The Long March

Then the long, exhausting 600 km march began, toward the Chinese border, over the almost impassible, vegetation covered mountains of the T’ai country, crossing rivers (the Black river and the Red river) b boat or at fording sites, through thick forests across fields of rice...

For the most part we were on poor trails cut into the mountain sides, strewn with rocks and made slippery by downpours which caused us to advance with the utmost difficulty. All the more so because the sick and wounded who could no longer walk had to be carried by stretcher or on the backs of their comrades.

At times we marched along the road, the famous provincial route 41. Molotova trucks driving with their headlights on, in the midst of a multitude of bicycles loaded with 60 to 100 kg. of rice or munitions, and an army of coolies and Vietminh soldiers going to or coming from Dien Bien Phu jammed the road.

The march lasted one month, in stages of 20 km. per day on average and always at night in order to avoid airplanes.

During the day we were herded into the damp jungle.  The only food we wee given was a handful of cold rice which often smelled of the oil from the containers in which it had been cooked.  Unlike in our forests, over there you could find neither fruit nor berries to calm your hunger.  We chewed new leaves and drank from muddy rain-swollen streams.

These mandatory halts allowed me to provide a little treatment for the wounded.  I tried to comfort the most exhausted and to clean infected wounds with tree leaves since we had neither bandages nor medicine. More often than not all I could offer were words of encouragement.

We all had dysentery and malaria which, of course, could not be treated.  Our bare feet were covered with blood but, in time they gradually hardened and we managed to tolerate more easily the rocks on the path.  We were also plagued by mosquitoes, flies, tics, lice and
sometimes leeches.  But those were only minor nuisances.

We were usually soaking wet and wading through mud since it was the rainy season.  I don’t think I have ever been so cold as on some of the nights in the mountains of the T’ai country.

One couldn’t say morale was sunny but there again the spirit of comradeship worked wonders.  Even though we were exhausted it allowed us to put one foot in front of the other and keep moving forward for to fall out of the column meant death.

Noticing that the trucks returning from Dien Bien Phu were often empty, I would speak with the political commissar and insist that our wounded be loaded onto the trucks so that they could benefit more quickly from the Vietminh hospitals, the merits of which he kept telling us about.  That request was always refused.

From time to time, we would pass through a village where the bell in the church steeple would ring out, giving us a vague but emotional reminder of the French countryside.  These villages were apparently deserted;  the rare inhabitants that we met pretended not to see us.

At the end of the journey, our enlisted men and non-coms were sent to camps which we learned later were veritable death camps.  Only the officers and warrant officers continued on to Camp #1 near Tuyen Quang.  We arrived on May 6, 1954, the day before Dien Bien Phu fell.

(Account of a medical officer)

(This account must have been given by a medical officer captured when strong point Beatrice fell in March, 1954.  Translator’s note)

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