Siem Reap Cambodia Part 1 – The Cambodia Landmine Museum

angkor_spud

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.

cambodia landmine museum -07

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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A Vietnam War MIKE FORCE Zippo to an Australian Advisor

Unfortunately due to work commitments related to the COVID-19 virus, I have not been able to complete the content that I had planned for this week. So, rather than miss my Sunday deadline, here is one of the pieces from my small cigarette lighter collection. Collecting military lighters is a sideline to my insignia collection and is focused on Australian airborne and special operations unit Zippo (or other brand) lighters. If you have a lighter that fits into this area and you wish to sell or trade for insignia or other militaria, please contact me via my Facebook page.

AATTV John Vincent Zippo-01

Zippo lighter presented to AATTV advisor WO2 John Vincent who served with  2 Mobile Strike Force (MIKE Force) in 1969/70. Collection: Julian Tennant

 

This is a 1968 dated Zippo lighter that was presented to Australian Warrant Officer Class-2 John Roderick Vincent who served with the Australian Army Training Team Vietnam (AATTV) as an advisor to the Pleiku based 2 Mobile Strike Force (MIKE Force) in 1969/70.

WO2 Vincent deployed to Vietnam as a member of the AATTV on the 28th of May 1969. Upon arrival, in June, he completed the 5th SFGA Combat Orientation Course at Hon Tre island off Nha Trang. After completing the course, he was posted as a platoon commander with 223 Company of the 2nd Mobile Strike Force battalion (2MSF) based at Pleiku. On the 23rd of June, shortly after taking command of his Montagnard platoon, Vincent’s MIKE Force unit was committed to the Battle for Ben Het, where 3000 NVA troops had besieged a camp housing a twelve man US Special Forces A-Team (A-244) and their 200 CIDG Montagnard tribesmen plus families.  In September 1969 Vincent was reassigned to the Training Company of 2MSF in Pleiku where he remained, apart from a brief period in early April when he provided support during the Dak Saeng Special Forces camp siege, until completing his tour on 14 May 1970.  The concluding date on his lighter states 14 April 1970 and I am not sure why this is earlier than the other documentation related to his service.

jvincent-1

AATTV advisor WO2 John Vincent, with soldiers of 2MSF Pleiku. Far left is the Montagnard Company Commander, next is John’s radio operator and to his right is John’s bodyguard. John described them as “the most loyal soldiers I have ever worked with.” Photo courtesy of Tom”Stumpy”Burke, Pleiku Mike Force, 5th Special Forces Group.

AATTV John Vincent Zippo-02-2

WO2 John Vincent’s Zippo lighter that was presented to him towards the end of his tour as an Australian Advisor with MIKE Force. The front reads “1st June 1969 – 24th April 1970″ and features an enameled C-4 Mike Force, IV Corps ‘beer can’ badge. The reverse is panto-graphed to “WO John R.Vincent 29581 From the Officers and Men of the 2nd Mobile Strike Force Command (Mike Force).” Collection: Julian Tennant

aattv john vincent

Pleiku, South Vietnam. 1969. Warrant Officer 2 (WO2) John Vincent of Northwood, NSW, a member of the Australian Army Training Team Vietnam (AATTV) watches carefully as a Montagnard soldier receiving parachute training practices landing from the height of a few feet. At the end of five days training the wiry Montagnard will jump from 1200 feet into a training area. WO2 Vincent, an Army Physical Training Instructor is one of the AATTV men who train the Montagnards and operate with them. The Montagnards of Mike Force, part of the Special Forces in Vietnam, are taught their basic infantry skills and given parachute training by AATTV advisers. Australian War Memorial Accession Number: EKN/69/0135/VN

 

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

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

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

Cao Dai The funeral 1955-01

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

Vietnam 1955 first pattern general service badge-01

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The funeral mourners

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

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

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

incorrect cao dai badge reference

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

 

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

AVN cap badges DIA card 1958-01

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

A Pocket Guide to Vietnam, DOD, 5 April 1966

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

 

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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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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

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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.

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

 

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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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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