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Hell in a very small place: the siege of Dien Bien Phu Hardcover – 1966
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The accounts of the planning prepare you to understand what is to come. The accounts of the parachute assault and the combat maneuvers before the main battle are suspenseful and scary. Entire units disappeared in the jungle as they tried to converge on Dien Bien Phu pursued by Viet Minh troops, and were never heard from again. The accounts of the intense fights at strongpoints Beatrice, Gabrielle, and the Elaines are terrifying and very moving. They were fights to the death, often hand-to-hand, by paratroopers and Foreign Legion and Viet Minh heavy infantry, sometimes with escapes, but with no surrender by either side until the very end, when the French were simply overwhelmed by superior numbers. The descriptions of the courage and the suffering of the fighting men on both sides are inspiring, but also very sad. Those who disparage the bravery and fighting qualities of the French military cannot have read this book. Read the account of the paratroopers singing their war songs as they climbed Elaine 2 to engage the Viet Minh in an astonishingly violent, face-to-face standup fight to the death. These were professional soldiers from many countries, volunteers all -- no conscripts on the French side -- and fighting and suffering is what they did for a living. They earned their pay. The Viet Minh were brave, tenacious, committed, and very, very tough.
The main thing for the prospective reader to keep in mind is that this is a detailed, sometimes minute-by-minute account of the fighting, with detailed descriptions of battlefield terrain and reports of the actions of specific units. The character studies of the key French personnel, especially Navarre, Cogny, Gilles, de Castries, Langlais, and the great Marcel Bigeard ("Bruno"), among others, are thorough and telling. This book is not for those who want just an overview or a fast adventure story.
I served in the U.S. Army as an airborne infantryman, was in the central highlands of Vietnam from Dec 1965 - Dec 1966, and slept outside in the rain for nearly three straight months, so the story affected me deeply. I visited Dien Bien Phu with a war buddy and my wife in December of 2012, and we drove and walked over most of the valley, which is beautiful terrain. (At one point I became quite ill from the heat. Not young anymore.) We stood at the base of strongpoint Beatrice, climbed to the top of Gabrielle, climbed on Dominique and to the top of the Elaines, roamed in the headquarters, and visited Isabelle (of which not much remains). Some of the strongpoints, like Anne Marie, can be seen, but not easily reached. Some have been overrun by town development. But some of the fortifications and trench systems have been preserved, especially on Elaine 2, which is close to a small military museum. We climbed into French tanks, several of which still stand on parts of the battlefield, entered bunkers and walked through trenches. The Vietnamese in the valley are not obsessed with the history of the battle and have made little effort to develop the battle sites for tourism. The top of Beatrice, the most dramatic of the strongpoints except, perhaps, for Elaine 2, still inaccessible, overgrown by jungle. I would give anything to be able to go there. Maybe in the future.
Bernard Fall, a soldier and a scholar, details the day by day actions in the garrison for the reader in this book. The first part of the book is slow, as we see the building of the fortress and the slow build up on the surrounding hills from the other side. The Viet-Minh lines encircled the French until it was a noose taking the air out of the men. The book doesn't pick up until the details of the last desperate weeks of the battle are detailed, but the slower parts illustrate the quiet desperation that overtook the situation: boredom punctuated by panic.