This is a story from the French War in Indochina. In many ways
it was the first American war, or at least a war the United
States almost entered ten years before President Lyndon B.
Johnson sent ground forces to South Vietnam. Initially,
Johnson's action was to protect American aircrews and mechanics
already stationed at bases in that country.
At one point in the French War the situation on the ground had
been virtually identical. This happened after December 6, 1953,
when the French commander-in-chief, Gen. Henri Navarre, formally
accepted the challenge of fighting a major battle at Dien Bien
Phu. A large upland valley in the mountains of Tonkin, Dien Bien
Phu had been occupied originally as a mobile operating base but
was converted into an entrenched camp. The French expected the
Viet Minh, as the Vietnamese adversary was then known, to attack
on January 25, 1954.
On January 8, the American in charge of
U.S. Army forces in the Pacific theater, Lt. Gen. John W.
O'Daniel, was ordered to Washington to participate in emergency
discussions on additional aid to the French. The United States
already had committed an additional $954 million to the French
to pay for the Navarre Plan, the French command's scheme for
operations in Indochina. Now the question was what more could be
done. President Dwight D. Eisenhower had set up a committee to
examine the issue. During January 11-15 conversations, it became
clear that Washington needed better information. Gen. O'Daniel
received orders to lead a study mission to Vietnam that would
assess the military situation.
Virtually simultaneously, in
mid-January, France asked the United States to provide four
hundred aircraft mechanics to repair French aircraft in Vietnam.
America's Joint Chiefs of Staff, already aware of the
possibility, referred to the assignment of mechanics in a
January 15 memorandum as one of the additional things the United
States could do for France. The formal request arrived on
January 18 in a letter from French Prime Minister Joseph Laniel.
The letter specified the mechanics should be able to maintain
C-47 and B-26 aircraft, that the men would not participate in "perations,"
and that they could be civilians or work as civilians.
Gen. O'Daniel was asked to comment on
the request. O'Daniel's mission visited Indochina from January
23 to February 4, and the general dated his report the next day.
He supported the request for American mechanics, writing that if
the French wanted to maintain or increase their aerial
capability, they would need the Americans and the additional
aircraft the United States could give them. But Washington had
not waited for O'Daniel. On January 29, Secretary of Defense
Charles Wilson ordered the Air Force to provide two hundred
technicians for temporary duty in Indochina. The next day
Eisenhower's special committee confirmed the consensus,
recommending the president approve the measure.
The assignment went to the Far East Air
Force (FEAF), which had its headquarters in Japan. On February
2, the leader of FEAF's Air Logistics Force, Gen. Albert G.
Hewitt, flew to Saigon. The activity would be carried out on a
highly classified basis with every participant sworn to secrecy.
Hewitt and French Air Force Gen. Pierre Bodet agreed there would
be two detachments of Americans. One would be posted at Danang
(then called Tourane) to repair B-26 bombers. The second unit
would be sent to Do Son in the Red River Delta to fix C-47
transport planes. The United States also made a separate
provision to send a unit of pilots to Vietnam.
In Operation Paul Revere, on February 5
American aircraft flew the mechanics and their equipment from
Clark Air Force Base in the Philippines to Danang. The French
met them in dress uniform with bands playing. Three huge C-124
Globemaster transports and eighteen C-119 aircraft were
necessary for the move. The provisional U.S. unit was led by Lt.
Col. Walter A. Miller. As arranged, the Americans established a
unit at Danang, and the remaining mechanics flew to Do Son the
next day. They became Detachment 2 under Maj. Kenneth Knox.
Despite the oaths of secrecy, many
pilots and ground crews throughout FEAF were aware of the move
to Indochina, and authorities decided an unclassified nickname
was necessary to refer to the unit in Vietnam. After one false
start, about a month after the U.S. moved these maintenance
experts to Vietnam, the nickname for their unit became "Duke's
Mixture." Most of the men who served there never heard the term.
Washington also remained very sensitive
about the American servicemen in Vietnam and the expanded
participation in the French war they represented. The day of the
initial move, the Pentagon announced that several hundred Air
Force specialists were going to Vietnam with the latest bunch of
B-26 bombers. On February 8, President Eisenhower, in a
telephone conversation with Secretary of State John Foster
Dulles, expressed concern about the technicians. Eisenhower said
he wanted them out of Vietnam by the middle of June even if
civilian substitutes had to be hired to replace them.
At a press conference the next day,
Wilson made public the June 15 termination date at a Pentagon
press conference. Eisenhower was asked about the technicians at
another press conference at the White House on February 10. From
Congress, Democratic Sen. John Stennis of Mississippi attacked
the move as the leading edge of a growing U.S. engagement in
Hardly aware of the politics or any of
this high-level maneuvering, the Americans in Vietnam focused on
their jobs. Maj. Knox at Do Son was very quick off the mark,
taking the first French C-47 into his shop on February 9, only
three days after arrival. The Dakota (the name the French used
for their C-47s) went back to the French three days later.
Dakotas were critical for the French, who were entirely
dependent on aerial deliveries to supply Dien Bien Phu.
The plan was for the French to perform
normal field upkeep on the Dakotas while Knox's mechanics did
intermediate maintenance and performance checks. This division
of labor led to the first differences between the French and
Americans. A meticulous officer, Knox insisted on maintaining
the C-47s to American standards. The French, desperate to keep
as many Dakotas as possible on the flight line, worried that
those standards would slow down the rate at which planes
came back from maintenance. This caused tensions from an early
date but led to real problems later.
The other big headache was security. Do
Son was a base in the middle of a war. It was located south of
Haiphong, on the headlands of a peninsula jutting into the Baie
d'Along. The Americans first arrived soon after a Viet Minh
commando raid had destroyed five C-47s. The body of one of the
raiders lay on the beach where the enemy had tried to escape. As
early as February 13, Knox's Americans could hear the sounds of
fighting in the Red River Delta just ten to fifteen miles away.
A broadcast on Beijing radio on the 15th
mentioned the U.S. servicemen and called them combatants who
could be attacked at will. When Gen. Pierre Fay, the French Air
Force commander, visited Do Son two days later, he expressed
safety concerns. Washington already had asked the French if
adequate preparations had been made to safeguard the Americans
in case of an attack. On February 18, Knox learned that heavy
guns, bombs, and napalm were being used in Delta fighting. None
of this prevented sabotage: On February 20 the Americans
discovered that aviation gasoline stocks had been contaminated
with large amounts of water.
The original French request for American
technicians complicated security because Paris had promised that
the Americans would not be used in operations. This translated
into no guns for the 52 men who arrived with the first
contingent. When Lt. Russell DeSomer, Knox's security officer,
asked Seventh Air Force headquarters in Japan for self-defense
weaponry he was denied on the grounds the Americans were
noncombatants. After a few sabotage incidents and more evidence
of fighting in the Delta, DeSomer was able to get weapons from
the Thirteenth Air Force in the Philippines. They sent M-1
carbines and even a .50-caliber machine gun.
DeSomer then had to make sure the
technicians learned to use the weapons. In one of the training
sessions a bumbling airman almost shot him. The Americans were
eventually given a sector of the base perimeter to defend. It
was along the beach facing the Baie d'Along.
Communications were problematical as
well. The Americans in Vietnam included the maintenance men and
operational units - the Air Force pilots with their provisional
816th Squadron nicknamed "Cat's Paw" - and military attaches.
Everyone had a different chain of command and communications
net. With the business-as-usual attitude, some of these nets
only worked for part of the day.
Sgt. Jack McDonald ran the radio van at
Do Son and also set up the network linking that base with Danang
and Saigon. When Do Son was attacked while the Americans were
there, he could not raise either of the other posts because the
radios had shut down for the day. McDonald finally had to resort
to an informal ham radio connection to reach anyone at all. He
finally raised a radioman at Clark Air Base and passed word of
the attack. McDonald received a reprimand for going outside
One alternative to taking a Viet Minh
attack was to get out of Do Son. As early as the day following
his arrival, Knox toured the area to scout an escape and evasion
plan. But fleeing by land was not practical in an area saturated
with Viet Minh guerrillas. By late February, Knox was in
discussions with Maj. Ed Yarbrough of the Cat's Paw C-119
detachment, flying out of nearby Cat Bi field, on a plan to
evacuate the mechanics using Yarbrough's planes. By early March
plans were complete. The first briefing of the men featured a
CIA officer who came down from Haiphong to brief the Americans
on the threat. Jack McDonald's family back in Cleveland learned
he was in Vietnam when they saw him in a photograph taken before
the briefing that appeared in American newspapers.
At Danang, Detachment 1 of the 6424th
Air Depot Wing (the formal designation for Col. Miller's unit)
had its own C-47 to evacuate the men in case of attack. In late
February, Viet Minh raiders blew it up. The subsequent escape
plan became an awkward thing. At first, the airmen were supposed
to flee across a bridge to an island, but French security
discovered Viet Minh frogmen in the water. They had wired the
bridge for demolition.
Then the airmen were supposed to run to
the beach, put to sea in rubber boats, and be recovered by an
American submarine. It is not known if any submarine was
assigned this mission, but the Bluegill was operating off
the Vietnamese coast at this time.
Miller's airmen had a more difficult
time getting down to the business of servicing the French B-26
twin-engine bombers. This had less to do with the planes than
with living conditions at Danang, which lacked suitable quarters
for the Americans. Miller had his men spend their first couple
of weeks erecting barracks. Only then did their efforts turn
fully to the maintenance activity.
Danang had a 7,800-foot asphalt runway
but no strip lights or airfield maintenance buildings. The sheds
that substituted came with shops from which Vietnamese peddlers
sold wine, beer, and cheese. Airman Paul Cable recalls the
French mechanics would work for a couple of hours early in the
morning, then break off for breakfast. He thought the planes
were not used much, and he found empty wine bottles and other
trash in the cockpit of a bomber.
Back at Do Son, the situation daily
seemed gloomier. One night during the final week of February, 41
Viet Minh suspects were arrested in the village that overlooked
the base. The French decided to move all their civilian
personnel out of the area. Conditions improved for Knox's
Americans after refrigerators and movie projectors arrived and a
PX opened up, but the French were actively disputing with Knox
on work arrangements. A few days later, a squad of Viet Minh
soldiers were captured in a late afternoon incident.
During the early morning of March 4,
only about ten hours after the incident at Do Son, the storm hit
Gia Lam in the form of another commando raid. Yarbrough's
Americans, who were coincidentally in Haiphong for a party
sponsored by his C-119 pilots, were safe, as were their planes.
But the Viet Minh placed gasoline cans wired with explosives
under the engines of ten Dakotas and destroyed them. Despite
elaborate defenses at Gia Lam, the Viet Minh escaped and only
one was killed.
The French declared a state of emergency
around Haiphong. Near Hanoi they also arrested two hundred
Vietnamese in surrounding villages who had worked at Gia Lam
base. At Cat Bi, they increased security. Intelligence officers
reported to Knox that the entire length of the highway from Cat
Bi into Haiphong had been put under heavy guard, and that the
French were stringing barbed wire along it. On March 6 the road
from Do Son to Cat Bi was closed altogether.
All the precautions went for naught: The
Viet Minh mounted another big raid on Cat Bi before dawn the
next day. Several B-26s and spotter planes were destroyed. The
French captured a Viet Minh officer and several men and claimed
five of the enemy killed, but they were obliged to call up a
paratroop battalion to re-establish the security of the base.
From then on, when the general commanding the air division
visited his airmen at Cat Bi, he went in full combat gear,
wearing a flak jacket, with pistols strapped to his legs and
carrying a submachine gun. In contrast, the Americans on the
base were virtually unarmed.
A sense of impending doom increased
steadily at Do Son. The French dive-bombed positions just four
miles east of the field the day after the Cat Bi raid. They also
evacuated Do Son village preparatory to shelling it. Later, they
converted the village into a military compound and brought in
additional airfield guards. Over the next few weeks, Do Son was
reinforced by five companies--three of North African soldiers
and two of paratroops.
Yet the road to Cat Bi was closed for
most of a week, and on March 12 the entire base was put on a
super-high state of alert by Gen. Navarre, who ordered all able
aircraft to leave Do Son. The next day, Viet Minh raiders
demolished key points on the road and railroad that connected
Haiphong and Hanoi.
On that day, March 13, Viet Minh Gen. Vo
Nguyen Giap opened the battle for Dien Bien Phu with a
bombardment of the French entrenched camp and its strong points.
In the Delta, the Americans and French already felt as if they
had been through the wringer.
With the Dien Bien Phu battle now
underway, the Viet Minh went after Do Son itself on March 17. By
then, there were 105 American airmen at the base. Jack McDonald
arrived back that afternoon from a troubleshooting foray to
Danang. He had the security detail (mostly because he had
nowhere to sleep) and shared his bunk with another airman who
was off duty. In the evening, French troops picked up two Viet
Minh on Do Son hill. They had been carrying a machine gun and
half a dozen plastic explosive bombs. The French then had a
heavy bomber hit the other side of the hill with four 500-pound
That night the searchlights blazed up to
cut through the dark, and firing erupted around Do Son. McDonald
tried to get through on the radio with no luck. His boss, Capt.
Winifred Ellis, got the armed security people onto the perimeter
as the rest of the Americans stayed in their barracks. In the
face of all the defenses - which included three barbed-wire
barriers with attack dogs running between the inner ones - the
Viet Minh still got through.
Up at Cat Bi, Maj. Yarbrough alerted his
C-119 pilots for an emergency landing at Do Son to get the
Americans out, as per the evacuation plan. But no night landing
proved necessary. The battle died down at about one o'clock in
the morning. No one was hurt and no damage to aircraft had
resulted. Nevertheless, the Americans began to call the Viet
Minh "Ho Chi Minh's Red River Delta Boys."
After this incident, the United States
stationed two C-46 Commando transports at Do Son with the
express purpose of evacuating Americans if attacked. Over
subsequent days there was recurring news of fresh Viet Minh
forays. French bombing of nearby targets and the arrival of
paratroops did not seem to matter. Viet Minh in the Do Son
sector were estimated at two thousand. One troublesome band of
four hundred was attacked repeatedly for weeks but always came
back. That was true throughout the Delta.
Despite the French tanks and armored
cars, artillery and aircraft, the toll mounted from the constant
ambushes, small fights, and booby traps. French casualties in
the Red River Delta during April amounted to 163 dead, 346
wounded, and 197 missing. That was the equivalent of a full
battalion. The French did not have so many battalions,
especially ones available for mobile operations, and their best
were at Dien Bien Phu.
Nor did the French have enough aircraft
mechanics. Their promises to replace the Americans by mid-June
had rung hollow before March ended, when an American general
doing a survey in Indochina was asked if the technicians could
be extended at least through the end of August. The Air Force
had its own problems there in addition to the danger - it had
recruited airmen for Indochina by promising extra leave and
credit toward a return stateside. In the middle of the Vietnam
mission the service changed its policy and refused to honor the
The rate of volunteering had dropped
from 30 percent to 5. With approved temporary duty stints of
just 90-130 days, the Air Force was likely to be unable to fill
its Indochina personnel slots. By the end of April, the Air
Force had 399 men in Indochina. That number increased to 462
before the end of May.
Meanwhile, Dien Bien Phu made the French
increasingly desperate. As far as Dakota maintenance at Do Son
was concerned, they went over Kenneth Knox's head to his
superiors. Knox's April Fools' present was an order to maintain
the C-47s only to French standards, not his own. Then, as one
more U.S. general inspected the place, Knox was given a tongue
lashing. Sgt. McDonald saw the officers standing in the evening,
the sun's afterglow silhouetting them, and then heard that Knox
was being fired. In fact, he was replaced by Maj. Harry Schiele
on April 11. A 90-day temporary duty for Knox would have ended
on May 6, ironically the very moment that Dien Bien Phu itself
Dien Bien Phu was completely overrun,
and its commander surrendered on May 7. This crystallized the
question of the return of the American airmen. As late as May
20, President Eisenhower was still saying he wanted them out of
Vietnam by the original planned date. But the French air
commander in Indochina refused to sign a maintenance contract
with the civilian alternative, Aviation International Limited.
The French said they could replace the
Americans with their own civilians at a rate of about a hundred
a month, ensuring the airmen would be out of Vietnam by
September 1. The Air Force had its own reasons for wanting to
hold on in Indochina. Americans could better safeguard U.S.
equipment on loan to the French, and pulling them out would have
a negative psychological impact on French Union military forces.
Washington decided to keep the air units, but to substitute men
where necessary and to consolidate the Americans as far away
from the Viet Minh as possible.
Movement to Danang began on May 13, a
few days after the fall of Dien Bien Phu. On the 23rd, the C-119
unit at Cat Bi also redeployed to Danang. Americans there
continued to service B-26, C-47, and C-119 aircraft and to pack
parachutes for the French. They also were under orders from Gen.
Hewitt to take all measures necessary for their own safety and
security. This kept the Americans confined to base for the most
part, except for such organized outings as beer parties on China
Airmen's frustrations grew with the
length of their assignment in Vietnam. On June 15, five
Americans took a truck to China Beach for a private beach party.
A Viet Minh patrol happened upon them, and they were taken away
to a POW camp in the hills overlooking the central Vietnamese
coastal plain. The five became the first American prisoners of
the Vietnam War. They were held until August 31, 1954, after the
Geneva Agreements had been signed.
The French almost made good on their
promise to enable the American airmen to leave by the first of
September. In fact, the Far East Air Force pulled its units out
of Vietnam on September 6, 1954. They spent almost exactly
twice the time in-country that had been originally intended.
Unlike a decade later, however, in this first commitment the
Americans did come home before the leaves fell.