May 8, 2014–French shortwave radio in Tonkin broadcast the phrase “The Fruit are Ripe” at 1:05 PM of May 8, 1954 (1:05 AM on the American east coast). The message was an “open code,” of the same sort the British had sent over the BBC in World War II to alert various Resistance networks on the continent. The French military commander in Tonkin, Major General Rene Cogny, had agreed to send this message when he was certain of the fall of the entrenched camp at Dien Bien Phu. French army units in Laos had been warned, in messages dropped to them by scout planes, to listen for the open code message.
The Tonkin radio was actually late–the French at Dien Bien Phu had stopped shooting around 5:30 in the afternoon of the 7th. Like much else about this decisive battle, the reasons for the discrepancy remain obscure. Perhaps Cogny was reluctant to acknowledge final defeat. Or again, there had been a last-minute plan for a sally of the fittest remaining French troops and maybe the Tonkin command, hoping that action had taken place, was trying to make time for the desperate sortie.
“The Fruit are Ripe” began a sort of delicate dance with many movements. One was among the French units in Laos, alerted to be on the watch for from Dien Bien Phu. Seventy-eight men made it to join either the Franco-Laotian regulars and commandos, or the Hmong partisans strung in an arc along the Laotian side of the border. Remarkably, one survivor had also walked out of another French entrenched camp, Na San, when that had been abandoned in the summer of 1953.
Another dance movement was the Viet Minh pursuit. General Giap wanted to regroup his main forces closer to Hanoi for a final offensive–but he also wished to follow up into Laos. He ordered Viet Minh who had not been at the battle–and some who were–into northern Laos. That meant a race between the French perched in their arc and the Viet Minh pursuers.
It was an irony of Dien Bien Phu that the worst French wounded became the luckiest survivors. With but a handful of doctors and medical personnel, and almost no drugs, the Viet Minh were in no position to treat French wounded. Meanwhile French medical staff, led by the redoubtable Doctor Paul Grauwin, shared their drug supplies with the Viets and helped their wounded. Together with the Viet Minh’s chief surgeon, General Giap decided to make a deal. In exchange for French medicines and medical assistance, they would re-open the airfield at Dien Bien Phu. The French air force could fly in medical supplies and evacuate the wounded. Some 858 seriously wounded soldiers left the entrenched camp that way.
In yet another United States connection to Dien Bien Phu, many of those French wounded would immediately be evacuated to France by the U.S. Air Force. It happened this way: There had been a secret U.S. airlift of paratroops and French Navy pilots called Project “Blue Star”–you can read all about it in Operation Vulture. Blue Star had used huge C-124 transport planes–the C-5As of that day–to deliver the French troops to what is now Da Nang. The Blue Star planes were still there when the smaller French Dakotas began to lift out the wounded from Dien Bien Phu. President Dwight D. Eisenhower approved a French appeal to carry the wounded home aboard the big American planes.
Thus ended the epic siege in the Vietnamese uplands.