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The Hill of Angels
By James P. Coan
The University of Alabama PressCopyright © 2004 The University of Alabama Press
All rights reserved.
Before the Americans Came
The Vietnamese people originated in ancient times from what is today south China. Thousands of years ago, this Mongoloid race of people was gradually pushed southward into the jungles of Indochina by the inhabitants of north China. Those early Annamites mixed with Thais and Indians along the way. They also intermarried with Indonesians. By the first millennium BC, they had created a home they called "Nam Viet," or "Land of the Southern Viet People." The western Indochina peninsula they came to call Vietnam comprised three large areas: Tonkin (north); Annam (central); and Cochin-China, the southernmost part of Vietnam.
For the first ten centuries ad, that portion of Vietnam known as Tonkin was ruled by the Chinese, but the Annamites continued to resist domination. For a thousand years, defeat after defeat did not deter them from resisting foreign assimilation. The Chinese ruled the country, but the Annamites maintained their language, customs, holidays, and religions. In the tenth century, the rebellious Annamites drove their Chinese governors out and declared their independence.
Kublai Khan sent a half-million Mongols south in 1284 to conquer the Viets. The Mongols were repulsed by a fanatical Vietnamese army made up of women, children, and elderly who took up arms and joined with their fighting men in a common stand that decimated the Mongol invaders. But their victory was a costly one, and a weakened Vietnam was again invaded by the Chinese, who conquered the Annamites in the fifteenth century. The Ming Dynasty governed ruthlessly, heavily taxing the populace and enslaving millions of men to clear forests and dig mines. A resistance movement arose, and within ten years they had evicted the Chinese once again.
The Annamites pushed south, defeating the Chams (Hindu Empire), then drove the Khmers back into what is present-day Cambodia. By the middle of the eighteenth century, all of Cochin-China had been conquered by the Viets. In 1789, Emperor Quang Trung surprised and defeated a Chinese army at Tet, while the Manchus were sleeping off the food and wine of a day's feasting. Still celebrated to this day, their victory was a major event in Vietnamese history.
Gradually, a new menace appeared on the scene: Europeans. First came the Portuguese, then the Dutch, English, and finally the French, who successfully forced out all other European competition. French colonial activity commenced in 1860, and by 1907 the entire Indochina peninsula was under its domination.
On September 22, 1940, three months after the fall of France to Nazi Germany in World War II, the Vichy French government capitulated to the Imperial Japanese Army in Vietnam. Up until mid-1945, the Japanese called the shots, gradually increasing their clout and dominance over the former French colonialists. This did not go unnoticed by the Vietnamese, who saw a former European power humbled by an Asian army. Even though the French later regained full administrative control over Indochina after the Japanese surrender that finally ended World War II, this perception weakened the French presence in the minds of the Viets.
The seeds of Vietnamese rebellion against the French, planted earlier under five years of Japanese rule, commenced to sprout under the tutelage of Ho Chi Minh. His Communist organization, the Viet Minh, grew from a poorly equipped band of resistance fighters into a modern army that vanquished their former French masters at the battle of Dien Bien Phu in 1954.
A central concept of Vietnamese military doctrine was that a weaker force handled properly could defeat a stronger one. For hundreds of years, their military teachings stipulated that the stronger force had to be worn down by protracted warfare. Vietnamese forces would employ hit-and-run tactics, morale-busting booby traps and ambushes, until the timing was right for a sudden shock offensive delivered with maximum surprise and deception.
The Vietnamese had always thought of themselves as giant killers, smarter and better organized than their enemy. Odds mattered little. They were used to beating the odds. They had repeatedly thrown back the Chinese, routed the "invincible" Mongol hordes, taken the remainder of their country from the Thais and Khmers, and soundly defeated the French. They never doubted that they would be victorious over the American "puppet government" in Saigon. "They were a people accustomed to war, a people who indeed defined themselves by war and struggle."
After eight long years of struggle with the French army, the Viet Minh nationalists closed for the final kill in a remote valley in northern North Vietnam called Dien Bien Phu. A Vietnamese Communist force of fifty thousand troops commanded by General Vo Nguyen Giap surrounded and laid siege to a French force of thirteen thousand paratroopers, indigenous soldiers, and foreign mercenaries. The Viet Minh soldiers dug a maze of trenches and tunnels that surrounded Dien Bien Phu. Under Giap's orders, the Viet Minh had disassembled their Russian-made heavy artillery and antiaircraft guns and hauled them mile after tortuous mile over hundreds of miles of mountainous terrain, then put them back together in the hills surrounding Dien Bien Phu. It was a feat no one, certainly the French, believed possible.
On March 13, 1954, General Giap gave the signal to attack. For fifty-six days, the French fought back bravely, despite being outnumbered and outgunned. With their artillery emplaced on the high ground surrounding the valley, the Viet Minh pounded the once-proud French fortress to rubble. The beleaguered French garrison hung on tenaciously without relief or resupply. Finally, on May 7, 1954, with their medical supplies exhausted, and almost out of food and ammunition, the French commander radioed Hanoi for the last time: "Au revoir, mon general; au revoir, mes comrades." Minutes later, hundreds of flag-waving Viet Minh soldiers overran the command bunker and hoisted the flag of the Democratic Republic of Vietnam. Ten thousand Frenchmen were taken prisoner. But victory had not come cheaply, as the Viet Minh suffered twenty-three thousand casualties.
Despite the loss by the French of many of their finest soldiers, the most important result of the battle was psychological. A demoralized French government faced escalating protests by a war-weary populace who demanded an end to the Indochina war. French leaders were resigned to negotiating a settlement.
In Geneva, Switzerland, a meeting called the Four Great Powers Conference was already under way to negotiate a Korea settlement. The day after the fall of Dien Bien Phu, an armistice conference convened with representatives in attendance from the United States, France, Britain, the USSR, China, North and South Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia. Top priority was given to resolving the Vietnam situation.
Under pressure from both China and Russia to agree to the principle of partition, Vietnam's Pham Van Dong argued that the line should be drawn at the thirteenth parallel, which would have placed two-thirds of the country under Communist control. The French demanded the eighteenth parallel as the armistice line. Russia's Molotov, the wily old Bolshevik, arbitrated a last-minute solution on July 22, 1954. The line to divide North from South Vietnam was drawn at the seventeenth parallel, with a demilitarized zone five miles wide. Placing the demarcation line there won for the French the excellent port of Tourane (Da Nang), the ancient imperial capital of Hue, and the only direct land route between South Vietnam and Laos.
Another Molotov verdict allowed for elections in two years that would permit the people of Vietnam to finally determine their own fate, to live under either Ho Chi Minh and the Communists or Ngo Dinh Diem's American-backed government.
Hastily arranged and lacking formal signing by most of the participants, the Geneva Accords were primarily cease-fire agreements intended to buy time for the warring sides to disengage and withdraw their troops. The agreement was not a formal political settlement. The U.S. government did not join in the agreement, although it assured the other participants that the United States would not interfere with its implementation. Diem considered the provision for elections to be unfair and had no intention of carrying through with that part of the "agreement." Unforeseen at the time, the Geneva Accords laid the groundwork for many more years of bloody conflict in Vietnam.
The demilitarized zone (DMZ) dividing the two Vietnams was sixty miles long and five miles wide. It started at the mouth of the Ben Hai River (Song Ben Hai) where it emptied into the South China Sea among barren expanses of sand dunes and occasional swamps. Inland a few miles from the coast, the lowland terrain becomes increasingly verdant and alive with rice fields, orchards, and occasional hamlets bordering the river. Another ten miles inland, the relatively flat ground gives way to rolling hills that soon merge into rugged limestone mountains covered in thickets of bamboo and fields of elephant grass, with triple-canopy jungle forests that could conceal an army. The Ben Hai shaped the northern and southern boundaries of the demilitarized zone, following the broad river's winding course west for thirty miles until it subdivided into narrow tributaries in the western mountains. Mapmakers followed the seventeenth parallel in a straight line the remaining distance across Vietnam to the border with Laos.
South Vietnam's northernmost province, Quang Tri, butted up against the demilitarized zone. Located in Gio Linh District, two miles south of the DMZ border and a dozen miles inland from the coast, was a place called Con Thien. Topographic military maps from that era by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers indicate a surveyed horizontal control point 158 meters in elevation. Printed above it is the Vietnamese name for the hill, Nui Con Thien, which translates into English as "the hill of angels." The French army had appreciated its observation potential and built a concrete fort on the highest of three knolls on this small mountain rising up from the surrounding lowland countryside.
Con Thien's origin is volcanic. The soil covering the area is red laterite clay, rich in iron, and good for growing coffee, tea, black peppers, pineapple, and bananas.
This area of Vietnam experiences blowtorch hot days from May to August. Then, almost overnight, the weather changes into the fall/winter monsoon that blows in from the northeast, bringing typhoons that often produce flooding. Another facet of the monsoon is called the crachin, from the French word for "drizzle," and it consists of a light, steady, cold rain that lasts for two and three days at a time, accompanied by thick, blanketing fog. When not raining, the monsoon sky is often gloomily overcast. Even though temperatures rarely drop below forty-five degrees in the winter, the constantly damp chill in the air permeates one's very being. Northern I Corps is the rainiest place in Vietnam, averaging well over one hundred inches annually.
Two dozen hamlets encircled the hill called Con Thien, but it was almost as if this high ground were off limits to the civilian inhabitants because the closest hamlet was a half-mile away. Connected by age-old cart trails and footpaths, this area of Gio Linh District was predominantly Catholic, as evidenced by the unusually large numbers of Catholic churches. Within two miles of Con Thien were six churches and cathedrals; some were elegant structures of concrete and brick and three stories tall.
It was not unusual to find areas of Vietnam with concentrations of Catholics. Prior to Geneva, numerous Catholic enclaves had supported the French and done battle with the Viet Minh. Those north of the demilitarized zone had good reason to be fearful after the armistice. When given the opportunity in 1954, an estimated six hundred thousand Catholics fled North Vietnam and resettled in the south.
Village life around Con Thien was typical of the Annamite people who had inhabited this area for many generations. In such a rural, agrarian society, the village was their cultural and political anchor. An old Vietnamese adage stated that "the authority of the emperor stops at the village gates." Their daily lives revolved around working in the rice fields and tending to their animals and crops of vegetables, tea, and even tobacco. French-schooled missionaries and clergy played a central role in the village, often becoming community leaders and teachers. Attendance at Mass and other church activities was a fundamental facet of their lives.
Each village comprised a number of hamlets delineated by hedgerows and bushes. Individual homes were separated by small gardens and yards, often fenced to keep out their neighbor's animals. Most houses had thatched roofs with brick or bamboo walls and mud floors. Construction was rudimentary but comfortable. The people were not prosperous, but they were able to get by, feed their families, and have a little something left over. Surplus vegetables, potatoes, pigs, and chickens were taken to market and sold.
Cam Lo was a major trade center for merchants bearing salt, fish sauce, dried fish, ironware, silverware, and copperware in exchange for items brought from the Con Thien area such as rice, poultry, beeswax, tree bark spices, fabric, and cloth.
On a typical spring day, sun-bronzed boys sat astride water buffaloes out in the lush fields surrounded by tree- and shrub-crowned hedgerows. Barefooted children kicked up dust as they chased each other across paddy dikes and irrigation ditches. Wiry women dressed in black silk pajamas and white conical sun hats trotted off to market with their straw baskets of goods hanging from both ends of a pole riding on their calloused shoulders.
Life in the Con Thien area, though harsh at times, was enduring. Generation after generation had lived there and grown old, cognizant of their ancestors preceding them, secure in the belief that their children and grandchildren would continue to thrive on this peaceful land forever.CHAPTER 2
Confuse the enemy. Keep him in the dark about your intentions. Sometimes what seems a victory isn't really a victory, and sometimes a defeat isn't really a defeat. — General Vo Nguyen Giap
The national elections agreed to at Geneva in 1954 did not happen two years later, which was predictable. Diem believed it to be an unfair setup and had no intention of following through. Ho Chi Minh's revolutionary cadre then commenced organizing and carrying out a resistance movement against the Diem government they called "America's puppet state."
In November of 1963, President Diem was assassinated in a coup, and an ongoing power struggle made the South Vietnam government unstable. The Viet Cong (VC), supported by their Communist brethren in North Vietnam, took advantage of that chronic instability and flexed their muscles, attacking South Vietnamese army (Army of the Republic of Vietnam, ARVN) units and American installations throughout South Vietnam. Riddled with corruption and nepotism, the South Vietnamese army was rendered ineffective. Newly elected president Lyndon B. Johnson wasted little time mobilizing support for a war against the Communists, despite strong reservations expressed by influential insiders such as the U.S. ambassador to South Vietnam, retired U.S. Army general Maxwell Taylor.
The U.S. 3d Marine Division was based on the island of Okinawa when elements of the 9th Marine Regiment landed at Da Nang, Republic of Vietnam, on March 8, 1965. They came ostensibly to provide security for the U.S. airbase at Da Nang. By July 1965, all three of the division's regiments (3d, 4th, and 9th) were operating in the southern and middle provinces of the I Corps zone.
Excerpted from Con Thien by James P. Coan. Copyright © 2004 The University of Alabama Press. Excerpted by permission of The University of Alabama Press.
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