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.

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Dropping into the Cu Chi Tunnels

In January 1966, the 1st Battalion Royal Australian Regiment (1RAR), which had been attached to the US 173rd Airborne Brigade (Separate) after arriving in Vietnam the previous year, participated in  Operation CRIMP. This was an operation involving over 8000 allied troops and is described in detail in Bob Breen’s book, First to Fight and in Blue Lanyard Red Banner by Lex McAulay, whose customised Australian Army lighter that he carried during the operation was featured in a previous post. CRIMP was the battalion’s first major foray into an area which has become synonymous with the famous Củ Chi Tunnels and the pioneering ‘tunnel rat’ work carried out by its sappers.

For 1RAR, the objective of this operation, which involved over allied 8000 troops, was a series of underground bunkers believed to be in the Ho Bo Woods area of Củ Chi district. Intelligence indicated that these bunkers housed the headquarters for the Communist committee that controlled all Viet Cong activity in the Capital Military District and a large complex of tunnels was subsequently uncovered by the battalion. For the first time, engineers of 3 Field Troop, Royal Australian Engineers (3 Fd Tp RAE), under the command of Captain Alexander (Sandy) MacGregor breached the network recovering large quantities of  weapons, food, equipment and documents.

Sandy MacGregor recounts the experiences of the sappers from 3 Fd Tp as they entered the tunnels for the first time in his book, No Need for Heroes.

We had three tasks. The first was to investigate the tunnels as fully as possible to discover what they were being used for. The second was to try and map the tunnel system so that we could work out its extent, and if need be, dig down to a soldier who might be trapped. The third, once we discovered what a treasure trove the tunnels were, was to recover everything we could – weapons, equipment and paper – all of which was invaluable for the intelligence boys.

Op CRIMP tunnel rat demo

Photograph by Captain Alex ‘Sandy’ MacGregor, OC of 3 Field Troop, who developed the ‘tunnel rat’ concept first used during Operation CRIMP. Here, soldiers are demonstrating a “Tunnel Exploration Kit”, which was developed as a result of the developments made by MacGregor’s soldiers. Note the ear plug in the soldier’s right ear, the throat microphone and the switch in his mouth used to operate the torch strapped to his forehead. He is armed with a Smith & Wesson 38 calibre revolver equipped with a silencer and pinpoint-light sight. Photograph: Alexander Hugh ‘Sandy’ MacGregor. Australian War Memorial Accession Number: P01595.021

It was not an easy mission to accomplish as this was a departure from the American policy of sealing and destroying any tunnels found. Captain MacGregor had previously recognised the inadequacies of the American approach and had begun training his engineers to enter and clear tunnels. The 3 Fd Tp sappers had built a mock tunnel at their base, experimented and developed clearance techniques but they were still entering somewhat untested territory when they commenced the operation. The “Tunnel Rats” as they would come to known, had their work cut out for them. As soon as 1RAR hit the LZ they came under fire from snipers hidden in underground firing positions, trenches and tunnels. Bob Breen describes the situation in First to Fight,

There were snipers and small groups of Viet Cong everywhere – in and behind trees, popping up from spider holes and tunnel entrances at ground level, and scrambling away after firing quick bursts. The area was seeded with numerous booby traps. Diggers (Australian soldiers) noticed the ominous wires and saw shells and bunches of grenades dangling from trees and clumps of bamboo.

In an ambush on the first day of the operation, a Viet Cong firing position was discovered inside an anthill. When the sappers blew the anthill, a tunnel was discovered leading away from the position. Clearance teams from 3 Fd Tp began entering the network but breaching and securing the tunnels was no easy task.

We blew smoke into the tunnel and I divided the men into smaller sub-units of twos and threes and sent them off to investigate Once we’d blown smoke, then tear gas, then fresh air down the tunnels, I sent a couple of men down to investigate. The entrance was so narrow it was hard to imagine it was intended for people at all. There was a straight drop then it doubled back up, like the U-bend under a sink. The tunnel turned again to go along under the surface and became a little wider, but there still wasn’t room enough to turn around. It was terrifying down there, armed only with a bayonet to probe for booby traps and a pistol to defend yourself.

Once you’d negotiated the tight entrance and the U-bend, you had to crawl along tiny passages, rubbing your shoulders on each side of the tunnel, on all fours, with no way of turning around if you got into trouble. Often, you’d find larger ‘rooms’, sections of tunnel that were big enough to crouch or kneel in, but you weren’t to know that when you first set out. The further the men went, the more complex the tunnel system was revealed to be. There were drops, twists and turns, corners around which the whole North Vietnamese Army could be waiting, for all they knew. The men burrowed away, ever further, ever deeper, until they discovered a hidden danger in the operation. Some of them began passing out in the tunnels due to lack of air. But, despite the fact that there was no room to turn they were all dragged back to the surface, usually after we’d blasted more fresh air down to them.

A Sapper of 3 Field Troop emerges from a Viet Cong (VC) tunnel by way of a trapdoor in the ground ...

A Sapper of 3 Field Troop emerges from a Viet Cong (VC) tunnel by way of a trapdoor in the ground during Operation Crimp in the Ho Bo Woods with troops of 1 Battalion, The Royal Australian Regiment (1RAR). The trapdoor of concrete is covered with earth and grass and saplings are grown in it so that it carefully blends in with the rest of the vegetation, and is virtually impossible to detect. Photo: Peter Kelly. Australian War Memorial Collection Accession Number: KEL/66/0021/VN

Unfortunately, one of the sappers, Corporal Bob Bowtell, succumbed to the lack of air in one of the antechambers and had died of asphyxiation by the time his body could be brought back to the surface. The operation took its toll on many of the sappers as George Wilson recalls in Gary McKay’s book,  Bullets, Beans & Bandages,

Those long periods spent underground, often in total darkness, where at times the only ‘light’ was the luminous face of your watch, were my most vivid memories of Viet Nam… Our troop casualty rate was particularly high on that operation with only 12 out of 35 men remaining until the end… of the operation.

During the six days that 3 Fd Tp spent on Operation CRIMP, the sappers had investigated tunnels for 700m in one direction and another 500m across that line, recovering truckloads of documents and equipment, including photographs of the Viet Cong’s foreign advisors. On the final day of the operation, the sappers found a trapdoor which led to a third level in the system, but before they could investigate it further the Americans decided to end the operation and pull out. The tunnels that had been discovered were lined with explosives and tear gas crystals in an attempt to either destroy or make them uninhabitable. Later, long after the end of the war Sandy MacGregor finally learned what lay beyond that final trapdoor. It led to the military headquarters of the Viet Cong’s Southern Command.

They had been that close.

However, Operation CRIMP had uncovered a massive amount of equipment and intelligence information and as a result, American units throughout Vietnam received orders to clear tunnels before destroying them. The tunnel system breached by 3 Fd Tp was later discovered to consist of over 200 kilometers of tunnels in multiple levels, and included living, working and storage areas, forming part of the much larger Củ Chi tunnel complex. For his contribution, Sandy MacGregor was awarded the Military Cross by the Australian government and the Bronze Star by the Americans. He recounts his experiences developing the ‘Tunnel Rats’ concept and service in Vietnam in an interview that was recorded for the Life on the Line podcast series, which is worth listening to.

Viet Cong haversack : Sapper P M Cachia, 3 Field Troop, Royal Australian Engineers

Viet Cong locally made canvas haversack captured by Sapper Peter Cachia of 3 Fd Tp RAE during Operation CRIMP. It consists of a central compartment made from light brown canvas with fold-in weather flaps. This compartment is closed by a large external flap secured by tying together lengths of synthetic cord. The flap has a large external pocket of green canvas with a plastic button closure. The straps are of light brown canvas 60 mm wide tapering to 12 mm wide. The narrow end of each strap is passed through a loop of synthetic cord sewn to the bottom of the haversack and knotted. This is how the length of the straps can be adjusted. Lengths of synthetic cord have been machine sewn to the both the straps and the haversack along the joins as a means of reinforcement. The haversack, which originally contained an aluminium lighter and a large quantity of documents and other printed matter. The printed matter was taken by army intelligence for analysis, and Cachia was allowed to keep the haversack and lighter. Australian War Memorial Collection Accession Number: REL43475

cu chi tunnels model-01

The district of Củ Chi lies approximately 60 kilometers northwest of Saigon bordering an area known as the Iron Triangle, the heartland of the Viet Cong guerrillas operating in the region. The tunnel system took advantage of the hard, red, soil which was suitable for digging and did not become waterlogged during the monsoon season.  It was first developed by the Viet Minh in their fight against the French and in 1947 only 47 kilometers of tunnels existed, but with the formation of the Viet Cong the system expanded. By the end of 1963 it was estimated that around 400km of arterial tunnels, trenches, connecting tunnels and bunkers existed in an area that covered 300 square kilometers. The Củ Chi Tunnel complex was big enough to conceal an entire regiment, some estimates put the figure at 5000 troops, enroute to its area of operations and proved to be an ongoing problem for the allied forces. Later, they were used as a staging area for the attack on Saigon during the 1968 Tet offensive and their utility was only somewhat restricted after a heavy bombing campaign by B-52’s in 1970.

During the course of the war it is estimated that at least 45,000 Vietnamese died defending the tunnels and after 1975, the Vietnamese government preserved sections of the tunnels and included them in a network of war memorial parks around the country. Today, visiting the Củ Chi tunnels are rated as one of the top five tourist destination activities in Vietnam, with some estimates placing the number of visitors as high as 1000 tourists per day.

There are two different tunnel display sites, Bến Đình and Bến Dược. The tunnels at Bến Dược are smaller attracting fewer visitors than the Bến Đình site which is closer to Ho Chi Minh City and is more popular with the multitude of tour groups offering the Củ Chi ‘experience’. Both tunnel sites offer a somewhat sanitised experience, allowing visitors to crawl around a ‘tourist friendly’ modified section of tunnel, check out displays depicting life for the occupants, boobytraps, weapons, equipment and be subjected to the usual pro-communist version of events. Personally, I think that the visitor parks are somewhat over-rated in terms of education or real historical value, but for a visitor with an interest in the military history of Vietnam they are worth visiting, just to check them out.

It is quite easy to reach the tunnels and there are lots of half-day or full day tours that include the Củ Chi Tunnels on their itineraries. Trip Advisor list several on their website which will give you an idea of what you can expect, however I think that it is best to visit them independently instead of an organised group tour. This can be done by bus or private taxi/driver, which is easily arranged and allows more flexibility with stops and timings.

Some of the organised full-day tours include a visit to the Cao Đài Holy See at Tây Ninh, approximately 96km northwest of HCMC as part of their package tour. Visiting this site is actually the main reason why I have made return visits to the tunnels at Củ Chi as its proximity makes for a good day trip and is worthy of consideration if you are organising your own visit.

The Cao Đài is a Vietnamese religious sect that was founded by a French colonial bureaucrat named Ngô Văn Chiêu and based on a series of messages he received during seances in the early 1920’s. Its doctrine is a fusion of Buddhism, Taoism, Confucianism, Christianity and occultism which deified an unusual mix of figures including Joan of Arc, Victor Hugo and Sun Yat Sen. Officially recognised as a religion in 1926, it adopted a clerical organisation structure similar to Roman Catholicism, established its headquarters at Tây Ninh.

In the years following its establishment, the Cao Đài became increasingly active in politics and at its peak, during the French period, had a militia of around 20,000 troops under its command. The French Indochina wars form a large part of my interest in Vietnam and the sect was a major player in the south during the French era.

cao dai illustrated london news 9 june 1951

An article about the Cao Dai from a 1951 edition of the Illustrated London News which talks about the support of their militia in battling the Viet Minh alongside the French.

 

In 1933, the Cao Đài commenced construction of its main cathedral, the Holy See, which is described in Graham Greene’s book, The Quiet American as “a Walt Disney fantasia of the East, dragons and snakes in technicolour.”

Completed in 1955, the temple is a rococo extravaganza that mixes the architectural idiosyncrasies of a French church, Chinese pagoda, Madam Tussaud’s and the Tiger Balm Gardens in Hong Kong. Prayer services are held four times per day, when uniformed priests and laity enter the building to perform their rituals. Visitors are free to enter the balcony section of the temple during these prayers and it is a very colourful spectacle to watch the priests and dignitaries carry out their observances. The best time to visit is just before the midday prayers (held every day except during Tet) and then head on to the tunnels as the second stage of a full day trip.

Cao Dai Holy See-11

An usher takes a nap during the midday prayer service at the Cao Đài Holy See in Tây Ninh. The yellow, blue and red stripes on his armband are the colours of the Cao Đài. Photo: Julian Tennant

In the next few weeks I’ll take a closer look at the Cao Đài’s political and military activities as I begin a series of posts devoted to some of the French Indochina period insignia that I have in my collection.

A selection of items related to the initial deployment of 1RAR to South Vietnam from May 1965 until April 1966 when they were attached to the US 173rd Airborne Brigade (Separate). The WW2 era Australian Military Forces lighter which has been modified with the addition of the enameled 173 Abn and Viet Cong badges was issued to Corporal Lex McAulay, who was with 1RAR during this time. Collection: Julian Tennant

Items related to the initial deployment of 1RAR to South Vietnam from May 1965 until April 1966 when they were attached to the US 173rd Airborne Brigade (Separate). The WW2 era Australian Military Forces lighter in the middle of the picture has been modified with the addition of the enameled 173 Abn and Viet Cong badges. It was issued to Corporal Lex McAulay, who was with 1RAR during this period. The Viet Cong badge attached to the lighter was found in one of the tunnels when he was participating in Operation CRIMP in January 1966. Collection: Julian Tennant

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