On the evening of May 7, 1954 the last remaining French position, strong point Lily, manned by Moroccan soldiers commanded by a French officer, surrendered to the attacking Vietminh, ending the two-month long siege of Dien Bien Phu and with it the French-Indochina War. The French fought long, hard, and at times effectively, for French Indochina. The U.S. government gave more financial aid to the French cause in Indochina than it gave to France in the Marshall Plan. But in the end Eisenhower refused to send troops to rescue the garrison.
Dien Bien Phu was unquestionably an important event in world history. In a sense it was the last stand of western colonialism in the Far East. The Brits had already fled India and were in the midst of the Malayan Emergency. The Dutch war of reconquest in Indonesia had been futile. Unfortunately for Ho Chi Minh and the Vietnamese people, their Chinese and Soviet allies sold them short at the bargaining table later that year in Geneva. That, mixed with American actions to negate the treaty in subsequent years, set the table for the second Indochina War, known to many Vietnamese as the “American Phase.”
The picture below is probably the most famous of the battle, in reality it was taken after the battle as part of a re-enactment staged by a Russian filmographer…
Vietnam People’s Army, First publish in 1954. – Vietnam People’s Army museum (still from Soviet filmographer Roman Karmen).
La 317ème section (Photo credit: antonella.beccaria)
In 1951 Pierre Schoendoerffer, then in his early twenties, was out for adventure. He had read about French reporters and cameramen working in Indochina and it fascinated him. So he volunteered in the Service Cinématographique des Armées and was assigned to Saigon. There he befriended a Service Presse Information war photographer named Jean Péraud. In 1954, it was Péraud who asked Schoendoerffer to jump into Dien Bien Phu to work with him on filming the combat. Schoendoerffer agreed. He dropped with the 5th Vietnamese Parachutist Battalion into the besieged fortress during the early days of the battle. Corporal-Chief Schoendoerffer “celebrated” his 26th birthday in the midst of the 57 day siege. He filmed much of the battle, but after the French defeat he tragically decided to destroy most of his film and his cameras to keep them out of Vietminh hands. One small reel of footage was salvaged. It didn’t resurface for years.
After the fall of Dien Bien Phu to the Vietminh on 7 May 1954 Schoendoerffer shared the same fate as thousands of French soldiers; he was captured and marched off, hundreds of miles, to a Vietminh prison camp. During the march he and Jean Péraud attempted a daring escape. The two men joined with the legendary French paratroop commander Marcel Bigeard, darting into the jungle at an opportune moment. Unfortunately he and Bigaerd were ultimately caught. Péraud vanished into the jungle, never to be heard from again. Schoendoerffer was released by the Viet Minh in September 1954. After his release he left the French army and became a war reporter in South Vietnam for various French and American news magazines including Paris Match, Time and Life. Later Schoendoerffer took up film making.
…Cabanier arrived in Saigon on the 19th of November, 1953, just as Operation CASTOR, the occupation of Dien Bien Phu by airborne assault, was launching. He would meet with General Navarre as the first French paras were floating down over Dien Bien Phu. Interestingly, the weather was questionable for jumping over western Tonkin that day. Cogny and the commander of the assault force, Brigadier General Jean Gilles, considered calling the operation off. The window of opportunity was a brief one, and it’s quite possible that had they opted out that day the operation would not have been re-mounted, ever…. MORE >>