"THE TRAGEDY OF MISSION 19 TO HAIPHONG"

An excerpt from Martin L. Mickelsen's forthcoming book of the History of French Indochina:

      Long before America's war in Vietnam, General Claire Chennault's 14th Air Force conducted a savage war in the skies over French Indochina, as Vietnam was called during World War II.   It was a battle fought largely without publicity, hidden in the shadows of more titanic struggles that captured the headlines of the war: Guadalcanal, Midway, El Alamein, Stalingrad, Normandy, or the Battle of the Bulge.   By January 1945, as far as the American public was concerned, the life-and-death struggle in Indochina was literally reduced to funny pages in the strip, "Terry and the Pirates," which ironically credited the Navy for the fighting in the French colony.

      The war in Indochina was made more dangerous and tragic by the actions of the Vichy French Indochinese colonial authorities who willingly aided the Japanese war effort militarily as well as economically.   As part of a deliberate policy of collaboration with the Axis, the Vichy French government of Marshal Philippe Petain had allowed the Japanese to establish military bases in northern Indochina, or Tonkin, in September 1949, in order to attack the Nationalists in China.   Vichy stood aside a year later, in July 1941, when the Japanese moved into southern Indochina.

Mission 19 map
      Indochina's collaboration went even further.   In March 1942, four airmen and an army engineer reached Tourane (item 1 on small insert map), now Do Nang, by launch from the Philippines.   The four were turned over to the Japanese on the orders of Indochina's governor general, Vice Admiral Jean Decoux. Four of these men toiled for the rest of the war on the "Railroad of Death" in Thailand, made famous by Pierre Boulle's novel, Bridge Over the River Kwai. (Free French Lieutenant Boulle was himself one of Decoux's prisoners after he was captured trying to establish a resistance organization in the colony.)   The fifth, a fighter pilot from the l6th Pursuit Squadron, eventually escaped and reached China safely the day the war ended.   On May 20, 1942, a Flying Tiger was downed over Lao Kay, French Indochina (item 2 on small insert map).   The pilot, Louis Bishop, too was surrendered on the admiral's orders to the Japanese for interrogation.   Rumored to have been beheaded, Bishop instead was sent to POW camp in occupied China; he too managed to escape two years later.   In June, two British soldiers escaped from a Japanese POW camp on the banks of the Saigon River and reached a French army camp.   On Decoux's command, they were returned to the Japanese and beheaded.   A year later, in April, 1943, a Dutch POW escaped from a Japanese ship anchored off Cape Saint Jacques and turned himself over to Vichy authorities, seeking their protection.   He too was returned on Decoux's orders and executed.

      Thereafter the Japanese demanded that all allied prisoners captured by Decoux's forces be surrendered on the spot without the formality of obtaining the admiral's agreement first.   At the end of August 1943, enraged at the beginning of a bombing campaign in Tonkin by the 308th Bombardment Group based in China, Decoux accepted the Japanese demands and issued orders to his administrators and military commanders to surrender all captured non-Asiatics to the Japanese on the spot.

      Fifteen days later, on September 15, 1943, the 308th conducted its 19th mission after joining the 14th Air Force in China.   Its target was a French cement plant in Haiphong, a major port on the Gulf of Tonkin, that had just been turned over to the Japanese- though not without resistance from Decoux.   The governor general wanted the French proprietors to maintain majority ownership of all plants in partnership with the Japanese, instead of sole Japanese control.   Decoux's squabble with the Japanese was intercepted by American intelligence, which was reading all Vichy French messages as well as those of the Japanese.   The 308th was assigned the task of ending the dispute between Decoux and the Japanese once and for all.   The following account of Mission 19 (as well as the description above of Vichy's and Decoux's policies) is based primarily on previously unpublished documents found in the French archives, supplemented by interviews with survivors of the admiral's policy, and on reports from the National Archives in Washington, D.C. and at Maxwell Air Force Base




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      This web site is provided as a public service.   It is intended to provide factual, historical information to the public, to commemorate the contributions and to preserve the memory of the sacrifices of our World War II veterans serving with U.S. Army Air Forces in the China-Burma-India theater.   Permission is required for any commercial use or mass distribution purposes of the copyrighted material.