Part 2: Preparation for a historic mission
When French troops began pouring into Dien Bien Phu in the winter of 1953, General Vo Nguyen Giap studied the site carefully and decided to deploy 50,000 troops. He would move into the region 33 infantry battalions, six artillery regiments, and a regiment of engineers.
|Map of Viet Nam |
General Christian de Castries wrote a message to challenge his opponent, “Dear General Vo Nguyen Giap, I’ve heard that you are bringing several Divisions into Dien Bien Phu for the Lunar New Year celebration. We are here with several Regiments, ready to receive you.”
The French were attempting to draw the Vietnamese into a full scale battle on open grounds. French troops would depend on modern tanks and superior aircraft supplied by their Western allies. General Henri Navarre, Commander of French forces in Indochina, was confident that France would win this battle when speaking to his troops, “A year ago none of us could see victory. There wasn’t a prayer. Now we can see it clearly – like light at the end of a tunnel.”
Thinking of the great challenge, Giap had to develop new combat strategies and tactics. After several sleepless nights, he decided to mobilize the public to build underground tunnels. Since the Viet Minh owned no tanks and no aircraft, they would rely on secret tunnels, artillery, and the isolation of the enemy. Given limited resources, Giap told his field commanders, “Lives of our soldiers are precious. So are the weapons and the few vehicles that we have.”
It was a cold and foggy afternoon. Members of Division 312 began their march to Dien Bien Phu. Having fought in the northwest region before, they were accustomed to the rough terrain with rocky hills, rice paddies, small creeks, and long trails – winding between mountain passes and farming lands. In the past, every time they traveled through villages they would cover themselves with forest leaves - because of embarrassment over their torn clothes. But today, they were neatly dressed in green army uniform and palm-leaf helmets.
Reaching the Dien Bien Phu area, they moved quietly along the hillsides and beneath large umbrellas of trees. While crossing the Muong Thanh lowland, they would be exposed to sunlight and had to camouflage themselves carefully. For most of the journey, their secret paths were dimly lit by the moon and stars at night. In daytime, they were invisible to the enemy.
At Dien Bien Phu, Colonel Tran Do and Colonel Le Trong Tan continued to supervise troops on the movements of artillery. A large number of men and women had worked through the Lunar New Year, all hoping to get the howitzers on the mountain ridges by mid February. The risk of being killed by the enemy’s aircraft was high as the French had increased their attacks on the Viet Minh.
Battle of Dien Bien Phu
For this grand mission, Viet Minh troops received overwhelming support from people of all ages. The 20,000 volunteers traveled long distances under the constant threat of bombs and gunfire. The following songs reflect the mood and commitment of the Vietnamese people:
The blue sky has gone Now with masses of dark clouds
For my son to defeat the French aggressors
I must hurry to join the supply line.
Advanced age at seventy-three
A proud old soldier
I must help to bring supplies to our combatants
Other ferries carry passengers for a fee
My ferry carried rice and has to be on time
Rice for the front-line
To help them kill the French enemy
High waves or rough winds, I still paddle my ferry
Inside their cages, roosters and hens will sleep peacefully
Down on the quay, white clouds are dissolving
Toward the West, the moonlight is vanishing
My ferry is still waiting here tonight
My ferry is carrying meaningful friendships
Carrying fearless patriotism across the River
Scattering rain drops over the cabbage leaves
Pity for him, dressed in thin cotton clothes
Hurriedly I knit this garment
Sending it to the battlefield to warm his heart
I take time to tend the vegetable garden
Purple eggplants with white sea salt
Our family shall enjoy together
Ducks and chickens, I fatten them up
Waiting for the young soldier to return
Greatly inspired, the soldiers were singing while matching:
Crossing the vast Northwest territory,
Passing through the mighty mountains and jungles
Deep water creeks and tall forested hills,
We will overcome all,
Obeying our Father of Nation
We are here to liberate the Homeland
| General Vo Nguyen Giap observing the battlefield |
On March 11, two days before his ‘rendez vous’ with De Castries, Vo Nguyen Giap received a letter from Ho Chi Minh, “You are about to enter the great battlefield. You will face extreme challenges. You are taking a huge responsibility, with the greatest honor.
You’ve already reorganized our troops. They’ve understood our political ideology and military strategy, and they have gained invaluable skills in combat. I trust your ability to lead the troops, to overcome hardships and dangers, and to bring victory to our nation…” At his secret headquarters on a mountainside, Giap quickly drafted an order to his field commanders at Dien Bien Phu, instructing them to get ready for battle.