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Heroes of Dien Bien Phu reunite in remembrance

Update: April, 24/2014 - 19:26

The view of Dien Bien Phu City from the mountains where a monument to the historic battle stands. In the distance are the fertile fields of Muong Thanh, which are famous across the country for their rice.

by Nguyen My Ha

The scorching afternoon sun made many people, mostly in their 60s, 70s, and even 80s, to look for shade after the private yet solemn ceremony at the Memorial House in Muong Phang, 30 kilometres west of Dien Bien City.

Long-distance coaches had brought more than 800 people to this small village to pay tribute to one of Viet Nam's greatest generals, Vo Nguyen Giap, whose exploits in the battlefield shook the world 60 years ago.

Clad in their finest military garb and medals of honour, proudly sporting badges on the left side of their chests reading "Chien Sy Dien Bien", or Dien Bien Fighter, veterans, now in their 80s, are set to embark on a memorable trip. Their health might have deteriorated with time, but their spirits are still strong.

"I am here to pay tribute to my comrades-in-arms who never made it home," said Colonel Dang Duc Song, 80, a Dien Bien soldier and one of the total 24 heroes of the military forces during this campaign.

"I will never forget how my fellow soldier, Huu, who was our machine gunner, died in my arms. We were attacking a French stronghold in Hill C1, (the French called it Eliane 1), and I was only a few steps away trying to find another angle to launch an attack, when Huu was shot in the head. He fell down in the trench and so did his gun. I rushed to hold him. His hot blood spurted out all over me. Huu could not say anything, but his hand clutched mine so tight that it hurt. He then died; his body still warm in my arms. It was all over in some minutes," recollected Dang Duc Song, who was awarded the title of "Hero of the People's Armed Forces" during the 2nd anniversary of the victory in 1956, while talking about his most overwhelming experiences as a soldier who fought 56 days and nights in a bloody conflict.

Dang Duc Song recalls the moment he learned of the victory at Dien Bien Phu.

"I was so shocked that I lost consciousness for a while, but then my officer Hoang Niem rushed over. He called my name, 'Song! Song! We can't avoid casualties while fighting! Come back!' It took me a few moments to calm down. I carried Huu back into the shelter and went back to the battle. My comrades and I launched another attack and finally ran over the stronghold after half an hour," he recollected.

Giving back

But Col Song has not returned to Dien Bien merely to honour the martyrs, he is also meeting with many war veterans in a touching ceremony held at the province's Cultural Hall that seats more than 1,000 people.

The strong handshakes, tight hugs, and emotional gazes revealed it all. After 60 years, the veterans do not talk much about the glory or how they won. They share their old-time stories, talk about their present-day lives, and inquire about each other's health.

Ten years ago, in 2004, Gen Giap, then 94, made his final trip to Dien Bien Phu, and the first words he stated were, "Fifty years later, it's so good to see you again."

The People's General, who died last year at 103 years of age, could not make it to Dien Bien this year, but his spirit lingers on and his legacy stays intact.

"When you drink water, remember where it comes from," the opening speech at the ceremony reads. "We are the soldiers of Dien Bien, porters that carried supplies to the frontline and nurses, we have come back to pay tribute to our fellow comrades who fell down here in this battlefield.

Without the Dien Bien victory, there would have been no peace in the north in 1954 or liberation of Sai Gon in 1975, and our country would have never become independent, reunified or prosperous," noted Lêe Xuan Niem, the director of the History and Tradition Education Centre, who co-ordinated the visit.

"Many young people in our group who take great interest in trying to understand the past, made this trip with their fathers and grandfathers to see for themselves the great accomplishments by the previous generation," he said.

"Together, we need to keep the spirit going strong," he added.

Children at Vo Nguyen Giap Primary School in Muong Phang can grow up in peace.

Old battlefield

The group visited the bamboo and thatched-roofed shelters of the Commanding General Giap and Chief of Staff Hoang Van Thai. Their daily meeting room was dug into a hill as a result of a mistake by two sapper teams digging towards the centre of the hill from opposite directions. The nearby shelter for Chinese advisors was much better built with a supporting arch-like ceiling.

One of the pivotal successes of the campaign was the innovation of a smoke-free stove invented by army cook Hoang Cam. The stove helped to cook rice and vegetables for thousands of soldiers under constant aerial patrol by French aircraft.

"I fought for 32 days up in Doi Xanh or Green Hill," Col Song, then a machine gunner and later a liaison messenger, recalled.

"Life in the trench was miserable: it was humid, it smelt bad and became unbearable during and after the rains. I was not afraid of fighting, but living in the shelters and trenches had become unbearable," he remarked.

"But, I think we were better off than the French living in trenches and fortified posts down in the Dien Bien valley," he said.

Built of cement and steel, the French posts in Dien Bien, on Hill A1, named by the French as Eliane 2, which the group visited the next day, was well-protected by two 10m-wide barbed wire fences and thousands of mines.

French headquarters was much more sophisticated, with meeting rooms, canteen, and emergency rooms. The bunker of Christian de Castries, the GONO commander-in-chief, was solid and sturdy.

Hill A1 was the "throat" to get to the French command headquarters. Fighting had been fierce with both sides exhausting their resources.

"We launched 22 waves of attacks," recalled Hoang Dang Vinh, then a soldier who was later known for capturing de Castries alive in his bunker.

"We fought really hard. Both sides were exhausted and we ceased firing for a while," Vinh said.

As the afternoon sun receded, we were standing under the shade of a ban tree in full white bloom, the most magnificent I've seen in all the Dien Bien and Muong Phang hills and forests, he remarked.

"We were all sitting against the wall of the trench, our rifles resting on the shoulders. Then the catering brother came. He brought us water and some buns of tightly pressed cooked rice. I never had any food that was so good in my life. I remember we all ate very slowly, a salty roasted peanut in lard with one bite of rice. Then someone burst out saying, 'Guys, look, only my thumb and index fingers have become white!' Looking at each other, we were all black from head to toe with gun smoke and dried blood.

"Then I heard, 'Guys, we ate our rice mixed with our own blood. Come on, let's get up and fight.' May be it was the trigger that pulled us all up. We launched our final attack," Vinh stated.

Start of a new era

In the final hours of the war, soldier Hoang Dang Vinh was under the command of Company Chief Ta Quoc Luat. They were after the French and crossed the Muong Thanh Bridge. They finally approached de Castries's bunker and threw in some grenades.

"It was silent at first, but then I heard some noise. We needed to capture de Castries and his staff alive," Vinh recollected.

"Five of us burst in and I saw them all sitting, and someone under the table as well. Luat spoke in French, telling them they were under arrest. De Castries did not move. When we came close, he held out his hand as if he wanted to shake hands."

"I shouted, ‘Haut les mains! (Hands up!).'

"The French general said with his hands up, ‘ Please don't fire, we surrender!'."

Col Dang Duc Song said he would never forget the moment he learned of the victory.

"I jumped up out of the trenches and fired my last bullets up in the air. We all cheered loudly, 'Long live Uncle Ho! Bravo General Vo Nguyen Giap!'" he said.

Song said he was standing on Hill C1 overlooking the valley.

"I saw the French troops coming out in long lines, white flags in their hands and they dropped their weapons in big heaps," Song said.

"My comrades and I got to meet General Vo Nguyen Giap a couple of days later at the Muong Thanh Bridge. We were all very happy; the General shook hands with all of us."

Song admitted that he missed home very much even though his father had died when he was just three and his mother ten years later. When he was 13 years old, he had to work for a wealthy family to repay his mother's debt. At 14, he left home to join the revolution and the army.

"I think of my comrades who did not make it home after Dien Bien," says Hoang Dang Vinh, Hero of the People's Armed Forces.

After Dien Bien Phu, he remained in the army for three more years until the Lunar New Year of 1957, when he had the opportunity to go home.

"My big brother cried when he saw me. The entire village came over because everyone had thought that I had died. A young girl whom I was quite fond of, also came and cried," Song fondly remembered.

"My aunt, my mother's younger sister, loved me as if I were her son. I went over to her house, telling her I would finish grinding rice for her. She cried her heart out and gave me the few notes she had kept," he said.

"I went over to my uncle's house and slept on his bamboo bed like I used to when I was small. He recited poems for me. It seemed that I had not gone anywhere," he said.

"Writer Nguyen Khai even wrote an account in the Military Literary Magazine. He later incorporated my story in his novel, Mua lac, or The Groundnut Season," he added.

Song met his future wife in 1957 when he participated in the World Youths and Students Festival in Moscow as part of an army delegation. She was a dancer in the song and dance troupe.

Later the military send him to school. In 1964, he pursued radio and communication studies at the Ha Noi Politechnique Institute, now the Ha Noi University of Technology. He then got married, and have five children, three boys and two girls.

It runs in the family

"My entire family serves in the army. All our five children and in-laws also work in the army," said Hoang Thi Phuong Vinh, 75, Song's wife.

His second son, Dang Duc Dong, also works in the information department. A few years ago, his company had to set up a telecommunication tower in the Pha Din Pass leading to Dien Bien.

At the height of 80 metres on top of the pass, two of his teammates could not set the plug in.

Dong elder son joined the army earlier this year.

"He is a young handsome lad of 1.75 meters, but we were soft on him. So now, he needs real training and there's no better place than the army for that," Song noted.

His grandson, Dang Duc Tan, 23, born during peace time into a loving family, knew nothing about ammunition, trenches, or death. His grandfather believes that he needs to "be tempered like steel."

"In the army, he cannot have a mobile phone, money or motorbike and no family visit is allowed. But we can send him supplies. He was quite soft and we all hold our breath," he added.

Some young boys quit the army after joining it because they cannot withstand the harsh training.

Song is optimistic that if his grandson can pass three months in the army, he can be steered in the right direction.

"Just last week, I was invited to visit his battalion to talk about Dien Bien Phu. My grandson told me he missed home very much and asked me to help request a few days' leave," Song said.

"I told him I had to go. My time with his battalion had run out."

Song kept himself busy with everyday domestic chores. He cooks food, cleans the house, and also manages to visit the university and colleges to talk about his days fighting in Dien Bien Phu.

The Thanh Nien Publishing House has published his memoir, Chan troi mo uoc (Horizon of Dream), and it was sold out. He is the only author of the "Forever Twenty Book Club" who is still alive.

"I've written two new poems and next month I'm flying up to Dien Bien again, to make a speech at the 60th Anniversary Ceremony," he said.

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