WE NEVER KNEW: Napalm use during Việt Nam's French-American War

May 03, 2020 - 08:35

No one knew the Geneva Agreement's signing ending Việt Nam's French-American War (1945‒1954) was imminent. This included the Vietnamese, French, Europeans, and Africans who fought at Cầu Lồ in northern Việt Nam's Red River Delta on July 14, 1954, nine weeks after Việt Nam's victory over France in the prolonged battle at Điện Biên Phủ and a week before the Geneva signing.


HISTORIC: The Geneva Conference in 1954 decided to split Việt Nam into two: the North under the administration of the Hồ Chí Minh Government, the South under the pro-French, US-supported Saì Gòn regime. VNA/VNS Archives

 by Lady Borton*


No one knew the Geneva Agreement's signing ending Việt Nam's French-American War (1945‒1954) was imminent. This included the Vietnamese, French, Europeans, and Africans who fought at Cầu Lồ in northern Việt Nam's Red River Delta on July 14, 1954, nine weeks after Việt Nam's victory over France in the prolonged battle at Điện Biên Phủ and a week before the Geneva signing.

The officers of the 36th Regiment, 308th Division of the PAVN (People's Army of Việt Nam) were famous for devising innovative strategy and for protecting their troops, yet at Cầu Lồ the PAVN lost one-third of a full-strength regiment—318 soldiers. Most lie in nameless graves.

How could this huge loss have happened?

The answer? Geography, strong French defences, and American heavy weapons.

But that's not all.[1]

The PAVN's Lê Hồng Phong Campaign four years earlier in the autumn of 1950 precipitated a string of victories on Route 4, the track running along the Vietnamese-Chinese border from Cao Bằng in the mountainous far north to the East Sea (sometimes known outside Việt Nam and the Philippines as the South China Sea).

Vietnamese control of Route 4 opened the route for arms coming from the Soviet Union and China. It also created a crisis in French morale, precipitated leadership dilemmas in Hà Nội and Paris, and shifted American alarm about the Chinese in Korea to include worries that the Chinese would invade the Red River Delta. The French military leaders evacuated their wives and children from Hà Nội and the port city of Hải Phòng. They briefly considered abandoning the rice-rich Red River Delta.[2]

However, everything changed two months later, on December 17, 1950, with the arrival in Sài Gòn of French General de Lattre announcing his unprecedented dual roles of high commissioner for Indochina and commander of the French Far-East Expeditionary Corps. French historian Général Yves Gras described de Lattre as a World War II hero, who projected "an image of grandeur" and whose "attitude proclaimed a total rupture with the shameful past."[3]

On March 17, 1950 de Lattre secured funding for building his "redoubt",[4] which he based on the German Westwall Siegfried Line, also known as the Dragons' Teeth. De Lattre planned to protect the Red River Delta with a line comprising 1,240 bunkers capable of withstanding 155-mm shells. He had completed 700 bunkers when he reported in person to the US State Department in Washington on September 17, 1951.

According to a State Department memo, General de Lattre insisted that "there was mutual agreement that colonialism was a dead issue. … It was his responsibility to stay on the job in Indochina because it was his duty, but it must be remembered that it was the American battlefield as well as the French."[5]

Perhaps to help secure funding during the communist scare, General de Lattre insisted, again according to a State Department memo, that his redoubt was "not for defense against VM [Việt Minh, the PAVN forces] but against possible Chinese invasion",[6] which he predicted to be at least several months away. A year later, President Hồ Chí Minh, writing "'Behind the Green Bamboo Hedge'" on January 10, 1952, repeated a quotation by a "quisling" (bù nhìn) minister of state in L'Observateur (The Observer): "'[de Lattre de] Tassigny has finished his great defensive perimeter, but the Việt Minh troops still cross it at night.'"[7]

The de Lattre Line cordoning off the Red River Delta stretched about 350 kilometres, starting from Tiên Yên on the Chinese border west of Móng Cái. It circled around Hải Phòng, Hà Nội, and Ninh Bình, and then it reached south to the East Sea. The Line enclosed not only the sea port at Hải Phòng but also airports, strategic highways, and railroads. Its concrete blockhouses with mutually supportive artillery placements had long sight-lines across the plains to adjacent blockhouses. Roads provided easy access for French tanks and trucks bringing troop reinforcements.

French and American reconnaissance aircraft, supply planes, and bombers stationed at delta airfields were freed from dipping and diving around the mountains that had harboured PAVN anti-aircraft guns in secret bunkers overlooking the French base in the Điện Biên Phủ Plain. Further, tight French control of village populations in the Red River Delta had forced local senior revolutionary leaders to work from sites the DRVN (Democratic Republic of Việt Nam) held in the mountains.

Cầu Lồ Post (known to the French as Camp Erulin) was a key link in the de Lattre Line at the juncture between then Routes 13 and 17 in Lan Mẫu Commune, Lục Nam District, Bắc Giang Province. It also protected a French airstrip.

By mid-1954, the post had eight concrete blockhouses, six of which had been renovated, two new bunkers, and four encircling barbed-wire barriers separated by mine fields ten to fifteen metres wide. A French officer and a hundred European and African troops guarded the site with four heavy machine guns, 18 medium machine guns, 20 small machine guns, an 81-mm mortar, three 60-mm mortars, as well as sub-machine guns and rifles.[8]

Phạm Hồng Cư, a political officer for the 36th Regiment and a brother-in-law to General Võ Nguyên Giáp, met the Bắc Giang leaders in the mountains and secured a list of activists undercover in the Cầu Lồ area. Then Hồng Cư went undercover and worked in secret with the local leaders to devise a detailed assault plan.

The PAVN troops would rely on local residents for food, supplies, and first aid. Since the 36th Regiment lacked tanks, artillery, and anti-aircraft guns, the soldiers under regimental commander Phạm Hồng Sơn, also a brother-in-law to General Giáp, protected themselves for their impending assault by digging trenches around the seemingly impenetrable post.[9]

The 36th Regiment did overrun Cầu Lồ Post and captured sixty-something prisoners and twenty-eight assorted heavy and medium weapons.[10] Yet despite careful planning and trenching, the PAVN attack ended in a disaster, with the loss of 318 troops.


The answer? Napalm.

Napalm, an American invention, is jellied gasoline, which the United States manufactured and supplied during the French-American War. The name comes from naphthenic and palmitic acids, two of the chemicals used in the manufacturing process that chemists in a secret laboratory at Harvard University had developed during World War II. Whenever napalm canisters strike a target, they explode, sucking up oxygen and engulfing the area in flames and thick, black smoke. The United States used napalm during World War II and the Korean War, supplied it to France during the French-American War, and continued to employ it during the American War (1954‒1975).

President Hồ Chí Minh wrote about napalm during the French-American War, citing, "'Made in the USA.' … Material aid [to France] increased markedly from June 1950 after the Americans began to interfere in Korea. The United States provided France with airplanes, warships, transport vehicles, military equipment, and napalm bombs."[11]

Hồ Chí Minh mentioned napalm on September 9, 1952 when writing about French Catholics' opposition to the war [12] and wrote again about French Catholics' two specific objections—"every war of invasion" and "use of horrible weapons, such as napalm, etc."[13] That second article appeared on July 9, 1954, less than a week before the Battle of Cầu Lồ and less than two weeks before the signing of the Geneva Agreement.


ICONIC: The Pulitzer-winning photo of 'Napalm Girl' by Nick Út, then an Associated Press photographer, touched the hearts of millions people around the world.AP Photo

 The Pentagon Papers, the top-secret study that US Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara commissioned on June 17, 1967 to explore the history of the American War in Việt Nam and which The Washington Post and The New York Times bravely published in June 1971, included a memorandum from Admiral Arthur Radford, chair of the US Joint Chiefs-of-Staff, to President Eisenhower on March 24, 1954 regarding C-119s and napalm: "[French] General Ély affirmed the gravity of the situation at Dien Bien Phu stating the outcome as 50-50, and emphasised the great importance of that battle from the political and psychological standpoint. ... He was given approval to use C-119 transport aircraft to drop Napalm provided no U.S. crews were involved."[14]

C-119s could carry nine containers of napalm, each with ninety canisters. This memo reveals official US sanctioning at the highest level of napalm's use, but the memo's date does not reflect the first French use of napalm in Indochina, which was at Vĩnh Yên in Việt Nam's Northern Region [Tonkin] on January 13, 1951, with newly arrived General de Lattre supervising. At that time, before de Lattre's lobbying in Washington during mid-September 1951, the United States covered between 40 per cent and 50 per cent of the French costs of the war.[15]


REMEMBER: General Phạm Hồng Cư put forward a campaign to build a memorial for the soldiers who died of napalm used by the French troops three days before the signing of the Agreement on Peace in Indochina in Geneva in 1954. Photo courtesy of Nhân Dân newspaper

In ĐIỆN BIÊN PHỦ: Rendezvous with History, General Võ Nguyên Giáp alluded to napalm, writing that the French used B-26 aircraft to drop napalm [16] and that "reconnaissance planes flew ahead to search so that fighter aircraft could drop napalm." [17] He wrote that French soldiers hid cases containing forty litres of napalm in the mountains [18] and noted that PAVN soldiers had dug shelters for protection from napalm. [19] He stated that the French dropped napalm on PAVN supply routes, particularly on Cò Nòi and Pha Đin Passes.[20] He mentioned napalm dropped on PAVN troops digging the trenches that encircled Điện Biên Phủ [21] and noted that the French used napalm at Dominique 1 and Dominique 2. [22]

Nevertheless, because of high humidity and rains, the napalm used at Điện Biên Phủ did not spread fires as widely or as intensely as the French and their American advisors and funders had anticipated. Bernard Fall provides specifics in his entry for March 23, 1954, the day before Admiral Radford's memorandum to US President Eisenhower about granting French General Ély permission to use C-119 transport aircraft to drop napalm:

"Late in the afternoon the garrison was treated to the French Air Force's Operation 'Neptune'—a massive napalm bombardment of the enemy trench position around Điện Biên Phủ. While the sheet of flame and black smoke creeping over the hills were impressive, the application of napalm on a waterlogged rain forest seemed of dubious efficiency. A few minutes after the end of the barrage, ground observers reported that the napalm had burned but had not set spreading fires. The following morning, [French] headquarters at Điện Biên Phủ reported laconically that the effect had 'not yielded observable results.' Understandably, the [French] Air Force launched Operation 'Eole' on the stretch of Road 41 leading into the valley of Điện Biên Phủ. This effort did not yield observable results, either."[23]

Yet although in his memoir General Giáp mentions the battles in Bắc Giang Province after the Battle of Điện Biên Phủ, he gives no specifics about Cầu Lồ.


THINGS CHANGE: Today many people know little about the Cầu Lồ battle in Lục Nam District in Bắc Giang Province. The region now boasts lush green lychee orchards and the refreshing Suối Mỡ Waterfall. Photo dulichbacgiang.gov.vn

 Now, looking back, the causes of the historical silence shrouding Cầu Lồ's losses from napalm seem obvious:


  • The horror of 318 soldiers burnt alive—most beyond recognition in their protective trenches—was unspeakable. 
  • Notification of families of the Cầu Lồ deceased would have taken months and, as happens with military notifications worldwide, would not have included details about the cause of death.
  • The seemingly impenetrable blockhouses had protected the French, Europeans, and Africans from the holocaust, while the remaining troops from the 36th Regiment marched five miles to Chỉ Tắc Post, which they captured three days later, on July 17, three days before the Geneva signing.
  • By the time of the Battle of Cầu Lồ, the United States was covering nearly 80 per cent of the French costs of the war. American advisors in Hà Nội must have known about Cầu Lồ, but they may not have reported the napalm results upwards. 
  • The Cầu Lồ Battle coincided with US Secretary of State Dulles' Paris trip, which the secretary had announced on July 12, for a meeting on July 13 and 14 with French Premier Mendès-France and British Foreign Secretary Eden. The PAVN victory came amidst the DRVN's need to project impressive conquests to affect the Geneva Conference, when clarity about the final Agreement (which French Premier Mendès-France had promised would be signed by July 20) had yet to crystalise.[24] 
  • The signing of the Geneva Agreement at midnight Geneva time on July 20, 1954 threw Việt Nam into turmoil to forestall the efforts of US Colonel Edward Lansdale's CIA team to undermine the DRVN in North Việt Nam and US General Mike O'Daniel's US efforts to replace France as sponsor of the ARVN (Army of the Republic of Việt Nam) in South Việt Nam.
  • Historians on all sides may have buried the Battle of Cầu Lồ, but the tragedy will always haunt the 318 napalm victims' families and the 36th Regiment's surviving veterans. Among those most haunted was Lê Bình (? – c. 2016), a 36th Regiment veteran who spent seventeen years to verify the names of the 318 and to secure funding from regimental, local, and national sources for a monument near the four Cầu Lồ cemeteries. Only 111 of the graves are identified, but the monument lists all 318 who lost their lives.[25] 

The napalm holocaust at Cầu Lồ will always haunt the Vietnamese who come to pray in silence before the Cầu Lồ Monument, hoping that fragrant smoke from the sticks of incense they light reaches the four cemeteries and soothes the victims' souls. 

* Writer's Tag Line: Lady Borton's annotated translation of ĐIỆN BIÊN PHỦ: Rendezvous with History by victorious Vietnamese General Võ Nguyên Giáp is forthcoming from Ohio University Press in Athens, Ohio. This American edition includes new annotations, Vietnamese photographs, maps, a first-time map of General Giáp's base on Mường Phăng Mountain overlooking the French base at Điện Biên Phủ, a chronology, and an exhaustive index.


[1] Interview with Phạm Hồng Cư, Hà Nội, Việt Nam, August 19, 2019. At the time of the Battle of Cầu Lồ, Phạm Hồng Cư was a political commissar for the 36th Regiment. He retired as a lieutenant general and deputy head of the PAVN Political Department. Now in his nineties, General Hồng Cư (1926‒) is among the few PAVN senior officers from the French-American War who can still describe that war's various battles. 

[2] Général Yves Gras, Histoire de la Guerre d'Indochine (History of the Indochina War) (Paris: Plon, 1979), 364-65. 

[3] Gras, 367. Translated by the author. 

[4] Gras, 398. 

[5] "Minutes of the First Meeting with General de Lattre de Tassigny at the Department of State, September 17, 1951, 10:30 a.m.," Document 272, US Department of State, Foreign Relations of the United States, 1951, Asia and the Pacific, Volume VI, Part I, see: https://history.state.gov/historicaldocuments/frus1951v06p1/d272. (This is a very interesting document!) Accessed: September 11, 2019.

[6] "The Minister at Saigon (Heath) to the Secretary of State, secret, Saigon, January 21, 1951—noon," Document 178, Ibid., see: https://history.state.gov/historicaldocuments/frus1951v06p1/d178. Accessed: September 11, 2019.

[7] Hồ Chí Minh (writing as C.B.), "Sau Lũy Tre Xanh" ("Behind the Green Bamboo Hedge"), Nhân Dân (The People, [the Party newspaper]), Number 40, January 10, 1952 in Hồ Chí Minh: Toàn Tập, (Hồ Chí Minh: Collected Works), Volume 7, 1951‒1952 (Hà Nội: NXB Chính Trị Quốc Gia [National Political Publishing House], 2011), 276-77. Translated by the author.

[8] Nguyễn Nam Phương, Về Các Tổng Tư Lệnh, Tư Lệnh Chiến Trường Nhật - Pháp Trong Cuộc Chiến Tranh Xâm Lược Việt Nam (Regarding the General Command and the Japanese – French Command during The[ir] Wars Invading Việt Nam) (Hà Nội, NXB Chính Trị Quốc Gia [National Political Publishing House], 2016), 197-98. Translated by the author.

Nguyễn Nam Phương, Về Các Tổng Tư Lệnh, Tư Lệnh Chiến Trường Nhật - Pháp Trong Cuộc Chiến Tranh Xâm Lược Việt Nam (Hà Nội, NXB Chính Trị Quốc Gia, 2016), 197-98.

[9] Interview with Political Officer Phạm Hồng Cư. Battle Commander Phạm Hồng Sơn (1923‒2013) does not mention the battle in his memoir, Nửa Đời Chiến Trận (Half a Life in Battle), which covers the French-American War and has been published as the first half of Nhớ và Quên (Remembering and Forgetting. See: Phạm Hồng Sơn and Đặng Anh Đào, Nhớ và Quên (Remembering and Forgetting) (Hà Nội, NXB Phụ Nữ [Women's Publishing House], 2011). Phạn Hồng Sơn's wife, Đặng Anh Đào, compiled the second half about the American War (1954‒1975) from Phạm Hồng Sơn's letters and documents as he was descending into Alzheimer's Disease. By the time of publication, Phạm Hồng Sơn could sign his name on books but could no longer recognise acquaintances.

[10] "Trận Cầu Lồ (Cầu Lồ Battle), Dựng Nước, Giữ Nươc (Establish the Country, Protect the Country), https://www.quansuvn.net/index.php?topic=31575.180. Accessed: September 11, 2019.

[11] Hồ Chí Minh, writing as DIN, "Bọn Đế Quốc Cướp Nước Không Bao Giờ Có Thể Nô Dịch Dân Tộc Việt Nam Anh Dũng" (The Imperialists Seizing the Country Can Never Enslave the Heroic Vietnamese People), Hồ Chí Minh: Toàn Tập (Hồ Chí Minh: Collected Works), Volume 7, 1951‒1952 (Hà Nội: NXB Chính Trị Quốc Gia [National Political Publishing House], 2011), 301. Translated by the author.

[12] Hồ Chí Minh, writing as C.B., "Công Giáo Pháp Chống Chiến Tranh Xâm Lược Ở Việt Nam" (French Catholics Oppose the French War of Invasion in Việt Nam), Nhân Dân (The People, [the Party newspaper]), Number 73, September 11, 1952, Ibid., 491.

[13] Hồ Chí Minh, writing as C.B., "Công Giáo Pháp Chống Chiến Tranh Xâm Lược Việt Nam," (French Catholics Oppose the War of Invasion in Việt Nam), Nhân Dân (The People, [the Party newspaper]), Number 202, July 7-9, 1954, Hồ Chí Minh: Toàn Tập (Hồ Chí Minh: Collected Works), Volume 8, 1953‒1954 (Hà Nội: NXB Chính Trị Quốc Gia [National Political Publishing House], 2011), 541. Translated by the author.

[14] Arthur Radford, "Memorandum for the President", March 24, 1954, The Pentagon Papers, Part 5-B-3b, 288-90. For scans of the actual files, see: https://nara-media-001.s3.amazonaws.com/arcmedia/research/pentagon-papers/Pentagon-Papers-Part-V-B-3b.pdf. Accessed: September 11, 2019.

[15] Maurice de Poitevin, La Guerre d'Indochine (The Indochina War), Chapter 8, see: https://www.lauragais-patrimoine.fr/HISTOIRE/INDOCHINE/SOMMAIRE.html. Accessed: September 11, 2019.

[16] Võ Nguyên Giáp, ĐIỆN BIÊN PHỦ: Rendezvous with History, translated by Lady Borton (Hà Nội: NXB Thế Giới [World Publishers] 2017, forthcoming from Ohio University Press),

[17] Giáp, ĐIỆN BIÊN PHỦ: Điểm hẹn lịch sử

[18] Giáp, ĐIỆN BIÊN PHỦ: Điểm hẹn lịch sử

[19] Giáp, ĐIỆN BIÊN PHỦ: Điểm hẹn lịch sử

[20] Giáp, ĐIỆN BIÊN PHỦ: Điểm hẹn lịch sử

[21] Giáp, ĐIỆN BIÊN PHỦ: Điểm hẹn lịch sử

[22] Giáp, 406. ĐIỆN BIÊN PHỦ: Điểm hẹn lịch sử

[23] Bernard B. Fall, HELL IN A VERY SMALL PLACE: The Siege of Dien Bien Phu (Philadelphia, New York: J. B. Lippincott Company, 1966), 176.

[24] For US Department of State documents about the Geneva Conference on Indochina, July 12-21, 1954, Documents 894-1035, see: Foreign Relations of the United States, 1952–1954, The Geneva Conference, Volume XVI: https://history.state.gov/historicaldocuments/frus1952-54v16/ch7subch66. That link is for July 12. Click on the right-hand arrow for subsequent documents. Accessed: September 11, 2019.

[25] Phạm Hồng Cư, "Tri Ân 318 Liệt Sĩ Của Trung Đoàn".