Military Book Look: Dien Bien Phu

Military Book Look: Dien Bien Phu

Howard R. Simpson's classic work on the fateful battle


“To the dead.”

That is to who this book is dedicated.

After absorbing Howard R. Simpson’s gripping, accurate, insightful account of the fatal French defeat at Dien Bien Phu in 1954, one realizes how apt a dedication it is.

By 1953 the Indochina War (also referred to as the First Indochina war to differentiate from the American-involved Vietnam War) had dragged into stalemate.  The French high command could not catch and destroy Ho Chi Minh’s Communist Viet Minh army led by Võ Nguyên Giáp  even when Giap’s troops suffered defeats such as during the battle of Na San the previous year when Giap’s troops attacked and were repulsed by French forces holding a series of fire bases surrounding an airstrip.

Emboldened, the French command decided to try such a tactic again at Dien Bien Phu, an insignificant hamlet that possessed two key military aspects to its place on the map of northwest Vietnam: an old Japanese-built airstrip from Japan’s occupation of Indochina during World War 2 and a place close enough to the border with Laos that, in theory, would mean the base could prevent Communist forces from advancing into that French colony and raising Cain there.  Alas, they left vital high ground around the base unsecured on the fatuous assumption Giap’s army had little or no artillery.   Giap proved them wrong; very wrong.  So wrong the whole plan turned into a fiasco with many a brave soldier’s life wasted for nothing on the French side as Giap’s men bore steadily inward into the base until the inevitable final act on May 7th, 1954, when the base was overrun.

As a photographer for the US Information Agency (USIA), Simpson even visited the doomed base late in 1953 shortly after it was established.  He even accompanied the 6th Colonial Parachute Battalion led by then-major (and later general) Marcel Bigeard on a 13 mile patrol.  (Bigeard, incidentally, is a warrior whose story leaps off the pages of Simpson’s book as being one which belies the ridiculous notion prevalent in American culture that the French Army is wimpy.  Haw!  Bigeard could kick ass and take names just as Patton could!) 

Simpson was home on leave when the base fell.

It was a defeat that all but insured America –already supplying the French with weapons and other supplies -- would get bogged down in her own war in Vietnam.  In fact, she almost intervened at Dien Bien Phu but hesitated.  A fatal mistake, in my opinion: we could have gotten it over with there and then, but I digress.

Don’t take my word for how good this book is, though.  Allow me to close with a sample of Simpson’s prose, taken from the start of the first chapter dealing with the airborne assault that initially secured Dien Bien Phu for the French late in 1953:

An early morning mist blanketed the Hanoi region on November 20, 1953.  The first brightening in the eastern sky revealed the concentration of French air force C-47s parked in rows on the tarmac of the Bach-Mai military airfield.  Trucks and jeeps moved between the aircraft, depositing troops, delivering messages, and unloading heavy weapons.  The bang of tailgates, the grinding of gears, the shuffle of booted feet, and the occasional shouted order faded quickly, deflected by the silver fuselages.  Files of helmeted, combat-ready parachutists were boarding the C-47’s, moving awkwardly, like deep sea divers, under the weight of their parachutes, arms, and equipment.  The same scene was being repeated at Gia-Lam, Hanoi’s civilian airport.