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Vietnam’s former army official recollects escorting French prisoners 60 yrs ago

A former official of the Vietnam People’s Army recalled his hard job of escorting French prisoners of war by walking 400km from Dien Bien Province to Tuyen Quang Province in the northern region to prepare for returning them to French authorities 60 years ago.

Colonel Nguyen Chan, former vice political commissar of Regiment 165, Division 312
Colonel Nguyen Chan, former vice political commissar of Regiment 165, Division 312

After the French Union’s French Far East Expeditionary Corps fell in the Battle of Dien Bien Phu on May 7 in 1954, thousands of French invaders were captured as prisoners of war, according to Colonel Nguyen Chan, former vice political commissar of Regiment 165, Division 312.

But the Vietnamese army then could not afford to give trucks to carry them from Dien Bien Phu to Tuyen Quang Province, he added.

“Our journeys to walk escorting the French prisoners were even more miserable than pulling cannons in and out of forts,” he noted.

The French soldiers surrendered on May 7 that year, Vietnamese soldiers received their forts on May 8, and they were ordered to escort the French to Tuyen Quang the following day, said the army official, 95, who went through Vietnam’s three resistance wars against French, U.S., and Chinese invaders.

Both the prisoners and Vietnamese escorts had to walk then, he confirmed. For the Vietnamese side, walking was their routine job but it was not easy for the French soldiers, especially right after they were defeated.

So, the walking pace was very slow.

“We not only escorted them but also took care of their sleep, food, and health,” Chan recalled. “However, we then lacked necessities and many other things. So we couldn’t give them perfect care, but we tried to the best of our abilities.”

“The food rations for the French soldiers were even better than Vietnamese,” he said.

The walk

Thousands of French defeated soldiers were divided into small groups and each group departed for Tuyen Quang several days apart.

The army asked for the help of local people to prepare camps and provide food on the way.

Many French soldiers fell ill en route for their failure in adapting themselves to weather and food.

Some French officials who were not used to carrying their own properties asked for help from their soldiers on the escorting road.

“But we refused it and forced them to do it themselves,” Chan said.

Those who became sick and could not go with their groups were allowed to stay in camps under strict watch to wait to join with following groups.

The French soldiers were most motivated to run away when they were crossing streams because they simply thought that the waterways lead to rivers and rivers flow to oceans where they could find ways to go back home.

However, all of those who fled away were unable to cross deep and fast running water. They groped their way to villages for food and were reported to local authorities.

“We had few interpreters and so we communicated with one another by body language.

“I can confirm that we treated them the best we could. We walked, ate, slept in the same camps with them,” he assured.

“The only difference is the French defeated soldiers were low-spirited for failure,” Chan noted.