded in rage and ordered Desaurrat from his office. Desaurrat cabled [his paper] to either print his entire story or consider him no longer on the payroll." (Singapore to War Department Strategic Services Unit, 20 December 1945, National Archives Record Group 226, entry 53, box 3.)
By the middle of November, the ass was reporting that "both British and French are of the opinion that organized Resistance of the Vietminh Revolution has been almost completely dispersed." French troops had taken control of Tay Ninh to the north of Saigon and had moved into the central highlands by occupying Ban Me Thuot. Yet the war in the south, touched off by Gracey's anxiety to "restore law and order," was to continue until 1954. As French strength increased, Ho Chi Minh replaced Tran Van Giau with Nguyen Binh as leader of the Vietminh resistance in the Saigon area. Binh was an experienced military leader of considerable talent, but he had an unfortunate proclivity toward kidnapping or murdering other Vietnamese who appeared not to be so warm in the cause. During one month in the single area of My Tho, forty-one intellectuals, former government functionaries, rich proprietors, and landowners were killed or kidnapped, including a man who was executed along with his wife for having a French flag in his possession. (Dossier "Atrocities," 10H602, SHAT, Vincennes, Paris.)
With French troops arriving steadily, the Southeast Asia Command could at last see the end of the tunnel. Field Marshal Count Terauchi completed the formal Japanese surrender on November 30, by which time the British had completed plans to begin concentrating the Japanese at Cape St. Jacques for repatriation back to Japan. Mountbatten and Admiral Thierry d' Argenlieu, the newly arrived French high commissioner for Indochina, announced that on January 28, 1946, France would assume responsibility for all military operations in Indochina except for the repatriations from Cape St. Jacques. The bulk of the British forces would begin their withdrawal on that date.
the day of his departure, Gracey took the salute on the steps of the Saigon
city hall, flanked by Leclerc and Cedile. The British general was presented
with a special scroll and named a Citoyen d'Honneur of the city, the first time
in eighty years that such a distinction had been conferred on any individual.
Gracey's mission may have been as delicate and complex as he always insisted it
was, but to the cheering crowd of French colonials gathered in front of the
city hall, there was no question whose side the general had been on. "The
20th Indian Division under General Gracey was friendly toward us," read
Leclerc's final report, "and we much appreciated their aid."
("Rapport sur l'activite du Corps Expeditionnaire," p. 14.)