At camp #1
For us it was almost like paradise; the end of the march, a roof over our head to keep out the rain, the joy of finding comrades-in-arms who had been held prisoner for any years.
They at once showered us with their sympathy and friendship and gave us the benefit of their experience of life in the prison camp. One of them, a medical lieutenant Andre, like St. Martin, gave me a pair of shorts to replace my pants which were in shreds. As for them, they were eager for news about France, the war, the movies in Paris, the popular songs...about life.
We were rapidly integrated into camp life which was comprised of three major themes: work details, political education and spare time activities.
WORK DETAILS: Every morning at formation "men" (rank did not exist) were chosen for the duties essential to our survival.
The most important was the rice ration. About 30 men would go get the rice about 20 km. away. A single do-doi would accompany them because any escape was impossible in a hostile country where even the water buffalo could pick us out by smell. The rice was carried on your back, or, if you had the knack for it, with a bamboo yoke which we called a "mau len" which meant "faster". It was then husked with makeshift mills made out of bamboo and of very poor yield. The rice that was obtained in this way was cooked by a remarkable team of cooks.
Other men carried wood for cooking and the construction of shacks large enough to shelter a handful of men. With the exception of the sick and wounded who were unable to move about, everybody had an assignment.
POLITICAL EDUCATION: This was a daily event. We were to be made into "new men"
There were news and training sessions where the same subjects were constantly rehashed; peace, the peoples struggle, misdeeds of capitalist and imperialist policies, the "dirty" war in Indo-china, clemency of Ho Chi Minh (uncle Ho) and the "valiant Vietnamese people" who not only spared our lives but allowed us to live and educate ourselves.
Finally, there were the self-criticism sessions where we were to confess our sins, mostly imaginary. They seemed to satisfy the camp authorities but caused us to laugh up our sleeve. The most unpleasant was the writing of manifestos against the "dirty war in Indo-china. These manifestos posed serious problems for us. If we refused to participate, camp life gradually got worse: harder work details, fewer rations, disappearance of the little bit of medicine that we had and no distribution of the anxiously awaited mail. If we cooperated we knew that after interminable discussions the final text, which we couldnt agree with, would be written by the camp authorities.
Knowing from experience how little of an impact these manifestos had on the morale of the French Army, we submitted twice, after talks lasting until very late into the night.
SPARE TIME ACTIVITIES: These were the few hours between work details and political education.
We had at our disposal several distinctly biased books, and several week old copies of LHumanité (a communist newspaper in France) where the slogans that were repeated to us all day long could be found. Sometimes they were read but mostly they became cigarette paper. In fact, the old hands had managed to grow an excellent tobacco. Thats where I took up this vice which has never left me.
More pleasant were the meetings with our friends. Some turned out to be excellent story-tellers, others shared with us their knowledge in particular fields such as mechanics, cars, painting, music, literature...bridge players had cards and chess players whittled pieces out of bamboo.
One time we had an open air movie. I no longer remember the tile of the film.
But everybody had one obsession, the liberation that we were longing for. It wa really the obsession of our dreams. Often, amongst ourselves we would dream about it out loud. All the dreams were alike: the joy of being reunited with our families, gastronomic menus described in minute detail, trips, cars, refrigerators... and especially no more foot marches. On the other hand, solitude and physical exhaustion kept us from carnal desires.
All this made up our daily life. In the daily routine, survival depended on three things: food, health and a spiritual life.
FOOD: Theoretically we were entitled to 1200 grams of rice per day, or its equivalent, because rice was at this time the gold standard for the Vietminh.
We had three meals a day: a little watery soup in the morning, rice at noon and in the evening a more substantial portion of rice, garnished at times with minuscule pieces of meat (pork, chicken or water buffalo) and accompanied on rare occasions by vegetable (bamboo shoots or a type of water cress.) When this ration was available we didnt starve but diseases stemming from malnutrition, notably beri-beri, made their appearance.
HEALTH: Thanks to all the doctors in our camp and to the solidarity of all the prisoners, camp # 1 did not experience the frightful death rates found in other camps.
Hygienic and prophylactic measures were taken. We drank only boiled water. A sufficient number of well maintained latrines were available and were used by everybody. Killing mosquitoes, flies and rats was a constant activity. Cooking utensils were washed and sterilized.
Thanks to a delightful river flowing by the foot of the camp and ashes from the kitchens, personal hygiene was assured.; there was even a barber who skillfully trimmed hair.
A hygiene committee was elected; we would vote, "democracy oblige", for the "Head" of just about everything: person in charge of organization, cooking, hygiene, spare time activities, production, peace and what have you. The hygiene committee was comprised of many doctors and every week it recommended specific instructions and saw to it that they were followed.
For the sick, the situation was much ore serious. We had practically no medicine while everyone had malaria and dysentery to say nothing of other afflictions; avitaminosis, jaundice, spirochetosis, pulmonary conditions or sequellae of wounds.
The official Chief Medical Officer was a Vietminh medic. In the last months of captivity, I was his assistant. In fact, he wasnt a bad lot. He let me manage with what I had, which was very little. Indeed, in spite of the medicine and food stuffs dropped by parachute by the French Army, the Vietminh authorities allowed the prisoners hardly anything. We had only a few tablets of nivaquine, some vials of emetine and a little bit of permanganate.
It was always difficult to save these medications for the most serious cases. Almost everybody wanted to receive them even if the treatment, being so diluted was ineffective. Fortunately, I had the aid and support of all my colleagues in this difficult choice. It must be added that I tried to replace our non-existant stock of medicine with home made potions. In particular, for diarrhea, a decoction of guava leaves mixed with crushed charcoal from the kitchens had a certain success.
Like every good administration, at the time of the medical examination I would write down the names of the consulting physicians and put a checkmark in front of one of the five diagnoses: acute malaria, chronic malaria, acute dysentery, chronic dysentery, other disease.
Te close this chapter, I must point out that we more or less knew about the catastrophic health situation in the enlisted mens camps. All of the doctors in camp #1 volunteered to go to these hellholes. We were always refused. According to the camp authorities, the Vietminh medical corps was perfectly capable of handling these problems much better than we misguided doctors, corrupted by our imperialist education.
LIFE: This was in the hands of the military
chaplains, themselves prisoners. Their task was
particularly difficult in the marxist context of the
camp. Of course, mass was strictly forbidden and
religious objects had been confiscated. However,
On July 20, 1954 the Geneva accords were signed.
We were hoping for an early liberation. However, the most contradictory bits of news were given to us causing us to go from hope to doubt, if not despair... we were still prisoners. It was only around the 20th of August that we left camp # 1 and went to Viet Tri where we were liberated on September 1st 1954.
There was a festive atmosphere in the transition camp, organized and dictated by our captors. Early on, all of our possessions which had been confiscated were returned to us, at least those of us from Dien Bien Phu. With the money that was returned to me, I bought a can of Nestle milk and a pack of "Troop" cigarettes for which I paid a kings ransom. It was bliss.
Then they issued us two brand new bo-doi uniforms, a pith helmet and a pair of Ho Chi Minh sandals to replace the rags we had been wearing up until then. As a fashionable accessory, we were entitled to a pin: a Picasso dove. And lastly, they handed out to each one of us a tube of rice so we could survive in the corrupt capitalist world we were returning to.
That evening we were invited to a grand dinner by "the valiant Vietnamese people", served by young Vietminh army girls and accompanied by an orchestra that played popular tunes...nevertheless, we did not dance.
The next day as we were boarding an LCT from the Navy base the orchestra played, ironically, "Ce nest quun au revoir" (Till we meet again). We didnt bother to listen being too happy to be FREE. To conclude this account, I would like to return one last time to what, in my opinion, was essential to our survival during those long months of hell: it was the friendship, fraternity and solidarity that united us... it was a sort of love.
(testimony of a medical officer)