On a crisp, sunny winter’s day on a red earth hilltop in North Vietnam, a young Californian named Howard Simpson was reluctantly fishing around with borrowed chopsticks in a lunchtime bowl of pho soup, while trying to ignore the stench of torn-up corpses festooning the barbed wire a few yards away. Simpson, a stocky World War II veteran with a broad smile and thick glasses, was an information officer from the US Embassy in Saigon. Part of his job was to monitor the use that the French Expeditionary Corps was making of the generous flow of US aid provided through the Military Advisory Assistance Group installed in Vietnam two years previously. He had hitched a flight here from Hanoi on a C-47 full of ammunition, to gather facts and impressions after what was being presented as a particularly significant French victory over the Communist Viet Minh insurgents.
The French theory was that even in the roadless wilderness of this ‘High Region’ a strong air–ground base could be implanted and kept supplied by airlift alone – a concept for which the British ‘Chindit’ campaign in Burma in 1944 offered encouraging precedents. The Viet Minh had been born as elusive guerrilla bands; but for two years now, with Chinese help, they had been reinventing themselves as a conventional army, with 10,000-man divisions and light mobile artillery. Such forces are a great deal more unwieldy to move and supply than furtive packs of guerrillas, and the French Air Force could hope to track and harass their marches, robbing them of surprise. By using their American-supplied transport aircraft to create and sustain strong garrisons in the hills, complete with field artillery for defence and paratroop battalions for aggressive sorties, the French high command hoped if not to block, then at least to channel and hamper the cross-country movement of Giap’s large regular formations, and to lure him into attacking them where they were strongest. Howard Simpson would be told that what had happened here at Na San seemed to vindicate that hope.
The garrison which had defended Na San over the previous few nights was a microcosm of the French Expeditionary Corps and its local allies. As he was jeeped across the camp Simpson saw French Colonial and Foreign Legion paratroopers, Legion infantry, North African riflemen, lowland Vietnamese from the Red River delta, and Thais recruited in the hills round about. Virtually all the officers were mainland Frenchmen or ‘blackfeet’ from France’s North African colonies. On previous occasions Simpson had not received a particularly warm welcome from the French Army in the field. Here at Na San, however, most of the officers of the Troupes Aéroportées d’Indochine (TAPI) and the Légion Étrangère were happy to drink the ‘Amerloque’s’ whisky and let him look around; they had a story that deserved to be told.
Since mid-October 1952 the Viet Minh’s military commander-in-chief, General Vo Nguyen Giap, had been leading three divisions of his best troops, trained and equipped by Communist China, deep into these Thai Highlands – the jumbled, forested hills of north-west Tonkin that straddled the border with Laos to the south. Until recently these sparsely populated highlands had played little part in France’s six-year-old Indochina War; the cockpit of the fighting against General Giap’s regulars had been the Red River delta, 100 miles away to the east. But after a first probe in October 1951, this last autumn Giap had opened a new front here in the High Region.
The tribal peoples of the border country had no love for Ho Chi Minh’s Communist cause, and the French had never needed to guard these hills with more than a chain of tiny forts scattered along the ridges between the Red and Black rivers, mostly garrisoned by local recruits. There were no usable roads, and apart from jungle tracks the lines of communication to these remote posts had been maintained by air. Few had airstrips that would take anything larger than small bush aircraft, and any large-scale resupply or reinforcement had to be done by parachute. Since October 1952, these little garrisons had been swept aside by Giap’s advance; French paratroopers had made sacrificial jumps to buy time for their retreat, and now the remaining defended islands in this green ocean had been pushed west of the Black River. Their anchor had been planted here, at Na San, where a dirt airstrip had been skinned with pierced steel plates to allow its use by the Air Force’s C-47s, and an entrenched camp had been created in Giap’s path with frantic haste. It was held by a mixed garrison of a dozen battalions, designated ‘Operational Group Middle Black River’ – GOMRN for short.
The defences of Na San were a series of dug-in positions surrounded with barbed wire and minefields, most of them manned by single companies of a hundred or so French troops, and arranged to occupy a rough ring of hilltops about 3 miles across that surrounded the airstrip cupped in the valley below. Inside this outer rampart GOMRN’s commander – a dour, one-eyed paratroop colonel named Jean Gilles – had built a continuous inner ring of entrenched strongpoints around the airstrip, headquarters, medical aid post, stores depots, and artillery and heavy mortar positions. But not all the garrison had arrived, the defences had not been fully prepared, and most of the vital artillery was not yet in place when the first Viet Minh units reached the area in the third week of November. In keeping with their guerrilla tradition, they arrived unannounced.
Strongpoint PA8 in the northern face of the inner ring was held by only 110 men – 11th Company, III Battalion of the Foreign Legion’s 5th Infantry Regiment – but it was exceptionally well built. Its commander, Captain Letestu, had served in the Maginot Line as a young ranker, and understood exactly how to lay out a defensive position; under his guidance his légionnaires had worked with a will, and their generous allocation of machine guns were well sited in sandbag ‘blockhouses’ pushed out to sweep the approaches to the wire. All this fieldcraft and labour might have gone for nothing on the night of 23/24 November. With neither warning nor preparatory fire, a Viet Minh battalion infiltrated right up to the northern wire of PA8 under cover of some nervous movement by Thai troops, and at about 8pm they tried to rush it. The only other officer, Lieutenant Durand, was killed at once, and Letestu led a small counter-attack force into a desperate hand-to-hand struggle with the two enemy platoons that had got into the trenches. The Viet Minh were finally killed or driven out at about 9.30pm, by which time 11th Company had already lost 15 men dead or disappeared and as many again seriously wounded.
Meanwhile heavy mortar fire was falling on the southern part of the position, heralding another attack. In the absence of French artillery, Captain Letestu got in radio contact with the Foreign Legion mortar company in the central area, and although no fire plans had yet been prepared Lieutenant Bart managed to bring down the fire of his ten weapons on the threatened sector and the gullies approaching it.4 A company of 3rd Colonial Parachute Battalion from the central reserve was sent to reinforce PA8, arriving at about 11pm just in time to help hold off a dangerous attack; but Letestu was furious to overhear their commander Captain Guilleminot reporting that he had arrived to ‘retake the strongpoint’, and obliged him to get back on the radio and put the record straight. The wounded were now being cared for by the battalion medical officer Lieutenant Thomas, who with Sergeant Chief Rinaldi had disobeyed orders and crawled half a mile from the central camp to slip through the enemy ranks and the barbed wire.
The last attack came at about 12.30am; it was repulsed like the others, and a useful part was played by a ‘PIM’ – a Viet Minh prisoner long kept by the company as a tame porter. On his own initiative he replaced the wounded crew of one of the company’s 60mm mortars and loaded and fired it by himself. The enemy finally fell back under cover of darkness, taking most of their casualties with them, but 64 corpses and five abandoned wounded were found around the strongpoint. Next morning Colonel Gilles – not a man much given to public praise – told Captain Letestu that he had saved Na San; he also ordered the officers of the other strongpoints to come and examine Letestu’s ‘magisterial’ example of field fortification.