Remembering Vietnam's Battle Of Dien Bien Phu On this day in 1954, an epic battle ended in Vietnam. The French defeat at Dien Bien Phu was a game changer, ending French colonial rule in Southeast Asia and the setting the stage for U.S. involvement there. The French were overmatched by the Vietnamese and sabotaged by their own high command.
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Remembering Vietnam's Battle Of Dien Bien Phu

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Remembering Vietnam's Battle Of Dien Bien Phu

Remembering Vietnam's Battle Of Dien Bien Phu

Remembering Vietnam's Battle Of Dien Bien Phu

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On this day in 1954, an epic battle ended in Vietnam. The French defeat at Dien Bien Phu was a game changer, ending French colonial rule in Southeast Asia and the setting the stage for U.S. involvement there. The French were overmatched by the Vietnamese and sabotaged by their own high command.

RENEE MONTAGNE, Host:

NPR's Michael Sullivan has this report.

MICHAEL SULLIVAN: Unidentified Woman: (Singing in foreign language)

(SOUNDBITE OF A MUSIC)

SULLIVAN: Unidentified Man: (Foreign language spoken)

SULLIVAN: The bunker of the French commander is one of the most popular sites, a 60-foot-long structure with a corrugated steel roof, reinforced to withstand enemy artillery. Inside are several dimly lit rooms, where Colonel Christian de Castries worked, slept and eventually surrendered - a French outpost some say should never have been there in the first place.

TED MORGAN: It was the idea of General Henri Navarre, who, in spite of the opposition of some his staff generals, insisted on setting up a base that could only be supplied by air, 300 kilometers from Hanoi.

SULLIVAN: Ted Morgan is the author of a new book about Dien Bien Phu. He says some of those French generals tried to obstruct Navarre, holding up reinforcements and supplies for Dien Bien Phu that they wanted to keep to defend Hanoi and the Red River Delta.

MORGAN: And at the same time, there was a low-level of cooperation from the French high command in Paris and from the civilian political leaders who didn't want to send more troops. So there was a major dysfunction in the French command, compared to unification in the Viet Minh command.

SULLIVAN: And the Viet Minh commander was the wily General Vo Nguyen Giap, well-versed in the art of war and well-supplied by his communist Chinese allies, a general who essentially won the battle before it started, when his troops were able to drag heavy artillery up into the mountains surrounding Dien Bien Phu undetected.

MORGAN: By the time that Navarre realized Dien Bien Phu was surrounded, it was too late.

SULLIVAN: Wan Dung Ving(ph) was just 20 years old the day the battle began. He was among the first Vietnamese to storm the French positions. It was his first time in battle, and he was terrified.

WAN DUNG VING: (Through translator) I saw my platoon leader get shot in the mouth. Then my squad leader got hit, too. I kept firing until all my ammunition was gone. Then the two French soldiers appeared. I stabbed the first with my bayonet. He fell. And the other one ran. It was the first time I killed anyone, and I was scared. We were all scared, but we had to fight or die.

SULLIVAN: Ted Morgan.

MORGAN: The men in the trenches were submerged in stinking, muddy puddles up to their waists. The time of burying the dead was long past and they lay rotting beside the living, who had little to eat, no access to clean water and no way to stay dry.

SULLIVAN: And no way, he says, for the French to evacuate their causalities.

MORGAN: Once the landing strip could no longer be used, you couldn't get the wounded out - literally thousands of wounded. And the wounded kept piling up. And the doctors were operating in inhuman circumstances. And this was a deliberate tactic on the part of Giap to demoralize the French.

SULLIVAN: On May 7th, Dien Bien Phu fell and Wan Dung Ving, now a seasoned veteran, found himself in the French command bunker tasked by his squad leader to take the French commander Castries into custody.

DUNG VING: (Through translator) I was very nervous. He was very tall and intimidating. I was short and small, but I was determined to show him I meant business. So I pushed my gun into his side and shouted (Foreign language spoken), which means hands up. He looked alarmed and spoke to me rapidly in French. Later, I learned he was saying: Please don't shoot. I surrender.

SULLIVAN: Here, Senator Wayne Morse of Oregon, in a prescient statement the day Dien Bien Phu fell.

MORGAN: "We must make clear to France that we are not going to enter into any agreement which will result in shiploads of coffins, draped in American flags, being shipped from Indochina to the United States in any attempt to support colonialism in Indochina," end quote.

SULLIVAN: Michael Sullivan, NPR News, Hanoi.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MONTAGNE: This is MORNING EDITION, from NPR News. I'm Renee Montagne.

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