The funeral of General Trình Minh Thế and the Cao Đài badge debate

On 3 May 1955, while standing near his military jeep, Vietnamese army Brigadier-General Trình Minh Thế was killed by a sniper’s bullet. Thế was an ultra-nationalist Caodaist commander who had in turn fought the French and the Viet Minh before integrating his Cao Đài Liên Minh militia into the Vietnamese National Army of the Ngô Đình Diệm administration. Diệm, who had been struggling to maintain control against the demands of the three major sects, the Cao Đài, Hòa Hảo and the Bình Xuyên, immediately set out to enshrine General Thế as a national hero who gave his life in defence of the government, rather than be swayed by sectarian interests.

General Thế was buried with full military honours and the ceremonial procession of his casket being solemnly paraded through Saigon was photographed by LIFE photographer Harrison Forman. I believe that Forman’s photographs played a significant part in the ongoing mis-identification of the Vietnamese Army general service hat badge as being a ‘Cao Đài badge’.

Cao Dai The funeral 1955-01

Caodaist soldiers of the Vietnamese National Army accompany the casket of General Trình Minh Thế during his funeral procession in Saigon, May 1955. Note the soldier in the centre of the picture who is wearing the later type Cao Đài breast badge along with the Vietnamese National Army general service beret badge. Photo: Harrison Forman LIFE Magazine.

Vietnam 1955 first pattern general service badge-01

1955  first pattern Vietnamese National Army beret badge for enlisted ranks. Locally made Chromed metal plus pin attachment. The insignia also exists in gold metal for officers and matching bullion variants for both officers and enlisted ranks. Collection: Julian Tennant

 

In June 1954, Ngô Đình Diệm had returned from exile to establish a new government in the South of Vietnam. He faced an uphill battle as he lacked control of the military and police forces and the civil system was still administered by French officials. He also encountered opposition from the French expatriate community who wanted to maintain France’s interests in South Vietnam and, not insignificantly, from the three major sects, the Cao Đài, the Hòa Hảo, who both fielded large sectarian armies, plus the Bình Xuyên an organised crime syndicate that controlled the National Police force. When Diệm returned to Vietnam in 1954 these three groups controlled approximately one third of South Vietnam and it was not until the Battle of Saigon in April 1955 when the Bình Xuyên were crushed that he was able to consolidate his grip on power.

Staunchly Catholic, Ngô Đình Diệm detested these groups. The Cao Đài and Hòa Hảo, he claimed, were born from the Communist Party of Indochina but without a strong reliable military force of his own he initially had to play a pragmatic game of political cat & mouse with them. When, on 20 January 1955 the French agreed to turn over the full control of the Vietnamese armed forces to the Vietnamese government within five months, Diệm was placed in a slightly better position. The transfer would see the end of the regular French pay for the Forces Suppletifs which included the sects private armies and American financial backing of the Diệm gave him the leverage he needed.

Caodaist, Trình Minh Thế was the first to shift allegiance to the new paymaster and after receiving a substantial (American financed) bribe from the government along with the rank of Brigadier-General, he marched his Lien Minh force into Saigon on 13 February 1955 for integration into the Vietnamese National Army.

Later, when the “United Front of Nationalist Forces”, a coalition of the sects sent an ultimatum to Diệm to form a government of national union, Trình Minh Thế threw his support behind the Front, but then, after another substantial bribe, switched back to Diệm. The dispute between the Front and Diệm’s regime finally reached tipping point at the end of March 1955 and resulted in the brief civil war, culminating in the Battle of Saigon that gave Diệm the victory he needed.

General Thế, who was hated by the French, but seen by the Americans as a possible replacement for Diệm due to his recent anti-communist stance was assassinated by a sniper’s bullet to the back of his head on 3 May 1955. The murder was unsolved, with some blaming the French who had vowed to kill Thế due to his implication in a series of bombings between 1951-53. The French also suspected that he was the mastermind behind the Caodaist suicide bomber assassination of French General Chanson, the Commander of the French-Indo-Chinese forces in South Viet Nam in 1951. Others suspected that Thế’s murder was orchestrated by the Diệm administration who saw him as a threat to their power and possible replacement to Diệm.

The truth remains unknown, but Ngô Đình Diệm immediately set out to enshrine Thế as the first national hero of his independent non-communist South Vietnam. He was praised by the press for his ‘genuine patriotism and heroism’ which was juxtaposed with the treachery of the dissident Hòa Hảo and Bình Xuyên leaders. According to author, Jessica Chapman in her book Cauldron of Resistance: Ngo Dinh Diem, the United States, and 1950s Southern Vietnam, the Vietnamese newspaper obituary described his support for the Diệm regime was “because he realised the forces of the national army were struggling for the country”. In fact, Trình Minh Thế’s decision was due to the substantial bribes channeled through CIA agent, Edward Lansdale.

This inconvenient truth was ignored by the government, who pushed hard to ensure that he was seen as a hero, giving his life in the defence of Ngô Đình Diệm’s administration. On May 4th and 5th the state gave Thế an official funeral including a military procession from his home to a temporary resting place in front of the Saigon Town Hall where four Vietnamese National Army officers stood watch over his body day and night.

The funeral procession saw his casket, draped with a black banner with silver lettering proclaiming, “State funeral of General Trình Minh Thế, national hero” transferred on an armoured car accompanied by an honour guard of his former Cao Đài Liên Minh troops who were by then, regular soldiers serving in the Vietnamese National Army.

The funeral mourners

Dignitaries and high ranking Vietnamese Army officers including Vietnamese Army General Nguyen Thành Phoung (centre) and Premier Ngô Đình Diệm (behind with sunglasses) at the funeral of Trình Minh Thế. Nguyen Thành Phoung defected with his 20,000 Cao Đài troops to Diệm in March 1955 after receiving a US$3.6 million bribe. Photo: Harrison Forman LIFE

It was during this procession that LIFE photographer Harrison Forman took his famous photographs which show soldiers wearing both the later ‘unification of the sects’ variation Cao Đài pocket insignia AND the general service beret badge of the Vietnamese National Army. I believe that it is largely due to these photographs that the beret badge was erroneously attributed as an exclusively Cao Đài insignia in the reference books that appeared from the 1970’s onward. Some, such as the 1986 French Symboles et Traditions (S&T) reference book Les Insignes de l’Armée Viet Namienne described the badge with some reservation (translated) as “Without any confirmation, this badge could be the beret badge of the Cao Dai army”.

Other insignia references have been less cautious in their descriptions and the ‘Cao Đài badge’ myth has subsequently been repeated in several books but without ever identifying the evidential source. I suspect that many may simply be repeating the information contained in other existing references and have not taken into account the mass of evidence that is now available.

incorrect cao dai badge reference

Two reference sources that incorrectly identify the Vietnamese Army general service badge as a Cao Đài insignia. Both are from Gary D. Murtha’s  books on the subject. The page on the left is from “Republic of Vietnam Insignia & History” whilst the page on the right is from”ARVN – Army of the Republic of Viet Nam”. They are good reference books, however, both simply repeat the same information verbatim.  I suspect that it is the continued replication of the same such information across several reference books, from various authors prior to, or without examining ‘new’ information which has contributed to the badges being misidentified for so long.

 

There is a lengthy debate surrounding the badge on the WAF forum where the ‘Cao Đài badge’ theory was placed under the spotlight. It is worth reading as it provides insightful discussion and a compelling argument against this being an exclusively Cao Đài insignia. Evidence such as the 1958 insignia reference board compiled and labelled by the US Defense Attache’s office in Saigon (see below) have emerged from collections and been invaluable in helping further knowledge about the subject. The debate about this Vietnamese Army general service badge has been settled,  but I suspect that Harrison Forman’s funeral photographs may have played a large part in the earlier incorrect attribution of the insignia.

AVN cap badges DIA card 1958-01

Insignia collected and labeled by US Defense Attache’s office, Saigon, in 1958. Stamped on the back with notations from the defense attaché office in Saigon. This extraordinary period grouping also identifies the badge as merely a general service beret insignia with no specifically Cao Đài connection. Surely if the badge represented the Cao Đài, the Defense Attache in Saigon which had until recently had worked closely with them  in an attempt to build support for the Diệm regime would know and identify it as Cao Đài? Collection: Ken Conboy.

A Pocket Guide to Vietnam, DOD, 5 April 1966

Page detail from the April 1966 DOD publication “A Pocket Guide to Vietnam”. Note that it makes no reference to the Cao Đài and refers to the badge simply as a ‘Cap Insignia’. Other earlier editions of this publication which feature the badge also do not make any connections to the Cao Đài for this insignia. In a later edition from 1970, this badge design was not included indicating that it was withdrawn in 1967 when some of the older insignia were withdrawn from service following Thieu’s election.

 

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The Mysterious Vietnam War Mary Poppins Platoon HAHO Parachutist Badge

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Mary Poppins Platoon Combat Qualification Gold Wing with the ARVN Jump Status Indicator for comparison. Collection: Julian Tennant

 

This “Mary Poppins Platoon Combat Qualification” parachutist badge (left) is one of the more interesting unofficial/novelty airborne badges in my collection.

Two variations of the badge are known to exist. A silver badge, described as the ‘basic’ wing and a second type with a point at the apex of the umbrella plus a gold wing which is referred to as the MPP Combat Qualification Gold Wing. As can be seen in the picture it’s design draws heavily on the ARVN Jump Status Indicator insignia which was worn by members Vietnamese Airborne personnel who were on jump status. The umbrella canopy may reference the pocket badge worn by the French Indochina period 1st Indochinese Parachute Company (1er Compagnie Indochinoise Parachutiste – 1 CIP) or it may be a reference to the French slang term le pépin, which means either parachute or umbrella.

Two of the first Vietnamese parachutist units. Top: French (Drago) manufactured miniature badge for the 1st Indochinese Parachute Company (1er Compagnie Indochinoise Parachutiste - 1 CIP) which existed between 1947 and 1951. Like the Mary Poppins Platoon insignia, this badge also features an umbrella in place of the parachute. Whether the connection between the two is intentional or coincidental is unknown. Bottom: Local made badge fo the Escadron Parachutiste de la Garde Cochinchine which was raised in Hanoi in 1949. Both these units became part of the nucleus of the newly formed 1st Vietnamese Parachute Battalion (1 BPVN) on the 1st of August 1951. Collection: Julian Tennant

Two of the first Vietnamese parachutist units. Top: French (Drago) manufactured miniature badge for the 1st Indochinese Parachute Company (1er Compagnie Indochinoise Parachutiste – 1 CIP) which existed between 1947 and 1951. Like the Mary Poppins Platoon insignia, this badge also features an umbrella in place of the parachute. It is unknown whether the connection between the two badges is intentional or coincidental. Bottom: Local made badge for the Escadron Parachutiste de la Garde Cochinchine, raised in Hanoi in 1949. Both these units became part of the nucleus of the 1st Vietnamese Parachute Battalion (1 BPVN) in August 1951. Collection: Julian Tennant

 

It may be that this link to the Indochina era 1 CIP is purely coincidental and the umbrella symbolism refers directly to the fictional character of Mary Poppins as described in COMBAT Magazine’s Mil Terms dictionary, which also includes a picture of the badge and states,

“MARY POPPINS : by reference to the children’s nanny who was possessed of magical powers, which were best exemplified for High-Altitude High-Opening (HAHO) parachuting by her use of an umbrella to descend back to earth after whirling around in the atmosphere. Introduced in 1934 by P.L. Travers, this FICTIONAL CHARACTER could not only slide up banisters, but could walk into a picture, understand what dogs are saying, and travel around the world in seconds. Julie Andrews played the part of this nanny in the 1964 namesake film, which was shown to troops in Vietnam. An informal (and very unofficial) skill badge depicting this nanny with her deployed umbrella was adopted during the Vietnam-era as a sardonic symbol of High-Altitude High-Opening (HAHO) parachuting.”

I am not sure of the original source of information for that definition and I wonder if the MilTerms dictionary piece is somehow linked to the story ‘behind’ the “Mary Poppins Platoon” insignia that was originally published in the Vietnam War Veterans Trivia Newsletter Vol. 1 No.2.

That account relates a somewhat amusing and far-fetched tale which is too incredulous to be taken seriously or believed. It attributes the badge to a combined ARVN Ranger and MACV airborne forces “Mary Poppins Platoon.”

The article, which is shown below, describes the adventures of Sergeant Nguyen Van “Stosh” Kozlowski, a Eurasian soldier of mixed Vietnamese and Slavic heritage, serving in the 32nd Battalion of the 5th ARVN Ranger Group who, after a heavy night drinking is deployed on a HALO mission into North Vietnam. Hung over and with his brain still muddled by alcohol he, inadvertently deploys his parachute immediately after exiting the aircraft and rides the canopy all the way back to III Corps and to cut a long story short becomes one of the founding fathers of the High Altitude High Opening (HAHO) concept. Promoted to captain, the now Dai Uy Kozlowski is tasked with building the “Mary Poppins Platoon” of HAHO parachutists which goes on to have a somewhat interesting combat record plagued by mishap and misadventure.

Mary Poppins VN newsletter

The article published in the Vietnam War Veterans Trivia Newsletter and also in ‘Chute & Dagger’. Based on some of the statements, it seems clear that it was intended as a joke and not to be taken seriously and so I suspect that it does not accurately explain who made the badges or why.

 

The newsletter article was definitely written to entertain rather than as an accurate historical record of a real unit and I suspect that this insignia could simply be a novelty item rather than an actual parachutist ‘qualification’.  But, I also wonder what the real story behind the badge is. Maybe there is a connection to High-Altitude military parachuting in Vietnam, but if so, who had them made? Why? And who were they given to?

 

Operation Market Garden: Arnhem Oorlogsmuseum 40-45

Some of the military vehicles on display at the Arnhem Oorlogsmuseum. Photo: Julian Tennant

Military vehicles on display at the Arnhem Oorlogsmuseum 40-45. Photo: Julian Tennant

Arnhem oorlogsmuseum Arnhem war museum

Parachute Regiment beret. The caption indicated that this beret belonged to a dead British para and was found in Hartenstein, site of the British HQ. Arnhem Oorlogsmuseum. Photo: Julian Tennant

Like the Glider Collection Wolfheze, the Arnhem Oorlogsmuseum (sometimes referred to in English language search engines as the Arnhem War Museum) is another private museum in the Arnhem area.

Owner Eef Peeters started collecting militaria as a boy, storing his collection at first in his home, followed by a shed and then finally, in 1994, moving the collection to its current location, an old school, in Schaarsbergen. The collection does not focus specifically on Operation Market Garden but paints a much broader picture of what happened in Arnhem and the surrounding areas during the war years. This includes a number of objects relating to less popular subjects including collaboration and the Dutch Nazi Party, the Nationaal-Socialistische Beweging in Nederland (NSB).

This is an old-style museum concentrating on artifacts, rather than interactive displays. It’s a fascinating and at times eclectic collection of items squeezed into the available space. A lot of the memorabilia is not captioned in English, so I had to rely on my rusty Afrikaans/Dutch skills to interpret some of the captions, but the staff were helpful and friendly. When one of the volunteer staff members found out that I was a collector, after I asked if there were any antique or shops around which may have militaria for sale, he invited me into the office to show me some of the original items that were available for sale to help fund the museum upkeep. But, whilst I was tempted by a couple of period Dutch National Socialist badges, I decided that I had better try to maintain focus on my airborne interest and left empty handed.

Arnhem Oorlogsmuseum 40-45. Arnhem War Museum 40-45.

Display featuring uniforms worn by soldiers of the 49th (West Riding) Infantry Division, nicknamed “The Polar Bear Butchers” after their shoulder sleeve formation sign and a 6 lb anti-tank gun as used by the 1st Air Landing Anti-Tank Battery during the battle for Arnhem. Photo: Julian Tennant

If you have a car, Arnhem Oorlogsmuseum is about 10 minutes drive from central Arnhem or if you are using public transport can be reached in under half an hour via the #9 bus departing from near Arnhem Centraal train station.

Arnhems Oorlogsmuseum 40-45

Kemperbergerweg 780
6816 RX Arnhem

Telephone: +31 (0) 26 4420958

https://www.arnhemsoorlogsmuseum.com

Opening hours:

The museum is open from Tuesday to Sunday from 10:00 until 17:00, however the ticket office closes at 16:30 hrs.

Admission prices:

Adults: € 9.00
Children up to 4 years old:  free
Children 5 to 12 years old:  € 7.00,-
Adults 65+: € 7.00

Note that there is no ATM at the museum, and they do not accept credit cards.

Arnhem Oorlogsmuseum 40-45. Arnhem War Museum. Photo: Julian Tennant

A T34-85 and Flak gun at the front of the Arnhem Oorlogsmuseum 40-45. Photo: Julian Tennant

Congo Mercenary 10 Commando patch

Congo Mercenary 10 Commando (Commando Kansimba) patch type 2

Congo Mercenary 10 Commando (Commando Kansimba) patch type 2 (Julian Tennant collection)

This is a recent addition to my collection. It is an original shoulder patch used by the mercenaries of 10 Commando who were under the command of Colonel Jean Schramme in the 1960’s. This version is known as the 2nd pattern of the patch and is distinguished from the earlier type by only having the outline of Lake Tanganyika in blue, whilst the first version had the entire lake in blue silk. Both of the original patches were made using the precise, machine embroidered, silk-bevo style of construction as seen in this example.  Collectors should note that there are numerous fakes of this badge, many of which originate from the same fakers who make all the ARVN and US Vietnam war patches that can be found on ebay and at the War Surplus market at Dan Sinh. If you are interested in the mercenary insignia used in the Congo during the 1960’s, I would recommend that you try to find a copy of the late Gerard Lagaune’s excellent privately published reference, Histoire et insignes des parachutistes et des commandos de Pays des Grand Lacs.

Histoire et insignes des parachutistes et des commandos de Pays

Histoire et insignes des parachutistes et des commandos de Pays des Grand Lacs by the late Gerard Lagaune. The text is in French and it is privately published so it may be difficult to find now that he has passed away, but it is an excellent reference detailing the parachutist and commando insignia from thHe countries surrounding the ‘great lake’ Tanganyika in Africa. Included are full colour photographs of the various mercenary unit insignia worn in the Congo during the 1960’s.

10 Commando formed part of the 5th Mechanised Brigade, which was raised on the 1st of November 1964.  It was led by Belgian mercenary, Jean Schramme. “Black Jack” Schramme was a teenager when he went to the Congo to run the family plantation, located to the north-east of Stanleyville and it should be noted that despite often being seen wearing the beret of the 2nd Belgian Commando Battalion (and contrary to some of the information he presented in his biography), there is no evidence that he had ever qualified as a commando or served in the Belgian Commando Battalion prior to his mercenary activities.

In the troubles that followed independence in 1961, Schramme fled to Uganda and then moved to Katanga where he took part in the fighting, forming a group recruited from local tribes near the Kansimba region which he referred to as the “Leopard Group”.  After that period of fighting ended in 1963 he moved across the border into Angola before returning in 1964 with his now named 10 Commando which operated out of Fizi-Baraka to the East of the province of Maniema and not too far from a plantation that he had once controlled.

Jean Schramme's somewhat embellished biography, "Le Bataillon Le

Jean Schramme’s biography, “Le Bataillon Leopard”. On the cover he is shown wearing the beret of the Belgian 2nd Commando Battalion and 10 Commando patch on his shoulder. The first pattern machine made silk-bevo patch with the full blue Lake Tanganyika is also shown, albeit in B&W.

In 1967, 10 Commando was part of the revolt against the government of Colonel Mobuto Sese Seko who had become president two years previously. In early August, Schramme’s 10 Commando captured the border town of Bukavu, holding it for 7 weeks despite repeated attempts by the government ANC forces to recapture the town. On October 29, 1967 the ANC forces finally recaptured Bukavu and the soldiers of 10 Commando fled towards Rwanda crossing the border on the 13th of November 1967, where they were disarmed, ending the existence of this colourful mercenary unit.

REFERENCE BOOK: US Army Special Forces Team History and Insignia 1975 to the Present by Gary Perkowski

US Army Special Forces Team History and Insignia 1975 to the Pre

US Army Special Forces Team History and Insignia 1975 to the Present by Gary Perkowski

Hardcover Size: 8 1/2″ x 11″
416 pages featuring 4,144 color and b/w photos
ISBN13: 9780764352553
Publisher: Schiffer Publishing

Released in May 2017, Gary Perkowski latest book, US Army Special Forces Team History and Insignia 1975 to the Present, covers the history, training, and operations of United States Army Special Forces, including new, previously  unpublished photos and information regarding the insignia that were designed and worn by the men of the United States Army Special Forces.

The book is extremely detailed with concise information about the lineage, development, structure and training of the USSF before going into chapters on each specific Special Forces Groups (SFG). The SFG’s are further broken down and include extensive photographs featuring insignia, plaques, challenge coins, training/appreciation certificates, and other documents as well as photographs of the teams and men wearing the insignia.

The author, Gary Perkowski has been a militaria collector and historian for thirty years. The past twenty years has been spent researching United States Army Special Forces and this is his second book on the subject of United States Army Special Forces insignia.

US Army Special Forces Team History and Insignia 1975 to the Present builds upon his earlier collaboration along with Harry Pugh and the late Len Whistler, U.S. Special Forces Group Insignia (Post 1975) which was published in 2004 and also the other important references covering USSF insignia, notably Ian Sutherland’s Special Forces of the United States Army, 1952-1982  and Harry Pugh’s 1993 book, US Special Forces Shoulder and Pocket Insignia (Elite Insignia Guide 3).

US Army Special Forces Team History and Insignia 1975 to the Pre

 

REFERENCE BOOK: Commandos et Forces Suppletives Indochine 1945 – 1954 by Jacques Sicard

COMMANDOS ET FORCES SUPPLETIVES INDOCHINE 1945-1954

Commandos et Forces Suppletives Indochine 1945 – 1954 by Jacques Sicard with assistance from M. Duflot and F. Pitel.

Softcover: 54 pages.
Published by Symboles & Traditions (Paris)
ISBN: None

COMMANDOS ET FORCES SUPPLETIVES INDOCHINE 1945-1954

Commandos et Forces Suppletives Indochine 1945 – 1954 is one of the excellent series of insignia reference books published by the French Symboles & Traditions Association based in Paris.

This volume covers the insignia used by French commando units as well as the locally raised Indochinese commando and auxiliary partisan/irregular forces. The 54 pages includes 30 full colour plates featuring the unit badges along with brief descriptions outlining a brief historical overview of the unit and specific information relating to their insignia including manufacturers and variations. Like the other S&T books the text is in French but that should not dissuade any collector of Vietnam and French Indochina period special operations insignia from adding this valuable reference to their bookshelf.

COMMANDOS ET FORCES SUPPLETIVES INDOCHINE 1945-1954

REFERENCE BOOK: Badges of the French Foreign Legion 1923-1989 by Philippe Bartlett

Badges of the French Foreign Legion 1923-1989 by Philippe Bartle

Badges of the French Foreign Legion 1923-1989 by Philippe Bartlett

Hardcover: 63 pages
Publisher: P. Bartlett; 1st edition (1989)
Language: English & French
ISBN 2-950 4247

Badges of the French Foreign Legion 1923-1989 by Philippe Bartle

Published in 1989, Philippe Bartlett’s Badges of the French Foreign Legion 1923 -1989  is a useful reference for collectors of French insignia. It lists 429 badges, in full color along with information about manufacturer and an estimate of rarity. It also provides some information on how to date French badges by their makers marks which is particularly useful as many of the badges continued to be used for many years whilst others were re-struck later by the manufacturers for veterans groups and the like.

Badges of the French Foreign Legion 1923-1989 by Philippe Bartle

The book was released shortly before Tibor Szecsko’s monumental work on the same topic, Le grand livre des insignes de la Légion Étrangère but whilst Szecsko’s book has more historical information about the various insignia, for non-French speakers such as myself, the Bartlett book’s descriptive text which is in both French and English is a distinct advantage and makes it an invaluable reference in the library sitting comfortably alongside the Szecsko and Colonel Duronsoy’s books on the subject.