A mission of vengeance: vichy French in Indochina in World War II.

Author:Mickelsen, Martin L.


The death of an American fighter pilot in the jungles of French Indochina in March 1944, helped to save the lives of twenty-nine downed American fliers in that country. The fallout from his death also provided the Japanese with an excuse to take over the French colony a year later. As is well known, the Japanese had occupied Indochina militarily before World War II but had allowed the French to continue to govern the colony. Vietnam, as Indochina is called now, accordingly became the object of an intensive American air campaign after Pearl Harbor. The bombing of strategic Japanese targets in northern Vietnam started in 1942, first by the American Volunteer Group (AVG), or "Flying Tigers," then by the China Air Task Force (CATF) of the Tenth Air Force, and later by the Fourteenth Air Force. Beginning in December 1944, attacks on Japanese targets in southern Vietnam were made by the U.S. Navy Seventh Fleet's Catalinas, B-24s, and Privateers as well as by carrier aircraft from Admiral William Halsey's Third Fleet. Additional attacks were made by B-29s of the XX Bomb Group flying out of India and by Liberators, Mitchells, and Lightnings belonging to the Fifth and Thirteenth Air Forces operating from bases in the Philippines. (1)

At least 414 American fliers paid the supreme price carrying out those missions as did over thirty British and French aviators who died flying various types of missions over Vietnam. The first American killed in Vietnam was "Tiger" John T. Donovan of the Third AVG Pursuit Squadron, who died on May 12, 1942 during a raid on the Japanese air base at Gia Lam near Hanoi. (2)

What is not as well known is that the Japanese in Vietnam were aided in their occupation of the French colony by a puppet government headed by French Vice Admiral Jean Decoux, a cold, haughty sailor consumed by an overbearing sense of prestige and rank. (3) Decoux had been appointed to the post of governor general of Vietnam by the pro-Axis government of Marshal Philippe Petain, located at Vichy, a spa in central France. The Governor General thereafter washed his hands of all ethical, political or moral consequences that flowed from his obedience to Vichy. The admiral ran the country as if it were a ship in the French Navy, and used his naval officers to impose Petain's anti-democratic, anti-Semitic, and anti-Allied policies on the colony. Decoux said later in his own defense (4) that he was taking orders from a legal government of France and the latter was not at war with Japan. Whenever his policies were questioned or criticized, he argued that some accommodation with the forces of the Rising Sun was necessary. (5) The admiral's policy was known locally in Indochina as "pas des incidents:" do nothing that would give the Japanese occupiers an excuse to overthrow his regime, disarm or smash the country's military forces, turn the government over to the Vietnamese native leaders while possibly imprisoning or massacring the 40,000 or so French residents, most of whom were women and children. (6)

Decoux's police forces and a paramilitary organization he created, the French Legion of War Veterans and Volunteers of the National Revolution, imposed Vichy's dictatorial policies on Vietnam and vigorously persecuted opponents of Decoux's regime. The victims were mainly Freemasons, soldiers and civil servants suspected of being pro-British or sympathetic to General Charles de Gaulle's Free French movement that had repudiated Vichy as well as socialists, communists, Jews, and anyone suspected of "resistance" activities. For example, French aviation war heroes, Lt. Eugene Robert and Sgt. William Labussiere (a member of the underground who flew for General Chennault's first international air force in China), attempted to escape to join the Free French but were captured and sentenced to years of forced labor. They were joined in prison by a world-famous medical doctor and Free French representative in China, Dr. Eugene Bechamp, who died later due to a lack of proper medical treatment. The trio was soon joined by the future author of the Bridge over the River Kwai, Lt. Pierre Boulle, who attempted to penetrate Vietnam to set up a Free French underground network. Decoux's suppression consequently greatly hindered the growth of any French underground movement in Vietnam, though individuals and small groups did what they could to further the Allied cause. (7)

Decoux's Policy

Despite a loudly-proclaimed mission to destroy all vestiges of White colonialism in Southeast Asia, the Japanese military tolerated Decoux's rule in Vietnam because the admiral aggressively--not passively--pursued a policy of military cooperation with Vietnam's occupiers in order to prove his loyalty to the Rising Sun. On December 9, 1941, the day after the Japanese had struck at European possessions in Southeast Asia from bases in Vietnam, Admiral Decoux assured the Japanese military command in writing that he would "collaborate with the Japanese Armed Forces by all measures in accordance with existing agreements between Japan and France...." (8) Among his other acts of collaboration with the Japanese, Decoux sent a team of engineers to the Netherlands East Indies to help the Japanese repair sabotaged oil facilities there. He sanctioned a Japanese takeover of the majority of the Vichy French merchant shipping fleet in Vietnam, quibbling solely over payment for the ships, and even offered to let French sailors serve under Japanese command. But when he tried to force French sailors to do so, the sailors mutinied. The admiral shared military intelligence information on the Nationalist Chinese with the Japanese and he set up a warning system to alert the Japanese air force of incoming bombing raids from China by the American air force. Decoux ordered French anti-aircraft batteries to shoot down "foreign" (Chinese and American) airplanes. And he pushed Vichy to approve a joint Japanese-Vichy Vietnamese expedition to invade and occupy New Caledonia (a French island in the Pacific that had rallied to General Charles de Gaulle's Free French movement) which was protected first by Australian troops and later by American forces. In a telegram to Tokyo intercepted by American intelligence in February 1942, the Japanese ambassador in Hanoi praised Decoux's collaboration, noting their "two countries are very nearly allies" because the admiral was giving Japan "complete cooperation in the political, economic and military fields." (9) What resistance Decoux did offer to the Japanese stemmed from their heavy-handed attempts to take over the economy of Vietnam without allowing French firms to maintain controlling interests in those enterprises, from efforts by lower-ranking, insubordinate Japanese officers and civilians to turn the Vietnamese population against the French or from Japan's failure to pay their bills for the goods and rice Vietnam furnished them. What resistance Decoux offered the Japanese, according to a Fourteenth Air Force intelligence summary, was to protect French interests in Vietnam, not to help the Allies.


What is also not well known is that Admiral Decoux held on to power by turning over to the Japanese seventeen American fliers captured by his police or military units as proof of his continuing loyalty to Vichy's policy of military, economic and political collaboration with Japan. In addition, the admiral condoned the seizure and imprisonment of the American consul general in Hanoi and the vice consul in Saigon by the Japanese army, even though the parent Vichy government in France and the United States maintained diplomatic relations until November 1942. The diplomats later complained that there was "no effort by Government General to assist or communicate with American consulate officials" after they were seized. (10) The first five American combatants whom Decoux handed over were from the Philippines--one P-40 pilot from the 17th Pursuit Squadron, three air corps sergeants, and one army engineer captain. The five had landed near Tourane in a thirty-nine foot launch on March 22, 1942. (11) In late 1943, four of those five were transferred to a prisoner of war camp in Thailand where they worked on the railroad of death.

When the French Army command objected to his policy of surrendering the five Americans to the Japanese, Decoux issued Directive No. 1415-DN1/2 on April 27, 1942. The directive took responsibility for any future cases involving combatants at war with Japan out of the army's hands. The capture of Allied servicemen by his forces thereafter was to be reported immediately to Decoux and "was to be kept secret" since the problem of American captives involved "political consequences." He would personally give instructions as to what information was to be communicated to the Japanese concerning the capture of Americans and how the Japanese would be allowed to interrogate the captives. (12)

The next American surrendered to the Japanese was a "Flying Tiger," captured on May 17, 1942, at Lao Kay on the Sino-Vietnamese border. He was turned over on Decoux's order to the Japanese, who then refused to return him to French custody and shipped him off to a POW camp in China. (13) Two British prisoners of war ran afoul of Decoux's policy in July 1942, after they escaped from a Japanese prison camp in Saigon and made their way to a French army post about thirty miles from Saigon. The POWs asked for the army's protection but were returned to the Japanese on Decoux's orders. They were beheaded a few weeks later. (14) On August 31, 1943, reacting to an increase in the American bombing campaign in Tonkin, Decoux issued orders that any downed American fliers were to be turned over to the Japanese on the spot. (15)

Under Decoux's new policy, twelve more Americans, all fliers shot down over Tonkin between September 1943, and January 1944, were surrendered to the Japanese on demand. (16) Fifteen days after he...

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