Dien Bien Phu: A Titanic Clash

March 13, 2016–Major Edward Yarbrough sat in a dugout beneath the looming hills. Yarbrough was visiting the French mountain fortress of Dien Bien Phu. It was March 13, 1954, precisely sixty-two years ago. Yarbrough, a United States Air Force officer, was doing precisely what President Dwight D. Eisenhower had promised the American public that U.S. forces would not do–engage in combat operations in French Indochina. Major Yarbrough led a hush-hush detachment of the Air Force’s 315th Air Division codenamed “Cat’s Paw.” Their mission was to use American planes–“sheep-dipped” C-119 transports temporarily lent to France and painted with French markings–to fly supplies to French posts in Indochina.

Eisenhower’s promise had been built into a U.S.-French agreement that the Cat’s Paw aircraft would not fly into combat zones. Technically, until March 13 that promise was being maintained–battle had yet to begin at Dien Bien Phu. But the use of the C-119 planes, which the French called “Packets,” was irresistible–on the long haul to the entrenched camp they could carry more then three times as many supplies as the C-47 “Dakota,” the mainstay of the French air force transport service in Indochina. Indeed, once battle had been joined the French prevailed upon Eisenhower to contrive a CIA proprietary unit that would continue the Packet service, now with no niceties about avoiding combat.

Anyway, a few days earlier a C-119 at Dien Bien Phu had lost an engine while landing and Yarbrough wanted to see if she could be repaired. His flight line chief at Cat Bi air base, outside Haiphong, where Cat’s Paw had its primary maintenance facility, estimated a crew of mechanics flown into Dien Bien Phu with a new engine could fix the Packet in a day and a half provided that the plane’s structure and fittings were still solid. Major Yarbrough went to Dien Bien Phu to find out. So Yarbrough would be there when the battle began, one of a steady stream of Americans to be in, out, and around Dien Bien Phu throughout the epic siege (read his story and many more in my book America’s Dien Bien Phu). The Vietnamese revolutionaries opened their offensive with a big artillery bombardment. Among other things, they targeted the damaged C-119, which would be blown up by cannon fire. Yarbrough hitched a ride out on one of the last French aircraft to escape the base.

The Viet Minh, a united front of Vietnamese led by communists, had been fighting France for more than seven years. They had gradually become stronger until here, at Dien Bien Phu, the revolutionaries not only far outnumbered the French but had artillery too, guns of 105mm caliber, powerful enough to smash Ed Yarbrough’s bunker–and almost every other one at the entrenched camp. Indeed, within not too many hours the officer commanding the sector the Viet Minh first attacked would be killed in the collapse of his dugout after an artillery hit.

Titanic forces were in play. The Vietnamese were fighting for their independence. That gave them a huge moral advantage, but the war had been long and costly and insiders saw signs their morale might be sagging. Chinese allies of the Viet Minh were pushing them to battle, but also anxious for their nation to make an entrance on the world diplomatic stage. Soviet allies of the Vietnamese were providing trucks and other aid, and setting that diplomatic stage.

France had tired of the war also. Here it was the United States pushing an ally. The French Army in Indochina was thoroughly professional–in part because the homeland had passed a law prohibiting draftees from being sent to the war. But the professional brotherhood of French soldiery, ranged against the depth of Vietnamese yearnings for independence, promised a battle royal. It began that day, with the assault on a strongpoint called Beatrice.