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Adieu at Dien Bien Phu

By Jerry V. Smith
6/7/2018 • Vietnam Magazine

The intrepid and ingenious Pierre Guin had a final critical mission to complete before the Viet Minh surrounded and finished off the last French stronghold.

Trained at the French Military Academy Saint-Cyr and later earning his airborne wings, Pierre Guin volunteered in 1951 to serve in Indochina. During the epic siege of Dien Bien Phu, he ensured that the ammunition, supplies and equipment required to keep the troops alive—some 30 truckloads a day—reached the beleaguered outpost. Shortly before the end, he flew in on a special mission at the request of American intelligence.

Vietnam: How did your childhood and upbringing shape your life?

Pierre Guin: My family lived in the south of France in a small town in the Rhone River Valley. My father was a veteran of World War I and rose to the rank of master sergeant in the artillery. He often tried to talk to me of his experiences during his war, but I was young and was not interested. I am sure my attitude made him unhappy. My mother was admirable. She disciplined me when necessary, but was never mean-spirited. My parents instilled in me duty, law, God and honesty….They also encouraged me to get an education. Walking to school was a seven-mile round trip for me.

What are some of your most vivid memories of World War II?

My town was occupied by German paratroopers and later by Italian troops, who were demoralized after their experience in Montenegro. By 1943 food was scarce, hunger was permanent and cold was constant. The people of my community were sad. Their clothes were worn out. Gloom was everywhere. Survival was the main idea. By the time of Liberation in 1944, many bridges had been blown up and railways destroyed by the Resistance. The Marshall Plan could not solve all the problems in one go, but it filled the gas tank of a potentially reliable European engine.

What was it like at the legendary military school Saint-Cyr?

The military academy in Brittany had a rainy environment and a Prussian concept of discipline. The punishment for a dirty shoe was the “bear,” which meant a night in confinement with only a blanket. My most interesting time was spent in the lecture theater, listening to educated speakers, economists or historians, which was better than the night marches. When we marched in parades in Paris, we dressed in a special uniform and on our caps were the white feathers of an Australian bird, the Casdar. Since 1802 about 55,000 officers have been educated at Saint-Cyr, and one out of five died in the line of duty.

How did you get into the airborne?

When the war in Indochina started, we received specialized training either in infantry, artillery, signal, engineers or transportation. I spent one year learning about convoys, mechanics, equipment and horse riding competition. Thanks to my good marks, I got the only airborne assignment. Then I spent a month practicing extensive techniques.

After airborne training, something strange happened to me. I experienced the kind of personal change a marine, a special forces soldier or a Legionnaire feels. The man involved has [a higher sense of self], a different soul, a total dedication. He becomes a member of a different team, of another clan. Life does not belong to him any more. A parachute jump is not just a feat, but the man is alone to face himself, and that makes him feel better or greater.

What was your first assignment?

My first assignment was to an air supply company as chief training officer for the conscripts. Turning a teen – ager into a warrior takes six months through use of historic recipes: training, discipline, sports and songs to enhance the collective spirit. The usual punishment to enforce discipline was push-ups, which we called “pumps.”

For a young officer who likes his men but hides it, there is a great satisfaction to see their evolution. Their faces are mirrors. They arrived scared. They came puny. They became strong and learned to obey orders instantly. During my assignment as a paratroop officer, I once went to Ramstein, the large U.S. air base in Germany, to attend a strategy session about supplying Berlin during the Soviet blockade.

When were you sent to Indochina?

In 1951 I volunteered for Indochina and was assigned as platoon leader in an air supply company. Hanoi had two air bases, a military and a civilian one. In order to conserve the military aircraft, we used civilian planes to air drop supplies to our secure outposts.

What was the military situation in Vietnam at the time?

Geographically and tactically, the North consisted of the Red River Delta, or the “rice attic,” and the T’ai mountains running to the Chinese border. Tribes living in the mountains do not recognize the frontiers. They live at different altitudes from Thailand to China. These tribes consisted of the Man, the Ka, the Hmong or Meos and the Moung. They love to wear silver around the neck or in bracelets on the arm. They grew rice and opium. All over Indochina, rice is so vital to survival that the people have two different words for it—one for raw rice and another one for cooked rice.

Many isolated French outposts were located in the mountains, and their supply had to come from air. We dropped bundles of supplies by parachute, and sometimes without parachutes. We packed rice in double bags. When landing, the inside bag exploded and the rice spread into the outer bag. The average weight of a bundle was 150 pounds. Using the C-47 aircraft, several circles around the drop zone were necessary before we pushed the bundles through the side door. We even used paper parachutes made in India.

Only one outpost, Laichau, had a runway long enough for a C-47 to land with a 3-ton load. But Laichau was so high up in the hills that a C-47 could take off with only a 1-ton load. Once, standing at the door of an airplane, I heard a little noise and spotted a bullet hole in the frame of the door, about four inches above my head.

Any other close calls?

Flying back from Sam-Neua in Laos, where an air force major and I attended the funeral of our respective crews, the engine of our plane stopped. The tip of the wing touched the ground, and the plane broke into two parts. I was thrown from the plane, landed on my head and ended up in a coma. At age 83, I’m still paying the bill for that crash.

When the Viet Minh 312th Division attacked Nghia-Lo in September 1951, three battalions of paratroopers jumped north of the town. The Legionnaires were ordered to go east to collect intelligence. My friend Hélie de St. Marc and his company repelled a Viet Minh assault. After nightfall from the top of our hill, all of a sudden we saw thousands of lights in the valley. Carrying supplies on their backs or on bikes, the Viet Minh porters in the valley started moving— like an endless column of insects. After we fired a few mortar shells, all the lights went off. The following day the 312th Division withdrew. Two years later it would return, and the results would be much different.

As a pathfinder, I jumped in at Hoa Binh, in November 1951. The wind drifted me on top of a bamboo house built on poles. I fell through the roof, then the floor and landed on a vertical trunk that people used to tie up their buffaloes during the night. I was supposed to be the chief of logistics for three parachute battalions in that operation, but the bad drop put me in the hospital.

When did you begin to work closely with American advisers?

On December 20, 1953, I was assigned to Haiphong as air supply platoon leader. I initially had no information, orders or advice. The Americans sent new planes, new parachutes and new equipment from Japan—and American advisers. The Americans stayed with us until the last day, May 7, 1954. The maintenance on the planes was performed by the U.S. Air Force mechanics. The aircrews were made up of both French and Americans, who came from a platoon of Civil Air Transport. [Editor’s note: Civil Air Transport [CAT] was a CIA-owned airline that originally was established in China in 1946 by retired Maj. Gen. Claire Chennault, of Flying Tigers fame. CAT later evolved into Air America.]

What was your mission then?

My job was to make sure that the 30 truckloads of ammunition and equipment to be parachuted in each day were in good condition and properly rigged, and also to check the right assignments of the dispatchers on the planes. I managed three sergeants, 60 dispatchers and 300 prisoner laborers, and coordinated with the U.S. Air Force, the French Air Force and the American crews on the air base.

On May 4, 1954, a young second lieutenant reported to me for duty. Since I was overwhelmed with responsibilities and work and was getting only three to four hours’ sleep at night, I was glad to have some additional help. Upon reporting to me, this new officer, who had been in Vietnam for only two days, asked me for time off from duty so that he could write a letter to his wife. I exploded and ordered him to get on the next plane out, which was just then preparing for takeoff. Later that day, that plane crashed after being hit by anti-aircraft fire. The two American pilots and three dispatchers on the plane all died. The second lieutenant miraculously survived, but he was captured and spent five months as a prisoner.

What were the factors that governed aerial supply operations?

If the following conditions were met, any piece of equipment could be parachuted: The load had to be compatible in size and volume with the hull of the plane. The weight had to be compatible with the power of the aircraft. Specialized equipment had to be available to prepare the load. Qualified personnel had to be available to perform the parachute rigging.

What were some of your biggest air supply challenges?

My unit was once ordered to drop a 6- ton bulldozer by parachute into Dien Bien Phu. Since this had never been done before, we had to improvise. We used one metal platform for the dozer’s blade assembly, and another one for the engine and the caterpillar treads. During our first attempt, the bulldozer fell free after a rigging strap broke. For the next attempt, I doubled the straps, and the drop was a success.

I came to the conclusion that when the canopy of a parachute fully deploys, the braking factor amounts to five or six times the weight of the load. During the Dien Bien Phu airlift, we dropped in 13,000 tons in less than six months, using the C-119.

The air force base commander, who was a true pilot warrior, wanted me to devise a technique to drop napalm containers, each being fitted with a safety igniter. Activation had to take place beyond the aircraft’s wake. We made a wooden platform adapted to the size of the containers, and linked the igniters to it. We then conducted the test bombing on a village whose militiamen had attacked our air base, burning observation planes and B-26 bombers in the process. The test was a success. It was a dreadful show.

How did your last mission into Dien Bien Phu come about?

Engine failure had forced a French pilot to land his C-119 in Dien Bien Phu. My orders were to accompany an American officer to destroy the plane. The C-119 was technically ahead of its time. The propellers were made of composite material and the controls were electrical. There was fear that this plane might fall into the hands of the Chinese.

We went to Dien Bien Phu on April 12, 1954. My men fixed explosives to the left landing gear of the C-119. I punctured the gas tanks with a pickaxe and then ignited the whole thing. The next day, the newspapers printed that the Viet Minh artillery had hit and burned a plane. Media people make up scoops when they have no information. In fact, the Viet artillery only destroyed an already burned-out shell.

On April 13, very heavy shelling of the garrison at Dien Bien Phu began. It lasted until May 7, which was the last day the French held Dien Bien Phu.

What do you believe best explains why Dien Bien Phu fell as it did?

Without having informed the chief of staff in Paris, General Henri Navarre launched the Dien Bien Phu operation. His objective was not only to repel the Viet Minh offensive in Laos but also to blockade the entire Communist army from the Red River Delta.

But General Navarre didn’t understand Indochina. He was a quartermaster himself, but he seems to have forgotten the Viet Minh “ant concept” of logistics. We had seen it operate at Nghia-Lo, but nobody asked our advice. At Dien Bien Phu, the Viet Minh supply operation moved forward with bikes, trucks, guns rolling on logs and tens of thousands of coolies. It was a nice piece of work for a logistician. Ten thousand French soldiers were trapped in a bowl in the mountains by 60,000 Viet Minh. In the end, 7,000 French POWs had to walk 700 kilometers to their internment camps—and only 3,000 came back.

What did you do after the fall of Dien Bien Phu?

After serving 36 months in Indochina, I flew back to Europe for three months leave, followed by an assignment to my former air supply company in Germany. Then I flew back to Laos as an adviser, and then went to Cambodia as an instructor in cartography and mathematics at the Royal Military Academy. Cambodia had nice people, nice weather and nice environment, and I was decorated by the king of Cambodia with the Monisaraphon Award for Letters and Arts.

Upon returning home to France I found myself the French military’s only specialist in heavy airdrop. My next assignment was as chief of research and development at the airborne center. By the time I had been there for about a month I had come to realize that although he was a good friend, the officer in charge of the center had no knowledge of his responsibilities. This left me with a great sense of disappointment and frustration in light of my own extensive practical experience in Indochina. Nonetheless, we came up with many new and novel ideas, but the government did not invest money in the airborne center.

When the French aircraft manufacturer of the Nord 2508 prototype wanted to develop foreign markets, I was assigned as a member of the sales team. We flew to Italy, Pakistan, India, Nepal and Laos. In Pakistan, there was no radar in operation. One night, our gas was just about to run out when suddenly the pilot spotted a runway and landed. The plane rolled to a stop, 10 seconds on the runway and then silence. Both engines had stopped and were out of gas.

How did you find yourself back in another war?

After two years at the airborne center, I volunteered for Algeria and was assigned to the airborne troop headquarters as the chief training officer for two divisions. In Algeria the political powers had made too many ambiguous promises to the European population, and a revolt erupted in April 1961. Some of my good army friends were jailed, including Hélie de St. Marc, with whom I served in Indochina; others deserted. Although the overall policy was right and led to withdrawal from Algeria, the soldiers of the nation were treated as a “negligible quantity.” I was so sickened that I resigned my commission.

What was your life like after resigning from the army?

My wife and I had a 3-year-old daughter, and my wife was pregnant again. I had to start and build a new life. When one believes in his weaknesses, he is sure to be overwhelmed by them. A large industrial group hired me. I had to learn the industry, and fought periods of stress, but nobody or nothing could take me down. Six months later I was transferred to a subsidiary in Lyon, which is the best city in France.

Within six years I was promoted to executive vice president (the president was in Paris) for the American operation of a money-losing company [and moved to New Jersey]. I turned the company around and made money, and was elected to the President’s Council of the American Institute of Management.

Any foreigner living in the United States winds up being attracted to the way of life there: liberty, challenge, community spirit, manliness, humor, performance at all levels and the opportunity to become self-made men.

In the end I had two most memorable times—the Dien Bien Phu airlift, and my civilian responsibilities in the United States. An ideal life covers three stages: adventure, management and philosophy. I experienced all three. Adjustability should be taught in school. The older you get, the more you think over, the less you talk. Was Francis Bacon right? “Whosoever is delighted in solitude is either a wild beast or a god.” I’ll die like a beast.

 

Pierre Guin lives in retirement in Aix en Provence, France. Jerry V. Smith is an attorney in Dickson, Tenn. For additional reading he recommends Hell in a Very Small Place and Street Without Joy, both by Bernard Fall.

Originally published in the October 2008 issue of Vietnam Magazine. To subscribe, click here.  

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