Prunier pointed out in 1968 that Ho Chi Minh believed the U.S. “would help him in throwing out the French and in establishing an independent country”
Vo Nguyen Giap had long been retired from the military when he was feted as a special guest at a dinner in Hanoi in 1995. As the 84-year-old retired general surveyed the room full of Vietnamese and Americans, brought together by the U.S. Indochina Reconciliation Project, one man in particular caught his eye. It had taken a moment for Giap to recognize the American, since it had been 50 years since their last meeting. The American, however, immediately recognized Giap and, true to his nature, patiently waited. As he watched, Giap grabbed an orange from a bowl of fruit on the table, cocked his arm back, bent his body and then made a full motion as if he were lobbing the orange. It was the old general’s way of telling the American that he remembered him—former Office of Strategic Services (OSS) Deer Team member Henry Prunier—this was the man who had taught him how to lob a hand grenade in the forest five decades before.
Since then, General Giap had gone on to lead the Viet Minh army in defeating the French in 1954. He later commanded the North’s People’s Army of Vietnam (PAVN) against the South’s Army of the Republic of Vietnam (ARVN) and its superpower ally, the United States, ultimately achieving victory in 1975. Giap is to celebrate his 100th birthday on August 25, 2011.
Prunier, meanwhile, had gone on to finish his military service in January 1946, got his college degree in chemistry and joined his family’s brick and concrete contracting business in Worcester, Mass. It was a far cry from his days as an OSS agent in 1945 when, as a member of the secret Deer Team, he parachuted into Ho Chi Minh’s base camp in French Indochina to help Giap and Ho train insurgents to fight the occupying Japanese army—a force that would later become the veteran core of the Viet Minh and the North Vietnamese Army (NVA). As the Deer Team’s translator, fluent in French and Vietnamese, Prunier likely spent the most time in conversation with Ho and Giap, with the possible exception of the team’s leader, Major Allison Thomas.
Because much of his work with the OSS has recently been declassified, Prunier, now 89 and the last living Deer Team member, found himself a recipient of the Bronze Star Medal in February 2011. “I’m really thrilled with the award of the Bronze Star,” he told the Worcester Telegram & Gazette. “I never expected it.”
French came easily to Henry Prunier. His grandfather was a French-Canadian who had emigrated to the United States. Raised in Worcester, Henry attended a French-speaking Catholic grammar school, then the Assumption Preparatory School, where he was taught by French priests.
“I didn’t want to get drafted because the military put you where they wanted,” Prunier recalled recently, so in 1942 he enlisted in the Army, which let him finish his junior year at Assumption College. His background and affinity with languages got him placed in the Army Specialized Training Program at the University of Berkeley to study Annamese, as the Vietnamese language was then known. “The language was difficult,” he recalled. “It was monosyllabic with six tonal variations, and I had no musical background.” To better acclimate the student-soldiers with their intended assignments, in addition to the language study—up to four hours a day, six days a week—the coursework also included Vietnamese history, geography, political science and culture.
It was at Berkeley in 1943 that Prunier had his first encounter with the Office of Strategic Services. An OSS officer approached him and two others for “a voluntary mission into Indochina.” Prunier said all three turned the officer down after being told they would “only have a 50 percent chance of coming out alive.” Completing school at Berkeley in 1944, he was sent to cryptology school in Missouri, where he was slated to join an infantry division prior to the invasion of France. The night before he was to ship out, however, Prunier was ordered to go to Washington instead—to join the OSS. “It wasn’t voluntary,” Prunier said, but at that point, he admitted, “I was happy.”
In addition to passing a battery of psychological tests, the rigorous OSS training sent Prunier to California’s Catalina Island for survival training and judo lessons. “We learned to kill and eat goats and how to find and eat abalone,” he said. His training complete, he boarded a ship in April 1945 with 3,000 other servicemen for Calcutta. From there, he flew over “the Hump”—the Himalayas—to the OSS regional headquarters in Kunming, China.
In Kunming, the Deer Team took shape in May and June 1945 under the supervision of OSS Director Archimedes Patti. Team leader Major Allison Thomas, who had been an attorney in Michigan before working with British intelligence during the war, would be joined by Prunier, American radioman 1st Sgt. William Zielski and, to test if the insurgents would accept French assistance, a French officer and two French-Vietnamese officers.
“Before the Deer Team parachuted into Tan Trau [formerly Kim Lung], no one knew the mission,” said Prunier, “other than that a ‘Mr. Hoo’ was at Tan Trau and that we were to give training to his forces.”
Prunier later learned that the mission originated when Ho Chi Minh met months before in Kunming with Lieutenant Charles Fenn, who wanted cooperation in rescuing downed Allied pilots and in sending intelligence and weather reports to the Allies. Fenn and the OSS also wanted intelligence on Japanese troop movements and weaponry. Ho agreed to help them in exchange for U.S. assistance for his nationalist force in Vietnam. Though the OSS was unaware of exactly who Ho was, they agreed to train his small band. “The Allies thought the Japanese were using French Indochina as a jumping off point for southern China,” Prunier said. “Our job was to help resistance groups harass the Japanese. We were there to take out railroads, telecommunications, not to confront them face-to-face. We didn’t have enough firepower.”
The OSS initially intended for the Deer Team to walk the 300 miles to Tan Trao, where the insurgent training camp was. The Chinese, however, warned the OSS that the Japanese were waiting for any Allied forces along the border. Instead, each team member was flown individually in a Piper Cub into the town of Po Sah, about 50 miles from the Chinese border, which served as a communications center between Kunming and the drop zone in Tan Trao. On the morning of July 16, 1945, the six-member Deer Team boarded a C-47 for the drop, but the pilot failed to find white strips of cloth that were supposed to border the landing zone to confirm that the area was in friendly hands. Finally, after making the jump at dusk, Prunier, Thomas and the others gathered up their parachutes and watched as several dozen men advanced on them, not sure whether the men were Chinese or Vietnamese. Most were simply teenagers, “Boy Scouts,” as Prunier recalled, except for one older, shorter man wearing a white linen suit, black shoes and a black fedora, known simply to the team as “Mr. Van.” Only later would they learn his name was Vo Nguyen Giap.
Led to the village of Tan Trao, the team was greeted with a banner proclaiming “Welcome to our American Friends.” Prunier learned soon afterward that the banner had been prepared not by the Vietnamese but by two Americans: Lieutenant Dan Phelan, who manned the Air Ground Aid Station, which helped extract U.S. pilots downed in the area; and Frankie Tan, an American born in Boston’s Chinatown, who was part of an espionage network working for Texaco that had been operating in Vietnam since 1944. “They sold the intelligence they gathered to everyone—the U.S., the French, the British,” Prunier recalled.
The training site was scarcely more than 200 by 300 yards with a dozen huts around the perimeter. The OSS team lived in huts on the mountain. “There was a stream, and they directed some of the water in split bamboo for showers, and we got beautiful, ice cold mountain water,” said Prunier.
When Prunier and the team first met Ho Chi Minh, whom they knew as “Hoo,” he was “nothing but skin and bones,” suffering from tropical diseases such as dysentery and malaria. Though Ho spoke fluent French, he refused to speak it and instead conversed with Prunier alternatively in English and Annamese.
Ho and Giap immediately distrusted the French and French-Vietnamese officers on the team and demanded that they return to Kunming. It took another week to get their American replacements into Tan Trau: medic Pfc Paul Hoaglund, weapons specialist Staff Sgt. Lawrence Vogt and Sergeant Aaron Squires, who was also a photographer. The last member of the team was Lieutenant René Defourneaux, a French expatriate who had become a U.S. citizen.
Upon his arrival, Hoaglund’s priority was to treat Ho, who quickly regained his strength. “Ho did not appear to be a typical military leader, though the troops treated him with reverence like a grandfather,” said Prunier. “He didn’t impress any of us as a military person or future leader of Vietnam.
“I had a conversation with him and told him I was from Massachusetts. Ho said, ‘I remember Boston.’” The diminutive revolutionary had worked as a chef in London and New York, and aboard a cruise ship that stopped in Boston. “One of the funniest things I saw was that he used stationary from Boston’s Parker House hotel to write messages,” said Prunier. “He told me he spent time in New York City and was amazed at the freedom of the colored people and Chinese and Asians.”
In contrast to Ho, Giap was far more involved with the combat training the Americans were giving, and was intent on learning the capability and effectiveness of the weaponry. Prunier thought Giap appeared to know dangerously little about the weapons. “The 60mm mortar, for example, was a short-range weapon whose range could be changed by powder increments that were added on to the shell,” said Prunier. “Giap wondered how it worked, so he put his head at the opening of the barrel. I told him not to do that. He could have had his head blown off!”
When the Deer Team began training Ho’s nascent Viet Minh army, according to Prunier the only weapons the insurgents had were musketoons (a musket more similar to a shotgun) and a few confiscated French guns. “They were not armed well or able to handle weapons,” said Prunier. The OSS dropped in canisters containing M-1 rifles, bazookas, 60mm mortars and light machine guns, just enough to equip the 80 men. “The Vietnamese were eager and learned how to take an M-1 apart in a couple of hours,” Prunier said.
In total, the OSS team trained the Vietnamese for only a few weeks in July and August. The team was able to provide Giap’s fighters with basic combat skills, but, said Prunier, “what they learned about guerrilla warfare was only after, because we didn’t have time to teach them that.”
Although the Deer Team was a military training unit and not a political training force, it became clear to Prunier through his conversations with Giap and the other Vietnamese that they had a purpose—to get Indochina back as an independent country. “We didn’t know until then that Ho’s primary aim was to get rid of the French,” he said. Prunier’s proximity to Ho gave him a unique assessment of the man. “Ho was a very quiet type of man,” he said. “He listened to everything you had to say. He would ask you leading questions and draw answers out of you. He was an intense person. When he spoke, it was about bettering the lot of his people.”
In addition to Ho and Giap, this core group gave rise to at least two general officers, including Maj. Gen. Quang Trung, who would first vex the French and then the Americans during the Vietnam War. “This particular group was a select group from all over Vietnam,” said Prunier. “They weren’t a ragtag bunch of farmers.”
The Deer Team celebrated with their Vietnamese hosts when they learned of the U.S. atomic bomb attacks, knowing that the end of World War II was near. On August 15, Japanese Emperor Hirohito addressed his nation and announced that they would surrender, essentially ending the OSS mission in Vietnam. The following day, Prunier recalled, Ho Chi Minh’s Provisional Government met in Tan Trao. “We left that political situation,” he said. “We saw Ho, and Thomas made it a point to go say goodbye to him.” Bound for Hanoi, Prunier said, the Deer Team “went with Giap, Quang Trung and 20 to 30 of the Viet Minh soldiers into the jungle.”
“We bypassed several villages,” Prunier recalled. “Some of the Viet Minh soldiers told me that we had to avoid them. I heard the villagers were being ‘co-opted’ by Ho to join him.
“There were still a lot of Japanese in the region,” said Prunier. “Maybe they didn’t realize or accept the war was over.” On August 19, Giap’s unit reached a Japanese garrison at Thai Nguyen. The Viet Minh, eager to practice what the OSS had taught them, planned an assault on the garrison. According to Prunier, the team was ordered by Archimedes Patti in Kunming via radio not to get involved militarily, not to accept prisoners, and to lay low. But that did not stop Major Thomas.
During the fight the OSS team “was pinned down and Major Thomas did get involved,” said Prunier. “He didn’t hesitate to tell us about it after the skirmish. A couple of Viet Minh were killed. I don’t know how many Japanese were killed. Giap absorbed and utilized everything we taught him. I think they just wanted to prove what they had learned militarily.”
After the engagement at Thai Nguyen, the OSS team was given a few guides, and Giap left with most of the other soldiers. The Deer Team marched another 40 miles to Hanoi, arriving on September 9. In the meantime, Ho had preceded them to Hanoi and declared Vietnam’s independence on September 2—the same day that the Japanese formally surrendered to the Americans on the deck of the battleship Missouri. “I was somewhat surprised and didn’t expect that he would declare his leadership so soon,” said Prunier, “but we were in the dark on political issues.” Ho had cited the American Declaration of Independence in his own declaration, and according to Prunier, he may have gotten the idea from one of his many discussions with Lieutenant Dan Phelan.
Prunier recalled Hanoi as a beautiful city, with wide boulevards and mansions, but as the Chinese had moved in, “they were nothing but riff-raff…a bunch of crooks. There was hunger in Vietnam, and the Chinese would loot houses in the city, scavenging.”
Before leaving Hanoi on September 16, Prunier only saw Ho and Giap briefly. At this meeting, Ho presented a silk tapestry to Prunier in gratitude for his service.
Prunier then flew back to Kunming and was temporarily assigned to an intelligence unit there. A month later, he was back in Hanoi to help set up an OSS detachment headquarters, from where he was to work on cases of Japanese war crimes against the Vietnamese and French. Because there was little organization to the effort, he found plenty of free time to explore the city and located some of the soldiers he had helped train, including Thai Buc, a fellow translator in Tan Trau. “He was like a brother,” Prunier recalled. The OSS was disbanded in October, and in November Prunier was given his orders to return home to be discharged.
Henry Prunier was never debriefed by the U.S. government about his mission or about the insurgents he had helped to train in Vietnam. Though he did receive several invitations to join the Central Intelligence Agency, which was formed in 1947, he said, “I just wasn’t interested.” Instead he opted to join his family’s business in Worcester.
For the next 20 years, Prunier’s mission in Indochina was largely forgotten as the nation dealt with global tensions of the Cold War. In the early 1960s, as U.S. involvement in Vietnam escalated, the old OSS training grounds were rediscovered, and stories of the Deer Team re-emerged. Even then, with Ho and Giap on the world stage as America’s archenemies, Prunier’s experience with the leaders went untapped. Then, in March 1968, with more than 500,000 U.S. troops in Vietnam, some of the Deer Team photos taken by Sergeant Squires were published in a Life magazine profile of Ho. “A couple of people recognized me, so they contacted the local news organizations,” Prunier said. In short order, he was interviewed by Worcester TV station WTAG and the Worcester Gazette.
It was during those interviews 43 years ago that Prunier offered what few people, if any, in the U.S. government could provide—firsthand insights into the Vietnamese leaders when they were formulating their movement’s direction. “When Ho spoke, it was about bettering the lot of his people,” Prunier said. “He wanted independence for them….He saw no contradiction in being a Communist and in hoping for a democratic way of life for his people….In many ways he was naïve.” Prunier pointed out that Ho believed the United States “would help him in throwing out the French and in establishing an independent country.” When it was suggested to Prunier that he contact Life about his story, true to his humble nature, he preferred to stay out of the national spotlight.
Prunier did do some public speaking afterward, but quickly ended it because it was not his intention to be an anti-Vietnam War activist. “When I was interviewed in 1968, I got some nasty phone calls,” he said. “They thought I was a lover of Ho Chi Minh. I didn’t love Ho Chi Minh. I thought the Vietnamese were a fantastic people and eager learners, but I didn’t recognize any [of the group we trained] for being Communists.”
As the U.S. war effort in Vietnam went from quagmire to ignominious retreat, Prunier’s story—and that of the entire Deer Team—faded further in the American consciousness. But that was not the case in Vietnam, where the assistance given to Ho and Giap in 1945 by the American trainers is hailed as a turning point in the country’s history.
In 1995 the U. S. Indochina Reconciliation Project, which had been established a decade earlier as a nonprofit group to help facilitate relations between the United States and countries in the former Indochina, offered an opportunity for the original Deer Team members to travel to Hanoi, visit the Tan Trao camp and meet the men they had trained half a century before. Two of them were able to go, Prunier and Thomas. It was during their trip to Hanoi that Giap recognized Prunier by displaying his grenade lobbing technique with an orange. “I taught Giap. I was floored that he remembered me,” Prunier recalled. “He came up to me and just kept saying ‘yes, yes, yes!’” Another Vietnamese soldier from 1945 grabbed him happily by the arm and cried, “Prunier! Prunier!” over and over. It was the first time that Prunier realized the Vietnamese held him and the Deer Team in such high esteem.
In 2009 Henry Prunier decided to offer all of his papers, photographs, sketches, reports and, perhaps most important, his U.S. Army uniform to the Museum of Military History in Hanoi. Upon receiving his contribution, the museum Director General Le Ma Leung, who was a veteran of Khe Sanh, called Prunier’s donation “one of the most significant historical contributions that the museum had ever received.”
On February 23, 2011, when he received the Bronze Star Medal, Prunier recalled the days of his Deer Team’s secret OSS mission in Vietnam. “My contribution was small,” he said, “but the Vietnamese think it was great. And maybe it was. Maybe it had a lot of impact which we didn’t realize….It was a small organization which was meant to harass the Japanese. We were not there to meet them head on, but to disrupt their communication system.”
For a brief moment in time, in a land few Americans knew of or cared about, the United States played a key role in nurturing the independence-seeking band led by Ho Chi Minh and Vo Nguyen Giap. “It was a historical type of thing that happened,” Prunier said. “I don’t know how much impact we had, but I learned about the Vietnamese people.”
Perhaps six decades after Henry Prunier’s work with the OSS, the respect for the last living member of the Deer Team that is shared by the Vietnamese and Americans alike will symbolize a new understanding between two former enemies. H
Claude G. Berube teaches at the United States Naval Academy and has researched the role of the OSS Deer Team extensively.