Bernard Fall‘s excellent and respected Street Without Joy provides deep insights to the French catastrophe in Vietnam culminating at Dien Bien Phu. Fall is recognized as a respected journalist who understood the failure of France. He was on the ground with French troops.
Fall’s experience sharing French losses are shocking even 50 years later. And yet in war there are a number of truly heroic acts by French and American soldiers fighting a determined Viet Minh enemy.
Declassified in 2005 American pilots James McGovern and Wallace Buford where killed flying over Dien Bien Phu, just 24 hours before the French surrender.
Fall illustrates a perfect example of the French effort: in 1953 the army spent $20 million dollars to build a runway. It buckled when the first airplane landed and was abandoned.
France was complete decimated by World War II. The country literally did not have an air force until 1950. French planes supporting IndoChina included just 60 Spitfires — made from wood and canvas. Most planes were German Junkers 52s. The true irony, the French had to actually locate parts in Germany to repair Junkers damaged fighting the Viet Minh. For French pilots the demands were worse:
Nothing has thus far been said about the incredible strain of that operation on the air and ground crews of the French Far Eastern Air Force and Naval Aviation. At the height of the battle, in April 1954, many crews logged 150 flying hours. Dozens of pilots collapsed from exhaustion, but simply were doped up and returned to combat, for experienced pilots rapidly became even scarcer than aircraft. When, in the face of possible diplomatic complications, the American civilian air crews and their C-119’s were pulled out on April 24 from the Dien Bien Phu run—they were allowed to return to the run on May 1 – there remained only fifty French planes capable of flying the long and exhausting mission.
Embers of War reminds us that Parisians concerned about the welfare of the garrison, a majority of soldiers were not French. The colonial French Union permitted France under their empire to place soldiers from Laos, Cambodia, Tunisia, French Guinea and Morocco at Dien Bien Phu. As the battle inched closer a stunning 3,000 to 4,000 Moroccan troops deserted their posts and escaped into the jungle. The empire was over.
It would not be fair to say Fall ignored the horrors of war in this book. The tremendous loss of life, even French officers who lost sons fighting the Viet Minh. While tragically sobering it was not enough to change America’s focus off long term goals in Europe that played out in IndoChina ten years later. US Army Lt. General John O’Daniel toured Dien Bien Phu less than three months before the siege and found the garrison to be in a sound position.