The Vietminh had never taken so many prisoners before. The prisoners captured at Dien Bien Phu made up one third of all those captured in the course of eight years of war.
Men who were considered to be fit, incrluding the lightly wounded, or who were considered as such, although exhausted physically and mentally by the seige were, beginning on the evening of May 7, placed in groups flanked by guards and headed off on foot for the camps. The distances to be covered, in daily stages of 20 to 30 km., varied between 400 and 600 kms.
For weeks the trails leading to the highlands or North Annam were filled with pitiful processions of bearded, exhausted, skeletal prisoners, leaning on makeshift canes. These miserable hordes of prisoners crossed mountain passes, tumbled down slippery slopes and slept in the mud. Movement was at night and camp fires were often forbidden to avoid attracting the attention of airplanes. These forced marches, with their privations and lack of medical attention promoted the appearance of all sorts of diseases and illnesses, some of which were fatal. Weakened more and more with each passing kilometer, the prisoners died in their hundreds, leaving behind a haunting trail of corpses.
The wounded, numbering 4,436, were gathered together in the camp in groups of 10 to 20 in tents made of parachutes like so many circus tents.
A triage resulted in the evacuation between May 14 and May 26 of 858 of the most seriously wounded under the supervision of the Red Cross.
The remaining 3,578 were deemed by the Vietminh criteria to be less seriously wounded and were incorporated into the stream of prisoners considered fit to march. Those found to be unable to walk were transported by truck.
They were packed into Russian Molotova trucks, 25 to 30 per truck with no consideration for the nature or the seriousness of their wounds. They were to be divided up and sent to different camps in the highlands. With filthy, foul smelling bandages they began on May 26 their long agonizing journey on endless roads and washed out trails, jostled about, exposed to the elements, maltreated and deprived of the most elementary medical attention. Wounds reopened and became infected. Abdominal wounds opened up and spilled onto those lying nearby. The jolting and bumping about caused hemorrhaging and bloody vomiting. Their physical and psychological agony caused a very high death rate on the road to the camps.
The catalog of diseases which struck both the wounded and the non-wounded is eloquent: dysentery, jaundice, malaria, tuberculosis, scurvy, beri-beri, malnutrition, neuro-psychiatric problems to name only the most common illnesses. In addition, there were the flies, lice, tics, fleas, rats, mosquitoes, maggots and other vermin, scabies, filth, hunger, thirst, bedsores, harassment and mental torture. Oh yes, and insults.
The Vietminh conception of a POW camp is totally different from the traditional European idea, formed by movies, war stories and real life experience, with barracks, barbed-wire, watch towers, search lights, patrols and guards. The Viets had none of that: no guards, no watch towers, no barbed wire. There were no fences. There was no particular surveillance, except for a perfunctory camp guard and escorts for the work details. The typical camp consisted of a few rudimentary straw huts in a jungle or forest clearing. In the province of Tan Hoa the prisoners were housed in pagodas or school buildings.
The prisoner was essentially a prisoner of his surroundings. Any attempt to escape was bound to fail. The inhospitable natural surroundings, a hostile populace, risks of encounters with dangerous jungle beasts, lack of food, fatigue, and accidental injuries were enough to stop even the boldest. Many attempts were made, but very rarely did they succeed. All told, there were only about one hundred successful escapes. Most of the escapees were recaptured, chained up, beaten and often returned by villagers who were anxious to earn the good-will of the Viets.
Able bodied prisoners were forced to work carrying rice or wood over distances of 10 to 15 kilometers on a daily basis. There was the construction of huts and shelters also. They had to survive on a handful of boiled rice twice a day served in a bamboo bowl or a tin can along with a small amount of boiled ifusion of guava leaves.
To all this were added political education and sessions of self criticism. The prisoners were forced to denounce "their dirty war" by recalling incriminating conduct, sign manifestos, confess to crimes committed against the Vietnamese people, accuse their buddies of evil deeds and even accuse themselves of misdeeds they hadnt done in order to please their captors. They were invited to petition "revered" Ho Chi Minh for clemency to emphasize his great kindness.
The prisoners were systematically insulted and belittled, with no apparent anger. They were called names like decadent bourgeois, imperialist soldiers, war criminals, bloody mercenaries, valets of American imperialism, colonial dogs. They had to become soldiers for peace to pay for their sins and to become politically re-educated. The Vietminh were prepared to take as much time as was needed.
In the camps the Dien Bien Phu prisoners were newcomers. During their your months of captivity they were obviously less subject to self-criticism than the longer term prisoners, some of whom had been rotting in the camp for 2, 4, or even 8 years. (The record was held by a civil servant René Moreau, who was captured in the latter half of 1946 and wasnt liberated until September 1954.
During the whole time the prisoners were forced to glorify marxism, put up with insults and name calling, harassment, belittlement of the French Army, constantly ridiculed and made to chant anti-colonial slogans. It was morally exhausting.
Brain washing was a daily event, insidious, insistent and covered every little thing. Weakened minds and bodies offered less resistance. The subtle Vietminh method of cleverly measuring out doses of mental torture, hope, disappointment and harassment of all types could break the strongest men who then would just give up. At that point came despair. The healthy become sick, the sick become bed-ridden, the bed-ridden die, systematically ground down.