The battle of Dien Bien Phu in a sun helmet

By Wilfred Burchett   May 7, 2019 | 03:44 pm GMT+7
The battle of Dien Bien Phu in a sun helmet
Wilfred Burchett (L) interviews President Ho Chi Minh in Hanoi, April 1964.
A legendary journalist’s account of his meeting with President Ho Chi Minh about the battle that ended French colonialism.

from Wilfred Burchett, North of the 17th Parallel, 1955

A sun-helmet lay on the bamboo table of a thatch-roofed hut deep in the jungle of Northern Vietnam. It was late afternoon in mid-March 1954, and somewhere overhead an aeroplane was buzzing about. It had no chance of sighting the dozen or so bamboo and thatch huts that made up the little village. Much of the jungle had been cleared away – but the smooth pillars of giant iron-woods and other jungle denizens supported a thick canopy of inter-woven broad-leaved creepers, nature's most perfect camouflage net flung over the village. A helicopter could hover a few meters over the top of that green canopy for an hour and see nothing that it covered.

It was not the jungle however but the image of the sun-helmet that was to remain in my mind for many weeks that followed.

My road to this jungle village had led almost directly from Panmunjom in Korea with a day or two's halt in Peking to change clothes for the difference in temperature between snow-bound Panmunjom and the tropical jungles of the Viet Bac, or North Vietnam. What a contrast between the bare hills and treeless roads of Korea and the generous, luxuriant verdure of the Vietnamese jungle! But in both countries nature had been turned to good account by those who defended their country's soil. In Korea the resistance was based underground – in the most literal meaning of the term – in the thousands of kilometers of underground tunnels, bored into the bare hills. In Vietnam, it was based in the deep, green jungle. The underground tunnels and jungle robbed the enemy of much of the advantages of superior technique, unlimited air and naval power.

During my voyage to the Viet Bac, the radio had been full of news about a place called Dien Bien Phu. According to the stern radio reports, the French had built up a big base there and had started offensive operations to "clean up the Viet Minh" from the whole of Northwest Vietnam and encircle them in a giant pincers movement which would extend from Dien Bien Phu to the Red River Delta. And this is where the sun-helmet comes into the story. For it belonged to President Ho Chi Minh and alongside the helmet was the president himself.

A photo of President Ho Chi Minh that journalist Wilfred Burchett always kept with him.

A photo of President Ho Chi Minh that journalist Wilfred Burchett always kept with him.

With the minute attention to detail that I found later was so characteristic of this great leader of the Vietnamese people, he had called shortly after my arrival with another journalist, to assure himself that we had survived the rigours of the journey and were in good health. It was difficult to believe that within a few hours of arrival we should be sitting opposite this legendary revolutionary leader. But there he was, the unmistakably kindly face, the twinkling depthless black eyes, the thin straggling beard, the face we had known from photographs and portraits for years past. He had appeared out of the jungle shadows unannounced, a windbreaker jacket thrown cape-like across his shoulders, walking briskly with a long bamboo stick, sun-helmet worn high over his broad brow. After he had put us completely at our ease in his fluent French and English – and had addressed a few words in Italian to my Italian colleague – we asked President Ho why the radio was making such a noise about Dien Bien Phu. What in fact was going on there?

"This is Dien Bien Phu," he said and tipped his sun-helmet upside down on the table. "Here are mountains," and his slim, strong fingers traced the outside rim of the helmet, "and that's where we are too."

"Down here," and his fist plunged to the bottom of the helmet, "is the valley of Dien Bien Phu. There – are the French. They can't get out. It may take a long time, but they can't get out," he repeated. That was the battle of Dien Bien Phu in a sun helmet. It was the picture which remained before my eyes for the weeks that followed, listening to the radio on the long train ride back to Peking, all the way across the Trans-Siberian railway to Moscow and during that first week at the Geneva Conference when the ebb and flow of battle was dramatized by western news agencies with their highly colored and distorted accounts of French victories and break-outs.

In the bowl of President Ho's sun helmet were the best troops the French High Command could muster in lndo-China, gradually to be built up to over 16,000, two-thirds of all the specially trained mobile forces in North Vietnam and by the end of the battle all their trained – and many untrained – parachute troops.

A few minutes after President Ho had so succinctly presented the Dien Bien Phu picture, the sun helmet was brought into play again when in a few words and with a few brief gestures, he related how guerilla fighters in coordination with the Dien Bien Phu action had penetrated into the French air base of Gia Lam at Hanoi and Cat Bi at Hai Phong to destroy a total of 78 planes on the ground – 60 of them at Cat Bi.

"Cat Bi is a heavily guarded peninsula," explained President Ho and again the sun helmet was upside down, its oval rim the 20 kilometers long perimeter of Cat Bi with the sensitive brown fingers tracing the series of barbed wire fences which surrounded the field, pausing to stab into place artillery and anti-aircraft positions, machine-gun nests, searchlights and all the other obstacles the guerilla fighters had to overcome to carry out their extraordinary exploit. One had the feeling from his intimate knowledge of the defenses of the aerodrome that the president himself had something to do with mapping out the attack.

But he had not come to discuss military affairs with us. After assuring himself that we were comfortably installed and had really survived the journey in good shape, he threw his wind-breaker over his shoulders again, put on his sun helmet and with his bamboo stick and a single soldier for protection, moved off into the deepening jungle shadows. As he left, he turned and said, "You can tell the comrades over there," waving in the general direction of Europe with his stick, "that I am in good health. I can still walk 40 kilometers a day as long as there's not too much of this..." and he waved his stick up and down to indicate the high mountains which surrounded us. With a final wave, he was swallowed up by the jungle.

The first impression of this meeting with the leader of the Vietnam people was the complete informality, the warmth and simplicity of it all. President Ho – or Uncle Ho as he is to millions of people throughout lndo-China – had the ability to make one feel at ease from the first moment and to present the most complex questions in a few clear words and gestures. In subsequent meetings with this great personality it is just those qualities of warmth, simplicity and the clarity of expression which only comes with exceptional intelligence and complete grasp of the subject – which made the deepest impression. Everyone who is received by President Ho comments on these characteristics, and above all their feeling of being immediately "at home" with him.

A photograph of an article written on the historic Dien Bien Phu battle by Wilfred Burchett.

A photograph of an article written on the historic Dien Bien Phu battle by Wilfred Burchett.

Editor's note: Vietnam marks the 65th anniversary of the Dien Bien Phu battle on Tuesday. Spellings used in the original article have been retained.

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