Night Jump into Dien Bien Phu: An Eyewitness Account From A French Paratrooper Captured by the Viet Minh

Pierre Fauroux was born in 1921. He graduated from the French Military Academy at St. Cyr in 1942, when France’s Vichy government was dominated by Germany. In 1943 he escaped from France via Spain and joined the Free French movement based in Britain. Trained by the British in special operations, he parachuted into France in June 1944 during the D-Day invasion. At the end of 1944 the restored French government sent Fauroux to Indochina to prepare for the return of French forces at the end of the war. He participated in many clandestine reconnaissance missions until he returned to France in late 1946. Fauroux returned to Indochina in 1952 as the executive officer of a parachute battalion and fought at Dien Bien Phu, a French defeat that set in motion a series of political and military decisions in the United States that would send U.S. ground combat troops to Vietnam in March 1965. Fauroux was captured by the Viet Minh, a Communist-controlled organization fighting for independence from colonial rule. He was repatriated in September 1954 and later served in Algeria. During his military career Fauroux was awarded the French Legion of Honor and the American Silver Star. Fauroux died in 2010. His memoir written six years earlier includes the following account of the Battle of Dien Bien Phu, translated by retired U.S. Army Colonel Stephen Smith.

Pierre Fauroux receives the Silver Star in 1993 for his service to the U.S. Army in World War II. (Courtesy off Stephen Smith)

In 1952 I received orders to report to Quim­per, in France’s Brittany region, where paratroop battalions were trained, on May 2 before heading back to Indochina. Major Marcel Bigeard was at Saint-Brieuc [a town in Brittany] in command of the 6th Battalion of Colonial Paratroops. My battalion was the 10th Colonial Paratroops, commanded by Major Jean Bréchignac. In November 1952 we went to Marseilles to embark for Saigon. While in Marseilles we received orders reflagging us as the 2nd Battalion, 1st Regiment of Paratroop Chasseurs.

Shortly after our arrival in Hanoi around Christmas 1952, we were transported to Na San in Tai territory [a section of northern Vietnam inhabited by people of the Tai culture], where an important strongpoint had been organized over the previous several months. Two Viet Minh divisions had knocked themselves out trying to attack it. The French Foreign Legion paratroops distinguished themselves there. Na San was without question a French victory that cost the Viet Minh very dearly. By the time we arrived, the worst of the fighting was over. We assumed responsibility for conducting all the patrols within a 30-kilometer radius around Na San. The objective was to make contact with the Viets there, who at that time refused to fight us.

That, however, did not prevent us from having our first major engagement on April 1,1953. We fell upon a large enemy battalion and the fighting was violent. We suffered 10 killed, including one officer, 70 wounded and five or six missing. The Viet Minh battalion was practically annihilated, first from our fire and then from fighter aircraft that machine-gunned the entire area.

We remained in Tai territory until Easter, April 5, 1953, and then went back to Hanoi to rest and reorganize for one week. For the next several months we took part in various operations in the Red River delta and other places in Tonkin. I still have bitter memories of two affairs we were involved in. There was a category of promotable colonels who commanded large Mobile Reconnaissance Groups, composed of various types of battalions. Before ending their tours of duty in Indochina and returning to France, they would mount an operation to burnish their campaign credentials. Command of a paratroop battalion lent a certain sparkle to their tenures. Twice, each time for a dozen days, we were the paratroop battalion involved, and it cost us two company commanders, among others. We paid dearly for this kind of foolishness, which contributed nothing to the wartime mission.

We also executed an operational jump to the north of Tourane [Da Nang] in the coastal region nicknamed the “Street Without Joy.” [French soldiers were continually ambushed by Viet Minh fighters on a stretch of Highway 1 that ran through the area.] The Viets refused to fight, but we took a large number of prisoners, whom we brought back to Tourane and turned over to the navy for evacuation.

In the spring of 1953 the French government decided to look for an honorable way out of the war that was bogging down. Unable to achieve victory over the Viet Minh, who were supported by Soviet Russia and Communist China, the government designated a new commander in chief and gave him the task of reinforcing the Franco-Vietnamese troops. It also undertook a series of diplomatic initiatives aimed at achieving a negotiated solution to the war.

The new commanding general, General Henri Navarre, was given a mission that included countering the threat while holding the Viet Minh divisions in the Red River delta, mounting precision operations in the heart of their supply zone and against Communist-infested areas in the center of Annam [a region in the central portion of what is now Vietnam] and organizing a large offensive supported by landings along the coast.

Navarre replaced General Raoul Salan, who had been in Indochina since 1948. The senior commander in northern Vietnam was Lt. Gen. François de Linarès, scheduled to rotate back to France. His designated replacement was Maj. Gen. René Cogny, already in Indochina and one of the very few senior officers interested in the job. Before departing, Linarès, a Navarre classmate at St. Cyr and at the École Militaire, warned the new commander in chief that Cogny was not a good fit for the job and not ready for senior command. It was Cogny who advised Navarre on the choice of Dien Bien Phu, though he later disavowed having done so and resisted sending reinforcements from the Red River delta.

As soon as Navarre assumed command, his most immediate problem was northern Laos. If the Viet Minh infiltrated that area from the Mekong Valley and from middle Laos, they would threaten all of southern Indochina. Not defending northern Laos would amount to accepting a general catastrophe within a few months. Thus, the decision was made to reoccupy Dien Bien Phu, a jungle crossroads and a strategic point that the French had occupied periodically since the beginning of the century. Dien Bien Phu would be occupied this time by means of an airborne insertion.

The 2nd Battalion, 1st Paratroop Chasseurs, was operating on the Tonkin plain near “Seven Pagodas” [near Chi Linh, halfway between Hanoi and Haiphong] when we were told to return immediately to Hanoi. We understood that something important was going on. Called to a headquarters meeting at the very highest level, Major Bréchignac took me along. We learned that an airborne operation named Castor would plant us in the middle of Dien Bien Phu. The officers present, from various units, felt a sense of relief. At last we would be face to face with the entire Viet Minh army, and we were confident we would deliver a knockout blow.

The drop zone terrain formed an elongated basin whose long axis was roughly north-south, with an average altitude of 500 to 700 meters. It was surrounded by wooded hills that overlooked the valley to the north and to the east, where a landing strip was located. The basin’s length from north to south was about 14 kilometers, and its width was 3 to 5 kilometers.

The initial operation consisted of three elements. The Airborne command post was under Brig. Gen. Jean Giles, the commander of airborne troops in Indochina. The post directly controlled an airborne artillery group consisting of two batteries of 75mm guns, an airborne engineer company and an airborne surgical team. The 1st Airborne Task Force, under Lt. Col. Louis Fourcade, consisted of the 1st and 6th battalions of Colonial Paratroops and the 2nd Battalion, 1st Paratroop Chasseurs. The 2nd Airborne Task Force, under Lt. Col. Pierre Langlais, consisted of the 1st Battalion, Foreign Legion Paratroops; the 5th Battalion, Vietnamese Paratroops; and the 8th Battalion, Colonial Paratroops.

The number of men dropped would be 4,825. It was the most important airborne mission ever executed by the French army. The operation involved 65 Douglas C-47 Dakota transports, 33 flying from Bac Mai, the remainder from Gia Lam [both Hanoi airports]. The drops would be executed in two waves at an altitude of 200 meters. The launch time was scheduled for 7:30 a.m. on Nov. 20, 1953. Intelligence estimated the enemy strength on the ground at eight companies and one heavy-weapons company with four 120mm mortars.

The 2nd Battalion, 1st Paratroop, was part of the first wave, carried in 27 C-47s. I did not take part in that initial jump of Operation Castor. All forward-deployed parachute units require a solid rear detachment, ready to immediately resolve any resupply and replacement problems. Major Bréchignac asked me to take charge of that detachment.

The battalion encountered no resistance when it arrived on the ground and took two prisoners. Six soldiers were lightly injured in the jump. At the end of the first day’s operations, total French losses came to 15 killed (one during the jump) and 47 wounded. The Viet Minh suffered 147 dead, but most of their fighters fled into the mountains. Within three days the landing strip was improved enough to accommodate C-47s. After November 26,air-landed infantry units came to reinforce and relieve the paratroops. As the arrival of reinforcements permitted, the paratroop units were transported by air back to Hanoi December 8-17. The 2nd Battalion was withdrawn on December 10.

From Nov. 26, 1953, to March 13, 1954, the base at Dien Bien Phu was continually improved and reinforced [primarily by setting up eight defensive positions, or strongpoints, each with a female name]. By December the garrison totaled some 12,000. A general sense of optimism reigned at the headquarters in Hanoi and Saigon. The intention was to finish off the Viet Minh. Drawing the Viets into the valley was the dream of the entire staff. We would finally have what we wanted—a concentrated target that we could hammer.

The entrenched camp appeared impregnable, and none of the civil and military dignitaries who visited it raised any concerns. And yet toward the end of December General Navarre realized the risks we were running at Dien Bien Phu. Very reliable military intelligence reports indicated the enemy was bringing in heavy artillery. All too late he understood that the coming battle required support from a much more powerful air force. Even worse, the entrenched camp could only receive aerial support from distant bases in the Red River delta, which would mean delays in getting assistance.

While we waited for the Viet Minh to attack Dien Bien Phu, an event of great importance changed everything. We learned on February 18 that our national leaders had decided to meet to discuss the Indochina issue in Geneva at the end of April. General Navarre had not been forewarned. He later placed much of the blame for the failure at Dien Bien Phu on that conference: The news encouraged the Viet Minh to pull out all the stops so they could go to the conference carrying a big military victory to bolster their position in the negotiations.

By the beginning of March the Viet Minh had encircled Dien Bien Phu with 60,000 to 80,000 troops from 28 infantry battalions, three artillery regiments, an anti-aircraft regiment and an engineer regiment. They had enormous stockpiles that were being augmented at the rate of 50 tons a day by an interminable supply chain that included coolies, heavily loaded bicycles and 700 Molotova trucks provided by Soviet Russia.

In addition to our infantry forces, we had two battalions of 105mm artillery and one battery of 155mm artillery, two 120mm mortar companies, 10 M24 light tanks and two engineer companies. We had nine days of rations, eight of fuel and five of artillery ammunition. Colonel Christian de Castries commanded the garrison, and Langlais, the 2nd Airborne commander, led the paratroops. As the battle unfolded, however, it became primarily a fight conducted by lieutenants and captains.

On March 11 the Viet Minh artillery began harassing fire and succeeded in destroying six Grumman F8F Bearcat fighters on the ground. We were really surprised to see that the Viet Minh had such artillery, which were sheltered in practically invulnerable tunnels hollowed out of the surrounding mountains. Every time they fired, they managed to hit something, and the French artillery at Dien Bien Phu was neutralized quickly. Faced with this failure, the French artillery commander, Colonel Charles Piroth, committed suicide in his bunker.

The first assault, on the evening of March 13, was directed against the strongpoint designated Béatrice, defended by 450 troops of the 13th Foreign Legion Demi-Brigade. The position fell just after midnight. On March 14 the 5th Battalion, Vietnamese Paratroops, dropped back in as reinforcements. Two days later Major Bigeard and the 6th Battalion, Colonial Paratroops, dropped back in. But strongpoint after strongpoint fell as the fighting continued without interruption through the rest of March.

When the battle started on March 13, the 2nd Battalion, 1st Paratroop Chasseurs, was in southern Laos at Savannakhet, where we had taken part in clean-up operations in that region. We quickly headed back to Hanoi and immediately prepared to jump into Dien Bien Phu. In Hanoi we found people’s attitudes detestable. The news correspondents acted like the paparazzi do today, trying to interview every man in the street. Colonel de Castries’ wife was especially harassed. Editions of the news magazine L’Express with anti-military editorials appeared on the stands. We felt betrayed. We didn’t understand why the French government wasn’t doing more to support us. In that atmosphere we took off for Dien Bien Phu.

We knew that the battle was already lost. Colonel Henri Sauvagnac, one of the founders of the French Airborne, came to see us off. He despaired to see those whose training had been his entire life deploy under such conditions. I remember that as we were heading toward the aircraft, we passed under a large photograph of the American film star Ava Gardner hanging on the wall of the embarkation hall. Bréchignac said to me, “She really is a beautiful woman!” as if to say, “This is the world we are about to abandon!” And there we were, like others before us and others after us, a parachute on our back, another on our belly, a jump bag on a sling containing some poor little personal items, leaving for a lost battle, looking like so many penguins.

After surviving a night of intense fighting on April 3, a French patrol tries to determine the enemy’s position. (Bettmann/Corbis)

Our drop started on the night of April 1-2. The entire operation was scheduled for three waves on three successive nights. I jumped with the first wave close to midnight. No sooner did my parachute open than I found myself in the middle of an extraordinary spectacle—anti-aircraft fire, illumination flares, tracer rounds—it was a real Bastille Day fireworks show. I proceeded to an assembly point as quickly as possible, and it soon became evident that Bréchignac had not jumped. The plane he was in had overshot the drop zone because of the heavy anti-aircraft fire, and there was no place beyond the perimeter where it was safe to jump.

We had only two companies on the ground. I linked up with the command post, and Colonel Langlais sent us to take positions on the Eliane 4 strongpoint. Bréchignac arrived the following night. Landing in barbed wire, he had to leave his trousers hanging on it in order to extricate himself. The battalion regrouped on Eliane 4. Like the men in other units, we would not see a calm day again until May 7.

After the battles for the Huguette strongpoints during the first days of April, the fighting mostly concentrated on the Eliane strongpoints. We repulsed the attacks, often inflicting considerable losses, but enemy artillery fire was incessant and came in from all sides. As we lost soldiers, those still in fighting condition would reassemble. Starting on the night of April 9-10 more reinforcements jumped in, including the 2nd Battalion, Foreign Legion Paratroops, and about 700 volunteers who had never seen a parachute in their lives.

As the month wore on, the supply situation became desperate. Because of the intense anti-aircraft fire, airlifted rations and supplies had to be dropped from higher and higher altitudes. Large amounts fell on enemy positions. During the later days of the battle, we benefited from the intervention of large American cargo planes flown by the pilots of Maj. Gen. Claire Chennault’s Civil Air Transport airline [later the CIA’s Air America], operating from Nationalist Chinese territory on Taiwan. Chennault had been the commander of the American Volunteer Group [Flying Tigers] in World War II. At Dien Bien Phu his planes took great risks by dropping supplies at low altitudes. Two of them were shot down.

During the night of May 1-3, the Viets fired the longest artillery concentration of the battle. It lasted three hours and was principally directed at the Eliane positions. Our battalion suffered great losses, including one company commander and one lieutenant killed, two company commanders seriously wounded and some 30 soldiers killed. Only three days before the end of the fighting, the 1st Battalion, Colonial Paratroops, began to drop in.

On May 4 and 5 the assaults on Eliane 2 and 4 multiplied. Rain interfered with the airdrops. Only half a company from the Colonial Paratroops’ 1st Battalion arrived on May 5. On the afternoon of May 6 Bréchignac asked me to go with a radio operator toward the center of the fighting to look for a less pulverized place where we could reassemble the surviving elements of the battalion. I advanced through the trenches in mud up to my chest. The shells never ceased to fall. At a bend in a trench I lost sight of the radio operator. He must have been killed by a shell and swallowed up by the mud. I realized then that the end was at hand.

I made it back to the command post. I can still see the dugout 2 meters under the earth where huddled together were Bigeard, Langlais, Major Pierre Tourret of the Colonial Paratroops’ 8th Battalion, Major Maurice Guiraud of the Foreign Legion Paratroops’ 1st Battalion, Major Hubert de Séguin-Pazzis from de Castries’ headquarters and my St. Cyr classmate Captain Robert Caillaud of the 2nd Foreign Parachute  Regiment. We never saw de Castries, who recently had been promoted to brigadier general.

During the night of May 6 Bréchignac sent his final message: “They are here. I am destroying the radio. Adieu to all.” Bigeard, Langlais and all of us believed that we should not surrender or hoist the white flag. De Castries sent us a message indicating his approval of a cease-fire without a white flag. All the units were contacted; all the arms and the radios weredestroyed. The general cease-fire took effect at 5:30 p.m. on May 7. Then the silence.

We waited. Then we heard them coming, like a wave, a screaming crowd. We were reassembled outside, without any brutality. Our adversaries seemed very surprised and rather respectful. Then we were handed over to the political commissars, and that was the beginning of another story. The losses we suffered in the battle for Dien Bien Phu totaled 2,379 dead, 5,234 wounded (708 of whom later died of their wounds) and 11,579 taken prisoner. Only 3,290 of the captured men returned home. The enemy losses included 8,000 dead and 15,000 wounded, according to official estimates.

The French army was beaten but it was not routed, as the newspaper Le Monde wrote in 2004. We young officers asked for only two things: First, to be well led; and second, to be helped, supported and supplied by those who sent us to war. It happens from time to time that the first condition is not fulfilled; the second one never is. When the end of the battle was announced in Paris, the Chamber of Deputies was in plenary session. The emotion was considerable. Many deputies wept and all of them stood for a long period of silence—except the Communist deputies, who remained seated. 

Stephen Smith, a retired Army officer in the Judge Advocate General’s Corps, is a civilian attorney for the Army’s 21st Theater Sustainment Command in Kaiserslautern, Germany. Captain Pierre Fauroux was his father-in-law. For additional reading see Bernard B. Fall’s Hell in a Very Small Place and Martin Windrow’s The Last Valley.

First published in Vietnam Magazine’s April 2016 issue.

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