Siem Reap Cambodia Part 1 – The Cambodia Landmine Museum

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Army buddy and fellow militaria collector, Trevor ‘Spud’ Couch looking for a cold beer whilst visiting Angkor Wat in the late 1990’s. Photo: Julian Tennant

For most tourists visiting Cambodia, the ruined temples of Angkor near Siem Reap are the main, if not only, reason to visit the Kingdom. Listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1992, Angkor attracted 2.2 million visitors in 2019 and plays a vital part in the Cambodian economy where the tourism sector accounts for 12 percent of Cambodia’s GDP.

At its peak between the 10th and 13th centuries, the Khmer Empire which stretched across much of South East Asia, used Angkor as its capital before finally going into decline after it was sacked by the Kingdom of Ayutthaya in 1431. In 1863 Cambodia was placed under French protection and then became part of French Indochina in 1887. In 1953 the Kingdom gained independence from the French but by the latter half of the 1960’s it was becoming increasingly embroiled in the Vietnam War. Then, in April 1975, after a seven-year struggle, the communist Khmer Rouge forces captured Phnom Penh. During the three and a half years that followed at least 1.5 million Cambodians died during the genocidal reign of the Pol Pot regime. Repeated incursions into Vietnam by Khmer Rouge forces tested the patience of the Vietnamese and in December 1978 a Vietnamese invasion ousted the Khmer Rouge regime from power within weeks. However, the subsequent Vietnamese occupation caused a civil war that would last until the end of 1997 when the remaining Khmer Rouge finally accepted a government amnesty and laid down their arms.

Khmer Rouge soldiers march at Angkor Wat. — Documentation Center of Cambodia

Khmer Rouge at Angkor Wat. Photo: Collection of the Documentation Center of Cambodia

cambodia mine warning plastic core circa 1999-01

A corrugated plastic core Unexploded Ordnance warning sign from Japanese Demining Action (JDA) which I bought at the Cambodian Landmine Museum in 2000. JDA had a small team undertaking EOD work near the Thai border at the time. Collection: Julian Tennant

 

After nearly three decades of conflict, Cambodia has been left as one of the poorest countries in Asia with the scars of its recent history still visible. For visitors to Siem Reap, there are a couple of military museums in the area that provide a welcome break from scrambling over the temple ruins.

The Cambodia Landmine Museum is located 25km north of Siem Reap, near the Banteay Srey Temple complex and whilst it is further away from the town, it is worth visiting. The museum was started by Aki Ra, a former child soldier who was taken from his family by the Khmer Rouge when he was just five and who fought for various factions, including the Khmer Rouge and the opposing Vietnamese army before UNTAC arrived in 1993.  He then went on to help them with their EOD activities and then, when he finally returned to his village, he used this experience to defuse and clear the mines in his community using homemade tools.

Whilst clearing the ordnance, Aki Ra often encountered orphaned, wounded or abandoned children which he took into his care. To help pay for their upkeep, he displayed some of the mines which he had diffused at his home near the ticket booth for Angkor Wat Park and charged tourists a dollar to view them. I recall visiting this, the original, Landmine Museum around 1999 and listening to Aki Ra tell his story. It was a very humbling experience.

In 2006, the local authorities ordered it closed supposedly on safety grounds, however Siem Reap expatriates told me that the real reason was because local authorities felt that Aki Ra’s museum was attracting more tourists (and money) than the Siem Reap War Museum which had been started in 2001 as a ‘partnership’ with the Ministry of National Defence. This may well be little more than idle gossip, but given the high level of corruption that permeates Cambodian officialdom, this would not surprise me in the least and during one of my early visits to the Siem Reap War Museum, one of the guides did offer to sell me some of the exhibits that I expressed an interest in. Behaviour that I found strange for a museum supposedly existing to preserve the history of the conflict for future generations of Cambodians, so who knows… but I digress.

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Vietnamese made fragmentation grenade/mine and anti-personnel mine on display at the Cambodia Landmine Museum. Photo: Julian Tennant

 

With the help of Canadian filmmaker, Richard Fitoussi, a charity the Cambodian Landmine Museum Relief  Fund was started.  Donors raised funds to buy a block of land and build a new museum which opened at its current location in 2007. In addition to the museum, the land also housed a Relief Centre for children including a small school. In 2008, with the help of the charity, Aki Ra established a formal de-mining NGO, Cambodian Self Help Demining, which is a separate NGO and apart from the Museum. They clear un-exploded ordnance throughout Cambodia, generally at sites deemed to be a low priority by the larger de-mining agencies, but where the presence of the UXO’s pose a real threat to the farmers who are attempting to work the surrounding land.

The Cambodia Landmine Museum gives visitors a good overview of the problems caused by this un-exploded ordnance and also some insights into Cambodia’s recent conflict. After paying the entrance fee, visitors are provided with a headset and audio player which provides some additional contextual information for the exhibits on display.

Exhibits include a variety defused ordnance, weapons, uniform items plus equipment such as de-mining tools and also artwork created by the children from the Relief Centre. There is also a small shop selling souvenirs including books, t-shirts and DVD’s.

cambodia landmine museum -08

1990’s period uniforms and weapons on display at the Cambodia Landmine Museum. Photo: Julian Tennant

As previously mentioned, the museum is some distance away from Siem Reap town and the best option to visit is to either grab a tuk-tuk, which will take around 30 minutes and cost about US$20 for a round trip, or hire a local driver and car for the day, which should cost up to US$50. This second option allows you to also visit the nearby Banteay Srei Temple which is much less crowded than the other temples closer to Siem Reap.  You can then return to Siem Reap at your leisure and have the driver take you to visit the War Museum Cambodia  (which will be the subject of next week’s post) after lunch.

cambodia de-mining patches-01

Various EOD team patches from Cambodia in my collection. Top row left to right: Mines Advisory Group circa 1999, Cambodian Mine Action Centre, Mines Advisory Group type 2. Bottom row left to right: US Special Forces UXO Detachment Cambodia (2002), Cambodia Mine Action Centre variant, Australian Mine Clearance Training Team patch circa 1994. Collection: Julian Tennant

 

The Cambodia Landmine Museum
67 Phumi Khna
Siem Reap Province
Cambodia

Website:  https://www.cambodialandminemuseum.org/
Email: bill@wmorse.com
Phone: +855 (0) 15 674 163

Open: 07:30 – 17:30 daily (Temporarily closed due to COVID-19 restrictions)

Admission: US$5
Free for children under 12 and all Cambodian citizens

 

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The Ho Chi Minh Campaign Museum – HCMC, Vietnam

Ho Chi Minh Campaign Museum entry-01

Entry to the Ho Chi Minh Campaign Museum and statue commemorating the communist People’s Liberation Forces Victory of April 30 1975. Photo: Julian Tennant

The Ho Chi Minh Campaign Museum (Bảo tàng Chiến dịch Hồ Chí Minh) is a military museum in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam, that recounts the final months of the Vietnam War, culminating in the communist’s  victory over the South Vietnamese in April 1975.

The North Vietnamese 1975 Spring Offensive was initially envisioned as a two-stage strategy that would take two years to complete. However, an early victory at Phouc Long (Route 14) on 6 January caused the communists to speed up their offensive. The People’s Army of Vietnam (PAVN) then launched “Campaign 275”, also known as the Central Highlands Campaign, which climaxed in March with the capture of  Buon Ma Thuot cutting South Vietnam in two. Surprised by the rapid collapse of the Army of the Republic of Vietnam (ARVN) forces, the communists then turned their attention north, commencing the Hue-Danang Campaign, securing the isolated coastal regions by April 3.

Refugees during the last days of the Vietnam War

Refugees clogging the roads as they flee towards Saigon during the last days of the Vietnam War. Photo: Hiroji Kubota

Most of the South Vietnamese army  had been routed, but with the communist forces closing in on Saigon, the ARVN made a spirited last stand at the Battle of Xuan Loc, 60km northeast of the capital. Xuan Loc, a vital logistical hub for the South Vietnamese, sat at the intersection of Route 1 and Route 20. They believed that if they could hold there, the situation could be stabilised,  their units re-grouped and the country saved from defeat. However, despite the heroic efforts of the ARVN’s 18th Infantry Division, Xuan Loc fell and by 21 April the road to Saigon was open.  The PAVN victory at Xuan Loc, allowed the communist forces to encircle Saigon, moving 100,000 troops into positions around the city by April 27.

ARVN Newport Bridge 1975

An ARVN Soldier hangs on to his wounded comrade as they both stay flat on the pavement of the Newport Bridge during a Communist attack on April 28, 1975. Photo: Hugh Van Es Bettmann/Corbis

Despite fierce resistance from troops of the 12th ARVN Airborne Battalion at the Newport Bridge (Cầu Tân Cảng) and from the 81st Ranger Group at Tan Son Nhut, the situation for the South Vietnamese Government had became untenable. At 10:24, on 30 April, South Vietnam’s President Minh announced an unconditional surrender to his troops. Shortly after, at 10:30 after hearing Minh’s orders, the paratroopers at the Newport Bridge stood down allowing the PAVN to cross and at 11:30 PAVN forces entered Tan Son Nhut Air Base after the Rangers also laid down their arms. Around noon, PAVN tanks crashed through the gates of the Independence Palace. Later that afternoon, President Minh publicly announced that the South Vietnamese Government had been dissolved at all levels. The Vietnam War was over.

War of Vietnam. Saigon's fall. Taken of the presid

PAVN armour entering the grounds of the Independence Palace, in Saigon on April 30, 1975. Photograph: Francoise De Mulder

The Ho Chi Minh Campaign Museum commemorates this successful 1975 offensive by the communists and was established in July 1987. It is housed in a two-story building (that once was the former Republic of Vietnam’s National Defence College) in District 1 close to the Vietnam History Museum and a few blocks away from the famous Notre Dame Cathedral.

The museum is divided into outdoor and indoor display areas, with the outdoor area displaying vehicles, artillery pieces and aircraft related to the campaign including the F5E fighter flown by Nguyen Thanh Trung when he defected from the South Vietnamese Air Force and bombed the Presidential Palace on 8th of April 1975. It also features T54 tank No. 848 of the 203rd Brigade, which was one of the tanks that entered the grounds of the Palace on the 30th of April. Other outdoor exhibits include an M113 APC captured in January during the Phuoc Long Campaign and then subsequently used by the 7th Division for the remainder of the conflict, plus the usual assortment of artillery pieces, wrecked ARVN aircraft and equipment.

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T54 tank No. 848 of the 203rd Brigade, which was used to enter the grounds of the Presidential Palace on the 30th of April. Photo: Julian Tennant

Entering the museum building brings visitors into the Ho Chi Minh Campaign rooms. Here, visitors are shown a large ‘mud map’ model giving an overview of the offensive plus other exhibits relating to the final stages of the war such as the official Ho Chi Minh Campaign diary. This is followed by rooms detailing each stage of the offensive, beginning with the Battle for Phuoc Loc (Route 14) and followed by the Tay Nguyen Campaign ( Campaign 275) and the battle for the Central Highlands which resulted in the destruction of ARVN forces in the II Corps zone. The focus then shifts to the Hue-Danang Campaign which isolated then defeated the South Vietnamese troops in I Corps.

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The Ho Chi Minh Campaign exhibition room. Photo: Julian Tennant

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Chinese Type 63 (renamed the H12 by the Vietnamese) 107mm rocket launcher that was used in the attack on Ban Me Thuot on 10 March 1975. Photo: Julian Tennant

The second floor has two main rooms. The first deals with the South Vietnamese high command and ARVN forces including insignia, medals, records and documentation captured from the Army of the Republic of South Vietnam. Other exhibits related to the campaign and activities of the Viet Cong local forces are also shown in the upstairs areas whilst the final room is dedicated to the Ho Chi Minh Campaign Headquarters and leadership group. This includes some unusual collections including several sets of spectacles used by various communist leaders and an old extendable car aerial which is described as the “Swagger-stick of General Tran Van Tra”.

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Captured ARVN officer’s personal files. Photo: Julian Tennant

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Captured Air Force F-5 Vietnam novelty patch and an unconfirmed (by me) black panther patch. I think it may be a 1st ARVN Division Strike Company (also known as Hac Bao, Black Panthers) patch variation, but am not 100% certain of this identification. Photo: Julian Tennant

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People’s Army of Vietnam (PAVN) cameraman with a Bolex H 16 SBM 16mm movie camera. Photo: Julian Tennant

Overall, the museum is well laid out with an interesting selection of exhibits that are accompanied by English language descriptions. However, the victors write the history books and as can be expected, the museum gives a very warped perspective that reflects the communist rhetoric. This is evident in both the language used, with the usual “imperialist puppet troop” type descriptions and also how the artifacts appear. The ARVN and South Vietnamese exhibits always seem to be broken (such as the scrap metal wrecks outside), run-down or looking rather aged and disheveled when compared to the PAVN artifacts which are kept fresh and look almost new. The museum is definitely worth visiting because of the material being displayed, but don’t rely on it giving an accurate representation of the conflict from an even remotely unbiased perspective.

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Officer of the Vietnam People’s Ground Forces (Lục quân Nhân dân Việt Nam) on duty at the museum. His insignia identifies him as a Senior Lieutenant (Đại úy) from the Corps of Engineers. Photo: Julian Tennant

Ho Chi Minh Campaign Museum (Bảo tàng Chiến dịch Hồ Chí Minh)
2 Le Duan Street
District 1
Ho Chi Minh City 70000, Vietnam

Phone: +84 (0)336 578 946

Website (Vietnamese language): Ho Chi Minh Campaign Museum

Open: Monday – Friday 07:30 – 11:00 and 13:30 – 16:30
Note that the museum is frequently closed without notice.

Entrance Fee: Free

 

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An unidentified French Indochina or 1950’s period Airborne unit badge.

ARVN unidentified Airborne SSI 2-2

The unidentified French Indochina period French or Vietnamese Airborne unit badge which  formerly belonged to a Nung soldier who fought in both the first and second Indochina Wars. Collection: Julian Tennant

 

This is an unusual and as yet unidentified early Vietnamese Airborne patch that I have in my collection. It is the actual badge shown on page 81 of Harry Pugh’s book Insignia of the Republic of Vietnam Army Airborne Division, where it is described as an Unknown Airborne Insignia obtained in Saigon in 1967.

When I bought the badge from Harry, he elaborated a little further in an accompanying note regarding its provenance.

“When I was in Vietnam, 67 & 68, the chief of my Nung Security was an older Nung, “Song”. He had served with the French during the French Indochina war but I never asked him which unit. After the war he served with the Nung units of the U.S. Special Forces. At some point he was wounded again and retired. Was told, but no confirmation at all, that he was in the camp when Donlon got his Medal of Honor [In 1964 US Special Forces Captain Roger Donlon won the first Medal of Honor to be awarded in Vietnam]. A predecessor had hired him as the security chief at Tam Ky, Quang Tin Province, Embassy House.

Song and I were good friends as we shared an interest in planting flowers on our bunkers etc. Anyway, when he learned that I collected insignia (at the time was just starting out) he came back from a leave to Saigon and brought this patch to me. He said it was the insignia that he wore when serving with the French. – I do not know if in a Vietnamese or French unit. That is the only identification I got and never followed through.

Later, I have seen a photo of troops with this patch being worn. But I just do not know the rest of the identity.”

The badge measures 65mm wide by 65mm high and its construction methods match the insignia made during the French era and the early post-colonial period, including the use of the French style attachment pin.

ARVN unidentified Airborne SSI 2

A comparison showing the front and rear of the unidentified badge and one of the 1955-1959 period Vietnamese Airborne Group patches in my collection. The construction methods of both badges including attachment pins are very similar. Collection: Julian Tennant

 

During my research, other collectors have suggested that the design is somewhat reminiscent of the French Airborne School, Ecole des Troupes Aéroportées (ETAP) and Base-Ecole des Troupes Aéroportées (BETAP) badges (as shown below). However, I think that the connection between the French based parachute school and this insignia is incidental as the airborne training units serving in French Indochina had their own unique insignia.

Base-Ecole des Troupes Aéroportées (BETAP) circa 1953

1953 period Base-Ecole des Troupes Aéroportées (BETAP) breast badge. Some design similarity can be seen between this insignia and the unidentified bullion badge, however I think that it is purely coincidental as neither the ETAP nor BETAP served in Indochina and the differences are significant enough to discount a connection. Collection: Julian Tennant

 

I have not yet been able to track down the photograph that Harry refers to in his note, nor can I find any reference to this design in either the Malcros or Baltzer/Micheletti French Airborne insignia books and none of my French-language reference books about Vietnamese and ARVN badges feature similar insignia, so it remains a mystery to me. If anybody can help with the identification of this badge, your assistance will be greatly appreciated.

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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?

 

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 such as the Cao Dai sect. 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

 

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Note that this site has NEW content posted every Sunday! If you like what you see here, please follow this page via email or by using either the buttons below or in the column on the right. Knowing that somebody is looking at this gives me the encouragement I need to go through my archives and collection to develop the content for the page. And of course, feel free to contact me here, via email or by visiting my Facebook or Instagram pages

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.

REFERENCE BOOK: Les Unités Parachutistes de la Légion Etrangère et Leurs Insignes. 1948 – 2014 by Colonel (H) Duronsoy.

Les Unités Parachutistes de la Légion Etrangère et Leurs Insi

Les Unités Parachutistes de la Légion Etrangère et Leurs Insignes. 1948 – 2014 by Colonel (H) Duronsoy.

No ISBN.
Privately published via Blurb Books (December 2014)

Softcover. 150 pages. French text
 

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Les Unités Parachutistes de la Légion Etrangère et Leurs Insignes is a privately published book which covers the distinctive unit and sub-unit insignia worn by the various airborne units of the French Foreign Legion. This is one of a series of insignia reference books that Colonel Duronsoy, a 30 year veteran of the Legion, has privately published via Blurb books. The French text should not deter collectors as the book features full colour photographs of the front plus back of the insignia used by the Legion Paras since 1948 and despite my lack of French language proficiency I was still able to glean valuable information from the book.

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Colonel Duronsoy’s personal website can be found at http://insignes.legion.pagesperso-orange.fr/insigneslegionetrangere/accueil.html and the book, along with his other reference books on Legion insignia can be bought from the Blurb Books website at http://www.blurb.com/b/5819493-les-unit-s-parachutistes-de-la-l-gion-trang-re-et

 

Tirailleurs Tonkinois (Lintap) circa 1885.

No.16 Tirailleurs Tonkinois (Lintap) circa 1885
This photograph, showing indigenous Indochinese infantrymen is number 16 in a series that was taken by one Dr Hocquard who was a medical officer stationed in French Indochina in the late 19th century. It was first published in Paris in 1886 as part of a series of works in “Le Tonkin, Vues Photographiques Prises Par Mr le Dr Hocquard, Médecin-Major” which was edited by Henri Cremnitz.

It is a Woodburytype (French: Photoglyptie) print which is a photo-mechanical process developed by Walter B. Woodbury in 1864. The process produces continuous tone images in slight relief. A chromated gelatin film is exposed under a photographic negative, which hardens in proportion to the amount of light. This is then developed in hot water to soften and remove all the unexposed gelatin, then dried. The remaining relief is pressed into a sheet of lead using a press that exerts 5000 psi resulting in an intaglio plate which is used as a mold and is filled with pigmented gelatin. The gelatin layer is then pressed onto a paper support.

The series of images that comprise “Le Tonkin, Vues Photographiques Prises Par Mr le Dr Hocquard, Médecin-Major” is held by the French national military museum, the Musée de l’Armée in Paris.

 

Information for the Vietnam war historian

French troops crossing delta country in outdated US tanks during campaign against Viet Minh. 1950
Photographer: Howard Sochurek for LIFE magazine.

I’ll add this to the links list, but for anybody interested in the conflict in Indochina, the Vietnam War Resource site is probably the best online source for information covering all aspects of the war.

http://www.cc.gatech.edu/fac/Thomas.Pilsch/Vietnam.html

Revisiting Vietnam’s infamous Dan Sinh “War Surplus” Market

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Deciding to collect Vietnam War militaria is fraught with danger as the marketplace is saturated with fakes and reproductions. I was fortunate that during my first trip to Vietnam in 1997, the late Peter Aitken (who was then at the Australian War Memorial in Canberra) introduced me to a Vietnamese friend of his in Saigon who was able to guide me through the minefield that Vietnam War militaria had already become. I arrived in Saigon with ideas of finding rare Vietnamese Airborne insignia and left convinced that only the brave or foolish would start collecting militaria from the ‘American War’ period… And this was before eBay and the Internet started to take off as a source for collectors!!!

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3 dan_sinh--13

One of the first places that we visited was the Dan Sinh market, also known as the ‘War Surplus’ or ‘American’ market it is the place where much of the supposed Vietnam War militaria originate. Situated at 104 Yersin next door to the Phung Son Tu pagoda, it consists of a rabbit warren of stalls offering everything from electrical parts to footwear. Part of the market consists of small stalls selling military related items. During that first visit most of the stuff was related, in appearance, if not actual age or authenticity, to the 1962 – 75 period but more recently the reproducers have started to include post Vietnam war conflicts and one can find copies of current issue US army multicam, British desert DPM and Australian DPCU camouflage uniforms and equipment amongst the usual ‘junk’.

A selection of fake patches found at the Dan Sinh "War Surplus"

As collectors become more aware of the Vietnam era fakes being produced at the market, the manufacturers have turned to other areas and conflicts, including these poorly copied British SAS insignia.

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Faked French, Rhodesian and contemporary multicam jackets.

Another Vietnamese copy

Australian DPCU bush-hat. This camouflage pattern wasn’t introduced until 1988, long after the war ended… and this wide brimmed style sometime in the 90’s.

During that first trip my guide, Loi and I devised a system to identify the fakes and at the same time protect him from recriminations from the sellers. If I found something that I liked I would pick it up, inspect it and then pass it on to him. He would look at it, mutter something like “very nice” then, if it was genuine, hand it back to me and if not, place it back on the table. I quickly became disappointed as everything from MACV SOG patches to ARVN Ranger helmets were placed back on the table. The thing that I didn’t fully grasp at the time was that after the war and the economic difficulties that followed the ‘surplus’ was either recycled or whenever possible, broken down to it’s component parts, brass, aluminium, acrylic etc and sold as scrap. It was only after Vietnam reopened to Western tourism and foreign interest in the war became apparent that the potential of the war legacy became apparent. A lot of the remaining bits and pieces disappeared quickly, but the demand was there and the ever-resourceful Vietnamese started to fill demand by reproducing the items that were in demand.

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Make no mistake; the guys at Dan Sinh are not fools and know what the state of the marketplace is for their creations… and as collectors become more savvy they shift their focus to take advantage of new opportunities. Over the years I have returned many times and come to know some of the dealers reasonably well. Even back in the 90’s they were already aware of what was in demand and were producing items for unsuspecting collectors. Unscrupulous western dealers had been visiting Vietnam and providing the designs and reference material for their ‘orders’ since the 80’s and the Vietnamese were more than happy to oblige. During that trip in 97 I was shocked to see that one dealer had a copy of the out of print and extremely sought after “Special Forces of the United States Army 1952-2002by LTC Ian D. W. Sutherland (Ret). Back then, one could expect to pay $200+ for a copy if you could find one and these guys were using it as a standard reference (a ‘gift’ of a US based dealer/customer) for their creations. During a visit around 2007 or 2008, one of the main guys at Dan Sinh showed me an autographed copy of a Schiffer published reference book on insignia from a certain US branch of service. Nothing unusual in that, but what threw me was when he admitted that he was asked by the author, to make the insignia for the book and many of those same rare patches are still being offered for sale (as authentic) by the author via his eBay store. That’s not hearsay; I gleaned that bit of info during a recorded interview with the maker of the fakes. I shudder to think how many people use that book as a reference and placed their trust in the author as a ‘reputable’ dealer.

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Current retail (not wholesale) price for these supposedly rare flags… $5 to $10 each

The lesson that I learnt during that first trip was to view all items from the Vietnam War with suspicion. I have a modest collection of Vietnam War period ARVN Airborne, Australian SAS and AATTV items, but tread very carefully. If it doesn’t have provenance, I’ll pass on it. There’s just too much shit out there. I would go as far to say that 99% of the Vietnam War militaria that you can find on eBay are faked, everything from maps and paperwork, through uniforms to aircraft gauges. Supposedly rare MACV SOG patches can be bought for as little as $1 each, wholesale, VC flags, $5 – $10, Zippos (and there will be an entire post devoted to the changes I’ve seen over the years) about $5 retail and less for bulk purchases. Recently I’ve even found reproductions such as those made by George Peterson’s NCHS in the USA being brought IN to the markets and offered by one of the sellers as original.

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Reproductions (including those made and sold by NCHS in the USA) such as the ARVN Special Forces beret badge near the left corner of the picture are being brought into the Dan Sinh market where they are being resold as ‘original’. Click here for a link to the NHCS listing of the same copy.

As a collector, visiting the Dan Sinh market is a ‘must do’ on any Vietnam itinerary; just don’t fall for the bullshit. Unlike my first visit, these days many, but not all, of the dealers will admit that the items are copies and one or two will even offer to make the items that you require. It’s definitely worth a visit, but if the experience doesn’t make you want to steer well clear of collecting Vietnam War militaria… well then you need counselling.

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The Dan Sinh Market is open until about 6pm but many of the militaria dealers start closing up around 5. It can be found at 104 Yersin, District 1 and is open every day.