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.

 

_____________________________________________________

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

The Cao Dai and its Militia 1926 – 1956

Forces Armees Cao-Daistes (FACD) badge

French made variation of the Forces Armees Cao-Daistes (FACD) badge. This badge is one of the 10,000 ordered by General Nguyễn Văn Thành on 8 December 1951 from the Drago company. An additional 250 silver (officer grade) badges were ordered by Cao Đài chief of staff, Lieutenant Colonel Nguyễn Thai on 24 August 1952. Between May 1952 and January 1953 all the silver badges (plus 4 additional pieces) and 4970 of the standard issue badges were delivered. The remaining 5000 remained in the Drago workshops due to a payment dispute and were never delivered. Collection: Julian Tennant

cao dai illustrated london news 9 june 1951

One of my main areas of collecting interest focuses on the airborne, commando and unconventional auxiliary units relating to French Indochina. This interest grew out of my first visit to Vietnam in the late 1990’s when I bought a xeroxed copy of Graham Greene’s novel, The Quiet American, from a street vendor in Ho Chi Minh City. Published in 1955, a year after the fall of Dien Bien Phu, the novel explores the breakdown of French colonialism in Vietnam and raises questions about the foundations for the growing American involvement in the country. This is explored through the eyes of a weary British journalist, Thomas Fowler, a naïve young CIA agent named Alden Pyle and Phuong, Fowler’s mistress who becomes the subject of both their attentions.

I think that Greene’s canny observations, based on his experience as a war correspondent in Vietnam, combined with the fact that I was reading the book ‘in-country’ whilst tooling around South Vietnam in a 1964 Ford Galaxy (formerly a USN staff car) with an old army buddy and a couple of Vietnamese friends started to shift my interest away from the ‘American War’ to the French experience in Indochina.  In future posts I will share some of my insignia related to this conflict and detail some of the background to the units represented.

Vietnam, truck passing watchtower on stilts in Tây Ninh

Truck passing an isolated Cao Đài watch tower in Tây Ninh province. It would have been a watch tower similar to this where Fowler, Pyle and two Vietnamese auxiliaries were attacked by the Viet Minh in Graham Greene’s ‘The Quiet American’.  Photo: Harrison Forman LIFE Magazine 1950

 

Whilst a work of fiction, The Quiet American fleshed out the plot with observations that revealed the reality of the situation and weaved between fact and fiction.

            “I began, while he watched me intently like a prize pupil, by explaining the situation in the north, in Tonkin, where the French in those days were hanging on to the delta of the Red River, which contained Hanoi and the only northern port, Haiphong. Here most of the rice was grown, and when harvest was ready the annual battle or the rice always began.

            ‘That’s the north,’ I said. ‘The French may hold, poor devils, if the Chinese don’t come to help the Vietminh. A war of jungles and mountains and marsh, paddy-fields where you wade shoulder-high and the enemy simply disappear, bury their arms, put on peasant dress. But you can rot comfortably in the damp in Hanoi. The don’t throw bombs there. God knows why. You could call it a regular war.’

            ‘And here in the south?’

           ‘The French control the main roads until seven in the evening: they control the watch towers after that, and the towns – part of them. That doesn’t mean you are safe, or there wouldn’t be iron grilles in front of the restaurants.’

           How often I had explained all this before. I was a record always turned on for the benefit of newcomers … Sometimes I would wake up in the night saying, ‘Take the case of the Caodaists.’ Or the Hoa-Haos or the Bình Xuyên, all the private armies who sold their services for money or revenge. Strangers found them picturesque, but there is nothing picturesque in treachery and distrust.

           ‘And now,’ I said, ‘There’s General Thé. He was Caodaist Chief of Staff, but he’s taken to the hills to fight both sides, the French, the Communists…’ (Part 1, Chapter 2, Section 1)

Greene’s description of the situation in Indochina at the time is an accurate summation of how the conflict was fought. In the north, in Tonkin where the Viet Minh were strongest, French forces pursued a fairly conventional military strategy, whilst in the south they adopted a pacification campaign that relied on auxiliaries and ‘private armies’ to help free up much needed man-power for operations elsewhere. This led the French to form uneasy alliances with some interesting bed-fellows, primarily, the ‘Three Sects’, the Cao Đài, Hòa Hảo and Bình Xuyên, none of whose loyalty could never be guaranteed and who exploited the situation to best suit their own interests.

The Cao Đài, a militant politico-religious sect, was the most powerful of these groups which at the time claimed more than two million adherents. Originally a purely religious organisation it evolved as a response to strong Vietnamese nationalism, quickly developing a political orientation and at its peak, before Premier Ngô Đình Diệm brought it to heel in 1955, the Cao Đài boasted an army of more than 20,000 men.

The Cao Đài sect was officially established in Tây Ninh, approximately 90 kilometres northwest of Saigon in 1926. Caodaism is a monotheistic syncretic religion which synthesises Buddhism, Taoism, Confucianism, Christianity and spirit worship. Caodaists believe that these religions, which were established in different parts of the world, previously failed to converge due to a lack of communication but does so under Cao Đài (which literally translates as the “Highest Lord” or “Highest Power”) who is the supreme deity.

The spirit of Cao Đài first revealed itself to Ngô Văn Chiêu, the colonial government district administrator of Phú Quốc Island off the coast of Cambodia, during a séance in 1919. Chiêu continued to communicate with Cao Đài in seances held with other civil servants and also a wealthy businessman named Lê Văn Trung, who was directed by the spirit to join Chiêu in leading the Cao Đài movement. Chiêu opted to abstain from proselytism and relinquished his leadership to Trung in April 1926. On October 7, 28 Cao Đài leaders and 247 adherents sought official recognition of Cao Đàism as a religion, which was granted in November and by that stage had already attracted over 20,000 followers. In March 1927, the Holy See or Holy Seat of the faith was established in the village of Long Thành near the town of Tây Ninh in Tây Ninh Province. Whilst the political and military activities of the Cao Đài have been suppressed, Tây Ninh is still the centre of its religious practices which are tolerated by the current government.

In 1934 at the time of Lê Văn Trung’s death, the Cao Đài numbered over 300 000 adherents, controlled over 128 chapels and were particularly strong in Mỹ Tho, Chợ Lớn, Gia Định and Bến Tre. Its growth can be attributed to two factors, the form of the cult was not contrary to the main religions already practiced by the Vietnamese and its spiritualistic nature held great appeal for a peasant population with a proclivity for the supernatural.

Cao Dai Nguyen Van Thanh and Pham Cong Tac at the Holy See 1948

Cao Đài Hộ Pháp (Pope) Phạm Công Tắc reviewing troops at the Holy See. Cao Đài ‘Army’ deputy commander Nguyễn Văn Thành (wearing spectacles) is standing to the left. Photo: Jack Birns LIFE Magazine July 1948

 

Trung’s successor as Hộ Pháp (“Defender of Doctrine” or commonly referred to as the ‘Pope’) was Phạm Công Tắc. He was aware of the increasing discontent with the French and joining the growing number of clandestine nationalist groups began to steer the Cao Đài away from its primarily religious nature, towards more political aims. Under Tắc’s leadership the sect entered into secret negotiations regarding the liberation of Vietnam with the Japanese and at the outbreak of World War Two, became more overt in its anti-French stance. This eventually resulted in the French governor of Cochin China, exiling Tắc and his lieutenants to Madagascar (where they remained until the end of the war), closing most of the chapels and in September 1941, having French troops occupy Tây Ninh.

In 1943, with the help of the Kempeitai (Japanese secret police), the Cao Đài under the leadership of Trần Quang Vinh prepared for direct action against the French. Armed by the Japanese, Vinh formed clandestine paramilitary groups estimated at around 3000 men. With Japanese support they fought the French and helped the Japanese take over Indochina in March 1945. They openly supported the Japanese regime, assisting with policing the countryside until the Japanese capitulated in August 1945. The Cao Đài then joined forces with other nationalist groups to form the United National Front to take over administrative control of the region. Plagued with factionalism, the United National Front was unable to exercise effective control. Taking advantage of the situation, the communist Viet Minh were able to convince the front to gather in an alliance under their leadership, but once again internal rivalries and at times, open warfare, undermined the nationalist aspirations and the French, with British support, were able to reoccupy Saigon.

Meanwhile, the Viet Minh attempted to wrest control of the Cao Đài militia which created further problems for the Cao Đài, with Trần Quang Vinh being detained and conflict between the two parties ensuing. In Vinh’s absence, the militia was reorganised and eventually agreed to fight alongside the Viet Minh against the French Far East Expeditionary Corps (Corps Expéditionnaire Français en Extrême-Orient – CEFEO).

In November 1945, French military forces marched on Tây Ninh and accepted the surrender of the Cao Đài followers there. Trần Quang Vinh, who had managed to escape from the Viet Minh negotiated a truce with the French in June 1946 As a result, Nguyen Thành Phương, who led one of the Cao Đài militia’s in Vinh’s absence, brought his 1000 strong force of troops to Tây Ninh to be reviewed by Vinh and the French High Command. However, two other Cao Đài militias, under the leadership of Duong Van Dang and Nguyễn Văn Thành, refused to participate, opting instead to seek refuge in the Ba Den Mountain. The deal between the Cao Đài and the French permitted them to maintain a militia, now officially part of the French Forces Supplétifs. of 1470 partisans including 12 Brigades of 60 men each and garrison troops in 16 posts around Tây Ninh province. It should be noted that the Cao Đài ignored the agreement and soon created new formations such as a ‘Papal Guard’, ‘Shock Battalion’ and other unofficial units, supposedly, for the defence of the scattered Cao Đài communities in the region.

With the Cao Đài, nominally, back on side with the French, the authorities allowed Phạm Công Tắc to return from exile and a peace deal was agreed to in August, with Tắc proclaiming the need for a French presence and the reestablishment of public order. But when fighting broke out between the Viet Minh and the French in December 1946, Tắc remained neutral, until the Viet Minh attacked Tây Ninh and in January 1947, he sought French protection.

cao dai tay ninh

Cao Đài Hộ Pháp (Pope) Phạm Công Tắc with the ‘Papal Guard’ in front of the Holy See at Tây Ninh. Whilst this photograph was published in 1948, I suspect that the occasion was the official inauguration of the Cao Dai army on 7 February 1947. Photo: Jack Birns LIFE Magazine

 

French military aid was conditional upon the Cao Đài pacifying the countryside. With the exception of members loyal to Trinh Minh Thé, a fanatical nationalist (who, later, in 1951 would organise his own guerrilla unit, the Liên Minh, to fight both the French and Viet Minh), the sect’s militia inflicted heavy casualties on the Viet Minh for the next twelve months. This led the French High Command to send Cao Đài troops throughout Cochinchina, a move encouraged by the Cao Đài leadership as it allowed them to spread their influence and gain converts. The population was presented with a simple ultimatum, the protection of the Cao Đài militias would only be given to members of the Cao Đài sect.

1950-view-of-watchtower-behind-bamboo-barricade-in-ty-ninh_12469862555_o

Cao Đài guard post watch tower in Tây Ninh province. Note the bamboo staked fence to provide an additional measure of protection. Photo: Harrison Forman LIFE Magazine 1950

 

In March 1949 Vietnam, under the leadership of Emporer Bảo Đại, was granted self-government within the French Union. On 6 May 1950, the Cao Đài formally pledged allegiance to the government and as a sign of good will allowed a Cao Đài battalion to be integrated into the Vietnamese National Army. But at the same time, they resumed their private territorial war with another sect, the Hòa Hảo, an action that greatly weakened the nationalist movement. The allegiance of all three sects, the Cao Đài, Hòa Hảo and Bình Xuyên, to Bảo Đại and the French was always opportunistic, with self-interest overriding any loyalty that they professed.

However, despite exercising an almost feudal control over most of Cochin China, none of the sects were totally unsupervised. The French Inspectorat General des Forces Suppletives, co-ordinated the military activities of all three sects, garrisoning French liaison officers and training staff with all the sect units, operating in much the same way as American, Kiwi and Australian Army Training Team (AATTV) advisors did in the 1960’s and 70’s.

For the Cao Đài this training included developing their own officer’s school which ran a five-month long course training promising candidates the rudiments of modern warfare. However, the tactical value of the Cao Đài troops was limited as the sect was more concerned with increasing its own power base and considered its troops too valuable to lose in military operations against the Viet Minh. For the French advisor and liaison officers attached to the Cao Đài units, their job was just as hazardous as their successors in the Second Indochina War, particularly with some of the smaller and less well organised groups whose ‘war effort’ was little more than banditry. In many cases the units massacred their French cadres, fought over supplies or with other groups for control of territory.

cao dai badge symbolism

Forces Armees Cao-Daistes (FACD) badge. Local made.

Forces Armees Cao-Daistes (FACD) badge. Locally made.

Forces Armees Cao-Daistes (FACD) Signals unit badge. Local made.

Unconfirmed Forces Armees Cao-Daistes (FACD) unit badge. The text “QUÂN ĐỘI CAO ĐÀI VÔ TUYẾN ĐIỆN CƠ XƯỞNG 3” loosely translates to Cao Dai Army Radio (or Electrical) Workshop 3 and it is believed that this may be a signals unit badge Locally made.

1950-group-portrait-of-cao-dai-army-soldiers-in-ty-ninh_12476225105_o

Group portrait of Cao Đài soldiers at Tây Ninh in 1950. Photo: Harrison Forman

 

These factors may have influenced the French decision to refuse a request to arm and train three full Cao Đài divisions, numbering some 45,000 men, plus grant the Cao Đài three cabinet seats. This prompted Cao Đài general Nguyễn Văn Thành to issue a secret order cease all offensive action other than self-defence against the Viet Minh. Taking advantage of the situation, the Viet Minh attacked Tây Ninh causing Thành to reverse his decision. Eventually the French and Vietnamese Government, in view of the deteriorating situation, also acquiesced to the Cao Đài, arming additional troops and granting cabinet positions to some of the sect’s leaders.

In 1953, Tắc, sensing the changing winds begins to distance the Cao Đài from the French and Premier Nguyễn Văn Tâm’s government. Hedging their bets, they push for both independence and a close association with the France, throwing their support behind Bảo Đại at the Nationalist Congress of October 1953.

On April 9th, 1954, Phạm Công Tắc declared his unquestioning support for Bảo Đại and “for liberation of the Vietnamese people from the communist yoke…” But when this promise was tested three days later after the government decided to integrate the sects into the Vietnamese National Army. Cao Đài commander, Nguyễn Thẩm Phương, resisted, resulting in the order not being complied with until the following year.

The signing of the Geneva Accords in July 1954 and the French withdrawal of financial support for the sects in January 1955 signalled the end of Cao Đài influence during this period. The new regime under Ngô Đình Diệm, a staunch Catholic who perceived the sects as a threat, now controlled the US subsidies that financed them. The Cao Đài, along with the Bình Xuyên and Hòa Hảo now faced a loss of their autonomy, privileges plus incorporation of their forces into the National Army. On February 13, 1955, Cao Đài commander Trình Minh Thế, newly promoted to the rank of General in the Vietnamese Army, marched into Saigon at the head of his 5,000 black uniformed, Liên Minh troops. Later on 31 March, 15,000 Cao Đài troops under the command of Nguyen Thành Phoung were integrated into the Vietnamese National Army.

Cao Dai troops integrate 13 Feb 1955

Newly promoted to General, Cao Đài commander, Trình Minh Thế leads his Liên Minh troops into Saigon after United States military advisor Edward Lansdale convinced Thế to throw his support behind Premier Ngô Đình Diệm. 13 February 1955

 

Meanwhile the countryside in the southwest was drifting into anarchy as bands of Hòa Hảo and Cao Đài fought for control of territories that were largely devoid of any administrative authority. In an attempt to regain control of the situation, Bảo Đại sent his cousin, Prince Vĩnh Cảnh to urge the sects to unify. This resulted in a non-aggression pact between the two and along with the Bình Xuyên, the formation of a “United Front of National Forces” designed to “protect the country and serve the people.”

On 21 March, 1955, the Front sent an ultimatum to Diệm, giving him five days to form a government of national union. General Thé changed his position from supporting Diệm to the Front, but then, after a substantial bribe, back to Diệm who had refused the Fronts demands. Factional disputes were also undermining the Front and sensing the changing political atmosphere, the Cao Đài commanders plus some of the Hòa Hảo sects retired from the impending conflict. Cao Đài General Nguyen Thành Phoung then defected to Diệm with his 20,000 troops after receiving a US$3.6 million bribe and monthly payments for his soldiers. It should be noted though that the Cao Đài leader,  Phạm Công Tắc, did not support Phương’s defection and remained part of the Front. But the defections left the Bình Xuyên mostly alone to confront the National Army when fighting broke out on the night of 29/30 March.

In the turmoil that followed, Diệm was able to use the National Army to bring the Bình Xuyên and the few remaining Hòa Hảo into line. On 3 May 1955, while standing near his military jeep, General Trình Minh Thế was shot in the back of the head by a sniper. 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 and alleged involvement in the assassination of French General Chanson, the Commander of the French-Indo-Chinese forces in South Viet Nam, who was killed by a Caodaist suicide bomber in 1951. Others blamed the South Vietnamese government who saw him as a threat and possible replacement for Diệm.

Cao Dai The funeral 1955-01

Cao Đài troops integrated into 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 newer type Cao Đài unit breast badge (see below). Photo: Harrison Forman LIFE Magazine.

Cao Dai 1955 local made badge-01

Caodaist unit badge worn by the Cao Đài troops of General Trình Minh Thế which had been incorporated into the Vietnamese National Army. The badge features a six-pointed star superimposed onto diagonal yellow and red bands representing the Vietnamese national colours plus a yellow map of Vietnam on a silver shield. The six-pointed star represents the unification of the six main Cao Đài sects. Locally made.

 

In October 1955 the Cao Đài autonomy and political influence were further suppressed when General Phương disarmed the 300 strong ‘Papal Guard’ and deposed Tắc as Hộ Pháp. In February 1956, as government troops were preparing to occupy the Holy See in Tây Ninh, Tắc fled to Cambodia where he died in exile in 1959. As Cao Đài influence declined, so did their military capacity. In 1954 the Caodaists in Tây Ninh had up to 25,000 troops, but by early 1956 only 1000 remained. In June 1956 the remaining Liên Minh who were not integrated into the army and numbering around 700 men, fled to Cambodia. By 1958 only minor clandestine operations were being carried out against the Diem regime by a small number of fighters. For now, the power of the Cao Đài had been broken.

_____________________________________________________

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

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.

Ho Chi Minh Campaign Museum-06

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.

Ho Chi Minh Campaign Museum-16

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

Ho Chi Minh Campaign Museum-13

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”.

Ho Chi Minh Campaign Museum-24

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

Ho Chi Minh Campaign Museum-26

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

Ho Chi Minh Campaign Museum-18

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.

Ho Chi Minh Campaign Museum-10

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

 

_____________________________________________________

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

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.

_____________________________________________________

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

The Mysterious Vietnam War Mary Poppins Platoon HAHO Parachutist Badge

61037528_2418529928198396_3156671602440011776_n

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. 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.